All the human sciences are promiscuous, inconstant, and ill defined; but cultural anthropology abuses the privilege. Consider:
First, Pierre Clastres. A thirty-year-old graduate student in the berceau of structuralism, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s laboratoire anthropologique, he sets off from Paris in the early Sixties for a remote corner of Paraguay. There, in a hardly inhabited region of strange forests and stranger animals—jaguars, coatis, vultures, peccaries, tree snakes, howler monkeys—he lives for a year with a hundred or so “savage” Indians (as, approvingly, indeed somewhat in awe, he calls them), who abandon their elderly people, paint their bodies in bowed stripes and bent rectangles, practice polyandry, eat their dead, and beat menarcheal girls with tapir penises so as to make them, like the long-nosed tapir, insanely ardent.
The book he publishes upon his return he calls, with deliberate, almost anachronistic, pre-modern flatness, as though it were a recently discovered missionary diary from an eighteenth-century Jesuit, Chronique des indiens Guayaki. Worshipfully translated by the American novelist Paul Auster (“It is, I believe, nearly impossible not to love this book”)—and belatedly published a quarter-century later—the work is, in form at least, old-style ethnographical to a fault. It gives a life-cycle description of “the Guayaki,” beginning with birth, and proceeding through ritual initiation, marriage, hunting, and warfare, to illness, death, funerals, and, after the funerals, cannibalism. There are the classic sort of carefully posed, aesthetical photographs: near-naked natives staring blankly into cameras. There are the pen and pencil museum sketches—hand axes, baskets, fire drills, mosquito fans, feather holders—that one hardly sees in monographs anymore. And despite occasional Tristes Tropiques lyricisms about the sounds of the forest or the colors of the afternoon, the prose style is straightforward and concrete. This happened, and that. They believe this, they do that. Only the musing, threnodic first-person voice, breaking every now and again into moral rage, suggests that there may be more going on than mere reporting of distant oddities.
Second, James Clifford. Trained as an intellectual historian at Harvard in the early Seventies, but self-converted, first to anthropology and then to cultural studies (he now teaches in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz), he is, at fifty-two, rather more along toward the Middle of the Journey than Clastres was when he took off for Paraguay; but they are of the same academic generation—the one the counterculture made. Clifford wanders about in the Nineties, diffident and inquisitive, not among castaway “natives,” or indeed any “peoples” at all, but among what he calls “contact zones”—ethnological exhibitions, tourist sites, art-show seminars, museum consultancies, cultural studies conferences, travelers’ hotels. He visits Freud’s archaeologically enhanced London house. He passes through the hyped and hybridized Honolulu of professional conventions, Pro-Bowl football fans, and sunken battleships on Chinese New Year, just as Desert Storm erupts in the Persian Gulf. He reminisces about his youth as a “white ethnic,” son of a Columbia academic, ridin’ the subways through folk-song New …