The conflict of interpretations, redux

The late lamented Paul Ricoeur is one of those thinkers who most people planned to read, but never did. However, I was struck recently by the convergence between “Deborah and Fred’s”:/author/fred-and-deborah/ discussions with “Tim Burke”: and the discussions surrounded my recent post on “Storkist Logic”:/2005/09/05/storkist-logic-its-threat-and-how-anthropology-can-avoid-being-crushed-on-both-sides/, and I thought it might be useful to drag out Ricoeur’s old ideas of ‘the conflict of interpretations’ and the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’.

Like most great social thinkers, Ricoeur’s work tends to be smunched down into a cute phrase with a one sentence explanation which summarizes what was already in the air anyway (according to David Schneider doing the well is how one gets tenure!). There is nothing wrong with this — you can read and be inspired by Foucault or Deleuze without being a Deleuze scholars (although it does drive Sapir scholars crazy to see what happens to the phrase “preformation of thought by language”). In the case of Ricoeur, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is usually taken to simply be a label which means “Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche and what they tried to do.” In fact, Ricoeur’s discussion of the concept deals with a much more hoary issues: the opposition between understanding and explanation.

Ricoeur argues that there are two ways to deal with a texts which require interpretation (paradigmatically, he is concerned with the bible, but by extension was concerned with all symbolic extension). On the one hand, there is the hermeneutics of ‘faith’– the attempt to decipher the meaning of an expression to capture its message. In the case of religious text, to hear the truth enunciated in it and understand it. This is a hermeneutics which seeks the ‘recollection of the meaning of the text’. He contrasts this to a hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’ (the opposite of faith), in which interpretation is seen as an exercise of demystification. Here, the goal is to lay bare the deeper truth behind a text — to understand the conditions which produced it which can be found hidden in the text. Although Ricoeur calls this a struggle for “the mytho-poetic core of the imagination” the idea itself is much older. In Time and Narrative Ricoeur points out that good narratives must have “both a semblance and a resemblance to truth.” Or, as Aristotle put it in the rhetoric, it’s not enough that something be true, it’s got to appear to be true.

At the risk of simplification, I’d say that anthropologists have long been of the ‘suspicion’ school of interpretation. There are two reasons for this. First, in the British tradition functionalism (whether structural or Malinowskian) has had a tendency to see beliefs as a function or reflex of underlying social causes. Beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery, classically have been seen as a function of the level of anomie in society (although it is wrong to attribute this position to Evans-Pritchard, as some mistakenly do). Second, while the Boasians had a different approach, but they shared a common belief with their colleagues across the pond — namely, that the beliefs of their research subjects were mistaken. Thus you can argue all day about why people believe in witches, but one answer to the question is almost never proposed: because there are witches.

In other words, when you disagree with the factual contents of the validity claims raised by your informants it is easy to analyze (and demystify) the rhetorical force with which those claims are made and avoid discussing their actual validity. In fact typically anthropologists wussed out and said they would ‘bracket’ the validity of those claims, which is just a way of stating that they thought it would be impolite to diss their informants religious beliefs.

This explanation of beliefs with regards to the conditions which render them plausible rather than to their validity is still something that anthropologists do almost (in my case at least) reflexively. In fact, this ‘demystification’ technique slides right into anthropology’s longstanding disposition to criticize what Marshall Sahlins called the ‘native anthropology of western cosmology’ by revealing how culture bound ‘our’ society is. Thus, for instance, when anthropologist see yet another paper on the natural athletic aptitude of black people our first reaction is to sigh and write it off to a culture that we have demonstrated time and time again is obsessed biogenetic substance and identity.

But, as one commentor “notes”: (drawing very astutely on Gettier), just because people think something is true for the wrong reason doesn’t mean it’s not true. And indeed, one of the things that drives many reasonable people (the more sanguine of those who, as I put it, seek to ‘speak truth to culture’) nuts about anthropologists is that they never seem to address the substantive issues that people they disagree with them raise. For instance — why aren’t black people better athletes than white people? Address my hypothesis and not (as Fred and Deborah put it) how I’m “rooted in history.” I take it this is the crux of Tim Burke’s argument about ‘crude functionalism’ when anthropologists make blanket statements about the reception of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Although I wonder if he wouldn’t mind functionalism if it was ‘refined’ (insert Ramu sugar joke here)?

It seems to me that the most pressing issues in anthropology arise in three areas where the idea of bracketing the valifity claims of informants is becoming less and less an option for anthropologists because informants are being transformed into colleagues (or at least equals). First, in situations where indigenous people begin demanding the right to question anthropological representations of them (this is a live issue in Hawai’i, although not as live as it once was). Second, in studies of science and technology where anthropologists have tried a number of strategies (many of them unsatisfying to me) explain the ‘appearence’ or ‘mediation’ of fact in a laboratory or elsewhere — a project which forces them to deal with validity claims that are very deeply rooted in ‘their culture’. Third, in the realm of Public Anthropology, where anthropologists stake a claim to authoritativeness in public discourse and become interlocutors with people in the physical and natural scientists (the issues here are similar to those in studies of science and technology). Different topics, but united by a single underlying problem in the epistemology of anthropology, I think.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

22 thoughts on “The conflict of interpretations, redux

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  2. Interesting post. Lots of stuff to think about.

    But you did not mention an important fourth approach. The historical anthropologic one (not to be set equal with historical determinism, which I do not advocate) argues from my view the most evident way. On the example of ´objectivity`, ain`t it an eye-opener to learn it originially has been a specific scientific method that has become a cultural value?
    And ain`t it an eye-opener, when an contextual analysis of biological taxonomy shows it is culturally shaped?
    (Just as each human image of aliens always refer to human not to alien. I agree this is paralyzing to some extend.)
    Now researchers that work in this direction of course are not limited to the natural sciences.

  3. I definitely don’t mind functionalism when it’s refined. Indeed, the alternative, as I often put it, is an account of cultural change over time that amounts to an exotic version of “shit happens”, in which the last cultural moment is progenitor to the next, but there’s no way to explain why change happens in the ways or forms that it does.

    I do think that functionalist interpretations require a kind of diffuse humility to make successfully, as well as carry a heavy evidentiary burden if they’re to be made within academic practice. There is a sort of everyday functionalism in most societies, but especially including contemporary American society, a kind of popular logocentrism that assumes that behind every change, a functional purpose lurks. If anthropology or history do no more than mimic that kind of everyday discourse that relies on seeing the world and using local knowledge and forms of common sense to infer what the hidden function is, then anthropology and history really have no business putting on intellectual airs or sucking down resources within academic communities.

    So I think we have to be better than that: more rigorous in what we base any claims of that kind on, and more appreciative of the dense webs of causality and purpose that lie behind even the smallest practices and performances of cultural life. And I think that charge has to apply to anything we want to make scholarly claims about. There’s no problem with sitting around with some colleagues in a social setting and saying, “Shit, I think the main reason people like Diamond so much is because it makes them feel better”. Blogs are sometimes an extension of that sociality, and if someone offered that thought in that spirit: “I sometimes wonder if some of the people who like Diamond like it because it gets them off the hook”, then it might be appropriate to some modes of online talk. But in the previous Savage Minds discussion, I thought Ozma bumped the observation up to a pretty substantial empirical claim that occasioned other claims about Guns, Germs and Steel. Errington and Gewertz have certainly done so here. I just think once this particular critique moves up to a certain level of seriousness, it suddenly calls for a much more refined kind of functionalism than the ordinary street functionalism that we all call on from time to time.

    Even as such, I think this particular claim would run into problems. Ozma and now Errington and Gewertz seem to derive part of their assumption that Diamond’s popularity is a result of Diamond’s functional utility to cosmpolitan edycated elites who are seeking to absolve themselves of historical responsibility for global inequality from the fact that Diamond attributes post-1500 inequality to a pre-1500 geographical lottery. What they offer in turn (this is the driving argument in Errington and Gewertz’s book) is an insistence that this history must put the contingent agency of colonizers at the heart of the story of modernity, that scholars must not let contemporary elites “off the hook”. Fine. I think there’s some very interesting things to say about agency and the ways such an argument insists on vesting it, but that’s another discussion. But as I noted, I could just as easily offer an account at the level of inference about how cosmopolitan elites find it comforting to think that the agency of modernity and global inequality is and was vested in them. Indeed, that’s precisely the sort of thing that lies behind postwar development practice, behind neoconservative interventionism, behind colonial administration before 1960, and so on. The level of interpretative argument made about Diamond permits me to offer this interpretation with just as much certainty, and therefore to say that the account Errington and Gewertz offer, by insisting on keeping people “on the hook”, actually flatters Western elites by maintaining their understanding of themselves as the first and foremost shapers of all events. White Man’s Burden in some new form: the world is just a theater for our moral adventure.

    The only thing that would distinguish their reading of Diamond and this reading of their work as ideology would be Diamond’s popularity, using the market as an indicator of what elites truly desire and thus what is most ideologically problematic. That’s what I often call “spot the hegemon” in my classes: a critique that operates by figuring out where the presumed hegemon is clustered in the greatest concentration and taking that as confirmation that this concentration is a description of the operations of hegemony. I think that’s a fallacious kind of argument, especially given that in other contexts, we know precisely how problematic it is to read volume of consumption as an index of the meaning of consumption.

    Short answer: refined, complex functionalism, sure. Crude or casual functionalism made as a scholarly or semi-scholarly claim, no.

  4. An article which covers very similar ground to the issues raised in this post is:

    Asad, Talal. 1986. “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology.” In Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford, and George Marcus, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Ernest Gellner argues that anthropologists are too eager to explain away the strangeness of other cultures, to which Asad argues that “To make nonsense of the concept is to make nonsense of the society.” And that “A good translation should always precede a critique.” (Fortunately Asad provides his own one-line summaries!)

    It seems to me that Fred and Deborah are trying to provide exactly such a good translation, while Tim Burke is worried that an effort to provide such a good translation my deny Yali the agency of being able to negotiate his own translations. But I think this objection, while interesting, is somewhat besides the point. The very process of translating necessarily involves a loss of information. If “cargo” means more in PNG than it does to us, we need to understand all the meanings implied by cargo in order to fully understand Yali’s question. There is nothing crude about doing this.

    I also think that the Guns Germs and Steel is a target, not because it is so popular, but because it is only the latest in a long history of books that seek to explain the “rise of the west” in a way which absolves the West of culpability (or, similarly, books which explain the success of the elite within our own country as being independent of exploitation of the poor – such as “culture of poverty” arguments). It would be one thing if it were an isolated instance, but it is not, and I think it is disingenuous to pretend that it is.

  5. Kerim: my accusation of crude functionalism is aimed narrowly at Fred and Deborah’s arguments about the relationship between Diamond’s book and its readership in America and Europe.

    The rest of my critique is really about other epistemological problems that I see in their argument (to which the disagreement between Asad and Gellner is certainly relevant, as is the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate). I would never say that trying to translate someone denies them agency over their own translations–in fact, I’m saying the opposite, that let’s stop regarding “bad translations” as a sin against agency, which is what I think Fred and Deborah accuse Diamond of doing. I would say that trying to translate Yali in such a way as to resolve the multiplicity of the possible meanings of his question, to safely return him to the status of “native”, is the problem. So I’m not questioning the act of translation, only the substance of it in this particular case. I’m interested in all the meanings and derivations of Yali’s question, which I think very much potentially include what Diamond hears in it and much more besides. I feel Fred and Deborah are involved in a different kind of truncation of those meanings than Diamond, but I don’t feel it’s necessary in either case. It’s not that Yali’s question means everything, or that its meaning is infinitely indeterminate (no Derridean, I!) but that among the very important predicates of the question is the fact that the nationalist idea to which Yali was surely attached derives as much of its sense from “the West” as PNGuinea; the ideas of moral economy that Fred and Deborah identify as indigenous strikes as also being very much from and in response to the West’s own history and its historical representation of colonial encounter. I think it’s an empirical mistake, then, to translate Yali in such a way that he’s once again safely “PNGuinean”, to say that what Diamond hears isn’t there at all.

  6. I don’t think Diamond is particularly concerend with what Yali really meant. He has his own agenda, and Yali is really just a convienent excuse to make it sound like his agenda is really someone else’s, while I think Fred and Deborah are genuinely interested in what Yali meant. I think there are important reasons why Diamond feels he needs Yali to legitimate his own questions, and I think it is important to look at those reasons.

    I fully agree with you about the dangers of a reductionist move which denies Yali’s modernity. I’m just not sure I see Fred and Deborah as doing this. (I haven’t read their book, which is what I’d want to do before making such a judgement, since blog posts necessarily resort to short-hand.) I saw what they were doing as recovering lost information, which I lack, rather than reducing the meanings to only those meanings which are PNGuinean. That they say he intended it as a political critique of colonialism seems to imply that he is doing more than simply being a “PNGuinean.” No?

  7. Following on a paragraph where they note Yali’s extensive contact with Europeans, Fred and Deborah write, “Yet, like for the Highlanders Strathern describes, Yali’s life and aspirations remained largely PNGuinean. He remained concerned less about the material attributes of things themselves than about the social uses to which things were put. For him and many other PNGuineans both then and now, things have value because they can be used in transactions to establish relationships of recognition and respect. They are more like gifts than commodities. They are exchanged to establish relationships of obligation, alliance, and friendship rather than to get “good deals.” Therefore, when Highlanders desired pearl shells, and they did desire them with a passionate intensity, it was not for the sake of the shells alone. Indeed, men acquired the coveted shells so as to be able to give them away at a later time.”

    This is pretty much what I’m pointing to, and precisely the kind of analytic gambit I am reference when I talk about how a lot of us write about hybridity, multiple modernities and so on in the first half of our writings and then disavow the implications in the second half. We say enough to acknowledge the history that is, but then make a restorationist move that tries to put people safely back within some kind of bounded indigenism, “real natives”. I can’t help but note in this regard that Yali was a nationalist: this is a move that is especially friendly to postcolonial nationalism and its strategies of nation-making.

  8. Rex — I think the things you are saying in your post are true, but I wouldn’t change what it is that anthropologists do on their basis. Let me give three examples:

    1) Witchcraft. Informants talk about witches, anthropologists talk about “why informants talk about witches”. True, we could instead say “oh my gosh! Witches? really? Get outta here. Let’s go find some.” But most of us choose not to, because we think the first approach is going to yield far more interesting information than is the second approach. We could be wrong. We could be missing the opportunity to found the discipline of witchology. Most of us have not seriously investigated the possibility of witches’ existence — we think there would be nothing to find. So the “bracketing” might be less a matter of “it would be impolite to diss witchcraft belief” than “I don’t know about witches per se, but there sure is a lot of interesting stuff to be said about why and how people talk about ’em”. In fact, I’ll bet I am not the only anthropologist who has, occasionally in the field, felt quite agnostic about the non-existence of witches. Or — let me not kid around. I know I am not. Like many of my colleagues I have freaky witch stories to share over beers. Still I haven’t chosen to dedicate my career to their pursuit, and I think it’s been the right decision. But yeah, I could be wrong. hence the bracketing.

    2) GG&S — it’s like witchcraft. Faced with the social phenomenon that is JD’s book, anthros could say “golly, I’m gonna track down *every* darn claim in it and see whether it’s true!*. Or, they could say, “hmm, given what I know about what is actually my field of expertise — society and culture — I could apply it to explaining the popularity of this book, which seems like the more interesting problem”. Anthropologists like myself make the decision that the latter approach will yield far more interesting insights. But you know what? We could be wrong. Diamond’s thesis could be correct from start to finish. I consider this much less likely than I do the possible existence of witches, but hey. It’s a big crazy mysterious world.

    3) Are black people better athletes than white people? This is another claim that I think is made for reasons other than… black people are better athletes than white people. Again, I could be wrong. Nevertheless I would put my anthropological energies into explaining why people make that claim (BECAUSE THAT IS AN INTERESTING AND IMPORTANT PROBLEM ON ITS OWN MERITS), not into taking apart the claim itself. Here, though, I don’t even have to feel any regret about missing out on the founding of another field of knowledge. There are these people — called biologists — who are able to prove or disprove whether that claim is substantively correct. All of their evidence so far is that (as I suspected) that claim is wrong! Do I know how to place my bets or what?

    And thus it is that I am able go home and sleep the sleep of the anthropologically content, without tossing and turning over my failure to investigate witchcraft.

  9. The functionalist question of whether Diamond’s argument is so popular because it resonates so well with the interests of the haves can, no doubt, be explored further. Our thoughts on this are speculative but such a resonance strikes us as at least a plausible possibility (one, as mentioned, we raise to encourage those who liked Diamond to think more about the reasons that they did so). In any case, and more importantly, Diamond’s argument is consistent with wide-spread and consequential arguments of a certain sort – a kind of “bottom line” sort of “realism” about the use of coercion by the powerful. These arguments do drive a lot of politics through which Western based institutions and forces are able to affect much of the world. It is, as we discuss at length in our book and will mention in a later post, the same sort of argument that the WTO (with its talk — and action — about comparative advantage), the World Bank (with its talk – and action— about structural adjustments) and Coca Cola (with its talk – and action — about the importance of maintaining “international standards” of sugar purity) use to pursue their objectives. It is, as well, rhetorically central to much of the Bush administration’s neo-con-driven activities. Given this, we urge in our book that these wide-spread and influential Diamondish assumptions/arguments/activities be carefully evaluated lest more damage be done by the powerful to the less powerful. Our position, thus, strikes us as the virtual opposite of the Whiteman’s Burden. Rather than seeking that “they” change to meet our own (largely) unexamined standards, we are advocating that “we” change “ourselves” (to be sure, both “they” and “we” are not homogeneous) to meet standards that might let others lead reasonable lives, somewhat of their own (no doubt, complexly figured) choosings. In short, we find it our responsibility to encourage “our own” powerful to think about their use of power and to hold them accountable for their decisions.

  10. I’m increasingly of the opinion that we are talking past each other because our ideas of what Papua New Guinea is like are different.

    While I am sympathetic to many of Tim’s claims, I think the claim that Fred and Deborah speak of hybridity and multiple modernities (these terms give me the hives)in one breath and then reinscribe ‘some kind of bounded indigenism’ in off base. Frankly it makes him sound as if Nick Thomas is the _only_ thing about the Pacific he’s read, and trying to make his critique stick to much of the writing on contemporary Papua New Guinea today is a hard sell indeed.

    While people in Hagen and people on the Rai coast differ in several respects, there is a lot of research that suggests that some very basic generalizations about Melanesian vs. Western forms of sociality can be made (although, admittedly, my own work is interested in pressing this issue). This isn’t essentialization, it’s generalization, and what science does. Of course, this particular generalization is lousy as anything except a first approximation. But we are having a general discussion.

    Papua New Guineans often behave in ways very different from people at Swarthmore, and continue to do so today. Documenting this isn’t a ‘restorationist move’ unless you somehow imagine people in Papua New Guinea have stopped thinking about exhange and morality as intertwined in a distinctive way. This is patently not the case. Electoral politics in contemporary Papua New Guinea, and particularly the highlands where I work, continue to revolve around mortuary prestations, bridewealth, and other forms of exchange. If you are interested in learning more I suggest the film “Tanim”: or some of Alan Rumsey’s work on womens groups in the Nebilyer.

    Tim mentions the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate — something I’ve alsmo mentioned privately to Deborah and Fred. But in fact a more relevant section of Sahlins’s oeuvre is his later work on ‘developman in the Pacific’ or ‘the indigenization of modernity’ (most, iirc, conveniently collected in _Culture In Practice_). I know it is difficult for people who are not familiar with the region or the literature about it to imagine what Papua New Guinea is like today, or to imagine what it would mean to be simultaneously ‘modern’ (willing to generate normativity out of yourself, in Habermas’s phrase) while still tied to kinds of social action that are typically Melanesian. But trust me, people can be both distinctively Melanesian and still live in today’s world.

  11. Rex: the talk about hybridity is more connected in my longer post at Easily Distracted to a reading of contradictions in the general practice of contemporary cultural anthropology, that there is a general tendency to speak in that terminology but to not accept the implications of that terminology, to ultimately return to a reinscription of the indigenous, a separation of the West and the Rest. The problem I’m talking about here is a general epistemological one, not particular to ethnographies of Papua New Guinea.

    The one place where it most specifically comes into Fred and Deborah’s writings here is precisely the passage I’ve cited above. They acknowledge the “modernity” of Yali’s own individual career and social world, describe it, but then move to clarify him as “PNGuinean”, and the discourse of Yali’s question as primarily about a local historical discourse on equality. (Hence the allegation that Diamond gets the question wrong by seeing it as parallel to his own global or “Western” interests.)

    I think that’s a reasonably typical example of the general problem I’m describing. To say that PNGuinea is different than anywhere else in the world, and shaped by its own local histories is one thing. That’s something I say myself a great deal, for example, in what I’m writing now, that contemporary Zimbabwean politics is as shaped by “deep grammars” of Shona political thought as it is by modern forms of national and bureaucratic rule. The point is I wouldn’t try to say it’s one or the other: it’s both, always, in the now of Zimbabwe. You do need to know the history to see its presence in what look like everyday, ordinary modern authoritarian behaviors, but you don’t need to superimpose the deep history and pronounce Zimbabwean political figures as essentially “Zimbabwean” either once you recognize that history’s presence.

    To say that Yali’s question or Yali is “PNGuinean” as a statement in which I see Fred and Deborah meaningto contrast against his involvements with the West or his admitted experience with modernity. This is something different than what I’m doing with Shona political forms, and it’s the latter statement that was made here: the two things are contrasted by Fred and Deborah. I think they put aspects of Yali’s world and thought in tension, or insist on resolving him to be “PNGuinean” in ways that are far more than simply saying, “PNGuinea is its own place with its own history”.

    Let me put it more drastically and politically. Coca Cola is just as much *part* of PNGuinea now as Yali or the Highlanders. This is not a statement that approves of labor forms or consumer economies or anything that Coca Cola does. One may make this statement and immediately follow it with an intense moral or political or even aesthetic critique of Coca Cola in general or in specific within PNGuinea, and have that critique be wholly legitimate. It’s the contrast that’s the problem, the dividing of the now of any society on the globe into things which are authentic to the deep histories and things which are not, the sifting through of experience. Yali can’t be sifted: any account of his life makes that pretty clear to me.

    I’m cool with talking about other PNG scholarship, by the way, and would be very content to take on any recommendations you have. The cargo cult literature is the only work I read a lot of, due to my interest in commodification. (Though the Thomas book I’ve mentioned really isn’t about PNG much: I cite it because I think it’s such a good general critique of existing scholarship on colonialism and colonial discourse, and one that is often overlooked.) Bruce Knauft’s work has always impressed me and I’ve been a devotee of his scholarship since I was at Emory for a brief while early in my career. And of course it’s impossible for anyone who practices any kind of ethnography to avoid the place of PNG in the development of anthopological thought. But I’m sure there’s a lot of recent work that I haven’t had time to read and think through. I don’t think this is a debate that will be resolved readily by the specifics of the PNG literature, however: I’m aiming at an epistemological tendency that I think is bigger than PNG, and more generally distributed in the practice of cultural anthropology and postcolonial theory.

  12. We have never said more or less — other — than that PNG was its own place with its own history. We have long written against essentialisms of any kind. Perhaps, Burke takes his cue from our reference to Marilyn Strathern — who might be charged with essentializing. But Marilyn does other things as well — as anyone who has read her knows. But, he has, in fact, misread us. Indeed, a central theme in our book (Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History, U. Chicago Press)is the complexity of PNGuinean lives. Here is a bit from the introduction to our book in which we describe some of those with whom we have been working:

    “At times parochial and at times metropolitan, the people in our story burned grasslands to hunt wild pigs and fed factory boilers to produce sugar; they lined up for colonial censuses and voted in national elections; they defended their worth against all comers and submitted to hierarchical industrial controls; they maintained local identities and established regional, national, and international commitments; they were advised by expatriates and golfed with elite Papua New Guineans; they transacted in shell money or other traditional valuables and bought goods with a national currency responsive to International Monetary Fund policies; they grew crops for their own subsistence and produced commodities for national and world markets; they consumed coconuts with kin and shared soft-drinks with shift-workers. Moreover, all of these experiences — including the contrasts between them — were appraised according to ideas of what life was, is, and could become. And these were only the Papua New Guineans …. ”

    That Burke wants to misread us is, we think, to make his own (rather well-known, at least in anthroplogy)points about the complexities of the contemporary world. We look forward to his work on Zimbabwe.

  13. With all due respect, Tim, I honestly think you are arguing with someone who isn’t in the room. I understand your criticism of a wider epistemological point — it is, as Fred and Deborah mention, a commonly known critique in anthropology, and your opposition to it is just as commonly known and practiced. I’ve not read your work on Zimbabwe (although it comes reccomended) but your discussion of it here seems to involve recapitulating Fred and Deborah’s points rather than criticizing them.

    Ditto with your reference to Coca Cola. I do not know if you had meant to obliquiely reference Fred and Deborah’s discussion of Coca Cola in Yali’s Question, or Robert Foster’s work on it in _Materializing The Nation_ (I second Strongthomas’s nomination of Foster’s work) but we all agree about that as well. Coca Cola is obviously a part of Papua New Guinea now — as anyone who has been there even briefly could tell you. Who would argue otherwise? Honestly.

    You say that “Yali can’t be sifted” and this is, of course, the _point_ of Fred and Deborah’s posts, of which I hope we will have more soon.

  14. I think this is a fair cop that I’m as much talking about a generalized critique of an epistemological tendency as the specific points on the table here.

    However, I would continue to maintain that the critique of Diamond that we are seeing here is partially premised on a claim that his work satisfies the desires of his audience of “educated haves” to be absolved of a relation to global inequality; I think that it is impossible to keep that critique from rebounding onto the desire to render a history which is faithful to the local experience of PNGuineans and which in being faithful hopes to also have an effect on educated haves. It’s impossible to keep that critique from rebounding because there is just as deep a history of desire for such an account among the educated haves as there is for the one Diamond provisions.

    I also do think that the critique offered here of Diamond’s uses of Yali’s question is one that invokes tropes of restoration, of insistence that Yali is “PNGuinean”, in precisely the passage I’ve cited, the one that transits from Strathern’s work to Fred and Deborah’s knowledge of Yali. I think that’s precisely the sort of thing I have in mind when I suggest that many of us make one kind of assertion up front and disavow it in quiet (and perhaps even accidental) ways on the downside. In the end, what troubles me here is that the argument against Diamond is partially based on an assertion that Yali could not have said what Diamond says he said, or that if he said it, it could not have been meant in the ways that Diamond hears it, that it finally and truly belongs in a local history, and can be successfully translated only by containing it within that history.

  15. “Diamond’s argument is consistent with wide-spread and consequential arguments of a certain sort – a kind of “bottom line” sort of “realism” about the use of coercion by the powerful. These arguments do drive a lot of politics through which Western based institutions and forces are able to affect much of the world. It is, as we discuss at length in our book and will mention in a later post, the same sort of argument that the WTO (with its talk—and action—about comparative advantage), the World Bank (with its talk – and action— about structural adjustments) and Coca Cola (with its talk – and action—about the importance of maintaining “international standards” of sugar purity) use to pursue their objectives. It is, as well, rhetorically central to much of the Bush administration’s neo-con-driven activities.”

    Could you explain a bit more what you mean here? Because I’m having difficulty believing that the interpretation I offer below is correct.

    1) “Western” actors often invoke (economic, physical, geographical, divine) necessity as a way of justifying coercive/exploitative practices, e.g., “the bottom line is that you must dismantle your welfare state or the harsh realities of the market will punish you,” “the bottom line is that import-substitution industrialization ignores the efficiency gains from pursuing comparative advantage,” “the bottom line is that God is on our side and so we will defeat you,” etc.

    2) Diamond argues that geographical (mostly) necessity explains the fact that Europe imperialized most of the globe, at one time or another, between 1492 and 1945.

    3) Therefore, Diamond’s book reinforces a “Western” master-narrative of domination.

  16. Tim —

    I agree with your point that Fred and Deborah provide only anecdotal evidence about the public effects of Guns, Germs, and Steel. This is the ‘crude functionalism’ argument and I think we have got to the bottom of it — they are offering their impressions and have not conducted research on it. As for the rest:

    “In the end, what troubles me here is that the argument against Diamond is partially based on an assertion that Yali could not have said what Diamond says he said…”

    I don’t think they have ever argued this.

    “…or that if he said it, it could not have been meant in the ways that Diamond hears it…”

    I think this is what they claim — Yali’s question has implications that Diamond did not notice.

    “…that it finally and truly belongs in a local history, and can be successfully translated only by containing it within that history.”

    I’m sure they argue that Yali’s comments must be understood in the context they were uttered – surely that’s not controversial? As for the idea that Yali belongs ‘only in local history’ I don’t think they argue that.

  17. Perhaps one of the really deep things that’s driving my disagreement is that I would say that I’m not sure that Yali’s comments must be understood in the context they were uttered, or that trying to specify and pin down that context the way that Fred and Deborah do is the heart of the problem. And I really do think that one of the moves that the posts to date make is to put Yali “back” into PNGuinea: here we just appear to disagree about what’s been said so far.

  18. No. It is to say that it’s a question of interpretative purpose, and that the emic, ethnographic interpretative drive does not exhaust the legitimate possibilities of interpretation. It’s a question of the relation between the nature of an interpretive claim and the authority that is derived from it. Since Diamond derives none of the authority of his account from the need to understand Yali in context, I don’t think you can undercut the authority of his account by insisting that he’s not properly contextual. Except at a more meta-interpretative, epistemological level by insisting that the necessary objective of social inquiry is hermeneutical, contextual, emic. I’m potentially sympathetic to that argument, given that this is where my own inclinations and work drive me. But I’m concerned that there is massive collateral damage to such a demand: you cannot contain it to Diamond. It takes out Blaut, Wallerstein, Tilly and so on. Potentially it invalidates far more than that. It’s the attempt to make this kind of demand apply to Diamond alone that concerns me most, maybe: there seems to me to be some fitting of bodies to procrustean beds, possibly. I’m more inclined to say that microhistorical scales, hermeneutical concerns, local contexts, are my aesthetic preferences first, methodological imperatives second (or third or fourth). Which inclines me to shrug if someone like Diamond uses something like “Yali’s Question” in the way that he does: not just because I think it’s possible to use people’s words and ideas out of context in legitimately productive ways, but possibly even because I still suspect you’re trying to circumscribe Yali’s context too tightly.

  19. But Diamond is attempting to have it both ways. He wants to claim that his book explains the rise of the west, while at the same time denying that his book does just that. He’s a moving target. Then, when anthropologists call him on it we get attacked because Diamond doesn’t really care about Yali in the first place. But the whole point is that he should, and that understanding Yali’s question properly – and understanding who Yali is – is necessary in order to answer the very questions that Diamond wants to ask (but denies he is asking). To deal with Diamond in his own terms is precisely to not care about Yali’s question.

  20. I think there is another reason to interrogate Diamond’s use of Yali’s question — he does what people often do with reported speech, which is disavow their own investment in a statement or question by attaching it to someone else.

    Yali’s question is really Diamond’s question. But it would be uncomfortable for Diamond to “own” that question. How would he pose it? “I, Diamond, went to PNG and couldn’t help but be struck by how little stuff they had compared to how much stuff there is back home”. As Diamond’s question, it is not possessed of the same quality of ingenousness it has (or can be figured as having) if it is Yali’s question. Diamond needs Yali rather than himself to make the West-and-the-rest comparision for it to not to come across as invidious.

    I think Fred and Deborah are talking about how the question is nevertheless not ingenuous as Yali’s question, either, and they are making the point that Diamond didn’t take account of the fact that in context, the question was just as layered (and thus liable to disingenuousness) coming from Yali as it was coming from Diamond.

    So even if we concede that Diamond doesn’t derive any of his authority from understanding Yali in context, Diamond does carve a good bit of authorial wiggle-room out of presenting Yali’s question as an ingenous one of the “golly!” variety.

    Therefore it does matter — even for Diamond’s purposes — that Yali’s question is not a “golly!” sort of query at all.

  21. Kerim: I think that’s a good observation, but it’s precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about when I suggest that the answer to Diamond can be substantially unadorned by some epistemological concerns for Yali’s question (or by the red herring of reading a presumption about Diamond’s audiences back into the book). The observation you make can be a simple empirical one: that what Diamond has to offer is not explanatory of the world or any local place within it after 1500. It doesn’t tell us why the world is the way that it is. It doesn’t answer Yali’s question as Diamond himself ‘hears’ that question. In some ways, I think that’s the most powerful rejoinder to Diamond: not to get wrapped up in trying to take Yali’s question back from Diamond, but to note that Diamond’s answer to his version of Yali’s question is factually not the right one. Then it’s up to us to chart why we give explanatory preference to microhistorical, contextual, bottom-up accounts that take the consciousness and perspective of particular local actors to be important data rather than mere rhetorical window-dressing. I think getting entangled in the matter of Diamond’s audiences, or the intellectual politics of sociobiology, or a number of the other issues that have come up is a distraction from that argument, and I think it’s an argument that can be presented fairly plainly as a general case and fairly plainly in any specific context. To some extent, even what is meant by commodities in the Melanesian context, or local discourses of moral economy, isn’t sufficient on its own. That appears to be a mere scholarly correction of Diamond (Yali doesn’t mean X, he means Y) when what’s needed (and Fred and Deborah do this at some junctures) is to say, “What people mean, and how they understand meaning, in this particular place, is causally explanatory of why the world they live in is the way that it is.” That if Diamond wants to answer the question he hears Yali saying, he’s barking up a number of wrong trees. (A rejoinder which, by the by, leaves room for his trees to be right ones in response to other kinds of questions: there’s no need to level his book and plow everything under with salt.)

    I think Ozma’s right, of course, that Diamond gets a particular kind of rhetorical mileage from hearing his own question on Yali’s lips (which doesn’t mean Yali didn’t say something of the sort, only that Diamond was poised to hear it, that he’d already ‘heard’ it before it was said). But it might be worth asking how the book reads if the framing device disappears, if Diamond starts by saying, “I’ve often wondered why people in the developed world are so rich and people in the developing world are so poor”. In a funny kind of way, this opens Diamond up to his right-wing critics (and yes, there are some).

  22. Of course Diamond has right-wing critics; I made that point in my original post & it’s part of why half the attacks on what I”ve had to say have of come in the form of “ugh, she’s out-politically-correcting the politically correct”. Diamond is already open to right-wing critics, so it’s immaterial from that perspective who poses “Yali’s question” because in their terms the answer is self-evident. One thing I must say I like very much about truly rabid right-wingers is they don’t waste time on shoddy pretenses to empty-headed even-handedness.

    But for Diamond to hang on to the mantle of disinterestedness the question *cannot* come from him. It has to be Yali’s question because it has to appear as a question that would occur in the same way, to any person, faced with the same set of inputs. So, again, I think Fred and Deborah are exactly right to pursue — is the question really occurring to Yali the same way it is to Diamond? Are the inputs self-evidently the same?

    It reminds me of my all-time favorite joke. A troubled fellow consults a psychiatrist. During their initial session, the psychiatrist uses Rorschach blots as prompts for free association. The patient describes them all as varieties of sexual imagery. At the end of the session, the psychiatrist says, “well, I think one thing we might want to explore further is your evident sexual obsession”. The patient replies, outraged, “What? *my* sexual obsession!?! *You’re* the one with all the dirty pictures!”

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