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 York. He meditates upon history, domination, and “global dynamics” before a Russian stockade from the 1820s, reconstructed as a multicultural heritage park in “‘post-modern’ California.”
The book assembling these excursions and stop-ins into a fable for our times he calls Routes, with the pun on “roots” heavily intended, to which he adds the carefully contemporizing subtitle Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Here, though the first-person voice again appears throughout, rather more assertive and far more self-referring, there is no continuous, building narrative, ethnographic or any other. There is, instead, an unordered series of “personal explorations,” designed to depict neither “natives, in villages” nor “pure traditions and discrete cultural differences,” but rather “people going places,” “hybrid environments,” “travelling cultures.”
The prose is various and indirect. Sometimes it is “academic,” that is, abstract and argumentative, sometimes it is “experimental,” that is, inward and impressionistic; always, it is discursive, backing and filling, giving with one hand and taking away with the other, turning aside to pursue a notion, retracing steps to get back to the subject. The pieces run from three or four pages to forty or fifty. The photographs are either reproduced catalog illustrations—illustrations of illustrations—or amateur, unfocused snapshots, taken on the fly by Clifford as he goes.
There are no descriptions here of anyone marrying, fighting, worshiping, declaiming, dying, or mourning; no accounts of how children are raised or demons placated. And where, save for a passage from Montaigne, Clastres has but a single citation in his whole book, and that a paraphrase summary of some pages in a clerical history of the conquest of Paraguay, Clifford has literally hundreds, sometimes a dozen a page, running from Mikhail Bakhtin, Stuart Hall, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, and Frederic Jameson to Malinowski, Mead, Rushdie, Gauguin, Amitav Ghosh, Michel de Certeau, and Adrienne Rich—most of them more atmospheric than substantive. He calls all this—“written under the sign of ambivalence…in media res…manifestly unfinished”—a collage. Like Joseph Cornell’s magical boxes, “enclosed beauty of chance encounters—a feather, ball bearings, Lauren Bacall”—or like those déclassé Parisian hotels, “places of collection, juxtaposition, passionate encounter” from which the Surrealists launched their “strange and wonderful urban voyages,” Routes “asserts a relationship among heterogeneous elements in a meaningful ensemble,… struggle[s] to sustain a certain hope, and a lucid uncertainty.”
In sum we have: (1) A romantical pilgrim on a self-testing Quest, confronting the Ultimate Other down deep in the jungle. (“I had really arrived among Savages,” Clastres writes. “The enormous gap…between us…made it seem impossible for us ever to understand one another.”) (2) A reserved, middle-distance spectator moving uneasily through a postmodern hall of mirrors. (“Night in the crowded streets: smoke from food stands, running young men and women from a martial-arts club, a dragon, University of Hawaii jazz ensemble, all-Asian saxophone section…. In slow motion [an Iraqi] building implodes.”) They hardly seem to belong to the same universe, much less to the same profession.
And yet these two world-describers, world-imaginers, world-comparers, differently trained, differently committed, and hardly, if at all, aware of one another (Clastres died, at forty-three, in a 1977 car crash, two years before Clifford began publishing; Clifford, for all his interest in French anthropology, never so much as alludes to Clastres), manage, between them, to frame, in its starkest terms, the most critical issue facing cultural anthropology in these postcolonial, postpositivist, post-everything times. This is the value, the feasibility, the legitimacy, and thus the future of localized, long-term, close-in, vernacular field research—what Clifford at one point lightly calls “deep hanging out,” and Clastres exalts on almost every page (“I had only to look around me at the daily life: even with a minimum of attention I could always discover something new”).
Without a master theory, without a set-apart subject matter, and, now that all the natives are citizens and the primitives minorities, without even a settled and undisputed professional niche, cultural anthropology is more dependent for its identity, its authority, and its claim to attention on a particular research practice than is virtually any other science, social or natural. If fieldwork goes, or anyway so it is feared on the one hand and hoped on the other, the discipline goes with it.
Clastres’s remote, unreadable “savages,” enclosed in a world of hunting, violence, ordeal, and demoniacal animals—“the forest’s fatal metaphors”—are, as a matter of fact, a good deal less pristine than might at first appear. They are actually refugees, displaced by the Paraguay government two and a half years earlier to a state-run trading post at the edge of the forest—dispirited, deculturated, “pacified.” Thrown together there with former enemies (with whom they conclude an almost parodic “peace-pact”), still wandering now and again into the forest to hunt, and casually overseen by a Paraguayan “protector,” who is rather more sympathetic to them than are most of his compatriots, who regard them as cattle, they are, by the time Clastres arrives, clearly and precipitously dying out.
By the time he leaves, they are down from their original hundred-plus to at best seventy-five. Five years later, though he never goes back to visit them during a visit to Paraguay (“I have not had the heart to. What could I possibly find there?”), they are fewer than thirty. By the time of his own death they are gone altogether—“eaten away by illness and tuberculosis, killed by lack of proper care, by lack of everything.” They were, he says, in a haunting image, like unclaimed objects, left luggage. “Hopelessly forced to leave their prehistory, they had been thrown into a history that had nothing to do with them except to destroy them.”
The whole [colonial] enterprise that began in the fifteenth century is now coming to an end; an entire continent will soon be rid of its first inhabitants, and this part of the globe will truly be able to proclaim itself a “New World.” “So many cities razed, so many nations exterminated, so many peoples cut down by the sword, and the richest and most beautiful part of the world overthrown for the sake of pearls and pepper! Mechanical victories.” So Montaigne hailed the conquest of America by Western civilization.
On the basis of some offhand, and extremely dubious, as well as extremely old-fashioned, physical anthropology, Clastres regards the Guayaki as, in all probability, remnants of the earliest human inhabitants of the area, perhaps of the entire continent. Though their skin color ranges from “the Indian’s classical copper, though less pronounced, to white—not the European’s pinkish white, but a dull, grayish white, like the gray skin of a sick person,” he calls them, as the Paraguayans do, and the Spaniards did before them, “white Indians.” And so they see themselves: when an unusually dark, thus cursed, child is born, its grandmother is obliged to strangle it.
Whatever their color, most of these “original” Guayaki were either killed off or assimilated in the course of a war of conquest by the later-arriving, intensely militaristic, “mongoloid” Tupi-Guarani, still the main Indian group in the region. The few who escaped simple annihilation abandoned the cultivation they long had practiced, and fled into the forests to become nomadic hunters—driven into impoverishment, exile, and cultural regression, not, as elsewhere on the continent, by Europeans, who only began to have at them in the seventeenth century, but by other Indians. Thus, the Guayaki, the first of the first inhabitants, are not just “savages.” They are the savages’ savages—fading traces of the socially elemental:
[The Guarani] cannot accept differences; unable to suppress these differences, they try to include them in a familiar code, in a reassuring set of symbols. For [the Guarani], the Guayaki do not belong to a different culture, because there can be no such thing as differences between cultures: they are outside the rules, beyond common sense and above the law—they are Savages. Even the gods are against them. Every civilization… has its pagans.