Tuesday, July 24, 2007

67. Still More on the Kalahari Debate

Before more closely examining Alan Barnard's epiphany concerning Urrasse und Urkultur (see previous post), I'd like to spend a bit more time on some of the issues he's raised regarding both "indigeneity" and "essentialism." (Those of you with a low tolerance for such theorizing may want to wait till the next episode, when I'll be concentrating, finally, on my main topic, the music.) I'll begin by offering some more apt quotations, first from "Reflections on Culture and Cultural Rights," by Bruce Robbins and Elsa Stamatopoulou (South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2-3)), 2004):
“Intriguingly,” the editors of Culture and Rights observe, “in the 1980s, at the very moment in which anthropologists were engaged in an intense and wide-ranging critique especially of the more essentialist interpretations of the [culture] concept, to the point of querying its usefulness at all, they found themselves witnessing, often during fieldwork, the increasing prevalence of ‘culture’ as a rhetorical object–often in a highly essentialized form–in contemporary political talk.” Just as "we" discover that culture is constructed, fluid, and ever-inventive, "they" begin to articulate demands for rights in terms of a cultural identity asserted to be primordial and fixed.

Here's another, from the same source:
According to David Scott, the so-called “natives” have every reason to suspect these newfangled anti-essentialist ideas, indispensable though such ideas may seem to Western academic theorists, himself included: “For whom is culture partial, unbounded, heterogeneous, hybrid, and so on, the anthropologist or the native?” (101).2 The new concept of culture as hybrid, heterogeneous, and processual is “merely the most recent way of conceiving and explaining otherness, of putting otherness in its place.”

Next, from one A. Lattas, as quoted in an especially insightful and searching Internet essay of 2001, "'What Matter Who's Speaking?' Authenticity and Identity in Discourses of Aboriginality in Australia," by Carolyn D'Cruz (http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/cdcr.htm):

A discourse is always informed by relations of power and the way whites essentialise Aborigines cannot be rendered equivalent to the way Aborigines essentialise themselves for the simple reason that our ['white'] essentialism, which is part of a structure of domination, is not the same as the essentialism operating in a structure of resistance. Essentialism should not be essentialised, rendered inert and pregiven . . ., but needs to be historicised and contextualised. Essentialism operates and means different things in different contexts.

As d'Cruz explains, Lattas is articulating a position sometimes called "strategic essentialism," whereby "indigenous peoples" are seen as entitled to embrace an essentialist view of their own "indigenousness" but only in the context of political struggles against established nations and other institutions of power, apparently a concession to the postmodern need to appear politically engaged. This is basically the same point being made by all the authors I've just been quoting. For d'Cruz, however, this strategy begs an important question: who is it that will be "properly" identified as "aboriginal" during such political encounters and thus entitled to a "strategic essence," and who will be excluded -- and on what grounds? To make her point more concretely, d'Cruz quotes from a well known "aboriginal" author, Mudrooroo Nyoongah:

. . . to suggest that an important Aboriginal theory of identity, an important social reality, may be weighed against European theories of identity, and then dismissed for being politically dangerous and a useful tool for racists seems almost pernicious, especially when for many Aborigines, Black, Brown, or Brindle, it is the Aboriginal 'essence' which makes an Aborigine and it is this essence which states, restates, informs and reforms his/her and our culture and social reality.

The irony here is that Mudrooroo's "authenticity" as an aboriginal has been challenged on the grounds that he in fact has no aboriginal "blood," but stems, genetically, from a mixed European and African ancestry. Can he, therefore, speak at all regarding Aboriginal "essence" or must his entire statement be discounted on the grounds that he doesn't share that "essence"? I for one, happen to like his statement, I'll go on record as in full agreement with it. And I'll go a bit farther, perhaps, than Mudrooroo might have intended, because it's awfully difficult to see how any assertion of indigenous "essentiality" can be effective even as a strategy if it carries no existential weight, if its claim to authenticity is "always already" undermined from the start by a theoretical context violently opposed in principle to any such claim. So, in response to all of the above, I'll assert that the whole issue of essence and essentialism is problematic from the start, way beyond the point where one might want to claim, in the words of Lattos, that it "operates and means different things in different contexts." As I see it, essence is like the hot coal in the Zen koan that you can neither spit out nor swallow. It's not something one can simply decide to do without, for whatever reason, "good" or "bad." It's what Derrida would call (and probably has called) an aporia -- a paradox that is, in its very "essence," unresolvable.

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