Week 8: Tables Traveling Inwards (Julia)

The anthropologists we read for this week have a very different relationship with the order of things than those that we have been reading up until this point. I felt that these author’s brought us back to the place where we began: the operating table, in the sense that they seemed to exist on the same table, the same grid, as Foucault. The focus in this week’s readings was not to recognize the prime imperative of the anthropologist as the cultural agent responsible for finding the inner laws, for prying open the hidden source of truth that holds the innate order of a person, a species, a culture, a society, the universe. With these anthropologist, no longer is life percieved as intrinsically modeled upon some kind of ethereal blueprint template through which this thing called human relations was built. Rather human relations is enacted through the real-time discursive formations that constitute the ever shifting nature of cultural life. Accordingly, the writers of this week reorient the role of the anthropologist as primarily dedicated to denaturalizing the inherent naturalness attributed to structure and order. As Douglas states in reference to dirtiness and cleanliness, “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose a system on an inherently untidy experience”. Hence, “it is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, about and below, male and female, with an against, that a semblance of order is created” (3). Thus, our processes of categorization that structures the seemingly natural order of things is only achieved through cultivating and hyperbolizing the difference between two entities constructed as oppositional. To Douglas, order becomes a matter of contrived difference and similitude rather than a source of authenticity.

Geertz also reconfigures the positionality of “structure” and order in  his piece, “Thick Description: Towards and Interpretive Theory of Culture”. Even the title, which explicitly indicates a direction towards a theory of culture via interpretation, gestures to a profound reorientation of not only the possibilities of anthropology, but the possibilities of culture itself.  Whereas Spencer, Tylor, Morgan, and so many others we have read seemed to think that the science of anthropology was in some serious way committed to wrenching out the secret truth of existence that lay buried somewhere deep and obscure – as if they were mining for gold – this week, Geertz and co. locate the quest of the anthropologist to identifying the various ways that structure is structured. Accordingly, the job of the anthropologist is to engage in an analysis that sorts out “the structures of signification” (9). And, as Clifford elucidates, the qualities which define an ethnographer belong to her ability to not only learn languages, and participate in direct involvement and conversation but to be able to de-arrange “personal and cultural expectations” (119). The question now turns to one of: which structures are perceived as natural law? What are the social and ethical reasons/implications for why certain objects are perceived as natural? Moreover, the struggle of the ethnographer becomes not only how to turn “unruly experience” into an “authoritiative written account”, but also becomes how to faithfully write an interprative account of a cross cultural encounter “shot through with power relations” (120).

Hence, the anthropologist first must be aware, be able to identify, all the element of society that are taken to be essential and true. Second, the anthropologist must be able to denaturalize, defamiiarize, and make strange this truth. Third, the anthropologist must be able to take herself into account in each aspect of her ethnography. No longer is that coveted objective distance of the ethnographer as wholly isolated from her “subjects” considered morally, ethically, and scholarly acceptable. The anthropologists of this week demonstrate how political and cultural change raised all sorts of concerns about ethics and power relations. These concerns compelled the discipline to tork in dramatic and important ways. Most notably to me is the fact that the anthropologist could no longer get away with studying her subjects without also studying herself. Thus, ethnography opened up into a discipline that rigorously entailed that the writer go inside herself, examining her own ways of being as she would her subjects of study. As extensively discussed in Clifford’s piece, this moving inward of the anthropologist lent to significant discussions relating to writing practices as the primary methodology for creating an ethnographic text. As Clifford explicates, part and parcel of this meant identifying and investigating a connection between fiction and science (fiction as science?) in ethnographic work.

This general move to examine one’s writing practices and methodology lead to a prioritization of reflexiveness in which the anthropologist was to be accountable for her restrictions. For instance, Douglas asks: “How can he turn round upon his own thought-process and contemplate its limitations?” (6). Hence, the subject of this week’s texts –  instead of being the Kula, the neurotic, the “primitive”, the social organism – was the anthropologist herself and the complex concoction of limitations and abilities in which her thoughts stir. This focus on the anthropologist gave me so much more food for thought about what this figure,in all of its dynamic, fraught meanings, may actually be. As such, I found myself asking: What is this figure we refer to as the anthropologist? And what are the meanings embodied by the ethnohrapher? What kinds of written practices constitute her ethnographic texts? What kinds of rituals constitute the anthropologists notion of ethnographic knowledge? What kinds of relationships to language, observation and cultures is the anthropologist supposed to have? As Clifford explicates, the anthropologist ideally is she who comprehends the heteroglossic thickness of reality which means participating in the processual, often uncomfortable self-conscious struggle of examining and interpreting a cultural text, while being acutely aware of, and sometimes working against the grain of, one’s own experiences, affectations, and preconceptions.

I would now like to spend some time examining Clifford’s statement, “The predominant mode of modern fieldwork authority is signalled” ‘You are there, because I was there’” (118). I feel that in this sentence belongs an incredibly, almost impermeable thickness.  What can this mean, “you are there, because I was there”? What immediately comes to mind is the colonialist notion that the anthropologist’s visit actually brings his destination culture into existence. In one way this articulates the mores of colonialization in which The Other’s history only begins at the point of encounter with the colonizers. In another sense, this statement reminds me of Kelly’s incredible incorporation of Hacking’s concept of ‘making up people’. Hence, the eastern  “primitive” and “savage” were made when the anthropologist went there. Thus, how have anthropologists created subjects through encountering them? Futhermore, the distance placed between the “you” and the “I” in contrast with the “there” encapsulates the notion of travel, encapsulates this wide gulf that exists between the anthropologist and the subject. In saying this, I feel that this statement holds more than I am currently capable of explicating, but it is something that I cannot get out of my head and will no doubt return to as this course goes on.

To wrap up, what happened this week could be primarily encapsulated as the entrance of the form of anthropology devoted to making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I also think there is something going on here in terms of the anthropologist enacting some kind of cognitive estrangement. I think cognitive estrangement might be a useful way to examine the way that the anthropologist makes oneself alien while perceiving their own culture and their own values in The Other. In any case, what this cognitive estrangement, or making the strange familiar and the familiar strange does is entirely reconfigure the legacy of anthropology and travel as physical distance is no longer necessary within this paradigm. There is no longer any imperative need to physically travel to search out another. What is foremost necessary is traveling inside oneself (ones culture) to find the alien. The anthropologist turns inward, her research subject becomes herself. But in this paradigm, the self is the other.

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