Issue 11.4, November 1996

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Essay Excerpt

The papers collected in "Resisting Identities" were submitted and reviewed independently from one another and, in the majority of cases, were submitted to the journal under its previous editor, Fred Myers of New York University. Last summer, while reading through the boxes of manuscripts shipped here from the NYU editorial office, I found that a number of promising manuscripts spoke, in a variety of ways, to the vexed issue of how we, as ethnographers, ought to relate to the identity politics of variously marginalized ethnographic subjects. Should some identities, even if they involve essentializing, be celebrated by ethnographersas acts of resistance by the oppressed? Or should ethnographic analysis position itself as resisting any and all essentialized identities? Together, the papers document that these questions are unsettling for cultural anthropologists working in a wide range of ethnographic contexts and, similarly, that these questions cut across the boundaries of various areal literatures, perhaps more than we otherwise would recognize. The papers do not point to, or converge on, any singular anthropological position, nor do they fall neatly into some pair of opposite sides (e.g., those sympathetic to versus those critical of "strategic essentialism"). Rather, to borrow a resonant metaphor from Jim Boon, these richly ethnographic papers "chromaticize" these difficult questions-productively, I think (n.d.).

Charles Briggs's essay focuses our attention on how constructivist studies of tradition have been received by "people who identify themselves with the traditions in question"(p. 436). Briggs is particularly concerned with highly critical responses to these studies-notably from Haunani-Kay Trask, M. Annette Jaimes, and George Noriega. Following their lead, Briggs argues that anthropological studies of "invention" are likely to discredit and undermine activist leaders of oppressed social groupings. Briggs adds that scholars who analyze the constructed status of traditions generally overlook the extent to which their analyses are dependent upon a privileged position from which to observe, to compare, and, most generally, to obtain and disseminate knowledge. Briggs illustratesthis point with an extended critical examination of his own position in "the field," set in comparison with that of many of the intellectual-activists with whom he has worked in Venezuela.

Just as Briggs's essay emerges from an ongoing dialogue with ethnographized subjects who "speak back" to anthropological writing, Charles Carnegie's essay involves a fruitful destabilizing of the distinction between ethnographer and ethnographic subject and, concomitantly, between "fieldwork" and "homework."In Carnegie's analysis, the contemporary status of the dun- dus-a Jamaican term meaning an albino person of African ancestry-reveals exclusionary and essentialist aspects of Jamaican nationalism, not withstanding this nationalism's historical position as anticolonial and antiracist. Writing from the subject position of both ethnographer and dundus, Carnegie argues that the hyperfragmented status of the dundus precludes the possibility of a liberatory politics based on the formation of some collective dundus identity. Thus, for Carnegie, the dundusis a sortof "zero degree" of identity formation, and it provides, as a result, a diagnostic of the inadequacy of "particularistic" identities as a foundation for human liberation. 

Segal, Daniel. "Resisting Identities: A Found Theme." Cultural Anthropology Vo. 11 no. 4. 1996: (431-434)