On detesting Writing Culture at a young age

I’ll be honest: reading Ken Wissoker’s liveblogging of the Writing Culture conference was the first time I’ve ever understood why anyone bothers to live blog, and I’m looking forwarding to reading more of Matt’s coverage of the conference. It’s exactly the sort of ‘high table’ event that a small amount of anthropologists use to reproduce their elite culture and which is unavailable to most people — unless others ‘cover’ it. In this post, I wanted to encourage conversation about this historical moment by discussing how I learned to detest Writing Culture.

When I was growing up (scholarly speaking) Writing Culture and postmodern anthropology were the enemy. The problems were legion: the navel gazing, the narcissistic obsession with one’s own subjectivity, the reduction of the politics of fieldwork to the writing up of ethnography, the neurotic worrying about one’s one epistemological responsibilities that led the authors to the same sort of straining nervousness that you see in overbred show dogs, a pretension to theoretical sophistication that masked a lack of deeper erudition (especially of the actual ethnographic record), and of course the coup de grace: authors obsessed with prose who were themselves terrible writers.

All of this led to a deep and authentic detesting of Writing Culture. We all knew the world was complicated, the writing was a craft, and that the fieldwork encounter was fraught. Writing Culture somehow took this basic insight into the human condition of our discipline and tried to convince others that it was some sort of enormous problem.

The reaction was particularly severe from the anthropologists who actually had moral confidence: the Marxists. In many ways, they were the ones who introduced theoretical sophistication into post-war anthropology. The Hegel and Kant that were taken for granted by Boas and Kroeber reappeared in the work of authors like Bob Scholte. After a decade of genuine political action, the conservative retrenchment of the 1980s marked the resurgence of the right in a way that threatened the gains of previous years. Scholte’s review of Writing Culture (and Tyler’s response to him) in Critique of Anthropology summarized the problem in nutshell: the next generation of anthropology had responded to Reagan-era neoconservatism with a retreat into aesthetics, as if the response to the revanchist policies of the Republican party was the anthropological equivalent of Twin Peaks or a quirky David Byrne performance piece.

It took me a long time to consider taking Writing Culture seriously, but I did eventually. Mostly because I met people who I respected who cut their teeth on Writing Culture seemingly without being posioned by it: people like Chris ‘No Truth Anywhere’ Kelty and Melissa ‘Screw The Ethnographic Details’ Cefkin. When I started teaching anthropological theory I got around to rereading the work from 1986, and when I started an ethnographic project on elites I started keeping up with what had been done since then. I think that is when my sense of Writing Culture began changing.

The first thing to say about Writing Culture — or the ‘Rice Circle’ as I think they might now be calling themselves — is that the work is smart and deserves to be read for what it actually says. Amazingly, a quarter century after 1986, some people’s emotions are still to raw to do this. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the works of 1986 ask questions — often carefully. It’s worth reading what they actually say rather than immediately reaching for the nearest stick to hit the snake with.

The second thing that amazes me about Writing Culture is that the authors actually had students. Students who they nurtured and supported. Jim Clifford played a key part in creating Native Pacific Cultural Studies through his support of upcoming Pacific scholars. Although they are not often read, the Late Editions volumes provided an incredible forum for upcoming scholars. Marcus and Clifford regularly cite Ph.D. students they advise in their own work, helping bring attention to well-deserving projects and scholars. This is simply something that not everyone does. Of course, to some this might look like an imperialistic attempt to take over a discipline by overproducing Ph.D.s, throwing whole passles of them on the wall, and seeing what sticks. Except oh wait — that’s my alma mater’s strategy isn’t it…

Finally, as my mention of Late Editions points out, Writing Culture had a program — even if it was not programmatic. People working with and under its authors had a sense of where the discipline was going or at least what exploration space they should be moving around in. I think in this sense the Writing Culture crowd was very successful in creating a sense of direction and space for their students without forcing them into a narrow and ultimately unproductive ‘program’ of research.

There is still a lot that bothers me about the people involved in Writing Culture. Many of them still can’t write. Recent work on ‘paraethnography’ seems like a tortuously overthought attempt to do things in fieldwork that many of us who work in ‘Malinowskian’ locations have been doing in years. I worry about the lack of concern for the political implications of  ‘collaborating’ with powerful elites. I appreciate the avant-gardist desire to probe the limits of what anthropology can be, but wonder why we think anyone other than us (read: funders) should care about this sort of work.

In the end I am glad that Writing Culture happened, and I think the network of researchers that resulted have made anthropology a much better place. Appreciating their contribution to the discipline is difficult because of how hyperbolic both the negative and positive evaluations are. Overall, though, I think people like me who grew up hating Writing Culture at an early age should take a step back and both understand and appreciate what came out of it — not only because of how hegemonic it’s successors have become in our discipline, but because of the genuine intellectual contributions its made.


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 rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “On detesting Writing Culture at a young age

  1. I’m a member of the Rice bubble, being, er, a Rice PhD student. But without an anthro background before starting, I hadn’t actually read Writing Culture before coming here.

    Rather, I have an art and fiction writing background, and my first thoughts upon reading WC were “Banzai! I can experiment with writing in this medium and get away with it!” This is to say that as someone used to writing explicitly labeled as “creative”, what struck me about it was the permission it gave me (at that time, being an anthro newbie, I needed permission) to tinker with how I wrote ethnography the same way I used to tinker every aspect of my writing in the past. I didn’t have to make some sort of pretense towards journalistic feigned neutrality if I didn’t feel it… I could still… and I type this with tongue in cheek.. make art.

    I actually got all of this from Taussig as well, not just from WC.

    Well, Tyler retired this past spring, and I was thankfully able to tell him at his retirement party that I’d felt the same level of excitement reading his essay as I had reading all of the emergent hypertext fiction stuff in the late 90s 🙂

  2. Alex, nothing substantial to add. Just wanted to say that this is one of the most generous things I have read recently, a pleasure in a world where blog posts and comment streams tend to turn into Punch-and-Judy shows.

  3. I appreciate the commentary as well, and second John McCreery’s sentiment, so I hope my own comment isn’t the Punch-and-Judy show. I too grew up in an anthropology department where we (for the most part) detested Writing Culture, sitting around seminar tables with Sidney Mintz and Rolph Trouillot. However, I have not felt a need to revisit it, and I’ve been a bit mystified by the 25-year hoopla.

    I am willing to recognize that the contributions may have had more to offer than the ways they were caricatured; that these contributions were part of ongoing projects, student-led work, and drew different and perhaps more creative people into the discipline. Still, it seems Writing Culture marked a retreat from public relevancy. Without claiming there was a prior Golden Age of Anthropological Importance and Influence, the Writing Culture approach seems to solidify a move away from anthropological engagement.

  4. You’d think so. And yet the students produced by Writing Culture are among the most active in supporting Open Access and rethinking the AAAs publication program — precisely because of the freedom they’ve been given to think about genre.

  5. Alex —
    Like the others above, I think you hit a great balance between celebration and polemic. I was a few years ahead of you at the same PhD mill… errr, august institution, and I think that, for many of us, the newness had gone out of the insights of Writing Culture, and we were fatigued by less-adept versions of what was being done by the Rice Circle that were being rehearsed over and over again. Your reminder to reread the original is a timely one.

    I think in the end, though, my lasting issues with reflexivitity are less about what was written in WC than the way that the collection’s subtle questions got turned by some scholars into boilerplate critiques of those who did not ask the same questions. That is, while I respect WC as an intellectual project, the arguments became rehearsals for formulaic critiques of other scholars: ‘you aren’t being sufficiently reflexive,’ ‘you aren’t considering how genre conventions are shaping what you write’…

    Certainly, in my own development, as I have tracked steadily away from humanities-based approaches in my writing toward more engagement with biological and cognitive science, I grow increasingly impatient with critiques from absence, the always-available criticism ‘you don’t do something else in your work (that you never promised).’ The WC project, however positive and *self*-reflexive, also lent itself well to this dogged suspicion of each other, sometimes justifying an intellectual refusal to engage with people’s projects.

    I’m intentionally being vague (well, that’s what I’m going to claim). I suppose that one thing about doing a PhD at certain sorts of august institutions is that you realise critique ain’t hard; get a few good ones down, and you pretty much can try to put anyone on the back foot, no matter what sort of paper they present or question they ask. I certainly don’t blame Marcus, Fisher et al. for this tendency, but it does sour my enthusiasm for WC.

    And yet, like so many other schools of thought that we initially define ourselves against

Comments are closed.