Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Lameness of Otherness

I recently read the book Reversed Gaze:  An African Ethnography of American Anthropology by Mwenda Ntarangwi.  I encourage serious anthropologists to use it in graduate seminars as a discussion piece. 

Follow up essays

The book describes Ntarangi’s maturation in Anthropology from graduate school to being an associate professor.  Along the way, he discusses racism, class, and power structures in Anthropology.  One of his main points is that American Anthropology is focused on studying the Other, or Alterity.  You learn much about Ntarangwi and that it must be hard to come to America from Africa and then write about Americans.  It makes one wonder about the validity of all ethnography.  It’s not that Ntarangwi is ‘wrong’ so much as his culture critique perspective misdirects his understanding of American anthropology.  I have several comments.

First, I’m not bothered by being reminded that racism exists in America and in Anthropology.  I was surprised that Ntarangwi seemed surprised (or disappointed) by this fact.  Did he buy into all the equality mumbo jumbo our culture throws out to the world?  I guess he had a rude awakening similar to Rabinow’s in Morocco (1977) who was told by a Muslim friend that Jews (i.e. Rabinow) will always be seen as inferior by Muslims.  Chinese born and raised Francis L. K. Hsu lived with it too (Hsu 1973; 1979; Claes 1996).  American history is incomplete without the racism discussion.  Our Civil War with 600k dead may have ended slavery but not racism.

In addition, it seems that Ntarangwi came to the US with an exalted view of American Anthropologists and scholars in general.  It seems he expected them to be pillars of collegiality and equality; and, that they, somehow, could be above it all.  Unfortunately, academic tribes (Adams 1988; Becher and Trawler 2001) are not paragons of virtue.  They can be as low as any other aspect of our culture.  Anthropologists, and all scholars, are human beings.  They have all the virtues and vices, all the grace and pettiness, of the class.  In typical human fashion, they make we/they distinctions that are not always fair or socially graceful.  It is nice to think well of others--but ethnography requires deeper insight than that.

Americans can be very judgmental of each other and hard on themselves.  I never bought into the in-your-face “Anthropology as culture critique” perspective that began in the mid 1980s (Marcus and Fisher 1986).  My judgment then was that it seemed overly judgmental rather than constructively critical.  In my ethnography of archaeologists (Moore 1986) I rejected culture critique because I viewed it as “self flagellation,” something I was not then, or now, interested in doing.  Trencher (2002) views it as having been obstructive as well.

Today, I view culture critique as one expression of Baby Boomer henpecking and politicking that is so divisive.  This style of communication did appear in American popular culture in the 1980s.  The best example is in comedy.  When the Johnny Carson show was running the humor was always about Carson (Silent generation) making fun of himself, and there was a classiness about it.  He made his guests look good.  Then came the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows, both of which provided Boomer henpecking, with guests verbally slapped around and made to look stupid.  Culture critique demeans and damages what it studies.  It also forces people to take sides.

Ntarangwi plays this too.  On page 42 he describes how he enjoys having his students read Horace Minor’s 1956 essay on the body rituals of the Nacirema (American spelled backwards).  He doesn’t tell them until afterwards that the study is about 1950s America.  So, he gets frustrated comments from his class.  This is him playing a gotcha moment and putting the class at a psychological disadvantage.  I would rather have seen him tell the class what the essay is about up front and that they should write an essay on how they think things have changed.  This would send the message that America has culture that can be studied, and you also make the students engage it.  

The culture critique folks acted like Anthropologists had not done enough research on American culture.  I suspect that Marcus and Fisher underestimated, or ignored, the depth and breadth of anthropological research into self and American culture.  Mead (1942) and Gorer (1964) had already provided idealized versions of Middlebrow culture, and Henry (1965) provided heavy hitting constructive criticism.  By the early 1980s there were excellent readers available on the Anthropology of American culture (Spradley and Rynkiewich 1975; Messerschmidt 1981).  In 1992 Moffett was able to review over 160 anthropological monographs that had been done the previous decade about American culture.  The process continues:  Gusterson (1997) updated the idea of Studying Up and today we have Karen Ho (2009) writing about Wall Street.  By having bought into the culture critique perspective, I suspect that Ntarangwi also underestimates or ignores the vastness and quality of this literature.

When I was in grad school in the early 1980s some of us joked about the “we have met the Others and they are us” phrase that was then popular.  Everyone knew it was a spin-off of the old saying “we have met the enemy and they are us.”  Unfortunately, the culture critique crowd fell hard for it.  They are the ones who escalated Otherness into a poplar term in Anthropology.  They missed the joke and took it seriously—we are the enemy, shame on us, take sides.

Table 1:  Google Ngram for “Otherness” in American English, 1900-2008. Click on image for bigger view.

Otherness and anthropology come together in American Anthropology with the work of Levi Strauss.  In 1963 his Structural Anthropology was released in English and by the 1970s structuralism was the new fad in the social sciences and literary circles.  In 1983 Fabian published his famous Time and the Other and many went gaga about it [I suspect he would take some of it back if he could (Fabian 2006, 2011)].  Next, came Marcus and Fisher (1986) and the pump was primed much further.  On Table 1 it’s clear that Otherness takes off as a popular idea in the 1980s and then peaks in the late 1990s with a subsequent fall off.

Culture critique and its obsession with self/otherness is not a good foundation from which to study another culture or even some aspect of one’s own culture because it is demeaning to those studied.  Culture critique is always a “gotcha” mentality, a game of one-upmanship.  The culture critique crowd love to say “gotcha America” and “gotcha anthropologists” for being the hypocrites you are.  The title of the book says “gotcha” from my “reversed gaze.”  One should never fall in love with a phrase.
The duality "Reflexivity/Otherness" is the post modern version of the old "we/they" duality.   American Anthropology is interested in it because all of Western Civilization debates it.  The culture critique crowd use the we/they binary to demean American culture and it institutions; they criticize to tear down.  The professional stranger (Agar 1996) approach offers constructive criticism with the intent of no further action (a take it or leave it attitude) or seeks to improve American culture.  As they used to say:  "America-love it or leave it".   The cc crowd won't leave.

Fortunately, as Table 1 suggests, the study of Otherness, and by extension the culture critique approach, is a dying trend.  When you have researchers comparing the elderly to others (Hazan 2009) you know that the silly point has been reached.  Also, it never became universal across the profession or across cultural anthropology.  Marvin Harris and Otherness don’t go together and historical archaeologists would give you a blank stare if you asked them about it.  Otherness is just a weird contemporary Western idea and many non-Western cultures would not understand it (cf. Gruen 2010).  There are other ways to conceive of anthropology and ethnography.  I prefer the ethnographer as professional stranger  concept.

Table 1 actually reveals more than I have suggested.  It is a depiction of word usage in American English not just anthropological works.  Prior to 1960 Otherness was mostly a theological, philosophical and ethical concept.  It remains so today.  The most common usage of Otherness is in theology, usually with reference to the Otherness of God.  American Christians are very interested in discovering the Otherness of God and they know that you find God in other people.  The best example of this is Martin Buber's (1923) I and Thou.  It plays out as I/you, we/they, and civilized/savage in Western culture.  In 1979 Giles Gunn published The Interpretation of otherness:  Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination, a nice analysis of how Americans are focused on identity issues, especially the self/society conflict, as portrayed in fiction.  But, it’s not just that they want to be rugged individuals in society they also want fellowship with others.  The quest for fellowship is the quest for God.  Finding God in another culture is no different (Headley 1983; priest and anthropologist).  Any theologian or mystic would recognize that the post modern Anthropologists studying Otherness are basically looking for some version of God.  Very few are reflexive enough to know that they are.
As an observer of all this I have to say that American culture is pervaded by Christian beliefs and values.  Americans who become Anthropologists also carry with them these basic perspectives even if they themselves are atheists.  Christianity is embedded in American Anthropology at a meta level.  The big bubble on Table 1 indicates that Americans used the term Otherness as they lived out the Fourth Great Awakening (here) that spanned 1960 to 1990.  Certainly, there was some hangover that made it last a little longer.  This is what one should expect as the fundamentalist mentality of modernist Anthropological scientism was replaced by the fundamentalist post modern democratic Anthropology during those same years.  Now that post modernism is the norm in Anthropology the aggressive henpecking of the culture critique-ers need not continue; Table 1 suggests it is waning.

As one who lives at the intersection of agnosticism and mysticism, I was never looking for God.  To me the whole Otherness issue is lame.

Ntarangwi is lucky.  America is a land of people reinventing themselves all the time.  He can do this too; he can have a Do Over.  It's part of his personal evolution.  I suggest he restart the project from a different perspective.  He said many times that he is interested in the holistic approach of Anthropology.  Therefore, he should actually take such an approach because the part he is most familiar with, cultural critique as anthropology, is not the whole.  He’ll also find that the “ethnography of archaeology” literature (Edgeworth 2006; Sandlin and Bey 2006) is useful, providing parallel discussions.  Further, he needs to embrace Applied Anthropology because 70 percent of all newly minted PhDs end up working outside of academia.  The profession is not really an academic one when most of its students end up doing applied work.  He should also read the basic references in the anthropology of anthropology genre that he ignored (Herzfeld, 1989; Khare 1990; Kim 2002; Sangren, 2007; & Trencher 1993, 2000).

Lastly, I do think that Ntarangwi is on a good path.  He seems inquisitive and willing to persevere as he struggles to define his own identity.  Good ethnographers are always monitoring the cultural landscape, they have situational awareness, and they know when to take a break from it all.  Reminiscent of Nash’s (1964) idea that ethnographers are always strangers Robert Murphy (1980:11) wrote

…the agonizing process of ethnography is always incomplete; we skim off the top and come away, if we have done our jobs properly, with a sense of loss and unfulfilment.

You will never find yourself if ethnography is your sole means of searching, and, your identity is greater than the part called Anthropologist.

Happy Easter


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