Diamond, Cultural Anthropology, Postcolonial Theory

Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz have made a series of interesting posts about Jared Diamond, “Yali’s Question” and Papua New Guinea at Savage Minds.

I agree with a number of comments I understand them to be making, particularly that Diamond’s obdurate materialism and macroscale analysis robs him of an appreciation of the ways in which commodities matter and determine social outcomes in a variety of historical and contemporary contexts because of what those commodities culturally and symbolically mean to individuals and societies as well as because of what their “real” material attributes might be. In their most recent post, they also observe something that I and others have noted in Diamond, which is a pretty serious confusion about necessary and sufficient causation.

However, at the same time, I think Gewertz and Errington’s basic antipathy to Diamond’s use of “Yali’s Question” is a fairly representative instance of recurrent problems in the epistemology of contemporary cultural anthropology and postcolonial theory (some of which practicioners are perfectly cognizant of, and in many cases grappling with). On a simple level, you could observe that it’s a kind of full-battery epistemological and methodological overreaction to what is in the end no more than a rhetorical device in Diamond’s book, that Diamond’s not altogether that interested in the empirical question of Yali’s life, or Yali’s understanding of his own question, just in using Yali as a framing device. I suppose some might regard that as a kind of problem of appropriation in its own regard, but if so, we might have to start going through ethnographic monographs to comb them for framing anecdotes which are not actually part of the substantive analysis of the monograph. I don’t have much patience for simple or crude assertions of “ownership” in this regard, that it is somehow wrong to use something like Yali’s Question anecdotally or rhetorically, because they’re never going to be meant to propose a serious methodological standard, just a kind of passing cheap shot against a soft target.

I don’t think that’s the real issue, however. There’s something more substantive at stake.

Diamond is faulted by Errington and Gewertz for provisioning a history which is the history that “we in the contemporary West already believe in”. Yali’s question, they suggest, ought to be understood instead in the contexts that Yali himself was produced by and within, the histories which generated him (and his question).

Three moves are made at once in the way they talk about Yali and his question, each one of them to me ultimately unsustainable and an example of a kind of epistemological constipation that cultural anthropology, postcolonial theory and cognate academic practices are presently suffering from. Here my observations echo some of the general critique made by Nicholas Thomas in his book Colonialism’s Culture, a work that I think deserves to be used much more widely as a methodological compass than it presently is.

The first is the compression of the heterogeneity of “the West” so that Diamond can be that which “we” in the West already believe in, rather than taking Diamond as an argument within a heterogenous assortment of intellectual presentations of the causality of world history, as located within highly particular intellectual histories and institutional worlds. In other words, they accord to Yali the importance of understanding him in context, but deny it in turn to Diamond; they object to the use of Yali as framing device but use Diamond in turn as a frame for “the West”, or a colonizing project, or in their most recent post, for widespread and highly generalized ideas and tropes impressionistically attributed to the “educated haves” (which is the kind a sociological shorthand that I suspect they would reject were something comparable used in an analysis of PNGuinea). The problem with this view is its synecdotal character: it is a kind of Tylorian view of “culture” turned back on the West. In this sort of argument, any part of “the West” can casually be made to stand in for the whole and to represent it, and by implication to carry the full force of some generalized colonizing or hegemonizing project inferred to the West.

Second, Yali is remanded to the sphere of the non-West, returned to being fully “PNGuinean” and his question removed out of the context of any specific dialogue or performance he might have had with particular Western individuals. It is made impossible that Yali might mean his question differently to different “Westerners” that he encountered, or have offered his question as one that he consciously or unconsciously understood to have meaning in more than one context. It is ruled out of bounds that Yali might have derived his question from the West, or out of an encounter with the West’s own capacity to ask the question, out of a history of relation. Or if that possibility is kept in the picture, it is a possibility that presupposes loss, degredation, contamination: that Yali would not have meant to appropriate his question from the West, but been made to do so. Contemporary anthropology well understands the problems posed by the old paradigm of non-Western societies as pristine entities contaminated by Western modernity: this is the source of the “multiple modernities” trope in so much recent scholarship. But the old paradigm persists as a kind of ghostly half-argument, a structure of reaction. So many of us like to talk about hybridities and negotiated colonialisms and multiple modernities, but not to accept the broad political or conceptual consequences of those interpretations. We keep them in check, offered as interpretative twists in the first half of what we write, disavowed by boilerplate in the second half. We know better than to clearly call for the unsoiling of history polluted by colonial encounter, but we drift into that dream nonetheless.

So Errington and Gewertz react to Diamond’s appropriation of Yali’s question by trying to place Yali safely back into a narrative of the non-West’s struggle for sovereignity, to make his question safely an expression of anger and frustration with the impositions of colonialism rather than an expression of avid desire for capitalist modernity, back into a history of nation formation and cultural recuperation, away from a history of incorporation and transformation. The problem is that Yali’s specific individual history ought to inhibit us from any such categorical moves, and instruct us that his question can be all these things at once: both reaching out for incorporation and resisting it, open to Diamond’s reading of it and yet also filled with surplus meaning that Diamond is completely insensate to. Yali can’t be easily remanded to being “PNGuinean”, in the gift world and not the commodity one when he asks his question, safely anticolonial and never promodernity. Accepting that he can be all at once, rejecting the imperative to always restore to Yali his PNGuinean-ness: that’s what it means to leave behind the sentimental narrative of history and ethnography as restitutive work, as knowledge which remands the non-West back to itself.

Here is where the third problem enters the picture, and it is the most devastating of all. It’s also the one that postcolonial theory and much cultural anthropology readily acknowledges, thinks about and indeed obsesses over, but nevertheless also often predictably reproduces in all its full problematic glory. Diamond is faulted for a history which is already that which the West believes in, which comforts the West’s own understanding of historical process and specifically comforts the “educated haves”, leaves them “feeling good about themselves”.

However, precisely the same thing could be said about the desire to understand Yali’s question “in its own context”, to offer an emic rather than etic account of Yali, PNGuinea, his question or anything else. That intellectual desire is just as much a history which the West already believes in, just as much a history which the West has long sought. If it is automatically a critique to observe this of Diamond, it is just as inevitably a critique of Gewertz and Errington, of the ethnographic imagination, of the aspiration of cultural anthropology to represent non-Western societies in the terms they would represent themselves in.

If you follow Gewertz and Errington’s presentation, Yali already understands his own question: he doesn’t need Gewertz and Errington to understand it. The non-West knows itself: it is not waiting for anthropology to provision that knowledge. The interpretation they suggest–indeed, make into a moral imperative–is just as much for and in the West if you concede their characterization of Diamond and of Yali. It is just as much a part of the history of the West’s history of itself as Diamond’s book is. And the desire to know the non-Western Other as it is presumed to know itself is just as native to the “educated haves” as they claim the desire for Diamond’s presentation is. It is just as much as a presentation sought for its aesthetic and political satisfactions, for its instructions of humility and self-abjection, just as much a retrospective metanarrative of modern history and a prospective reordering of the future.

But Errington and Gewertz want to fault Diamond for merely performing those functions, for being expressive of “the West” and appropriating Yali to satisfy audiences in the West. On that point alone, their interpretations are indistinguishable from his.

So either perhaps one could dispense with the shadowplay, and get to some political heart of the matter in which Errington and Gewertz (and many others) can acknowledge that this is not about whose knowledge is epistemologically preferable but about whose politics (intellectual and substantive) are righteous. If not, if this is really about knowledge of Yali, PNGuinea, non-Western societies, humanity, if the meat of the disagreement is still to be about epistemology, then the accusation that a particular way of knowing Yali originates out of and is instrumental to some audience or interest in the West is an immediate dead end.

This is at least one of the realizations which has occasioned the sometimes morbid circularity of some reflexive practices in cultural anthropology in the last decade and a half, the inability to get past the question of the situatedness of ethnographic knowledge to the actual knowing of ethnographic subjects. It’s behind the really radical epistemological lines in the sand drawn by thinkers like Gyan Prakash and Timothy Mitchell, the ruling out of bounds of the possibility of ever knowing the non-West at all precisely because it ought to be known in its own terms but that this aspiration to know it such is forever a profoundly logocentric and Western one. That to want to know the non-West as it knows itself is the most Western desire of all.

I think the way out of the hall of mirrors in part is to strip the arguments offered by Gewertz and Errington of their epistemological finery and their rhetorical adornments, to stop casually throwing so many gauntlets on the ground, to stop climbing atop certain kinds of moral pedestals. The critique of Diamond for his exclusionary disinterest in meaning, culture, expression, for the importance of the microhistorical and the particular, can be made exactly as such, as a fairly ordinary if important remark about what’s worth knowing. As the ordinary and humdrum business of history and anthropology. The critique of Diamond’s problems with understanding the difference between necessary and sufficient causation can be made similarly.

As for Yali, he doesn’t need white knights to come in and rescue him from the colonial villain, to restore his question to himself. His question is and always was his. And because Yali is not some distant Other, but a part of the world to which the “we” interested now in his question also belong, because we need to decompose our categorical representations of both the West and the Rest within modern experience, we don’t need an exotic, overheated epistemological machine to give ourselves permission to interpret his question. His question is also always ours, if we want it or find it useful. We might even concede to the “us” that writes and does scholarly work as many possible interpretations and uses of his question as Yali himself may well have had within his own consciousness, his own time, his own place–and not be constrained or embarrassed or compelled by any distance between Yali’s consciousness of his question and our own uses of it. Difference, whether temporal, spatial, circumstantial, between the people we study and the people we are is not in and of itself a moral or epistemological failure.

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6 Responses to Diamond, Cultural Anthropology, Postcolonial Theory

  1. joeo says:

    I think Diamond believes that history is determined by the large forces that he is discussing and that random events and individual efforts are effectively filtered out. If you replay history multiple times, pretty much the same broad things would happen each time. I am pretty sympathetic to this idea. But, he could be wrong.

    Part of the reason Diamond may view things this way is because he is a scientist, and the history of science tends to work that way. If crick and watson didn’t discover the structure of DNA someone else would.

    The jumping on “Yali’s Question” just seems silly.

  2. mukluks says:

    If, as the physicists state, that all science is either physics or stamp collecting, then what Diamond proposes to do is arrange the stamps in the order he sees fit. I don’t think he particularly cares which stamp is which if it sort of suits his purpose, while the critiques are from people who are very particular about the stamps, their order, the rightness of their ordering scheme, and where Diamond diverges from their ordering.
    Diamond’s interpretation is right at one level; however, there are layers and layers of meaning and interpretation which are left unexplored because Diamond’s thesis is so broad it only needs a bit of wallpapering with ethnographic examples here and there to do what he intends. Did the Hawaii’ans think Captain Cook was the god Lono? Or is that British ego reborn through academic imperialism? Or both? Or neither?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that there’s one kind of issue that comes in when someone offers an account of history or society which strongly precludes anything happening at any other scale or level of human experience as being important. (When a stamp collector starts thinking he’s doing physics, perhaps). I think you can write one kind of macrohistory which leaves plenty of room for shorter intervals and local circumstances to not only matter, but permutate up to the macrohistory in some circumstances. Obviously that’s what I’m more comfortable with, both as a matter of aesthetic preference and as a matter of truth. I think Diamond comes close to being the kind of macrohistorian who says, “Nothing else really matters”.

    The issue that Errington and Gewertz have with Diamond is different: they believe that the kind of macrohistory he offers has a bad effect on its audiences and exists significantly for reasons of ideology, before they get around to saying that they also think it’s factually incorrect, at as an account of Papua New Guinea, material culture, and Yali’s Question. I think they’re a bit right about the latter, but the level they choose to make their points is epistemological, and as I’ve said at length, I think it’s the wrong level and the wrong fashion of challenge. On the former point, that Diamond should be understood as a bad text doing bad things in the world, I both disagree and think that they haven’t done anywhere near the kind of groundwork needed to make those kinds of arguments with fairness. Perhaps in the book from which their blogging is drawn?

  4. Sean McCann says:

    the old paradigm persists as a kind of ghostly half-argument, a structure of reaction. So many of us like to talk about hybridities and negotiated colonialisms and multiple modernities, but not to accept the broad political or conceptual consequences of those interpretations.

    Amen to that. In fact, I think the point might be put even more strongly. In many cases, the fascination with hybridity was never really intended as a strong critique of cultural difference or cultural identity. In the literary versions I’ve seen of this kind of stuff, the power of hybridity comes precisely from the way it foregrounds the pathos of difference and belonging–much as in the contemporaneous academic fascination with passing and other forms of racial transgression. I think it’s usually the implicit understanding that such liminal conditions are appealing less because they cast doubt on cultural or racial definition then because they dramatize it. Exceptions to prove the rule, in other words. Then, too, some people imagine that hybridity itself can be a special kind of culture. No challenge there either.

    In any case, I think you’re exactly right to suggest that at bottom the dispute isn’t about whose epistemology is preferable, but whose politics are righteous. Good luck in that case getting people to climb done from moral pedestals. Won’t happen. Excellent post, though.

  5. joeo says:

    I think the Errington and Gewertz’s “Yali’s Question” argument is an example of the Karnak fallacy. The belief that a small amount of force at the exact right spot will cause some larger structure to completely collapse.

  6. bbenzon says:

    . . . the compression of the heterogeneity of “the West”

    Yes. The “West” is as much a geopolitical fiction as the “East” and as “Africa.” It is an unreflecting projection of the nationalist impulse to super-national groups. I first began seriously thinking about this problem when I decided to write about black music in America. On the one hand you have the real historical processes by which these various musics came into existence. On the other hand you have the various fictions of identity that have accompanied these musics from the beginning. Both Ken Burns’s PBS jazz series and some episodes of Martin Scorse’s (on the whole much better) PBS blues series presented standard mythology as though it were the truth as it is being pieced together by scholars who are aware of the mythologizing that surrounds these musics. My guess is that the whole metaphysical mess of the Self/Other Master/Slave dialectic that is being played out in Post-Colonial studies and in anthropology is alse being played in the ethnography of vernacular cultures in America.

    It’s a mess.

    Think of the West. We know that the West is rooted, in part, in ancient Greece. But which ancient Greece? The Greece where mature male citizens took boys as their lovers? The Greece where the temples were painted in gaudy shades of red, blue, yellow, and green? I think not.

    And if we think about the modern West (where I am using the philosopher’s mensuration in which modernity starts with Descartes), how do we account for the fact that it would be impossible without the mathematics of China and India brought to Europe by way of the Islamic peoples of the Middle East? Without that mathematics, no scientific revolution, and no large scale trans-oceanic sailing.

    No, I’m afraid the West is as much a fiction as the Orient.

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