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The World at Hand
Between Scientific and Literary Inquiry
In 1941, the year before his death, Bronislaw Malinowski began writing his final book, a study entitled Freedom and Civilization. He was teaching then at Yale, and the United States was about to plunge into the Second World War. "What we are now fighting for is nothing short of the survival of culture and humanity," Malinowski wrote. Totalitarian forces had captivated their populations through powerful rituals of loyalty and submission, relying "essentially on the technique of a magical spell." Here was an uneasy yet crucial lesson to absorb, the anthropologist argued: "In our democratic unpreparedness, we have failed to mobilize spiritually." Democratic societies needed to envision a compelling future beyond this time of war, and here they could turn to the social sciences for help in understanding and cultivating the value of freedom. "Ours is an age," Malinowski wrote, "where faith must be in harmony with reason."
While Malinowski worked out these ideas in Connecticut, another notable writer with roots in anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston, spent a few months in Southern California. Working on an autobiography, she too had warfare and social conflict on her mind that year. Hurston, though, was far less sanguine about the promise of scientific understanding. "It is as if we were children playing in a field and found something round and hard to play with," she wrote. "It may be full of beauty and pleasure, and then again it may be full of death." Perspective on any social problem could only be partial, tinged always by the shadow of what remained unseen and unknown. "Light is sharply directed on one spot," Hurston mused, "denying by implication that the great unlighted field exists." Grave were the difficulties signaled by this chapter in her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, one that grappled with the basic task of "seeing the world as it is."
Taken together, these works bring into focus the challenge of thinking with the world at hand, a pursuit fundamental to anthropology. What is at stake here is the kind of empiricism that anthropology demands — what to do, that is, with the empeiria (Greek, for experience) of worldly encounters. "Anthropologists do their thinking, talking and writing in and with the world," Tim Ingold has written: "we do our philosophy out of doors." This is a deceptively simple matter, this philosophizing out of doors. For the thinking that we do, in and with the world, always involves a peculiar interplay between close attention and imaginative reach, movement within and beyond the circumstances in which we work. Who wouldn't recognize the tenor of those impossible aspirations that led Hurston to cry out this prayer in Dust Tracks? "Lord, give my poor stammering tongue at least one taste of the whole round world, if you please, Sir."
This essay examines the texture of empiricism in anthropology. I focus most closely on these two idiosyncratic figures from the field's early years, Bronislaw Malinowski and Zora Neale Hurston. The Polish ethnographer and the African American folklorist make, no doubt, an unlikely pair: one a legendary and canonical presence, and the other a woman who never found her footing in the institutions of the profession — who never had the chance, in fact, to pursue the Ph.D. she hoped to complete at Columbia University in the 1920s. Then of course there is Malinowski's famous cry from his Trobriand diaries — no more novels! — and Hurston's own avocation as a pioneering African American novelist. Still, I want to argue, there are striking affinities to pursue between these two writers, contemporaries with each other. In what follows, I pursue these affinities by tacking between the writings of these two figures and the biographical texture of their lives. I try to follow, in the manner of an ethnographer, how their ideas grow from the empirical circumstances of their work. I pay attention to various ways in which these latter details deepen — and sometimes confound — the timbre of their written words.
"The discourse of anthropology is a curious blend of both sorcery and science," Michael Jackson has observed. We tend to think of these endeavors as polar opposites, rival and incommensurable approaches to the density of worldly life: one allied with arts such as magic and poetry, and the other a means of more reliable knowledge about the world. Thinking between figures as distinctive as Malinowski and Hurston, however, brings into focus the space between these two poles. For anthropology's indefatigable champion of fieldwork was much less the stern rationalist we now take him to be. And the literary imagination of the American novelist owed a great deal to her training in field methods.
I follow these threads of affinity as a way of unraveling the reality at stake in anthropological inquiry. What we find is an empirical world more elusive than the givenness of the here and now, its actuality always open to critical shades of virtual presence and possibility. Anthropology can still happen, nevertheless, in such a world, because ours is an empirical venture that depends on the expressive powers of magic, myth, and metaphor, the conjure of realities otherwise unseen.
OF ALL THE ACADEMIC departments at the American university where I work, there is only one that declares to every visitor where else on the planet their members might be. I have in mind the world map prominently displayed just outside the door to the anthropology office at Johns Hopkins University, which marks faculty and student field sites around the world. The absence of such a map elsewhere on campus is somewhat surprising: there are many other programs here — earth and planetary sciences, global public health, and so on — with a notable emphasis on field research, that value close attention to the ground-level details of distant places. Yet, wandering from building to building on the campus one crisp winter morning, looking for evidence of such things, I mostly met with puzzled smiles and incredulous looks. "You mean a map of our building?" Here though in this department — as with so many other anthropology departments around the country — is this map of the world, mounted onto a corkboard in the main hallway, with a multitude of pins and flags in blue, red, and white, marking localities in North and South America, Europe and the Middle East, Africa and Asia. I can't say whether any of us has actually worked in Greenland, as one of the flags presently suggests. But, taken together, these markers cast a different light on hallways lined with closed office doors, as is the case most of the time throughout the university. The map implies something less prosaic about these closed doors than a beleaguered faculty hiding out from students and administrative demands. The implication is that we could actually be elsewhere, on the trail of where our work has taken us.
Of course, this wasn't always the case. Take, for example, this portrait of James G. Frazer buried within his study at Cambridge University, as sketched in a biography of the early anthropologist: "twelve hours a day at his books was quite the usual thing, while fifteen hours was not rare, and I have it on the best authority that he has several times left his library at Trinity College at two in the morning to return to it at eight the same morning." It was precisely this image of a scholar nestled among books that Malinowski and many others would contest as "armchair" anthropology. As Malinowski declared in his Frazer Lecture of 1925, "I shall invite my readers to step outside the closed study of the theorist into the open air of the anthropological field."
This distinction between two radically different environments for thought — closeted study and open-air field — marks one of the most significant features of anthropological knowledge in the early years of the discipline. As with other field sciences, the enterprise of anthropology was at first divided between the analytical work of gentlemen scientists in metropolitan Europe, and the travelers, missionaries, and colonial servants who gathered data for them from places far afield. Amateur observers were exhorted to collect what "facts" they could from the grimy circumstances of colonial frontiers, leaving their interpretation to proper scientists sheltered from the elements. But beginning in the late nineteenth century, newly established tropical field stations and other endeavors in field-based research challenged this division of intellectual labor, insisting on the value of knowledge grounded more closely in empirical circumstances.
For anthropology, an essential moment in the professional consecration of field experience came with the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, led by the Dublin zoologist A. C. Haddon. Relying on their training in psychology and physiology, and a battery of experimental tests, seven British men sought to establish the adaptive responsiveness of their Pacific island subjects to the sensory demands of that environment and its means of subsistence. Among them were Charles Seligman, a physician who later became Malinowski's mentor at the London School of Economics, and W. H. R. Rivers, who would insist, in his remarks on method in the 1912 edition of Notes and Queries on Anthropology, that "the abstract should always be approached through the concrete."
Notes and Queries was a fieldwork handbook that Malinowski carried with him and often consulted during his own South Pacific fieldwork a few years later. But in the annals of British anthropology, Malinowski's legendary research in the Trobriand Islands soon eclipsed the groundwork laid down by his forebears and teachers. His preeminent status as an exemplary fieldworker has been ascribed to both a genius for self-promotion and a flair for rhetorical persuasion. His 1922 classic, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, as George Stocking has memorably suggested, mythologized and even divinized its anthropologist hero, "the European Jason who brings back the Golden Fleece of ethnographic knowledge." But, at the same time, there is more at stake here than a matter of narrative license. There remains that alchemical mystery at the heart of the juncture between description and theory, ethnography and argument. How does an observation yield an idea?
Take the essay that made Malinowski's reputation as an anthropologist: "Baloma: The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands," published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1916. The essay was written over several weeks in Melbourne, Australia, during a lengthy interval between two stints of fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and Papua New Guinea. Reporting on his months spent on the island of Kiriwina, "where he lived among the natives in a tent," Malinowski tackles a series of puzzles concerning the souls or spirits of the deceased in Trobriand culture. How do these baloma differ from the ghosts and sorceresses that haunt the outskirts of Trobriand settlements? Where do they go after the death of individuals, and how are they made to return? What role do these spirits of the dead play in the genesis of life, in the magic rituals that make gardens grow, or in the conception of human children? With all such matters, Malinowski notes, "the crude data present almost a chaos of diversity and multiplicity," with the most basic of queries eliciting a bewildering array of responses.
What is the ethnographer to do with such discordant impressions? "Fieldwork consists only and exclusively in the interpretation of the chaotic social reality," he writes, "in subordinating it to general rules." Given the confidence of this declaration, however, one of the most striking aspects of "Baloma" is the indiscipline of its form. The writing itself would appear to be haphazard, as Malinowski, aiming "to state the difficulties I encountered in my work and the manner in which I tried to cope with them," wends his way through page after page of vivid reminiscences, asides, conjectures, and indulgences that draw the reader deep into the intricacies of an unfamiliar milieu with little sense, at least at first, of what to do with all these details. The anthropologist himself acknowledges so much of what appears in the essay — spanning seventy-eight pages of a journal issue just over two hundred pages in length — as "digression," yet another moment of lingering in the "desperate blind alleys" that mire ethnographic knowledge in the "contradictions and obscurities" of native pronouncements. It is as though the character of Malinowski's own thinking resembles that of his Trobriand informants, working with "ideas ... in an uncrystallized form, rather felt than formulated."
The essay, in fact, often seeks to underscore such unity between European habits of thought and the thinking of Trobriand Islanders, for "the native mind works according to the same rules as ours." It may seem striking, Malinowski observes, that these are a people who insist that baloma rather than fathers are responsible for the conception of a child. But the strangeness of this belief dissipates when the rarity of conception is juxtaposed with the ordinariness here of sexual relations, and the value attributed to the baloma's return. There are, in other words, "social dimensions" that anchor such beliefs and make sense of their complexity: the customs and institutions in which they are embodied, and the social relationships that sustain both orthodox explanations and unusual speculations. And this dense social fabric of explanation, Malinowski insists, is as essential to the work of anthropologists as it is to those they work with: "The observer's own difficulties ... must be excused on the same account." We begin to see, with these meditations on the anthropologist's complicity with his subjects, why Malinowski's account of what he learned in the Trobriands must wend its way through the many encounters that yielded these lessons, "bit by bit, through actual experience." There is something deeply misleading about "the cult of 'pure fact,'" he observes, the idea that knowledge only counts as such when purified of its social texture. Rather than leading from the concrete to the abstract, as his mentor W. H. R. Rivers had argued so notably, Malinowski suggests that the concrete itself is already abstract, already laden with incipient ideas and generalities. Whatever we might take as a concrete, empirical "fact" is already an abstraction: "every plan of a village or of grounds, every genealogy, every description of a ceremony — in fact, every ethnological document — is in itself a generalization," an amalgam of descriptive fidelity and interpretive coherence.
"It is not enough to have the facts right in front of one, the faculty to deal with them must be there," Malinowski writes. To grasp the empirical as already conceptual, a fact as already an idea, if only virtually so: what would it take to attune oneself to this possibility, to learn to engage the actual matter of the world in this manner?
FOR SO MUCH of early anthropology, the world at hand was a colonial world, its lived truths steeped in the reality of racial and political domination. Take the imperial scaffolding for Malinowski's fieldwork in the Trobriands, islands named after an eighteenth-century French explorer and then passed from British to Australian hands in 1905. Malinowski first arrived in Kiriwina on a missionary schooner in 1915, landing on a coral jetty built by prison laborers and borrowing his famous tent from the English resident magistrate overseeing the island. He worked with native men and women who could be jailed for failing to tidy their hamlets or plant coconuts on command, and often sought refuge in the company of local European pearl traders.
At idle moments, Malinowski would toy with the idea of a "new humanism" to supplant Greco-Roman classicism, "in which living man, living language, and living full-blooded facts would be the core of the situation." And yet the reality of colonial Papua constantly cut against the span of this humanistic imagination. "I simply loathe the whole village and all its inhabitants," Malinowski complained in one 1918 letter to his fiancée Elsie Masson, deriding a chiefly informant — covered with soot in ritual mourning for his just-deceased wife — as "black like a chimney sweep or an East End minstrel nigger." The fieldworker confessed a longing to return to the sanctuary of a library, speculating what ethnography might be like among those of his own kind: "sociological observation, if done under different conditions, say in a European community, would have all the charm this work has and none of its loathsome drawbacks."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Possible Anthropology"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction. An Ethnographer among the Anthropologists 1
1. The World at Hand: Between Scientific and Literary Inquiry 15
2. A Method of Experience: Reading, Writing, Teaching, Fieldwork 44
3. For the Humanity Yet to Come: Politics, Art, Fiction, Ethnography 77
Coda. The Anthropologist as Critic 110
What People are Saying About This
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“Incorporating the current movements beyond 'writing culture' of twentieth-century anthropology, Anand Pandian reinstantiates the poetics of an ethnographic method that anticipates futures. In the midst of a surge of multimodal experimentation, Pandian stunningly reinvests in the narrative character of ethnography.”