Saturday, July 9, 2011

Johannes Fabian: "Time and the Other"

Introduction –
There is a contradiction within the discipline of anthropology, centering on differing notions of time. On the one hand, ethnographical fieldwork, long understood to be central to anthropological practice, takes place through a dialogue between anthropologists and interlocutors at the same time. Anthropologists and interlocutors (people of other cultures studied) respond to each other and therefore exist in the same timeframe, or in other words as contemporaries: in Fabian’s terms, in fieldwork anthropologists and interlocutors are coeval. In order to pose and answer questions on the ground, anthropologists and interlocutors must exist in the same era of time, such that both are speaking subjects in dialogue with each other.
On the other hand, in anthropological writing anthropologists and interlocutors do not appear as partners in dialogue, or even in the same time. Instead of acting as interlocutors, the people of the other culture become the Other of the anthropologist, spatially and temporally different from him/her. The anthropologist’s Other is not a partner in dialogue but an individual who the anthropologist observes. In different ways anthropological discourse relegates their Other to other times (ie. as “primitives,” “savages,” or simply as “unchanging,” a “cold” culture in Lévi-Strauss’ case), treating the studied culture as a stable, and more importantly static, object, which is thus available to be studied as it is and always will be. The differentiation between the anthropologist’s time (modern, moving time) and the time of the Other (static, less developed, older) constitutes what Fabian calls anthropology’s denial of coevalness, the denial that anthropologist and interlocutor exist in the same time, or in other words its allochronic (occurring in different times, asynchronous) discourse.
A contradiction thereby exists between anthropological practice, which by necessity occurs in one shared time between anthropologists and interlocutors, and anthropological discourse, which represents Others as existing in different times from anthropologists and the cultures they represent, a situation Fabian refers to as a schizogenic use of time. This contradiction underlies a hidden political agenda within anthropology, to create a discourse of otherness that justifies colonial domination of the Others (the “Rest” by the “West”) in order to universalize Western progress. Through anthropological discourse (but not as its exclusive provenance) a “Politics of Time” is enacted, where the West is uncritically constructed as a “we” that confronts “them” who live in another time, justifying the “domination and exploitation of one part of mankind by another.” (xl) In his acknowledgments Fabian openly states the influence of Said’s Orientalism on his own work, and sees Time and the Other as a companion project to Said’s: “I hope that my arguments will complement and, in some cases, elaborate his theses.” (xliii)
Chapter 1: “Time and the Emerging Other”
Anthropology, as a science, must define for itself an object of study. Anthropology’s object is “the savage, the primitive, the Other,” the other culture anthropology differentiates from itself through its discourse, setting the other culture up as an object fundamentally distinct from the anthropologist’s culture. A key rhetorical device used to effect this separation is the differentiation of the time of the Other’s culture and the anthropologist’s, giving that separation a seemingly objective basis and hiding the fact that “there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act” of separating out an Other to act as a foil to oneself, allowing them to be known, controlled, and dominated (1). To understand how this occurs, Fabian begins by constructing a genealogy of the time used in natural science and its generalization to the nascent “human science” of anthropology from the 17th to the 19th Centuries.
Fabian’s genealogy begins with the secularization of “sacred” time. Sacred time consists of “a sequence of events that befall a chosen people,” and describes the gradual unfolding through time of the Catholic community’s salvation (2). Sacred time is linear, plotting those events that demonstrate the progression of the salvation of Catholics. “Secular” time is slowly established, in Fabian’s view, as a response to the rediscovery of mathematical and scientific treatises of Classical philosophy during the Renaissance, the consciousness raised by meeting other peoples during the Age of Discovery, and the technological advances made improving navigation at sea.
The first major process of the secularization of time is the generalization of what had hitherto been the time of salvation written by the Catholic community describing the history specifically of the Catholic community. The story of salvation is rewritten by Christians such as Bossuet to apply to “the whole world at all times:” in other words, the story of Christian salvation no longer only describes the progress of Catholics, but now has a place for every human being, Christian or not (3). In order to differentiate the permanent progress of salvation from the transitory rising and falling of political empires, Bossuet divides history into different epochs, or stages of salvation that are used as points that differentiate previous and later intervals of time. For Fabian, Bossuet’s division of history by way of epochs is significant for two reasons. First, it is a way of spatializing time: different epochs can be viewed side-by-side as discrete units of time for the purpose of clarity. Second, history is divided according to general principles, those of salvation, that give it universal order: “Thus both, the external, spatial boundaries of history and its inner continuity are of religion. Where mere sequence might cause confusion, the distinction of times in the light of divine providence creates order. It demonstrates the omnipresent work of salvation.” (4-5)
The generalization of sacred time intersected with the development of secular humanism during the Enlightenment, creating universal history. For Fabian’s purposes, the most significant aspect of humanism is a shift in the organization of knowledge most easily seen within the genre of travel literature. Previously, travel literature concerned pilgrimages, inwardly-directed passages towards sacred centers, representing the centralization of knowledge around sacred principles and religious dogmas. Secular travel literature is a movement outwards, from home to the outside world to discover the full development in stages of human destiny. At the center (Europe, the West), lies the fulfillment of the human destiny, and the periphery (the Orient, the Rest) reveals the different stages of human development all the way back to its origin, which ultimately culminate in European civilization. Human knowledge and time were thus given a tabular, spatial organization. Time, instead of describing the progress of human salvation, now described the “self-realization of man,” and could be seen in ages that could not only be conceived as a set of separate compartments, but could be directly observed by going to the geographical locations that corresponded to them (7). Knowledge was accordingly conceived as “the filling of spaces or slots in a table, or the marking of points in a system of coordinates in which all possible knowledge could be placed.” (8) By going to different locations, people could experience the different epochs of man, and by observing the people living there could fill in the details of all aspects of human development from its origins to its destiny, completing a universal history of humanity.
Fabian thus summarizes Enlightenment universal history as two theses:
1) Time is immanent to, hence coextensive with, the world (or nature, or the universe, depending on the argument); 2) relationships between parts of the world (in the widest sense of both natural and sociocultural entities) can be understood as temporal relations. Dispersal in space reflects directly […] sequence in time. (11-12)
During the 19th Century, secular universal history becomes naturalized through the addition of evolutionary schemas of development. The spatialization of time, already begun with Enlightenment universal history, takes on a new form during the 19th Century, fully subordinating geographic space to tabular space which directly represented the evolution of societies from primitives to modern Europeans. Social development is represented as a tree, with societies falling into different genera and species, such that human social evolution can be considered as much a natural fact as evolution within the animal kingdom:
J.D.Y. Peel notes that Spencer visualized evolution, not as a chain of being, but as a tree: “That this image holds true for societies as well as organisms, and for between them as well as for social groupings within them, is clear from the opening to the final volume of the Sociology where [Spencer] says ‘social progress is not linear but divergent and redivergent’ and speaks of species and genera of societies.” (Peel, quoted in Fabian, 15)
While for Fabian the anthropologists’ usage of evolutionary schemas is highly misinformed, the important fact remains that anthropologists not only give a natural scientific backing to their theory of social development, but also spatialize time according to a taxonomic model, classifying different societies based on their level of social and political development. As Fabian notes, world geography is now subordinated to conceptual geography, such that different cultures can now be fully regarded as living in different times within an abstract, evolutionary schema of historical development.
Far from being an innocent mix-up of evolutionary schemas of development, the naturalization of universal history is implicated in a reactionary political project justifying colonial domination of peoples lower down on the taxonomy of human societies. Anthropology in essence was the epistemological grounding for colonialism and imperialism, where “all living societies were irrevocably placed on a temporal slope, a stream of Time – some upstream, some downstream.” (17) With this intellectual basis it became possible to justify colonial empires on the basis of helping societies develop and progress to achieve the heights of civilization attained in Europe.
And while anthropologists eventually rejected evolutionary schemas of time, the idea that Europe/America, the cultures of anthropologists, develop, while the cultures of other peoples remain static, remains, such that anthropology still denies coevalness to the cultures they study. Fabian isolates three general forms of understanding time in which other cultures are seen as being of different times than our own:
1) Physical Time – clock-time, not organized around central human events (ie. Jesus’ crucifixion, the rising and falling of empires) but used to describe natural processes. Physical time has been translated into social sciences in two separate ways that differentiate “our” time from “their” time. The first is through the application of relativity theory to social life. Certain social thinkers have taken Einsteinian relativity to be a natural-scientific basis for the relativity of cultural experiences of time. While these efforts have largely failed, mostly due to the inapplicability of Einstein’s relativity theories to social affairs, another form of temporal separation has occurred with greater success, namely that of introducing “political physics.” (29) Ideologues have envisaged different cultures as two different physical objects that cannot exist in the same location at the same moment in clock-time, such that one must annihilate the other, generally the object with the larger army (an example of this would be the Nazi conception of lebensraum, living-space, which the Germans had to take from the Polish, the two peoples, seen as separate unified objects – one volk against another, being unable to exist in the same space at the same time). Furthermore, if anthropologists can show that other cultures exist outside of physical-time by being essentially static, they can be treated as non-entities, justifying conquest of their lands.
2) Mundane Time – the imposition of grand periods on top of physical time (ie. Neolithic, bronze age, iron age, etc.). This form of time is of little interest to Fabian as it merely segments human history into relatively arbitrary periods that do not inform anthropological work, mostly useful for “maintenance of cocktail talk about primitive mentality.” (23)
3) Typological Time – a far more significant form of periodization of history, made in reference to intervals between socioculturally significant events, such as “preliterate vs. literate, traditional vs. modern, peasant vs. industrial, […] talk about peoples without history belongs here, as do more sophisticated distinction such as the one [Lévi-Strauss makes] between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies.” (23) Cultures are thus compared on a temporal scale with Western society as the constant standard for progress. By being labeled an “illiterate” or “traditional” society, an Other culture is designated as being outside of the West’s epoch, as being fundamentally Other to the West, merely an object for observation. As the quote above suggests, Fabian considers typological time to be the time most commonly used by anthropologists today (at least in 1983 when this book is published).
Common to these three forms of time is a denial of coevalness to other peoples, which Fabian defines as “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse.” (31) The term “coeval” specifically refers to both existing in the same physical time and typological time, in the anonymous movement of moments and the same epoch of history. Contrasted to these forms of time is a fourth which is not allochronic (consisting of devices which actively deny coevalness to the Other) in this sense, which Fabian calls:
4) Intersubjective Time – this is the time presupposed by ethnographic fieldwork. Intersubjective time, as the name suggests, occurs in the interaction between two subjects, two actors able to engage in dialogue, who create within a shared present as coevals, within the same physical and typological time. One cannot engage in a dialogue without treating the interlocutor as a speaking subject able to define him or herself without having a physical or typological schema imposed upon them (Fabian clearly doesn’t watch congressional debates on CSPAN…).
Ethnography, which presumes intersubjective time, thus contradicts anthropological discourse, which denies coevalness to the Other. Anthropology thus stands at a contradiction with itself, rooted in different operative conceptions of time, a situation which Fabian calls anthropology’s “schizogenic use of Time,” or in other words the application of two different understandings of time at odds with each other (21). Fabian isolates this split as the basis of an immanent critique of allochronic discourse in anthropology from the perspective of intersubjective time used by ethnography.
Chapter 2: “Our Time, Their Time, No Time: Coevalness Denied”
Two explanatory strategies used to describe cultures within the field of anthropology are cultural relativism and taxonomy (specifically, French structuralism). Fabian extends his analysis of allochronic discourse within anthropology by describing how these two forms of analysis deny coevalness to other cultures in different ways.
Cultural Relativism – cultural relativism, exhibited especially within structural-functionalist schools of anthropology (Fabian focuses on Margaret Mead and E.T. Hall) “circumvents” the question of coevalness by postulating that each culture has its own socially-constructed experience of time that is different from all others. The focus of study thereby shifts from studying how intersubjective time is constructed between cultures to the experience of time within a culture, bypassing entirely the question of coevalness. It is a theoretical postulate that each culture has a fundamentally distinct experience of time, making coevalness an irrelevant concept entirely. Fabian gives two criticisms of cultural relativism:
1) According to cultural relativism, intercultural communication should be impossible – following Maurice Bloch, Fabian argues that if each culture is seen as an island unto itself with fundamentally distinct ways of viewing time, then relativism creates “cultural monads, that is, culture souls without windows, with no links among each other, yet full of mirrors facing inside.” (Bloch, quoted in Fabian, 45). As argued above, communication presupposes intersubjective time, which in turn presupposes coevalness. If cultural experiences of time are truly distinct, however, then the creation of intersubjective time could not exist. The mere existence of intercultural communication thus disproves cultural relativism, as “if other people really had different concepts of Time we could not do what we patently do, that is to communicate with them.” (Bloch, quoted in Fabian, 42)
2) The supposed nonviolence of cultural relativism in fact hides a political agenda – cultural relativism explains “entire nations in terms of their basic values and patterns of socialization and institutionalization,” starting from the assumption that each society embodies separate and self-created values defining them as a civilization (46). The idea that each culture lived its own form of time “rationalized epistemologically” viewing other cultures as a coherent whole based on essential characteristics, providing a methodological grounding for Cold War analyses of politically antagonistic societies (47). Cultural relativism, setting itself up as the nonviolent form of analysis, is in fact “easily put to work for such nonrelativist purposes as national defense, political propaganda, and outright manipulation and control of other societies.” (49)
Taxonomy – exemplified in French structuralism, taxonomic analysis of cultures simply disregards time as a “significant dimension of either cultural integration of ethnography.” (52) Lévi-Strauss also postulates that each society is an isolated unit, but is interested in the relationships between different units of culture, unlike cultural relativism. In order to accomplish this, Lévi-Strauss constructs a tabular space of conceptual oppositions by which different cultures can be compared, universal “unconscious rules and laws” which all cultural forms implicitly follow (55). In constructing this tabular space of universal rules and laws by which to compare cultures, however, Lévi-Strauss encounters the same problem Saussure does, namely that of explaining how change occurs in cultures. Lévi-Strauss avoids this problem by dividing cultures into “hot” ones that place emphasis on progress and are constantly changing and “cold” ones which do not change, and claims that the proper object of anthropological study are “cold,” unchanging cultures that can be placed more easily onto his conceptual map. Lévi-Strauss thus removes time from anthropological discussion entirely, such that Saussurian “diachrony” merely refers to the “succession of semiological systems one upon another,” or in other words, more or less developed cultural units (56).
Coevalness is therefore impossible for “cold” cultures, or those anthropology studies, since they by definition exist in less-developed stages of human consciousness. Cultures for Lévi-Strauss take “shape and identity by selecting a few among a practically infinite number of possibilities (as a language selects its significant sounds from an infinite number of possible sounds).” (62) Intersubjective time, the shared time created within communicative practice, is thereby preempted, as for Lévi-Strauss no cultural production occurs through communication, only through the particular configuration of values within the system of universal rules he creates.
Chapter 3: “Time and Writing About the Other”
Fabian now proceeds to demonstrate that the schizogenic use of time between ethnography and anthropological discourse is necessary to the discipline of anthropology as it now exists, rather than being merely accidental. To demonstrate this claim, Fabian discursively analyzes the ways anthropological and ethnographical discourse engaged in temporalization, or ways of describing things (in this case objects of anthropological study) in terms bearing temporal overtones that implicitly place things into certain timeframes. Through temporalization, other cultures are placed in temporal relations with our own, “such as sequence, duration, interval or period, origins, and development” (ie. our culture developed from theirs, their culture dwells in an earlier period than ours, etc.) (75). Fabian concentrates on terms whose temporal content is connotative rather than denotative, embedded within the context in which it is used, such as “savagery” or “kinship,” which carry overtones of the past and primordial social configurations.
The main focus of Fabian’s attack on anthropological discourse is the use of the present tense in anthropological writing, which he refers to as the ethnographic present. The ethnographic present is simply the “practice of giving accounts of other cultures and societies in the present tense. A custom, a ritual, even an entire system of exchange or a world view are thus predicated on a group or tribe, or whatever unit the ethnographer happens to choose.” (80) While usage of the present tense could be simply explained away as a mere literary device, Fabian engages in linguistic analysis of statements like “the X are matrilineal” to demonstrate that the ethnographic present reveals the intention of the writing anthropologist. The writing anthropologist, the first person in anthropological discourse, addresses us, the readers, the second person in that discourse. The object of anthropology, the other culture, is the third person, thus becoming a “nonparticipant in the dialogue” between the anthropologist and us readers who he wishes to convince of his results (85). The members of the other culture are non-subjects, unable to speak for themselves, in other words non-persons: “pronouns and verb forms in the third person mark an Other outside the dialogue.” (85) Removing other cultures from dialogue is ultimately for Fabian equivalent to denying their coevalness: “it presupposes the givenness of the object of anthropology as something to be observed. The present tense is a signal identifying a discourse as an observer’s language,” as opposed to a language created in intersubjective time between subjects (86). As will be argued next chapter, discourse based on a visual model of knowledge (ie. knowledge as observation or sight of an object) is for Fabian inherently allochronic, denying the subjectivity of the object of study.
Anthropology’s relegation of the other culture to the space of the non-subjective 3rd person belies the fact, however, that anthropological knowledge can only occur through ethnography, which for Fabian requires a dialogue between individuals. Ethnographical knowledge is necessarily autobiographical, as even if an armchair anthropologist makes use of an ethnographer’s work at some point some person underwent direct communication with the other culture. Fabian does not uncritically accept all ethnography as always recognizing the coevalness of others, however. While ethnography presupposes intersubjective time created through dialogue, its practice must remain reflexive to treat interlocutors as coevals. For Fabian, anthropology is a hermeneutic activity that interprets the experiences of ethnographers in the field:
All personal experience is produced under historical conditions, in historical contexts; it must be used with critical awareness and with constant attention to its authoritative claims. The hermeneutic stance presupposes a degree of distancing, an objectification of our experiences. That the anthropologist’s experienced Other is necessarily part of his past may therefore not be an impediment, but a condition of an interpretive approach. (89)
An ethnographer must retain some critical distance from his/her experiences with interlocutors, but this does not necessarily mean denying their coevalness. Ethnography requires dialogue with others, thus recognizing the subjectivity of interlocutors, a recognition that requires spending intersubjective time with those interlocutors: “However, it is imaginable that an ethnographer constantly “on the move” may lose his ability to make worthwhile ethnographic experiences altogether, for the simple reason that the Other would never have the time to become part of the ethnographer’s past. Time is also needed for the ethnographer to become part of his interlocutor’s past.” (90)
Along with spending time in dialogue with others, ethnographers must also engage in reflexion, which Fabian distinguishes from reflection. Reflection attempts to hide the subjectivity, the biases, assumptions, and methods of interpretation of the ethnographer within seemingly objective discourses such as those outlined last chapter, whereas reflexion understands that any description of an interlocutor is grounded in an individual’s experience, thus engaging their subjective faculties: “When it is said that primitives are stolid this translates as ‘I never got close enough to see them excited, enthusiastic, or perturbed.’ When we say that ‘they are born with rhythm’ we mean ‘we never saw them grow, practice, learn.’ […] All statements about others are paired with the observer’s experience.” (91) Ethnographers must recognize that their dialogues with others are part of their personal experiences and write ethnography in those terms. Reflexivity recognizes that interlocutors share a past and thus time with anthropologists, and thus recognizes coevalness with interlocutors: “somehow we must be able to share each other’s past in order to be knowingly in each other’s present.” (92) Anthropological discourse must cease regarding personal experience as an impediment to scientific objectivity, instead recognizing that all anthropological work requires personal experiences with others.
Fabian concludes this chapter by looking once more at taxonomic writing of anthropological knowledge. Even taxonomic organization of knowledge which is not based on evolutionary schemas of time cannot recognize coevalness as it denies the possibility of reflexivity. Taxonomies operate on a hierarchical basis, beginning with universal laws and fitting more specific facts into frameworks based on those laws. Any experiences garnered in ethnography are reorganized to fit within rule-based frameworks, and as long as experiences are understood as being truly organized as logical relations, they prevent the interpersonal experiences of ethnographers from being considered legitimate sources of knowledge: “The demonstrable fact that discourse qua spatiotemporal action can be described in purely logical-taxonomic terms in no way justifies the belief that it consists of logical relations.” (103)
Chapter 4: “The Other and the Eye: Time and the Rhetoric of Vision”
According to Fabian, the techniques used by ethnographers in their first period of studying another culture are to, along with learning the language, “mapping settlements, counting households, and drawing up genealogies of the inhabitants.” (105) Like the conception, seen last chapter, of ethnography as observation of other cultures, anthropological knowledge is seen as primarily visual, focusing on creating diagrams and maps which can be seen. Three assumptions underlie these prescriptions for garnering knowledge in ethnography:
1) Learning the language is merely a tool – language is a means to extract information from the other society’s members, rather than being a “communicative praxis” that can create knowledge through dialogue (106). The visual structure of societies preexists the anthropologist’s arrival, and so can be observed with the aid of the society’s language.
2) Visualism – “a cultural, ideological bias towards vision as the ‘noblest sense’ and toward geometry qua graphic-spatial conceptualization as the most ‘exact’ way of communicating knowledge.” (106) The ability to visualize aspects of another culture, such as their towns, their familial and social organization, is seen as the most accurate way to represent and understand that culture. Even when in certain anthropological theories cultures are seen as texts rather than pictures, the symbols of a culture’s text are arranged according to a spatial model, as a “cognitive map” that allows a culture to be approached as a structure of meaning-making devices.
3) These techniques are meant to expedite ethnographic practice, to make ethnography easier and faster for the researcher, and thus are meant to protect the researcher’s time for observation – the ethnographer chooses to observe certain aspects of the society at the expense of others, those considered to be irrelevant side-experiences:
How does method deal with the hours of waiting, with maladroitness and gaffes due to confusion and bad timing? Where does it put the frustrations caused by diffidence and intransigence, where the joys of purposeless chatter and conviviality? Often all this is written off as the ‘human side’ of ours scientific activity. Method is expected to yield objective knowledge by filtering out experiential ‘noise’ thought to impinge on the quality of information. (108)
By treating non-visual aspects of cultures and aspects not amenable to mapping as mere “noise,” anthropological method prevents ethnographers from considering the actual engagements in their experiential specificity to be real knowledge, though for Fabian it is precisely those experiences, the little details that give one familiarity with a society or not, which can provide deep insight regarding a society.
For Fabian, these assumptions demonstrate anthropology’s dependence on a conception of knowledge derived from Greco-Roman rhetoric. A rhetor remembered different sections of a speech by associating key words with arbitrary images, known as “places” (topoi, thus the English topics) of memory (110). Throughout a speech a rhetor moved between places of memory, thus spatializing his consciousness to “present to himself the temporal flux of live speech as a spatial topography of points and arguments.” (111)Thus time was first understood as the movement between spaces, and eventually through the universe itself. Memory was visualized as a house that had a certain architecture: rhetors were taught to construct edifices of memory that during the Renaissance were modeled on astrological models of the cosmos, such that the space of memory became cosmological. Knowledge therefore began to be viewed not only as fitting within a cosmological (later to become a taxonomical) conceptual space, but also as esoteric, the dominion of only a few highly trained experts in rhetoric.
Anthropology not only uses a version of this cosmologically spatialized understanding of knowledge, but also is grounded upon a view of teaching propounded by Petrus Ramus. Abandoning the Socratic model of teaching, engaging in a dialogue to create new conclusions through discussion, Ramist pedagogy aimed to instill facts into students by describing them in terms of spatial constructs: “Letter printing made possible mass reproduction […] which in turn favored mass circulation of what Ramus considered his major contribution to ‘method’: his ambitious renditions of teaching matter (poems, philosophical texts, biographies, and other) in the form of diagrams based on a dichotomization of its contents,” which for Fabian were the forerunners of anthropological diagrams of social and familial structures (115-116). Knowledge was not only conceived as but now concretely presented as observation of things, and so it was only a small step to include other societies and cultures among the list of objects to be observed.
Fabian, following Walter Ong, argues that this presentation of knowledge is antipersonalist, treating people as objects whose actions fit into categories that can be defined and observed, “to the detriment of ‘understanding’ the motives, values, and beliefs of their subjects as persons.” (118) This view of knowledge is thus antithetical to a dialogical form of knowledge based on intersubjective time. Other cultures were seen as separate objects to be observed by anthropologists, setting up distance between the anthropologist’s culture and the Other’s culture, such that “exotic otherness may be not so much the result as the prerequisite of anthropological inquiry.” (121) When visualism was combined with the evolutionary schemas of societal development described in chapter 1, anthropology became tied to political projects of exotification of others and thus became implicated in colonialism, not merely through moral failings, but through its very epistemology.
Fabian now moves into a critique of “symbolic anthropology” via a reading of Hegel’s Aesthetics as an example of how visualism infuses anthropological knowledge (we’re all very thankful for his generosity and lucidity, I’m sure…). Fabian makes the argument, as a “point for debate,” that understanding cultures in terms of their operative symbols tends to deny their coevalness. Although many symbolist anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz see the textual articulation of cultures in terms of symbols an alternative to the rigid visual presentation of culture of structuralism, “system, order, models, blueprints, and similar terms which regularly occur in these writings signal a visualist epistemology.” (124) That symbolic anthropology tries to avoid the taxonomic architecture of structuralism, they still regard other cultures as objects of observation. The main point of all this is that symbolic anthropology still views culture as an object that can be observed, rather than as something produced through constant social interaction and praxis, aka intersubjective time.
If you’re interested, though, Hegel in his Aesthetics articulates a theory of symbols arguing that they belong (a) to the Orient and (b) to the origin of art, creating both spatial and temporal distance between modern, “Romantic” art and pre-historical, “Oriental” art. Symbols for Hegel are inherently ambiguous, suggesting “by its external appearance that which it makes appear, not in its concrete and unique existence, however, but by expressing ‘a general quality of its meaning.’ (Hegel, quoted in Fabian, 127) Thus, any number of symbols can symbolize one image as their content, and vice versa. Thus symbolic art creates the aesthetic experience of uneasiness and enigma, outside of rational explanation. Romantic art, taking Classical (Greek) art’s unity between external form (mathematically perfect bodies, often without arms) and Spirit, added the internal dimension of provided by Christianity, creating a unity between the external and internal substance of humanity and a form of representation, such that art “now knows only one God, one Spirit, one absolute autonomy. Art is constituted in free unity as its own absolute knowledge and will, it no longer is divided into specific traits and functions who only connection was the force of some dark necessity.” (Hegel, quoted in Fabian, 130). For Hegel, artistic expression is “appropriate to the spirit of a people,” such that Oriental symbolism is Other to, both spatially and temporally distinct from, and logically contradictory to, modern culture, possessing a logical unity of form and content in art, rather than an arbitrary and ambiguous one.
Understanding another culture, such as that of the “Orient,” in terms of symbols treats it as unchanging and necessarily separate from our own. Each culture has its own symbols, organized in a coherent architecture that describes how individual members make meaning out of the world in terms given to it from their society. An image is thereby created of “timeless” cultures whose symbol-systems exist as unchanging entities, organizing the culture across generations (135). This form of anthropology again treats other cultures as objects for observation, rather than recognizing that meaning is also created out of communicative practice in intersubjective time. Creating an architecture of symbols that articulate a system of meaning “bears more than a superficial resemblance to the ‘art of memory.’ […] it avoids calling the Knower and the Known into the same temporal arena. […] This is inevitable as long as anthropology remains fixed on symbolic mediations whose importance no one denies but which, after all, should be the field of encounter with the Other in dialectical terms of confrontation, challenge, and contradiction, not the protective shield which cultures hold up against each other.” (136) Beginning to articulate an alternative, Fabian argues that culture must not be seen as an object of contemplation, but as something that is continually produced and reproduced through social practices created through communication, and thus existing in, you guessed it, intersubjective time.
Conclusion/Chapter 5: “Conclusions”
For Fabian, the redress of anthropology’s denial of coevalness to other cultures, existing throughout different forms of anthropological discourse and theories, must begin by examining the production of ethnographic knowledge. Ethnography must be seen as one communicative practice among others, and Fabian argues that “what must be developed are the elements of a processual and materialist theory apt to counteract the hegemony of taxonomic and representational [ie. visualist] approaches which we identified as the principal sources of anthropology’s allochronic orientation.” (156) Fabian does not construct a theory of exactly what this would look like, but does offer suggestions:
1) “Recuperate the idea of totality” – Fabian regards it as essential that we must grasp a culture “as a whole, an organism, a configuration, a system.” (156) Instead of treating it as an object of contemplation, however, we must understand that culture is the totality of what is produced through communicative and social practices, not as a set of rules that are applied, consciously or not. Fabian makes recourse to Marx to argue that production of a society is also at the same time its reproduction. As a society produces things (material or cultural) it does so with the purpose of continuing itself through generations, and so each act of production in fact presupposes social reproduction. Understanding society in terms of conceptual rules or structures is not necessary, since the regularities that give cultures specificity can be seen within and between different practices. By studying the processes and practices whereby societies produce their material and cultural goods an anthropologist can see how intersubjective time is involved in each act of cultural creation, and in addition refrain from seeing culture as a pre-existing object that can be observed outside of those practices. To study cultural or social production, an ethnographer must enter into those practices, as culture exists nowhere else.
2) Utilize a materialist conception of knowledge in anthropology – Knowledge must be seen, again following Marx, as “sensuous-human activity [conceived as] praxis, subjectively.” (Marx, quoted in Fabian, 159) Marx wishes to overcome the “contemplative stance” speculative philosophy takes on knowledge, separating observer from object, reality and representation, which underlie the visualist view of knowledge he criticized last chapter. Consciousness is always embodied and so is limited by sensuous experience, as well as language:
the only way to think of consciousness without separating it from the organism or banning it to some kind of forum internum is to insist on its sensuous nature; and one way to conceive of that sensuous nature (above the level of motor activities) is to tie consciousness as an activity to the production of meaningful sound. Inasmuch as the production of meaningful sound involves the labor of transforming, shaping matter, it may still be possible to distinguish form and content, but the relationship between the two will then be constitutive of consciousness. (161)
Humans do not have thoughts that preexist communication, that exist in an ideal world of pure ideas that can be understood as rules or unconscious structures that get translated into language. Rather, human consciousness is produced through communication and social life. It is within contexts of communicative practice that thought develop, such that hearing, not sight, is the most important sense for knowledge: “Not solitary perception but social communication is the starting point for a materialist anthropology, provided that we keep in mind that man does not ‘need’ language as a means of communication, or by extension, society as a means of survival. Man is communication and society. (162)
3) Recognize that social and communicative practices are temporal, existing in present, intersubjective time – communicative practices take place in time between individuals who all share that time with each other. The ethnographer must enter into this time in order to study practices, thus being forced to recognize the coevalness of the other culture. The atemporal spatialization of consciousness seen in taxonomy is thereby impossible as eternal rules of social interaction simply do not exist outside of the shared time of practice. The spatialization of consciousness involved in the arts of memory is thereby circumvented, making visualism also impossible.
This is how reading this book made me feel:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The movement from one idea to another, in relation to the general cognitive structure of the book, was really smooth and intelligent

  3. Thanks a lot! When I googled for some clues, I did not expect to find such a consolation.

  4. This is very well done, but why is the sacred time of all Judeo-Christian thought limited to Catholics? All Christians and Jews (Old Testament) are part of this temporal framework. The Bible has never belonged just to Catholics.