Thursday, June 16, 2011

James Clifford “On Ethnographic Allegory” in Writing Culture Edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus

Summary: Clifford sets out to show that ethnography perform the dual function of telling about a culture and making broader, humanistic statements. In both form and content, ethnographies are allegorical, meaning that they encompass additional meaning (as constructed and told stories) beyond the local cultural meanings they presume to present. Clifford launches his argument about the ethnographic content being allegorical by arguing that all of the levels of the text are allegorical, not just the ones that are acknowledged to be the interpretive. He illustrates this by turning to Shostak’s Nisa, which he claims has three allegorical registers: Nisa as a way in to describing !Kung culture; question of what it means to be a woman and have a woman’s experience; and the dialogical interaction between the ethnographer and subject. Clifford argues that the three strands shed light on the dialogical, contingent, intersubjective nature of fieldwork, which cannot be thought of just as an empirical means to generalize about a culture; the “scientific” part is just one register, which fits uncomfortably with the messiness of translation, dialogue, and projection.
The second half of Clifford’s paper turns to an investigation of a repeated allegory in ethnography of his time, which he labels “ethnographic pastoral,” which is the frame to the part of his argument which deals with ethnography’s (written) form. Within this allegory, people being studied are pictured to be fleeting, past, Edenic—the ethnographer’s text is what preserves an ephemeral people. This is the allegory of salvage, which continues because the ethnographer sees his project as an inscriber of a culture into a stable, textual form. Clifford argues that all ethnographies share the practice of textualization. The very act of writing enacts the pastoral theme, making the spoken, living, into something embalmed and stable. Clifford suggests ways to subvert the allegory of textualization, most radical of which is his consideration of Derrida’s expanded conception of writing, whereby each culture has its own writing, thus making the ethnographer the primary writer of another culture, since the culture is “always already writing” itself. Clifford thus points out how pervasive the challenge to the allegory textualization is and suggests that this new conception challenges the ethnographer’s authority, for the native who can write his own culture challenges the ethnographer’s authority.
Clifford first lays out the argument:
“In what follows I treat ethnography itself as a performance emplotted by powerful stories. Embodied in written reports, these stories simultaneously describe real cultural events and make additional, moral, ideological and even cosmological statements. Ethnographic writing is allegorical at the level of both its content (what it says about cultures and their histories) and of its form (what is implied by its mode of textualization)” (98).
One of the key examples that Clifford deals with is Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Clifford excerpt’s Shostak’s description of child birth and explains that the story is about the “local cultural meanings” as well as a general story about woman’s experience and more broadly human experience which transcend the particular. “Shostak’s life of a !Kung individual inevitably becomes an allegory of (female) humanity. I argue below that these kinds of transcendent meanings are not abstractions or interpretations ‘added’ to the original ‘simple’ account. Rather, they are the conditions of its meaningfulness. Ethnographic texts are inescapably allegorical, and a serious acceptance of this fact changes the ways they can be written and read. Using Shostak’s experiment as a case study I examine a recent tendency to distinguish allegorical levels as specific ‘voices’ within the text. I argue, finally, that the very activity of ethnographic writing—seen as inscription or textualization—enacts a redemptive Western allegory. This pervasive structure needs to be perceived and weighed against other possible emplotments for the performance of ethnography” (99).
What is allegory?:
Usually allegory is “a practice in which a narrative fiction continuously refers to another pattern of ideas or events” (99). The sense of allegory Clifford uses goes beyond this, following Angus Fletcher and Paul De Man: “A recognition of allegory [in ethnography] emphasizes the fact that realistic portraits, to the extent that they are ‘convincing’ or ‘rich,’ are extended metaphors, patterns of associations that point to coherent (theoretical, esthetic, moral) additional meanings. Allegory (more strongly that ‘interpretation’) calls to mind the poetic, traditional, cosmological nature of such writing processes. Allegory draws special attention to the narrative character of cultural representations, to the stories built into the representational process itself. It also breaks down the seamless quality of cultural description by adding a temporal aspect to the process of reading. One level of meaning in a text will always generate other levels. Thus the rhetoric of presence that has prevailed in much post-romantic literature (and in much ‘symbolic anthropology’) is interrupted” (100).
The acceptance of ethnography as allegory is a rejection of postivism, realism, and romanticism. Recognizing how ethnographic accounts are constructed narratives, Clifford argues that ethnographies should be understood in the framework of allegory: “Allegory prompts us to say of any cultural description not ‘this represents, or symbolizes, that’ but rather, ‘this is a (morally charged) story about that” (100).
The empirical/scientific cannot explain life humanly and to explain the human means to add allegorical meaning.
Coleridge explains a 2-level structure of the ethnographic: one set of agents or images is accompanied by a level of the super-sensual, the moral. As Clifford explains, “What one sees in a coherent ethnographic account, the imaged construct of the other, is connected in a continuous double structure with what one understands” (101). There is the level of difference then the level of similarity, which shares common symbols (101).
Cultural anthropology of the 20th century builds off a tradition of describing the other that presupposes that the other is some earlier form within a teleological narrative of the West; cultural anthropology still assumes some transcendent truth, but now that truth is humanist instead of teleological (101-102). Clifford illustrates this with the Mead-Freeman controversy: Mead reflected issues of her American, pluralist context in her “scientific” description of Samoans. As Clifford explains, “The entire project of inventing and representing ‘cultures’ was, for Mead and Benedict, a pedagogical, ethical undertaking” (102) that makes Samoa into a symbol of America. Freeman exposes Mead’s allegorical portrayal but replaces it with his own (102-103).

Clifford takes up Nisa as an example of the multiple registers of allegory in ethnography:
Clifford argues that there isn’t just one level that is the interpretive while the other levels are the factual: “A scientific ethnography normally establishes a privileged allegorical register it identifies as ‘theory,’ interpretation,’ or ‘explanation.’ But once all meaningful levels in a text, including theories and interpretations, are recognized as allegorical, it becomes difficult to view one of them as privileged, accounting for the rest. Once this anchor is dislodged, the staging and valuing of multiple allegorical registers, or ‘voices,’ becomes an important area of concern for ethnographic writers” (103).
Shostak’s Nisa has 3 registers of allegory, which do not blend together but remain as three strands within the work: description of a !Kung woman, questioning about what it means to be a woman (humanist project, looking for commonality), and the dialogical relationship between ethnographer and subject (103-4). The second two registers are particularly intertwined in Clifford’s description. He discusses the three registers:
1) First register is description of Nisa to try and describe the culture, though Clifford critiques that there is a tension in how the particular is meant to speak for the general. Shostak struggles between thinking Nisa is idiosyncratic and that she is generalizable. This attempt at generalizing, to be scientific, is in turn in tension with the personal and intersubjective nature of the other two registers.
2) Clearly dialogical, shaped by the scholar as well as the subject. Nisa’s reflections are organized into a full life-span. Creating autobiography is non-natural, requires organization into a narrative that is not a given. Shostak intervenes to organize, frame transcripts, etc. The narration makes “‘human’ sense” (106).
3) Shostak’s account of her experience in the field. Shostak told her interlocutors that she wanted to better understand womanhood in her own culture by understanding its meaning in theirs. Nisa speaks to Shostak like she is giving her advice, it takes part in a feminist discourse of shared female experience (such as oppression) (107). There are moments where Shostak herself acts as the older, advice giver to younger girls of the tribe. “Ethnography gains subjective ‘depth’ through the sorts of roles, reflections, and reversals dramatized here. The writer, and her readers, can be both young (learning) and old (knowing)” (108).
“Anthropological fieldwork has been represented as both a scientific ‘laboratory’ and a personal ‘rite of passage.’ The two metaphors capture nicely the discipline’s impossible attempt to fuse objective and subjective practices” (109). There is a new recognition of intersubjectivity and contingency in fieldwork (from projection, dialogue, translation), which changes the mode of authority. This raises problems for generalizing from the particular, which is more recognized to be personal as opposed to an example of what is common in a collective (109). The “scientific” generalized stuff now seems to be “just one level of allegory” (109).
Clifford now turns to the second part of his argument: that the textual form of ethnography is also allegorical. This argument is couched in a discussion of a pattern of allegories, the “ethnographic pastoral”:
There are multiple ways to read, and critics like De Man argue that to suggest a dominant narrative or metaphor is to impose a limit on an open-ended interpretive process. Clifford suggests, however, that there aren’t limitless readings, but a limited number of plausible readings based on historical moment (110). Clifford recognizes a pattern that has become prominent in ethnography, which he wishes to critique, a political and ethical task. This allegory, or pattern of allegories, is the “ethnographic pastoral” (110).
Clifford turns to Michelle Rosaldo’s argument that ethnography is stuck in a teleological framework, where the “simple” culture is studied to shed light on the West (110). This is particularly true for research objects that are presented as ever present, not historical—people who are presented as trapped in the “ethnographic present.” “This synchronic suspension effectively textualizes the other, and gives the sense of a reality not in temporal flux, not in the same ambiguous, moving historical present that includes and situates the other, the ethnographer, and the reader”—this is what Johannes Fabian called “allochronic” and has been popular in 20th century scientific ethnography (111). Clifford illustrates his point with Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer, which presents its subjects as “the cultural islands out of time” that seems “prelapsarian” and uncorrupted by the Fall (111). Thus the Nuer become “lost qualities, textually recovered” (112).
He discusses the prevalence of ethnographic writing about “the vanishing primitive” (112). “Ethnography’s disappearing object is, then, in a significant degree, a rhetorical construct legitimating a representational practice: ‘salvage’ ethnography in its widest sense. The other is lost, in disintegrating time and space, but saved in the text” (112).
Clifford questions that cultures are vanishing because of change and that the ethnographer needs to come in and save the authentic culture by recording it (113). Though these ideas are less popular than they once were, the idea of salvage is built into the ethnographic project, which involves textualization (113). The allegory of salvage continues as long as the ethnographer sees himself as inscribing the culture into a stable written form as opposed to taking part in dialogue or transcription (113).
Clifford then contextualizes the Western tradition of the pastoral, discussing Raymond William’s The Country and the City, which traces “responses to social dislocation and change” from antiquity, including a pattern of mourning the loss of the authentic. The pattern is a constant critical nostalgia, looking back to better times, with the primary time being Eden, and recognizing an alternative to the present (113-4). George Eliot’s novels, which look back a generation, are another example. Clifford notes that the look back to a “passing reality, ‘traditional life’” is also what the ethnographer does (114). The ethnographic version of the pastoral expands the pastoral beyond the narrative of the West to include the primitives societies that are “constantly yielding to progress” (114-115). Clifford asks what the ethnographic possibilities would be if the pastoral allegory with the constant pushing of the present into the past were replaced with a vision of other societies as part of a future (115).
To affect change to the ethnographic:
Beyond the pastoral allegory of loss being reevaluated, the connection between the written and the ethnographic would have to be reevaluted: “For allegories of salvage are implied by the very practice of textualization that is generally assumed to be at the core of cultural description. Whatever else an ethnography does, it translates experience into text” (115). Each ethnography enacts the oralàwriting transition (115), and in this, there is a strange mixture of death and live: “The text embalms the events as it extends its ‘meaning’” (116). The very act of writing echoes the pastoral theme: “The text is a record of something enunciated, in a past” (116).
Clifford shares a parable of an ethnographer who deals with a chief of a tribe which had been studied by an earlier ethnographer; the chief refers to the earlier ethnography to answer the present ethnographer’s questions. Clifford wants this to show that there is no longer a smooth flow form oral to written, but there is transcription from text to text not just inscription of the written (116). There are new ethnographic conditions, where the ethnographer is not the first to transfer the culture into writing yet ethnographers tend to discredit earlier work and ignore the textual; also informants are now oftentimes literate, so they too can work to inscribe and transcribe their culture; there is also no longer the power dynamic of part of the globe which is literate and part which is not, which has also helped to open eyes to alternative forms of writing that cultures have undertaken for a while. The challenge posed by Derrida is what Clifford sees to be the greatest challenge: writing expanded past alphabetic to things like gestures or other marks (117). Since all cultures have some means to textualization, “in Derrida’s epistemology, the writing of ethnography cannot be seen as a drastically new form of cultural inscription, as an exterior imposition on a ‘pure,’ un written oral/aural universe. The logos is not primary and the gramme is mere secondary representation” (118). The people of the culture are “always already writing themselves” thus demoting the special status of the ethnographer (118). Clifford thus points out how pervasive the challenge to the allegory textualization is (118-9). Referencing Geertz, Clifford explains, “If the ethnographer reads culture over the native’s shoulder, the native also reads over the ethnographer’s shoulder as he or she writes each cultural description” (119). This adds a level of constraint on the ethnographer, for the native can now challenge the ethnographer’s authority (119).
Clifford argues that we should not abandon allegory, but resist the “impulse” to make the transient permanent and to “open…ourselves to different histories” (119).
The factual and allegorical narrative cannot be separated; there is no pre-referential fact (119).
How a work is read is uncontrollable, but there are limited readings depending on context (120)
“A recognition of allegory inescapably poses the political and ethical dimensions of ethnographic writing. It suggests that these be manifested, not hidden” (120).
Recognizing allegory leads to fruitful new ways to read ethnography, opening reader to new forms of analysis and recognition of different strands within the text and to temporal relations (120-1)
Recognizing allegory makes us take responsibility for how we construct the other and thereby ourselves (121)

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