«Fred Myers New York University Y T he theme of this essay, as of my anthropological history, is ‘Anthropology in a World of Others.’ My beginning ...»
Key Informants on the History of Anthropology
We Are Not Alone:
Anthropology in a World of Others
New York University
he theme of this essay, as of
my anthropological history, is
‘Anthropology in a World of
Others.’ My beginning seems a long
time ago, as far in the past of the present as the Diary of a Country Priest by
George Bernanos seemed to me as a
student in the Religion Department
of a late-1960s rural Massachusetts
liberal arts college. Canberra still had the look of a British colony. It was still the Australia of instant coffee, and not the ‘ﬂat white’ or ‘long black’ of more recent, cosmopolitan days. Some of these memories remain visceral; I can never ﬂy into Alice Springs and feel the crisp sunny days of a desert winter without a pang of the anxiety, of recognition and expectation, of my ﬁrst ﬁeldwork.
In a similar fashion, I can no longer think about my career of research and writing without engaging with the (or should I say ‘my’) historical locations and the horizons that shaped my understandings of the Western Desert Aboriginal people I came to know in the early 1970s.
My research began at a signiﬁ cant time. It straddled an anthropological moment marked by disputes about kinship and descent theory and an Australian political period dominated by policies of directed assimilation subsequently eclipsed by the period of Aboriginal land rights and self-detereth nos, vol. 71:2, j u n e 200 6 (pp. 233–264) © Routledge Journals, Taylor and Francis, on behalf of the Museum of Ethnography issn 0014-1844 print/issn 1469-588x online. doi: 10.1080/00141840600733710 Myers.indd 1 06-04-21 13.48.50 f r e d mye r s mination. The latter were followed by an era of identity politics, struggles over the place of Indigenous people in Australian national identity, and ﬁnally debates about ‘The Stolen Generations.’ For Indigenous people in Australia, as elsewhere, the last few decades of the 20th century were a time of heady political assertion. Carrying out research during this time, what I learned ‘then’ — living with Western Desert (‘Pintupi’) people in conditions close to what Peter Sutton (1996) has called ‘classical Aboriginal society’ – ‘now’ partly occupies a status similar to Classics. What I describe in my dissertation (Myers 1976) and ﬁrst monograph (Myers 1986a) is no longer possible as a subject of ethnographic research, and even no longer representative of social life as it is lived in the transformed circumstances of remote sedentarized communities. Certainly, my writings do speak to anthropological theory and concerns – insofar as they may illuminate questions of agency, individuality, and territorial organization – but for Indigenous people, they are becoming part of local histories and national imaginaries.
One has to wonder if the techniques and methods (genealogies, travel histories, mapping, kinship terminology) as well as the problems and theories with which those of my cohort began our research continue to have value or application, when as George Marcus (1998, 2005; Marcus & Fischer 1986) has written repeatedly, anthropology’s dominant paradigm has been ‘destabilized.’ The dominant paradigm in sociocultural anthropology, as Marcus called it, was one based on intensive and long-term participant-observation ﬁeldwork in remote communities, articulated with the four-ﬁeld approach, providing knowledge of ‘them’ (over there, somewhere) to ‘us,’ here. The intended audience of much of this cultural production in the US was undergraduates engaged in liberal education.
This paradigm articulated a series of norms regulating anthropological practice – among them the regulative ideal of rapport: ‘the powerful shorthand concept used to stand for the threshold level of relations with ﬁeldwork subjects that is necessary for those subjects to act effectively as informants for anthropologists’ (Marcus 1998:106).
The natural hegemony of this approach has now evaporated. As Marcus goes on to write, ‘There are now signs of the displacement of this foundational commonplace of ﬁeldwork, given the changing mise-en-scene in which anthropological research is now frequently being constituted’ (1998:106). We have moved outward from community-based studies to multi-sited projects engaged with understanding how broader relationships constitute the ‘local.’ In keeping with this shift, Marcus has suggested, the ﬁgure of ‘rapport’
might be replaced with that of ‘complicity.’ While obviously a provocative choice of terms, the latter concept indicates a more complex interface than that between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ My own sense of this change derives from the experience of working in Indigenous communities – in which anthropologists began to develop more collaborative relationships of knowledge production with our ‘subjects’ (see Myers 1986b). The simplicity of the us/them dyad – assumed in the ﬂow of cultural translation from ‘them’ to ‘us’ — is no longer sustainable.
The story I want to tell here is part of the broad historical framework Marcus discerns, but it has a distinctive dimension in that anthropological and other mediations are part of the same ﬁeld as their own subjects. Most readers will be familiar with James Clifford’s (1988) famous discussion of Malinowski’s fundamental exclusion of the colonial presence from the ‘ethnographic present’ of the Kiriwina of Argonauts of the Western Paciﬁc (Malinowski
1922) as well as with Fabian’s (1983) critique of the illusions of temporal separation created by the trope of ‘the ethnographic present.’ My interest is to explore the coeval status I had with Aboriginal people and others in order to illuminate the sociocultural ﬁeld in which ‘the ﬁeld’ was located.
This sociocultural ﬁeld was a space of competing power and representation – both academic and political — that deﬁned the circumstances of Indigenous social life. A signiﬁcant scholarly context for my research was set partly by the publication of the volume Man the Hunter (Lee & De Vore 1968), with its discussions of ‘bands’ and ‘territoriality’ and its fundamentally evolutionist framework (see Myers 1988a). Coincidentally, Aboriginal ‘land tenure’ became a major concern of Anglo-American anthropology just at the time that Land Rights became an issue of national debate in Australia, following the setback of Justice Blackburn’s (1971) decision1 in the Gove Land Rights Case that found the Yolngu at Yirrkala did not ‘own’ the land in the terms of Australian Common Law.
Retrospectively, this historical horizon of my ﬁeldwork now seems also to have been constituted substantially by the policy of ‘Aboriginal selfdetermination.’ The policy had effects not only on the relative power of researcher and subject, but also in establishing important questions for research itself.
Over time, the knowledge I have gathered about the Aboriginal people who were living in 1973 in a small breakaway community at Yayayi in Australia’s Northern Territory has become a history for their children and grandchildren. My project has moved from anthropology to local history – a transition
that would seem to resonate with Matti Bunzl’s (2004) recent ‘presentist recuperation’ of the classical Boasian ideal of ﬁeldwork, which emphasizes cultural difference as the product of historical speciﬁcity.
There have been fundamental changes in the audiences anthropologists might anticipate for their accounts. Happily, my accounts are now likely to be read by people who identify themselves as ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ and even, perhaps, as ‘Pintupi.’ The debates and concepts that emanate from within the discipline of anthropology may have – especially for Indigenous or Fourth World people – immediate political implications: Descriptions and analyses of Indigenous customs or practices (their openness or resistance to change, for example, in debates for which Strehlow  was cited, or the economic dimensions of their relationship to land, as Williams , Merlan , and Povinelli [1993, 2002] have shown) might affect their suitability for recognition by powerful agents, such as the State (see Myers 1988b. These questions now vex anthropologists in Australia, whose adopted code of ethics – insisting on the importance of helping one’s research subjects – could cast doubt, ironically, on the reliability of the evidence they might give as ‘scientiﬁc’ witnesses in a courtroom or hearing. And while it seemed vitally important for those of my generation of scholars to insist on the capacity of Aboriginal societies to change, showing that Aboriginal culture was living and creative, we were soon to ﬁnd that legal frameworks for the recognition of Indigenous ‘custom’ could use this perspective to invalidate — as recently ‘invented’ — practices local people themselves regarded as legitimate and traditional. How, in these circumstances, might one hope to meld anthropology with Indigenous Studies, how to participate with the projects of Indigenous scholars, activists and leaders and their interest in the knowledge we have gained?
Having lived through this transition, I recognize myself in these discussions. Indeed, it is with these considerations in mind that I want to trace out some powerful connections between past and present in terms of the awkward and shifting relationships that have long prevailed in research and that have shaped the development of anthropological thinking about Fourth World people, including the delineation of where ‘the ﬁeld’ of ‘ﬁeld research’ might be.
still guided by a sense many young Americans had that we could make things different. I turned to anthropology because, as an undergraduate major in a secular Religion Department that focused on the ultimate nature of humanity, but with almost no experience myself, I was inspired by reading Claude LéviStrauss’s beguiling Tristes Tropiques (1971 ), Ernst Cassirer’s (1953) Philosophy of Symbolic Form, and Karl Mannheim’s (1936) sociology of knowledge.
I was a ﬁrst-generation college student, had never even traveled outside of the US, and didn’t like adventure really; but I was captivated by the question of whether people could really be ‘different,’ fascinated by the different ways in which — apparently — people could see the world and themselves.
My original question was the very general one — later it seemed sophomorically romantic — of whether those of another culture were so different that it was impossible to comprehend their productions at all. This was the conundrum of Lévi-Strauss’s epistemologically antiseptic encounter with the uncontacted Nambikwara Indians, but it didn’t seem a heroic task to me. The question was one of human nature as much as epistemology: Was understanding — a sense of recognizing universal human dilemmas as suggested in Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism — only apparent? Was it that only in the process of ’translation’ itself, by Westerners, that their cultures came to seem more like ours? I knew that other anthropologists, preeminently Clifford Geertz (1973), abjured such French logical purity, and with notions based on hermeneutics attempted to account for the ethnographer’s experience of being able to communicate with strangers. I applied to Bryn Mawr College on a whim, after graduating from college and escaping the draft, and they accepted me (as I learned later) ‘as an experiment.’ I read widely as a graduate student — about Ojibwa people of the North American boreal forests, about Melanesians in New Britain. I ﬂourished in the ‘blue-stocking’ atmosphere of Bryn Mawr, an important undergraduate college for women with a fairly obscure graduate program in anthropology;
they tolerated none of the philosophical arguments or arrogance that had allowed me to skate through college. I was inspired by reading Edward Sapir and Paul Radin. Jane Goodale, Frederica de Laguna, A. Irving Hallowell, and Bill Davenport were the teachers who engaged me with the ethnographic project; the excitement of ‘ﬁeldwork’ was always central. Jane had a gift for turning my immature and
musings into more concrete projects of research. But with the end of each of the ﬁrst two years, I declared my intention to quit, frustrated by the dreariness of classes that never seemed (in my horizon) to go anywhere. For example, in my very ﬁrst class the beginning
circulation of Western Desert Aboriginal painting, I was going to begin my book Painting Culture (Myers 2002), with the memory of this ﬁrst encounter, but space limitations – often a substantial but unacknowledged factor in decisions that might otherwise be regarded as theoretical – prevented it.
The 1973 account goes to the heart of Marcus’s insight, describing the social relationships that deﬁne access to ‘the ﬁeld’ and the ‘identities’ that shape participation. It also, and signiﬁcantly, leaves some things unsaid.
halt. The boys got out, unsurprised I guess, and began to walk on the track, leaving me to wait anxiously with one boy who spoke English, Paul Bruno.
After a half hour or perhaps an hour, an old yellow Landrover – World War II vintage – jogged up with a bunch of young men, who offered to get me started again. So, I got to Yayayi. I parked and wondered what to do.
Paul directed me over to a caravan where the wife of the resident linguist from the Bible-translating Summer Institute of Linguistics offered to give me a cup of tea while I waited for the return of the community adviser, Laurie Owens. Owens was going to introduce me to the ‘Village Council’ and ask for their permission, but he had gone driving with some of the men. As it turned out, however, within a few minutes, Paul came back and told me, ‘The old men are ready to talk to you.’ This wasn’t what I had expected, since I didn’t know how I would communicate, but I had no choice. Stomach churning, I joined the older men, perhaps six or seven of them, near an open ﬁre, and I tried to explain that I wanted to live at Yayayi for a year or two, to learn their language and how they had lived in the bush, how they lived now.