Post-otherism (was re: selfin' others)

Matthew S. Tomaso (Tomaso@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Sun, 5 Nov 1995 11:33:00 -0600

John Stevens and Maria Swora have presented a number of interesting ideas on
selves, and have challenged us to think a bit beyond our usual tropes. I'll
respond to John first then Maria. Please excuse any fragmentariness or

John's criticism regarding the lack of self-representation is very relevent.
Postcolonial literature, much as I like it, is not totallly adequate to the
task of making up for the lacunae here since the selves involved in it have
usually been colonized by the academic system. There are some exceptions,
of course, but these are often anthologies edited and compiled by
anthropologists. Michael Taussig (emotions, phenomenological realities),
Renato Rosaldo (emotions as empirical experience), Dorrinne Kondo (habitus
as experienced) and, to some extent, Pierre Bourdieu (practice theory), have
all done some very interesting work on the self representational/reflexivity
connection, at least in the methodologies they seem to practice. (Please
don't flame me for mentioning Rosaldo's name - you'll get no response).
Regardless of how you might feel about reflexive ethnography (I have my
reservations as well), I'd think that Bourdieu's version of practice theory
might be a fruitful way to deal with self-construction while avoiding the
problem of othering. He does, however, to some extent, suffer from the
problems that he attempts to confront, - objectification, analytical boxes,
hypercategorical logic, etc - not to mention a complete lack of clarity - in
my opinion. And the Comaroffs also have done some interesting stuff in the
post-structural (I think they call it neo-structural) vein - if you can get
through the density of their theoretical writing to the 'meat' of their
arguments (no easy task). I'd be interested in exploring this further.

Maria Swora wrote:
> "Self" is a psychologistic concept; "person" is a sociologistic
>one. I wonder if so much of American cultural anthropology is concerned
>with selves (as opposed to persons) because of the psychologistic bias of
>contemporary American culture?

I think Maria is probably correct in asserting that the psychologism in
contemporary America has something to do with this, but I would probably
extend this beyond the U.S. to places like France, etc . And, besides, I
find it difficult to deny the importance of the psychological in any case.
Social anthropology and psychology/psychoanalysis have, since Freud, had a
pretty profoundly intermingled history - Boas, Sapir, Benedict, Mead(s),
Kluckhohn, etc. - with but few serious critical reflections on the marriage
(Leach's "magic hair" paper comes to mind). The resurgence of personality
and culture-like anthropology may or may not also be a response/reaction to
the seemingly irrepressible social darwinism and ecological determinism
which crops up every ten to fifteen years (and always seems to be lurking
somewhere at the margins). Major theoretical schools seem to oscillate
between poles only roughly equivalent to enlightenment/counter-enlightenment
positions. I often wonder which side is which when I am confronted by
alleged enlightenment scientismists who say that the ultimate caiuse (re:
the effect) is all that matters, and supposed counterenlightenment
humanismists who say that experiential realities at the level of the subject
(i.e. intent, consciousness, agency) should be rigorously theorized! As
Maria said - "Just a thought."

thanks for the interesting ideas.

Matt Tomaso.
Anthropology. University of Texas at Austin.
Phone/Fax 512-453-6256