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The Ethnographer's Story: Mama Day and the Specter of Relativism

By Blyn, Robin | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Ethnographer's Story: Mama Day and the Specter of Relativism


Blyn, Robin, Twentieth Century Literature


Ethnographic writings can be properly called fictions in the sense of "something made or fashioned."... But it is important to preserve the meaning not merely of making, but also of making up, of inventing things not actually real.

--James Clifford, "Partial Truths" (6)

It ain't about right or wrong, truth or lies; it's about a slave woman who brought a whole new meaning to both them words, soon as you cross over here from beyond the bridge.

--Gloria Naylor, Mama Day (3)

Nowhere is the relationship between cross-cultural exchange and interdisciplinary method more contentious, perhaps, than in contemporary ethnography's anxious alliance with prose fiction. For at stake in both is the production and interpretation of narrative. Insofar as ethnographic experiments in storytelling are asked to correct the protocols of an outdated universalism and its untenable claims to scientific objectivity, they court a radical relativism that evokes profound discomfort even in anthropology's most post-structurally minded self-critiques. If, as James Clifford suggests, fiction and ethnography are equivalent discursive constructs, wherein lies the authority of the ethnographer? What separates the "partial truths" of the ethnography from "mere literature" ("Partial Truths" 6, 26)?

Gloria Naylor's 1988 novel Mama Day represents postmodern fiction's explicit entry into debates about ethnographic authority. In its constructions of both the subject and the object of ethnography, Naylor's novel focuses on the threat of cultural relativism as seen from the "native's point of view." (1) Contrary to anthropology's most celebrated meta-criticism, Mama Day reveals that the most urgent threat of relativism is not the resulting tenuousness of Western ethnography's "truths" but the veiled power structure that holds them in place and the consequent political impact they have on non-Western populations. That power structure, Mama Day insists, is indebted to the rhetorical confusion of space and time conventionalized in Western ethnography. As it underscores the spatial and temporal vicissitudes of the particular mode of transculturation we currently call ethnography, Naylor's novel makes visible the paradoxical confirmation of Western hegemony enacted under the aegis of cultural relativism itself. Mo reover, as it claims its own autoethnographic authority, Mama Day dramatizes the rhetorical construction of cultural autonomy as a radically transcultural undertaking shaped to changing political exigencies. Effectively, Mama Day offers in the form of the novel the same critique of cultural relativism that was articulated in the discourse of postcolonial theory in the years immediately following the novel's publication. (2) In contrast to the postcolonial critique of the postmodern, however, Naylor's novel refuses to disown the very relativism it so energetically interrogates. Critiquing and celebrating relativism at different turns, Mama Day underscores the need for a model of cross-cultural interpretation that respects the distinctions between political autonomy and cultural autonomy even as it makes visible the complexities that attend such a project.

Incitements to relativism

Although Naylor's novel begins with the cautionary tale of a misguided ethnographer mocked by the very people he has come to study, literary criticism has remained conspicuously silent about Mama Day's engagement with the charged debates about ethnographic authority occurring at precisely the time of the novel's publication. Like Mama Day, James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture was published in 1988, and both texts can be seen as responses to a decade of anthropological self--interrogation spurred by the uneven interdisciplinary assimilation of poststructural theory and ethnography's peculiar status as a "blurred genre." (3) In 1983, for example, Johannes Fabian published his book Time and the Other, a text that begins with an injunction to the discipline to "rediscover the obvious, namely that there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, [and] a political act" (1).

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