In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.
So where does Boas fit into all of this?
One of the legacies of earlier folkloric traditions was a view of contemporary oral traditions as little more than the decayed remnants of a once great culture. Although Boas was able, partially as a result of his linguistically inspired view of culture, to criticize evolutionary perspectives that placed contemporary indigenous people in the past, he still seems to have shared some of these views.
Boas was particularly interested in what he considered to be traditional speech. This quest for the archaic and authentic related to form as well as content; Boas summarized his agenda as an attempt “to rescue the vanishing forms of speech”
This rescuing entailed some of the same reconstruction that earlier folklorists were guilty of. In some cases, such as Blair, this entailed the wholesale fabrication of supposedly traditional folktales. In others, such as the Brothers Grimm and Schoolcraft, it entailed heavy editing and embelleshment (although they each did this in different ways and for different reasons – discussed in depth in the book). Boas, however, was even more concerned than his predecessors about establishing the scientific credentials of his work. But his vision of fieldwork as science usefully served to hide some of his entextualization practices from public scrutiny.
Fieldwork became a complex set of practices that had to be mastered through professional training; like owning an air pump, controlling access to this pedagogical process enabled Boas and those he trained to regulate the obligatory passage points that provided access to cultural knowledge. The analogy begins to break down, however, in that the air pump was designed to produce public knowledge, to open scientific work to scrutiny by groups of observers. Fieldwork placed the locus of observation far away from the center. Since people’s perceptions of their own cultural patterns are shaped by secondary explanations, Boas does not deem “natives” to be credible witnesses.
Here is where the questions of anthropological authority discussed last week become important, for while Boas is famous for having worked closely with indigenous scholars, even going so far as to give them credit for published work, the actual manner in which the texts were constructed still reveals some of the same discomfort with the hybridity of these texts that was shown by his predecessors. To understand this argument we need to know something about one of the scholars most closely associated with Boas, George Hunt:
George Hunt was the son of a high-ranking Tlingit woman and an Englishman who worked for the Hudson Bay Company. Hunt was raised in Fort Rupert, a stockaded outpost and Hudson Bay Company station that brought together not only Kwakwaka’wakw but also English, Scots, Irish, French-Canadian, Métis, Iroquois, Hawaiian, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida… Hunt was perceived as a “foreign Indian” by the Kwakwaka’wakw, and he never considered himself to be Kwakwaka’wakw; he often re-ferred to his wife’s relatives as “these Kwaguls.” At the same time, Hunt’s noble descent brought him high status, particularly after he married a high-ranking Kwakwaka’wakw woman. Hunt’s rank afforded him exposure to forms of knowledge and discourse owned by elite lineages, and it granted him a strong social position by virtue of the high-ranking lines’ dominance of trade and indigenous–white relations.
So how did their collaboration work?
Hunt did not take down material by dictation, but rather listened to the rendition and then went home and reconstructed – and thus re-entextualized – the discourse; after he had written the text in its entirety in Kwakw’ala, he added English interlineations. As he rephrased the materials in the written version, Hunt wrote in what Berman (1996) refers to as “an authentic Kwakwaka’wakw speech style formerly used in the myth recitations,” even when his consultants are likely to have used less archaic styles. Hunt attempted to locate and document speech styles that he deemed to be particularly traditional and authentic; regarding some of his texts on cooking, Hunt wrote Boas: “These will show you the oldest way of speaking.”
One of the implications of this is that Hunt, as the “native informant” allowed Boas to sub-contract and legitimate the work of re-entextualization, effectively brushing the dirty work associated with creating these texts under the carpet. So while Bauman and Briggs want to give “credit where credit is due” and praise Boas for sharing authorship with Hunt on the title page (see the image at the start of this post), they have reservations about how Hunt’s authorship was framed.
The voice that Boas sought to authorize, however, was not that of George Hunt qua individual, not in terms of the particular features of his complex, hybrid social position. Rather, Boas downplayed Hunt’s background, including his multiracial ancestry in characterizing Hunt as speaking “Kwakiutl as his native language.”
Boas needed Hunt to give scientific authority to his texts, but in order to construct that authority he had to downplay the true hybridity of Hunt’s background.
Foregrounding the cultural and historical complexity of the texts and the circumstances surrounding their production would have challenged the way that Boas was constructing their authority – as a voice that could speak for “Kwakiutl customs” in their entirety… By giving the impression that members of Kwakwaka’wakw communities spoke no English, Boas greatly increased the monologicality and monoglossia of the texts and removed another sort of important evidence with respect to their rootedness in colonial contexts.
So, while Boas deserves credit for granting Hunt co-authorship, we can still question the manner in which he did it and even his motivations. None of this is to play a game of “gotcha” with Boas, but to get us to think critically about our own practices of entextualization and our own contemporary mechanisms of granting ourselves anthropolgical authority.