Perhaps the same thing could be said of anthropologists in the writer’s den that Rousseau says of empiricists: “Let us therefore begin’, he says ‘by putting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on the question’  ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau



Clifford’s concern, above all, is the fact of ethnographic fiction – the partiality of ethnographic renderings which never produce more than kaleidoscopic vistas that prove always impossible to re-produce or trans-late into the written text. Ethnography is eminently interpretative, and as such, always thoroughly political. He sums up this sentiment with a coined term; "Cultural poesis”, which, fueled by politics, “is the constant reconstitution of selves and others through specific exclusions, conventions, and discursive practices" (Clifford Writing Culture 24). A greater sensitivity to the effects of cultural poetics comes to the fore in the so-called ‘crisis of representation’ of the 80s and it is through and in the wake of these writers that we arrive at the rather obvious, but for that no less remarkable, realization that ethnography is in the end about writing. And that given this, making a case for the anthropologist who writes poorly is not unlike backing a poet lacking in the department of imagery and style.  “Style in philosophy is the movement of concepts” (Deleuze Negotiations 140). Anthropology is now—self-consciously--a rhetorical field. It is a discipline presupposing persuasiveness and the admitting to the failure of grand theory.  What has come to fill the void is poetics and politics which together function not as anything so lofty as gravity, but more like little magnets, or solenoids (cylinders of coiled wire which become magnetic when a current is sent through them). Little nodules that attract, and always in more directions than one – multiple and invisible force fields whose configurations necessarily open up room for interpretation. Truth, Clifford tells us, like with our little solenoids, is portable, or to follow Clifford following Nietzsche, “mobile” -- 'a mobile army of metaphors, metomyms , and anthropomorphisms” (Kaufmann 1954:46). 


This thing we have called ‘culture’ in the ethnographic past has allowed us to wipe out the specifics, to erase the particulars. It threatens the heterogeneity of lived experience and assumes a normative baseline.  Clifford shows us that ‘culture’ is not an object ‘out there’ but rather is ink smeared scrupulously across white pages.—i.e., it comes into focus only when we make ‘it’ into a discursive object. This ink is no mere ink. It is imbued with poltical significance. Seeing ethnography as a powerful scientific and literary genre (30), Clifford examines experiential, interpretive, dialogical, and polyphonic strategies of writing ethnography by "Trac[ing] the formation and breakup of ethnographic authority in the twentieth century" (22), grounding his analysis in 1) participant observation (and the scientific collection of data) and 2) textual practices and given the insights of post-colonialist discourses (i.e. representation is constituted in relations of dominance and dialogue).  He asks—and one can’t help but wonder whether this line of questioning survives his own critique of representation— “how alien groups might be represented in wasy reflecting non-exclusionary heteroglossia (bold added, 23)? Is the ethnographic authority, he ponders provocatively, already being challenged by 'the scratching of other pens" (26)?  How can anthropologists self-consciously avoid treating 'others' in abstract, ahistorical ways? 


Clifford finds some degree of solace—or is it just diversion?—in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin, speaking of heteroglossia (the inherent diversity of unofficial forms within a particular national language) tells us that:


"all  utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically  impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is as close a conceptualization as is possible of that locus where centripetal and centrifugal forces  collide; as such, it is that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress" "Discourse in the Novel" 428).


Clifford claims that “Ethnography is invaded by heteroglossia” (Clifford 1988:51).  I can’t help but wonder at both Clifford and Bakhtin’s faith in the revolutionary potential of heteroglossia. Is a Dickensian attention to multiple voices really adequate to addressing our crisis? Firstly, I can hardly accept that the ethnographer, regardless of how many quotes he peppers his text with, or if he puts his informant’s name on the cover of his book, is truly making any change in representational conventions – surely his coauthor couldn’t come asking his university for tenure—.  Secondly, Clifford and the other authors are endorsing (as well as charting) with this heteroglossic orientation, a move away from representational ethnography. But does adding more voices to the pot do more to aid a push against ‘representation’ than, say, a challenging writing style?


I wonder if the ‘graphic’ in ethno-graphic from the get go assumes a privileging of image over idea, representation over affect? Another idea of Bakhtin’s notions that Clifford might have availed himself of, and which strikes me as more ‘almost portable’ than heteroglossia is that of 'exhibiting' (Bakhtin 299), or throwing to the fore things which the author himself doesn’t understand.  This seems a thoroughly non-representative way of proceeding in ethnographic writing, and despite even Bakhtin himself, gives a slight edge to the modernist poet over the novelist for whom the very notion of grammar and coherence against whom it, more often then not, works negatively– who, for example really bothers reading Joyce?  So what remains for ethnography? For me, I hope to treat ethnography, both as a reader and writer as a Wittgensteinian ladder to be kicked away, or forgotten, after ascending. The narrative is a reservoir, a tool kit, a box of meanings, intellectual equipment for living.  It is not that we ought to relate or sympathize with ethnographic ‘characters’, their actions, their situations that appear in our narratives, and only that we can transform them into our raw materials just long enough to absorb them and then forget their origin.  Texts, I think, should yield many reads and readings, and these readings should be transformative . Anthropology for me is not a tool. It is not a set of questions.  It is a project of devising ways of asking questions about asking questions.  Not of relations between individuals or amongst groups, but relations between relations, differences between differences.


ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture