Its twenty years ago today since the Writing/Culture volume by Clifford and Marcus came out and summed up the ‘raging’ debates in anthro at the time about authority and style and surrealism and text. Contemporary anthro undergrads will yawn. But there has been a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. While I can’t (yet) bear to revisit my 1987 rendition of why I thought all that was a(n “interesting”) problem, I am happy to respond to a request to say something about dialogue – or rather to resurrect what I had to say – in an obscure coda to something else – on “dialogue” back in 1993. This was at the end of a review essay on Nikos Papastergiadis’s book on John Berger, Modernity as Exile, the rest of the paper was probably better than this, but my jaudiced view tonight makes this seem kinda ok… [I guess this is a closet cleaner moment]:
The fashionable themes in social science storytelling of recent years — those of dialogue” and “text” — might challenge the voyeuristic tone and outlook of previous studies. This has sometimes been more explicitly politicised where anthropological “conversation” with its others — never unproblematical — is understood with various degrees of reflection upon hierarchies of power between interlocutors placed differently — culturally, socially, institutionally, and so on.
I think the most productive area of the social sciences for this debate has been ethnography. The recognition that meaning is socially constructed, and that texts are not simply produced by singular “authors” goes some way towards elucidation of the political stakes of social science writing, but never far enough. The versions of this debate with which I am most familiar came to me in the form of a review essay by Crick (1982) and subsequent work on debates about fieldwork and texts, eventually resulting in the publication of Writing/Culture edited by Clifford and Marcus (1986). That volume of essays has been the departure point for interesting developments beyond Writing/Culture up until the early 1990s.
The main point to emphasise in the debates surrounding Writing/Culture is that the production of any text is not something separate from the social and political context in which it is made. However, those who have discussed the “text metaphor” in recent years have, I think, largely missed this point. The discussion of dialogue as a fragile trace of lived experience difficult to capture to some degree responds to this dilemma.
True, the linearity of writing cannot capture the life-world in full, as Fernandez noted in is essay on “misgivings” about the text as metaphor for ethnography. He has recognised the argument that “a great deal of the rich complexity of communication is lost in ‘writing it down’” (Fernandez 1985:16). Textuality then is hardly going to be dialogue. Much of the debate that animated anthropology in the
eighties entailed a close attention to the writing process glossed as a joint authorship of texts and meaning with “participant-informants”. Fernandez went on to criticise faith in the textual metaphor for social life by pointing out that even “the most complex orthographic system, abundant with diacritical marks, cannot capture all the nuances of human communication en vive” (Fernandez 1985:16).
A political edge to the commentary on “postmodern ethnography” which seems to be missing in Fernandez’s approach to texts is offered by a Chicago based group who take up the issue of textuality and recast it as a negotiated politics. The self-reflexivity of so-called postmodern ethnography keeps attention focused on the point of authorial control and does not challenge the political privilege and “location” of the author of texts. The Chicago group elaborate this by pointing out that a writer is “born” partly into a set of affiliations that are not chosen:
so the affiliation of your knowledge is less the product of a free choice than something to negotiate. Affiliations are relations you make, and part of the question is how you deploy the ones you’re in (CCSG 1992:548).
I think it is strange that Fernandez wonders whether any further working of the “terrain” of the text metaphor would be “superfluous” (Fernandez 1985:26n). His “chosen deployment” is to stress the importance of dialogic texts, saying that “the voices of [our] interlocution must be present in some form in the final form of our work to be sure that we do not wilfully substitute our own voice for those local voices” (Fernandez 1985:20).
The crucial slippage, is that these recordings are never local, they are already globally inflected. Nevertheless, Fernandez retains the ideal of an anthropology that, “if it was practised right [would] return…from the field with much recorded text, recorded as faithfully and as accurately as method and rapport would allow” (Fernandez 1985:15). In what the Chicago group might call a “self-congratulatory tone”, these recorded texts are the “local voices” to be allowed expression through the anthropologist’s conscious effort at “turn taking” (Fernandez 1985:23). They are not to be distorted by the analyses applied by practitioners of the “textual approach” who monopolise control by insisting on “reading” and ‘interpretation’, which simply sets up a new (equally false) objectivity. Fernandez sees the “attitudes of distance, removal and irony” that he finds in the “model of the text”, as an “ethnocentric celebration of tradition” (1985:15).
In an earlier intervention into this debate, Paul Rabinow had applauded the work of Kevin Dwyer. The deficiencies of the usual anthropological interpretations were, according to Dwyer, to be countered by emphasizing the “dialogic” nature of work in the field. Anthropologists engage in dialogues with “others”, thus transcribed dialogue was seen as the most approximate representation of anthropological contact. When Dwyer proposed to the Faqir — his Moroccan “informant” — that taped conversations made on a visit three and a half years earlier might be published, the Faqir’s assent was transcribed in the subsequent book in dialogic form (Dwyer 1982:xix-xxi). In this way, the assent was authenticated through this transcription, even though tone and context were not discernible in the written words. In verité social science, the cassette recorder is taken to be unable to misrepresent the actual spoken. Recording is a technology of authority.
Vincent Crapanzano has recently drawn attention to the status of recorded dialogues and takes issue with the “interpreters” who assume they “can engage in dialogue” with: “recordings, texts, and other materials” (Crapanzano 1992:197). This is an error in three parts; the first of these is the error of “taking a metaphorical relationship (the interpretation of a text is like a dialogue) nonmetaphorically. The second involves a failure “to recognise that the dialogue with which the interpreter is now dialoguing is no longer a dialogue but is a ‘dialogue’ — the theme of another dialogue”. The third, and rather more acerbically expressed, error grants to the interpreter “a super-human ability to bracket off secondary dialogues and their language” (Crapanzano 1992:197). Crapanzano’s scepticism of the dialogic “turn” is worth taking seriously.
In Moroccan Dialogues, Dwyer claims that: “the Faqir’s deeper aims … were somehow satisfied too” (Dwyer 1982:xvi). Yet the Faqir is recorded as saying to Dwyer that “All of this is good, all of it, because it serves your purposes. But for me, not a single thing serves mine” (Faqir in Dwyer 1982:226). Are we also to accept the veracity of this recording? The issue of dialogue could quite possibly sustain a separate study in itself. Robert Ulin has, in a review of the reflexive anthropology debate twenty years since the publication of Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes 1974), loosely mapped this debate between poles he names as Marxism and postmodernism: “The postmodernist emphasis on representation can provide a powerful corrective to positivist social science and the tendency in some versions of political-economy to reduce symbolically mediated social action to the instrumental process of labour” (Ulin 1991:64). Ulin’s attempt to “bridge the impasse” (Ulin 1991:63) between postmodernism and Marxism is possibly both too simple in construing its opposition, and too ambitious in attempting such a bridge, nevertheless despite this Habermaniacal naivéty and optimism, I agree that a “grounding of reflexivity in the metaphor of representation as ‘dialogical’” does come dangerously close to a “contemplative stance” which ignores “praxis and the plurality of subjects that negotiate the historical and political process” (Ulin
1991:64) of contemporary life.
If anthropologists like Paul Rabinow and Fernandez want to turn to studies of “power and privilege” so as to “move back into the world” (Rabinow 1985:12), they cannot extricate themselves from the worldly politics of textual production and dissemination. They have not given up their own textual affiliations, for they write in a global marketplace.
in an episteme where representation is privileged, the site of presence is always contested and power derives not only from controlling information but from controlling what people consider information to be. The site of presence and power now lies with people who are not only defined by ownership but by their control over information systems and systems of communication (Stratton 1990:26)
From: 1994 ‘Thinking With Berger: Local/Global and Dialogue in Modernity As Exile by Nikos Papastergiadis’, New Literatures Review, 27: 91-103. ISSN 03147495 Reprinted here