The History On Ethnographic Allegory English Literature Essay


James Clifford is a historian and Professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California. Clifford and Hayden White were among the first faculty directly appointed to the History of Consciousness Ph.D. program in 1978, which was originally the only graduate- department at UC-Santa Cruz. The History of Consciousness department continues to be an intellectual centre for innovative interdisciplinary and critical scholarship in the U.S. and abroad, largely due to Clifford and White’s influence, as well as the work of other prominent faculty who were hired in the 1980s. Clifford served as Chair to this department from 2004-2007. Clifford is the author of several widely cited and translated books, including The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (1988), Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century (1997), as well as the editor of Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, with George Marcus (1986) on which I have made my presentation. Clifford’s work has sparked controversy and critical debate in a number of disciplines, such as literature, art history and visual studies, and especially in cultural anthropology, as his literary critiques of written ethnography greatly contributed to the discipline’s important self-critical period of the 1980s and early 1990s.

“On Ethnographic Allegory”, by James Clifford is a study on how society perceives other ethnicity, which is to say with allegories and considers ethnographic accounts as allegorical. He holds the opinion that “transcendent meanings are the conditions of its meaningfulness. The rhetorical strategy of extending a metaphor through an entire narrative so that objects, persons, and actions in the text are equated with meanings that lie outside the text. Here it will be worth mentioning the story that Clifford has included in his essay and that is from Marjorie Shostak begins her book Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman with a story of childbirth the !Kung way- outside the village, alone, here are some excerpts: I lay there and felt the pains as they came, over and over again. Then I felt something wet, the beginning of the childbirth. I thought, “Eh hey, maybe it is the child.” I got up and took a blanket and covered Tashay with it; he was still sleeping. Then I took another blanket and my smaller duiker skin covering and I left. Was I not the only one? The only other woman was Tashay’s grandmother, and she was asleep in her hut. So, just as I was, I left. I waked a short distance from the village and sat down beside a tree…. After she was born, I sat there; I didn’t know what to do. I had no sense. She lay there moving her arms about, trying to suck her fingers. She started to cry. I just sat there, looking at her. I thought, “Is this my child? Who gave birth to this child?” then I thought, ” a big thing like that? How could it possibly have come out from my genitals?” I sat there and looked at her, looked and looked and looked. Another example which is not in the text but I thought would be relevant is the movie “Avatar”.

Clifford sets out to show that ethnography perform the dual function of telling about a culture and making broader, humanistic statements. In both form and content, ethnographies are allegorical, meaning that they encompass additional meaning (as constructed and told stories) beyond the local cultural meanings they presume to present. Clifford launches his argument about the ethnographic content being allegorical by arguing that all of the levels of the text are allegorical, not just the ones that are acknowledged to be the interpretive. He illustrates this by turning to Nisa, which he claims has three allegorical registers: (1) Nisa as a way in to describing !Kung culture; (2) question of what it means to be a woman and have a woman’s experience; and (3) the dialogical interaction between the ethnographer and subject. Clifford argues that the three strands shed light on the dialogical, contingent, inter-subjective nature of fieldwork, which cannot be thought of just as an empirical means to generalize about a culture.

In the next section he describes, what allegory means to him – namely: “allegory says one thing and means another.” I quote: “Allegory prompts us to say of any cultural description not this represents, or symbolizes, that but rather this is a (morally charged) story about that (100)” Besides, Clifford explains the process of cultural translation. He emphasizes that if we want to make the other (or a different way of life) comprehensible the ethnographer or anybody else has to use references (images) from his own context. Only in this way the readers may understand the author’s message.

Further, Clifford’s paper turns to an investigation of a repeated allegory in ethnography of his time, which he labels ethnographic pastoral, which is the frame to the part of his argument which deals with ethnography (written) form. Clifford argues that all ethnographies share the practice of textualization. The very act of writing enacts the pastoral theme, making the spoken, living, into something preserved and stable. Clifford suggests ways to subvert the allegory of textualization, most radical of which is his consideration of Derrida’s expanded conception of writing, whereby each culture has its own writing, thus making the ethnographer the primary writer of another culture, since the culture is always already writing itself. Clifford thus points out how pervasive the challenge to the allegory textualization is and suggests that this new conception challenges the ethnographer’s authority, for the native who can write his own culture challenges the ethnographer’s authority.

One of the key examples that Clifford deals with is of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Clifford extracts Shostaks description of child birth and explains that the story is about the local cultural meanings as well as a general story about woman’s experience and more broadly human experience which transcend the particular. Shostak’s life of a !Kung individual inevitably becomes an allegory of (female) humanity. These kind of transcendent meanings are not abstractions or interpretations added to the original simple account. Rather, they are the conditions of its meaningfulness. Ethnographic texts are inevitably allegorical, and a serious acceptance of this fact changes the ways they can be written and read.

Allegory draws special attention to the narrative character of cultural representations, to the stories built into the representational process itself. It also breaks down the seamless quality of cultural description by adding a temporal aspect to the process of reading. One level of meaning in a text will always generate other levels.

Coleridge explains a 2-level structure of the ethnographic: one set of agents or images is accompanied by a level of the super-sensual, the moral. As Clifford explains, what one sees in a coherent ethnographic account, the imaged construct of the other, is connected in a continuous double structure with what one understands (101).

Clifford argues that there isn’t just one level that is interpretive while the other levels are the factual: a scientific ethnography normally establishes a privileged allegorical register it identifies as theory, interpretation, or explanation. But once all meaningful levels in a text, including theories and interpretations, are recognized as allegorical, it becomes difficult to view one of them as privileged, accounting for the rest. Once this anchor is dislodged, the staging and valuing of multiple allegorical registers, or voices, becomes an important area of concern for ethnographic writers (103).

The example of Nisa as given in this article has three registers of allegory, which do not blend together but remain as three strands within the work: description of a !Kung woman, questioning about what it means to be a woman (humanist project, looking for commonality), and the dialogical relationship between ethnographer and subject (103-4). The second two registers are particularly entwined in Clifford’s description. He discusses the three registers:

1) First register is description of Nisa to try and describe the culture, though Clifford critiques that there is a tension in how the particular is meant to speak for the general. Shostak struggles between thinking Nisa is distinctive and that she is generalizable. This attempt at generalizing, to be scientific, is in turn in tension with the personal and inters subjective nature of the other two registers.

2) Clearly dialogical, shaped by the scholar as well as the subject. Nisa’s reflections are organized into a full life-span. Creating autobiography is non-natural, requires organization into a narrative that is not a given. Shostak intervenes to organize, frame transcripts, etc. The narration makes human sense (106).

3) Shostak’s account of her experience in the field. Shostak told her interlocutors that she wanted to better understand womanhood in her own culture by understanding its meaning in theirs. Nisa speaks to Shostak like she is giving her advice, it takes part in a feminist discourse of shared female experience (such as oppression) (107).

In the following part he focuses the retrospect or nostalgic view in ethnography. Clifford names this kind of view that he considers as a result of the textualisation of culture or textual embodiment of culture: “ethnographic pastoral”. He takes the allegory of “salvage,” a structure of ethnographic writing, as a result of the transport of oral-discursive experience to text. In this way the ethnographer seems to save vanishing cultures. But today, he states, this is not the case anymore, if it ever was like this. There already exist written sources of cultures and a lot of informants are able to read and write. Following Derrida he says: “What matters of ethnography is the claim that all human groups write – if they articulate, classify, possess an oral literature, or inscribe their world in ritual acts” (117). Ethnographers do not fix oral accounts in written texts anymore. They translate or re-write something that already exists even in another form. In this way the dualism between literate and non-literate does not exist. But the idea to redeem vanishing things persists and in the words of Benjamin it is “one of the strongest impulses in allegory” (119). Clifford holds the opinion that we can only resist this impulse if we open ourselves to different histories. At this point emerges the following question: How can we open ourselves to different histories?

Like a manifest he presents his conclusion in five points:

“There is no way definitely to separate the factual from the allegorical in cultural accounts.”

“The meaning of an ethnographic account is uncontrollable.”

“Recognition of allegory poses the political and ethical dimension of ethnographic writing.”

“Recognition of allegory complicates the writing and reading of ethnographies in potentially fruitful ways.”

“Recognition of allegory requires that as readers and writers of ethnographies, we struggle to confront and take responsibility for our systematic construction of others and ourselves through others.”

In Clifford’s opinion, the fact, that ethnographies have an allegorical dimension, is the smaller problem – because every text has at least a second meaning. The crucial point is that a lot of ethnographies do not mark allegories. Clifford argues that we should not abandon allegory, but resist the impulse to make the short-lived permanent and to open ourselves to different histories (119).

Recognizing allegory leads to fruitful new ways to read ethnography, opening reader to new forms of analysis and recognition of different strands within the text and to temporal relations (120). Recognizing allegory makes us take responsibility for how we construct the other and thereby ourselves (121).

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