recapturing phenomena

This is the second in a series of reflections about ethnographic methodology given theoretical critiques of the initial constructing of the ‘it” which we investigate. In the first, I mused about what to do when we come to doubt that this “it” might be a place (the Trobriand Islands, County Clare in Ireland). If we are not sure that there are places “there”, then where do we go? Geertz summarized this doubt, but then appeared to suggest that the solution was in substituting what might be most charitably labeled an ideal-type as the ‘object’—for example “colonialism.” But Lévi-Strauss had already obliquely shown the dangers involved in that step when he wrote about “totemism” (1963 [1962]) at a time when anthropologists had come to doubt whether totemism was any kind of “it.”

I remembered the book as I advised Jeff Schiffer in his struggles with “indigeneity.” Undoubtely, there are many people in Canada and elsewhere around the world who are quite sure this indigeneity is an “it” of some sort. And, to this extent, indigeneity is an “it” of precisely that sort: it is an object around which political conversations are organized, institutions as reconstituted, careers are made. But that sort of what I have called “cultural facts” are awkward matters to investigate. The question being: how do I know I am looking at what I am interested in investigating? Is this (a regulatory text about ways of properly referring to some people) and instance of that (indigeneity)?

This is the problem Lévi-Strauss addresses in the first two chapters of Totemism. He starts with a provocative sentence in the context of much that interests students in anthropology:

Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation. (1963 [1962]: 1)

Initially, students come with interests like “identity,” “nationalism,” “autism,” “indigeneity.” They immediately bump into the problem of “definition” and Max Weber is not much of a help. Lévi-Strauss might be more of a help but this is not quite obvious at first sight since he compares his topic to something that has been so discredited as an object that even the phenomenal symptoms appear to have vanished. Nationalism, autism, indigeneity have not been so discredited (yet?), but the method requires that we suspend belief.

If we do, suspecting that the verisimilitude of these objects is the product of what Lévi-Strauss calls “cultural conditions,” what do we do next? Following Lévi-Strauss’s argument could be a starting point.

The first thing to notice is that Lévi-Strauss is embedding two arguments. The first argument starts with a postulate: that totemism (hysteria) is a historical product so that understanding what happened to make it real, and then un-real, requires a diachronic account of the conversation (my word). The embedded argument that allows for the rest of the book is that the conversation was about something, that is about some phenomena, that remains.

The first chapter is, essentially, a review of the literature that destroyed (we would now say “deconstructed”) the idea that there was some institution that coalesced 1) a social element; 2) a psychological element; 3) a ritual element (Lévi-Strauss’s summary of Rivers 1963 [1962]: 8).

The second chapter is a reconstruction starting with a postulate: “certain phenomena, arbitrarily group and ill analyzed … [are] nevertheless worthy of interest (1963 [1962]: 15). The rest of the chapter is an introduction to what became known as a peculiar form of structural methodology which has proven to be altogether a dead end (at least to the extent that about no one in anthropology used it as Lévi-Strauss proposed it).

What remains is Lévi-Strauss’s insistence that there was some phenomenon some where, and that the ethnographic activities that inscribed this phenomenon in observations, field notes, and field reports, were not purely the product of a culturally produced hallucination as bad post-modernism sometimes made it appear. People have been seen associating animals with groups of people. Whether this association is “totemism” or not must not make us doubt our senses radically. But it must refocus our reporting. Sports team in the United States, like political parties, are often named after animals (Marlins, Tigers, Panthers, Lions, Eagles, Bears, etc., as well as donkeys or elephants), and much ritual behavior builds up around these identifications. Where these activities are totemism should not the issue anymore. The issue should be how these identification arise, how they are reconstituted in everyday practice, by whom.

In that perspective, Lévi-Strauss’s conclusion that “totems are good to think, not to eat” (1963 [1962]: 89) makes sense—though I would not put it that way unless we take “thinking” as it has been developed by Michael Cole and his followers as a social process of distributed conversation.

In this perspective, “autism,” like all labels for organizing mental properties, is a bunching of activities. And so is indigeneity, nationalism, learning and, of course, education.

[still more to come…]

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