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Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 5604 words Published: 26th Apr 2018

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During the 25 years since the publication of Writing Culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography, a great deal of discussion has accompanied it. In this essay I place this book in the context of the literary turn in anthropology, and concern with the postcolonial encounter as well. Throughout the analysis of the main themes in the book, attention is paid to the construction of ethnographic authority and two relationships of ethnographer/reader and ethnographer/informant centered in Writing Culture. The essay also provides a perspective of the influential power of the book by presenting some ethnographies conducted by Chinese anthropologists. Finally, I will argue the risks of the textualism trend and different patterns in Writing Culture approach.

Background of the Book: In and Beyond Anthropology

More than ten years after the publication of Writing Culture, in a review article, George Marcus (1998:5) quoted Schneider’s words referring to the book:

I don’t think Jim Clifford is famous for his monograph on Leenhardt. I don’t think that George Marcus has achieved some notoriety because he worked on Tonga. Indeed, I don’t know anybody who’s read the ethnography he wrote. In fact, I’ve often talked to people and asked them, “Hay, have you read George Marcus’s ethnography?” “No!-but I read that other damn book.”

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It is a very typical and interesting comment. As an anthropologist, George Marcus is best remembered for editing the collection of essays rather than his own ethnographic work; and similarly, James Clifford, a historian, is frequently regarded as an anthropologist by force of being the editor of the same book. The comment also reveals that the book is controversial, and it has witnessed harshly criticism after its appearance. However, there is no denying that Writing Culture is one of the most important books throughout the history of anthropology-the milestone of the post-modern era and the cornerstone of the experimental ethnography (Gao 2007, Scholte 1987).

1. The literary turn

There is nothing outside the text. (Derrida)

The book, with eleven essays in it (including the introduction and afterword), is based on a series of seminars at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the United States of America in April 1984(Clifford and Marcus 1985). By taking “the making of ethnographic text” (Clifford and Marcus 1986:vii) as the focal point of their seminars, the participants not only viewed WRITING as a elementary method, but also the central issue of social cultural anthropology. Ethnographic writing is then critically examined in aspects of social context, the use of rhetoric devises, the limitations of disciplinary traditions, the definition of its genre, the political engagement, and historical transformations.[1]

Why is writing becoming a principle thing in anthropology? In order to answer this question, inevitably, we take into consideration the literary turn, or say textualism trend in anthropology in the 1980s. The literary turn, just as its name implies, by taking text, writing and literary devices as key concepts and employing textual and literary analyses, is a radical shift which provides strikingly different epistemological and methodological approaches in the discipline of anthropology (Scholte 1987). Although it is difficult to figure out whether Writing Culture is more a cause or a result of the literary turn, the book is definitely a key ingredient of it. I would further suggest that Levi-Strauss, Geertz and Writing Culture should be considered as a sequence in the context of the literary turn.

What the Writing Culture authors claim, such as the diversity of representations, possibilities of interpretations, at a glance, are totally different from Levi-Strauss’s pure unity, reduced models and deep culture grammar. At the same time, Levi-Strauss’s strong sense of symbol and meaning within a symbolic language system and his linguistic analogy approach (Barrett 1996) are valuable legacies to Geertz and Writing Culture. Furthermore, his research on mythology threw fresh light on the interdisciplinary studies across anthropology and literature. Then, Geertz, who is profoundly influenced by Levi-Strauss and Weber, has a more important and complex influence on Writing Culture. Firstly, his concern of anthropological interpretations and “thick descriptions”, fieldwork and post fieldwork, (Geertz 1975&1983) provided the basis for Writing Culture explorations. Secondly, Geertz’s “local knowledge”, native’s point of view (Geertz 1975&1983) and assertion of an amiable and intelligible style inspired Writing Culture authors to portray fieldwork as a dialogical approach, and consequently take the interactions of ethnographers/the indigenous people (Barrett 1996) and ethnographers/readers in to account. Thirdly, Geertz’s ethnographies became important materials of Writing Culture

2. Postcolonial encounter and Cultural Representation

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sweep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

Lyrics of Viva la Vida (Coldplay 2009)

The birth of this book is not narrowly concerned with the inheritance and development of theory and methodology within the discipline, but rather deeply rooted in the historical background and the reconstruction among the entire academic community.

As an academic discipline, anthropology is developed in the context of imperialism and colonialism. The long-time contact between European conquerors and the colonists shaped forms of power and knowledge, and anthropologists at that time entered into non-European aboriginal communities as observers and describers (Asad 2002). Anthropology narrated power relations; at the same time it was also “potentially counter-hegemonic” (Clifford 1986:9). In 1980s, which was the postcolonial and postwar era without the umbrella of the colonial power, anthropology started to face a more complex nexus of power relations. The postcolonial situation affected the main interests of anthropology and challenged the authority of ethnography. Moreover, anthropology from then on, was not only carried out by Europeans and Americans, but also by those from the so-called Third World who were studying their own cultures; and neither Western culture nor the non-Western cultures remained the same in the ever-changing world (Clifford 1986, Layton 1997). In Writing Culture, the analyses of ethnographic discourses- asking “who speaks? who writes? when and where? with or to whom? under what institutional and historical constrains?”(Clifford 1986)-is a repercussion of the postcolonial encounter.

Another important feature of the 1980s is the increasing flow of so-called postmodernism in academia-grand narrative was abandoned and details of everyday life took their place. Accordingly, singular “culture” was replaced by the plural one, and cultures were understood as representations and knowledge; and man with a small “m” took place of Man with variability. More importantly, the process of rethinking cultural representation again called into question the authenticity of representation itself and Writing Culture elegantly captured the main themes in this discussion.

Three Main Themes of the Book

In general, Writing Culture is an introspection, which attempts to examine anthropology traditions (especially the traditional ethnography) as well as anthropologists themselves. I will explore three main themes in the reflections.

1. Partial truth

Knowledge is power,and that one must never reveal all of what one knows.

Saramaka folktale, in Price (1983:14) cited in Clifford (1986:7)

The most essential and fundamental point in Writing Culture is the questioning of ethnographic authenticity. In the 1920s, ethnography was defined and established not only as a genre of cultural description depending on intensive participant observation (Clifford 1983), but also a main research method internalised as a academic criterion in the field of anthropology (Gao 2006). This new style of ethnography-scientific ethnography, built by Malinowski, investigated the totality of culture with a holistic view and documented different layers of ethnographic reality(Kuper 1996). About 50 years later, the theorizing of ethnographic realism sprung up. In 1977, Paul Rabinow, who is a contributor of Writing Culture, published his book Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. His provocative descriptions of the fieldwork itself and his own feelings in the field reveal that “fieldwork is a process of intersubjective construction of liminal modes of communication” (1977:155) which constantly involves valuation, and the ethnographer is not a objective observer but a real person with self-consciousness and certain cultural background who makes and remakes facts. Unlike the revelations of Malinowski’s fieldwork dairy and the Mead-Freeman controversy, anthropologists started to look at themselves consciously and pondered-what is the ethnographic truth.

This issue has been argued throughout the book. Take for example Vincent Crapanzano’s Hermes’s Dilemma: The Masking of Subversion in Ethnographic Description (1986); he analyses three ethnographic texts by George Catlin, Wolfgang von Goethe and Clifford Geertz to probe how does the ethnographer make his/her work convincing. The three authors use distinctive figures, namely “hypotyposis”, “external theatrical narrativity” and “interpretive virtuosity”, to convince the readers of the descriptions in their texts. He argues that, as a matter of fact, their rhetoric tools make the described events devoiced from the original settings, and finally, it is the ethnographer’s authority which covers the subversion up. However, the ethnographer’s authority-his/her “presence”, “perceptual ability”, “disinterested perspective”, “objectivity” and “sincerity” (1986:53), is questionable. Does being there mean witnessing everything? Is the perceptual ability trained in a certain culture adequate and reliable? Is “disinterested perspective” or “objectivity” even possible? If not, how can one reach the whole truth by selected fragmentary information? The underlying institutional system and power relations work through all these issues and enmesh in the anthropological knowledge, not to mention the cultural filtering, the information is not completed at the source. Crapanzano’s essay reminds us that the ethnographer, like Hermes who decodes and interprets messages, “promised to tell no lies but did not promise to tell the whole truth” (1986:76). From this perspective, ethnographic truth no longer pursues the true view of the whole world, as Clifford and Rabinow point out in the book, ethnographic truths are “partial, committed and incomplete” (Clifford 1986:7) and in bondage to cultural settings.

2. Literary devices

All constructed truths are made possible by powerful “lies” of exclusion and rhetoric.

As I have mentioned before, Writing Culture is related to the literary turn of anthropology with the foundation of seeing ethnographies as texts. It is easy to point out that another major theme of the book is the literary devices employed in ethnographies, and in which the rhetoric issue has been mostly discussed. For instance, Renato Rosaldo’s From the Door of His Tent: The Fieldworker and the Inquisitor (1986), by comparing The Nure written by Evens Pritchard with Montaillou written by French social historian Ladurie, demonstrates how ethnographic rhetoric could assist in building authority and objectivity. Needless to repeat, The Nure is a ethnographic masterpiece, and for Montaillou, it is famous for providing an ethnographic analysis of a French community in fourteenth century by using inquisition record.

Rosaldo states that, in the first place, in the introductory section, by frankly acknowledging the inequality between the inquisitor / his subjects, the fieldworker/ the Nuer, the authors both indicate the “calm presence of mind”(1986:89); then, they style themselves as honest men through complaining about the difficulties in gaining information in uneasy tensions between investigators and informants. After that, they claim their information is gradually collected in “particles” in order to construct the reliability; meanwhile, “distanced normalizing mode of discourse”, rhetorical absences[2], correspondences[3], etc. are used to enhance the sense of objectivity. In sum, the rhetorical work in introductory parts of the two books by means of separating “the context of colonial domination” from “the production of ethnographic knowledge” (1986:93)establish the authors’ innocence and the ethnographic authority as well. Furthermore, in both authors, the “pastoral mode” is invoked. The literary mode of pastoral is, firstly a symbol of the spiritual liberty, secondly a mobile position of speaking, and thirdly a label of courtesy and respect. Rosaldo’s essay interestingly illustrates that, although the power and knowledge relations have not been completely kicked off, to a great extent, they are concealed by the rhetoric tools. Ethnographic rhetoric has a strong impact on the understandings of the ethnographic texts (Scholte 1987).

3. Writing of Self

Continued from the preceding paragraph, the mobility in ethnographers’ positions is demonstrated cumulatively in other chapters of Writing Culture as well. Fieldwork in Common Places by Mary Louis Pratt (1986) provides an illustration.

Her essay focuses on the significant history of the relationship “between personal narrative and impersonal description” (1986:27) in ethnographies and travel writings. Pratt starts with a controversy that anthropology graduate Florinda Donner’s work Shabobo: A True Adventure in the Remote and Magical Heart of the South American Jungle is facing accusations of plagiarism, because there are some events in her book which are the same as others. Here, Pratt asks a very inspiring question: as ethnography demands accurate descriptions, for describing the same events at the same place, how could Donner’s work not resemble others? Pratt argues that the authority of ethnography, in some sense, is based on the unique and original “personal experience in the field” not the “factual accuracy” (1986:29) of a certain ethnography.

From this perspective, personal narratives cannot be eliminated from ethnography, and it also explains why the “subgenre” of “formal ethnography”, such as Malinowski’s diaries, has not been “killed by science” (1986:31), but turned into a prolonged tradition of anthropology. Even in formal ethnographies, personal narrative is an integral part. It marks the relationship among the fieldworker, indigenous people, and the audience. It also serves as a regulator, reconciling the inconsistency between the subjective engagement in fieldwork, and the detachment; the “self-effacement” in formal ethnographic writing. Moreover, her analysis shows that, even in the time of so-called scientific ethnography, ethnographers were writing from “multiple, constantly shifting positions”, and “self” is never a “scientist-observer” (1986:39).

To consider further from this point, we could identity a difference between classical ethnography and experimental ethnography. For Malinowski, and his students Firth and Evens-Prichard, the writing of “self” is a strategy serving for building the authority of scientific ethnography; however, for Rabinow and his contemporary anthropologists, the consciously self-realization in ethnographic writing successfully opens up a dimension for reflective thinking. The “self”, thus, is public, and mediates in different cultures. The appearance of the new kind of self writing is very provocative: epistemologically, in view of the production and explanation of the knowledge,it penetrates into the relationship between knowledge of self and knowledge of the Other and how knowledge is hermeneutically represented(Rapport, and Overing 2000); methodologically, it seeks for the diversity of ethnographic writing, more specifically, the expression of the subjectivity, the utilization of rhetoric, or, I would say, the writing style.

4. A summary of the three themes: one centre and two basic relationships

Throughout all three themes-ethnographic truth, rhetoric in ethnography, and the writing of self, there is a central point-the construction of ethnographic authority, which cannot be comprehended without reference to the power relations. The power relations derive from the Foucaultian intertwining of knowledge and power in the academic discipline as well as the fluctuant historical and political affiliation.

Here, I will not repeat these issues which I have argued in the first part, rather, I would suggest two relationships existing in the main themes of Writing Culture: a) ethnographers and the natives they studied, and b) anthropologists and their readers.

Having inherited the tradition of Geertz’s interpretive anthropology, Writing Culture highlights the reconstruction of the ethnographer/informant relations (Wang Gao). Indigenous people and their culture are no longer viewed as silent and uniform objects. Ethnographic knowledge, as suggested by Rabinow (1977), is built on a bilateral understanding in certain cultural contexts.

At the same time, more importantly, the book pays close attention to the relationship between anthropologists and the readers. Same as the literary outputs, ethnographies shape the relations with the audiences through texts (Xu 2001). Both the completed texts and reading activities are certainly influenced by the literary processes (Clifford 1986). By scanning how ethnographies communicate with their readers, the reflexive essays[4] portray ethnography as a kind of dialogue, and the conversational readership allows, or I could say, encourages the readers to take part in the investigation of ethnographic writing. In addition, the discussions regarding the ethnographers’ distinguished positions in describing others and expressing Self, permit the readers to obtain the different perspectives which the ethnographers have themselves. As Spencer indicated (1989), the correspondence to multiple positions provided by a master hand is a feature of a good ethnography. Why is it important to take the readership of ethnography into consideration? I think it depends largely on the unique and versatile character of this readership. Marcus and Cushman (1982) present six categories of readerships of ethnography. The categories differ in purpose, positions, and some of them may merge with another (the first and second one in particular) or others: (1) “the specialist readership”, (2) “the general anthropological readership”, (3) “readerships from the other social sciences” (4) “the student readership”, (5) “the action oriented readership”,(6)”the popular readership”(1982:51-52). Ethnography, firstly, as a genre and a method as well, interposes itself between humanities (relating to category 1 and 2) and social sciences (relating to category 3); secondly, serves as a puberty rite for professional anthropologists (relating to category 4); thirdly, emerges into social and political decision-making for certain historical and institutional reasons (relating to category 5); and finally, attracts common readers thanks to its literary feature and exotic nature (relating to category 6). It is obvious that the readerships of ethnography are extremely complicated and should be carefully identified. Both ethnographers and readers must be self-conscious (Rapport 2000). Hence, the ethnographer/reader relation issue raised by Writing Culture writers, from this angle, is stimulating from the 1980s till today.

The ethnographer/reader relation, together with the ethnographer/informant relation, is located in the power discourse and knowledge discourse. Once again, the two relationships echo the central idea of Writing Culture-the authority and power. In a word, although the three themes I proposed are not a very complete summary of the book, the one centre and two basic relationships they conveyed, in my opinion, have demonstrated the most insight and innovation of Writing Culture.

Writing Culture: the Chinese Experience

In the preliminary report of the Writing Culture seminar and papers, Clifford and Marcus state that Writing Culture is lacking the feminist point of view as well as “Third World” or non-European approach (Clifford and Marcus 1985). For the former omission, I agree with Schotle (1987) that, some feminist perspectives is inconspicuously harbored in Pratts’ essay. However, for sure, there is not a so-called Third World standpoint in Writing Culture, which I think is a significant irony for its analysis of power play in the post-colonial time.

In “Third World” countries, anthropology is in a very different context. Their people and cultures have for a long time been discovered, observed, described, and represented by Westerners. Non-Western anthropologists and their ethnographic works are the symbols of the reconfiguration within the discipline, and most of them naturally locate their fieldwork sites in their own cultures to study their own people. Generally speaking, anthropology[5] of the “Third World” witnesses a fruitful period in the postwar era, which is also the golden age of experimental ethnography, and to some extent, it could be taken as anthropology at home which employs the self-reflexive approach mentioned in Writing Culture. I will then, taking China as an example, look at some ethnographic cases conducted by Chinese anthropologists relating to Writing Culture. I assume it a good perspective to explore the influential power of Writing Culture and its echoes.

The first case is Huang Shumin’s ethnography The Spiral Road:Change In A Chinese Village Through The Eyes Of A Communist Party Leader(1998). Depending on his one-year fieldwork (first ten chapters) and a revisit (chapter 11&12) in a village in Fujian province, China, Huang provides a picture of the huge political and economic change and development in a Chinese village from the founding of People’s Republic of China to the 1990s as well as the impact on the personal and pubic life of a peasant, who is the a political leader in the community. The political struggles, the hardship of raising a family, and the peasant’s life wisdom are vividly described through a first-person narrative life history approach. Although his novel-like ethnography is first published in English, Huang is regarded as one of the best Chinese anthropologists for his proficient writing skills and great success in narrating the complexity of historical events in rural China in a lighter tone.

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The second case is drawn from Li Chunxia’s PhD dissertation Television and the Life of Yi People in China (2005)[6]. As a Yi[7] anthropologist, her ethnography explores how television profoundly “incorporated into the fabric” (2005: 5) of local people’s daily life. In the text, Li’s fieldwork notes collected during her three-year fieldwork at her own village give expression to her close emotional ties with native people, and deliver her concerns and worries of the ethnic minorities’ living circumstances in contemporary China. Meanwhile, as a scholar, she keenly captures the metaphorical meaning of modernization, development and prosperity by “television”. Her analysis penetrates into the relations of Yi people/Han people, and pre-modern/modern. The reflexivity about the periphery/centre relations is a main steam in contemporary anthropology of China.

The third case is Zhuang Kongshao’s ethnographic research on a hot topic in Chinese culture and society: the family education (Zhuang and Feng 2006). He describes the communications and conflicts between a mother and her seven years old daughter and the relations among school education, family education and social education. Zhuang is a pioneer in anthropology of China, not only because he introduces a new approach called educational anthropology, most importantly, the final production of Zhuang’s fieldwork is an ethnographic film named “My Wife, My Daughter”. It is actually beyond the scope of Writing Culture, because it is no longer about the “writing” and the “text”. I adopt this case here, trying to argue that, Writing Culture highlights the diversity of ethnography, and now, facing the radical form of ethnography, can the arguments in Writing Culture on ethnographic texts fit in ethnographic films? What is the same and the difference between the grammars of ethnographic writing and seeing? Are pictures more worthy than words in constructing ethnographic authority? Can texts and films be combined in ethnographic enterprise? Why and how? The book it self is an open ended text, and constantly simulates new questions for anthropologists in the post Writing Culture era, and that also explains why Writing Culture, after more than twenty years, is still being quoted and debated all over the world. It is true, as Schotle harshly points out (1987), that lots of questions in this book remains unclear and unsettled. However, I appreciate the original questions it raised and the appeal to dialogue.

Rethinking Writing Culture

Following the reflexive direction, I have three points to make on rethinking the book. Before that, I present a brief schema of the three-stage ethnographic research as follows.

There is nothing new, however, my questions are based on it. First, with the text-orientation, has the importance of writing been stressed over that of doing ethnography in the book? The potential risk in the textualism emphasized in Writing Culture is that fieldwork retires from the leading position, it has provided a context for substituting the empirical research. As we can see from the schema, fieldwork is the centre of ethnographic research in time and space, and it is also the foundation of anthropology. In this experimental moment, we should not only look at the outcome of fieldwork, but also reflect upon the limitations and new characteristics in fieldwork processes in this Writing Culture or post Writing Culture era.

Second, going back to the very first stage, I would argue, different backgrounds of Western and non-Western ethnographers shape two distinguished patterns of reflexive thinking. First, the Western pattern could be called “coming home”, after studying the Other, from outside in, anthropologists return to the Self, their reflexive thinking is about their own tradition in their own cultural institutions. Second, the non-Western pattern could be named as “being home”, they do not have a “return” perspective, their reflexive thinking is still deeply in relation to the West. I fear, in reflexive anthropology, which is greatly established by Writing Culture, anthropologists in the “Third World” would be more marginalized through their resistance in this centre-periphery discourse.

My final thought is on rhetoric issue, which is still an incomprehensible question to me. If rhetoric is an integral component of ethnographic writing, as Rosaldo (1986) argued, there are using and abusing of descriptive rhetoric, then, the next obvious question is: what is the boundary between use and abuse of rhetoric? It seems to me that, use, is a kind of abuse in itself, if so, how can one control it?


In the final part of my essay, I would like to do an experiment. I will write about my reading experience instead of the conclusion of the whole passage.

I originally read this book in Chinese in my junior year at college. As a literature student, I found the book interesting and inspiring, and it positively influenced me in the choosing of anthropology for graduate study. Later, I reread the book both in English and Chinese, and accessed some related articles written by Writing Culture writers. Surprisingly, I found several articles written in collaboration with Clifford and Marcus. Other than this landmark book, Marcus, together with Cushman, wrote Ethnographies as Texts (1982), which is a harbinger of Writing Culture; and he, later, with Fischer, produced the companion volume of Writing Culture-Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986). Behind these collaborations, I can imagine the interactions of sparkling thoughts as well as understandings and communications. They are spirits of academic research, and also the anthropological endeavor.


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