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Tristees tropes: post-modern anthropologists


encounter the other and discover themselves
Polier Nicole & Roseberry William
Published online: 28 Jul 2006.

To cite this article: Polier Nicole & Roseberry William (1989) Tristees tropes: post-modern anthropologists encounter the
other and discover themselves, Economy and Society, 18:2, 245-264, DOI: 10.1080/03085148900000012

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Tristes tropes: post- -

modern anthropologists
encounter the other and
discover themselves
Nicole Polier and William Roseberry

Abstract

This essay presents a critical review of recent work in postmodern anthropolog,


especially that published in Clifford and Marcus' M'rititlg Clibrire and Marcus and
Fischer's A~~tl~ropolog), as C~rltlrralCritiqrre. The essay concentrates on three
problems in particular: the postmodernists conflation of ethnography and fiction
in their critique of 'realism'; their conceptualisation of 'dialogic' writing; and their
construction of ethnographic 'collages'. In our view the postmodern
preoccupation with genres of representation has obstructed a serious
consideration of the social, political, cultural and individual contexts in which
ethnographic knowledge is produced and consumed.
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If anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what happens, then


to divorce it from what happens - from what, in this time or that place, specific
people say, what they do, what is done to them, from the whole vast business of
the world - is to divorce it from its applications and render it vacant. A good
interpretation of anything - a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a
society - takes us into the heart of that of which it is an interpretation. When it
does not do that, but leads us instead somewhere else - into an admiration of its
own elegance, of its author's cleverness, or of the beauties of Euclidean order - it
may have its intrinsic charms; but it is something else than what the task at hand
. . . calls for. (Geertz, 1973a: 18)
T o comment, to reflect, to meditate -we conjoin them easily - is etqmologically to
remember, think, imagine, study, to edit something, to bend back on it, perhaps to
become intertwined with it in some (shall I say?) healing fashion. T o comment
then - to reflect or meditate - is to adopt a particular vantage point on something,
to create it through remembrance, imagination, thought, and study, to intertwine
with, to bend back on, to measure it, to look after it, to edit it, therapeutically.
(Crapanzano, 1987: 179)
Over the past decade, anthropologists have paid increasing attention to
ethnographies as literary texts (see, e.g., Clifford, 1983; Crapanzano, 1977;
Dwyer, 1977; 1982; Marcus, 1980; Marcus and Cushman, 1982; Rabinow,
1977; 1985; Tedlock, 1979; Webster, 1982; 1983; 1986). With the recent
publication of two vigorously argued and forcefully presented books (Marcus
and Fischer 1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986), ethnographic 'textualism' has

Economy and Socieg Volume 18 Number 2 May 1989


Routledge 1989 0308-5 147/89/1802/0245 $3.00
246 Nicole Polier and William Rosebeql

become a formidable, and in some ways hegemonic, movement within


American anthropology. Intellectually, the themes, preoccupations, and even
the key words of textualist authors are increasingly visible in theoretical
debates and ethnographic discussions. Institutionally, contributors to the
movement are in a position to exercise extraordinary influence on the
dissemination of ideas - both through the publication of the journal Culturtrl
Anthropolog)~and through the participation of textualist authors on editorial
boards of more centrally located journals.
Contributors to this movement correctly contend that the act of ethno-
graphic writing often involves a process of construction and imposition in
which social movement is represented as structural stasis, disorder as order,
and individual lives as representathe of structural relations and positions.
They point to the social, intellectual, cultural and political preoccupations
ethnographers bring to their field work and note the importance of such
preoccupations in the writing of ethnographic texts. Considering the forms
and styles of ethnographic representation and the manner in which those
forms obscure and deny the practice of construction and imposition, they
suggest ways in which anthropologists might experiment with new forms of
ethnographic writing and become more sensitive to their own role in the
construction of ethnographic facts.
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Such observations can s e n e as a starting point for a sophisticated


consideration of the intellectual, institutional and political forces that shape
and constrain the ethnographic encounter and the production and consump-
tion of knowledge in the late twentieth-century academy. Some of the
contributors to this movement, most notably Renato Rosaldo (1986) and Tala1
Asad (1986), have turned their attention to these and related question5.
Another group of writers, whom we call the posf-modernists - notably Stephen
Tyler, Michael Fischer, George Marcus and James Clifford - have turned
instead from a consideration of the power relations in which knowledge is
constituted toward an egocentric and nihilistic celebration of the ethnogra-
pher as author, creator and consumer of the Other. We explore and criticize
this turn by considering three aspects of their arguments: (1) their under-
standing of 'ethnographic realism' and the objects of ethnographic know-
ledge, (2) their call for 'dialogic' ethnographies, and (3) their understanding of
totalities.

Representation, realism and ethnographic realities

T h e whole point of 'evoking' rather than 'representing' is that it frees


ethnography from rnitnesis and the inappropriate mode of scientific
rhetoric that entails 'objects', 'facts', 'descriptions', 'inductions',
'generalizations', 'verification', 'experiment', 'truth', and like concepts
that, except as empty invocations, have no parallels either in the
Tristes tropes 247

experience of ethnographic fieldwork or in the writing of ethnographies.


(Tyler, 1986: 130)
In his outline of a semiotic concept of culture and of an interpretive
anthropology, Clifford Geertz has argued, following Weber, that the proper
object of social science is the understanding of socially meaningful action.
Taking culture as 'webs of significance' that '[man] himself has spun'
(1973a: 5 ) , Geertz sketched a project of interpreting those webs, a project that
was elliptical and one of reconstruction. None the less, the interpretive task
was that of truthful, ifpartial, representation, and despite hermeneutics' status
as a 'soft' science, some descriptions, from the Geertzian perspective, were
thicker and more complete than others. In this view, culture is a public, 'acted
document' (ibid.: 10) the focus of interpretation is and must be 'actor
oriented' (ibid.: 14), and the goal of ethnographic writing is solid and
sophisticated ('thick') description. While the interpretation of cultures was
reconstructive, in Geem's view, the theory and activity of thick description
remained grounded in observable social action.'
We will pursue neither the problem of meaning as webs of significance, a
metaphor too abstract and removed from social process (see Asad, 1983); nor
the metaphor of culture as text (see Roseberry, 1982; Keesing, 1987). Of
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more immediate interest is the relationship between an interpretive anthro-


pology, as outlined by Geertz in the early 1970s, and recent moves toward a
post-modern anthropology. Since Geertz's work is cited as germinal to the
emergent textualist movement in anthropology (Marcus and Cushman, 1982;
Marcus and Fischer, 1986),2the more telling question is how far post-modern
ethnography has drifted from the interpretive project. With the current focus
on the practice of writing and the production of texts, ruminations on the
authorial self - and on the construction of knowledge in the writing process -
have transformed the earlier aim of thick description and opened to question
both the purpose and practice of ethnography. Explanation and understand-
ing (erklaren and verstehen) are no longer goals, because the 'object' of
interpretation itself is shrouded in doubt. This doubt has been expressed
through a prolonged examination of practices and genres of ethnographic
writing.
Prior to the recent experimental moment, we are told, American cultural
and British social anthropology from Boas and Malinowski forward can be
summed up as a shared commitment to 'ethnographic realism':
Despite their tweedledum and tweedledee development, and despite their
differing theoretical orientations (cultural vs. social structural), the
American and British ethnographic traditions converged by consolidating
the position of ethnographic realism as the genre for anthropology, as the
literary institution serving positivist goals. (Marcus and Cushman,
1982: 30)
The realist convention is a term borrowed from literary criticism and is used
248 Nicole Polier and Williurn Roseberql

by the authors to describe any ethnography that 'seeks to represent the reality
of a whole world or form of life' (1982: 29). Extending the literary analogy a
step further, realism is reduced to an 'effect' achieved through the careful, at
times artful, choice of ethnographic detail. In this way the reader of social
sciences -whom Marcus and Cushman regard as a benighted soul - is lulled
by a flood of facts and the monograph is 'respectfully marginalized as a
medium for providing trivial information.' (1982: 52)
In this view, representation, empiricism and descriptive realism all fall
within the dominant paradigm of positivism. We are not told what positivist
practice actually is, except by tautology: unselfconscious representation, thick
description, positivism, and an empiricist faith are all tarred with the same
brush. Positivism 'becomes a swear-word, by which nobody is swearing'
(Williams, 1976: 201). Although the post-modernists have located in empiri-
cism a genuine (and well known) problem, two aspects of their approach
preclude a careful consideration of it. One is their dismissive attitude toward
science; another is their largely uncritical appropriation of literary theory.
Stephen Tyler begins his contribution to Writing Clrltlrrewith an autopsy of
science and the modern world that produced it. 'Science's' problem, we are
told, was rooted in a 'disjunction of language and the world' (Tyler,
1986: 123), a contradiction between a language adequate to represent the
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world and a language adequate to communicate knowledge. Science opted for


the latter, removing itself from an engagement with the material world:
Science adopted a model of language as a self-perfecting form of closed
communication that achieved closure by making language itself the object
of description. But closure was bought at the cost of descriptive adequacy.
T h e more language became its own object, the less it had to say about
anything else. So, the language of science became the object of science,
and what had begun as perception unmediated by concepts became
conception unmediated by percepts. T h e unity of communication brought
about by language displaced the unity of perception that language had
formerly wrought. Language as communication displaced language as
representation, and as science communicated better about itself, it had
less and less to say about the world. In an excess of democracy, agreement
among scientists became more important than the nature of nature.
(ibid.: 124)
Even with the citation of authors such as Habermas and Lyotard, however,
this description fails to convince. First, it imposes an illusory unity on a variety
of scientific styles, strategies, practices and forms of discourse. One would
want to know what sciences and scientists Tyler is talking about at what times
and places. Is Tyler talking about Newtonian physics or Einsteinian physics,
Boasian anthropology or Whitean anthropology? Second, the description of a
mode of scientific practice that is totally self-referential and never engages the
Tristes tropes 249

material world is not credible. It may well describe the practice of


problem-solving science in ordinary periods, but such periods have never
been sustainable partly because of the poor fit between a changing material
world and an inadequate language of representation. Third, the contention
that 'the more language became its own object, the less it had to say about
anything else', seems to describe post-modern ethnography much more
adequately than it does most forms of scientific practice.
Indeed, the separation of language and the world, and the concentration on
language at the exclusion of the world, is central to the post-modern
ethnographic project. Marcus and Cushman (1982)' for example, suggest that
language - the 'discursive mode' - is autonomous and logically prior to social
facts.' The ethnographer as author is granted an extraordinary power to create
the world as she or he sees it. The authorial I/eye selects the discursive mode
and creates the cultural text. Writing is autonomous: in rejecting social facts
and processes as relics of a positivist science, we are led to the extreme view
that the world enters through the word.
In grafting a literary conceptual framework onto social analysis, a
sleight-of-hand is accomplished: it becomes possible to analyse ethnography
just as one would a work of fiction. The author has the poetic license to select
or create the genre, style, voice(s), narrative, and so forth that she or he
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chooses. While rhetorical analysis may share common features with cultural
analysis, however, some rather obvious differences outweigh the similarities.
In the end, using literature as more of an homologue than a limited analogue
mystifies more than it illuminates the practice and process of social research.
The most remarkable statement of this view is made by Tyler. In response
to apparent questions from other participants in Writing Culture, Tyler
contends that 'no object of any kind precedes and constrains the ethnography.
It creates its own objects in its unfolding and the reader suppliers the rest'
(Tyler, 1986: 138)." This presents us with an untenable choice between a
naive and mechanical evocation of 'the real world' and a nihilistic denial of
experience. The opposition is a false one, based upon a choice between an
unreflective empiricist view of the material world as 'out there', an object for
passive reception and assimilation, and a subjective view of the object world as
sin~pbthe creation of the perceiving subject. Here textualism's promise - as a
multi-stranded reflection upon the historical and cultural construction of
knowledge - is betrayed. In this view, there is neither history nor culture until
and unless the ethnographer finds words to express them. Without the
ethnographer, there is 'only a disconnected array of chance happenings'
(Tyler, 1986: 138).
In our view, Gramsci presented a more useful resolution of this problem,
one that rejects the simplistic dualism proposed by some post-modernists, in
his critique of Bukharin. In a section on 'The So-Called "Reality of the
External World," ' he suggests that simple reference to objective facts
250 Nicole Polier and William Rosebeny

provides an inadequate response to subjectivist philosophies. In words that


prefigure post-modernist anthropology, he asks,
It might seem that there can exist an extra-historical and extra-human
objectivity. But who is the judge of such objectivity?Who is able to put
himself in this kind of 'standpoint of the cosmos in itself and what could
such a standpoint mean? (1971: 445)
Rather than calling for a retreat to studies and prison cells so that we might
relfect on our own problematic standpoints, however, he finds objectivity in
the very historical and cultural processes that give post-modernists pause:
T o understand exactly what might 6e meant by the problem of the reality
of the external world it might be worth taking up the example of the
notions of 'East' and 'West' which do not cease to be 'objectively real'
even though analysis shows them to be no more than a conventional, that
is 'historico-cultural' construction. (The terms 'artificial' and
'conventional' often indicate 'historical' facts which are products of the
development of civilisation and not just rationalistically arbitrary or
individually contrived constructions). . . . What would North-South or
East-West mean without man? They are real relationships and yet they
would not exist without man and without the development of civilisation.
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Obviously East and West are arbitrary and conventional, that is historical,
constructions, since outside of real history every point on the earth is East
and West at the same time. This can be seen more clearly from the fact
that these terms have crystallized not from the point of view of a
hypothetical melancholic man in general but from the point of view of the
European cultured classes who, as a result of their world-wide hegemony,
have caused them to be accepted everywhere. . . . So because of the
historical content that has become attached to the geographical terms, the
expressions East and West have finished up indicating specific relations
between different cultural complexes. . . . And yet these references are
real; they correspond to real facts, they allow one to travel by land and by
sea, to arrive when one had decided to arrive, to 'foresee' the future, to
objectivise reality, to understand the objectivity of the external world.
(Gramsci 1971: 447-8)
Two aspects of Gramsci's argument are important here. First is the location
of objectivity, of facts, in processes of historical construction; second is the
location of that construction in fields of power, in the 'specific relations
between cultural complexes', a problem to which we return in a subsequent
section. But, it might be argued, this does not address the ethnographer's
dilemma. If 'the real' is the 'historically and culturally real', we still must
confront the problem of knowledge across cultural complexes, even in a world
in which East and West have been defined in a particular field of power. The
problem is formidable, but it cannot be resolved with an a priori denial of
'facts' and 'experience'. As ethnographers conduct their fieldwork, they deal
Tristes tropes 25 1

with certain 'facts' by virtue of their prolonged experience with living human
beings. They see things happen - a market transaction, a ceremony, a fight.
People tell them things - about their neighbors, about the merchants with
whom they deal, about their husbands or children, about their own
childhoods. These 'facts' do not speak for themselves. Much of the
ethnographer's efforts will be devoted to making sense of them - placing them
in the context of other 'facts' (other market transactions or ceremonies, other
fights, other stories) as well as the larger context of the community and region
in ~ h i c hthese events took place and these stories were told. The ethnogra-
pher poses questions to the facts, some of which have to do with their
relationship to other facts and some of which have to do with the
ethnographer's own intellectual, political and personal preoccupations. The
result, as Geertz and others have pointed out, is necessarily a series of
constructions upon constructions. Our facts are made, but they are not made
up.' T h e events we see and the stories we are told constrain us; they impose
upon us a certain discipline (cf. Thompson 1978: 37-50).

The ideology of dialogic production

As Bakhtin has shown, dialogical processes proliferate in any complexly


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represented discursive space (that of an ethnography, or, in his case, a


realist novel). Many voices clamor for expression. Polyvocality was
restrained and orchestrated in traditional ethnographies by giving to one
voice a pervasive authorial function and to others the role of sources,
'informants', to be quoted or paraphrased. Once dialogism and polyphony
are recognized as modes of textual production, monophonic authority is
questioned, revealed to be characteristic of a science that has claimed to
represent cultures. (Clifford, 1986: 15).
Given a perceived problem with realist forms of ethnographic representation,
one remedy proposed by post-modern authors is dialogic ethnography, a
'cacaphony' of voices and dialogues among the ethnographer and the
ethnographic subjects. The problem of authority is certainly a menacing one,
but the notion of multiple authorship does not address the context in which
ethnographers do fieldwork and elicit dialogues. One cannot simply impose
plurivocality - a concept conceived in the writing process - on the people we
study. 'The notion of a dialogical mode ofproduction betrays a liberal faith that
doing fieldwork and writing about it can be like a representative democracy.
This elides the problem of power and isolates fieldwork and ethnographic
production from their social context.'
Discourses are not self-referential but are instead constructed within social
fields of force, power and privilege. The ethnographic context as one of
'cooperative story making' (Tyler, 1986: 126) does not address the context in
which discourses are situated. As a metaphor, the ethnography as a cacaphony
of voices only makes sense from the high altitude of literary theory, but in
252 Nicole Polier and William Rosebeql

social life all 'genres, texts and voices' are no! created equal. T h e point is plain
but apposite: in the production of ethnographic texts, the ethnographers
privilege is precisely a discourse on the discourse.
T h e metaphor of transference has been invoked for the dialogic encounter
between 'participants' in the ethnographic situation. In an essay on ethnicity,
Fischer (1986) extends the metaphor in a discussion of the psychic odyssey of
the individual in the construction of ethnicity - couched in the language of
self-determination. But the metaphor betrays the illusion of social equality
between the fieldworker and her or his putative partner. Transference comes
from the discourse of psychology and psychiatric practice. T h e process takes
place in a clinical context in which the 'curer' - in this case an ethnographer -
has a claim on knowledge of and knowledge over the analysand. In exchange,
the professional may or may not confer the accolade of mental health on the
subject - defined and verified in terms of the dominant discourse of
psychiatry. The context of transference is one of unequal power and
knowledge, and as a process can only be fully understood as a social relation.
Transference as a social relation of unequal power may be entirely mystified,
but it is no less real.
In practice the discursive space which the fieldworker occupies is not one of'
shared circumstance in which all others are created equal with equal freedom
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of speech. In Melanesia, for instance, it is male elders who speak to the


ancestors, answer questions from anthropologists, give moka, enjoy an
apparent monopoly on ritual reproduction, and control and allocate labor,
land and pigs, the material and symbolic capital of social life. In such a context,
some voices clamor for expression more than others. We would learn more
about the politics of cultural expression if we focused less on cultural poetics
and 'positioned utterances' (Clifford, 1986: 12) and more on the traffic in
social meanings, what Keesing has called a 'political economy of knowledge'
(1982). More matter, with less art.
An example may illustrate. Among Kwaio of the Solomon Islands interior,
secular authority and Kwaio custom (kastom) are conferred by the ancestors,
who constitute a forceful and living presence. Kastom is the fundament of
Kwaio social life, and its practice and reproduction are considered by Kwaio
to be a statement of political and cultural autonomy to coastal outsiders. It was
in the context of colonial penetration, Christianity and cash, that Maasina Rule
- the 'Rule of Brotherhood' - emerged in this region as a movement of
resistance, and within this movement that kastom acquired political meaning
(Keesing, 1982). Kwaio continue this practice, and culture has become an
emblem of Kwaio-ness and a living memory of struggle (Keesing, 1985: 36).
However, not everyone gets to speak to the ancestors or for them. There are
competing claims to Kwaio culture and custom which its thingness makes
tangible, and it was in the context of taped narratives with the anthropologist
that Kwaio women - who seemed to be culturally silent - eventually came to
articulate some of their own experiences as part of a larger argument with
Kwaio cultural hegemony.
Tristes tropes 253

In these narratives women are making social claims to overlapping but


different interest groups. They are expressing a shared commitment to the
Kwaio project of preserving kastom against incursions by coastal Christians
and the capitalist presence, but Kmaio women are also outlining their own
crucial contribution to the production of Kwaio culture.
In a world in which men speak the dominant political tongue and elders are
the organ of cultural knowledge, the context in which women can speak to the
ethnographer is created with great difficulty. This context is no mere
discursive space, and it is not a context that creates itself. Texts do not speak
for themselves. How cultural meanings do and do not get talked about is
politically situated; as the Kwaio situation indicates, cultural meanings are
pluralistic but contested. One does not simply 'evoke' such discussions;
ethnographic narratives are socially constituted in a context of power and
politics. For these reasons, we suggest, the use of 'autobiography' in
ethnography is much more problematic than it appears.
But the fields of power within which the production of ethnographic texts
takes place are not limited to the ethnographic encounter itself. We must also
consider the consequences, material benefits and interests served in cultural
production for an audience back home. As Tala1 Asad notes in Writing
Culture, we need to pay attention to the 'question of different uses (practices),
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as opposed merely to different writings and readings (meanings)' of ethno-


graphic work (1986: 160).
When we turn toward this larger context, the problems with the dialogic
strategy become more apparent. However experimental the format, however
'democratic' the process by which dialogues are selected for presentation,
presentation still involves a process of translation and encounters the problems
with translation that Asad analyzes with care. H e cites Rudolf Pannwitz (cited
by Benjamin, cited again here): 'Our translations . . . proceed from a wrong
premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of
turning German into Hindi, Greek, English' (Asad, 1986: 157; Benjamin,
1968: 80). Noting the inequality of languages, the resistance of the 'stronger'
languages - and structures of academic discourse - to the sensitive kind of
translation called for by Pannwitz, Asad contends that there is a powerful
tendency for dominated cultures to accommodate their language to the
dominant culture. In the act of translation, anthropologists are often of the
belief, or else simply assume, that their native tongue and conceptual
equipment have the metaphors adequate to interpret 'Europe's others' (cf.
Asad and Dixon, 1985).
In our view, the metaphor of translation, especially as used by Asad, is more
appropriate for characterizing the dilemmas of ethnographic production than
is the metaphor of representation. Concentrating on problems of represen-
tation, the post-modernists were able to move into a discussion of literary
genres. If realism were a problem, we should experiment with new forms of
ethnographic presentation. If analogic ethnography were a problem, we
should move toward dialogic ethnography (cf. Tedlock, 1979). The problem
254 Nicole Polier and CVilliam Roseberry

can be reduced to one of styles of writing and reading in which the context of
power is elided. Concentration on the problem of cultural translation leaves
less space for a retreat into literary theory and suggests that, '[Plerhaps there is
a greater stiffness in ethnographic linguistic conventions, a greater intrinsic
resistance than can be overcome by individual experiments in modes of
ethnographic representation' (Asad, 1986: 158).
T o understand such stiffness and resistance, we need to consider carefully
a variety of larger contexts - the economic and political processes at work in
our own societies and in the societies we study, processes that place us and
them in certain kinds of relationship; the intellectual and political processes at
work within our discipline and within the academy, processes that encourage
certain forms of investigation, of expression, and of debate. Unfortunately,
post-modern ethnographers are hesitant to examine such larger contexts. It is
toward that hesitance that we now turn.

Totalities - cut and pasted

We confirm in our ethnographies our consciousness of the fragmentary


nature of the post-modern world. (Tyler, 1986: 132)
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Some of the authors writing within a post-modern movement in anthropology


take as a point of departure the demise of totalizing theoretical perspectives -
structural functionalism, evolutionism, Marxism and the like. They write of a
world and of intellectual communities in which confidence in all-encompass-
ing perspectives or in our ability to grasp social and cultural wholes has begun
to wane. T h e resulting ethnographic mood is post-modern in its rejection of
contextualizing referents and looks to earlier periods (especially the 1920s and
1930s) when similar rejections and experiments in literary and artistic
expression were in vogue (hlarcus and Fischer, 1986: 7-16; Clifford, 1981).
Linking these experiments is a concentration on the fragment, for which the
essay is seen as a particularly appropriate form of written expression.' Life as
fragmentary in a disordered world is taken as axiomatic. Attempts to place
those fragments within a larger structure or system, or a larger history that
might have produced the fragments and placed them in certain kinds of
relationship, are dismissed as naive, realist or positivist delusions.
Instead, fragments are brought together in ways that emphasize their lack of
connection. They are placed in juxtaposition to provoke contrasts; relished for
their shock value, fragments are arranged to make the unfamiliar familiar and
the familiar unfamiliar. Here the post-modern anthropologists embrace
surrealism and the technique of collage or, following Benjamin, 'dialectical
images' (cf. Taussig, 1984). As Clifford expresses it:
Reality is no longer a given, a natural, familiar environment. T h e self, cut
loose from its attachments, must discover meaning where it may - a
predicament, evoked at its most nihilistic, that underlies both surrealism
Tristes tropes 255

and modern ethnography. Earlier literary and artistic refractions of


Benjamin's modern world are well known -the experience of Baudelaire's
urbanJ?aneur, Rimbaud's systematic sensual derangements, the analytic
decomposition of reality begun by Cezanne and completed by the cubists,
and especially Lautremont's famous definition of beauty, 'the chance
encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella'. T o
see culture and its norms -beauty, truth, reality - as artificial
arrangements, susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other
possible dispositions, is crucial to an ethnographic attitude. (Clifford,
1981: 541)
Further:
Collage brings to the work (here the ethnographic text) elements that
continually proclaim their foreignness to the context of presentation.
These elements -like a newspaper clip or a feather - are marked as real,
as collected not invented by the artist-writer. The procedures of (a)
cutting out and (b) assemblage are, of course, basic to any semiotic
messages; here they are the message. . . . The ethnography as collage
would leave manifest the constructivist procedures of ethnographic
knowledge; it would be an assemblage containing voices other than the
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ethnographer's, as well as examples of 'found' evidence, data not fully


integrated within the work's governing interpretation. Finally, it would not
explain away those elements in the foreign culture which render the
investigator's own culture newly comprehensible. (ibid.: 5 6 3 4 )
The celebration of a fragmentary social life and of ethnography as
surrealistic collage has as a direct consequence the elevation of the
ethnographer-as-collage-maker to a position of high privilege. The ethno-
graphic essayist does indeed 'mystify the world' (Marcus, 1986: 191): she or
he selects the fragments, cuts them out, puts them together, bound less by the
requirements of contextualization and representativeness than by the aes-
thetic requirements of artistic production. At one extreme, this attitude can
lead to an individualistic and self-centred approach to ethnography. Here
ethnography is reduced to a form of personal therapy (see Tyler, 1986: 128-
34). The fragments and the ethnographic subjects are at the service of the
ethnographer in her or his search for 'an aesthetic integration whose thera-
peutic effect is worked out in the restoration of the commonsense world'
(ibid: 134). At its lesser extremes, ethnography becomes a pastiche (see Jame-
son, 1984; Rabinow, 1986: 248-51). At both extremes, ethnographic subjects
become things - fragments in a fragmentary world - available for appropri-
ation - cutting out, assembling, shocking, producing 'cultural critique'.'
There are some interesting parallels between French surrealism and
ethnology of the 1920s, but there are also some rather obvious differences.
T h e difficulties with the metaphor of ethnography as collage are like the
difficulties with the semiotic concept of culture on which the metaphor
depends: social fields of force -the context of politics and power within which
256 Nicole Polier and William Rosebeql

discourses are constituted - drop from view. Social processes are reduced to
disembodied signs, accessible only to the abstract logic of the semiotician.
By collapsing the message into the medium - the semiotic collage with all of
its sutures showing - Clifford commits two conceptual blunders. First, he
confuses a metaphor for a social fact. T h e process of pastiche and the process
of writing fiction share certain features with the production of ethnographic
texts, but, as we argued above, it is the difference that makes the difference:
our facts are not made up.
T h e second blunder follows from the first. T h e fragment is treated as real
rather than metaphorical and made to stand in place of a social whole. In this
argument efforts to reconstitute social wholes are resoundingly rejected as a
fool's errand: neither a social whole nor the connections between fragments
exist. Marx, by contrast, saw the commodity under advanced capitalism as the
kernel of social life and the 'concentration of many determinations'' -
fragmentary in appearance only, but not in fact. T h e commodity, like the
postmodern fragment, would seem to have a life of its own, detached from
history and social process. It was the seeming autonomy and sentience of the
commodity that Marx had in mind when he wrote of the fetishism of
commodities and their secret; this autonomy, he said, was illusory.
Here, however, Clifford turns material life on its head. Social life is
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collapsed into an 'artificial arrangement' ofparts and the ethnographic subject


is treated as a disembodied thing. Here it is useful to recall what Jameson,
following Lacan, calls 'the breakdown of the signifying chain' in post-
modernism (1984: 71-6; cf. Rabinow 1986: 250-l), a situation in which the
signifiers are still present, but the connections among them, their meaning as
part of a chain of signifiers, has been lost. T h e subject creates new,
decontextualized and arbitrary connections among the signifiers. If we move
beyond the semiotic metaphor, the breakdown of the signifying chain may be
seen as a breakdown, or denial, of history.
In our view, Marcus, Fischer, Clifford and Tyler have been too quick to
dismiss totalities and to celebrate their own fragmentary consciousness. They
conflate a variety of understandings of social totality and the social and
political currents that have produced them (see Jay, 1984 for a careful
historical treatment). If by totality the authors mean a normative vision of a
harmonious or integrated social whole, we agree with their dismissal. If bq
totality the authors mean a sociological model that postulates an integrated
social whole in terms of which social or cultural parts ('fragments') are to be
interpreted or explained - as in most forms of anthropological holism and in
structural functionalism - we join their critique. And if by totality the authors
mean an evolutionism that subsumes a variety of local histories within the
mechanical laws of a universal history, we follow them in this critique as well.
But this should not invalidate an attempt to see things whole, to see structural
connections among particular customs or institutions, to see historical
connections between social groups or states, to see relationships of exchange,
domination or resistance. T o see such connections and relationships is not
Trisles tropes 257

necessarily to adopt a normative commitment to social solidarity or a


sociological model that stresses functional integration. We may understand
the connections and relationships we view as profoundly contradictory and see
that the development of those connections is uneven. In short, we may see
totalities as differentiated, understanding that differentiation in terms of a
series of connections and relationships that have histories.
In the modern world, the most important connection has been the spread
and dominance of industrial capitalism. T o say this is not to adopt a view of
capitalism as world historical steam roller, flattening out cultural differences
and making the world uniform. Indeed, the more sophisticated understand-
ings of capitalism stress unevenness, differentiation and contradiction. Nor is
it to suggest that we should understand anthropological subjects solely in
terms of their connections with the capitalist world. T h e fact of such
connection, however, presents a fundamental challenge to those post-modern
authors who prefer to deny historical relationships, reify cultures and cultural
practices as fragments, and impose their own connections through the
techniques of collage."'
Such connections pose formidable problems for ethnographers who take
them seriously, who attempt to grasp the unity and diversity (or, in another
language, the combined and uneven character) of historical processes. We
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have before us models to avoid, from those authors who stress unity to such an
extent that they make the modern world homogeneous (as in extreme versions
of world-systems theory) to those who stress diversity to such an extent that
they create sharp and antihistorical disjunctions between the capitalist West
(the ship) and the noncapitalist, non-Western Other (the shore), privileged
preserve of anthropological practice (Ortner, 1984), extreme views which may
share more assumptions than their adherents care to admit. Among the
post-modernists we are considering in this essay, Marcus (1986) has made the
most serious effort to address these problems. Unfortunately, this effort is
marred (a) by its acceptance of a version of world-systems theory (cf. Marcus,
1981) and (b) by its attempt to 'background' capitalism while writing more
fine-grained ethnographies." This is at once too much and too little. It is too
much in that its understanding of capitalism is much too systemic and
seamless. It is too little in that it makes 'the system' static. Taken together,
these two problems have the effect of reaffirming the autonomy of the
fragment, the apparent source of dynamism, counterpoised to the static
capitalist whole, the ready-made system, 'rhere, so to speak, to be invoked'
(Marcus, 1986: 173). Paradoxically, this is where world-systems theory and
post-modernism come together conceptually: they share a totalizing view of the
capitalist system. For the world-systems theorists, the system becomes
determinant; for the post-modernists, given the evident inadequacy of such a
view, reference to systemic relationships disappears altogether. For both,
determination is conceived of as total: if there is no total determination, then
there must be no determination at all.
The problem remains one of understanding the constitution of anthropo-
258 Nicole Polier and Willian~Roseberry

logical subjects within combined and contradictory historical processes,


processes that should be seen as at once determinate (they are established in
particular fields of power) and contingent (the fields of power, as historical
products themselves, are subject to change and transformation). The
problems this poses for ethnographic practice are serious, but models for their
resolution can be more readily found in the writings of historically minded
anthropologists like Sidney Mintz (1985) or Verena Stolcke (1988) than in
montages of post-modern writers.

Brave new anthropology

Hermes, etymologically 'he of the stone heap', was associated with


boundary stones. The herm, a head and a phallus on a pillar, later
replaced the stone heap. The ethnographer, if I may continue my conceit,
also marks a boundary: his ethnography declares the limits of his and his
readers' culture. It also attests to his - and his culture's - interpretive
power. Hermes was a phallic god and a god of fertility. Interpretation has
been understood as a phallic, a phallic-aggressive, a cruel and violent, a
destructive act, and as a fertile, a fertilizing, a fruitful, and a creative one.
We say a text, a culture even, is pregnant with meaning. Do the
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ethnographer's presentations become pregnant with meaning because of


his interpretive, his phallic fertilizations? (Crapanzano, 1986: 52)
Post-modern language and the brave new history of anthropological theory
and practice boldly assert that the material world is imaginary and the
imaginary world - of pastiche, feathers and newspapers clips - is real. Realit\
is constructed through newspeak and the realm of science and politics is
relegated to a pre-post-modern past (Tyler, 1986). All referents are lost, all is
incommensurable (Lyotard, 1984). Anthropologists living in a material world
in which they seek to understand and interpret the lives, material contingen-
cies and constraints of other peoples are consigned en masse to a positivist
tradition and dismissed. The social universe of power and politics in which
discourse is constituted, as we would argue, is seen as the relic of an archaic
consciousness (Tyler, 1986). Ifwe can free our minds of such concepts as, say,
the hegemony of imagined histories, discourse in the service of domination,
the appropriation of the 'other' in the service of the therapeutic text and so
forth, we can achieve 'cognitive utopia' (ibid.: 132), a post-political, socially
transcended 'emergent mind' (ibid.: 133).
We are told that post-modern consciousness and the newly fashioned
history and language are 'radical', but this is neither satisfying nor convincing.
A radical intellectual task, it seems to us, would involve an attempt to dissolve
the surface appearance of disconnectedness and fragmentation and re-
establish historical connections. It would probe the fragmentary appearance
of social life under corporate capitalism - a life that seems to be without a
center, a life in pieces - for the contradictory totality within. Rather than
Tristes tropes 259

celebrating a fragmentary consciousness and promising to mystify the world, a


radical project might examine the social circumstances and the larger history
that have produced a world that appears to be disconnected and indeter-
minate, without history and without structure.
Let us return, then, to the problem of language and its uses, but language
and its uses must be examined within a social context of power and politics.
Whether meaning is inscribed through written discourse, as Geertz once
insisted, or created through written discourse, as Marcus, Fischer, Clifford,
Tyler et al. contend, these discourses are none the less socially rooted. They
have authors and audiences with interests and agendas; there are material
claims at stake and we need to ask what they are. Ethnographic texts are not
self-referential; they can be fully interpreted only within the not-always-
obvious context of their production. Perhaps we the audience are witnessing
an academic cockfight, perhaps the text is written in an effort to protect or
fortify a power base within the academy, and so on.
Frederick Jameson has referred to post-modernism as the 'cultural logic of
late capitalism' (1984). Its most paradoxical feature is that social and cultural
life seems increasingly disconnected even as global economic and political
connections become more fundamental. We appear to be post-industrial as
industries move to the Third World, post-political as the loci of political
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struggle shift to distant corners ofthe world, and so on. Although our object of
criticism in this essay is more limited than Jameson's in that we are looking at a
particular group of authors in anthropology, and although we are skeptical of
the epochal search for 'cultural logics' of early, middle and late capitalism, we
appreciate his attempt to understand particular intellectual movements in
terms ofpolitical, economic and social histories. In this light, we return to our
linkage of world-systems theory and post-modernism, not at the level of
shared assumptions but at the level of shared intellectual and cultural
experiences. We propose here that both world-systems theory and post-
modernism can be seen as intellectual frameworks characteristic of a
post-hegemonic imperial academy. That is, if we consider the U S (and the
authors we have been discussing teach in US universities and write primarily
for Northamerican audiences), the post-war decades (roughly 1945-70) were
characterized by the US'S apparently vigorous and unshakeable world
hegemony, for which modernization theory was its most confident expression.
T h e past fifteen years have been characterized by deepening, if not constant,
crisis and restructuring. World-systems theory and post-modern thought,
both of which arose out of the critiques of modernization theory, can be seen
as intellectual expressions of that crisis. Extreme versions of world-systems
theory, which absorbed the more mechanical strains of Latin American
dependency thought (see Cardoso, 1977), had the effect of denying the
possibility of movement in the system precisely at the moment when
movement became more possible. Extreme versions of post-modern thought
had the efect of denying a world of politics and economics as both became more
threatening.
260 Nicole Polier and Williatn Roseberry

We do not mean to provide some mechanical scheme that finds certain


intellectual movements to be 'appropriate' for certain historical periods, nor
d o we wish to make vulgar connections between ideas and material interests.
We also recognize that each of these modes of thought has distinguished
intellectual pedigrees. But intellectuals live in historically shaped and
constrained worlds no less than d o ethnographic subjects. As they write,
intellectuals attempt to make sense of the world in which they and their
subjects live, appropriating and consuming - often in one-sided and
caricatured fashion - the concepts, assumptions and language of the complex
work of authors who seem to speak to their predicament. And we think it is
interesting to view the consumed versions of post-modernism and world-
systems theory (both of which are full of the language of crisis), as intellectual
expressions, as ways of living with crisis without seriously thinking about it.

Departmen t ofAnthropo1og)l
The Graduate Faarltjl
Nem School for Social Research
Nem York
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Acknowledgements

Among the many people who have scolded or complimented us for this essay,
we especially want to thank Jay O'Brien, Sid Mintz, Jane Schneider, Gerry
Sider and the reviewers for Econom)~and Socie~jfor their specific suggestions.

Notes

1 Weber himself had a different understanding of the relationship between theory


and the object. For a thoughtful discussion, see Medick 1987.
2 'Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight' (Geertz, 1973b) is also considered
problematic by some of these thinkers. See, fir example, Clifford, 1983; Crapanzano,
1986.
3 Thus, what rhetorical analysis reveals that a mere evaluation of arguments does
not is how the language and narrative construction of an historical and
ethnographic text pre-encodes both the object of analysis (what counts as data)
and the grounds for a specific explanatory argument. As with historical writing, a
rhetorical perspective should be an analytically autonomous dimension of the
critical evaluation of ethnographies, but it is in no way a substitute for a
complementary evaluation of the logic and evidence for a text's arguments.
(Marcus and Cushman, 1982: 56)
4 Further:
But what of the experience of the ethnographer? Surely that amounts to
something prior since the ethnography is at the very least a record of that
emerience. No, it is not a record of emerience at all; it is the means of emerience.
hat experienck became experience only in the writing of the ethnography.
Trisres tropes 261

Before that it was only a disconnected array of chance happenings. No experience


preceded the ethnography. The experience was the ethnography. Experience is no
more an object independent of the ethnography than all the others -behavior,
meanings, texts, and so on. (Tyler, 1986: 138)
5 In our view, the most remarkable dismissal of this process can be found in Mary
Louise Pratt's defense of Skabono (Donner 1982). She despairs of criticism that the
text was part plagiarism and the rest lies. The issue, says she, is not that the author may
have made up her facts, but that the boundaries are blurred between truth,
autobiography and fraud. 'The fact that personal narrative is marginal and stigma-
tized', concludes Pratt, 'explains why a book like Shabono has to be recognized only to
be rejected' (1986: 32). But the second point does not follow from the first. Conceptual
and ethical issues are collapsed into epistemological and literary issues, when the real
questions to be asked concern the different purposes served, and the different
standards of accountability required, by autobiography and a purportedly ethnographic
work.
6 Tyler expresses it:
Because post-modem ethnography privileges 'discourse' over 'text', it
foregrounds dialogue as opposed to monologue, and emphasizes the cooperative
and collaborative nature of the ethnographic situation in contrast to the ideology
of the transcendental observer. In fact, it rejects the ideology of 'observer-
observed', there being nothing observed and no one who is observer. There is
instead the mutual, dialogical production of a discourse, a s t o n of sorts. We better
understand the ethnographic context as one of cooperative story making that, in
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one of its ideal forms, would result in a polyphonic text, none ofwhose
participants would have the final word in the form of a framing story or
encompassing synthesis - a discourse on the discourse. It might be just the
dialogue itself, or possibly a series of juxtaposed paratactic tellings of a shared
circumstance, as in the Synoptic Gospels, or perhaps only a sequence of separate
tellings in search of a common theme. (Tyler, 1986: 126)
7 Calling this form of essay 'modernist', Marcus writes:
The modernist form of the essay. . . absolves the writer from having to develop
the broader implications of his thought (while nonetheless indicating that there
are such implications) or of having to tie loose ends together. T h e essayist can
mystify the world, leave his subjects' actions open-ended as to their global
implications, from a rhetorical posture of profound half-understanding, half-
bewilderment. . . . This is thus a form well suited to a time such as the present,
when paradigms are in disarray, problems intractable, and phenomena only partly
understood. It is finally a hedge on the holistic commitments of anthropological
ethnography. (Marcus 1986: 191)
Further:
The ethnography as modern essay profoundly disrupts the commitment to holism
that is at the heart of most realist ethnography and that is increasingly
problematic. . . . It does not promise that its subjects are part of a larger order.
Instead, by the open-endedness of the form, it evokes a broader world of
uncertain order - this is the pose the modernist essay cultivates supremely.
(ibid.: 192)
8 As far as it goes, it is true that the Paris circle of surrealists identified their artificial
arrangements as a burlesque ofbourgeois society. But it is also true that surrealism was
deliberately inaccessible to rational thought processes. The real was considered a
pathway to the surreal, a private realm to which the individual retreated to unleash
262 Nicole Polier and William Roseberg1

unconscious images. T h e proper object of surrealist practice was to explore the


shadowy regions of the individual unconscious, and Andre Breton enjoined his
following to 'prevent the public from entering' (cited in Matthews, 1978: 15). There is
a disturbing closure to surrealist imagery despite the populist political ideology of
Breton and his crowd; it is not social and it is not shared. The collage is accountable
only to its own antisocial, disembodied logic. What we get from the surrealistic
assemblage is a view of an interior universe. Unconscious, maybe; dialectical, no.
9 The phrase, 'concentration of many determinations', comes from Mam's
methodological 'Introduction' (1973 [1857-581: 100-8) and did not refer directly to
the commodity. Indeed, it was written before Marx had settled on the commodity as a
starting point for his presentation. The 'Introduction' is especially interesting because
we can sit in on Man's search for a method. In considering a country, M a n says, it
might seem that the proper place to begin would be the country as a whole, the
population and its various divisions. He then pulls back and comments that such a
procedure would produce a 'chaotic conception of the whole', a false concrete. The
concrete becomes concrete, he suggests, because it is the 'concentration of many
determinations', the product of a series of fundamental historical processes. An
examination of an historically determined part might then illuminate various aspects of
the whole. But this required taking the part not as it appeared, as it was represented in
social life, but as it emerged in complexly determined historical processes. In the
'Introduction', iMam did not consider taking the commodity as such a strategic part. In
the final section of the notes that make up the Gnrndrisse, however, with the
parenthetical note, 'This section to be brought forward', Marx settles on the
commodity, with which his subsequent analyses of capitalism began.
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10 In doing so, they practise a form of cultural relativism which they call 'cultural
critique' (Marcus and Fischer, 1986; Fischer, 1986; Crapanzano, 1987). Fischer
expresses his relativistic critique as 'bifocality':
The juxtaposing of exotic customs to familiar ones, or the relativizing of
taken-for-granted assumptions, has always been the kind of cultural criticism
promised by anthropology. This bifocality, or reciprocity of perspectives, has
become increasingly important in a world of growing interdependence between
societies. . . . 'Bifocality' moreover must increasingly be a shorthand for 'two or
more' cultures in juxtaposition and comparison. Successful cross-cultural
comparison requires at least a third case to avoid simplistic better-worse
judgments, to foster multiple axes of comparison, and to evoke a sense of the
larger universes in which cultures are situated (see also Marcus in this volume).
(Fischer, 1986: 199)
We get hints of a larger world, and are told to read Marcus to learn all about it, but the
cultures are still seen as separate. They are jrixtaposed, as in a collage, rather than
connected, as in history.
11 As he expresses it:
[Elthnographers who write explicitly within the [sic] Marxist theoretical tradition
have the powerful advantage of placing the larger order in the background while
focusingintensely upon a close& observed locale as ethnographic sibject.
Because familiarity. or at least acauaintance. with the Marxist framework can be
assumed on the part of the reader; much of the work of inventing a representation
of the larger order is accomplished merely by orienting or referring the situated
ethnography to issues of Marxist theory. T h e Marxist system is there, so to speak,
to be invoked. (Marcus, 1986: 173)
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-(1985) 'Discourse and Power: O n Stotytelling', DialrcticalA~rtlrropoIo~~
the Limits of Ethnographic Texts', 8(3): 185-205.
DialecticalAnthropolo~10(1&2): 1-12. -(1986) 'Realism and Reification in
-(1986) 'Representations are Social the Ethnographic Genre', Critiqrrr of
Facts: Modernity and Post-Modernity in Antliropology VI(1): 39-62.
Anthropology', in James Clifford and Williams, Raymond (1976) Kqmords,
George Marcus (eds), Writitrg Cultrrrr, New York, Oxford University Press.
Notes on contributors

Michael Billig, born 1947; lecturer in psychology, University of Birmingham,


1973-84; currently professor of social sciences, University of
Loughborough. Author of books and articles on political psychology, social
psychology and rhetoric. Recent books: Argzringand Thinking (Cambridge
Lniversity Press, 1987); and Ideological Dilenlnlas, written in collaboration
with other members of Loughborough Discourse and Rhetoric Group
(Sage, 1988).

Mike Gane, born 1943. Educated at University of Leicester and LSE where
he completed a PhD on the sociology of music. Currently lecturer in the
Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, and has
recently published On D~rkheinz'sRules ofSociologicalMerhod. Currently
working on a book on Baudrillard.
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Peter Goodrich born 1954, wrote his PhD at Edinburgh University oil
Linguistics and Law. Subsequently, he has worked on the history and
hermeneutics of English law. He is currently in the Faculty of Law at the
University of Newcastle. He is author of Reading the Law (Blackwell, 1986),
Legal Discourse (Macmillan 1987), and is now working on problems of
grammatology and the common law tradition; his book Languages ofLaw
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson) is to appear in 1989.

3.P.Alinson teaches in the Division of Humanities at Griffith University.


Along with a number of articles relating to the work of Michel Foucault, he
is the author of Genealogies ofMorals: Nietcsche, Foucault, Doncelor and the
Eccentricitjl (fEthics (1985).

GregMyen is a lecturer in Modern Languages at the University of Bradford:


he previously taught rhetoric courses at the University of Texas and
literature courses at the University of Lancaster. His book, Writing Biology:
Texts in the Social Construction ofScience is forthcoming from the University of
Wisconsin Press. He is now engaged in a sociological study of the discourse
of theoretical linguistics and artificial intelligence.

Nicole Polier is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Graduate Faculty of


the New School for Social Research in New York City and is currently
conducting field research on dimensions of social change in a Min village of
the Western Province, Papua New Guinea.
266 Notes on Contributors

Williain Rosebeql is Associate Professor of anthropology at the Graduate


Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City and is the
author of Cofee and Capijalisnt in [he VenezuelanAndes (University of Texas
Press, 1983) and Culture, History and Poli~icalEconomy (Rutgers University
Press, in press).

Jolzit Shotter has worked in the past in developmental and social psychology.
His long-term concern has been with the development of autonomous
personhood, social identities, and responsible action. Currently, he is one of
a group of professors of general social science developing an experimental,
interdisciplinary study programme at the Rijksuniversiteit of Utrecht, with
citizenship as its central research theme.
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REVIEW
FERNAND BRAUDEL CENTER
A Journal of the
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11 The contents of Vol. XI1 include:


11
Constantine V. Vaitsos Radical Technological Change and the
New "Order" in the World-Economy
Giovanni Arrighi, 1886-1986: Beyond Haymarket?
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Terence K. Hopkins &


Immanuel Wallerstein
Jonathon Friedman Culture, Identity, and World Process

and

I11 a special issue (XII, 3 , Summer 1989) on Tbe Frencb Revolution and
tbe World-System, including articles by Maurice Agulhon, Josep Fontana,
Patrice Higonnet, and Patrick K. O'Brien.
A brochure containing the Tables of Contents of past issues is avadable
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C. Bradley Doos, Jr. discusses the use of capital
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