Some Critical Comments

By Nold Egenter





Recently the 'Swiss Association of Ethnology' organised an interesting 3-days international seminar in Neuchatel, in Western Switzerland. It had the title 'Between Reflexivity and Social Critique - for an Anthropology of the 21st Century. Its programme alluded to the question what anthropology can contribute to contemporary cultural debates and the actual political situation, a question which - according to the organisers - was alive since the origins of anthropology. "Anthropology is more than merely a descriptive science: in the actual world situation it has also its moral duties. As never before the present international political situation questions anthropology in view of its knowlege and its contribution outside of the universtiy. The researchers invited to this seminar will debate about the necessities to develop new methodological approaches. Their epistemological and practical views of the discipline at the beginning of the 21st century are at stake. In promoting the exchange of researchers with different horizons it hopes to contribute to this fundamental debate."

In this framework the seminar was focussed on three main issues, namely 'reflexivity', 'social critique' and the 'practical task of anthropologists within modern society'. In another sense the meeting was interesting, namely because there were fairly heterogeneous positions among those invited and the topics were discussed with great openness. There were also 'friendly tensions', particularly between old and new world-perspectives.


The first Keynote speaker, Martin Fuchs, coeditor of the critical 'Crisis of ethnographical representation' <1> gave a short survey of the recent developments of the field from his position. He outlined the debates after the criticisms of the 80-ies and characterized them as a rather puzzling process of differentiation, emphasizing culture and social reflexivity, in the latter case turning around cognitive ('Knowledge production') and conceptional reflexivity with issues like subjectivisation, rationalisation etc.. And, as a third line, he mentioned the increasing dichotomy of metropolisation and decentralised populations with corresponding connotations. Four dominant complexes were outlined (ineractivity, epistemic hierarchy, attributively defined religion, composite spectrum of culture). Evidently the strong emphasis on self creation and social structuring of institution theoretically runs into the formproblem. Fuchs also mentioned problems with the term religion, hinting to its European ethnocentrism and to its basic term 'belief'. <2a> Fuchs works in India and cited an Indian person, who said: "I use the term 'religion' only with christians." Evidently we do not obtain good notes in our certificate of 'understanding foreign cultures'.

Fuchs' presentation left rather somber feelings about the capacity of present post-modern ideology in ethnology and anthropology. Any hope for an universalistic framework is denied, a respectfully tolerant pluralism is advocated. But maybe this reference to Gandhi has become an anachronism today. We live in the 'Domino-effect' of the new Millennium fundamentalism (Reagan, creationism, Polish pope's new globalism) and consequently have to adapt our optics to the new conditions.

Maybe the contribution of the second keynote speaker Mariella Pandolfi could be taken as an illustration. It demonstrated the climate 'from inside', but was not basically different in its criticistic attitude towards anthropology. Anthropology was considered a psychotic type of nostalgy on the level of 'immaculate conception'. She sacrificed her biography as illustration and paradoxically offered her hope: that a similar kind of ideal might come back again!

Nancy Cheng's presentation was refreshing. Not less critically in fact, she showed science, theoretically and practically, as a kind of playball in the changing political tactics and culturally woven world-views, in particular between Western horizontal individualism and pyramidal communal structures in the East. The part of her 'mapping biotechnology' in China and the strong relations with the US in this respect was fairly spicy. Marxism survives, she answered a question, in the political institutions, but in biotechnology it disappeared.

The term anthropo-technology sounds fairly new. It deals with the position technology occupies in (a) society. The author Philippe Geslin mentioned various contexts in which diffusion of innovations and transfer of technology were important. In view of anthropology of cognition too the socio-techno relation is considerable and the author mentioned some positions but failed to recognize the strong prejudices that are involved in the disciplinary classification of technology or material culture. In regard to the formal problem the connex of the social and technological is not convincing.

Marc Abélès' observation of centralised institutions in France and Brussels in regard to spatial orders and their expression, is very interesting and could be further developed using e.g. studies of anthropology of space (Bollnow). One might become aware of subconscious strata of a psychology of form which Nietzsche had clearly described, but which has hardly been developed any further (Apollinian and Dionysian forces in same form). His topic 'Assemblies as enterprises' is conditioned by the Zeitgeist and 'Theatralisation of conflicts' is a well known and also very old popular topic. Doubtless fascinating is Marc Abélès' study of the Nouveau-Riches of Silicon Valley in California and their relation to philanthropy. Urban-ethnology, a resignation on one hand, shows its innovative aspects. However, the outcome is fairly close to sociology, in spite of the references to Mauss' ethnological concept of 'gift'. Such comparisons may open fascinating new views, but they neglect the objective differences. Further, the historical implications are minimal.

Social violence and ritualisation of death and mourning in Columbia were the ethnological object in Anne-Marie Losonczy's presentation She drew a rather extreme image of poverty, corruption and political violence, which was questoined at the end in regard to responsibilities of much wider political circles than her close empirical focus implied.

George Marcus evidently a strong defender of Malinowsky's lines emphasised new styles, reflexivity as mainstream and the importance of morality in the US anthro discussions. Further characteristics in his view: methodology is more important than theoretical issues. Finally the importance he gave to reflexivity in anthro discussions in the United States was critically questioned. He considered it as a part of 'postmodern ideology'.

Rather deceiving was the empoverishment visible in the slides presented on recent African urban art. It is difficult to estimate to what extent this corresponds to the factual situation, but very likely this is so. Four types of 'art' were shown, handmade advertisements and posters, rather funny most of them. Further, there was an ancestor painting like a sketch out of a European design academy. Some flatcoloured advertisement types of portraits were also shown. And finally there was a piece of 'real art' which alluded to traditional masks and integrated old shell-money. The main evaluation comes from the market. Tere is a new boom for such 'treaures'. In his role as an art historian, Till Förster hinted to new values which make these fairly empoverished types of artistic expressions possible: 'hybridisation' (or syncretisation), the new global market and intercontinental circulation.

Evidently the specific genre of travel-literature has lost its meaning in the professional lives of todays ethnologists or social or cultural anthropologists. Francois Ruegg presented his 'baroque' thesis to revive exotism and fascination as they were expressed in travel literature. Literature can also bring back the consciousness for paradigms that got out of view like the continuity of diversity within modern spatio-socio-cultural homogeneisations. He also proposed a revitalisation of the imaginative which played an enormous role in the hermeneutic science of the foreign. Maybe Levy Strauss deprived himself when he emphasised science against writing artful literature. In religion one could probably compare the terms 'cult' and 'belief' and one knows what is meant.

So far the main contributions at this seminar. I have not mentioned all, partly also because of language problems. Three different languages were spoken (French, English, German) without translation. Some persons spoke with strong accents, consequently the reception was not always 100 percent.



Most interesting was definitely the final round table discussion. Hans-Rudolf Wicker presented an introduction outlining some views towards the future, into the 21st century, as it was provided in the main title. But the future implies the past in regard to mistakes made, necessary corrections etc..

Postmodern anthropology was a failure in one important respect, he said, it remained limited on small scale criticisms but 'did not develop a concept for future work'. Methodology was discussed, e.g. how to do fieldwork. But no ideas were developed what to use it for! We need new general questions today for future work. If anthropology can survive into the 21st century it must know what direction to take. If this goal is known, method and research can be adapted.

In this future framework society and development are important. Let us therefore talk in the following, he suggested, about the main questions those who are present have in mind. National or continental differences should not be in the main line, social critque should be avoided. "What will be the general questions?"

George Marcus disagreed with the diagnosis, but agreed on the point of an exagerated emphasis on the tools without knowing what they should be used for. On the other hand he would not see a lack of important concepts. Culturogenetic concepts, like questioning the evolution of mankind, have not disappeared. Ideas of social reform are still vital from the side of ethnology as well as sociology and philosophy. There are also socio-biological and bioanthropological concepts, projects on the evaluation of radiation (Nagasaki, Hiroshima). Moleculoar biology is building a bridge between history and biology, he said. The Genom project 'big science' should not be forgotten, maybe in general, the changing role of science and society will be one of the most important topics for the next 10 years. Further the reconstruction of social dramas. Nations became unstable. Civil wars will require reconstruction.

This was questioned as definitely specific American problems, not really anthropological concepts. Probably the main problems of the 21st-century anthropology it was said, will be the fact that US problems have become the main anthropological themes (H.R. Wicker). P. Menget added that ethics will be an important topic of the future and anthropology should deal with some genetic aspect of mankind: living among or dealing with peoples expressing something of early human conditions.

In this context Till Foerster's replies were rather evasive. He suggested statehood, media, diffusion of reflexivity and its discussion, also into other disciplines. Fuchs conceded the lack of a perspective for the future. He emphasised collaborative aspects of work, but also mentioned problems of social recognition, as well as dissolution of solidarity in many respects. Nancy Chen stressed the collaborative aspects of research, but also hinted to problems with power and particularly outlined the enormous internal divergences within anthropology.

Evidently embarrassment was in the air. The word crisis of anthropology or ethnology was heard or felt in many contributions. There is definitely a lack of meaningful goals. Is this a European problem? A nostalgy? Certainly not. American pragmatism and functional adaptions of their goals to politics does not hide the fact that the problem of mankind is not really solved. There are no generally accepted theories. There is an endless pluralism of contradicting hypotheses, in fact a situation which contradicts with scientific standards. To some extent the seminar could be interpreted as a result of the critical discussions of the eighties mainly triggered by the intrusion of history and urbanism into modern traditional societies (e.g. Schmied-Kowarzik and Stagl 1981). One of its fairly paradox outcomes was 'urban ethnology'. The contributions of Maria Pandolfi and Marc Amélès fell into this category. Both are practically congruent with urban sociology in regard to method and results. Reflexivity was evidently a popular term, but somehow it looked like a postmodernistic philosophical term that got lost in the circle of ethnology. The other head term of the seminar, namely 'social critique', provoked some nostalgic reactions and made conscious that Marxism - as a once globally widespread practical anthropology - had probably prepared the grounds for what begins to show its problematic sides: globalisation.



Let us imagine a non-involved observer present in this seminar. It would have been fairly clear for him or her that one of the most problematic aspects of the situation was the discrepancy of the two terms ethnology and anthropology. On one hand the seminar was clearly structured according to what is called ethnology in Europe. But, since there were invited guests from the United States, the title sailed under the term anthropology. Ethnology is evidently limited in scale, as its basic term 'ethnos' indicates but has a wider potential through the history of its contents, methods and geographical extensions and thus comes close to the global implication of anthropology. On the other hand anthropology has a wholistic implication basically related to man and mankind in the widest sense. As an overall concept it reflects the whole history of self-perception of man in its various dimensons, like physical anthropology and cultural anthropology.

Evidently the great questions have evaporated from the domain of ethnology, particularly also because history has entered the field, urbanisation has taken place in many formerly traditional domains. There are hardly any traditional societies left today which could be interpreted in a primordial sense of anthropology, neither in regard to social, nor technical, nor religious or any other conditions. On the other hand, anthropology in its wider wholistic sense has not been clarified either. It has remained an accumulation of heterogeneous concepts and methods and strongly reflects the dynamism of European history. But, maybe this history contains a key to organise it in more efficient ways. To tune into this procedure we should maybe add some reflexions regarding the problem of ethnology and anthropology in the wider structural perspective of the present condition of the disciplines. We will do this by some comparisons, not of cultures, but of our own Western or Eurocentric disciplines and their position within the Euro-Mediterranean history of cognition.

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