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Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science: A Modernist Critique Author(s): Melford E. Spiro Source:

Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science: A Modernist Critique Author(s): Melford E. Spiro Source: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 38, No. 4, (Oct., 1996), pp. 759-780 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/179198

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Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science:

A Modernist Critique

MELFORD

E.

SPIRO

Universityof California, San Diego

Centralto the postmodernproject in anthropology is its critique of science and the scientific method, a critique whichit shareswith (because it was borrowed from)postmodernistthought more generally.However, unless otherwise spe- cified, in whatfollows the terms postmodernist and postmodernism will refer to postmodernistanthropologyspecifically, notto postmodernism more gener- ally. (For a superbsurvey of the history of postmodernistthought in general, see Harvey [1989], especially chapter3.) The postmodernistcritique of science consists of two interrelated argu- ments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based, however, on the central postmodern notionof subjectivity.First, becauseof the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology,according to the epistemologicalargument, cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discoveringobjective truth. Second, since its much-vaunted objectivity is an illusion, science, according to the ideologi- cal argument, serves the interestsof dominantsocial groups(males, whites, Westerners),therebysubverting those of oppressedgroups(females, ethnics, third-world peoples). Since both of these arguments stem from the central emphasis that post- modernists place on subjectivity,my primary concern in this essay' is to assess the postmodernistinterpretation anduse of thatcritical concept. Hence, in whatfollows I shalldo three things.First, I shallsummarizethose claims of the postmodernist view of subjectivitywhich, in my view, arevalid. Second, I shall argue that althoughvalid, these claims are not new, having been inno- vated many years ago by the foundersof the Cultureand Personality move-

ment. Third, I

consequences for anthropologicalscholarship.

shall argue thatthe postmodernist innovationshaveunfortunate

presented to the Symposium on Postmodern Subjectivities

Claudia

StraussandTakieLebra.I am indebtedto David Jordan, Marc Swartz, andDonaldTuzinfor their

at the 1993 annual meetings of

I A shortversionof this essay was

the American AnthropologicalAssociation, organizedby

helpful criticismsof earlierdrafts.

0010-4175/96/4609-0100$7.50 + .10 ?

1996 Society for ComparativeStudy of Society and History

759

760

MELFORD

E.

SPIRO

THE IMPORTANCE

OF SUBJECTIVITY

Postmodernists (like symbolists and interpretivists) stressthatthe understand- ing of persons and groupsrequires an understanding of their meanings-and I agree with them. Moreover, since the anthropologicalinvestigator is an actor in a social field thatincludesbothhimselfandthe natives,postmodernists also stress, correctly in my view, thatfield workis dialogical; thatthe anthropolo- gist not only observes the natives but is also observed by them; and that anthropological dataarenot producedby the anthropologist's actionalonenor consist of the natives' actionsalone but, rather, are producedby, and consist of, the interactionbetween the anthropologist and the natives. But if the anthropologist,among other things, investigatesmeanings andif meanings arefoundin the psyches of persons, thenit follows, postmodernists

correctlystress, thatthe anthropologist mustattendto subjectivity.Moreover, since field work is a two-directional, not a one-directional enterprise, it also follows, they emphasize, that the anthropologist must attendto the subjec-

tivity not only of the natives (the human object), but also his own

subject). Once again I agree with them. I agree with all of the above propositionsnot, however, becauselike Kant, who claimedto havebeen awakenedfromhis philosophical slumber by read- ing Hume, I was awakenedfrom my anthropological slumber by reading the postmodernists.Rather, it is because much before the advent of postmod- ernism, I had read Freudand Sapir, Mead and Benedict, DuBois and Kar- diner, Hallowell and Devereux, Eriksonand Kluckhohn, andthe otherfound- ers of the Cultureand Personality movementfor whom the subjectivity both of object and subject was a truism. ("Historicaltruth,"Appell has written, "appears to be the first casualty of the battleover the soul of anthropology" [1992:196], quoted in Lewis [1994]).

(the human

CULTURE

AND

PERSONALITY

The Subjectivityof the Object Arguably, Freud was the inspiration for the founders of

Personality movement.That inspiration,however, came not fromhis anthro-

pological but his psychological work, which consistently emphasized that

what was

understanding of their intentions,desires, and wishes,

ings (unconscious as well as conscious). Indeed, one of Freud's revolutionary innovationsis his claim, first published one hundred years ago (Breuer and

Freud 1893), thateven seemingly meaninglessphenomena(such as neurotic symptoms, dreams, and parapraxes) are meaningful and thatthe task of the analyst is to discover their meanings.

the Culture and

criticalto the elucidationof actors' ideas, beliefs, and values is an

in short, their mean-

POSTMODERNIST

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761

Two decades later, Freudintroducedhis second revolutionary contribution to the understanding of the subjectivity of the humanobject: the process of "transference" (Freud 1912). Although Freudhimself was mainly concerned with this process in the contextof the analyst-patientrelationship, latersocial theorists extended its application to other emotionally significant relation- ships, including the anthropologist-nativerelationship. With some few ex- ceptions, however (forexample, Devereux 1951; GladwinandSarason 1953), transferencewas rarely consideredin early Cultureand Personalitystudies, nor with some notable exceptions (for example, Crapanzano1980; Ewing 1987; Kracke 1978; S. LeVine 1981) is it emphasized in contemporarypsy- chological anthropology.

Freudwas the grandfather of Cultureand Personality, thenEdward Sapir

was clearly its father.Like Freud, whose psychology he took as his model, Sapiremphasized that the individualand his subjectivity-he used the term personality-was absentfromthe anthropology of his time. Thus, as early as 1932, Sapiremphasized thatculture patterns "cannotbe realistically discon- nected from those organizations of ideas and feelings which constitute the individual"because

individuals and, on the

subjectiveside,

in the worldof meanings whicheachone of theseindividuals may

unconsciously abstractforhimselffromhis participation

the truelocus of cultureis in the interactionsof

If

specific

in theseinteractions"

(Sapir

1932, in

Mandelbaum 1957:151).

To offer only one more example, as early as 1938 A. I. Hallowell, who acknowledged the influenceof bothFreudand Sapir,began to publish a series of articleson Ojibwasubjectivity(Hallowell 1938). Nevertheless, Hallowell's influence was not felt beyond the small circle of Culture and Personality

specialists until the 1980s, when his pathbreaking articleon the self (though published three decades earlier) was discovered by a new generation of an-

thropologists. In this article, Hallowell argued interalia thatwhile

centered" ethnographies were valuable for both "comparative and analytic" purposes, still

of necessity the materialis presented fromthe standpoint of an outsideobserver.

Presentedto us in this form, theseculturaldatado not

integralfashion, the most significant and meaningfulaspects of the

individualas

andsatisfieshis needs

It should be noted, moreover, that Hallowell was not content to rely on empathy and insight alone for elucidating the "meaningfulaspects of the world"of individualactors. Consequently, he pioneered the anthropological use of the Rorschachtest as a meansfor obtaining an objective assessmentof their subjectivity, one that could make possible more precise cross-group

comparisons. In this regard,however, he influenced only

"culture-

permit us to apprehend, in an

worldof the

experiencedby

himandintermsof whichhethinks, is motivatedto act,

(Hallowell1954:79).

a few of his contem-

762

MELFORD

E.

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poraries, the others arguing that projective tests were culture-bound, and hence not suitablefor the investigation of non-Western groups.2

The Subjectivityof the Subject

Freud, who once again is the pioneerfigure, first emphasized the importance

of the subjectivity of the subject-in

"countertransference" (1910). Viewing the analyst's countertransferenceas a formidableobstacle to objectivity, he stressedthe paramountimportance of self-reflexivity as a meansfor dealing with this obstacle. (Since he believed it highly unlikely, however, that anyone is capable of the kind of self under-

standing with the honesty that genuine self-reflexivityrequires, Freud [1937] recommendedthat every analyst undergo a personal analysis as well as a periodic self-reflexive reexamination.) Beginning, however, in the 1950s, psychoanalysis came to view counter- transferencenot only as an obstacle to objective understanding but also (if properly understoodand dealt with) as an important instrumentfor such

understanding(Tyson1984). In this regard, the psychoanalysts' stresson self- reflexivity, like thatof the psychological anthropologists discussed below, is very differentfromthatof manypostmodernists who also stressits importance (for example, Ruby 1982). For while the formertwo deploy their counter- transferential experience in the service of understanding the object (patients

and non-Western peoples, respectively), the latter-or

them-deploy it insteadin the service of theirown "self-growth"(for exam- ple, Marcusand Fischer 1986:ix-x; Rabinow 1977). Despite the influence of Freud, early Cultureand Personality researchers seem notto haveattendedto theroleof countertransferencein anthropological field work, at least not explictly. Indeed, so far as I can tell, the first ethno- graphicinvestigation to attend explicitly to countertransferenceis Gladwinand

Sarason'snuanced study of Trukese personality(Gladwin andSarason 1953). Unfortunately, this admirable study was still-born, perhaps because of its heavy use of projectivetests, andhas been neglected ever since. This was not the fate, however, of another early, but highlyinfluential, workwhich (though not explicitly psychological nor even, in the strictsense of the term, ethno-

this case, the analyst-in

his concept of

at least some of

2 It is a safe bet, I dare say, thatfew of these critics had a first-hand acquaintance with these tests nor with the anthropological studies that employed them, including DeVos (1954) DuBois (1944), Gladwin and Sarason (1953), Hallowell (1955: ch. 3), Henry (1947), Spindler(1955),

part on secondhand reports of Lindzey's assess-

Wallace (1952). Rather,they reliedfor the most

ment (Lindzey 1961) which had demonstrated, so neithervalidnorreliable findings. In fact, however,

Lindzey, a clinical psychologist, said nothing

of the kind, although his balancedassessmentof these studiesdealtwiththeirweaknessas well as

their strengths. In any event, as a consequence of the uniformedviews of the earlycritics,

employprojective

only few contempo-

the critics alleged, thatthese studies produced

rary fieldworkers (see DeVosand Boyer 1989; Suarez-Orozco 1989) continueto

tests; and anthropology, at least in

inter-grouppsychologicalcomparisons.(For a similar view, see Schwartz [1992:338-40].)

my view, has lost a

valuable opportunity to establish objective,

POSTMODERNIST

ANTHROPOLOGY:

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763

graphic) dealt even more extensively with the anthropologist's countertrans- ference. I am referring, of course, to Tristes Tropiques(Levi-Strauss1955). More recently, a variety of anthropologists have discussedtheirown coun- tertransferentialreactionsin field work with admirable honesty and courage. Here, I would mention especially the studiesof L. Bohannon [Bowen] (1964), Briggs (1970), Crapanzano(1980), Kracke (1987), Read (1967) and R. Ro- saldo (1984). Fromthe evidence of all these works, as well as my own field- work experience, I would suggest that the countertransferentialreactionsof

field anthropologists, like those of clinical analysts, stem fromtheir anxieties,

inner conflicts, loneliness, investmentin favorite theories,

professionalambition, and so It was Devereux who, in a

provided the theoreticalrationalefor the importance of countertransference,

not only in anthropology but also in

worth noting thatin a preface to this book La Barrecommentedthat with its publication "the un-self-examined anthropologist henceforthhas no right or business anthropologizing"(La Barre 1967:ix). As in the case of the recent views of psychoanalysis mentioned above, Devereuxnot only addressedthe distorting effects of countertransferencebut also emphasized its use "as an

important and even indispensable source of relevant supplementary social science data" (Devereux 1967:30). As he saw it, "itis not countertransference

per

the real source of sterile error" (Devereux 1967: 202, italics in original). Although aside from psychologicalanthropology,anthropologists have typ- ically not attendedto the countertransferentialdimensionof the anthropolo- gist's subjectivity, nevertheless virtually all of them have persistentlyempha- sized othersof its dimensions, which are usually subsumedunderthe concept of ethnocentrism. Beginning with Boas, novice field workers have been warnedof the distorting influenceof theircultural biases; and anthropological

training has attempted to minimize such biases by requiring that graduate students acquire ethnographiccompetence in a wide range of non-Western societies and cultures.

personal values,

forth. brilliantif exasperating tour de force (1967),

the other social sciences as well. It is

se, but the ignoring and mismanagement of countertransference [that] is

Despite such training, cultural bias, so postmodernistsclaim, is an inescap- ablecharacteristicof all Western ethnographers, as aretheotherbiases (such as

racial, gender, social

class) that comprisepart of their subjectivity; andthese

biases, together with those engenderedby colonialismand imperialism,pro- duce seriousdistortionsin the collection and reporting of ethnographic data.

While these claims, though often exaggerated, cannotbe disregarded,post-

moderniststend to disregard other biases inherentin the

Western ethnogra-

pher's subjectivity which are the reverse of those which they emphasize. I have in mind, for example, the liberal political ideology of most Western anthropologists, their lingering noble savagism, and theiralienation from, if not hostility to, Westernculture (Levi-Strauss1964:381, 388), which argua-

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bly account for the idealizationof non-Westerncultures that characterizes

few ethnographies.Having now examined my contention that

many of the postmodernist claims concerningsubjectivity,though true, are

more than a

not new-as

modernist thought more generally-we

some critical respects its innovativeclaims are invalid.

is also the case, according to Eysteinsson (1990), with post-

may now turnto my contentionthatin

POSTMODERNIST

INNOVATIONS

REGARDING

SUBJECTIVITY

Before assessing the postmodernist

caveats-the first relatedto

and the second to the representation of my own. First, since postmodernist anthropologists areas diversea group as any other, the following generalized and schematic summary of theirviews applies to most, but not all, of them.

That being so, some of my postmodernist friendswill no doubtfeel thatI have misrepresented their views; and although I regretthat, I trust they will appre- ciate thatan essay of limited space must confine itself to centraltendencies. Second, since any theoretical position, as postmodernistsrightlystress, stems from a particularpoint of view, it is important to note that my assessmentof their innovationsis offered from the point of view of what JohnSearle calls the "WesternRationalistTradition"and its epistemological and metaphysical postulates. Because the postmodernistproject takes the repudiation of this traditionas one of its central aims, it is perhaps useful to briefly summarize

these postulateswhich, following Searle (1993b:60-68), I set of six, interrelated,propositions:

innovations, I wish to register two

my representation of the postmodernistposition

shall explicate in a

First, reality exists independently of human representations; and any true

statementabout the world refers to correspond to such a statement. In

postulate holds that thereis a "mind-independent external reality" which (in the language of philosophy) is referredto as "metaphysical realism." Second, language serves not only to communicate meanings but also to refer to objects and situationsin the world that exist independently of lan-

guage. In short, this postulate holds that language, contrary to postmod- ernism, has referential, and not merely communicative, functions.

false depending on whetherthe objects and

situationsto which they refer correspond to a greater or lesser degree to these statements. This, of course, is the "correspondencetheory" of truth,which, to the extent that postmodernists hold a theory of truth-many of them, of course, reject this concept as "essentialist"-stands in sharp contrastto their "coherence"or "narrative" theory, as it is variously called.

Fourth,knowledge is objective, which signifies, contrary to postmodernism, thatthe truthof any knowledge claim is independent of the motive, culture, ethnicity,race, social class, or gender of the person(s) who makesucha claim. Rather, its truth depends on the empiricalsupport adducedon its behalf.

"actualsituations"in the world which short, contrary to postmodernism, this

Third, statementsare true or

POSTMODERNIST

ANTHROPOLOGY:

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CRITIQUE

765

Fifth, logic and rationalityprovide a set of procedures,methods, and stan-

contrary to postmod-

dards (of proof, validity, or reasonableness)which,

ernism, enables one to assess competingknowledge claims.

Sixth, there exist valid criteria (both objective and intersubjective) for

judging the relative merit of statements, theories,

explanations, interpreta-

geo-

tions, and other kinds of accounts. According to this postulate, it is not the

case that Creationism, for example, is as true as Darwinism, that the

centricview is as correctas the heliocentric, thatshamanistic explanations of

dissociative states are as veridicalas those of clinical psychiatry. Postmodernists repudiate these six postulates of the WesternRationalist Traditionbecause of what they take to be two epistemological entailmentsof

their conception of subjectivity.First, the subjectivity of the human object

entails that the human sciences cannot-indeed

Second, the subjectivity of the human subject entails that it is impossible to

discover (whatmight be termed)objective or intersubjective truth.

with the first, I now wish to assess these claims insofar as they relate to

anthropology.(The following assessmentis ch. 1]).

ought not-be

a science.

Beginning

taken in part from Spiro [1994:

The Rejectionof Anthropology as Science

Anthropology cannot (and should not) aspire to scientific status, postmod- ernists argue(for example, Rabinowand Sullivan 1987; Rosaldo 1989; Tyler

1987) becausescience is in

the businessof discoveringcauses; whereasif the

subjectivity of the human object is taken seriously, then anthropology can only be in the businessof discoveringmeanings. Although the term meaning is the black box of the anthropologicallexicon, still since postmodernists believe (as I do) thatcultureandmindcan be understood only by referenceto intentions, purposes, desires, and the like, I take it that they are indicating these subjective entities when they referto meaning. If that is so, then their opposing of meaning to cause only makes sense, however, in the hermeneutic view that the scientific concept of cause refers to materialconditions alone

(Habermas1971, Ricoeur 1981, Vendler 1984). Thus, on thatview a causal account of culturerefers to ecological niches, modes of production, subsis-

tence techniques, and so forth,just as a causal accountof

firing of neurons, the secretionof hormones, the actionof neurotransmitters, and so on.

I would submit, however, that this materialist conception of cause repre- sents an older view that is hardly credible today. To be sure, psychological behaviorists persist in denying that non-material things like intentions, pur- poses, anddesires serve as causes of action,just as culturalmaterialists deny thatthese mentalevents havecausalrelevancefor the creationand persistence of culture; but these views, which reflect what the philosopher Adolf Griin- baum [1984:3] has characterizedas the "ontologically reductive notion of

mind refersto the

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scientific status," are dead as a dodo bird. As construed by even the most tough-mindedphilosophers of science, intentions,purposes, and desires, for all their being subjective, are no less causal than hormonalsecretions and subsistence techniques(Griinbaum1984:69-94; Hempel 1965:225-58). Indeed, it is precisely because they hold that such subjective events are causal that most psychological anthropologists,beginning with the Culture and Personalitymovement, have insistedthat they are criticallyimportant for the understanding of mindandculture.Since postmodernists,however, do not believe that intentions,desires, and so forth, have causal (explanatory) rele- vance, then why do they insist that such subjective events are critical for anthropologicalinquiry? 'Tis a paradox. That paradoxaside, if causal expla- nation is centralto the scientific enterprise and if these subjective events do have causal relevance, then, contrary to postmodernism, there are no valid grounds (in this regard at anyrate) for denying that anthropologyis, or at least in principlemight be, a science. If now the scientificmethodconsistsbothof the formulationof explanatory theories in respect to some subject-matter and the employment of empirical and logical proceduresby which, at least in principle,they can be verified or falsified, thenthe remainingquestionregarding the scientificstatusof anthro- pology is whether its modes of inquiry conform to this paradigm.Writing more thanhalf a centuryago, John Dewey put it this way.

The question is notwhetherthe

pology] is orcaneverbecomea scienceinthesenseinwhich physics is nowa science,

subject-matter of humanrelations [including anthro-

. the development of methods which, as far as

but whetherit is such as to

permit

theygo, satisfy the logical

inquiry(Dewey1938:487).

Notice that Dewey refers to methods, not techniques, for whereas tech- niques refer to the empiricalproceduresemployed for obtaining or eliciting data, methodsreferto the logical conditionsthatmustbe satisfiedif the data

are to be judged evidentially relevantfor the acceptance or rejection of an

explanation or

scientistic (not scientific) diehards among us, I dare say that virtuallyevery

one else (postmodernist and modernist alike) agrees that the study of the

humanworld requiresvery different techniques fromthose employed for

interpretation. Now with the exception of a few remaining

conditionsthathaveto be satisfiedin otherbranchesof

the

study of the physical world. Thus, while subjectivetechniques, such as in- sight, Verstehen, and empathy are critical in the study of mind and culture, that is not the case, for example, in the study of atoms, molecules, and

galaxies.3

3 This, however, is not

always the case. Althoughempathy, for example, is usually regarded

still it is not entirely absent from the

brilliant physicist andnobel laureate,

as a techniqueunique to the human sciences,

sciences. Thus, in his biography of the

Gleick (1992:142) electron would do what would I do?"

physical

Richard Feynman,

suspected thatif he wantedto know whatan

under given circumstances, he merely asked himself, "If I were an electron,

writesthat Feynman'scolleagues

POSTMODERNIST

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767

This consensus, however, does not obtain in respect to methods. Thus, postmodernists (andotherswho follow in the hermeneutic tradition) maintain that, whereasthe physical sciences employ objectivemethods, such methods are not appropriate in the human sciences. In short, the subjectivity of the

human object requires that subjective procedures of empathy,insight, Ver- stehen) be used not only as techniques but also as methodsof inquiry. But if "method," as I have alreadyobserved, refers to the logical conditions that

must be

tanceor rejection of an explanation or interpretation,then this view is hardto credit. As the philosopher RichardRudner (echoing Dewey) put it:

Toholdthatthesocialsciencesare methodologically distinctfromtheothersciencesis

toholdnot merely(orperhaps notat all)

startling view thatthe socialsciences

require a

different techniques of inquiry, butratherthe

thebanalviewthatthesocialsciences employ

satisfied if dataare to be judged evidentially relevantfor the accep-

different logic of

inquiry(Rudner1966:5, added emphasis).

Such a view is "startling," I would suggest, becauseif empathy,Verstehen,

and so forth, are employed not only as techniques for generatingdata, expla-

nations, and interpretations(the contextof assessing their truthvalue (the context of

methodology suffers from critical logical and empirical problems (Rudner 1966:5-6). Logically, it is of course hopelessly circular, the "hermeneutic circle," as hermeneutiststhemselves recognize. Empirically,especially in those all-too frequent instancesin which the interpretations of differentinves-

tigators disagree, it is useless: It provides no objective or intersubjective criteria by which conflicting interpretations can be adjudicated. As the psy- chologist Morris Eagle putsit, "If my interpretation or decipheredmeaning or empathic grasp is radically differentfrom and even contradicts yours, on

whose empathy of

gle:1984:164).

Although it might now seem evident that, in the context of justification, intellectuallyresponsibleinquiryrequiresobjective (thatis, scientific) meth- ods not only in the physical but also in the human sciences, postmodernists reject this argument on two grounds,empirical and logical. As for the former,

virtually all postmodernists dismiss the empiricalprocedures of the scientific

as positivistic, a highly pejorative

term in their lexicon. In addition, many (but not all) of them also reject (Western)logic as a "logocentric" and "linear"discourseinvented by "hege- monic" Westernmales and used by them to dominatenon-Westernersand females;hence, to "privilege" such a "phallocentric" discourse only serves to perpetuate their "patriarchal" interests.4 (I confess that I would look more

method (when used in the human sciences)

discovery) but also

as methodsfor

justification), then this subjective

interpretation does one rely for knowledge?" (Ea-

4 Two articles, both in the Newsletteron Association, are typical of the genre. In one,

by

males as a meansfor determining who countsas a rational being and that, since many women do not recognize this logical law as a valid form of inference, this is an example of how logic

subserves the patriarchaloppression of women

Feminism publishedby the American

Philosophical

the authorwritesthatmodus ponens was invented

(Ginzberg 1989). In another article, the author

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MELFORD

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kindly upon the postmodernistproject if its proponents could resist such dreary and endlessly repeatedcliches.)5 It should be noted that both arguments are reasoned, not capricious. For consistent with the postmodernist view thatthe concept of objective truthis

"essentialist"(another pejorative termin their lexicon), their primary intellec-

tual worries relate not to ethnographic research but

(Clifford and Marcus 1986); andin the latter regard the critical issue, as they

see it, is not so muchthe truthof ethnographicfindings, as the "authority" of ethnographic texts. Thus, for Clifford, the problem (mentioned above) is primarily a problem of textual authority(1983:142), of whichhe distinguishes

four "modes" (experiential, interpretive,dialogical,

how one chooses among them depends on one's taste. It is only in a footnote that Cliffordmentions "modes of authority based on natural-scientific epis-

temologies," and then only to say that he does not intend to discuss them (1983: n. 1). In my view this cavalier dismissal of "natural-scientific epistemologies" would, if taken seriously, have disastrous consequences, not only, however, for scholarship but also for civil society itself. Commenting on a similar attitude prevalent in his time, Dewey observedthat it

encouragesobscurantism; it promotesacceptance of beliefsformedbeforemethodsof

inquiry hadreachedtheir

thebestmanneravailableat a given

competent) methodsof inquiry to

ods simplyexhibitfreeintelligenceoperating in

a specialized technicalfield.Sincescientificmeth-

time,theculturalwaste,confusionanddistortionthatresultsfromthefailureto use these methods, in all fieldsin connectionwithall problems, is incalculable(Dewey

ethnographicwriting

and polyphonic); and

presentstate;

andit tendsto relegate scientific (thatis,

1938:535).

The Rejectionof Objective Truth

Having examined the postmodernists' contentionthat the

humanobject entailsthat anthropology cannot(andoughtnot) aspire to scien- tific status,I now wish to examinetheircontentionthatthe subjectivity of the

argues that since the Aristoteliansyllogism separates the form from the materialcontent of an argument, it contributesto women's marginalization and subordinationbecause traditionally males are associatedwith form, females with matter (Cope-Kasten1989). 5 Bert States' insightful commentson the functionsof the repetition of these cliches in post-

modem literary criticism-he refers to them as the "poststructural code"-also apply to

subjectivity of the

post-

modern anthropology(which, of course, borrowedthem, as it has so much else, from literary criticism).Hearing these clich6sover andover again-"providing one is insidethe code"-is not

a problem, States (1994:113) writes because

the termsareaestheticallyinert,theirinterestabsolutelyexhaustedin theirmissionof demonstrat- ing thecode doing its workof recontextualizing othercodes. Thus, thecode hasmuchin common with the Hari Krishnachant that achieves its remarkablemesmeric puritythrough a deliberate

poverty of invention

uniformity,and brotherhoodamong code users

displayedby insidersfor insiders

clear about, since all 'ideas' are only context-dependentlogocentric re-inscriptionsplundered

from anotherdiscourse-in effect, re-tautologizations?

The formulaicuse of the terminologyapparently fosters confidence,

The code's value consists simply in being

Clarity is beside the point:what, afterall, is thereto be

POSTMODERNIST

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769

human subjectprecludes the discovery of objectiveknowledge. This conten- tion takes two forms:a restricted form, which denies thattherecan be objec-

tive knowledge of the non-Westernhuman object, and an unrestricted one, which denies that there can be objective knowledge of any object. I shall begin with the restricted form, but since I have already addressedit at length elsewhere (Spiro 1984, 1986, 1990, 1994:ch. 1) andsince Gellnerhas recent-

ly subjected it to an incisive analysis (1992: 22-71),

briefly. (For an illuminating discussion of the concept of objectivity as it relatesto the social sciences, see Rudner [1966: ch. 4]). The restrictedform. The contentionthat anthropology cannotdiscover ob- jective truthsabout the non-Westernhuman object is a conclusion derived

I shall treat it only

from two postmodernistpremises. First, human intentions, purposes, and desires-that is, meanings-are wholly culturallyconstructed;and, seeing that cultures differ one from another, meanings are culturally relative. Second, since cultures not only are differentbut radically different, their meanings are incommensurateone with another.From this postmodernists

argue thatthe

meanings of Western anthropologists are thus incommensurate

with those of the non-Western peoples they study andthatfor Westernanthro-

pology non-Western peoples are wholly Other, that is, their minds and cul-

tures opaque to objective understanding, which precludes the possibility comparativestudy of cultural meaningsystems.

of a

Although these conclusionsfollow validly fromtheir premises, in my view

both the premises and the conclusions are false.

(Spiro 1986, 1994: ch.l)

Rather,however, thanreiterate my reasonsfor rejecting the premises, here I only wish to observe that the conclusions are both paradoxical and self- defeating for the postmodernistproject itself. If (as postmodernistscontend) anthropologicalinquiry is concernedwith the study of meanings and if (as they also contend) non-Western peoples are Other, then how can a Western

anthropologistcomprehend their meaningswhen, ex hypothesi, they cannot be known?6Moreover, if theirOtherness precludes the possibility of a com- parativestudy of cultural meaningsystems, thenthe very foundationalclaims

of postmodernism-that meanings are wholly culturally constructedand cul- turally relativeand thatculturesare radically differentand incommensurable

-can

this regard, Wikan [1993]). Although many non-postmodernistanthropologists also view the elucida- tion of meanings as one of theircentraltasks, since they do not view cultures as incommensurable,they retainthe traditional conception of anthropology as

a comparativediscipline. For while they too are impressedby the extraordin-

ary range of cultural diversity,they recognize (or

that there

only remainunfounded speculations with no empirical warrant (see, in

at least many of them do) biological, psychological,

are important constraints (for example,

6 To their credit, some postmodernists,recognizing this paradox, have bitten the bullet and have turnedtheir attentionto the study of Westernculture.

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MELFORD

E.

SPIRO

ecological) on that diversity;consequently, cross-culturaldifferencesin mean- ing systems arenot so radicalas to precludeanthropologists fromunderstand-

ing

thatthe non-Western object is Other. This, at least, is the testimony of many

seasoned field workers, including, for example, Bourguignon("The differ- ences between human groups are not so radical that we cannot recognize

ourselvesas we are, or as we mightbe, in others" [1979:79]), E. Bruner ("We understandother people andtheir expressions on the basis of ourown experi-

ence and self-understanding"[1986:6]),

what you have not learnedto recognize in yourself" [1964:29]), and R. Paul

not come "close to being alive is like"

[1990:433]).

The unrestricted form. This form of the contentionthatthe subjectivity of

another

non-Western peoples. In short, for them cultural diversity does not entail

Erikson ("You will not see in

(We should be wary of social science theories that do corresponding to what one's own actual experience of

the human subjectprecludes the discovery of objective

unlike the first, not to the non-Westernhuman object uniquely but to all objects(non-human as well as human, Westernas well as non-Western); andit is grounded not in the postmodernistconception of culturebut in its meta- physics and epistemology. (For an importantdiscussion, see Reyna [1994]. For an illuminating, mostly postmodernist, examinationof the concept of objectivity itself, see the collection of essays in Megill [1994].) In opposition to the metaphysical realismof the WesternRationalistTradi- tion, postmodernism is committedto metaphysical idealism. Although some metaphysical idealists reject the very notionof an objectivereality, this is not the case for most postmodernistanthropologists;rather,theyreject the notion that such a reality exists independently of human representations(for ex- ample, Rabinow 1986). To put it differently,they deny the existence of a mind-independentreality. Since here, however, I am concerned not with metaphysical idealismas such but with the epistemologicalimplications that postmodernists derive from it, my evaluationof this philosophicalposition can be expressedby a single passage in Searle (1993a:38-39) which, in my opinion, is decisive.

When

language thatis publiclyintelligible.But,

knowledge applies,

[metaphysicalidealists]present us withan argumentthey claimto do so in a

I wishto

argue,publicintelligibilitypresup-

Wheneverwe use a language

poses the existence of a publicly accessible world

thatit is. Thus, it is

that purports tohave publicobjects of reference, wecommitourselvestorealism.The commitmentis nota specifictheory as to howtheworld is, butratherthatthereis a

way

metaphysical realismis false,

andthat presupposition is metaphical realism.

self-refuting forsomeoneto claimin a publiclanguage that

becausea

publiclanguagepresupposes a publicworld,

Let us now turn, then, from metaphysicalidealism, as such, to the epis-

especially as they

temological implications that postmodernists drawfrom it,

relate to science. Since the external world, they argue, is perceived and

POSTMODERNIST

ANTHROPOLOGY:

A MODERNIST

CRITIQUE

771

understood by means of one or anothercultural "discourse," all knowledge- claims (whether of the physical or the human world) are "culturally con- structed," hence necessarily subjective;moreover, since every culturaldis-

course is arbitrary, all knowledge-claims are also necessarily relative. That

being so,

argued, "Thereare not facts, but only interpretations."7 If, now, thereare only interpretations-hence, if knowledge-claims do not correspond to any facts, none at any rate that can be agreed upon-then

objectiveknowledge,postmodernistsargue, is impossible, andscience is only

a particular kind

derivedfrom one

those for any other story, can only be subjective. Given this view, it requires but a short step to conclude that to "privilege" the knowledge claims of Westernscience is hopelessly ethnocentric.As Feyerabend(who both influ-

enced and was influenced by postmodernistanthropologists)put it, "There exist no 'objective' reasonsfor preferring science and Westernrationalismto othertraditions" (quoted in Rorty 1995:34). But if science is just anotherkind of story telling, then scientific theories rest not so much on objective knowledge and an objective logic as on the 'interests' (racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, economic) of the story tellers. Since, then, its truthclaims are not so much empirically as ideologically grounded, science is a formof dominationwhich, in the case of anthropology, is evident in the asymmetries of power that characterizeethnographic field

then as Nietzche (to whom postmodernism is profoundlyindebted)

of "story telling."8 Moreover, since scientific stories are or another discourse, the criteriafor their assessment, like

workand writing(see Fabian1983, 1991;Haraway1989;Lutz 1986; Said 1989; and the critiqueby Spencer 1989).9

1990;Rosaldo

Since,

however, hardlyany one would deny that science is

influenced by

ideology

and interests, what makes the postmodernists' view exceptional is

that, for them, they arenot one aspect of science butthe whole of it: Ideology

and interestsdo more than influence the conduct of science, they dominate it.1? In short, if warfare, according to Clausewitz, is diplomacy by other

7 Since such a stance, Gellner observes, "means in effect the abandonmentof any serious

attempt to give a reasonable precise, documented,and testable account of anything

unclear]why, given thatuniversities alreadyemploypeople to explainwhy knowledge is impossi-

ble (in philosophy departments),anthropology should reduplicate this task, in somewhat ama-

teurishfashion"(1992:29).

In this regard, postmodernistthought has already had an impact on American politics. According to the "new faith"in Washington, "whatsort of person a politician is and what he

actuallydoes," a New YorkTimes reporterwrites, "arenot reallyimportant. Whatis important is

the perceivedimage of

virtual

what he is and what he does. Politics is not about objective reality, but

[it is

8

reality"(Kelley 1993:64).

9 Although in this respect, as in most others, the influence of Foucaulton postmodernist thought is prominent, it shouldbe noted that"critical anthropology," which also emphasizes the

asymmetries of power in ethnographic fieldworkand writing, arose independently of Foucault. For a balanced advocacy of critical anthropology, see Diamond (1980: Introduction) and Wolf

(1980). Forone not so balanced,see