Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Anthro-Signifying at the Millennium

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Anthro-Signifying at the Millennium

Article excerpt

Introduction: Interpretive Language and Cultures

Have interpretive anthropologists completely given up on shared, formal ways of apprehending expressive forms? Interpretive orthodoxies of the past, despite their drawbacks, ensured the reproduction of the discipline by providing a reasonably effective tool kit any member could dip into and use. What among today's vanishing signs, mimetic doublings, and frequent dialogues approaches the scope, power, and richness of Turner's architectonics of the symbol or Geertz's thick description? The issue of sharedness emerges in a particular context that colors perception of the problem - the erosion of anthropological distinction. Other disciplines have appropriated the topic of culture and broadened it to include everything from TV sets to corporate mindsets. Our methods too have been widely diffused while anthropology fragmented into anthropologies.

Anthropology has always reproduced itself in the engagement between the two senses of the word "field" in the phrases "fieldwork" and "field of inquiry." The first refers to a laborious process of experiencing what is "out there"; the other implies a coherent space of communicative possibility. Together, they enable practitioners to connect their experiences of often widely separated communities into meaningful wholes. Solutions to the often-asked question, What is anthropology? which offer "the culture concept" or ethnography as operational definitions, provoke dissatisfaction because they fail to grasp this relational basis. They reduce anthropology to an essence, either cognitive or empirical, and preach its transmission to the next generation. The question to ask is: Without essentialism, how can anthropologists secure the reproduction of our own distinctiveness?

These questions arise from reading two volumes that speak powerfully to each other about cultural anthropologies of the future and past. Rhetorics of self-making (1995), edited by Debbora Battaglia, and The dialogic emergence of culture (1995), edited by Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim, are both the result of invited sessions (1992 and 1984 respectively) at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Intertextual and insightful, each takes a different but comparable tack toward denaturing the discipline, and so the two effectively comment upon one another.' The Battaglia volume, hereafter RHETORICS, is engaged in "seeking to privilege subjects' modes of knowledge and experience" (p. 1). The Tedlock and Mannheim volume, hereafter DIALOGIC, abandons the "apt quotation" for a collaborative enterprise that includes the "native interpreter" (p. 3) on equal dialogic footing. When read together they suggest a more comprehensive vision of ethnographic practice than either does separately.

The boldest shared component of this vision is the promotion of what we might call a "virtuous alliance" between ethnographer and informant - the ethnographer makes her professional virtuosity concrete in sophisticated readings of the interpretive virtues of her informants. The two key participants in the construction of the text, the author/ethnographer and native/informant, mirror each other's cultural virtuosity and political virtue. This changes the preferred textual devices for representing culture to dialogue, sympathetic characterization, appreciation of native agency, and plain, outspoken partisanship. Balanced with this affiliation is a rupture between practitioners and their disciplinary traditions conveyed through the literary devices of critique and conversion. So the anthropologist exits the ivory tower for the messy, tragic, political world. On this both volumes agree.

They disagree, however, on where the emphasis should fall in this new ethnographic practice. Should we continue to value traditional versions of ethnography? What problems are the most exciting ones for future research? Which theoretical traditions deserve salvaging? …

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