MLA: Two tribes united by single goal

December 20, 2002

Literature and anthropology scholars do not always see eye to eye but, writes Stephen Phillips, in thinking about ‘culture’, they share a joint project

For James Buzard, associate literature professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Victorian Britain holds obvious parallels with millennial America.

“How many Americans feel a sense of regret that their [international] image is that of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s?” he asks. “This cultural imperialism is not what they take themselves to be.”

For Buzard, Charles Dickens and other 19th-century authors exhibit similar disaffection with the values of the empire on which the sun was never supposed to set. “I don’t want to call it anti-imperialism, but there’s a sense that over-extension of the empire can hollow out the middle.”

Dickens’s reaction to “the cultural evacuation of the centre” suggests an “autoethnographic impulse” previously undetected by scholars, Buzard says.

Such efforts to get to grips with one’s ethnicity have hitherto been largely associated with subjugated indigenous people reacting to colonial indoctrination. But taking his cue from cultural studies guru Stuart Hall’s observation that “Englishness is an ethnicity like any other,” Buzard insists in a recent paper that an anthropological eye can be cast on the “voice from the centre” in the same way it has been applied to Pacific Islanders. That much is clear from the double narration technique Dickens employed in Bleak House , he says. Foreshadowing the rise of anthropological perspectives on literature, “Dickens makes use of it to gain a double perspective on his own society”, Buzard concludes.

The application of anthropological paradigms to analyse literary texts is one of the topics up for discussion at the Modern Language Association convention.

There are three seminars on anthropological approaches to literature, and legendary anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose emphasis on using literary tools to decipher other societies has been instrumental in bridging the two disciplines, is a special guest.

Buzard says it is obvious that anthropology can offer fresh insights into texts. “It is hard to talk about human difference without invoking anthropological terms - they’ve achieved such incredible saturation,” he says.

“It is no longer the case that we would read a poem from the early 20th century and ignore the social, economic and historical conditions that created it,” says Marc Manganaro, an English professor at Rutgers University.

Accordingly, scholars’ attention has shifted from the “intrinsic artistic qualities” of texts to viewing them as “windows into culture - exemplifications of patterns of values and thinking,” says Christopher Herbert, professor of English at Northwestern University. The emphasis on literary works “not as autonomous constructions of art, but indexes of cultural structures of the societies from which they emerge”, in Herbert’s words, has been most prominently expressed in the New Historicism movement pioneered by Harvard University literature scholar and president of the MLA   Stephen Greenblatt.

However, anthropology has become not only the tool of study, but also the subject for a growing cadre of literary scholars. This is hinted at in the eclectic agenda of the MLA’s anthropology discussions. Debate will range over 19th-century travelogues, autoethnographies and the work of anthropological novelist Zora Neale Hurston, a seminal figure in the 1920s Harlem African-American cultural renaissance.

Several new books by literature academics focus on anthropologists. Manganaro’s recently published Emergence of the Culture Concept , for example, devotes two chapters to groundbreaking mid-20th-century anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s contributions to linguistics.

Malinowski’s 1922 study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea, Argonauts of the Western Pacific , resonates as a work of literature, Manganaro says. “Malinowski is the hero who goes into the field and has trials, but comes out with his prize - knowledge of the natives.”

University of Florida associate English professor Susan Hegeman, another literary critic working at the border of her discipline with anthropology, agrees, comparing this “founding text of ethnography” with Joseph Conrad.

Her 1999 Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture traces how the early 20th-century anthropological conception of culture, emphasising the distance between intellectual centres and “primitive” margins, overlaps with artists and critics’ ideas about creating a distinctive notion of American culture.

“Thinking about culture is one of the ways that anthropology and literary criticism are engaged in a joint project,” she says, adding that literary criticism tools can be used to analyse ethnographic theories. She believes the field has moved on from a time when “anthropological approaches to literature” was the appropriate label for the crossover between the two subjects.

“There’s much more mutuality and real attempts at interdisciplinarianism now,” she says. Indeed, last month’s American Anthropological Association conference reflected this mutuality by headlining discussions on the subject “literature and anthropology”.

However, with such cross-fertilisation have come tensions. In the US, anthropology is riven by the schism between a socio-cultural wing most closely identified with literary theories such as post-colonialism and post-structuralism, and those who extol a scientific positivism and empiricism above all else. Many of the latter persuasion are decidedly prickly about perceived intrusions on their turf by literati outsiders.

Battle lines were drawn in 1986 with the publication of the influential but incendiary Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography , edited by James Clifford and George Marcus. To many it impugned anthropology’s scientific efficacy with its thesis that ethnographies are narrative fictions.

But even the literary studies-friendly wing of anthropology acknowledges some problems.

University of Minnesota anthropology professor Rebecca Stein uses “tools of literary criticism” to analyse Israeli political culture. But she understands the resentment some colleagues bear towards an apparent misappropriation of the anthropological notion of culture by some literary scholars. “There’s been a tendency for literary scholars who work at the disciplinary boundaries to speak in the name of anthropology without a keen sense of its history and methods,” she says.

Particularly irritating, she says, has been the extent to which “anthropology’s complex relationship with colonialism” has been treated in a “titillating manner, [downplaying] the extent to which it is reaching its own reckoning with its past”.

But maybe it is the timeless appeal of fiction that guarantees the continued currency of academic investigations straddling literature and anthropology.

“I like to remind colleagues that what we call literature is a bump on the face of something larger and more ancient - the practice of storytelling,” says John Niles, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin.

“If the proverbial anthropologist from Mars were to come here and wished to find out about social history in the industrial period, he could look at tax laws. But what he would be most fascinated by would be the imaginative representations of reality in fiction forms.”

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