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Criticism and Culture : Theory and post-colonial claims on anthropological disciplinarity


David Scott Critique of Anthropology 1992 12: 371 DOI: 10.1177/0308275X9201200401 The online version of this article can be found at: http://coa.sagepub.com/content/12/4/371

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Criticism and Culture


Theory and post-colonial claims on anthropological disciplinarity
David Scott

University of Chicago, Illinois


Relativism is the bad faith of the conqueror, who has become secure enough to become a tourist.

Stanley Diamond
I. Culture between insight and blindness
a few years ago, that anthropological or, if you like, metaanthropological text, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986),2 appeared, something new and refreshing seemed to have become suddenly visible on the horizon of our discipline. For there seemed in this text, about it, if not the promise of a thorough-going reconstitution of the whole anthropological project itself, then at least an anticipatory undertone of rumour in which we discerned the outline of an unprecedented rethinking of it. Its atmosphere was postmodernist in that now easily recognizable sense of the radical undoing of the legitimating

When,

narratives of masterful

meaning,3

those narratives which, from the

Enlightenment to Weber, have sought to inscribe the world within the telos of the West. Too, its accent was deliberately theoretical in that specifically post-structuralist sense recently assigned to the word theory. It insisted on an explicit and rigorous attention to the languages of the representation of culture; it argued the partiality and partialness of points of view; it asserted the contingency of cultural vocabularies and conceptual schemes, the made-up character of cultural selves and histories.4 Now whether you read this turn in anthropologys career as the triumph of culture (i.e. as the historical moment of heterogeneity and difference), or as the end of it (i.e. as the collapse or disappearance of identifiable and homogeneously bounded spaces), or again somehow as both, simultaneously, depends of course on your attitude to modernity, to its sources
Critique of Anthropology © 371 Delhi), Vol. 12(4): 371-394.
1992

(SAGE, London, Newbury

Park and New

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of legitimation and its privileged representations. But that detail aside, what is to be noted here is that in all the inflation of anthropological discourse about culture that now circulates there appeared a small and highly curious oversight: an inattention to itself as history. Curious, I say, because anthropology has surely had other occasions of renewal, other, so to put it, Kuhnian occasions, when one conceptual vocabulary of difference was overturned, displaced, by another. Consider only the most obvious instance: the anthropology, and with it, the anthropological moment, of Franz Boas. Surely Boass redescription of anthropology between, say, roughly 1887 and 19045 - his (ironists?) unmasking of the (master) vocabulary of race and initiation of the (decentering) vocabulary of culture (in that usage which, up until yesterday at least, was still contemporary) - must count not only for as much of a rupture as any in the history of anthropology, but one with striking political and sociological similarities to this recent turn.6 Therefore the question that needed to be asked, and wasnt, was whether this turn was adequately thinking itself historically. That is to say: at the same time that it announced to us the refreshing news of the contingency of its object, culture, was it adequately thinking the contingency of the historical and discursive space of its own insight? What, to use a now familiar Foucaultian formulation, were/are the conditions - conceptual and political - of its own possibility? Several critics have by now expressed misgivings about the assumptions of anthropologys new turn. One among them, Jonathan Friedman (1987a, 1987b), may serve to orient us. In what I think are two very timely essays (both for their polemical tone as well as the general thrust of their conceptual complaint), Friedman has criticized what he quite nicely characterizes as the recent spectacularization of anthropology. Noting the inflation of a sort of throw-away concept of difference in this anthropology, for instance, Friedman argues that it serves to occlude the fact that the ethnographic enterprise is typically constructed out of (and does itself typically construct, one might add) a specific kind of difference one bound up with the hierarchical relation characteristic of the world system implying the necessary silence of the other for whom we speak (1987a: 164). One need not then follow Friedman in making a plea for some sort of global anthropology in which the anthropologist will occupy a privileged objectivity to appreciate the importance of this recognition that the relations of difference inscribed in the discourse of culture are relations of power. In Friedmans view, moreover, the culturalism that is today so pervasive in anthropological discourse, is to be linked to a specific form of sociality in advanced capitalist social formations - a sociality characterized by what he calls the dissolution of modernist identity
-

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(1987a). Again, I dont conception of history or

think it is necessary to endorse entirely the civilization to which Friedman subscribes to underline his insistence that forms of anthropological discourse (as indeed forms of any discourse, including those anthropologists study) have determinate historical conditions. In short, then, the value of Friedmans intervention is that he at least highlights the importance of continuously recalling anthropology both to its own history (i.e. as discourse founded in particular kinds of relations of power), and to the specific contemporary historical conditions that establish the institutional and discursive space of its thematic and theoretical formulations.
* * *

of my remarks in this paper I want to engage this contemporary anthropological inflation of culture and to do so from the side of a post-colonial (or anyway one post-colonials) skepticism. This I might say is a skepticism whose primary area of focus (and of doubt) has to do with relations of power and knowledge between the West and its Others or, more precisely, with the kinds of knowledge-claims made by the West about its Others. If (once-upon-a-time) such knowledge-claims have often been pronounced in the name of a singular and epistemologically superior Reason, it has been one aim of recent postmodernist criticism to dispute this. Culture, the domain of the local, has emerged (one should strictly speaking say re-emerged) as the conceptual site of the unravelling of the master narrative of Reason.9 But I want to suggest that there are good grounds to doubt that what has been unravelled is really the Wests assumption of epistemological privilege. I do not want to give the impression though of a hostility towards the recent turn in anthropology, with its celebrated accent on theory. I too want to acknowledge its insight, and, if I can, help to problematize the profoundly destabilized character of the conceptual field in which we write, that is in which we produce and circulate our descriptions of others, still, for the most part, non-western others. Such as it is my post-colonial skepticism is no less within theory, no less between disciplines.&dquo; But I do want, at the same time (and for reasons that I try to spell out below), to reflect upon a certain blindness that seems to me to accompany this insight, and which may, on one reading of it anyway, be its very condition. I wish to offer one or two doubts about the postmodernist beyond that governs for instance the allure in the title of Bernard McGranes noteworthy book, Beyond Anthropology (1989). And again, not because I think that nothing significant has changed in the conceptual and ideological conditions of possibility of thought about culture, but rather because I am

In the

course

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not convinced

sophisticated vocabulary (contingency, heterogeneity, dialogue, power, and so on), and a remarkable roster of names (among them Bakhtin, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty),&dquo; anthropology has resolved the theoretical dilemmas that afflict it. It seems
a

that having introduced

to me that there

are

urgent issues still

at stake

here, issues that these

conceptual and ideological conditions at once highlight and obscure. And these issues turn, it seems to me, on the complex relation between power, history and knowledge.
What I wish to suggest in this paper are some of the ways in which, in the postmodernity of theory and de-disciplinization, and, what is more, in their name, power (the power of the West more specifically) continues to speak authoritatively even as it appears to censure itself. I proceed along two related axes, both of them turning on contemporary claims about culture : the first, theorys claims; the second, relativisms. The overall thrust of my argument is to make a case for limits to anthropological claims. If, as I think is undeniably so, the disciplinary horizon we inhabit is one structured not so much by the epistemological experiments we try out but by the historical relations between the West and its Others, I will also advocate an anthropological criticism that seeks precisely to keep the various levels of this relation in view.

I/.

Theorys culture As I have suggested, one of the things that most distinctively characterizes this postmodernist turn in anthropology is its affiliation with theory. But
what is theory? What is its labour? For after all, it wasnt post-structuralism that invented theoretical practice. By theory (at least what I have been able to make of it) is meant that diverse combination of textual or

interpretive (or reading) strategies - among them, deconstruction, feminism, genealogy, psychoanalysis, post-marxism - that, from about the
early 1970s or so had initiated a challenge to the protocols of a general hermeneutics; the idea of a critical practice that could claim to govern, guide or otherwise interpret other practice from a place outside or beyond it (i.e. theory too, but the strong sense of it, and generally associated with the names of Critical Theory and Structuralism). Theory, in this sense, offered itself as de-disciplinary, as in fact anti-disciplinary, the virtual undoer of disciplinary self-identities. It offered itself as a mobile and nomadic field of critical operations without a proper name, and therefore without a distinctive domain of objects. Indeed what theory went after was precisely the assumption (common to the disciplines and their rage for method) of the authentic self-authoring

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presence of things, of histories, of cultures, of selves, the assumption of stable essences, in short, that could be made to speak themselves once and for all through the transparency of an unequivocal and analytical language. On theorys account there could be no final description, no end to re-description, no ultimate perspective which could terminate once and for all the possibility of another word on the matter. But what must have seemed curious (if not alarming) to anthropologists keeping a watchful eye on these sorts of developments in the humanities and social sciences (or at least what should have seemed curious, if not alarming, to us), is that no sooner had theory arrived, no sooner had it announced itself on the borders of literary studies, and in the process surrounded itself with all the controversy befitting an undocumented traveller,&dquo; than it was appropriating that very object-terrain, culture, over which anthropology (American cultural anthropology at any rate) had long claimed a special and indeed a privileged disciplinary competence. Or perhaps more accurately, endeavouring - as part of that resistance to itself to which Paul de Man has famously referred13 - to become more worldly, less textual,14 endeavouring to lodge itself now in a more historical/ideological form of inquiry, theory (one wing of it anyway), found in the figure of culture the possibility of an affiliation. Cultural poetics, cultural politics, cultural criticism, cultural studies these are now the names of theorys culture. Not that some of us anthropologists werent soon enough receptive, however. Indeed it was already evident that the appropriation was running both ways: anthropologys culture was simultaneously seeking theory, or at least seeking a theoretically sophisticated textuality (see Marcus and Cushman, 1982). One axial theme the postmodernist anthropologists propose is that cultures are mobile, unbounded, conjunctural and open-ended.15 In contrast to the textual practice of an older anthropology (those of the school of British structural functionalism in particular, but also those of the postwar American cultural materialists schooled with Julian Steward), where cultures were represented as though they were timeless, historyless, spatially immobile, unmixed, it is argued that one now has to speak of the betweenness of cultures, the displacement, the overlapping, the hybridity of cultural experience. I do not entirely disagree. By this I mean that I can readily agree that in yesterdays traditional realist ethnographies there was an unproblematized representation of culture as static, and the rest. And yet I think that this recognizably anti-essentialist characterization of culture as mobile, as unbounded, as hybrid, and so on, is itself open to the question: for whom is culture unbounded - the anthropologist or the native? Is it in other

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words, for (western) theory or for the (local) discourse with which theory is

endeavouring to engage, to inquire upon? And note that my questions here are not the more familiar ones about the supposed objectivity (or lack of it) of the anthropologists point of view as against that of the native (the old debate about rationality and relativism). Rather what I am trying to
suggest is that the boundedness or otherwise of what is called culture is something that gets established in kinds of discourse (more specifically, in
what Talal Asad usefully calls kinds of authoritative discourse),16 of which western theory is itself one, and the natives discourse another. Obviously neither boundedness nor its absence is given in the world: neither in the world of the anthropologist nor in that of the native. To say a priori that cultures are not bounded therefore is misleading since local discourses do, in fact, establish authoritative traditions, discrete temporal and spatial parameters in which it is made singularly clear to cultural subjects and their others what is (and who are) to belong within these parameters, and what (and who), not. Surely part of the unhappy dispute between the Sinhalas and Tamils in contemporary Sri Lanka, for example (to mention only that instance most pertinent to some of my own recent work&dquo;), has to do precisely with the question of how the boundary of Sinhala culture and the boundary of Tamil culture gets authoritatively established and hegemonically maintained. In short, the important issue here is not the ontological one of whether the being of culture is bounded or not, or the epistemological question of how we know that this is the case, but the political one of how and in what kinds of material circumstances, through what kinds of discursive and non-discursive relations, claims about the presence or absence of boundaries are made, fought out, yielded,

negotiated.
I wish to suggest that this currently prevalent idea - the idea that cultures bounded but hybrid, moving rather than static - is part of the contemporary presumption of theory. I shall call theorys presumption its unproblematized self-arrogation of an unmarked place from which it claims to formulate a priori conceptions of what culture is or is not. What I am trying to call attention to here is simply that this is, if anyones, theorys claim; and if for theory culture is unbounded, what is necessary is that theory ask itself why this should be so, why, in these historical and ideological conditions (those of postmodernism suppose we say), it, theory, should produce the thought that this is what culture indeed is. This I take to be the first responsibility of an anthropological criticism: the interrogation of the space of its own theoretical procedures. But what is it, we might be moved to ask, that makes it possible for theory, this radical self-consciousness, to commit this presumption? Part of
are not

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the reason, I think, has to do with its inadequately thought-out complicity with power. And this complicity, I suggest, works itself out in the pervasive assumption that theory performs a labour that other narratives (or, if you like, the narratives of others) do not and cannot - as though theory were not itself one narrative among many, or rather, the first among many, and that at least in good part because it is the narrative that has authored (and authorized) the hegemonic career of the West. Not that theory has always forgotten this, by the way. Indeed it is arguable that it is part of theorys merit that it facilitates just such a grasp of its own ruses. In an instructive moment in an interview some years ago with Richard Kearney, Derrida (1984: 115) made the point (one that should, perhaps, have been unnecessary) that Logocentrism, in its developed philosophical sense, is inextricably linked to the Greek and European tradition. And he went on to say:
and society requires an internal critique or deconstruction as essential part of its development. A priori, we can presume that non-European cultures operate some sort of auto-critique of their own linguistic concepts and foundational institutions. Every culture needs an element of self-interrogation, and of distance from itself, if it is to transform itself. (Derrida,1984: 116)

Every culture
an

Note though that if, as Derrida is suggesting in this passage, theory, as we now think of it, is specifically the auto-critique of a western tradition, this is not the same as saying (to return for a moment to my Sri Lanka example), that theory has no business attending to the rhetoric of nationalism and the legitimation of violence on the part of Sinhalas and Tamils. To the contrary, I think that it does - and not least of all for those of us, post-colonials, whose conditions of life and thought are such that we cannot now not speak in the languages of the West, in (if simultaneously against) its concepts and its imaginary. What I am suggesting, however, is that theory (or anthropology if you like) will inevitably fail to produce anything but the more or less sophisticated image of some aspect or other of its own tradition as long as it fails to understand its encounter with Sri Lanka as the encounter of one historically constituted tradition with another. I dont think that Im being controversial here. I am only reiterating, across the register of culture, the kind of critical reflection to which Raymond Geuss refers when he writes, in his instructive little book

The Idea of

a Critical Theory:

A full-scale social theory ... will form part of its own object-domain. That is, a social theory is a theory about (among other things) agents beliefs about their society, but it is itself such a belief. So if a theory of society is to give an

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exhaustive account of the beliefs agents in the society have, it will have give an account of itself as one such belief. (Geuss, 1981 : 56)

to

This is

precisely the responsibility of an anthropological criticism. I am arguing that (anthropological) theory must first work out and make explicit to itself, to its questions, to the formation of its object, its own history, its own circumstances and institutions, its own tradition; and needless to say this (internal) relation is not a fixed but an historically altering one. It is, then, in relation to this critical internal dialogue, this moment when the ideological content of its conceptual apparatus is open to itself (and others), that a fruitful, by which I mean less hegemonic, less presumptive, dialogue can be conducted with the narratives and auto-critiques of the
traditions of others. To sum up what I have been saying so far about the relation between theory and culture I could put the matter in the form of the following question: if, as is now generally asserted, the new discourse of culture, theorys, occupies the space left vacant by the disappearance of the sovereign subject of Western Reason, how is it that this absence can itself appear ideologically conditionless? Or again: what are the conditions of theorys claims? For surely what is curious about anthropologys theory is that its very valid criticism of the old anthropology for atheoretical naivete, for an objective realism that presupposes the possibility of transparently representing the unchanging essence of anothers culture, is not accompanied by a self-consciousness that simultaneously maps the place from which its own avant-garde and anti-essentialist18 claims are being offered. No wonder then that its pronouncements summon the suspicions of critics who point out the paradox that the moment when the countermemories of the people without history appear (in the various forms of minority discourse, feminist discourse, post-colonial discourse) to challenge the voice of this sovereign subject it is suddenly claimed that the very ground of that argument is no longer valid, that in fact there is no ground, properly speaking, for argument.

Ill. Relativismss culture


I believe I can, and perhaps more pointedly, illustrate the kind of predicament which I am concerned to explore - the link between relativism and power suggested in my epigraph, the uncanny ability of power to erase its own signature, the inclination of theory to efface its complicities in the very moment of authorization - by focusing for a bit on two contemporary American (or, I should say, US) thinkers, one an anthropologist, the other

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a philosopher, whose work is widely considered to be of the first importance in the current de-disciplinization of the humanities and social sciences: Clifford Geertz and Richard Rorty. Few other US thinkers in recent decades, it seems to me, have had the kind of simultaneous cross-disciplinary impact of these two (Margaret Mead and John Dewey are probably the last such couple, and the parallels are, if you think about them, striking indeed). Clifford Geertz, after all, is now the philosophers anthropologist, their native informant, occupying the place once reserved for E. E. Evans-Prichard,19 and Richard Rorty, even more than the later Wittgenstein, is today the anthropologists philosopher, the person who, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1978), retold the story of philosophy to sound like little more than the local knowledge of western

culture.20
Now neither Geertz nor Rorty, it is true, has a very straightforward relationship to what has been called theory. In many respects they appear to eschew it, or at any rate to treat it with a good deal of suspicion .2 They have, of course, and each in his own way, paid homage to one or another recently influential French theorist - Geertz to Paul Ricoeur, and Rorty to Jacques Derrida.22 But they have perhaps been far more concerned to situate themselves in (and by so doing have helped to celebrate, or at least foreground) a more native grain, and to do so by speaking explicitly from within a distinctly Anglo-American, neopragmatist tradition .21 Thus Geertz memorializes Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Rorty nowadays is almost never not-invoking the name John Dewey.24 Geertz and Rorty are both, in Giles Gunns very appropriate phrase, citizens of the new world of revisionary American liberalism (1990: 91). Nevertheless their shared anti-foundationalism, their affiliation with ironism, with the idea of the contingency of the self and of history,&dquo; have made them, if not exactly card-carrying partisans, then at least fellow-travellers of theory. I suggest, therefore, that in these two thinkers - Clifford Geertz and Richard Rorty - you can discern, in a form particularly relevant to a discussion of the cultural/political topos of US intellectual life, the double movement of theory and culture: anthropology (the science of culture) becoming epistemologically sophisticated; and philosophy (the science of theory),

culturally aware.
two postmodern protagonists of contininstructive for gency particularly my purposes here is that they have both the of directly engaged problem the justification of values, of justice, fairness, and rights, that whole problem which, when traversed by the concept of culture, summons up the contentious debate between relativism and ethnocentrism. Once the idea of the constructed and

Moreover, what makes these

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therefore relative character of forms of life, conceptual schemes, moral systems, and so on, gained the sort of general acceptance it has in postmodern society, what next appears is that there is more than one way, perhaps even rival ways, in which to employ it: one might be inclined to see the appreciation of diversity, other values, other selves, as dialectically related to self understanding itself (Geertz), or, on the other hand, one might see such appreciation of other forms of life as interesting, a way maybe of expanding the horizon of solidarity, but certainly not as essential for the cultivation of the self (Rorty). Geertz (1984), in a well-known article - it was the Triple-A Distinguished Lecture for 1984 - has characterized his own position in this debate as anti anti-relativism, and defined it as a concern not so much to defend relativism - which he sees as old hat anyway, not worth defending - but rather to attack anti-relativism or ethnocentrism for its misguided conceptual assumptions and its potentially pernicious political and social effects. Rorty, on the other hand, especially in his more recent social criticism, comes at things from the other end so to speak: that of anti antiethnocentrism. While he does not defend ethnocentrism as such (what liberal would?) he wants to josh the anti-ethnocentrists or relativists who think that there is any position (i.e. one which cannot in its turn be relativized) from which they can claim that every tradition is as rational or as moral as every other (1983: 589). In these terms, Geertz and Rorty appear to hold positions which are mirror inversions of each other. And perhaps this is why they have had occasion to address themselves to each other on precisely the question of relativism and ethnocentrism. I now examine this exchange briefly, arguing that far from their positions being diametrically opposed, Geertzs anti anti-relativism and Rortys anti anti-ethnocentrism are really sides of the coin of postmodem bourgeois liberalism (Rortys self-description but one to which Geertz readily assents), and are but differently inflected versions of the appealing neo-relativism and neo-ethnocentrism which, in similar ways, erase their own signature of power.
In his 1985 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, significantly titled The Uses of Diversity, Geertz (1986) set out to criticize what he perceived to be the growing atmosphere of ethnocentrism in contemporary social thought (meaning by this, it is not irrelevant to note, the social thought of western Europe and North America, not of anywhere else). Claude Ldvi-Strauss and Richard Rorty were singled out as villains, for both (one from the side of rationalism and the other from that of pragmatism) were argued to participate in what Geertz called the easy surrender to the

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comforts of merely being ourselves, cultivating deafness and maximizing gratitude for not having been bom a Vandal or an Ik (1986: 11Q-11). The trouble with ethnocentrism, Geertz went on to assert, is not that it commits us to our own commitments. We are, by definition, so committed, as we are to having our headaches. The trouble with ethnocentrism is that it impedes us from discovering at what sort of angle ... we stand to the world (1986: 112). Of course, no one familiar with Geertzs work will be very surprised (nor, I hope, very impressed) by this kind of formulation. In what non-trivial sense are we committed to our own headaches? And why cant an ethnocentric be ethnocentric not in spite of but precisely because of his notion of his angle to the world? After all, isnt this something of what Rorty wants to claim? It is, anyway, to Geertzs credit that he is alert to, and outspokenly unsympathetic towards, ethnocentrisms new edition. In the course of his lecture, and as a w of illustrating his point about this new-wave ethnocentrism, inimitably, related a story. It was called, The Case of the Drunken Indian and the Kidney Machine, and, at least as Geertz characterized it, it was a story about the contemporary state of cultural diversity and the conflict of cultural values. On the one hand there were the values of western liberal democracy: these were embodied in the figure of a government medical program, located significantly in the southwest USA but staffed by doctors from the northeast, and which, as a matter of procedural principle and policy, dispensed access to its limited supply of kidney machines on a first-come-first-serve basis. (We can already see where Geertz is headed with this.) On the other hand were the values of a non-western society, or rather a society no longer really non-western, but still not recognizably western: these were embodied in the figure of an alcoholic Native American with a grave but treatable kidney problem. These values, in Geertzs story, run headlong into each other when the Native American seeks and, luckily for him, gains access to one of the clinics scarce kidney machines. However, having so gained access to the coveted machine, the Indian refused to heed the doctors orders to stop or even reduce his excessive drinking. The rational-minded doctors (they were, after all, from the northeast), needless to say, were very upset - and bewildered too - by this. They felt that the Indian was misusing both the valuable machine and their precious time, and, moreover, was blocking the access of other equally needy people who, it might be supposed, would better understand the value of sound (and, no less important, appreciate the availability of cheap) medical advice. Their dilemma of course was that neither their own liberal sense of fairness nor their societys codified system of procedural justice would allow them to displace the Indian who, despite

Geertz,

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his unremitting drinking, was resolute and regular in attendance at the clinic.... And so the confounded situation continued for several years until at length the Indian died. The value to Geertz of this little fable (as he called it) is supposed to be that it illustrates the changed conditions under which culture presents itself (presents itself, that is to say, in western democracies). As he put it:
The point of the fable ... is that it is this sort of thing, not the distant tribe, enfolded upon itself in coherent difference (the Azande or the Ik that fascinate philosophers only slightly less than science fiction fantasies do, perhaps because they can be made into sublunary Martians and regarded accordingly) that best represents, if somewhat melodramatically, the general form that the value conflict rising out of cultural diversity takes nowa-

days. (1986: 117)


This is important, I think, because it is worth observing how in Geertzs view the problem of culture is now (as opposed to when?) thought to be closer to home. On the story entailed in this view a radical historical alteration has sometime taken place, and culture is no longer (but was it ever?) at the other end of a long trip made (as Sir Vidia Naipaul once remarked about his own peregrinations) with a return ticket. Now the seeming contemporary predicament of culture - if I might use James Cliffords (1988) expression here - has to do with the changing character of metropolitan life itself, with natives participating (permanently - if they can get that green card) in its institutions, rather than the anthropologist participating temporarily in theirs. Now it is not a matter of the anthropologist making some individual moral adjustments to life among the natives, it is a matter about whether or not the very cultural institutions of the anthropologists moral formation should adjust to accommodate the natives coming here. And not in ones and twos, but in whole communities. Let us grant that there is something to this. But when Geertz says that at each of its local points the world now looks more like a Kuwaiti bazaar than like an English Gentlemens Club (1986: 121), one is forced to ask: looks to whom? To Geertz and others looking from where he looks from or to a peddler or a merchant in a Kuwaiti bazaar?26 At any rate Geertzs take on the Case of the Indian is framed by this story about the tumed-around situation of culture and the moral dilemma it seems to create for the institutions of the liberal democratic state. This dilemma is not, Geertz says emphatically, that doctors (or western doctors more accurately) are insensitive, or that drunken Indians are adrift. Nor is it even that either one set of values or the other (doctors or Indians) or some combination or distillation of the two, should have

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prevailed. Geertzs, recall, is an anti anti-relativist position. As he puts it:


I cannot see that either more ethnocentrism [presumably the view that the Indian was ignorant or ungrateful or both], more relativism [the view that the doctors could or should have tried to be sensitive to the Indians way of looking at things], or more neutrality would have made things any better

(though more imagination might have). (1986: 117)


If there was a failure in the encounter (and the matter, he says, is difficult to decide), it was a failure to grasp, on either side, what it was to be on the other, and thus what it was to be on ones own (1986: 117). The whole thing, Geertz laments, took place in the dark. Now it is not at all clear, at least to me, just what it was that the Native American failed to grasp in this encounter with western medicine; it is not clear to me, for example, what precisely he might have gained had he been able to see things, as Geertz would have him, from the doctors point of view. But even if he had gained this hermeneutical insight into where the doctor was coming from (northeast-liberal and all that) and thus had grasped the dilemma in which he, however inadvertantly, was placing him, why does Geertz imagine that this (coupled of course with a reciprocal imagining on the part of the doctor) would have made the encounter a less dark one? Why are darkness and (at least by implied contrast) light the configuring tropes? I think that at least one reason is that Geertzs assumption here is the fairly familiar liberal pluralist one that things would be whole lot better if the Wests Others - particularly those here - would only accede to its democratic imagination, that imagination according to which the other is marked out as the path to knowledge about the self .2 But this moral nerve-pinching of Geertzs only points to the more telling problem in the anti anti-relativist argument, namely, the occlusion of any structure of forces or determinations. Geertz thinks that ethnocentrism has conspired to obscure the idea that meaning is socially constructed (1986: 112). The ethnocentrists (Levi-Strauss, Rorty, and such like them), he complains, have taken this supposedly profound idea to mean that human communities are, or should be semantic monads, nearly windowless, whereas he, Geertz, wants it to mean that the reach of our minds, the range of signs we can manage somehow to interpret, is what defines the intellectual, emotional and moral space in which we live (1986: 113). It seems to me though that if there are differences between these constructionist positions, they are differences around a single liberal-democratic problematic. Certainly they do not appear to be as profound as Geertz imagines. At my angle, so to put it, both are versions of a view that thinks that what is at stake is contingency and construction as such, rather than

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power. In other words what both conspire to occlude is that since meaning is socially constructed, and since the space of that construction, the social, is a contested one (i.e. one constituted of differential forces), what needs inquiring into is how certain meanings or, rather, certain kinds of statements, discourse, certain traditions, acquire force, become authoritative, and by so doing remake, refashion, that is to say reconstitute the possible space of other statements, discourses, traditions. The crucial point illustrated by the so-called Case of the Drunken Indian and the Kidney Machine, I think therefore, is not the banal (or moralistic) one that the doctor did not see that the Indian had come a long and blistered way to get to the clinic, but rather the more political one that the forms of life of the Indian have historically been transfigured - that is, not simply unmade by the incursion and destruction of colonial power, but actively remade by the political technology of the modem democratic state in which he has newly been installed as a free citizen.~ It is this, it seems to me, and not dragons, that needs looking into.29 But before I remark further on Geertz let me summarize Richard Rortys response to this article in his On Ethnocentrism: A Reply to Clifford Geertz (1986). Rorty, as you can imagine, disagrees with Geertzs reading of the Case, and his disagreement has precisely to do with his different, indeed more appreciative, attitude toward the modem liberaldemocratic state. On Rortys view there was little in the Case of the Drunken Indian and the Kidney Machine to get so terribly worked up about, and much in fact to positively celebrate. For as far as he could tell the case indicated that liberal institutions [are] functioning well and smoothly. The whole apparatus of the liberal democratic state, he says, an apparatus to which the press is as central as are the officers of the court, insured that once that Indian had the sense to get into the queue early, he was going to have more years in which to drink than he would otherwise have had (1986: 527). While Rorty agrees with Geertzs overall conclusion that no philosophical or foundational appeal (either of the ethnocentric kind, or of the relativist) would have helped, he does not share Geertzs conviction that more imagination (of his from-the-natives-point-of-view variety) would have improved things. For from Rortys pragmatist point of view it is perfectly reasonable that there are some kinds of relations - doctors and their patients, lawyers and their clients, teachers and their students - that do not and should not require this sort of imaginative leap to get the job at hand done. This sort of self/other hermeneutics, he thinks, manages only to get in the way of straightforward procedures. Moreover he chides Geertz for not sufficiently appreciating that it is precisely the liberal

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bourgeois culture they both share that has empowered people like himself and other agents of love (as he calls them: journalists, novelists, ethnographers), to extend the range of societys imagination so as to include otherwise unintelligible people like Native Americans as conversational partners. Were it not for such connoisseurs of diversity, he says matterof-factly, the Indian would never have made it to the clinic in the first place. At the same time, he goes on to maintain, this same liberal bourgeois culture they share also provides for another category of persons, no less indispensable, namely agents of justice, whose task it is to ensure that
that Indian gets into the queue, he will be treated like everyone else. This view, says Rorty, is an anti anti-ethnocentric one because it does not say that we are trapped within our monad or our language, but merely that the well-windowed monad we live in is no more closely linked to the nature of humanity or the demands of rationality than the relatively windowless monads which surround us (1986: 526). On Rortys view, in other words, whereas he does not deny the Indian his language game, his monad, his constructed form of life (which presumably is what he thinks would make him a bad ethnocentric), he does not feel Geertzs softhearted compulsion to make a gesture of openness toward it. He does not feel Geertzs squeamishness, guilt even, about the hard and bitter way the Indian has come. This is not because Rorty is against solidarity. On the contrary, he takes it that solidarity (the concern to expand the we is basically his definition of it) is the very best attitude a liberal can have. It is just that (as an ironist) he doesnt think that any philosophical (i.e. metaphysical) arguments can be advanced in support of it. Or to put it another way, Rorty sees solidarity as a salutary public attitude but as an unnecessary private one - nothing fundamental about ones humanity hangs on it simply because there is nothing fundamental about humanity to hang on to. At the same time, and as a corollary, he himself does not feel compelled to provide a reason, a justification, grounds for his own view that his monad is well-windowed in relation to those of others. For of course this he would say is precisely his quarrel with the wet liberals, their continuing need for foundations to secure their positions. He, for his part, merely asserts the superiority of the place he speaks from. But something is very unsatisfactory about this. After all, is ethnocentrism really just a language game? Is it simply an abstract philosophical question about the way in which we perceive the monads of others in relation to our own? Surely to understand ethnocentrism in this way is to occlude not only the concrete historical and institutional practices by means of which one monad constructs and circulates authoritative representations of the monads of others, but the ways in which one monad
once

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upon and, with varying degrees of violence, transforms the forms of life of others (call this process, for want of a better word, imperialism). If ethnocentrism is a language game (that is, a discursive formation, an internally structured network of possible utterances), it must be rather a special sort of language game; it is one embedded in historically constituted networks of power which enable it to intervene upon and, more, preempt the space of other possible language games. So that, again, what Geertzs case illustrates is not that the Native American had the good sense to choose western medicine from among a plurality of possible healing practices (language games), but that the political conditions of choosing, even desiring, any other (the practices of his own monad for example) have been utterly transformed, and precisely by the political design of the social space claimed by western medicine. The problem with Rortys argument then is little different from the problem with Geertzs - what it erases is precisely its own occupation of that space of power. We may agree here with Richard Bernstein when he writes: In the background of Rortys liberal rhetoric is his cynical conviction that what is really crucial is who has the power to enforce his final vocabulary (1990: 60).30 Or we may put it another way, and more flatly still, and say that Rortys anti-foundationalism is the ideology of a West that no longer needs philosophy to give itself a rationale or an identity it is, to paraphrase Stanley Diamond, the ideology of a conqueror now secure enough to be a tourist. The difference between Geertz and Rorty then, such as it is, should now not be too hard to see - it is the difference among postmodern bourgeois liberals between moralism and cynicism. It seems to me that as long as we concede that the terrain of the debate about relativism and ethnocentrism is really that of the construction or contingency of language games (as both Geertz and Rorty will have us do), rather than about institutionalized power and the historically constituted practices through which it works, the smug self-satisfaction of the one, or the paternal humanism of the other will seem the only options available to us. This of course is not to say that we must do away with the idea that forms of life are constructed but only that, as Talal Asad (1986: 148) has put it, that idea will appear differently depending on whether we think of abstracted understanding or of historically situated practices.

directly acts

IV. Post-co%nial claims


With this we can bring our focus back to the specifiably post-colonial locus of my skepticism about the kind of neo-relativism and neo-ethnocentrism I

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have been examining here, in order to remark, finally, on what I think it is possible and necessary to do within our discipline. In the course of a most instructive discussion of the uses of relativism in his book, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, Partha Chatterjee made the following observation:
It is not trivial to point out here that in this whole debate about the possibility of cross-cultural understanding, the scientist is always one of us: he is a Western anthropologist, modern, enlightened, and self-conscious (and it does not matter what his nationality or the colour of his skin happens to be). The objects of study are other cultures - always non-Western. No one has raised the possibility, and the accompanying problems, of a rational understanding of us by a member of the other culture - of, let us say, a Kalabari anthropology of the white man. It could be argued, of course, that when we consider the problem of relativism, we consider the relations between cultures in the abstract and it does not matter if the subject-object relation between Western and non-Western cultures is reversed: the relations would be isomorphic. But it would not: that is precisely why we do not, and probably never will, have a Kalabari anthropology of the white man. And that is why even a Kalabari anthropology of the Kalabari will adopt the same representational form, if not the same substantive conclusions, as the white mans anthropology of the Kalabari. For there is a relation of power involved in the very conception of the autonomy of cultures. (Chatterjee, 1986: 17, emphasis

added)
This is precisely what relativism masks: the fundamentally areciprocal character of the ideological structure that makes anthropology possible. The relations between cultures, between the doctor and the Indian, say, or between Kalabaris and western anthropologists, cannot be adequately understood in abstract, pluralist terms such as those employed in the exchange between Geertz and Rorty. To say this however is not to speak of the end of anthropology. Nor is it to suggest that Kalabaris should not seek to study (or study in) western or non-western cultures. It is only to bring more sharply into focus the founding ideological structure of our discipline, the ideological structure which in fact it continues to presuppose. It is to insist, moreover, that this structure can neither be wished, nor even criticized, away because its conditions are not merely the institutional ones governing the discipline (or, for that matter, governing writing) but rather the political and historical ones that continue to shape the relations between the West and its Others, and which, as a consequence, give force and authority to certain languages and descriptions.31 No one today can doubt either the radical disparity or the violent force of these relations. Anthropology obviously

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did not create these conditions; nor indeed is it the only discipline implicated in that project. (Certainly the institution of English, its contemporary exorbitation notwithstanding, has had a far more direct and longlasting impact on the lives of the formerly colonized than anthropology has had.32) Yet if anthropology cannot unhinge itself from its history, and from this ideological structure which makes it so inescapably and so unreciprocally part of the imaginary of the West, it can, nevertheless, transform the manner in which it works within it and the limits of the claims it makes. In as much as it remains a discipline, in as much as it remains a formal mode of inquiry, this I believe must be the task before us. It is a task, I think, that entails a continuous internal labour of criticism, a continuous (to adopt a phrase from Gayatri Spivak) unlearning of its privilege (see Spivak, 1985). And by this, it should be clear, I do not mean the kind of criticism that is made to operate rhetorically as a mere preface beyond which is to emerge the real inquiry, rather I mean as the inexhaustible substance of that inquiry itself. Any inquiry, in other words, into the cultural discourses and practices of peoples we study - their determinate conditions, their distinctive symbols, their varied modalities - must proceed by way of a continuous unmasking of the discursive and institutional conditions that make it possible. Because this is the only way of testing the relation between our conceptual problematics and the various registers of the wider historical structures in which they operate; of determining the ideological content of categories employed in theoretical analysis; and of evaluating the degree to which colonial problematics are being reproduced or being subverted.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
my Hoijer Lecture given at the University of 12 March 1991. I am grateful to the Department of Anthropology there for extending the invitation to me, and to the audience for their interest and keen questions. Talal Asad and Elizabeth Eames read and commented
a

This is

slightly retouched version of


on

Calfiomia, Los Angeles,

critically on an earlier draft; and Chella Rajan has offered instructive doubts about various aspects of my argument.I give thanks.I had taken my epigraph from Stanley Diamond in appreciation of the biting aphoristic quality of his mind. Now with sadness and gratitudeI dedicate the use Ive made of it to his memory.
NOTES
1. See Diamond (1974: 110). 2. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of

Ethnography edited by James

Clifford and George Marcus (1986). 3.I borrow this phrase from Barbara Johnson (1987: 43).

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mean to suggest that all the essays that comprise the volume Writing Culture are uniform in their preoccupations. Nor do I not wish to interrogate this work, only to employ it as the occasion which signals a turn in anthropological discourse aboutculture. 5. Roughly,I have in mind here the period between Boass confrontation with Otis T. Mason over the correct methods of ethnological classification, and his address at the International Congress of Arts and Science, entitled, The History of Anthropology. Both of these are reproduced in A Franz Boas Reader: The , edited by George W. Stocking Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911 Jr (1974). See also Stockings (1968) very useful discussion of Boass relation to the culture concept. 6. In a splendid article, Anthropology in the Ironic Mode Amold Krupat (1988) has helped us to appreciate the ironic character of Boass perspective; an ironism, he says (taking, himself, a nicely ironic distance from some recent postmodemist dismissals of Boas), that has parallels to contemporary deconstructions delight in exposing the errors in and the vacuity of traditional humanism (1988:110). Later on he says:

4.I do not

Boass stance,I am claiming, is ironic rather than merely confused or selfcontradictory because it [insists at one and the same time] upon the strongest forms of two fully coherent positions which are, in those forms, two fully incompatible positions. The irony comes in when one insists that ones concern for the infinity of particular details - the desire lovingly to penetrate the endless secrets of ones object of study - is somehow also in the interest of finding general, parsimomously explanatory laws, indeed, that ones concern for parsimonious explanation is entirely consistent with a full attention to the proliferating particularity of individual phenomena (1988: 113).

7. For

some

pertinent remarks

on

the relation between

postmodemism and

post-coloniality see Appiah (1991).


8. I bracket what is obvious: that West and Others do not mark out unitary, ahistorical spaces; they are merely provisional markers in a preliminary mapping. 9. See Alan Liu (1990) for a useful meditation on the new romanticism of detail in contemporary cultural studies. I am grateful to Professor Sanford Freedman for bringing this reference to my attention. 10. For a post-colonial interrogation of theory with which I am in much agreement see Vivek Dhareshwars The Predicament of Theory (1990). 11. See Martin Jays interesting essay Name Dropping (1990). Needless to say, my own text is not exempt from a certain tropical economy of proper names.

12.I am thinking, of course, particularly of the debate sparked by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaelss Against Theory (1985). 13. Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory, de Man wrote, since theory is itself this resistance (1986: 19; his emphasis). 14. See Edward Saids well-known essay, The World, the Text, and the Critic

(1983).
15. One of the most interesting attempts to think about this idea of bounded culture is to be found sketched in Appadurai (1986).

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16. For a discussion of authoritative discourse see Talal Asad (1979). 17. See my The Demonology of Nationalism: On the Anthropology of Ethnicity and Violence in Sri Lanka (1990). 18. For an interesting if nevertheless limited interrogation of the anti-essentialism of theory see Diana Fuss (1988). 19. See, for example, Richard Bernsteins Beyond Objectivism and Relativism

(1983). Among many possibilities see Paul Rabinows (1986) Representations are Social Facts. I too, I might add, have found Rortys pragmatist critique of representationalist epistemologies very useful (see Scott, 1992). 21. See Geertz (1984: 275); and Rorty (1985a). 22. See Geertz (1973). Says Rorty on one occasion: Pragmatists and Derrideans are ... natural allies (1985a: 135; see also 1982, 1989: 122-37). 23. For a recent account of this tradition see Comel West (1989). 24. See Geertzs preface to Works and Lives (1987: vi) where he records the governing inspiration of Kenneth Burke. The places where Rorty calls on the name of John Dewey to situate and legitimate his argument are numerous. But see Rorty (1978). On this use of Dewey by Rorty see Richard Bemstein (1987). What this says about the shifting of intellectual centers - from Paris to London to various cities in the United States - is important to think about. The increasing self-confidence of US academic culture and the re-rise of pragmatism in literary criticism and philosophy are, it seems to me, inseparable. 25. The ironist, says Rorty (1989a: xv), is the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires - someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and
20.
chance. 26. Note that the argument here is not the banal one about whether Kuwaitis are now wearing Nikes or watching CNN - which is something that has to do with the penetration of international capital in the Third World and the creation of new kinds of markets and desires - but whether it is necessarily entailed that Kuwaitis therefore construct their cultural domain in a Geertzian discourse. 27. Geertzs well-known essay, From the Natives Point of View (1983), is perhaps the most elaborated presentation of this view. 28. Foucaults The Political Technology of the Individual (1988) is particularly relevant here. So is Asads forthcoming article, Conscripts of Western Civilization (n.d.).I would like to thank Professor Asad for sharing this work with
me.

Looking into dragons, Geertz (1984: 275) has written, not domesticating or abominating them, nor drowning them in vats of theory, is what anthropology has been all about. For a pertinent critique of Geertzs hermeneutics see Scholte (1986). 30. For other pertinent critical discussions of Rortys work see Fraser (1991), and West (1989). 31. See Asads (1986) discussion of unequal languages.

29.

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