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


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. Anthropology as a whole has, as a result, been weak in its engagement with colonial and postcolonial social formations, and has tended instead to channel its contemporary political commitments in the directions of feminist anthropology, development, the critique of essentialism and culturalist explanations or a cosying up to what is perceived as the much more critical field of cultural studies (see for example the essays collected in Moore 2000, not one of which touches on postcolonialism, globalization or the current range of social and ecological crises that the world very demonstrably is confronting).

A notable exception to these silences and evasions has been Eric Schwimmer. His work is of particular interest in this context precisely because, while not positioned as postcolonial criticism, it does in fact exemplify a deeply anthropological enquiry into the ethnography of colonialism and of the postcolonial heritages experienced, suffered and negotiated by peoples who have been colonized, and who subsequently and up into the current era of globalization, are attempting to reconstruct their cultures, identities and senses of self-worth, and to recover thenown histories, languages, mythologies, rituals, art and philosophies, after experiencing the ruptures of invasion, dispossession and marginalization imposed on them by the imperial project of modernity and "civilization." In a distinguished group of studies that have encompassed the Maori peoples of New Zealand and the Orokaiva of Papua New Guinea in great ethnographic depth, and the Basques, Québécois and Minangkabau with a broader brush, Schwimmer has constantly and at a number of levels which I will attempt shortly to draw out, interrogated postcolonialism and has implicitly suggested new models for its analysis that deepen and expand more conventional postcolonial studies (see Schwimmer 1965, 1966, 1968, 1973,1992,1995,2004a, 2004b and 2004c for some major examples).

Two things stand out in this approach. The first is the constant attention to the postcolonial situation. As himself a geographically and culturally displaced person, Schwimmer's work shows a constant sensitivity and delicacy when dealing with the negotiation of postcoloniality on the part of its minoritized subjects, and in fact, although not flagged as such, a large part of his work represents a subtie anthropological variety of postcolonial theory. …

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