Refractions of the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Essay Excerpt

This essay argues that popular images of an alien culture are valuable sources of anthropological understanding on several fronts. First, the history of such images reminds us that anthropologists are not the only brokers of cultural representation; even as we affirm or challenge other sources of representation, we can never entirely exorcise their presence in the world preceding and extending beyond academe (Said 1978; Trouillot 1991). Geographical areas of which we are specialists are not merely contained in the bindings of ethnographies or journals; they surface also in magazine articles, postcards, tourist brochures, and cartoons. In fact, since such images may unconsciously inform scholarly representations, it is instructive to scrutinize rather than ignore them. Second, indigenous dimensions of meaning may be drained out of such images when they travel. Strategically manipulated by a variety of groups within a host culture to make points that may only tangentially refer to the implicated Other, such images are recast around internal cultural debates. Third, tracing popular images of a particular distant Other through time and across space reminds us that transregional flows of "public culture" (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1989; Appadurai 1990, 1991) have been a powerful force in both the representation and constitution of cultures in both colonial and postcolonial times. Richard Fox's reflection that at this historical moment "the close-to-home constantly intermixes with the far-from-home, and often it is not worthwhile deciding which is which" (1991:5) may actually be extended back to eras which were not as self-consciously postmoder. Reminding us that cultures have never had clear-cut boundaries, traveling images break down rigid binary oppositions between "home" and "the field," "Us" and "Them," "Self" and "Other" as spatially segregated locales (cf. Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Mohanty 1989) (477).

Narayan, K. "Refractions of the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries." Cultural Anthropology 8.4(1993): 476–509.

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