An "Imagination of Order": The Suspicion of Structure in Anthropology and Poetry

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In writing ethnography, anthropologists generally assume they are describing a society and reaching some explanatory conclusions, however tentative. Poets, too, observe and offer explanations for what they see around them. This may include more references to their own "internal" imagination or to nature, however socially shaped these are, but poetry like anthropology looks at everyday experience. In this essay, I ask a question: to what degree does this shared gaze, ratcheted down on experience, draw poetry and ethnography, poetics and anthropology closer together?

I focus on contemporary American anthropology and poetry. Observers like Marjorie Perloff in Poetic License note that British poetry, as one example, is more receptive to received forms, that rhyme and meter enjoy preeminence less typical of American poetry since Walt Whitman and especially since World War II. Romanticism and Puritanism retain their sway in American poetry, in part because of their shared emphasis on individualism. Likewise, it should not be surprising--though few social theorists comment on it--that American anthropology is more interested in the personal and more influenced by post-modernism than is British social anthropology. The degree to which British anthropologists focus on institutional analysis or the nuanced rules of kinship can be disconcerting to American anthropologists more enamored of interactionist, cultural, or postmodern accounts.

Although the obvious differences between American ethnography and poetry have seemed, until now at least, to outweigh the similarities, both betray a growing disquiet about received tradition, of an abstract, coherent model of culture and other structures, as well as "traditional" (cultural) poetic forms or ethnographic writing styles. In Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass sees the iamb--the double syllabic foot, short and long, unaccented and accented, at the core of so much classical poetry--as an "imagined order" that has fallen into disfavor:

The pure iamb in fact can't be rendered; it only exists as a felt principle of order, beneath all possible embodiments, in the mind of the listener. It exists in silence, is invisible, unspeakable. An imagination of order. A music of the spheres .... [But] in the course of about a hundred years, the printing press tore the lyric poem away from music and left the poet with the sound of his own voice.

So, too, social theorists have turned suspicious of terms like "structure," "system," or "culture." In The Predicament of Culture James Clifford sees the concept of culture as pure invention and equally untrustworthy: "The concept of culture used by anthropologists was, of course, invented by European theorists.... For all its supposed relativism ... the concept's model of totality, basically organic in structure, was not different from the nineteenth-century concepts it replaced...."

Especially with the impact of post-modernism, poets and ethnographers have shied away from coherent cultural "worldviews." They have discarded analyses of abstract symbols or the use of received forms of writing-criticized as hegemonic or privileged-for looser writing styles and a preoccupation with experience. For poets this often begins with personal experience. For ethnographers, the personal too is coming to the fore; in the jargon of the times, the "I" is less "de-centered." But these days, anthropologists also focus on social practice generally, what people are actually doing.

While this shift toward experience has many salutary benefits, it also gives us an impoverished view of culture, one limited to the knowledge or imagery imminent in experience. Missing is the profound human capacity for spinning transcendent cultural visions about the world, coherent, abstract, essentialist to be sure, but cultural accounts that have enormous power and emotional investment. …