Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Limits of Cultural Hybridity: On Ritual Monsters, Poetic Licence and Contested Postcolonial Purifications

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Limits of Cultural Hybridity: On Ritual Monsters, Poetic Licence and Contested Postcolonial Purifications

Article excerpt

There are many parallels between hybridity theory, especially as it has been developed in the work of Bhabha, and theories of liminality in anthropology, particularly in the work of Turner and Douglas. These share a stress on sited performance and the specific positioning of actors. However, the stress in hybridity theory on the colonial encounter as the source of reflexivity and double consciousness does not engage, I argue, with the fact that cultures produce their own indigenous forms of transgression and hence also of critical reflexivity and satire: ritual clowns, carnivals, poetry, and the like. Moreover, while transgression is a potential tool of resistance which upturns taken-for-granted hierarchies, it plays dangerously on the boundary and, taken out of context, can become a source of offence, especially for postcolonial diasporas struggling for recognition. This raises the question: what are the creative limits of cultural hybridity?

In order to be institutionally effective as a discipline, the knowledge of cultural difference must be made to foreclose on the Other; ... The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse. However impeccably the content of an 'other' culture can he known, however anti-ethnocentrically it is represented, it is its location as the closure of grand theories, the demand that, in analytic terms, it be always the good object of knowledge, the docile body of difference, that reproduces a relation of domination and is the most serious indictment of the institutional powers of critical theory (Bhabha 1994: 31).

We are by now all too familiar with critiques of 'colonial anthropology', from Asad's (1973) early deconstructivist exposure of British anthropology's apparent collusion with the colonial project, to the denunciation by the authors of Writing culture of modernist anthropology's false claims to ethnographic authority (Clifford 1988; Clifford & Marcus 1986; Marcus & Fischer 1988). [1] The most recent assault has come from postcolonial studies; as in the quotation above, colonial anthropologists, among others (Bhabha lists Montesquieu, Barthes, Kristeva, Derrida, and Lyotard), are accused of denying oppositional agency to the 'other', the power to signify, negate, and initiate historic desire. Yet while these critiques urge us to recognize the historicity of culture, they appear to construct their own historical narrative through an act of amnesia, an erasure from memory and history of a particular strand of British social anthropology that moved away from descriptions of enclosed cultures to an open and explic it focus, from 1940 onwards, on colonial administration, race relations, urbanization, labour migration, 'tribalism', political ethnicity and social movements. Dominant in this trend were anthropologists associated with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Central Africa (on 'the Manchester School', as it came to be known, see Hannerz 1980; R. Werbner 1990).

The erasure is significant. However, here I want to go beyond that act of forgetfulness in order to argue that the infinitesimal details of a local culture with its seemingly arcane rituals and mythologies, as studied by key modernist anthropologists, were also ways of reflecting upon oppositional agency, transgression, and cultural reflexivity. Far from denying the very possibility of critical consciousness, modernist anthropology afforded insight into how, in apparently closed societies, ritual performances and myths enacted ambivalences of power and paradoxes of sociality.

Cultural hybridity, liminality, and transgression, key tropes animating my argument, have dominated recent writings in cultural and postcolonial studies. In many senses this has revitalized the focus on topics of enduring interest to anthropology and illuminated them in news ways. As in some of my earlier work (e.g. P. …

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