Commentary: Concrete Topographies

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

There is the somewhat stronger problematic fact that an ethnography "is not the author's cognitive utopia since no author can fully control the reader's responses" (1986:138). It bears on Rabinow's observation that if we "attempt to eliminate social referentiality, other referents will occupy the voided position" (1986:251), although I refer to referentiality in a very general way. The question is not just about the range of past individual experiences that affect the writing and reading of ethnography but about the inescapable consequences of their prior arrangement.

If one may so personify them, holism and structure guide not only the devices by which anthropologists of a particular generation arranged their texts; we may recognize their workings in the mind that thinks itself open to concrete experience, prepared to register the fragmentary and incomplete nature of life. The ideas through which experienceis recalled as "experience" hardly form a flat-land-ordered, sequenced, and connected to one another, impressions cannot be flattened by fiat. We know this from the fate of a number of anthropological ideas that try to convey the otherwise ineffable character of particular ethnographic locations.

The concrete attachment of particular analytical concepts to particular cultures and societies looks on the surface as nothing more than the registration of that concreteness-this place suggests ideas about pollution, that place is best grasped through understanding hierarchy or caste. Indeed, on the surface, the anthropologist's global experience is thus properly fragmented by these disparate instances of the concrete. Yet to trace the outlines of the topography so produced suggests that the perception of instances entails its own structuring. We should look to the facility of the anthropologis to concretize certain ideas as though they arose from local experience. (Strathern, 88-89)

About the Author

Marilyn Strathern is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a British feminist anthropologist, who has worked largely with the natives of Papua New Guinea and dealt with issues in the UK of reproductive technologies. Born Ann Marilyn Evans in 1941, Marilyn Strathern is an internationally known anthropologist who has taught in England, United States, and Australia. Her work as a feminist anthropologist has pushed open doors and minds in thinking about the implications of new birthing technologies and gender roles in Melanesia and the United Kingdom.

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