The Saint, the Sea Monster, and an Invitation to a Diner-Dansant: Ethnographic Reflections on the Edgy Passage -- and the Double Edge -- of Modernity, Mayotte 1975-2001

Article excerpt

Keywords: modernity, temporal experience, the unheimlich, Mayotte

This paper addresses the theme of the 2003 conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society (OASCA), "On Edge: Anthropology in Troubling Times" at which it was delivered.(1) The times are indeed troubled, but it is important not to allow our own edginess to overwhelm or displace our reporting on the concerns of others nor to mistake our anxieties for theirs. We should remember that times have often been troubling, the future uncertain, people on edge. We call this condition history.

Insofar as edginess is the opposite of complacency, it is not necessarily a bad thing. We can be on edge in the way that a coin is, not concealing what lies beneath us, and ready to roll. I take edginess to be a sign, albeit ironic, of some kind of historical consciousness, or self-consciousness, where what comes without saying does not go without saying. I am not making large claims for this consciousness, not imputing revolutionary agency to it. But from the point of view of practice theorists who criticize the excessive weight that others have placed on abstract rational thought, consciousness may be an index of a certain loss of knowledge, of no longer being able to perform our social roles with the ease of intuition that is born of extended cultivation and habit (Flyvbjerg, 2001). Edginess implies having to think twice. Still, it may be a little more hopeful than the sort of consciousness of which those who know their history know that they are condemned to repeat it. It is a consciousness comprised of brief glimpses, flashes of insight, sporadic attempts to make a difference. Edginess is a mode of intention poised between ethics and anxiety and ready to slide in either direction.

The edginess experienced by anthropologists no doubt has many sources. One that stems from changing conceptions of our profession has been anticipated in the observation by literary critic Erich Auerbach that, "The scholar who does not consistently limit himself to a narrow field of specialization and to a world of concepts held in common with a small circle of like-minded colleagues, lives in the midst of a tumult of impressions and claims on him; for the scholar to do justice to these is almost impossible" (1969, as cited by Said 1975: 36). That is a good reason to hunker down in ethnographic specificity. Indeed, this essay explores two sites at which the edginess of rapid social change has flashed into consciousness among villagers in the western Indian Ocean island of Mayotte whose lives I have tracked since 1975. In other words, I propose to offer fragments of the history of a community that is in part a history of its own historical consciousness.... It is long-term fieldwork that enables this particular kind of conjunction of history and anthropology. This is an articulation characterized precisely by the refusal of "ethnographic refusal" (Ortner, 1995) evident in the invisible standpoint of the genealogist or the abstractions of the pure deconstructionist.

Modernity: The Video

Imagine yourself set down behind a video camera in a tropical island of the Comoro Archipelago in the Mozambique Channel, panning from the verdant slopes of the interior to the bustle of the new port, then following the weekly delivery truck from the Coca-Cola bottling plant along the paved road to the community that was once a remote village. Perhaps every anthropologist who has returned to a field site over as long a period as I have thinks they have been privy to documenting radical social transformation.(2) The closer one is to a set of phenomena, the larger the changes look. In my case, the changes I have observed have indeed been decisive. My sketch of this transformation here is of course limited, images along a single transection through a complex historical process. At the outset I find myself in the classic Weberian position of ambivalence: wanting to tell the story without undue moralizing and realizing how impossible this is on both epistemological and personal grounds. …