This post builds on the research article “The Postmodern Crisis: Discourse, Parody, Memory,” which was published in the November 1991 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Interview With the Author
CA: What is the purpose of telling stories?
Is there, in fact, a purpose in telling stories? Clearly not. Stories have many purposes, and these purposes – several at a time -- are context dependent and, therefore, change over time. In other words, stories and their purposes have histories. Their purposes are, among others, to entertain; to teach; to give order, to give meaning, to the situation in which speakers, interlocutors, and third-party auditors find themselves or to the situation about which they are talking; to promote a sense of community among them; to simplify or render more complex, indeed to mystify, their circumstances; to deflect, to escape, embarrassment, animosity, or conversational rupture by changing the subject or register of discourse. How often have we sat through q-and-a sessions with anthropologists in which, when stymied by a question, they tell a story about a seemingly but not necessarily relevant episode in their fieldwork. Psychologists and psychoanalysts use case histories in the same way.
Through montage, figuration, and allegorization, stories often express what cannot be said directly. Reference to a story, without recounting it, can often serve similar purposes. Think of the Indian’s reference to colonization in his argument with his Chinese opponents. By simply naming a place, as Keith Basso describes in his marvelous essay, “Speaking with Names,” the Western Apache can evoke a storied event that took place there and by doubled indirection relate that story to present and pressing moral concerns that cannot be directly expressed. Stories can, of course, configure silences; indeed the silent surround of all conversational events.
Do we simply respond to the situation in which we find ourselves? Or do we respond to the anticipation of a story? (We are blessed with the future perfect. It is a tricky tense. It gives us a prophetic dimension. It implies a story: the story of what is likely to happen or is desired or dreaded.) We can lose ourselves in anticipation of, in recounting, or in reflecting on that story. Is it possible to separate fully the story and our reflections on it? However their content, their plot, relates to the situation in which we find ourselves, stories also serve rhetorical purposes. They are creatively indexical. They not only reflect a context but they cast it.
CA: What do stories want?
Presumably they want to be told – to be given voice. But do they want anything? Are they imprisoned in the attribution of intention? Can they escape personification? Can we avoid personifying them? What are the epistemic, the hermeneutic, consequences of this personification? Does it foster intimacy between our stories and us? Stories allure, that, I believe, we can say. Cave! I have not even asked what a story is.
CA: Is ethnography an art?
Ought we not to distinguish ethnography as an academic discipline from doing and writing ethnography? As an academic discipline, at least in the United States (and we have to recognize our parochialism) it is an arena of contestation in which science and the humanities -- science and art -- confront each other. Science has, of course, the (economic) clout.
After I had written Tuhami, I was introduced at conferences as a writer and an anthropologist: never as an anthropologist and a writer. Was this simply a question of sonority? I think not, but those attitudes have been by-passed. Or have they?
My point is that the contestation between science and art affects them both. There is, in the theological sense, an apologetic, if not a defensive, dimension to ethnography s written. I cannot speak for others who do ethnography, but I am quite certain that this contestation influenced my field research and my findings, It is not a simply a question of rigor, systematicity, or objectivity. I am haunted, less so today than when I was a student, by the parti-pris of my interlocutors – my mentors, colleagues, and other insistent figues. Yet, in my most recent fieldwork, with the Harkis, I was troubled by questions of objectivity, even though I tend to look at claims of objectivity with considerable skepticism. I question the objectivity of objectivity. Wasn’t it Goethe who called attention to the fact that objectivity is subjectivity grasped?
But to answer the question: the doing of ethnography is an art as living is an art. We live our field research, despite methodological mystification. This is not to deny the importance of method and methodology. They -- their enactment -- are minimally social facts and have to be taken as such. They must not blind us, however, to the lived dimension of our research – to the lived resistance to order, coherence, and continuity. That too is a social fact. Ethnography has always to loop back, self-critically, on itself.
Yes, within our culture, the writing of ethnography is an art as is all literature. It is, despite itself, a literary form; in fact, a constellation of literary forms.
CA: How does taking a writerly approach to ethnography shape knowledge?
As writing, as literature, as communication, ethnography inevitably shapes (as it is shaped by) knowledge. As an approach to knowledge, the focus on writing, as the critics of the writing-culture movement quite correctly noted, even if they misconstrued it, deflects the ethnographer’s findings. But these findings cannot be divorced from their mode of communication. It is finally a matter of stress
CA: How has writing ethnography changed over the last twenty-five years?
I would rather ask how the writing of ethnography has changed since the Fifties. It has loosened up and, as such, become much more responsive to the subtleties of field research as well as to the perspective and presumptive engagement of the ethnographer. It has certainly become far more self-reflective and self-critical. It tends, however, not to appreciate fully the defensive nature reflection and critique can have. What brings them to a halt?
I have pushed back in time the period under consideration, because I believe that the influence of the Black liberation movements, feminism, gender and gay studies, and the internationalization of anthropology as a discipline on the writing and evaluation of ethnography is far greater than the writing-culture movement or developments in literary theory and hermeneutics. It is, of course, difficult to separate the latter from the former. Not only did these movements, particularly feminism, broaden the range of ethnographic writing, writing more generally, its self-critical stance, and acknowledgement of the writer’s – the ethnographer’s – social and political commitment.Would it not be more productive to ask how has the reading of ethnography changed over these years?
CA: If you were to teach a course on literature and anthropology, what would your students read?
I have never taught such a course, though I have taught many courses that address both students of anthropology and literature. I would certainly not restrict the reading to ethnographies to works in literary theory. I would include realist novels (Balzac, Zola), whose influence on ethnography has not been explored, as well as those that challenge nineteenth century literary forms (Faulkner, Marquez); travel literature (Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, for one); literary journalism (my wife Jane Kramer’s Whose Art Is It? If only because I lived through its making) and life histories (e.g., Freud’s ”Wolf Man”, Desjarlais’ Sensory Biographies, my own Tuhami). As for ethnographies, I would assign self-consciously literary ethnographies (e.g. Michael Jackson’s Excursions, Roger Bartra’s Cage of Melancholy, Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques) and less self-consciously literary ethnographies like Malinowski’s Argonauts, Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer, Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Maria Vesperi’s City of the Green Benches, and Stoller’s Fusion of the Worlds. Through close readings, I would look at the way genre, convention, style, and figuration “construct” the ethnography. My emphasis would, however, be on craft rather than on theory.
CA: Both your 1991 CA article and your recent work on the roles of narrative among several generations of Harki immigrants speak to the intersection of narrative and colonialism and postcolonialism. How has your understanding of this intersection evolved since “The Postmodern Crisis: Discouse, Memory, Parody”?
This is the most difficult of your questions, since I lack a vantage point with which I am comfortable to view the development of my own writing. I have become more cynical, more despairing, more sensitive to the tragic dimension of the human life from which we so often hide in shallow optimism and facile hope rather than in confronting it squarely and act accordingly. No doubt my pessimism is reflected in my more recent writing.
That vision aside -- it is near-impossible to hold it for long -- I think that I have become more willing to express what I took (and “knew” empathetically) to be going through the minds of the people with whom I worked. I cannot say whether this is a result of the freedom that comes with age or working with the Harkis. Silence, innuendo, ellipsis, and unfinished, fragmented sentences played an important rhetorical role in our conversations. I had to learn to hear the unsaid and perhaps even the unsayable. I don’t think we can ignore this dimension of human engagement. We have to recognize the effect of what I have called shadow dialogues -- the inner mentation that accompanies all encounters -- and treat our imaginings of what transpires in the mind of the other, with caution and epistemic humility, to be sure, as ethnographic facts. Reading between the lines, so to speak, is an essential dimension of human consociation.
My two books, written thirty years apart, that engage directly with colonialism and post-colonialism, Waiting: the Whites of South Africa, which was a study of whites in apartheid South Africa, and The Harkis: The Wound that Never Heals, which looks at those Algerians who fought as auxiliaries in the French army during Algeria’s war of independence, are quite different if only because I had very different attitudes towards both populations. My research in South Africa was limited by the racial politics of the country. It was carried out in a surround of violence and mistrust with people whose blatant racism I despised. I was watched, particularly during my first trip. I could not write the book I wanted to, which ideally would have included people of color. Not only did I have little access to them, but I risked endangering their lives if I were to spend much time with them. (The South African government was always looking for victims to torture and imprison whenever a crisis -- they were frequent – occurred.) My book’s content reflected inevitably the separation fostered by apartheid itself. I chose a multi-voiced approach both to give the people I worked with their own voice and to separate my own several voices from theirs. It was a poor compromise. In a sense, I was in a highly attenuated way, a victim of (colonial) dominance as I found that, despite their privilege, the whites were victims (too strong a word, no doubt) of their dominant position. We sometimes forget that both the dominated and the dominant are caught in a system of domination. The whites’ stories of violence and a future blood bath, if they were to lose control of the government, haunted them. Not only did they express fear, but they also supported their racist politics. Paradoxically, both the English and the Afrikaners cast themselves as victims in their stories, not of the Africans, but of each other. They were entrapped in their deflection.
In the Harki case, I was treating a population after the fact – the war, their abandonment by the French at the war’s end in 1962, the massacre of tens of thousands of them by the Algerian population at large, and their eventual incarceration in camps in ln France. Poor, illiterate peasants fore the most part, they had been duped by the French and were permanently scared by that dupery. The dupery itself can perhaps be seen as a last gasp of a colonial power, but it has to be placed within the rage generated by colonialism itself when that rage could no longer be contained. The Harkis themselves, those who survived the massacres, were obsessed by their betrayal and abandonment by the French. In France they were a population apart, living among a people who, as the Harkis put it, strove to render them invisible. Dispersed throughout the country, they formed a community of memory that was united by their story, one that subsumed their individual stories. The stories were the site of the old Harkis’ ruminations and their children’s outrage. Their story, as it was told at their protests and at their commemorations, was not just a cry for recognition but a political weapon. So often repeated. it lost, so at least it seemed to me, its élan and political effectiveness. Though the Harkis would not admit it, they knew. I am sure, that their ever-fading story would become at most a footnote in history. The loss of story and the identity that comes with it is one of the most devastating legacies of colonialism in its postcolonial setting.
A Concluding Note: I want to recall Heidegger’s insistence that the answer to a question lies in the question itself. We have to ask the question of the question and risk passage through that question.