Re: text and the postmodern annoyance

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 1 Aug 1996 00:01:27 +0900

Samantha L. Solimeo writes,

> Yes, I agree that there needs to be distance, both personally and
>academically. However,it is crucial to include the "studied" within the text
>of any ehtnographic work. It is maintaining a balance between creating texts
>which represent the production of both the anthropologist and the subjects,
>and creating texts which reify and exoticize the subjects, which is


On the whole, I agree. What I meant by "separation" however was not so much
emotional distance as a clear difference between one thing and another:
what we hear people say and see them do and what we infer from both. That
is what gives the reader a fair chance to weigh our inferences against the
evidence on which we base them.

> I appreciate your suggestion for how to "get around" terminology,
>but there needs to be a distinct voice of the study population present for
>the work to have real meaning and use.

I have to disagree. What "real meaning and use" is requires some careful
consideration, but the willingness to dismiss out of hand work by authors
who didn't, in the context of their own time and place, share our present
preoccupations severs the connection to the history which defines our own

I will note, too, that when we read their substantive ethnography, as
opposed to the slight theoretical pieces we usually read in school, some of
the old timers turn out to be far more subtle and perceptive than we
normally give them credit for.

Malinowski is an excellent example. _Magic, Science and Religion_ is an
essay which sums up his theories at a certain point in time, and anyone can
be trained in a classroom hour or two to tear them apart. To work slowly
through _Coral Gardens and Their Magic_ or _The Sexual Life of Savages_ is
to recognize the presence of a master, who, among other things, is very
punctilious in separating what he has recorded the Trobrianders' saying
from his own interpretations. The result is work that Annette Wiener can
expand (taking into account women's exchanges that M., a man of his time,
neglected) and correct at some points (pointing out that magic is more
closely linked to social competition than to physical uncertainty and risk
per se), but work that no one who wishes to understand the Trobriands will
ever be able to dismiss.

The study of traditional Chinese society and Chinese religion (my own
one-time specialty) is substantially rooted in the observations of 19th
century observers, several of them missionaries, whose massive and minute
compilations of custom are still essential references for anyone claiming
any kind of authority in talking about these subjects. J.J.M. DeGroot,in
his massive, multivolume _Religious System of Chinea_, not only cites
native authorities, he cites them at length in classical Chinese with clear
identification of the texts from which his quotes are taken. Is this the
native's voice? the voice of certain members of the literati? not "voice"
at all, since classical Chinese is a written, literary language,
substantially different from the spoken vernacular? And, ah yes, the voices
in question span a period of roughly 2500 years.

>The trick is retaining your
>authority as writer and anthropologist without subsuming the authority of the

In doing fieldwork in Taiwan I discovered that "the authority of the
subject" is a highly debatable issue. The Taoist magicians I studied were
polite to each other in public, but quick to level accusations of sorcery,
ignorance and outright fraud behind each other's backs. Those who did
things one way inevitably claimed to be "orthodox." Those who did things
another way derided their claims.

Then, too, there was the problem of the neighbor who attached himself to us
and decided to drag us around to neighborhood weddings and funerals and
pontificate on what was going on. First Ruth and I noticed that we always
arrived far too early (a good thing from the point of view of being able to
observe a lot of back-stage preparations; but terribly impolite), Then we
began to compare the explanations offered by our busy-body neighbor with
those supplied by other people. We began to understand why other neighbors
saw this particular individual as stupid and socially incompetent. Our
willing "informant" was the village idiot.

One final story; I can't resist. Larry Crissman, another anthropologist,
was working in a market town called Ehrlin in Changhua country in central
Taiwan. He discovered that at least in this part of Taiwan, it was (as of
1968 or so) the custom to hang dead cats in trees and throw dead dogs in
canals or rivers. Having read Levi-Strauss and sensing himself in the
presence of a significant binary opposition, Larry began asking people why
they hung dead cats in trees but threw dead dogs in canals or rivers. One
"subject" after another said, "I don't know" or "It's just the custom."
Then, one day he addressed his question to an aged farmer, who squatting
beside his rice field, chewed thoughtfully on his betel nut, spat out the
juice, and said (freely translated),"If you hung a dog in a tree, it'd

Yes, I do think it's an excellent idea to identify the voices we quote in
our books and indicate their social position and how credible we take them
to be as well. Oddly enough, that is precisely what Malinowski does in
_Coral Gardens and Their Magic_.

>Samantha L. Solimeo"
>P.s. I apologize for the spelling errors, but my computer doesn't allow me to
>fix them at this point.

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo