Postmodernism's Brief Moment in History

By Barrett, Stanley R. | Anthropologica, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism's Brief Moment in History

Barrett, Stanley R., Anthropologica

Postmodernism was not the first perspective to attack the positivistic ambitions (or pretenses) of anthropology, or to take direct aim at the discipline's twin pillars: culture and fieldwork. Yet the postmodernists marched into battle with an array of weapons that had never before been assembled together with such devastating impact. Prominent among these were various faces of power - authority, discourse, resistance and representation - subsumed within a textual analysis derived from literary theory and joined by a call for experimental writing and a rejuvenated relativism, all of which were meant to rescue "the Other" from the rapacious designs of ethnographers, and to serve notice that the metanarratives of the West, especially science, were on the wane.

Like many of my colleagues, I was initially skeptical of the relevancy of a perspective that had its roots in literary criticism. That all changed when I sat down and read Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986). It addressed ethical issues in the discipline that for a long time had bothered me, not least of all the lingering coloniallike disparity between the power and authority of the ethnographer and "the native," as well as the two-faced character of fieldwork: building friendships for instrumental reasons, namely data collection and potential fame.

Certainly the blitzkrieg that was postmodernism overwhelmed mainstream anthropology almost overnight, winning converts and intimidating resistere. Yet a quarter of a century after the publication of Writing Culture, the revolution launched by what used to be known as the English Department has run its course, with only the odd combatant left to remind us what the battle was all about. Such has been the short-lived impact of postmodernism that if mainstream anthropology does not come to its rescue and attempt to salvage those aspects of its program that deserve to endure, it may fade from the scene with hardly a trace.

Promises, Promises

Let us examine how the major tenets of postmodernism have stood up to the test of time, beginning with authority. For much of their history, anthropologists assumed that they had both a capacity and a mandate to represent the lives of people in other cultures, who presumably were incapable of speaking for themselves. The anthropologist's authority, as Clifford insightfully revealed, is reinforced by a stylistic device intrinsic to ethnography. First, there is a personal, subjective account which establishes to the reader that the heroic scholar was actually in the field, face-to-face with "the natives." Then the brief personal remarks give way to the supposedly objective presentation of data and analysis, a scientific account unblemished by personality or idiosyncratic experience.

Challenges to the ethnographer's authority came from two directions. In a world that was increasingly literate, "the natives" began to talk back. At the same time the postmodernists argued that ethnographies actually have multiple authors: the field worker and the people under investigation whose voices are suppressed. Out of this analysis emerged a plea for dialogic texts or plural authorship in which "the natives" and the researcher become equal partners in the production of knowledge.

Had the practice of joint authorship caught on, a large chunk of the ethical dilemma that bedevils the discipline would have fallen by the wayside, but that was not to be. For all the talk about dialogue and multiple voices, the ethnographer remained firmly in control, determining the tone, content and organization of her or his monograph. Even Clifford's own texts, Rabinow pointed out (1986), are not dialogical. The verdict that the goal of plural authorship has not been realized becomes less surprising when we remember that Clifford himself (1983: 140) fully recognized that the author remains in the "executive, editorial position," and alluded to dialogic texts as an unattainable utopia.

Following the contributions of Foucault and Said on discourse and representation, postmodernists brought to our attention the political nature of language, deconstructed essences such as culture in order to expose the underlying power relations, and alerted us to the vested interests intrinsic to the practice of representation. …

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