Friday, March 07, 2008

Whose Truth? Notes on Anthropology of Religion

Το κείμενο είναι ουσιαστικά ένα προσχέδιο: σημειώσεις πάνω στην ανθρωπολογία της θρησκείας, και τον τρόπο που σχετίζεται τελικά με την ανθρωπολογική πρακτική καθ' αυτή. Αναφέρομαι τόσο σε ανθρωπολογικά κείμενα, όσο και σεαυτό που λέγεται Academia, το οποίο και ορίζει εν πολλοίς τις εθνογραφίες που προκύπτουν. Πολλά σημεία ίσως φανούν τετριμμένα. Αλλά θεωρώ πως πρέπει να ειπωθούν πάλι .

Υποστηρίζω πως η μαγεία είναι εξίσου αληθινή με τη βαρύτητα.

θέλω σχόλια και επιθέσεις, για να δω αν αξίζει να δουλευτεί κι άλλο.


K. B a b i s said...

B. Kontarakis
"Whose Truth? Towards an anthropology of the What;
notes on Anthropology of Religion"

One of the biggest misunderstandings I had to face while trying to communicate my thoughts with an unfamiliar British academic environment was the legitimacy of my questions concerning a proposed research about Cairo and a particular category of spirits that seemed to work in the very premises of Islam. Questions targeting more on the understanding of the workings of magico-religious phenomena, without necessary and fixed “sociological” extensions, were considered to be pointless. Questions not feasible to be answered in a “clear” way, i.e. a range of possible explanations that is used to be called “sociological”; questions with a utilized and recognizable meaning, in terms of fixed categories that explain and are ready to be compared (gender, classes, economy, etc.) were inappropriate. Something would seem important only if it would meet these well shaped categories. Thus, a controversy was quickly shaped in my mind regarding this difference of the pursued explanation: sociological v. from-the-native’s-point-of-view. Importance was connected with a question that kept repeating: Why? Why? Why is this useful to know? I must confess that due to my shock that the “why” question had caused me I could only reply “why not?” which on the one hand was equally silly, and on the other could, after all point at a gap between different ways of conceiving anthropology. In the end, I just made a necessary and cynical decision and I wrote down the plausible questions my supervisors needed. In my last “supervision” I had realized that what was at stake between me and “these-other” anthropologists was not merely my subject, but anthropology itself; I did not agree with the kind of anthropology that they were training me to serve.

While reading an anthropological paper regarding spirits and exorcism in the context of Swahili Muslim societies what struck me was the clarity of the questions posed towards such phenomena that I will refer hereafter as “magicalities”. This kind of questions refers to well shaped concepts of power, marginality, social roles, gender, and/or social origin of cult members of such phenomena. What struck me was that while I believe that such clear-cut questions (implying also clear-cut and well ordered answers with an apparently “sociological” value) seem to miss the point of magicalities, at the same time these same questions appear to be the legitimate ones for someone to ask while he is in the field “doing” anthropology (that finds also its most conservative expression in the “training” process of a PhD). And it was a shock to realize that I am not concerned with this discussion, because I do not actually believe that this kind of questions is the best one to be posed over magicalities. These main anthropological answers towards “magic” people usually make the Other to look naive (like puppets of a role that is necessary to be performed), crazy (like people hallucinating), although the latest trend is making them freaks of calculation (designers of the most complicated counter-power strategies).

These questions seem to rest in a more basic, although implicit one, that can be best summarized as one asking: “Why do they believe?” Indeed there must be a reason! Having this question underlying the mainstream anthropology of religion can only suggest that there is no “true” reason for one to believe (one “true” reason for example would be experience), and therefore there must be other reasons than the “actual” existence of the magic per se; thus the result is a crude reduction of magicalities to social phenomena, even if this is not true for these Other people over-there. It seems to me that all this reductive tendency of mainstream (or British?) anthropology does not really care about the truth of magicalities for the people that magicalities do exist through their experience, their senses and bodies. One question seems always to be missing next to the first one: “Why don’t we believe?” The answer to both of these basic questions seems to be actually the same, expressed in its positive or negative manner, depending on who poses the question. Well, it seems that while one has experience of such reality, the other has no such experience; which can also imply that when one knows how to experience, one does not (although this, along with the broader issue of the training of senses, cannot be dealt here). For by pursuing to understand another knowledge that refers to certainties pointing at Truth, as knowledge of the true things-over-there, how can you speak about their essential features, i.e. the ones that make them that-things-over-there, if those are reduced a priori as “actually” sociological? The latter seems to reveal that we have never had overcome the Durkheimian attitude that commands us to see people in their relation to the sacred as people glorifying their society through the sacred.

Something that also shows our overall strategy of taking magicalities as essentially something-else: taking one thing as an-other. An example would be: “spirit-possession is a discourse”. Yet, the latter is absurd! Spirit-possession is spirit possession! (this is very different that saying to deal spirit possession in the aspect that reveals itself as discourse).The gap amid the differently realized essence of the things-over-there expands further, as things appear not the same in front of the eyes of the anthropologist and of the Other. The different orientation upon which they get disclosed forms a gap of understanding, making thus these “otherwise same” objects to constitute two entirely different entities, i.e. two different things per se. For how can an anthropologist talk about the essentially sociological and/or cultural truth of magicalities when his interlocutors realize their essence as being one of the thing over-there, one thing that can be pointed at, but the anthropologist not only is not “trained” to see it, but more crucially he denies to accept it. Since anthropologists do fieldwork in order to understand what Others do, truth in itself is not truly the issue. It is “they” that know what is true; “we” are there to learn about it.

Let’s make for a moment a noetic experiment: there is a witch who denies the force of gravity; he does not believe in gravity! My conviction is that magicalities are as true as gravity, and this is how we should deal with magicalities. One would argue that whereas gravity is there for all, this is not the case for magicalities. For gravity is a phenomenon, the activity of which is experienced by everyone: it is thus objective. Yet, I would answer that he should have known better! For, he would just be ignorant of the workings of magic, while magic is already at work in his life. There are magic forces affecting everyone’s lives that one may not know about: for people that do not know about these forces, interpret them differently (chance, coincidence, luck, accident, to name few) without realizing the truth. And this is equally the case with the witch that does not believe in gravity. Thus, while being sure that there is something there to be seen, something so powerful that affects people’s lives and the anthropologist cannot see it, he assumes that this may mean something different than presence itself: it seems that the anthropologist talks about the absence of the things-over-there.

But one would then ask about the sociological features of true-things-over-there. Nevertheless, it is one thing to seek to understand the social/cultural impact of magicalities, and another to explain (away?) magicalities through their social/cultural functions. The latter is obviously a logical mistake that is also common in the tradition of functionalism: one transposes a result to the place of the cause of the phenomenon in question. Yet, we were supposed to have left all these behind us.

The answer seems simple and everyone I think will agree: what we can at least do is seek to understand and possibly interpret the cultural aspect/impact of the reality of the magicalities as these can be disclosed in broader cultural practice. We need to begin by the fact that magicalities do exist for this other person who already knows that magicalities do exist. But even here we would have to face another possible problem: what if this supposedly cultural dimension of magicalities is of secondary or merely unimportant nature. What if anthropological understanding is a mere magicality for Others, as magicalities are for us? Anthropological interpretation too, seems to sense, experience, and see (true)-things-over-there when other people cannot. Are we also crazy? Are we puppets?

Nonetheless, our writings or even our attitude in most of our anthropological meetings when laughing at other’s people knowledge, while between safe academic walls, does not seem to do justice to views like the one presented here.

More generally, it seems that we have no orientation towards truth as such; what kind of episteme are we practicing? Are we practicing an episteme? While I am not in a position to give a straight answer to this question, I want to insist on this lack of orientation inside the anthropological discourse. This is the goal of this note: to remember that we haven’t got everything solved; we must not hide our problems, but to face them. It would be more honest to dissolve as a discipline than avoiding basic problems of anthropology. There is no clear orientation on what anthropology more generally is trying to find; what truth are we pursuing? What are we trying to find out-there? Are we just trying to confirm our analytical tools, i.e. our knowledge?

If the issue is an attempt to represent the truth of a culture, then how can we pose fixed questions of a particular other-knowledge, i.e. the anthropological knowledge? Actually the problem would be even bigger: how do we know our questions before-hand? (not only before the fieldwork, but even after it when we need to answer to this particular kind and set of questions). We do not seem to know the What of what-is-there; after we learn the what-is-there-to be-found, e.g. What do they believe, instead of why do they believe, then we may be able to pose some questions as merely and in principle insiders. We should first understand what-is-there to be seen and to be interpreted, and then to interpret it; for we always interpret some-thing. I still wonder over the certainty that teachers-anthropologists, or more importantly the academia as a cultural regime of a particular knowledge shows toward “right” questions, legitimate answers and clear-cut ways of representing.

And it is not only about the contents, the what, of our set of representations. An equally neglected problem is also the form of our representations. Having in mind that anthropological writing elevates the importance of describing the forms of things, anthropology seems not to have kept this “promise” for itself. Why should a text with “legitimate” expression and form be considered as something innocent, as if produced in a lab? Why is the form of the representation considered to be something neutral over the meaning of a representation? Would we consider the form of cultural phenomena that we study mere appearances and neutral forms of a truth that can be stated otherwise? I believe not. Then why is this not the case? Why does the form of the phenomena that we struggle to understand (e.g. through thick description) remains so crucial for our understanding of the content of the phenomena? Who comes to choose of one representation over another? Definitely, the one who has the power to do so. Yet, we need not to forget this, for we all have shares of this power, although uneven.

The form of a story says the story in a way. If I could decide the form of my writing then it would possibly be for example one of abstract and non-coherent flashes, along with my thoughts and the way I was related to these moments of intercultural dialogue. I would try to show what im-pressed me, what have I learned, what do I know. Reality is not coherent, so why should I represent as something coherent? Yet, someone would wonder: If this is after all anthropology we could just be travelers, or tourists? But, I would reply: what is anthropology after all?

Coherence seems to pervade incoherence, implying that there is a kind of knowledge, i.e. anthropological, which expresses a coherent meta-reality. What remains vague is whether there is actually a dilemma between coherence v. non-coherence, or actually one between two kinds of coherence, equally idiosyncratic. The lack of coherence would then seem less of something negative, and it would transform into something positive: it wouldn’t be any more the absence of coherence, but the very presence of a different kind of coherence. Then, “non-coherence” as the kind of coherence anthropology tries to understand would seem to represent better reality: so what is anthropology’s purpose after all? What is our agenda?

If one would argue that the form of the representation has no impact into the meaning of the representation as such, then why am I not free to represent things in the way I believe it is more suitable? In any case we all understand that form has something to do with the representations one seeks to write about. This thus makes the form of writing in academia not an neutral form of writing, not even a mere formality, but a particular language that, as a language, has several limits over what can be said, i.e. over what can be represented. More importantly this form of writing is crucial for it poses limits in the questions that can be asked.

Why do we do anthropology? What do we want to understand?

Marilou said...

Αγαπητέ K.Babis

δεν ξέρω αν είχες την πρόθεση, αλλά με την πρώτη ανάγνωση του άρθρου μου έρχεται στο μυαλό η νέα εθνογραφία. Νομίζω πως η κριτική που κάνεις ταιριάζει περισσότερο σε ένα ευρύτερο κλίμα της εθνογραφικής κριτικής (το οποίο περιλαμβάνει και την κριτική της Ακαδημίας). Ειδικά στο Βρετανικό χώρο, έχουν ένα θέμα με τις θρησκείες (από προσωπική εμπειρία το λέω αυτό) αλλά θα ήταν ενδιαφέρον να βλέπαμε και την αμερικανική άποψη στο άρθρο σου. Θα το ξανακοιτάξω αργότερα και θα προσθέσω παρατηρήσεις, αυτές ήταν οι πρώτες σκέψεις!
Το βιβλίο του Goodall Writing the new ethnography το έχεις υπόψιν σου; Ίσως σου δώσει περισσότερα ερεθίσματα.

Marilou said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elia said...

Κάτι που μου ήρθε σαν πρώτη σκέψη και ίσως μπορεί να σε εμπνεύσει είναι η κριτική που κάνει ο De Man στην έννοια της αυθεντίας, συγκεκριμένα στον τομέα της κριτικής της λογοτεχνίας.
Λέει συγκεκριμένα ότι κατά την κριτική ανάγνωση ενός κειμένου υπάρχει ένα τυφλό σημείο το οποίο οργανώνει τον χώρο της όρασης που περιέχεται στο κείμενο και τη συνακόλουθη τύφλωση της όρασης. Είναι η ηλιακή θέση που τυφλώνει, ρυθμίζοντας ωστόσο την περιστροφή των σφαιρών γύρω της.
Είναι ενδιαφέρον γιατί προσπαθεί να προχωρήσει πέρα από τη διερεύνηση της επιτυχίας ή αποτυχίας μίας δεδομένης μεθοδολογίας κριτικής ανάγνωσης, στον εντοπισμό της σχέσης αυτής της μεθοδολογίας με την αναγκαιότητά της.
Επιπλέον, η κριτική ανάλυση που επιχειρεί πάνω στη διαλεκτική σχέση μεταξύ τύφλωσης και ενόρασης, προσλαμβάνοντάς την ως τη βάση για τη διατήρηση της συνεκτικότητας του εκάστοτε περιγραφικού συστήματος, συνιστά μια κατάδειξη των παραδοχών που στηρίζουν τη δυτική πίστη στην αλήθεια που αποκαλύπτει η όραση και αυτού που εμφανές.
Ίσως αυτό το τελευταίο να σχετίζεται με ερωτήματα του τύπου ποιος είναι ο σκοπός;΄Επίσης, μπορεί να έχει σχέση με την πίστη και την απόδειξη...

De Man, P. 1996 [1971]. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. London: Routledge.

Φιλιά πολλα και δύναμη