Decolonizing the Mind: Schwimmer, Habermas and the Anthropology of Postcolonialism

By Clammer, John | Anthropologica, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Decolonizing the Mind: Schwimmer, Habermas and the Anthropology of Postcolonialism


Clammer, John, Anthropologica


Abstract: Running through the anthropological work of Eric Schwimmer is a constant encounter with postcolonialism. Unlike the more conventional forms of postcolonial theory, Schwimmer draws on a vocabulary derived from symbolic anthropology, semiotics, the anthropology of religion and most recently ecology. In doing so he has provided a theory of the role of ontologies in framing the negotiated sociocultural predicaments of posteolonial.societies rooted in his ethnographic work in Melanesia and Polynesia and with indigenous peoples and settlers in Quebec. This essay explores this dimension of Schwimmer's work and develops a comparison between his approach to the decolonization of the mind and that of Jurgen Habermas. In doing so it attempts to show both the innovative and nuanced nature of Schwimmer's posteolonial anthropology and its utility in addressing the issues of globalization, the successor to colonialism as the current world transformative movement.

Keywords: Schwimmer, Habermas, postcolonialism, ontologies, semiotics, globalization

Résumé : Les questions postcoloniales sont toujours au centre de l'oeuvre anthropologique d'Éric Schwimmer. Ce dernier se distingue des courants théoriques post-coloniaux habituels en puisant dans le vocabulaire de l'anthropologie symbolique, de la sémiotique, de l'anthropologie de la religion et plus récemment, de l'écologie. Ce faisant, il a développé une théorie sur le rôle des ontologies dans la définition des difficiles situations socioculturelles négociées dans lesquelles se retrouvent les sociétés post-coloniales. Cette théorie prend racine dans le travail ethnographique de Schwimmer en Mélanésie et en Polynésie, ainsi que dans les recherches qu'il a menées sur les Autochtones et les colons du Québec. Le présent article explore cette dimension de l'uvre de Schwimmer et établit un parallèle entre sa vision de la décolonisation de l'esprit et celle que propose Jurgen Habermas. Ainsi, l'article vise à mettre en relief le caractère innovateur et nuancé de l'anthropologie postcoloniale de Schwimmer ainsi que sa capacité à rendre compte des questions liées à la mondialisation, phénomène qui a succédé au colonialisme en tant qu'agent de transformation du monde contemporain.

Mots-clés : Schwimmer, Habermas, postcolonialisme, ontologies, sémiotique, mondialisation

Postcolonial discourse has left anthropology curiously untouched. While the subject of the relationship of anthropology to the colonial process, and in particular the issue of its role in promoting forms of colonial policy and practice through its generation of knowledge about subjugated peoples, has been keenly debated for some considerable time (Asad 1973, Copans 1975), anthropological (as opposed to say historical) investigations of the actual cultures of colonialism are much rarer (for a notable exception see Thomas 1994), and close studies of the cultures of postcolonialism and the deep cultural dilemmas and fissures that they embody are rarer still. As a consequence, Geertz, amongst others, has found it reasonable to challenge the work of many of the modern classics of anthropology for their implicated role in, or at least silence about, the very colonial conditions that made their researching and writing possible in the first place (Geertz 1988).

The result has been a curious hiatus between "postcolonial studies," which has emerged as a discourse with its own specific language, founding and sustaining fathers and mothers, body of citations and organic relationships to literary criticism, history and geography, but with little reference to anthropology (for example Williams and Chrisman 1993, HaU 2000), and anthropology itself-self-declared authority (at least until the coming of cultural studies, with its own close links to postcolonial studies) on culture and with a long history of involvement in colonial and postcolonial contexts, about which it appears to manifest more guilt than creative or re-creative engagement. …

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