A Polyphonic Nine Canto Singspiel after 25 Years of Writing Culture and Anthropology as Cultural Critique

Article excerpt

Introduction: Historical Horizons, Emergent Futures

1. Rhizomes

From a Rice University perspective, Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986, henceforth ACC), Writing Culture (1986, henceforth WC), the inauguration of the journal Cultural Anthropology (1986) under George Marcus' editorship, along with the Center for Cultural Studies (CCS) (which I directed 1987-93 and which grew out of the Rice Circle), and the eight volumes in the 1990s of the Late Editions series were organic, rhizomatic, parts of one another. ACC in particular was a reading of our generation's effort to produce ethnographies that marked out somewhat new terrains and approaches, such as, for instance, attention to dream analysis and small group dynamics in Amazonian bands (Kracke 1978), or the sonic phenomenological and cosmological-moral critical apparatuses of New Guinea (Feld 1982). Both of these required readers to engage in the cultural and strategic richness of local knowledges as they would with their own, including changing sensibilities about location in larger than local worlds. Above all, we insisted that anthropology get past the silly polemics about materialist versus symbolic or interpretive approaches, since both are required, particularly in a changing world where both are contested and reworked. While ACC was a call for renewal of anthropology's goals of providing frameworks for comparative humanities, social reform, social theory, translations or confrontations across epistemes and positionalities in the global economy, as well as renewed methodological critique, WC proved to be a hinge of conversation across the humanities, involving the new interdisciplines of media studies, feminist studies, comparative literature, postcolonial studies, cultural studies and new historicism. Oddly, the reception of WC often reduced attention to single texts in a manner quite contrary to anthropology's (and ACCs) larger goals and to the experiences of the "sixties generation" of which we were a part.

2. Ethnographic Authority

If one assumes and acknowledges that ethnographers always step into prior streams of representations, re-presentations, evocations, montages, performatives and genres, many of the apparent difficulties of "ethnographic authority" are shifted so that the focus becomes the circuits, modalities, and discursive apparatuses in their social and historical contexts and their postings back and forth between prior and subsequent generations.

3. Contexts and Collaborations

ACC and WC happened between a series of overlapping major historical horizons: (a) socio-politically between the Iranian revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of which transformed the theatres of global politics; (b) in terms of generational sensibility, between the 1960s (the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Corps) and the 1990s (the World Wide Web, Gen X and Y entering the labour force as captured by Douglas Coupland (1991), MTV, the first Gulf War, the dot.com and biotech bubbles); (c) between anthropology done in teams of researchers of large projects over several decades, and anthropology done by individuals;1 (d) between the simultaneous entry onto the American academic stage of structuralism and poststructuralism at The Johns Hopkins University's 1966 conference, "The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" (Macksey and Donato 1972)2 and the introduction in the 1990s of the World Wide Web, the digital and genomics revolutions, and the shift of focus from interdisciplinary conversations between anthropology and the humanities in the 1980s to ones in the 1990s with the sciences, science studies, new biologies, comparative media studies, and studies of the global political economy ("globalization").

4. Corpus

In my own trajectories, ACC became the first of a trilogy of volumes on anthropology as cultural critique, ethnographic methods, and the mutations and evolution of social theory articulating the historical and ethnographic contexts from which they arose. …