A response to Timothy Burke

We appreciate that Timothy Burke in his blog, “Easily Distracted,”:http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/ has taken seriously our posts about Yali and Diamond on “Savageminds.” He does not give us the opportunity of responding to him directly, and so we will do so here. We’re afraid that those of you who have not read his blog may have to do so to make full sense of what we are saying. But, we also think that most will be able to make some sense of it all.

The “we” in the “West” mentioned in our posts (and mentioned again by Burke in his response to us on this blog) refers primarily to the sort of audience that many of us – at least as teachers of anthropology – encounter in our students, in their parents, and in many non-academic readers who ask us our opinion of the book. (We make this clear, we think.) Our speculation (and it is such) that Diamond’s book resonates with this audience because they are socio-economically the “haves” is designed to encourage readers who did like Diamond to think more about what appealed to them about his argument – and, in so doing, perhaps become interested in thinking about our more general critique. We don’t know how inclusive this “we” is, but certainly Diamond’s views of human nature and the inevitability of conquest are widely held. (We will say more about these views in our next post on Savageminds.)

We try not to depict Yali or other Papua New Guineans in an essentialized fashion. We do make clear in the book from which our posts are excerpted (especially in our discussion of Ramu Sugar Limited, a sugar plantation which is our primary ethnographic focus) that PNGuineans are thoroughly caught up in history and are not all alike – but differ considerably according to cultural group as well as social class. In addition, we discuss the fact that they engage with each other and with Europeans in a range of ways, including both gift exchange and commodity transactions. That being said, what we find in Yali — as well as in cargo-cult practitioners with whom we have worked, in the PNGuineans we have lived with in urban squatter settlements as well as those in affluent suburbs — is an abiding concern with establishing worth relative to others, including with Europeans. Indeed, one of the real problems for those of the PNG middle class is figuring out how to accumulate wealth without alienating – certainly without humiliating – kinsmen and other PNGuineans. They know that (unatoned for) slights will never be forgotten.

As anthropologists, we do work hard to understand the perspectives of others – as well as trying to get clear about our own. Our desire to comprehend Yali’s understanding of the world (and we do recognize that Yali’s experiences were complex) is itself historically rooted as is anthropology more generally. And, we do try to present our political perspective as explicitly as possible, in full recognition that it too is historically rooted. But we don’t see this as, in itself, precluding a serious effort to get Yali’s question right.

And this leads us to issues in representation. Who represents whom, with what right, and with what accuracy? Yali’s question may, as Timothy Burke says, be his – but what is Yali asking? How do we understand it? Does it need interpretation, contextualization, translation? How should we listen to Yali and to other PNGuineans – as well as to a much larger number of historically located others? And this returns us to the first point of Burke’s critique – that Yali is just Diamond’s literary device. We agree that he is, but find it a telling device. That Diamond got Yali’s question wrong is consistent with Diamond’s lack of concern with listening to what differently located people say – with trying to find out what they think is going on, what they think the point of life is. And this is because Diamond thinks he already knows what human nature and history are all about.

4 thoughts on “A response to Timothy Burke

  1. (Just a side note: you’d be extremely welcome to respond at Easily Distracted, either in the comments or even with a guest post. The comments just require registration: it’s my way of putting a barrier up to casual trolling. More substantive comments later, I’ll give others a chance to mull it over first.)

  2. Burke’s response to Errington and Gewertz at Easily Distracted seems to me purposely to simplify aspects of E & G’s arguments; indeed, it appears to ascribe to E & G arguments they don’t appear to have made. For example, Burke writes: “…they [E & G] accord to Yali the importance of understanding him in context, but deny it in turn to Diamond… the problem with this view is its synecdotal character…any part of ‘the West’ can casually be made to stand in for the whole and to represent it.” This doesn’t seem right. E & G have not written a book about just ‘any part of West’: they’ve written in response to an international best-seller, a cause celebre, a zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon. They haven’t made Lil’ Kim’s last album stand for ‘the West.’ They seem to me to be trying to understand the various strands of influence that have made Guns… such a cultural force; and since the book itself purports to explain the ascendancy of Europe, and is itself couched in such ‘civilizational’ (macro-) terms, it is reasonable to me to think that there is some decoding or divining to be done as to how this narrative has come to occupy a central place in the way that folks in contemporary Euro-American societies understand themselves and their place in the world. There is nothing arbitrary in the selection of their critical target. Thus, it is just *because* Diamond is understood in context (a context that includes both his widespread popularity and his critical reception within cultural anthropological circles) that E & G have chosen to engage with his arguments.

    Burke further writes: “It is ruled out of bounds [presumably by E & G] that Yali might have derived his question from the West, or out of an encounter with the West’s own capacity to ask the question, out of a history of relation.” Again, leaving aside Burke’s own reification of the category of ‘West’ here, this seems to me to be *exactly wrong*. The whole thrust of E & G’s comments is that a history of relation (where both ‘history’ and ‘relation’ are taken very seriously as analytic concepts) is *precisely* the way we must understand Yali’s question. They state this in many spots: e.g., that things-in-themselves are not the focus of Yali’s inquiry, but things in their social context(s). Moreover, I have nowhere read that E & G have ruled certain sorts of questions ‘out of bounds.’ Quite the opposite: they wish to open up an ostensibly air-tight argument about the nature of history to critical scrutiny: they appear to want *more* questions asked, not fewer. E & G, who have been critical advocates of what some have called the “New Melanesian Historiography” (for an explication of this, see Robert Foster’s History and Social Reproduction in Melanesia), would be the last anthropologists to couch an account of the colonial encounter and modernity only in terms of loss, degradation, and the like. Here, I suspect that Burke attributes to E & G positions he assumes to be widely held in cultural anthropology. Indeed, I suspect that Burke performs on their posts what he accuses them of doing to Diamond: making the part stand for the whole in an unfair way (or actually, the other way around: he attributes to E & G positions he apparently assumes to be dominant ones in all of anthropology). It sounds to me like Burke wants to have an argument with a strawman of anthropology (or in particular, critical or reflexive anthropology).

    Burke apparently wants to strip this discussion of “epistemological finery” and “rhetorical adornments,” and elsewhere on SavageMinds there have been cogent and complex arguments about the substance of aspects of Diamond’s arguments. Yet such a move would be counterproductive if the point that one wants to make is that human being consists precisely in all the ‘finery’ and ‘adornment’ that both rhetoric and epistemology provide. That is to say, if one wants to argue that meaning is important to the ways in which people invent and conduct themselves, and that such meaning is in fact constitutive of human being and history, then critical (interpretive) attention to all the ornamentation of argument is exactly what will help us understand what it (the argument) is all about. That Diamond continues to frame his analysis with Yali’s question (as on PBS recently) suggests that the question means more to him and his perspective than the label ‘finery’ would suggest. Many of these points have been carefully argued in posts here on SavageMinds.

  3. Please post the reference to the article or book as I think it may be an interesting and relevant read.
    The thesis I am developing in the course of my work as a consultant has to do with the conflicts of maintaining an indigenous identity that is recognizable to the in- and out- group polities where resources are in contention between global corporations, local corporations, and communities. The shaman model I used previously arrived out of a great deal of historic and ethnographic research into the conflicts arising out of being a “real person” in the indigenous sense and being a participant in Euroamerican culture. The shaman deals with alien forces that, though strange and sometimes inimical to the rules for personhood via right action, can provide great benefits to the community. When the shaman fails, however, he or she can be deposed by either side.
    My experiences teaching Anthropology as an adjunct; well, Shakira sings a song wherein talking to the person is like reading poems to a horse. The most gratifying component came years later after I had moved on to museum work and artifact analysis component of my thesis-those students who went on and became teachers in bush Alaska came back and told their friends to take my class and to thank me for telling them the truth as I saw it, even though at the time it was not palatable and may not have been what they wanted to hear, many of them found it useful and could not have conceived that such a way of life could exist in the United States. So carry on and I’ll shut up now! e.

  4. Strongthomas: I’ve responded to the point about Diamond’s popularity as an appropriate invitation to take him as representing the West at length elsewhere at Savage Minds. But let me say in addition that I think popularity or otherwise, it’s just a basic mistake to make anything stand in for “the West”, to typify it, because for one it accepts the existence of a “West” which can be typified, and for two it simply compresses too much complexity to no useful end. Here again I have to stress I think Nicholas Thomas makes this argument beautifully in Colonialism’s Culture. We all have to talk about “Western” and “the West”: I’m about to do so myself in this post. But I think we need to recognize it as a shorthand that’s often very unsuitable to the weight we put upon it, and when we’re talking about the reception of a single book by a heterogenous set of audiences who happen to overlap some of the same audiences that we include within our own intended audiences, I think it’s more than just an unsatisfying shorthand, it’s an outright mistake.

    I agree that Errington and Gewertz want a history that asks more questions than Diamond’s does. So do I! That’s one of a number of places where we agree about Diamond: his history closes down questions, seals up the messiness of modern experience tightier than a drum, buries contingency and agency a mile-deep under a pile of just-so stories. But that’s not what I’m noting in the point that you cite here. What I’m observing is that they actually appear in their blog posts to simplify Yali in several ways, to reduce his liminality, to insist that he primarily has to be understood as PNGuinean and indeed as consonant with a kind of typified moral critique of inequality and colonialism within PNGuinea. As they acknowledge in this post, and discuss at length in their book, Yali is more than that. Erik Hilsinger in another thread here observes that Yali was among other things a politician skilled at the operations of liminality. I think that means his question is never in any simple fashion “PNGuinean” or “just anticolonial”, in fact that the kind of moral economy claims that E & G describe operating within PNGuinea seem to me to be as much a product of contact with Western European societies (and later Australian, US, etc.) and produced out of the West’s own critiques of itself. In addition, as Hilsinger notes in his other comment, there’s the situation in which the question was spoken. It seems perfectly possible to me that Yali said his question one way to Diamond and another to E&G, and that in some sense both of them are right that they heard what they heard. All of these observations at the least have to blunt or modify the critique E&G are offering here of Diamond. In my opinion, they ought to lead to the outright abandonment of some of their lines of critique.

    You are not going to find me ever arguing that we need to strip our understanding of human beings of an interest in the intricacy and complexity of meaning. That would be my own quarrel with accounts like Diamond’s. But it’s what I’m suggesting E&G are doing to Diamond and the audience for Diamond. I’m also suggesting an economy of argument, that they entangle themselves in epistemological dilemmas that I think aren’t productive in this particular case and that are in general dilemmas that are afflicting cultural anthropology as a disciplinary form.

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