Anthropology & Literature

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I double majored in Anthropology and English. Even though I saw myself following in the tradition of fellow Vassar alum Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), my major advisors were frankly baffled by the combination. It seems apt, therefore, that my first panel at the AAA 2014 Meeting this past year was on “Anthropology and Storytelling”.

Convened by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado), Coralynn V. Davis (Bucknell) and Gina Athena Ulyssse (Wesleyan) each presented papers on the importance of narrative in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Indeed, part of what initially spoke to me about anthropology was its emphasis on studying the storied aspects of human lives. As a fledgling anthropologist, I necessarily studied Clifford Geertz’s theories about culture as a series of texts that anthropologists read and interpret over the shoulders of their informants (Geertz 1973), as well as introductory ethnographies that read like rousing mysteries and adventure novels. As a life-long bibliophile, I had been raised on a steady diet of books, stories that sustained and fortified my education. As a creative writer, I was also trained to be attentive to my craft, considering such questions as, “Who is my narrator? How should the story be told? How can I best communicate another’s life to my reader?’ Many of my poems and short stories were inspired by other stories I had heard, or by people whose lives I observed or read about. I wanted to imaginatively inhabit the life world of my subjects: the old man on my street who mounted stuffed animals on his fence, the great-great grandfather who had immigrated from Germany when he was nine to sleep on kitchen shelves after his night shifts in a Brooklyn restaurant. These were people I wanted to learn about through the act of writing and this emphasis on poetic craft attuned me to the power of storytelling in empathy and communicating a deeper, almost felt sense of understanding a person’s life.

As I pursued my literary studies in addition to my anthropological emphasis, I found that my classes in the English department complimented, while also complicated, my understanding of culture. My literature classes provided me with a firm foundation in feminist and queer theories I would subsequently deploy in my anthropological research. My studies of modern and postmodern literature—with the collapse of grand narratives and an emphasis on experimental forms—paralleled my study of the intellectual history of anthropology, and its transitioning methodologies in ethnographic writing toward polyvocality & ethnopoetics (Clifford 1983; Sangren 1988). The postmodern turn in ethnographic writing owes a great deal to the literary community, and Clifford Geertz has written of “the strange romance” between anthropology and literature. I could apply my understanding of narrative craft and construction to the decentered voice of the anthropologist, the sensory thick description of fieldwork oriented around embodiment and partial integration. My creative studies taught me how form can follow function, facilitating a more meditative and particularized approach to telling stories.

Through my English department, I was also able to take classes on Native American Studies. My indigenous professor guided me through several semesters dealing with issues regarding sovereignty, cultural continuity, indigeneity, questions of post-colonialsm, language politics and folklore, all oriented around Native American poetry, literature and films. The keen analysis and cultural criticism fostered by Native communities was often interwoven into myth and traditional forms of storytelling, subverting the language of the colonizer while simultaneously refashioning the stories of their people into narratives of resilience and triumph. My professor, a creative writer as well as an academic, encouraged me to pursue a creative research project exploring the politics that straddle the line between appropriation and appreciation, looking at the phenomenon of “plastic shamanism,” in which white or non-Native writers repossess the voices and stories of indigenous peoples. Who has the right to tell Native stories? It’s a question that was posed several times throughout the Anthropology and Storytelling session. As Gina Athena Ulysse reminded us, what gives us the right or authority to take others’ stories and refashion them as we see fit?

Similarly, during my studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, I was able to take a class on African Oral Storytelling Traditions, deepening my knowledge of the Khoisan, Bushmen, Zulu and Xhosa communities by reading praise poetry and traditional folktales, and attending public performances that used art as a platform for activism. The literary scholars I read were conducting comprehensive, thorough and nuanced anthropological work. One of the operative things these English classes taught me, was the capacity to sympathetically occupy another’s state of mind, culture and life world, listening and attending to their story, wherever it ultimately led. You learn to become a receptive audience, a practice that anthropologists carry into their fieldwork. As Mark Edmundson has written, “Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being” (2013). What is it that anthropologists study but the condition of being human?

Anthropologists do not merely study human cultures, but similarly traffic in the intricacy and potency of language. Considering that ethnographies are one of the primary products of anthropological fieldwork, language is necessarily one of the central tools of anthropology’s power. As I sat through panel after panel, I was reminded that anthropologists charge their analysis with a linguistic pulse, one with a certain poetic sensibility. Language, with its evocative, metaphorical abilities, can become an almost magical praxis for understanding that transcends society and accesses the felt-sense of a situation or individual. As Geertz wrote, “The most important instruments of cultural anthropologists are not tape recorders or video cameras—as valuable as they and other technical aids (polls, experiments, formal models) may be—but in-wrought perceptions. It is on their ability to entangle those perceptions somehow with the equally cultural, equally in-wrought perceptions of the people they are studying that their analytic reach, their power of witness depends” (2003: 29). The act of thick description inherently depends upon this transformative power of language to simultaneously access the pathos and logos of a narrative, put readers in touch with the ineffable, and facilitate compassion.

Part of the necessity for rhetorical descriptive power in ethnography lies in its ability to render the pain of others explicable in a way that galvanizes empathy and action. As Paul Farmer states in “On Suffering and Structural Violence: A View From Below,” “Knowledge of suffering cannot be conveyed in pure facts and figures, reportings that objectify the suffering of countless persons. The horror of suffering is not only its immensity but the faces of the anonymous victims who have little voice, let alone rights, in history […] to explain suffering one must embed individual biography in the larger matrix of culture, history, and political economy” (1996: 272). If readers are to understand these stories and activists motivated to enact change, Farmer believes that thick description in ethnographies is necessary to discern conditions of poverty, dispossession and illness. Anthropologists like Nancy Scheper-Hughes rely on this thick description to provoke awareness and action, but as Mark Doty asks, “How do we say what we have seen of the suffering of others responsibly? Not to respond at all is a failure, to respond too easily a lie” (2010: 107). As the participants in the “Anthropology and Storytelling” session noted, anthropology’s challenge and strength lies in the discipline’s ability to create spaces for new kinds of stories. McGranahan noted that stories “shuffle words, and thereby create new worlds.” Jason Antrosio remarked on the possibility of anthropology as transformational storytelling, stating that, “there may not be a need to argue for narrative occupying a central theoretical role in the discipline when we can argue for storytelling as inhabiting an irrepressible role in the ongoing human transformation that anthropology enjoins” (2014).

The central theme of the panel was that anthropology is a storied discipline, one that is built upon and made by stories. Stories are an irrepressible aspect of human culture, a narrative instinct Davis identifies as person making. One of our roles as anthropologists is to keep the stories entrusted to us, to think critically about not only what these stories reveal about a culture and a people, but also how to use those stories, relinquishing ownership while also providing an alternative stage for the telling. Anthropological work also requires students and professionals to think flexibly, traversing disciplines while drawing multiple fields together into an intricate web of theory and practice. The participants and discussant of the “Anthropology and Storytelling” panel explored the intimate relation between anthropology and narrative, while also calling for a novel approach to the act of engaging with stories. In a similar vein, I would argue that anthropologists should expand the way that they teach fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Incorporating a literary dimension to their pedagogy may help to convey the interplay between culture and storytelling, while also providing training on the act of writing itself. As Ursula K. LeGuin put so aptly, “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become” (1979). The study of literature and narrative could not only help us reconsider how we put our research into action, but also contemplate the stories we tell about ourselves as anthropologists, and our place within the world.

Works Cited

 Antrosio, Jason (2014). “Transformational Storytelling Anthropology.” Living Anthropologically.

Clifford, James (1983). “On Ethnographic Authority.” Representations, No. 2. pp. 118-146.

Doty, Mark (2010). The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press.

Edmundson, Mark (2013). “The Ideal English Major.” The Chronicle.

Farmer, Paul (1996). “On Suffering and Structural Violence: A View from Below.” Daedalus. Vol. 125, No. 1. pp. 261-283.

Geertz, Clifford (1973). “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.” The Interpretation of Cultures; Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford (1973). “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, pp. 3-30.

Geertz, Clifford (2003). “A Strange Romance: Anthropology and Literature.” Profession. pp. 28-36.

LeGuin, Ursula K. (1979). “Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing.” Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Putnam Adult.

Sangren, P.S. (1988). “Rhetoric and the Authority of Ethnography: ‘Postmodernism’ and the Social Reproduction of Texts.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 33, No. 1. pp. 277-307.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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