Labeling Theorists: Reply to Helgason

William Rodman (rodman@MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA)
Mon, 13 Dec 1993 08:06:50 -0500

On Fri, 10 Dec 1993, Agnar Sturla Helgason wrote:

> 1. What is postmodernism? In my view, a vague and sometimes incomprehensible
> reiteration of relativism and subjectivism.
> Born of skepticism, amplified to new heights. Questioning concepts of
> objectivity, truth, representation, reality, authority..... See
> Gellner's Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (1992) for a tour de
> force exorcism.

Your response seems to me to have very little to do with
postmodernism as the term is used in scholarly literature in anthropology
or in broader domains of cultural analysis; rather, it simply sets forth
your view that there are intellectual trends in current anthropology that
you don't like, that you find "vague" and "sometimes incomprehensible."
My main problem with your view of postmodernism is that it encompasses a
broad spectrum of theories and perspectives, some of which have little in
common with each other. I think most scholars would agree that there
*are* limits to the term. It's not a synonym for interpretive anthropology
in the eighties and nineties, and it doesn't encompass all new strategies
in ethnographic writing. A concern with reflexivity doesn't define a
writer as "postmodern." The implications of the lack of boundaries you
set for the term become clear when you come to grips with the specific
issue of citing authors you consider to be postmodern.

> 2. Who are postmodernists? I do not claim to have an encyclopaedic
> knowledge of practicing postmodernists. I do know a few, though (indeed
> some of my best friends are postmodernists ;-). These are some of the
> more well known (vociferous even) postmodernists I have come across:
> Clifford, Marcus, Fischer, Rabinow, Tyler, Geertz and Strathern. People
> like Sanjek do quite a bit of dabbling. Said, Foucault,
> Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Derrida and others are inspirational
> forefathers (and mothers). There are doubtless many more, others
> can append this list.
O.K., cards on the table. Where does Clifford avow his
postmodernism? Perhaps, somewhere, he does assert such a thing, but I'd
sure like to know where. True, Clifford's *critics* often label him a
postmodernist, but let's consider the evidence from his own writings.
There is no reference to postmodernism in the index of *The Predicament of
Culture*. He doesn't mention postmodernism even once in his chapter on
ethnographic allegory in *Writing Culture*. In his Introduction to the
latter volume, he discusses postmodernism tentatively, in just a few
sentences, and then states that "most of us at the (Santa Fe) seminar,
excluding Stephen Tyler, were not yet thoroughly 'postmodern'." (Clifford
I, for one, believe him: there is little evidence that any of the
chapter authors in *Writing Culture* except Tyler and Rabinow (who is
*critical* of postmodernism) are well read in the writings of postmodern
cultural analysts. Michael Fischer includes "postmodern" in the title of
his chapter but then only mentions postmodern theory in a single footnote
and in a quotation. I think it's important to evaluate the book's
postmodernism on the basis of evidence from within the book itself, rather
than on the basis of what critics of postmodernism have said about the volume.
You mention Marcus and Fischer, so I guess you are thinking of
*Anthropology as Cultural Critique*, In fact, the authors only mention
postmodernism four times in the whole book. They use the term in its
weakest, least theoretical sense - as a temporal referent, something that
happened after something else. In any case, for Marcus and Fischer, the
primary value of ethnographic texts lies in the texts' ability to reflect an
external reality. As Robert Pool (1991:321) points out, their views have
much more in common with modernism than with postmodernism.
It seems to me that Clifford, Marcus and their various coauthors
may well be *something*, but they aren't postmodernists. My guess is that
you are confusing postmodernism with a confluence of other trends in
theory and writing: the rethinking of the issue of representation in
anthropology, some new forms of cultural criticism, and diverse
experiments in ethnographic writing. Postmodernism may have influenced
these trends but they are not, in themselves, postmodernism.
Why you would consider Sanjek a postmodernist is a mystery to me.
Do you mean Roger Sanjek, the editor of *Fieldnotes: The Makings of
Anthropology* (1990)? Postmodernism is not even mentioned in the book.
The case for Geertz being a postmodernist in any meaningful sense
of the term is equally weak. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't
consider himself a postmodernist, he discusses postmodern theory hardly at
all in his recent writings, he doesn't make extensive (any?) use of
scholars such as Lyotard, Baudrillard and Jameson usually associated with
postmodernism, and, in any case, the ethnography for which Geertz is best
known mostly predates discussion of postmodernism in anthropology.
Your selection of postmodern theorists in anthropology reminds me
of Jonathan Kramer's statement in a 1984 article in *Critical Inquiry*
that "it is simplistic to make generalities about art, label those
generalities, and then go on to assume that a unified movement (or its
demise) exists because there is now a label." As far as I am concerned,
the issue of the nature and influence of postmodern theory in anthropology
today remains unresolved. And the question of who might legitimately be
called a postmodern anthropologist remains open.

Bill Rodman