The Jared Diamond wars have begun to flare up again. Of particular interest is this recent exchange between Timothy Burke and Fred Errington and Deborah Gewertz at Savage Minds. Tim objects that Errington and Gewertz’s critique of Diamond is itself guilty of that which it condemns.
the desire to know the non-Western Other as it is presumed to know itself is just as native to the “educated haves” as they claim the desire for Diamond’s presentation is. It is just as much as a presentation sought for its aesthetic and political satisfactions, for its instructions of humility and self-abjection, just as much a retrospective metanarrative of modern history and a prospective reordering of the future. But Errington and Gewertz want to fault Diamond for merely performing those functions, for being expressive of “the West” and appropriating Yali to satisfy audiences in the West. On that point alone, their interpretations are indistinguishable from his.
Errington and Gewertz’s reply seems to me to be a non-response; it doesn’t even start to come to grips with Tim’s criticisms. As I understand him, Tim is asking why a perfectly straightforward and reasonable disagreement over the respective merits and problems of structuralist and context-driven approaches is getting obfuscated by a whole lot of irrelevant epistemological handwaving to the authentic experience of the ‘other.’ He’s not getting an answer. I and others were similarly frustrated in the previous rounds of this debate by the continued failure of Diamond’s anthropologist critics to explain precisely why certain kinds of reasoning were inherently quasi-racist. Why these peculiar silences and incoherencies? Foucault might have some interesting things to say, and indeed there’s a very interesting and provocative article* by noted Foucauldian scholar Paul Rabinow, who deploys Bourdieu (himself no mean anthropologist) to investigate the particular conditions that produce this kind of incoherency, and most particularly the brand of cultural anthropology pioneered by James Clifford, which claims to faithfully represent the voice of the other through polyphonic and dialogic means. Edited highlights below.
A variety of important writing in the past decade has explored the historical relations between world macropolitics and anthropology … we also now know a great deal about the relations of power and discourse between the anthropologist and the people with whom he/she works … I have claimed, however, that [Clifford’s] approach contains an interesting blind spot, a refusal of self-reflection … In my opinion, the stakes in recent debates about writing are not directly political in the conventional sense of the term. I have argued elsewhere that what politics is involved is academic politics, and that this level of politics has not been explored … Bourdieu’s work would lead us to suspect that contemporary academic proclamations of anti-colonialism, while admirable, are not the whole story. These proclamations must be seen as political moves within the academic community … One is led to consider the politics of interpretation in the academy today. Asking whether longer, dispersive, multi-authored texts would yield tenure would seem petty. But those are the dimensions of power relations to which Nietzsche exhorted us to be scrupulously attentive. There can be no doubt of the existence and influence of this kind of power relation in the production of texts. We owe these less glamorous, if more immediately constraining, conditions more attention. The taboo against specifying them is much greater than the strictures against denouncing colonialism; an anthropology of anthropology would include them. Just as there was formerly a discursive knot preventing discussion of exactly those fieldwork practices that defined the authority of the anthropologist, which has now been untied, so, too, the micropractices of the academy might well do with some scrutiny. … Those domains that cannot be analyzed or refuted, and yet are directly central to hierarchy, should not be regarded as innocent or irrelevant. We know that one of the most common tactics of an elite group is to refuse to discuss – to label as vulgar or uninteresting – issues that are uncomfortable to them. … My wager is that looking at the conditions under which people are hired, given tenure, published, awarded grants, and feted would repay the effort. how has the “deconstructionist” wave differed from the other major trend in the academy in the past decade – feminism? How are careers made now? How are careers destroyed now? What are the boundaries of taste? Who established and who enforces these civilties? Whatever else we know, we certainly know that the material conditions under which the textual movement has flourished must include the university, its micropolitics, its trends.
Now as Rabinow emphasizes, attention to the conditions under which scholarship is produced doesn’t invalidate that scholarship as such; it merely situates it. The fact that cultural anthropologists, like the rest of us, are looking for tenure, disciplinary recognition etc, doesn’t mean that cultural anthropology isn’t worthwhile. It does, however, raise the suspicion that when some cultural anthropologists claim, without much in the way of defensible argument or facts to back them up, that other forms of understanding are inherently racist or are worthless ideological products of Western condescension, we shouldn’t necessarily take these claims at face value. Academic disciplines, in order to maintain and extend their boundaries, make certain claims that tend to dissolve into incoherence when they’re looked at too closely. I strongly suspect that the “Diamond=racist” claim is a more-or-less pure exercise in boundary maintenance – I certainly haven’t seen any substantial counter-evidence to date. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a real, substantive argument to be had between different ways of knowing, or that there aren’t advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s. But as Tim says, as long as we obfuscate the actual issues at stake behind an ink-cloud of quack epistemology and vague claims of racism, we’re not going to have that debate.
Update: In drafting this post, I wasn’t nearly clear enough in distinguishing my disagreement with Errington and Gewertz from my earlier disagreement with “Ozma.” When I talk about accusations of racism, I’m talking about the latter. Errington and Gewertz are making a different claim, which still seems to me to be wrong-headed, and to have a strong flavour of the internal academic politics that Rabinow is problematizing here, but it’s not the same thing.
*Paul Rabinow, “Representations are Social Facts: Modernity and Post-Modernity in Anthropology”
in James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, University of California Press 1986.