Re: pomo meets eco again

Chloe McCracken (100430.2001@COMPUSERVE.COM)
Wed, 23 Aug 1995 09:02:17 EDT

Pauline Shafer writes:

>One place that illustrates the perspective thing in a rather amusing way
>is a snit a read about between Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins. These
>are both very learned men, I tend to think they are both right.

This is probably an old debate, but I really agree with this view. However,
when I expressed this opinion in front of two lecturers they took huge offence,
saying that Obeyesekere had insulted Sahlins and that their views were
incompatible. So, I'd like to put forward my view on this, and see what others
have to say on the matter.

I was very much impressed by Sahlins' method of bringing historical perspective
into Levi-Straussian structuralism, thereby giving it greater depth and a more
dynamic quality. His application of this to changes in taboos and politics in
Hawaii I found very convincing, showing how such ideas and changes in them are
structured in a historically specific way. However, I also found Obeyesekere
very convincing in his argument that the idea that "natives" conceived of
Captain Cook (or Europeans in general) as a god is a European myth rather than a
native reality. Not only does that seem logical to me, but I also found his
historically based evidence very suggestive. To my mind, this does not detract
from Sahlins' methodology, nor from a large part of his analysis, it only shows
that even the greats can fall into the traps of their culturally specific
assumptions. The only way in which I can conceive of Obeyesekere being
considered "insulting" to Sahlins is perhaps in his statements about Sahlins not
knowing how to properly use and analyse historical documents, taking them out of
context, and not understanding their ideological nature, ie. why they were
published and by whom. Even so, I think that such an error on Sahlins' part, if
this is true, could still be seen in terms of him starting from an erroneous
assumption and, if he wasn't looking for myth-making on the part of the
Europeans, how could he be expected to find it. Thus, to my mind, Obeyesekere is
simply saying that Sahlins started from one understandable false (or at least
culturally specific) assumption, that was his only error, and it does not
invalidate either his methodology, which I see as a great improvement on
Levi-Strauss, or his other conclusions.

If this is an old debate, I apologise, but the vehemence of my lecturers
surprised me, so I'd really like some other viewpoints.

Chloe McCracken

Postgrad at UCL, England