Thoughts on Exiles & Ethnographers by Philip Schlesinger

Thoughts on Exiles & Ethnographers by Philip Schlesinger

1. Are we in a position to consider the practice of anthropology as a form of voluntary, indeed self-imposed exile? This is especially true of the old style field anthropologists, who were forever haring off to live with whatever tribe they were investigating. But does it not also apply to the modern day lot who might well be investigating some aspect of the social life of the very conurbation they live in? What I am trying to ask is whether any an every form of anthropological practice necessitates displacing ‘oneself’ internally in order to observe, both cognitively and affectively, that famed ‘other’. To consciously cut oneself off from one’s preconceived cultural and social preconceptions in order to come nearer in understanding of an’other’ group, surely is a form of exile, no matter how circumscribed. If any of these speculations has the slightest validity, an interesting questions. What would a comparison of the textual and narratological strategies/ choices between work of a modern day practitioner of the discipline who allows his personal voice to intrude & the work of an old timer, say a von Humboldt, reveal? Moreover, what would a study of the textual strategies of early anthropologists compared to those of the then contemporary travel writers, say Sterne, reveal? Did the conscious attempt to remain non-judgmental – no matter to what degree of success – make a difference in the way matters got reported. This is really an issue to be examined from the travelogue end, since bringing a clinical eye to bear can advance the cause of a travelogue substantially.

2. It would be interesting to know the other side of this problem, the effect does the “rediscovery of the first person” have? Does the ‘personal voice’ affect the “objectivity” issue? The very notion of allowing my personal voice to speak includes the idea of allowing subjective choices to determine the choice of research material, especially in the area of informants, where subjectivity may have substantial effects. It in fact hides an intriguing point, which is the degree to which self-reflexiveness undercut personal preconceptions? Putting it another way, are all attempts at objectivity in the mapping of social relations – which in one sense is all anthropology amounts to – springs from the need to overcome the first person and does this show in the texts themselves? How can one find out?

3. The above connects with the act of witnessing. In a sense, travel writing, autobiography, anthropological reports, have at least one common substrate – the idea of bearing witness. Witnessing is by definition predicated on memory, which is at best an unreliable device. Nevertheless, everything depends on the fact that what I say as witness be reliable. What is the result of my adding an “almost certain fabrication” to my account? Does it merely have the effect of turning my witness into “a kind of fiction”? Or does it make the account less reliable, given that reliability connects quite directly with the still undecided question of impersonal objectivity in anthropology and many other related areas. It also relates, in cases such as Perec’s autobiography, to the uses such deliberate elisions and fabrications may be put to. To take a deliberately extreme example, what happens when a denier, say a Robert Faurisson, uses ‘W’ for his purposes? What then does the “error trap” exemplify? For one, that creating at the borderlines, which result phenomena whose hermeneutics are manifold, may impose special criteria of reliability under certain circumstances. Blurring into fiction may then have concretely unacceptable results.

4. The idea of Europe as a “cultural area”. This is clearly applicable to India as well. A semi continental area whose – till recently – independent nations had blurred and often shifting borders, where a multiplicity of languages have been and are spoken, where several religions have their adherents, where despite the sharing of a cross fertilization of multiple cultures into a shared heritage, much blood has been spilled for parochial reasons. Although India is “one” and therefore there are no official to borders to cross, crossing the internal borders for those attempting to avoid persecution, can sometimes be not merely a problem but even a death sentence. Against this stands the US, where what is shared is a political world view – the idea of America and ‘being American – rather than a common culture. Which is not to say that Americans do not share a common culture; but only to point out that official ideology concerns itself with the sharing of political goals. How does one account for this difference between the settler countries (I think things are much the same in Australia and New Zealand, among other countries) and the older national formations? How much, if anything, does geographical distance contribute? Geographical distance has till recently been a potent barrier to communication and spread of ideas. This is not to say that ideas have not spread, but that they have spread slowly and often, among a certain class. One of the things that strikes one is that “common heritage” is usually the shared consciousness of an economic and social elites: this is what has been described in another context as the greater tradition. But the lesser tradition is often densely parochial and, disinterested in other cultures. One part of this is the relative isolation of the various little traditions from one another, itself a function of distance and modes of communication. The elites, have always had access to faster modes of communication. It needs to be noted that even in today’s world, access to modern communication remains a dream for a minimum of fifty percent of mankind, if not more.

5. How does the notion of ‘cultural area/ common heritage’ link up with globalisation? To start with, it is the areas with a common heritage, Western Europe and the United States that have become most globalised, so to speak. More importantly, the desire to control the borders of the nation state, is not so much a vital ingredient of globalisation, or even a consequence of it, as a necessary pre requisite of the process. Without borders and all the paraphernalia of their control, globalisation in its present form would simply not be possible. The process of globalisation was intimately, inherently and crucially dependent on the strengthening of the state. It would be fair to say that far from weakening, the state has grown more centralized, powerful, authoritarian and interventionist in the period of globalisation. To believe otherwise would be to fall into the trap of believing ‘The Myth of the Powerless State’, as Linda Weiss so felicitously puts it. Globalisation has all along proceeded forward with the support of the state, which has often taken decisions that have been hugely unpopular with a majority of its citizens. Such administrative ukase, by definition, requires an authoritarian state. The specific areas in which the state has weakened (itself – and that, voluntarily) is in the area of welfare. This of course has been central to the enterprise of globalisation, given its relentless pursuit of turning over all areas of human enterprise to capitalistic ownership. Now, in such a situation, where borders are harshly guarded, thus fragmenting the world into independent units, and culture becomes such a binding force, what is the effect of the hundreds of little traditions? Are they not as binding as the shared culture? If they are, what is their relation to the manifold sub-nationalisms that dot the planets political landscape? Is the shared culture of the elites and also the ubiquitous mass culture directly responsible for creating such sub-nationalisms? After all, each such sub-nationalism merely reflects the desire of a certain group of “people to control its borders as well as to define the procedures for admitting “aliens” into its territory…” (Emphasis added). It also needs to be kept in mind that “defining the procedures” is an important way of defining the category ‘alien’, indeed of creating it in certain cases. Here is one connection between internal exile, refugee status, nationalism and the law.

6. “The exilic condition is inherent in diasporic life.” This connects to Poupke’s reflections on the mass disappearance of the Jews during the Holocaust leaving a negative presence in the places where they lived. Here is a reminder that what is happening in Kashmir has happened before in other distant parts of the world. What are consequences of such mass disappearances?