Fieldwork and the Native Informant: A Review of Culture at Large 2017

Photo by Daniel Mennerich, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Fieldwork and the Native Informant

Organizers: Eleana Kim (University of California, Irvine) and Zeynep Gürsel (Macalester College)

Featured Guest: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Columbia University)

Discussants: Rosalind Morris (Columbia University), Juan Obarrio (Johns Hopkins University), Lisa Rofel (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Culture@Large is the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s signature contribution to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, in which an influential scholar from outside of the discipline engages in critical discussion with anthropologists.

The Culture@Large roundtable was focused on the life and work of literary theorist and philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and its impact on the discipline of anthropology. Spivak’s opening comments took up two keywords from within the discipline: field and native informant. She said that she was going to “step into territories” in which she saw herself as “ignorant” and to “reinvent the wheel” as she found it useful. Spivak began by addressing the absorption of the word field into the jargon of anthropology. “Technical words are a sedimentation of history,” she said. Words get “lexicalized,” and yet Spivak challenged anthropologists to return the word field to its generality, pointing out that the word has been used to refer to the battlefield and war as far back as the fifteenth century. If the early intention of fieldwork was to take the knowledge project outside the laboratory, anthropology foregrounded the pursuit of others as objects of knowledge rather than dismissing them as barbarians. So what does it mean to do fieldwork today? And how might the slippage between the terms native anthropologist and native informant, both of which were used in the ensuing discussion, mark some of the ambiguities in its practice?

Spivak herself practiced the fieldwork of teaching subalterns (through her work in rural schools in Bengal), trying to acquaint a marginal population with an “intuition of democracy.” With this reflection, Spivak moved the conversation toward the question of action on the part of the scholar-fieldworker—especially in the context of the rise of various forms of fascism the world over. This, she suggested, might consist in the act of transcoding, a term that she did not unpack further. Between fieldwork and transcoding, she suggested, the subaltern gained entry to a politics of refusal through the “back door.” Here, Spivak seemed to be hinting at the cleverness, agility, cunning, and adaptability of the new-age subaltern, who no longer reveals a clear script of resistance. Spivak wrapped up her remarks by pointing us to the postcolonial recoding of the colonial subject, even as funding politics continue to curb projects of translation and linguistic proliferation. She closed with a scathing criticism of the category of the native informant as one that signifies “class continuity” even as they inscribe identity upon a blank slate of knowledge. I found myself pondering my own complicity with the figure of the native anthropologist in the time of late capitalism.

Rosalind Morris began her comments by charting out the journey of the canonical essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In it, Morris said, “subalternity shifted in its significations, from a not being able to speak, to a not being heard—an inaudibility and illegibility for and by power; from an obstructed relation to the state, to a blocked access to power; from a constitutive exclusion to foreclosure, and so forth.” Morris spoke at length about Spivak’s reliance on Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind, and recalled Spivak’s 1986 review of Stanley Diamond’s poetry, in which Spivak calls for the need for civilization to “fold back upon itself.” Morris mined these nooks and crannies of the early Spivak to foreshadow what was coming in Spivak’s work—a strong critique of “nice imperialism,” whether in the language of human-rights activism or of a “less critical anthropology.” Morris responded to Spivak’s critique of fieldwork and its attendant politics by calling for a renewed anthropology that “will not be satisfied merely by the addition of the traces of other utterances in works that render them as objects of knowledge. But it also means not abandoning the traditions of fieldwork and ethnography, within which we must make our own gestures of self-transformation.”

Juan Obarrio took the provocation of Spivak’s recent scholarship to be focused on the concept of the double bind, initially developed by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, which Obarrio argues that Spivak has adapted to address the question of “how to live with contradictory instructions.” Obarrio predicated his comments on the Derridean turn of phrase “what remains,” wondering what, if anything, is still present today of the postindependence political moment that was the context of postcolonial theory. He also interrogated the double bind at the heart of democracy (which Spivak discussed in her Aesthetic Education in an Era of Globalization) and related dyads such as citizen-subject, equality-freedom, and law-violence. Obarrio alluded to the rise of the posthuman condition, a prevalent concern in current anthropology and in Spivak’s work on the humanities, even as he likened the human itself to a “figure of the impossible.” He called for the recuperation of an expanded sense of democracy through Spivak's work on responsiblity toward the Other and on what Spivak calls the “homeopathic inoculation” of socialism, which she has described as a “red thread” throughout her work. Obarrio concluded by referencing the global rise of authoritarian populism, which has gained support from subaltern groups that rematerialize politics by resisting the abstraction of systems of global finance and the rule of law.

Lisa Rofel pointed out the paralyzing impact that Spivak’s analysis of speaking for the subaltern had in some quarters of anthropology. For Rofel, there was no escaping Spivak’s “insistence on our self-examination of how our writing produces the very subjects we analyze.” For some anthropologists, Rofel argued, this challenge slipped into “a certain narcissism, into the idea that only by writing about oneself was one on safe ground.” But Rofel clarified that the intention of Spivak’s move was to produce “a consistent awareness of how our writing produces what we think we are describing and how those representations . . . ‘efface even as they disclose.”” Rofel concluded by taking Spivak’s evocation of activist scholarship as inspiration for anthropological initiatives in three domains: the work of translation, multispecies ethnography, and environmental anthropology.

In a concluding round of comments, Spivak invited the audience to revisit the energy around the subaltern in the figure of the voter whose faculties are being harnessed in the rise of fascist regimes across the globe. I walked out of the session, in part, rejuvenated and, in part, distressed by the “contradictory instructions” that a native anthropologist like me might take from Spivak’s indictment of current anthropology. Anthropology is still studied and taught with a clear demarcation of the globe between centers and peripheries. So perhaps we are still asking, with Spivak, what kind of anthropology subjects of the postcolony can produce, not as research informants but as scholars. What kind of world would it have to be for anthropologists not to have to travel across the world to get a degree, only to return home to find a field?