Writing Culture at 25

Saturday, October 1, I woke before dawn and drove 180 miles to attend a conference hosted by the Duke University Anthropology Department in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publishing of Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture. Over the next several days I will post notes and observations from the conference and provide you with links to video recordings of each of the papers as soon as they are made available.

It was a familiar drive for me as I zipped west and then cut south into the Old North State. I earned my degree at UNC-Chapel Hill and got to take a number of courses at Duke during my grad career. Being that I live in Virginia now its a pleasure to make a social call when the opportunity arises. The first panel was scheduled to begin at 10:00am and I was looking forward to hearing presentations from two scholars who have for years been heroes of mine: Michael Taussig and Jim Clifford. Many other prominent figures would be there, plus some of my old running buddies and former professors. And real coffee. My current home, Newport News, is not a coffee town by any measure.

Durham was built on tobacco money, even old man Duke made his fortune off the cancer sticks, and its downtown is still distinguished by the red-brick warehouses that used to store the stuff. But tobacco in North Carolina has gone the way of cotton in Texas, the Lucky Strike smokestack has long since puffed its last toke. One long and narrow loading dock with garages lined up against the railroad got snapped up by Duke and the interior has been refurbished into a chic, modernist conference center. The audience sat beneath a raised garage door. A train’s whistle punctuated Hugh Raffles’ slide show on rocks and storytelling. Was that real or part of a soundtrack? The agro-industrial setting made a perfectly intimate venue for the event.

I first encountered Writing Culture as a junior in college. I found the essays intimidating and confusing, nothing at all like Predicament of Culture which I was reading concurrently or Anthropology as Cultural Critique, which I’d finished only the year before. Predicament‘s blend of poetry with history and theory was an inspiration, it was a major event in my intellectual life, the moment when I finally started to “get it.” Writing Culture just made me frustrated and maybe a little afraid that the possibilities of anthropology were more narrow than I’d hoped. By contrast I found Anthropology as Cultural Critique to be much less strident and more useful too.

It wasn’t until the second semester of grad school that I picked up Writing Culture again. This time it came periodized and prepackaged as the catalyst for the postmodern turn in anthropology, a landmark reconsideration of the role played by the individual ethnographer in navigating the process of encountering others and expressing that experience to an audience. It sparked a debate that, for all its blind alleys, leads up to the present. After surviving the hazing ritual that is the first year of grad school I can’t say that I’ve picked up WC since. Today the volume sits on my shelf stupidly wedged between In the Realm of the Diamond Queen and Works and Lives, my underlines and margin notes no doubt becoming more hilarious by the year.

Do you hold on to books you never use? I have hundreds of books warehoused in my attic, collecting dust, warping in the humidity, supporting multiple generations of spiderwebs. Relics of an earlier self waiting to be hollowed out and refurbished with modernist interiors. But then again, maybe I just have a lot of stuff. When I moved my family to the reservation to conduct my dissertation research I even needed to rent one of those self-storage units to house all my belongings. They are kind of ridiculous, these icons of American material culture where people with too many possessions leave the things they never use but can’t bear to part with.

What is Writing Culture to you? Is it something you keep close at hand where it waits anxiously for you to flit nimbly through the pages, deftly landing on your favorite passages? Has it played a crucial role in your training and professional development as you heeded its call for, in the words of Danilyn Rutherford, not less but more empiricism?

Or is it to you just an assignment you completed in grad school? A parlor trick you learned to please your professors: Look at how smart I am, I can read Stephen Tyler and make sense of it! Is this merely another thing you never use, but yet can’t bear to part with?

What do you see as the role of Writing Culture in anthropology’s present?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

One thought on “Writing Culture at 25

  1. Writing Culture in anthropology’s present is a bit like like Marx in social theory generally: influential enough that it’s very often being referenced without being cited–so you need to be familiar with it in order to read a lot of contemporary theoretical work.

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