practical epistemology and lightning fingers

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Tue, 22 Nov 1994 17:46:22 EDT

Zoiks! I turn my attention to me school work for a day and John McCreery inun-
dates the list with epistemology! Since I can't hope to match his output, I
shall try to make this post of the hightest possible quality. . . or at least
First, a quote from JC:
"The 'native story' must certainly be paid attention to and given consider-
ation very bit as serious as that accorded the outside observer's. That it
should be given an unquestioned and automatic priority seems to me naive."

Now, a quote from my teacher Thomas Buckley:
"[A]s long as we continue to practice anthropology -- as distinct from
being innocen tourists among our others, "there to learn" as we pretend to be
thodological pre- and post-configuration of dialogue remains our unavoidable
lot. A better strategy at this point, now that the ideas of dialogics and of
o acknowledge to our informants our purposes and means, our theories and
methods, as such; in other words, to take full responsibility for our author-
ity." (Buckley 1986:20).

I think that the ideas of responsibility and co-authorship are useful ones in
this discussion. I agree that Scott does not do a good job of talking about
this and sometimes ends up animating discourses or, worse, making his
discourse *the* authoritative one. He does give the native folks more say and
tries to see things their way, but more as a critique of anthropology than as
a means to its own end. But I think this is his point; we aren't all out
there acquiring knowledge simply to acquire knowledge; we have motives,
desires, and needs, and we need to watch what we say and how we say it, and
try not to forget that a lot of the knowledge we use is borrowed from other
people and then twisted (or, to be more charitable, filtered) through the
discourse that we create. And an edifice *has* been created, based on certain
notions of reasoning that are not pure or value-free. His discussion of the
use of "demon" and "possession" and their Christian overtones is particularly
salient; in my own work I have to keep fighting with the notion that the Ghost
Dance prophet Wovoka was a "messiah." well, yes and no, but why was he called
that? Three reasons: (1) that was a term that fit what Anglos thought was
going on; (2) it was peculiarly perjorative, as if an *injun* could aspire to
such status, and (3) because it then made the Ghost Dance into something both
comprehensible, and later dangerous. Why wasn't Wovoka called a shaman or a
chief or just a leader? We have to question this stuff, not just to "PCify"
it (which is certainly not my intention) but to get the cultural perceptions
that underlie it and the cultural dynamics that this stuff functions in.

"Colonial power" did ot produce the discourse; but the making of colonial
power had a lot to do with how Sri Lankan religion came to be seen. When
such assumptions are swallowed whole (as in Kapferer, for one),this torques
the analysis. Does it produce a bad story? Not necessarily, but it does
create a story that is selective, as in too selective. While Scott may
end up taking native categories and appropriating them for his analysis, at
least he acknowledges that what the natives do impacts our understanding, that
we cannot simply impose our schemes over "them." This is one way to think of
co-authorship that is less blatant than the "automatic priority" that JC thinks
is naive. But what about such great works as *Nisa* or *Crashing Thunder*?
Aren't there times where the only way to get to the heart of the matter is to
let such an usurption of the anthropological gaze take place? And it's not
like the native POV has ever been allowed to run amok in an anthropological
text, or has caused anywhere near as much distortion or heartache as anthro-
pological discourse has. What I'm trying to say is that we need to look at
each situation and decide the best way to tell the story that emerges from
our work. There are some methods that are more effective, more evocative,
and more powerful than others.

As John pointed out in his second post, despite the presence of a paradigm or
discourse, good stuff somehow gets written. Again, in my own current work,
te heretic" in the BAE. After briefl subscribing to the Powell paradigm,
he went off in his own direction, and ended up getting marginalized and
eventually burned for it. He spent the last few years of his life barred
from working on the reservations that he had virtually lived on for 35
years. There is sometimes a heavy price to be paid if you aren't "terribly,
terribly sophisticated and 'with'it'", and it's harder still to get your voice
heard. Mooney did his own thing, and he frequently caught hell for it, and he
died a marginalized ethnologist, who was immediately promoted to a peculiar
form of sainthood that continues to keep him revered. . . and at a distance.
This is just one of the many considerations of style; obviously, Kapferer and
Scott aren't writing for the "average reader", and they realize that they have
to project a certain authority to be taken seriously. This is part of their
work, and part of the academic culture they work in.

Of course, this produces the sort of infuriating prose that JC discussed in his
third post, and i agree that both of these guys write with jargon. But I
found Kapferer impenetrable, whereas Scott was comprehensible and often lucid
(and, as JC put it, his insights are real). Is it "aristocratic contempt for
those too base and ignorant to perceive their axiomatic truths" as JC contends,
or is this part and parcel of an academic discourse that enough people have
agreed to to make it the "official" way to speak? There is certainly contempt
in there, but it's more than that. And I don't sense a lot of contempt for

I'm sure there's more to say, but it shall have to wait for another day.