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Week 1 Marcus

Week 2 Marcus

Week 3 Moore

Week 4 Moore

Week 5 Schneider

Week 6 Schneider Paper

Week 7 Spivak

Week 8 Spivak

Week 9 Parker

Week 10 Parker

Week 12 Lem

Week 13 Lem

Week 14 Gupta

Week 15 Gupta

Final Paper Elders

Resource Links

Victoria Kline
January 26, 2005
Seminar in Ethnology
Dr. Pérez

Rereading Culture: Week 1


Required reading consists of introducing the origin of the volume: articles selected from writings published in the journal Cultural Anthropology from 1986-1991. The book is divided into topics, the first being critiques, the largest body of essays. Then come topics of reaction, witnessing, poetics, emergent culture (metamorphosis), circulations (affects of globalization), and media. The editor, George Marcus, gives a brief preview of each chapter.

Part I Critiques:

On Being Out of Words by Stephen A. Tyler

As an introduction to the collected volume of essays, this is a short, concise statement about the ambiguity of language. This is a very well written essay, using lots of literary devices, to show how unclear we can be when writing about another culture. Tyler writes that anthropologists writing in the current volume have fallen into two camps of thinking about how writing has affected the way we describe other cultures, or “tropes that legitimate and justify thought and action” (1).

Tyler says there are two “master tropes” or styles of discourse that anthropologists currently employ to engage in discussions about cultural topics. First, written language abstracted the means by which humans communicated. Verbal discourse became secondary in status to the written word. The human interaction of engaging with each other through words as a way of connection was subsumed by the ability to communicate and make permanent, symbols and signs used to represent meaning. The beginning of civilization, the written word, changed humans from savage to civilized; liberated humans from nature, but alienated them from nature at the same time.

The second trope: even though the above is true, that writing became the way to encapsulate and save past events thereby rescuing or liberation past events to live in the present and future.

Tyler uses repetition of words like discourse, sign, writing, representation, and means within a paragraph. The words have sometimes the same and sometimes different meaning. Sometimes the words are broken down for a dissimilar meaning, then restructured for yet an alternate effect as in describe and de-scribe which mean to give an account in words and to un-write respectively, essentially opposite meanings that sound exactly the same. He also uses rhyming as in “story of the glory” and “alienation, for the price of civilization” (1), and many clichés throughout: “surely just around the corner” (1), “turn a deaf ear” (3), and “turn a blind eye” (3). Use of these literary devises shows Tyler’s command of the written word, at the same time warning of the ambiguity of language, yet the power of writing to describe and define.

There is a new writing coming that will not use signs to define, but sensory input and therefore a return to connectedness with other humans. Well, I don’t see how this can be, what does he mean by this? Could he be referring to telepathy? If we did communicate telepathically, wouldn’t we still use symbol and sign to convey meaning?

The use of symbols: Oral speech is just as symbolic as writing; it also uses arbitrary representations of real world objects, in unlimited combinations often to describe something that is not in the present moment.

Tactility and Distraction by Michael Taussig

Being distracted while going about our daily business has become a way of life for westerners. Taussig points to the use of photographic images and films as initial departure from a natural, non-synthetic life, to lives that are defined by an onslaught of continual artificial visual stimulation. Photographs allowed us to see into the minutiae once hidden from view.

Our natural capacity to digest visual imagery becomes problematic in that focus once reserved for intimacy is lost in something that is virtual, not real, and outside of the self. This imagery becomes reality for most of us. Taussig’s example relates to how we live in one place but do not even notice where we are, so distracted by thoughts about elsewhere. Everydayness is a theme that transcends cultures.

Advertising has taken advantage of humans inability to blank out visual stimulus and has made industries bunches of dough by implanting false visuals into our memory banks. Our particular visual ability must have once had survival value. What is the root of this visual ability?

The opening and closing for this essay are the meeting and description of the sculptor friend who has agreed that living in the city (New York), one does not get around to enjoying the sights as one does when one is on vacation. What a lot of truth in that statement. This sculptor has just been to a “touristy” type place and is going to enshrine the adventure by creating an artificial memorial to the day in the form of a fountain. We create representations of representations all the time and call it creativity.

This essay resonates with so much truth about everydayness, distractedness, and focus on that which demands our attention (or being out of focus), how can we know what is real when we continually create realities that are not in the present.

The Rhetoric of Ethnographic Holism by Robert J. Thornton

Thornton begins with the idea of the everyday, a central theme in the last essay. He asks, how do ethnographers write about everyday? Through imagination and classification, he says. Ethnographers must show the reader a picture of the life of the culture being described along with a sense of time and place: a description that conveys wholeness. The ethnographer needs to use a system of classification in his work that allows analysis. This classification system is what Thornton has designated as “rhetoric of classification” (16). There is a regularity in which ethnographies are divided into parts, for example chapters.

In rhetoric and writing, tropes are used to convey meaning to the reader. The application of literary tropes in sociological writing has been employed successfully. Using a time-honored trope gives the reader a path of familiarity to follow like that of narrative, tragedy, or comedy. A trope is used in writing an ethnography to give the reader a sense of wholeness, of fulfillment, of satisfaction, to allow the ethnography to come to a close. Some literary tropes do not work well when applied to ethnography (18).

Description of an absolute factual social whole is an imaginary construct (based on observation and analysis). It is not humanly possible to know the whole of a society through one person’s point of view. Thornton refers to this as the “ethnographic imagination” (19). He seems to be saying that ethnography is essentially fiction in the sense that a single individual cannot experience the whole of a society, only those parts in which he or his informants are involved. The completed ethnography is “an ideal vision of society” (19) that exists in the mind of the ethnographer.

This ideal vision has got to have some semblance of reality, some factual composition, if only that truths resonate from it, or other experience fills in the gaps.
Ethnography uses classification in data analysis. Ethnographies are not replicable because the whole of the society cannot be known completely. Every ethnographer’s perceptions and classifications are going to be different.

Putting Heirarchy in Its Place by Arjun Appadurai

Appadurai spends half the essay discussing the definitions of native and how anthropologists use the word in a fixed sense. The other half of the essay is devoted to discussion of hierarchy, Louis Dumont’s conception of hierarchy and how this relates to the discourse on the class system in India. Within these discussions Appadurai traces the geneology of ideas to find the sources of influence on different authors theoretical paradigms. That the whole is “more important that its parts, stable, and ideologically self-sustaining” (41) is one Dumont’s concepts that Appadurai traces the origins of from Hegel, German Orientalism, Plato, and Mauss. 

Reflecting on the Yanomami: Ethnographic Images and the Pursuit of the Exotic by Alcida R. Ramos

Ramos does a comparison of three Yanomamo ethnographies: Napoleon Chagnon’s “Yanomamo: The Fierce People,” Jacques Lizot’s “Tales of the Yanomami,” and Bruce Albert’s dissertation “Temps du Sang, Temps des Cendres.” The ethnographies are comparable in Ramos’s mind. All are on the Yanomamo, although they are from different areas. The author spent considerable time among different groups of Yanomami and therefore has the necessary expertise from which to critique the three contemplated works. It is Ramos’s contention that the personality of the ethnographer can be revealed through his writing. In comparing and contrasting the different styles of writing and their observations, she shows how Napoleon Chagnon keeps control over the situations but brings the Yanomamo alive in his writing with vivid descriptions (50-53). Lizot is the omnipresent narrator that seems to control every action of the “actors” in his story of the Yanomamo, rendering them flat as though reading from a script (53-56). Albert’s dissertation is lengthy and filled with ethnographic description and yields a much more realistic text of the Yanomamo that the other two according to Ramos (57).

In speaking about the infinite possibilities one may focus on in ethnography “anything that the ethnographer chooses to concentrate on, no matter how detailed, is always the result of a complex process of give-and-take in the interaction between observer and the observed” (57) and also what to leave in and what to leave out. It is not possible to cover everything. To attempt to do so would be futile. However, given the length and detail of Albert’s dissertation, Ramos is impressed with the use of structuralism as a framework to show patterns of disease using an elaborate system of symbolism (58). Ramos describes the main points of the dissertation in a few pages ending with the realization that the goal of the dissertation is to show the “inventiveness and creativity of the Yanomam” (60).

Ramos ends with a discussion about western attraction to exoticism, it sells, people are curious to have a vicarious adventure without being discomforted in any way. When ethnographers publish, their writings on exotic peoples may cause adverse impact to those whom the study was about. Ramos thinks that western anthropologists need to be aware that their search for truth may be detrimental to their “subjects” (63). She also talks about the impact of capitalism on the lands that once supported the indigenous peoples in South America as the “brutality of capitalism” (65).

Occupational Hazards: Palestine Ethnography by Ted Swedenburg

            As an anthropologist working in Nablus on the West Bank, Swedenburg had occasions of violence against him. In his thinking, he was there to help; he was doing “good”, why were the Palestinians aggressive towards him? People living there were used to the violence and suggested he change the way he appeared by donning a Palestinian kufiya (a headdress) when in the Palestinian part of the city, and removing it in situations when he would not want to be identified as a Palestinian. Swedenburg refered to this as his perpetual cycle, or his oscillation that he went through in order to complete his mission of fieldwork collecting Palestinian recollections of historical events which took place between 1936 and 1939 (70). He spends some time discussing the results of that fieldwork where he discovers some instances of “active forgetting” (74) when men were ordered to wear the kufiya, women were ordered to veil, and women were restricted from bringing vegetables to sell in the market. Overnight (on different dates in 1938) each rule became enforced; behavior went from one opposite to the other, yet in his interviews no one brought up these extreme restrictions on their behaviors.

The Politics of Remembering: Notes on a Pacific Conference by Geoffrey M. White

            Good essay about a conference in the Solomon Islands of the Pacific. Academics, ethnographers, and subjects alike participated in this meeting to discuss events and their effects on islanders during World War II. With the participation of islanders in the presentations, the language used was Pigeon so that all attendees could benefit. White says the organization of the meetings and presentations was flexible enough to solve problems such as language barriers, and that with the modifications to the program everyone was able to participate in the event.

Part II Reaction

Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology by Milford E. Spiro

            Spiro defines the three types of cultural relativism: descriptive (describing cultural variability and based on the notion of cultural determinism), normative (cultures stand by themselves without comparison to a “standard”), and epistemological (Lock, humans are born a blank slate, culture is what fills up that slate). He believes that epistemological cultural relativism is the model most used in ethnography at the time of his writing, and says that it is also the most potentially harmful model for use in describing a culture. I think that is what he says anyway. Spiro critiques epistemological relativism, then moves to the questioning of anthropology and if anthropology can or should be a science. Excellent writing that needs more time that I do not have.

Part III Witnessing

Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru by Orin Starn

            Shining Path (Senderistas, Sendero Luminoso): this is another article that includes the communist insurgent group Shining Path (I read Mayer first). The establishment of this group in Peru came as a surprise to anthropologists working in the area in the 1970s according to Starn. He says “The inability of ethnographers to anticipate the insurgency raises important questions” (152). The anthropologist, creating his life around knowing and defining these people, should have noticed that there was discontent and movement under the surface. University students and professors led the armed struggle against the capitalist bureaucracy! (152-153) This is another similarity with the guerilla uprisings in Mesoamerica.

Starn also points out that it may not be the anthropologists job to predict revolutions, but that this situation proves they are out of touch with the conditions that make such uprisings possible (153), and here I see that it is possible to focus too closely and not “see the forest for the trees.” If the anthropologists task is creating the illusion of the whole as described in Thornton above, and mentioned in Appadurai, they would not perceive danger to themselves. Relates back to the writing of ethnography as a construct, an imaginary whole that is in the mind of the ethnographer, and in the ethnographers mind, there is no danger or unrest.

Peru In Deep Trouble: Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Inquest in the Andes” Reexamined by Enrique Mayer

Seven terrorists assumed to be members of Peru’s communist group Shining Path are killed by comuneros in a remote Andean village. Eight reporters go to investigate. They are killed as members of the terrorist insurgent group Shining Path. So, what is going on up there? Peruvian President Belaunde sought fiction writer Vargas Llosa to head a commission to investigate the killings. The Vargas Llosa Report explained the actions by the comuneros, but there has been considerable debate about the findings. Mayer and other critics find fault with the factual evidence, the argument for the use of customary law in the autonomous villages in the Andes, omissions from the report of for instance the lack of investigation of the other 25 killings that occurred before the murders of the reporters, and disbelief in the portrayal of comuneros as cruel or violent. The author gives evidence for and against some of these concerns.

Vargas speculates on the possibility that the Senderistas (Shining Path, Sendero Luminoso) were considered by the Iquichanos (highland Andean Indians, lo andino) to be interfering in community affairs and that this interference was an intolerable imposition (187). In the previous section on laws and their application (184-186) Mayer explains the existence of two sets of laws that operate within the Iquichano community. The Iquichano have their own laws enforced within the group as an autonomous entity, but the laws of the nation of Peru abrogate (invalidate, take precedence over) any community law.   

There is much parallelism of the Shining Path insurgents with communist revolutionary groups in Mesoamerica. In Mesoamerica, some stories of the insurgents were of selfless, devoted, servants of the ideals of peasant rights. Other stories were of self-righteous groups that murdered campesinos if they suspected them of “treason.” (Campesinos are the Mesoamerican equivalent of comuneros I think – peasant farmer).


Marcus, George E. ed.
2000  Rereading Cultural Anthropology, Third Ed. Durham: Duke University

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