The dreaming spires cast their shadow

The Ceremonial Animal
December 3, 2004

Wendy James tells us that she read Marc Augé's Non-Places: Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity on a transatlantic flight. In that book, Augé makes a claim for the emergence and prevalence of qualitatively new anonymous transitional spaces (placeless supermarkets and airports being prime exemplars). James perceptively critiques Augé's proposition, suggesting that since groups such as sailors and slaves have inhabited similar limbos in the past, a narrative of rupture of the kind that Augé advances is inappropriate. Further, she argues, these supermodern non-places do not exist in abstraction but acquire their particularity from being positioned in between "concrete" social formations (such as nation-states and friends and family) whose continuing existence Augé downplays.

It so happens that I read James' book on a train, the Frontier Mail, travelling across India, and my response to her text mirrors, in some ways, her response to Augé's. My transit space was polyglot and heterogeneous and took me from Delhi to Bombay, birthplace of two leading social theorists, Arjun Appadurai and Homi K. Bhabha.

In this context, James's narrative conjured a strangely homely and almost unrecognisable location, as detached from the space around me as Augé's was from (in James's words) the "hugs and tears and present-giving at either end of the journey, beyond the security gates" in the airport. The India that appears in this New Portrait of Anthropology is, unbelievably, incarnated almost exclusively through Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus , which finds a place in an appended list of "Some foundational texts".

Although two more recent admirable classically anthropological monographs on India are listed under "Recent innovatory work", there is little account in this book of recent innovative work on Indian culture and society. No mention is made of key ethnographies of consumption practices in Kerala, advertising in Bombay, gender and ecology in Rajasthan or the politics of the Hindu Right.

But surely I am missing the point? James is an Africanist, the author, among numerous other works, of two outstanding Sudenese Ethnographies. A single author cannot keep abreast of the developments in all regions, and I am simply complaining from the crevice of my own regional isolation. But exactly the same criticism holds for James' discussion of Africa. Achille Mbembe's work on the post-colony is rendered invisible, and innovative work such as Brian Larkin's research on Hausa cinema and Mariane Ferme's investigation of violence and secrecy in Sierra Leone rates not a mention.

James applauds the work of some younger scholars such as Georgina Born, Mukulika Banerjee and Sarah Franklin. She also makes a compelling case for the importance of Maurice Bloch's contribution to wider social theory. But these are fig leaves: this is largely a portrait of an old anthropology that is remarkably Anglo and indeed Oxford-centric.

Many academics have marvelled at the research assessment exercise's distinction between the categories of "national" and "international" recognition. These onion rings bring to mind visions of the British social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown taking the steamboat to Sydney so that he could address a non-national audience. Reading James's book helps one understand the distinction. Though proclaiming its rapprochement between British social anthropology and US culturalism, this book is in fact a square defence of an Oxford tradition in which Edward Evans-Pritchard and the Lienhardts rule supreme. All divine knowledge seems to have been previously revealed to Evans-Pritchard, and it is to his vision that we must return. This curious nostalgia is underwritten by the phantasmatic threat of "postmodernism". James exudes what Michael Lambek in his foreword terms a "comfortable forthrightness". Not for her any "postmodern ontological hand-wringing" or "ethical anxiety about our rights to know". The civilisational tradition endures, and its home is Oxford.

The account of history, on behalf of which James claims to make a special case, is similarly problematic. The beloved R. G. Collingwood is expounded in great detail, but no mention is made of the kind of historians, from Carlo Ginzburg to Hayden White, whom anthropologists actually read.

Similarly eviscerated are every one of the current historical debates in which anthropologists have a stake (Marshall Sahlins versus Gannanath Obeysekere, J. D. Y. Peel versus the Comaroffs, Nicholas Dirks versus Chris Bayly). These are debates that matter and are still unfolding, but they all fall under the dark pall of Collingwood. And to omit the work of Bernard Cohn - the creator of the greatest body of historically inflected work by an anthropologist - is perpelexing. James' elaboration of works in neighbouring disciplines that have influenced anthropologists induces a similar sense of misrecognition: are anthropologists really more engaged with the work of Oliver Sacks than with that of Bruno Latour or Judith Butler?

The intended audience of this book is not only "students in the various subfields of anthropology" but also "their friends who wonder about what they are engaged in". If they are the kind of students who "take up anthropology with a view to... charitable and welfare work with the underprivileged" (as James thinks many of them do), it is quite likely that this book will appeal to them. But if these students and their friends are anything like the ones I know, I would instead point them towards Arjun Appadurai's Modernity at Large or Jeremy MacClancy's collection Exotic No More .

Christopher Pinney is professor of anthropology and visual culture, University College London.

The Ceremonial Animal: A New Portrait of Anthropology

Author - Wendy James
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 384
Price - £32.00
ISBN - 0 19 926333 7

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