PRINT February 1989


The Predicament of Culture

The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, by James Clifford, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

THIS IMPORTANT BOOK is about a crisis in authority—the authority that underwrites modern Western representations of other cultures. The cover photograph provides the first clue to what this predicament entails. Hardly the usual ethnographic image of an old ritual or exotic dance saved for science or presented as spectacle, it shows a black man in khaki pants and smock shirt with a pencil and open notebook in his hands, his head swaddled in fabric and topped by another head, a pith-helmeted mannequin of a missionary-adventurer-ethnographer. The photo is captioned “‘White Man,’ Onyeocha, a performer at lgbo masquerades. Amagu Izzi, southeast Nigeria, 1982.” And its meaning is complex: the black man is literally bound and gagged, as if by the very emblems

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