From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Endings (5)—Argonauts of the Western Pacific

[a] Off the veranda
C. 1914. And then someone decided to climb off the veranda. 

For a good portion of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, scholars who aspired to be anthropologists spent a great deal of time (this is how the "mythistory" of anthropology seminars conveys it) sipping martinis on south seas verandas and "interviewing natives" who had been brought to the city. It is difficult to believe that it was ever quite this perfect a "straw image," but there is no doubt that even some of the most influential social analyses from, say, 1890 to 1920 were drawn from something like a veranda encounter...or ten. And then (this is how we usually tell it), one person dumped his drink (I like to think that he ate the olive), slid off the couch, hired a dinghy, built a hut (had a hut built), set up his typewriter, and examined gourds in the stifling heat (see above)...for four years. Then he wrote a big book.

[b] Argonaut
As I have said and written more than once, Bronislaw Malinowski's seminal ethnography of 1922 changed everything. Once published, anthropology would never be the same. Anything as iconic as this work is bound to be typecast by writers using it for their own arguments, toward their own ends. I have done the same for much of my career (arguing, for one, that the book's influence was so strong that it crushed several very fine "threads of discourse" that were finding their way along the margins of the discipline). In 1920, they were viable...even possible routes to understanding. By 1925 they were gone. They might go on to become something else (social psychology, Sinology, travel writing), but they decidedly were no longer anthropology.

[c] Canon (almost) in the River
Malinowski's influence was strong, so it is good for those of us who occasionally criticize its overpowering place in the history of the discipline to read Argonauts again carefully.  I have been doing so (several complete re-reads) over the course of the last year. Even for a reader (moi) who—in college—was so sick of the endless pages about "building a waga" that I almost hurled it in disgust into the churning April waters of the Cannon River, I have to admit...this is pretty inspiring stuff. 

[d] Low derider
Even now. Imagine what it must have felt like in 1922, when the library shelves, such as they were, came stuffed with the travel writings of "experts" who just happened to find themselves in places far from home. As some of you know, I am quite interested in those travelers, but I get a little shiver of desire for something like rigor and "objectivity" when I read the introduction** and conclusion of Argonauts. Yes, you will have to "get over" the way words such as "his" and "native" and "Science" figure in his prose (it's called history, people; words, and their values, change—you need to deal with it). O.k.? Groovy.

Now take a look. Only the most cynical Derrida-er of "essentialism" can avoid a little twinge of excitement. Will we read it...before it is too late?

*I once showed this picture (my favorite Malinowski photo) to my colleague, Ed Mathieu. "Malinowski looks just like you," I told him. What came next was so perfect that it should be immortalized (and it speaks volumes about Ed's wit and perspicacity). "Which one's Malinowski?", Ed asked.

**Coming soon in a "Beginnings" post.

Bronislaw Malinowski
Argonauts of the Western Pacific
What interests me really in the study of the native is his outlook on things, his Weltanschaung, the breath of life and reality which he breathes and by which he lives. Every human culture gives it members a definite vision of the world, a definite zest for life. In the roamings over human history, and over the surface of the earth, it is the possibility of seeing life and the world from the various angles, peculiar to each culture, that has always charmed me most, and inspired me with real desire to penetrate other cultures, to understand other types of life.

To pause for a moment before a quaint and singular fact; to be amused at it, and see its outward strangeness; to look at it as a curio and collect it into the museum of one's memory or into one's store of anecdotes—this attitude of mind has always been foreign and repugnant to me. Some people are unable to grasp the inner meaning and the psychological reality of all this is outwardly strange, at first sight incomprehensible, in a different culture. These people are not born to be ethnologists. It is in the love of the final synthesis, achieved by the assimilation and comprehension of all the items of a culture and still more in the love of the variety and independence of the various cultures that lies the test of the real worker in the true Science of Man.
[e] Trobriand Islands
There is, however, one point of view deeper yet and more important than the love of tasting of the variety of human modes of life, and that is the desire to turn such knowledge into wisdom. Though it may be given to us for a moment to enter into the soul of a savage and through his eyes to look at the outer world and feel ourselves what it must feel to him to be himself—yet our final goal is to enrich and deepen our own world's vision, to understand our own nature and to make it finer, intellectually and artistically. In grasping the essential outlook of others, with the reverence and real understanding, due even to savages, we cannot help widening our own. We cannot possibly reach the final Socratic wisdom of knowing ourselves if we never leave the narrow confinement of the customs, beliefs, and prejudices into which every man is born. Nothing can teach us a better lesson in this matter of ultimate importance than the habit of mind which allows us to treat the beliefs and values of another man from his point of view. Nor has civilised humanity ever needed such tolerance more than now, when prejudice, ill will and vindictiveness are dividing each European nation from another, when all the ideals, cherished and proclaimed as the highest achievements of civilisation, science, and religion, have been thrown to the winds. The Science of Man, in its most refined and deepest version should lead us to such knowledge and to tolerance and generosity, based on the understanding of other men's point of view.

The study of Ethnology—so often mistaken by its very votaries for an idle hunting after curios, for a ramble among the savage and fantastic shapes of "barbarous customs and crude superstitions"—might become one of the most deeply philosophic, enlightening, and elevating disciplines of scientific research. Alas! the time is short for Ethnology, and will this truth of its real meaning and importance dawn before it is too late?[1]

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Long Grove IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1984), 517-518.

[g] The "other" Bronislaw Malinowski (1951-)
[f] Fieldwork

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