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 of white ethnographic culture that he holds; yet it is he who represents this muzzling, he who now holds these weapons and tools. More than a parody of les maîtres fous, the masquerade performs a subversive seizure of the position and power of the writer-ethnographer. It presents a demand to represent a culture-in-process from within, or at least a refusal to be fixed from without, either as an impure remnant of a lost authentic past or as a superceded stage in the History of Man. What happens, the image appears to ask, when peoples long subjected to European narratives of history turn the tables of writing in this way, and not only contest ethnographic authority but also create syncretic cultures that do not conform to our fables of genuine identity? (Such a reading is, of course, an ethnographic imposition of its own.)

This collection of essays by James Clifford, professor in the History of Consciousness Program at UC Santa Cruz, poses this riddle in many provocative ways. Clifford, who has written extensively on the development of ethnography and the construction of the exotic, takes the predicament of his title to heart. He has written not so much a history of ethnography, for such a telling might smooth over the crisis in discursive authority that is in question, but rather a series of related case studies in the rhetoric of its representations of tribal cultures. In each essay centered on a figure, school, institution, or discourse, he explores a different dominant trope within our modern “art-culture-authenticity system”; how it constructs its objects, develops its categories, tells its stories, finds its subject-positions—how it represents its Others and so reproduces itself.

The result is ethnography to the second degree, a grammar of its motives that reveals not simply the ideological orientations of its practioners (for these come and go), but the rhetorical modes that structure the discipline in general (such as the synecdochic use of a part of a culture—e.g., a ritual—to represent the whole) and that endure long after apparent conceptual breaks in its history. But the effect is not a meta-ethnography, a deadly dry omniscient view, for the book reads like a collection of stories, case histories, or intellectual genealogies, relatively free of critical ressentiment and as dialogical or polyphonic as Clifford attests every ethnographic situation must be. And it is in fact an ethnographic situation: as Paul Rabinow has written, “Clifford takes as his natives, as well as his informants, . . . anthropologists.” And he takes as well, one should add, modern artists, writers, adventurers, curators, governmental officials, judges, lawyers, many of the makers of our tribal myth and lore regarding other groups.

According to Clifford, the primary trope of ethnographic writing is a redemptive Western allegory, a salvage paradigm, that judges other cultures according to imposed criteria of authenticity and then sentences them to the past, to a place in our own developmental history, or to a murky space almost out of time. This model informs not only the old evolutionist story of the Ascent of Man and the not-so-old humanist model of a Family of Man, but also the still-dominant narrative of the collapse of cultures into a global monocivilization. (The last mode has two genres: the entropic slide, the masterpiece of which is Tristes tropiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss; and the apocalyptic end, the present avatar of which is Jean Baudrillard. As contemporary cultural criticism is overly impressed by both these stories of decay and doom, the Clifford analysis is especially salutary.) Such a pastoral myth of cultural loss seems sweet if sad, but its effects are insidious, for it positions other cultures as mere ruins that must be saved by us and stored in our own theaters of memory, whether museological or textual. (Note how the old Christian language not only of the redemption but also of the mission endures in the supposedly secular sciences of ethnography, history, museology; how other cultures are still regarded, residually at least, as children who must be protected, instructed, chastised.) This murderous myth not only permits the continued appropriation of the past of any culture, but also blocks any constructive engagement with its “present-becoming-future,” which is so often dismissed, in a pseudo-self-critique, as corrupted by our own civilization. A double denial of creative diversity thus often informs even the most liberal political or institutional view of other cultures, especially ones that sublimate their productions as esthetic masterpieces or fix them as anthropological specimens, the two primary processes of our complementary museums of art and ethnography. (Significantly, Clifford does not privilege the latter over the former: “Ethnographic contextualizations are as problematic as aesthetic ones, as susceptible to purified, ahistorical treatment.”)

For this discursive complex to be understood—as Clifford helps us to understand it—is extremely important, both intellectually and politically, additionally since to rethink our rapport with other cultures is also, if the project is seriously pursued, to rework the typologies of our own. But lest the project be taken as the latest turn in a strictly Western dialectic, it should be stressed that the present crisis in ethnographic authority is not solely the effect of a belated bad imperialist conscience. It is compelled by other cultures, which, resurgent as political entities, now frequently repatriate objects, counterappropriate images and texts, and then collage, in defiance of our norms of purity, these forms with their own. Clifford tells these stories, too, in a nonappropriative way.

But how exactly to tell these stories? What new modes of history and allegory are necessary? This also is a leitmotif of the book, for even as Clifford exposes old ethnographic myths, he is confronted with new discursive strategies—narratives of cultural conflict, emergence, and innovation, of syncretic process rather than purist collection, narratives that he both retells and enacts. (Indeed, the final chapter is a tour de force in narrative experiment, a multivocal account of a mid-’70s trial held to determine whether or not the Mashpee people of Cape Cod, who had demanded restitution of land, were to be legally considered a tribe. In this collage-text, Clifford is sensitive to the many stories of the different parties, especially so to the Indian voices, most of which attest not to cultural extinction or archaic survival but to past, present, and future invention.) However, there are moments in the book when one might balk. In his critique of the prophets of monocivilization, Clifford may be too hopeful about the possibilities of alternative futures. And in his embrace of avant-gardist practices of collage, he may be too sanguine about the lived effects of cultural decenterings. Yet Clifford is aware of these risks, as he is of the hazards of a self-ethnography that deploys the Other primarily as a field for an identity quest. Additionally, one might wish that he had delved more deeply into the preconditions of the taxonomic shifts and institutional transformations that he describes—but this is to leave work for others.

And there are others, for Clifford is not alone in his project. (For a survey of revisions of ethnographic practice, see Anthropology as Cultural Critique by George E. Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer, and for a sampling of specific critiques see Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by Clifford and Marcus, as well as the bibliographies of all three books.) Nor is his project possible without certain precedents: poststructuralist analyses of representation and narrative, disciplines and institutions, racist and imperialist discourses; feminist critiques of essentialist thought, master narratives, subject-positions in images and texts; Benjaminian deconstructions of the fetish of authenticity and the habit of historicism; and—for the distance from ethnographic modernity that permits its critique in the first place—post-Modernism in general, or the experience of a changed historical ground. All these things allow Clifford to reveal buried connections among modern ethnography, literature, and art, and to trace new genealogies between early and late 20th-century thought. In its engagement with worldly subjects, The Predicament of Culture innovates inherited theories; and as it does so it opens up new nonimperial spaces in which Anglophonic readers may now think and act.

Hal Foster is the author of Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, published by Seattle Bay Press, and is coeditor of Zone.