The Politics of Discursive Authority in Research on the “Invention of Tradition”

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

Jean Jackson (1989) asks, in the title of an essay, "Is There a Way to Talk about Making Culture without Making Enemies?" I think that it would be fair to respond that, generally speaking, the answer is no, and this article explores a number of reasons as to why this is so. My concern here is with scholarly analyses of the "invention of tradition,"and my point of departureis provided by responses to such work by people who see the traditions that are being discussed as their own. It is no secret that these responses have often been critical and at times quite angry. I want to present some ideas as to why anthropologists who lodge critiques that they see as progressive and anticolonialist have been accused of extending legitimations of white, postcolonial forms of discursive domination. These "native" critiques seem to have been largely marginalized or dismissed, and I think wrongly so, because they raise general questions about the politics of representationin scholarship, particularly anthropology. (Briggs, 435)

About the Author

Charles Briggs  is a Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He combines linguistic and medical anthropology with social/cultural anthropology and folkloristics. He has focused on using a variety of critical approaches in exploring how precarious poetics and social constructions of language, communication, and media structure and are structured by everyday life in zones of racialization, power, danger, and often death.

I received my PhD from the University of Chicago in Anthropology in 1981. My research and teaching center on the development of critical perspectives that cross borders_national, disciplinary, epistemological, and the academic/activist divide. I have worked in the United States and Latin America, and I combine linguistic and medical anthropology with social/cultural anthropology and folkloristics. I have explored many topics, but I have focused on using a variety of critical approaches in exploring how precarious poetics and social constructions of language, communication, and media structure and are structured by everyday life in zones of racialization, power, danger, and often death.

New Mexican beginnings

I am from New Mexico, and my early work sprung from community-based efforts to challenge the denial of rights to land, language, and human dignity to Chicano/as. In C¢rdova. residents asked me to document their woodcarving industry, particularly how it turns racism on its head by selling "Anglo" patrons what amount to wooden models of their own stereotypes. The Wood Carvers of C¢rdova, New Mexico, published while I was still a graduate student, won the James Mooney Award. Two books, Competence in Performance and The Lost Gold Mine of Juan Mondrag¢n (with Melaqu°as Romero and Juli†n JosuÇ Vigil), explored how performances of proverbs , jokes, legends , prayers, and songs challenge depictions of Chicanos/as a population left behind by modernity. I reflected back on the gaffs I committed in my early interviews in writing a book, Learning How to Ask, that has helped train generations of interviewers in the United States and Latin America; I recently returned to this topic.

Theories of modernity and traditionality

Richard Bauman and I found that we were both interested in challenging the theoretical foundations of current work on performance . We accordingly reread work in philosophy, linguistics, history, politics, anthropology, folklore, science, and other fields from the 17th-20th centuries to see how constructions of language and the traditional Other have shaped and been shaped by notions of modernity and traditionality. We discovered that models of language and tradition often provide the unannounced foundation on which new political epistemologies are launched and schemes of social inequality are justified. Our Voices of Modernity (2003) won the Edward Sapir Book Prize. This work forms part of my broader theoretical interests in histories and genealogies of cultural and linguistic anthropology.

Ethnographic research in the Delta Amacuro rainforest of Venezuela

In 1995, indigenous residents of the Delta Amacuro rainforest in Eastern Venezuela thought that I might be some value to bilingual education and health projects, so I inaugurated research and collaboration with indigenous communities and activists that continues through the present. Learning the Warao language, I sought to understand people_s struggles for survival in communities in which infant mortality can be as much as 33%. I studied the performance genres that largely confer power on men, including rituals , myths, legends, curing songs , and the ritual wailing that enables women to turn the tables on men_s power . Friends decided to train me as a hoarotu shaman, at which I became fairly proficient. When Venezuelans complained to me that this work appeared in English and was not available to them, I published PoÇticas de vida en espacios de muerte: GÇnero, poder y el estado en la cotidianeidad Warao (The Poetics of Life in Space of Death: Gender, Power, and the State in Warao Everyday Life), which looks at performance, language ideologies, power, and inequality, including how people attempt to shape their relations with "the State" and how State actors construct indigenous people.

Racial profiling in a cholera epidemic

A cholera epidemic killed some 500 people in Delta Amacuro in 1992-1993. Stumbling onto the epidemic, I decided that if my work was ever to be of value, that was the time. I returned for 16 months in 1993 and 1994-1995. Once the epidemic subsided, authorities seemed more interested in suppressing information than addressing the health inequities and injustice. So Clara Mantini, a Venezuelan public health physician, and I researched global medical profiling, on how germs get linked to constructions of racial bodies_with lethal effects. We traced the circulation of narratives that reified links between cholera and social inequality from the delta to Dhaka (Bangladesh) through the media and public health institutions in Delta Amacuro, Caracas, the Pan American Health Organization, and the World Health Organization. Our Stories in the Time of Cholera won the Bryce Wood Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association and the J.I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research.

Infanticide and the politics of violence

In 1994, activists in Delta Amacuro asked me to interview a young woman charged with infanticide. Rather than restating "the facts," she taught me to focus on the politics of how narratives of violence are created and how they circulate. More widely, scandals surrounding infanticide cases became national discourses for reasserting collective constructions of model citizens_and their "monstrous" opposites_in the extremely turbulent Venezuela of the 1990s. I conducted ethnography in police stations, courts, jails, media institutions, and living rooms. But it took me years_and the death of my own daughter, Feliciana_before I could find a way to write about it. I am now finishing a book that theorizes how narratives mediate and mediatize violence, thereby locking us into problematic perspectives and policies. Interviews with mothers in prison helped me explore how alterative narratives of violence might be written.

Socialist health care in Venezuela: Misi¢n Barrio Adentro

When President Hugo Ch†vez Fr°as assumed office in 1999, working-class Venezuelans had very little access to health care. Beginning in 2003, Misi¢n Barrio Adentro (the Inside the Neighborhood Mission), placed doctors, many of them Cuban, in most low-income neighborhoods . Clara Mantini-Briggs and I worked with graduate students in a multi-method study of Barrio Adentro. Its success challenges the common assertion that there are no alternatives to privatization and the withdrawal of the state from health care. Our work sprung from collaboration with researchers and practitioners in the Latin American Social Medicine, collective health, and critical epidemiology movements. (More information wiil be available on our Misi¢n Barrio Adentro Web site).

Health News and Biomedical Publics

Research on the cholera epidemic suggested that press coverage of health issues does a lot more than "communicate" biomedical information to "the public." In collaboration with colleagues in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, the United States , and Venezuela, I am studying how health news shapes conceptions of the body, life, death, race, health, disease, and health care and ideas about what constitutes knowledge about health, who has it, who needs it, and what sorts of rights and obligations its engenders. In the course of this project I developed an analytical perspective that focuses on communicability , social constructions of processes of the production, circulation, and reception of knowledge and discourse. Please check out the Health and Media web site for this project. ˇ

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