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'Cultures do not exist'

Part III. Sections 8 to 10




8. Beyond ethnography

In my opinion, the contemporary anthropological discourse on African ethnicity,[1] cultural diversity and cultural continuity contains the best possible arguments for my thesis that ‘cultures do not exist’; these are largely based on empirical ethnographic research. Therefore, let us stay a while with ethnography as a specific form of intercultural knowledge production.

                         The ethnographer situates her pronouncements in a social process, in the encounter and dialogue[2] between the ethnographer and the people she is writing about. This lends to ethnographic texts a character of their own, an anecdotal narrative accent that is often subversive vis-Ó-vis the quest for discursive appropriation, consistence, the imposition of sharp conceptual boundaries, and other similar types of ordering that tend to be characteristic of North Atlantic philosophical texts. Moreover, despite the great investment the cultural anthropologist has made towards mastering the local language, she does realise, as no other, that a large part of human manifestations is not framed in language and can hardly be expressed in language. Although ultimately anthropology is geared to the reduction of a large variety of human manifestations including non-language ones, to text, anthropology tends to the insight that language, although of unmistakable structuring potential, is not ultimately and totally determining, neither for the cultural domain, nor for the full range of human cognition.

                        Profoundly inherent to anthropology is a recognition of the performative side of human behaviour. In the anthropological discipline the concepts of ‘role’ and ‘role play’ have turned out to be eminently successful as devices to link the individual and the social. The anthropologists realise that man shapes his social mode of existence by playing a role, with a very great degree of personal interpretation on the part of the role player, by loosely interpreting a social script, and not by the mechanical acting out of a fully determined, tightly programmed cultural inscription. Moreover the entire idea of the acquisition of cultural competence by means of participant observation is based on the notion of play: to the best of her ability the fieldworker plays, not the role of foreign researcher (for that role scarcely exists as an emic concept in most social contexts world-wide), but a number of roles that are being recognised and defined within the local society (friend, guest, kinswoman, lover, patron, client), and she tries to bend these roles so that they are not merely locally recognisable, but also instrumental for the main goal of her local residence in the host society: for the collection of information.

                        Even although she will occasionally have great doubt on this point, both in the field and during writing up, the ethnographer in principle takes for granted her capability of getting to know, through prolonged participant interaction, one of more cultural orientations from the inside and in their specific systematics. She also takes for granted that in this way she will ultimately be able to produce, by herself, forms of local public behaviour that the original participants will recognise as more or less competent according to the local model. In this production of local overt behaviour, which is increasingly competent (as it is constantly subjected to the participants’ sanctions through their gaze, rejection, ridicule, encouragement) the local model is articulated and made manifest much more directly and unmistakably than in the most dextrous interviews. For the anthropologist, participation is not only a source of primary information through observations and interviews, and not just a means to lower thresholds of communication by generating trust and demonstrating humility. It is the constant practical test of whether the anthropologist can apply in practice the local knowledge which she has gained in interviews and observation.

                        In the context of anthropological fieldwork as a knowledge acquiring practice, the term ‘participation’ has a totally different meaning from that which philosophers derive from the work of the French ethnologist LÚvy-Bruhl[3] — for many philosophers their principal source of a furtive conceptualisation of humanity outside the North Atlantic region. For LÚvy-Bruhl, who worked in the first half of the twentieth century, participation was a specific form of incomplete, diffuse and porous subjectivity allegedly characterising so-called ‘non-western’ or — as one preferred to say then — ‘primitive’ man — a model of experience according to which the human subject does not juxtapose himself vis-Ó-vis the surrounding nature and society, but largely merges into them. By the same token, such juxtaposition was supposed to be characteristic of the logical rationality of the North Atlantic subject under the habitual conditions of modernity.

                        Anthropological participation in the context of fieldwork has a unique function of validation. Let us take as an example the learning of a foreign language though total immersion. Someone involved in such a process will produce speech acts, will submit these to native speakers for criticism and correction, and will thus gauge and improve his own skill in the local language. In the same (and overlapping) way participant observation furnishes a practical feedback to the implicit and explicit insights that a fieldworker may have gathered earlier in the same research through observation and conversations. Participating is in the first instance not an expression of exotism, not a form of going native or of risky loss of self, but simply an inductive and hence evidently incomplete form of empirical proof in practical, interactive and reflective form. If the fieldworker has actually arrived at some real knowledge and understanding of local cultural forms, then she is rewarded by the participants by the latter’s affirmative attitude and by an increased flow of subsequent information; and in the opposite case she is punished by the participants’ rejection and a decrease in the subsequent flow of information. The more the fieldworker is defenceless, the more devoid of North Atlantic hegemonic protection, the more isolated from her home background, the stronger the social control that the participants can exert on her, and the more massive the flow of information and the greater, ultimately (provided the fieldworker can retain or re-gain her professional distance), the knowledge and insight gathered during fieldwork. The time-consuming and humble learning of a cultural orientation including at least one of the local languages (local settings nearly always involve more than one language simultaneously) characterises anthropology as a form of intercultural knowledge on feedback basis. Moreover, knowledge production in participatory fieldwork takes place on both verbal and non-verbal levels, leading to the ethnographer’s textual renderings of the participants’ own texts, as well as to the ethnographer’s textual renderings of observations of non-verbal behaviour. Because of this much wider, non-verbal basis, firmly rooted in participation, the knowledge acquired in fieldwork derives from experience (often profound and distressing experience) in ways that have scarcely parallels in the procedures of intercultural knowledge production so far pioneered by intercultural philosophers; unless the latter do fieldwork among sages, but then their techniques of elicitation and recording are often hopelessly defective.

                        Therefore, whatever may be theoretically wrong with fieldwork as a method for the production of intercultural knowledge, it appears to be in principle far superior to the forms of intercultural knowledge of philosophers, who tend to rely on texts, and usually on translated texts from foreign languages at that; I say ‘in principle’, because below I shall argue that this empirical advantage is largely forfeited by the epistemological and philosophical na´vety of anthropologists as compared to professional philosophers.

                        The role of researcher forces the anthropologist to adopt distance and instrumentality vis-Ó-vis the participants and their cultural orientations, but at the same time the internalisation of local cultural orientations works in exactly the opposite direction. Ethnographic fieldwork is a constant play of seducing and being seduced. It constantly suggests the possibility of such a boundary-crossing as the fieldworker desires, and in this suggestion the boundary between researcher and the researched, far from being denied or perceived, is only constructed in the first place. The researcher seeks to be seduced towards participation and knowledge; but the hosts also, in their turn, seduce through word and gesture in order to constantly shift and reduce the boundaries of access, knowledge, trust and intimacy around which every anthropological fieldwork revolves.[4]

                        In playing the game of fieldwork, is the ethnographer the lover or beloved par excellence of the society under study — or the cynical manipulator; or both? This question has occasionally been asked within the anthropological discipline.[5] But it addresses the foundation of that discipline to such an extent that it cannot be answered from within the confines of anthropology itself. Of old, the investigation of foundations is shunned by anthropologists — complacently they are satisfied with their na´ve empiricism.[6] Anthropologists manage to do their work in fieldwork locations that tend to be distant and inhospitable, and here they think up Spartan alternatives for the standard North Atlantic comforts that are temporarily denied to them. By the same token they are inclined to improvise their way when it comes to epistemological and methodological foundations, thinking up their own solutions and, if they seek help in the process, to limit their search to the writings of fellow-anthropologists. But often this does not yield enough.

                        In view of the reputation (as being highly philosophical) of Johannes Fabian’s seminal book Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object,[7] I was surprised to see, upon a recent re-reading, that its explicit philosophical references are in fact practically limited to Baudrillard, Foucault, Hobbes, Ricoeur en Schutz.[8] Another explicitly philosophically-orientated book written by an anthropologist, that by Peter Kloos on the philosophy of anthropology,[9] deals with only an odd selection of philosophical problems in anthropology: the Popperian and logical positivist underpinning — not of fieldwork-based ethnography on one community (which is by far the most standard form of anthropological knowledge production) but with comparative anthropology (i.e. cross-cultural studies). Of fieldwork, mainly the ethical problems of fieldwork in unmistakably imperialist situations are treated. Even so, Fabian and Kloos display a philosophical competence that is absolutely exceptional among anthropologists in Dutch-language environments, with the exception of such (post-)Roman Catholic fortresses as Nijmegen and Louvain, full of (mainly ex-) priests and ex-students for the priesthood, whose standard stock-in-trade has been a decent two-years philosophical training. Characteristically, philosophy has not been part of the secondary school curriculum in the Netherlands; although this situation is about to change. In French, German and American cultural anthropology incidental reference to contemporary philosophy is rather more usual and is beginning to become fashionable; but even there it is very rare to find specific studies exploring the relationship between both disciplines.[10]

                        Used to roughing it under fieldwork conditions, anthropologists hate to thrown away something that may yet come in handy. At the present moment, when philosophy has virtually turned away from the concept of the subject and from body/mind dualism as two major pillars of modernity, we witness how the subject, acting consciously and constructing his world on that basis, settles comfortably as the central point of departure of mainstream anthropology — where transactionalist actor approaches on the basis of methodological individualism have been popular since the 1960s; since the end of the 1980s this paradigm has gained massive political support in that the concept of the market as a maximalising strategy has become the ideological keynote of North Atlantic society. At the present moment when post-structuralist approaches, with considerable delay, seep into anthropology, the structuralist method for the analysis of myths and rites turns out, nonetheless, to have installed itself among the standard professional analytical tool kit of the anthropologist. In the same vein, neo-Marxism as an all-encompassing anthropological paradigm of the 1970s has by far been left behind today, but what has remained, also as part of the lasting tool kit of the anthropologist, is the model of the articulation of modes of production, that could not have been formulated but for Marx’s work on the Asiatic mode of production and on other non-Western societies. Used to dissimulate the contradictions of intercultural mediation or to encapsulate these contradictions in what would appear to be personal eccentricities (cf. my own sangomahood as discussed below) rather than to think them through in general analytical terms, anthropologists evidently do not aspire to systematic consistency. In practice they are arch-eclectics.

                        Philosophers are infinitely more sophisticated on these points. From their self-image composed of intellectual passion, broad intellectual exchange, interdisciplinarity, and their intimate knowledge of the intellectual genealogies of concepts and schools of thought, they can scarcely imagine the specific dynamics of cultural anthropology as an international discipline, where yet the echoes of the wider intellectual climate of our time are heard only with great retardation, at the cost of considerable intra-discipinary resistance, and often deformed beyond recognition. For instance, the Nietzschean distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian was appropriated by Ruth Benedict in her popular introductory work Patterns of Culture, half a century later.[11] The critique of anthropology for being imperialist (early 1970s) arose in the aftermath of the anti-imperialism permeating the left-wing intellectual and philosophical climate in continental Europe during the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, we have seen the rise of post-structuralist and post-modern anthropology, a few decades after this was the intellectual fashion in architecture, literature and philosophy. A nice example of oblique anthropological philosophising is also the book Culture and Practical Reason by Marshall Sahlins, who for years was leader of one of the world’s most renowned departments of anthropology, that at the University of Chicago.[12] For any philosopher Sahlins’ title would in the first refer place to Kant;[13] however, Sahlins’ approach has nothing whatsoever to do with Kant, there is a deliberate non-reference.[14]

                        Only once or twice did anthropology manage to take the initiative in the definition of the wider intellectual climate — notably in the rise of the concept of ‘culture’, and in LÚvi-Strauss’ version of structuralism (which however, as is generally known, was amply prepared for by linguistic, sociological and psychoanalytic developments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century). Hardly any traces can be fond today of what was Wittgenstein’s gift to anthropology: the promising discussion, as from the late 1950s, of rationality, magic, and the recognition of the truth problem such as it is posed by the belief systems of different cultural orientations than one’s own.[15] Selected anthropologists did realise that the phenomenological and hermeneutical approaches in philosophy are extraordinarily suitable for the problematisation of the cultural practices of others both within and outside one’s own society; however, once these approaches have been introduced into anthropology (by Geertz, among others) they have been localised and canonised there, and hardly any anthropologist still reaches for the original phenomenological texts. In Geertz’ approach the distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ description corresponds with that between emic and etic. Geertz has rendered anthropology a not altogether indubious service by adapting Ricoeur’s phenomenological hermeneutics to what Geertz thought were the requirements of ethnography.[16] It amounted to a major coup de force: notably, the decision to consider as texts all the pluriform events — including non-language ones — that lend themselves to ethnographic description. A quarter of a century later — under the influence of the further elaboration of textual theories in literature science — this conception has led, among a minority of anthropologists, to a hermetic view of the ethnographic corpus as complete, introverted, and as detached from the dynamics of social relationships in the social domain that is situated around that corpus and to which that corpus refers in important ways.[17]

                        If phenomenology only found its way into anthropology at considerable costs and with considerable delay, the development of an anthropological discourse based on Foucault is today — one and a half decade after Foucault’s death — becoming a respectable anthropological pastime.[18] The anthropological reception of Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari is still in its infancy.

                        Post-modernism only reached anthropology by the late 1980s.[19] Never has there been so much discussion of modernity in anthropology as in the last few years, often in terms of modernity being a condition that, although still highly coveted among our African subjects of inquiry, is already passed, has already lost its magical appeal, has already been overtaken by post-modernity, among North Atlantic anthropologists themselves in their personal lives as well as in their writings. This does not take away the fact that the majority of anthropologists have tacitly taken a curious position in the debate on modernity and post-modernity. For the ethnographer is on the one hand — the post-modern aspect — the champion of the specific, the local, and the vernacular (the emic side); but this often serves as merely a stepping-stone towards something else: towards an attempt to search — and this is the typically modernist aspect of the ethnographic practice — in the local for subsequent generalisations that transcend the local context. This search is informed by the construction of the publishable ethnographic text, and by the general anthropological concepts and theories that feature in such a text as a wider framework (the etic side). In this way the specific, local and vernacular is on the one hand — after post-modern fashion — claimed to be ‘other’ in a unique way that does not allow a relative view; but on the other hand that very same local aspect is — after modernist fashion — dragged along to a dialectics that subsumes that otherness as part of a larger whole, a no-longer-other, an Other reduced to sameness. The anthropologist balances between modernity and post-modernity, in an inimitable circus act that philosophers can very well deconstruct but that they would scarcely feel tempted to emulate.

                        An important factor in the relative intellectual isolation of the anthropological discipline has been the fact that that discipline has also attracted a remarkable number of outsiders: Jews, women, homosexuals, working-class children like myself, migrants, and moreover the spiritual heirs of the explorers, big-game hunters and missionaries of the nineteenth century, — so many people who were less welcome in the more established academic disciplines, or who could not take root there. Moreover we can point to a process of professionalisation that has persisted throughout the twentieth century and that brought about the tendency for anthropologists and other social scientists to preferably dissociate themselves from, and antagonise, the very fields of scholarship with which they would have the greatest affinity in terms of problematic and method: philosophical anthropology, history, classics, comparative legal studies, comparative religious studies, linguistics. Instead anthropologists and their fellow social scientists sought counsel with the natural sciences and the latter methodologies and epistemologies. As a result a superficial scientism is often the only, obsolete, philosophical baggage of anthropologists. Besides, many anthropologists combine a rigid orientation towards societies outside the North Atlantic with myopia, not to say contempt, vis-Ó-vis the social, political and intellectual current events taking place in their own social, political, and academic surroundings beyond anthropology proper.

                        For decades the distinction between emic and etic has been one of the most powerful tools among cultural anthropologists in order to define and to approach their knowledge object and the procedures of their knowledge construction. A few years ago the leading logician Quine gave his philosophical nihil obstat to the paired concepts.[20] Yet the distinction, however useful, may easily be criticised. It is cast in the form of a binary opposition, which also provides the standard framework for Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, and whose implausibility as a basic unit of culture has been argued in that context. Bhabha demonstrates (in a way inspired by Derrida’s deconstruction of binary oppositions) that colonial practice took shape, not so much by virtue of the binary oppositions that were imposed by the colonial rulers, but by the fuzzy, inconsistent ways in which these binary oppositions were in fact applied.[21] The distinction moreover posits a modernist juxtaposition between knowing subject (the ethnographer) and known object (the participants, their conscious cultural orientation, and beyond that the underlying postulated reality as reconstructed by the ethnographer). Thus the distinction raises fundamental political and ethical questions concerning the subordinating, even dehumanising nature of the Other’s analytical (etic) gaze.[22] Our judgement of the distinction cannot be detached from the debate concerning the controversial claim[23] of access to a privileged meta-position where an analyst (e.g. the ethnographer) pretends to escape from her own social and cultural determination, as well as from the intercontinental hegemonic structures of domination. Here we had better remind ourselves that what we intend as etic (as analytical, as meta-cultural) in all probability merely amounts to our own local emic raised to an undeserved status of universality and cultural neutrality. Notably, the etic perspective is opposed to a dialogical, intersubjective (in the sense of: between fieldworker and local participants), emic perspective of knowledge production, such as is being preferred today. On the other hand the etic approach is in line with another and equally cherished ideal of knowledge production: it is boundary-effacing in this respect that it allows us (not only the ethnographer and the international academic community, bit also the local bearers of the cultural orientation under study) to liberate ourselves from the chains of collective positions that have once been adopted and that are being mediated by the emic approach.[24] In other words, to the extent to which the emic approach mediates the collective representations of others, to that extent the etic approach may be said to liberate us from such (inevitably parochial, local, particularistic) collective representations, thus opening up space for our own properly scientific explorations, that tend to universality and should strive to be as free as possible from local collective representations including our own. Moreover the etic approach reminds us of the unintended and un-predicted effects of socio-cultural arrangements — social implications of which the actors cannot possibly be conscious and which therefore cannot be approached from an emic perspective.[25] Because of its distancing from the local cultural specificity to which only the fieldworker herself has scientific access, it is precisely the etic perspective that promises to provide a solution with regard to the intradisciplinary intersubjectivity in intercultural knowledge production. All in all the distinction emic/etic clearly brings out the fundamental dilemmas of cultural anthropology today.

                        Despite the relative intellectual isolation of anthropology, we can identify in the wider philosophical climate of our time a number of developments that have greatly undermined classic anthropology in the 1970s-80s. The rise of an explicit discourse on alterity, in feminism, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, inevitably had a negative effect on the credibility of he anthropological project as ‘the science of the other, of other cultures’. Johannes Fabian’s book Time and the Other has been a major factor in introducing these themes into anthropology.[26] This movement converged with that of post-modernism, that proclaimed the end of all Grand Narratives, thus debunking Grand Theory as a totalitarian illusion.[27] Was not the Grand Narrative a strategy, not of revealing the truth, but of concealing it? Was not the great narrative of anthropology a way of speaking, not even about the other, but about ourselves as participants, partisans, in a process of North Atlantic hegemonic intellectual and ideological subjugation of the world at large? The anti-imperialist critics of anthropology in the 1970s (Asad, Copans, Said)[28] were still following a Marxist inspiration, but the post-colonial theory approach by such writers as Spivak and Rattansi[29] reveals the potential also of post-structuralism/ philosophy of difference for bringing out the problems of knowledge production on an intercontinental scale — notwithstanding the North Atlantic entrenchment of most post-structuralist philosophers themselves.

                        In the course of the last few decades this type of critique has demonstrated that cultural anthropology is so profoundly formed and informed by North Atlantic projects of domination (colonialism, imperialism, world-wide hegemony) that we can scarcely believe any more that this discipline could take a distance from these antecedents without giving up her disciplinary identity. The inequality between the ethnographer and the group under study in terms of control over the central medium (‘participant observation’ and ‘a textual ethnography’) takes care of the fact that, even with the best of intentions, deformations of representation are bound to occur. Since the production of text is ultimately a technology of human control, even the best emic representations are bond to be misused for intellectual domination. The ethnographer has an unshakeable belief that it is possible to adequately report on the knowledge acquired during fieldwork, even if this means reporting in a language that in principle is totally different from the one used in the original ethnographic context and therefore far more accessible to the participants than the formal academic language of professional ethnography. Ethnographers (including those ethnographers who call themselves intercultural philosophers) can only claim credibility provided in their fieldwork and in the production of their published texts, ample provision[30] has been made to turn their ethnography into a form of ‘communicative action’.[31] This requires not only that (along emic lines) the participants’ representations and evaluations are, to the ethnographer’s personal conviction, mediated faithfully and with integrity, but also that the participants have a decisive say in this process of mediation. Only on that basis can ethnographic mediation become a form of self-reflexive taking-consciousness that is in line with the participants’ own local cultural orientation,[32] and that enables the underlying epistemological principles of that orientation to effectively fertilise, or transcend, North Atlantic empirical epistemology.

9. From ethnography to intercultural philosophy: Beyond the ethnographic epistemology

We are in need of an academic medium that clearly does not have such hegemonic roots as cultural anthropology; and of practitioners of that medium who, because of their background or their radical reorientation later in life, do not take part in that hegemonic process,[33] or seek to disentangle themselves from it. Intercultural philosophy is a discipline attracting intellectuals from outside the North Atlantic. To some extent, African philosophy is even reserved to Africans. Many intercultural and African philosophers conduct — often in a strongly introspective manner — ethnography on the spur of their own knowledge and understanding of one of their cultural orientations (that of their home village, kinship, village ritual), against the background of their command both of their mother tongue and of an international language and idiom of academic communication. Obviously, such researchers are greatly privileged as compared to foreign ethnographers. However, even these philosophers are involved in a process of mediation that springs from the fact that, among their various cultural orientations, the cultural orientation called ‘cosmopolitan philosophy’ plays a very important role. In this situation there is a real danger of nostalgic and performative projections on their part; explicit empirical methods strengthening intra-disciplinary intersubjectivity are absolutely indispensable here. A profound awareness of the great challenges on this point distinguishes such cosmopolitan African philosophers as Mudimbe[34] and Appiah from their essentialising predecessors of an earlier generation.

                        The main issue here is not a Northern hereditary burden allegedly preventing Northerners from producing valid intercultural knowledge about the South, nor a Southern birth-right to a monopoly on valid knowledge production about the South, but a radical revolution in our approach to the cultural other. To the extent to which cultural anthropology has entrenched itself in the posed na´vetÚ of an eclectic, apolitical, but fundamentally Eurocentric empiricism, it is only intercultural philosophy that may open our eyes to the epistemological implications of cultural anthropology.

                        In cultural anthropology statements of certain types are eligible to be assessed as true or false:


     the ethnographer’s statement to the effect that her ethnographic description of concrete emic details is valid

     the ethnographer’s statement to the effect that her abstract theoretical, etic analysis is valid

     the individual informants’ statements that they render facts, representations and rules validly.


There is however a fourth type of statement that cultural anthropologists absolutely exclude from the question concerning truth:


     the participants’ statements to the effect that their collective representations are a valid description of reality (both in its sensory and in its meta-sensory aspect, visible and invisible etc.)[35]


                        Following the later Wittgenstein, Winch has shown us that the truth of the latter type of statement cannot be established in general and universally, but depends on the language-specific, meaning-defining form of life that is at hand. Whether in a certain society witches do or do not exist, cannot be answered with any universal statement to the effect that witches do exist, or do not exist, but can only be answered by reference to the specific forms of life at hand in that society — and of such forms of life there are always more than one at the same time and place.[36] The concept of form of life has much in common with my concept of ‘cultural orientation’ (of which likewise more than one are involved in any society at the same time). Now, cultural relativism as a central professional point of departure of classic anthropology may perhaps imply, theoretically, that the exclusion of this fourth category originates in respect for whatever is true in the other form of life or cultural orientation; but in practice it nearly always comes down to following. However much the ethnographer has invested in the acquisition of linguistic and cultural knowledge so that local collective representations can be unsealed for her, and however much she gradually internalises these collective representations as a private person — yet in her professional formal utterances (in the form of academic ethnographic writing-up) she does not give the collective representations she has studied the benefit of the doubt, nor the respect she pretends to be due to the collectively other. The tacit point of departure of the cultural anthropological professional practice (and in this respect it does not distance itself from North Atlantic society as a whole) is: Collective representations of other societies under study cannot be true, unless they coincide one hundred percent with the collective representations of the researcher’s own society of origin. Of course, both the researcher’s society of origin and the cultural orientation under study construct, each in their turn and in a highly different way, a truth-creating life world in the form of a texture of collective representations. This is a situation suggestive of a relativist approach in so far as it would per definition be impossible for us to choose between these truths on the basis of an emic perspective. But according to the conventions of ethnography such a life world is to be one-sidedly broken down if it is the Other’s life world, and must be left intact if it is the researcher’s own. Just try to realise what this means for the confrontation, throughout the modern world, in institutional, political and media settings, between such major and powerful North Atlantic institutional complexes as democracy, medicine, education, Christianity, and pre-existing local alternatives in the respective fields. The anthropologist may pay lip service to these local alternatives for humanitarian and aesthetic reasons but — for her own sanity and professional survival (not as a impassioned researcher but as a permanent member of her own home society) she has to abide by the adage that they cannot be true.[37]

                        Born in the Netherlands (1947), I was trained at the university of my home town as an anthropologist specialising in religion. From my first fieldwork (1968), when I investigated saint worship and the ecstatic cult in rural North Africa, I have struggled with this problem of the fourth type of truth — that I am inclined to consider as the central problem of interculturality. With gusto I sacrificed to the dead saints in their graves, danced along with the ecstatic dancers, experienced the beginning of mystical ecstasy myself, built an entire network of fictive kinsmen around me. Yet in my ethnography I reduced the very same people to numerical values in a quantitative analysis, and I knew of no better way to describe their religious representations than as the denial of North Atlantic or cosmopolitan natural science.[38] It was only twenty years later when, in the form of a novel (Een Buik Openen, i.e. Opening a Belly, published in 1988)[39] I found the words to testify to my love for and indulgence in the North African forms of life that I had had to keep at a distance as an ethnographer and as a member of North Atlantic society; and my two-volume, English-language book manuscript on this research is still lying idly on a shelf. In the course of many years and of four subsequent African fieldwork locations, always operating in the religious and the therapeutic domain, I gradually began to realise that I loathed the cynical professional attitude of anthropology, and that I had increasing difficulty sustaining that attitude. My apprenticeship at the University of Zambia (1971-1974) as a young lecturer and researcher in social science in very close collaboration with such radical scholars as Jack Simons and Jaap van Velsen, in an intellectual climate consistently and incessantly preparing for the democratic liberation of South Africa (in which struggle Jack Simons and his life’s companion Ray Alexander played a major part), reinforced the radical lessons I had received from the Asianist Wim Wertheim as a student. As a result I began to shed the blunt positivism that had attended my first fieldwork. I became aware of scholarship’s political and ethical responsibilities, and of the potential humiliation and betrayal of the people under study by social researchers in the field. In subsequent years, I was to ask myself more and more the following question: Who was I that I could afford to make-believe, to pretend, on those points that attracted the undivided serious commitment of my research participants was involved? Several among them have played a decisive role in my life, as role models, teachers, spiritual masters, loved ones. Experiencing their religion and ritual as an idiom (a symbolic technology) of sociability, I could not forever bear the tension of joining them in the field and betraying them outside the field.

                        In Guinea-Bissau, in 1983, I did not remain the observer of the oracular priests I had come to study, but I became their patient — like nearly all the born members of the local society were. In the town of Francistown, Botswana, from 1988, under circumstances that I have discussed elsewhere[40] — the usual form of fieldwork became so insupportable to me that I had to throw overboard all professional considerations. I became not only the patient of local diviner-priests (sangomas), but at the end of a long therapy course ended up as one of them, and thus as a socially recognised and certified believer in the local collective representations. At the time I primarily justified this as a political deed, from me as a White man in a part of Africa (Botswana’s North East District) that had been disrupted by White monopoly capitalism and White racism. Now more than then I realise that it was also and primarily an epistemological position-taking — a revolt against the professional hypocrisy in which the hegemonic perspective of anthropology reveals itself. It was a position-taking that almost expelled me from cultural anthropology and that created the conditions for the step which I finally made when occupying my present chair in intercultural philosophy.

                        This step means a liberation, not only from an empirical habitus that, along with existential distress, has also yielded me plenty of intellectual delight, adventure, remuneration, and honours; but also liberation from such far-reaching spiritual dependence from my mentors and fellow cult members as originally characterised my sangomahood. Becoming a sangoma was a concrete, practical deed of transgression in answer to the contradictions of a practice of intercultural knowledge production that I had engaged in for decades, with increasing experience and success. Becoming an intercultural philosopher means a further step: one that amounts to integrating that transgressive deed in a systematic, reflective and intersubjective framework, in order to augment the anecdoctal, autobiographical ‘just so’ account with theoretical analysis, and to explore the social relevance of an individual experience. For what is at stake here is not merely an autobiographical anecdote. If I struggled with intercultural knowledge production, then my problem coincides with that of the modern world as a whole, where intercultural knowledge production constitutes one of the two or three greatest challenges. If it is possible for me to be at the same time a Botswana sangoma, a Dutch professor, husband and father, and an adoptive member of a Zambian royal family, while at the same time burdened by sacrificial obligations, cultural affinities and fictive kin relationships from North and West Africa, then this does not just say something about me (a me that is tormented, post-modern, boundless, one who has lost his original home but after finding, and losing again, new physical and spiritual homes in Africa realises that the construction of homes is as arbitrary and full of risks as it is indispensible and universal among humans, even if one may ultimately find a relatively secure home with one’s loved ones and in one’s professional practices. Provided we take the appropriate distance and apply the appropriate analytical tools, it also says something about whatever ‘culture’ is and what it is not. It implies that culture is not bounded, not tied to a place, not unique but multiple, not impossible to combine, blend and transgress, not tied to a human body, an ethnic group, a birth right. And it suggests that ultimately we are much better of as nomads between a plurality of cultures, than as self-imposed prisoners of a smug Eurocentrism (or Afrocentrism, for that matter).

10. From ethnography to intercultural philosophy: comprehensive correspondences in space and time

In the 1990s my road from ethnographer to intercultural philosopher would take me to a further exploration of the relativity of cultural specificity (hence by implication the deconstruction of cultural relativism). Once I has become a sangoma, I had at my disposal a fairly unique body of cultural knowledge, and a fairly unique status — the status of recognised local religious specialist — but my move to become a diviner-priest-therapist would be rendered meaningless if as a next step I would merely commit this knowledge to writing in a standard ethnographic monograph, with all the distancing and subordinating objectification this entails. Neither could I bring myself to write about the details of the social and psychiatric case material that automatically came my way as the therapist of my Botswana patients. What to do? Could I find a perspective from which my transcultural stance could yet be combined with a recognisable professional form of scientific knowledge production?

                        I had now in my possession these mysterious rough wooden tablets of the sangoma oracle, consecrated in the blood of my sacrificial goats and periodically revived by the application of the fat of these animals and by immersion in water of a year’s first rain. I could throw these tablets, and interpret the sixteen different combinations they could assume in terms of an elaborate interpretative catalogue that I had gradually learned during my training as a sangoma; the interpretation would yield me knowledge of the ancestors’ wishes, messages and grudges, would reveal a patient’s life history to me, as well as his current illness and venues for cure and redress. The tablets seemed to represent the epitome of strictly local cultural particularism. It was as if they had risen from the village soil of Southern Africa at some indefinite Primordial Age, and the same seemed to apply to the interpretation scheme that names the sixteen specific combinations which may be formed by the tablets when these are ritually cast. The local oracle of four tablets had been described by missionaries as long ago as four hundred years.[41] ‘The old woman like a stone’, ‘the old male witch like an axe’, ‘itching pubic hair like a young woman’s’, ‘the uvula like a youthful penis’ — this is how the four tablets are locally circumscribed, and their various combinations have connotations of witchcraft, ancestors, taboos, sacrificial dances, and all varieties of local animal totems. What could be more authentic and more African? Not for nothing had I, at the time, described my initiation (which, after more than twenty years of work as a religious and medical anthropologist, made me an accomplished and recognised specialist in an African divination and therapy system) as

‘the end point of a quest to the heart of Africa’s symbolic culture’.[42]

                        However, the illusion of immense local authenticity would soon blow up in my face. Soon I had to admit that this romantic suggestion of extreme locality was mere wishful thinking, under which lurked a reality that had enormous consequences for my theoretical and existential stance as an ethnographer and a world citizen. The interpretational scheme, right up to the nomenclature of the sixteen combinations, turned out to be an adaptation of tenth-century (CE) Arabian magic, with a Chinese iconography (consisting, just like in I Ching,[43] out of configurations of whole and broken lines), and at the same time astrological implication such as had been elaborated another fifteen or twenty centuries earlier, in Babylonia. The local cultural orientation in which the inhabitants of Francistown had entrenched themselves, and from which I initially felt painfully excluded, turned out not to be at all the incarnation of absolute and unbridgeable otherness, but — just like my own cultural orientation as a North Atlantic scholar — a distant offshoot of the civilisations of the Ancient Near East, and like my own branch of science it turned out to have been effectively fertilised by an earlier offshoot from the same stem: the Arabian civilisation.[44] I had struggled with the other, as if it were an unassailable, utterly alien totality; but parts of it turned out, on second thoughts, to be familiar and kindred, and available for appropriation.

                        Clearly, such a position smacks of the denial of difference in favour of an imposed claim of sameness, and was destined to make me impopular among the small group of intercultural philosophers for reasons discussed above (section 3.4). But at the time anthropologists still constituted my main frame of reference. And among them, the insights derived from my sangomadivination study have led to a head-on collision[45] with the central theory of classic cultural anthropology since the 1930s: the historical and cultural specificity of distinct, for instance African, societies, the assumption of their being closed onto themselves and bounded, of their having a unique internal integration and systematics, in general the idea that something like ‘a culture’ exists, and the absence, or irrelevance, of comprehensive cultural connections in time and space.

                        This insight was for me the trigger to start a comprehensive research project, which has meanwhile resulted, among other publications, in an edited collection Black Athena: Ten Years After (1997; now being reprinted as Black Athena Alive), on the work of Martin Bernal; a book manuscript entitled Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt and the World: Beyond the Black Athena Thesis; and another book manuscript entitled Cupmarks, Stellar Maps, and Mankala Board-Games: An Archaeoastronomical and Africanist Excursion into Palaeolithic World-views — all in the final stages of preparation for publication.

                        Global Bee Flight is based on a similar Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll)[46] experience as I had in connection with the Francistown divination system. A few years ago I went through my various articles on western Zambian kingship in order to collect these in a single volume. This was shortly after I has spent a year at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS) in 1994-95, as the only anthropological member of the Working Group on ‘Magic and religion in the Ancient Near East’. After this extensive exposure my eye was suddenly and unexpectedly caught by the many specific and profound parallels between the ceremonies and mythologies surrounding Nkoya kingship in South Central Africa, and Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and South Asia. The parallels were so striking, so detailed, that I had to seriously consider the possibility of cultural diffusion between these various regions and South Central Africa — once again the suggestion of continuities in space and time across thousands of kilometres and across several millennia.

                        The Francistown divination system and Nkoya kingship are two concrete examples of the kind of serendipities — totally unexpected finds — of cultural convergence and diffusion across the entire Old World, that have occupied a central place in my empirical research since 1990. But there is also a more systematic source of inspiration: the anthropological fieldwork that I have undertaken over the past thirty-odd years in various locations on the African continent. In some of these African settings I have been treated more as a stranger than in others, but I have always felt to be on fundamentally familiar grounds in Africa, in human life worlds I could readily explore, understand (their languages were quickly picked up), love and even anticipate, full of situations that reverberated deep-seated affinities, instead of in alien and exotic abodes of exile that made no sense to me and left me a total stranger.[47] In combination with the scholarly literature, with discussions with my colleagues, and with my involvement in the work of my Leiden colleagues and of my research students, these researches have created a context for comparative hypotheses suggesting considerable correspondences between local cultural orientations, far beyond the strictly local and presentist horizons of classic ethnography — far beyond ‘cultures’...

[1]       Amselle 1990; Amselle & M’bokolo 1985; Barth 1969; ChrÚtien & Prunier 1989; Fardon 1987; Gutkind 1970; Helm 1968; Vail 1989b; van Binsbergen 1985, 1992a=1994c, 1997d.

[2]       Cf. Dwyer 1977.

[3]       LÚvy-Bruhl 1910, 1922, 1927, 1952.

[4]       Cf. Kristeva 1983.

[5]       Cf. the exchange between van der Geest and myself in Human Organization, 38, 2 (1979) (van der Geest 1979; van Binsbergen 1979) and van Binsbergen 1986-87.

[6]       Exceptions are: Salamone 1979; MacGaffey 1986; Kloos 1996; Olivier de Sardan 1995; Todorov 1988; Sperber 1985; Kaplan 1984; Roth 1989.

[7]       Fabian 1983. By a remarkable coincidence, Fabian’s title is identical to that of a book published by Levinas in the same year in French. Levinas does not play a role in Fabian’s argument; cf. Levinas 1983.

[8]       Baudrillard 1976; Foucault 1973; Hobbes 1962; Ricoeur 1975; Schutz 1977, 1990.

[9]       Kloos 1987.

[10]     Interesting attempts however may be found in: Aya 1996; Azoulay 1994; Bateson 1978; Carruthers et al. 1985; Hudson 1989; Jackson 1989; Kaplan 1984; Larson & Deutsch 1988; Leeuw 1987; MŘller et al. 1984; Northrop & Livingston 1964; Passaro 1997; Salamone 1979; Skorupski 1976.

[11]     Benedict 1946; cf. Nietzsche 1967-1980a. Also cf. Barnouw 1949.

[12]     Sahlins 1976.

[13]     Kant 1983c (Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, 1781/1787).

[14]     Cf. Drechsel 1984.

[15]     Cf. the above footnote on the discussion initiated by Winch (section 3.4); as is clear from the extensive list of references there, that discussion — however shunned by most contemporary anthropologists — has become a fixed point of orientation within African philosophy.

[16]     Cf. Clifford 1988b: 38f; Ricoeur 1971; Geertz 1973; Geertz 1976; Geertz 1983; Agar 1980.

[17]     For a regrettable, though by its own standards impressive, example of such an approach to ethnography, cf. Drews 1995.

[18]     For instance the work, very influential in contemporary anthropology, by Jean Comaroff en John Comaroff, 1991-97. This does not take away the fact that Foucault had already been signalled much earlier by a handful of anthropologists such as Rabinow and Clifford, as well as by the anthropologically-inclined literature scholar cum philosopher Mudimbe.

[19]     Cf. Geuijen 1992.

[20]     Quine 1990a.

[21]     Bhabha 1986; Young 1995.

[22]     Sartre 1943; Luijpen 1980: 280f. The danger of reduction of the other to self is also a recurrent theme in Levinas’ work, cf. Levinas 1983, 1972, 1987 ; Becker 1981; Bernasconi 1986.

[23]     For a Foucaultian critique of this illusion, based on the concept of genealogy (which is ultimately Nietzschean), see: Rabinow 1984; Foucault 1977. Cf. Kimmerle 1985; and: Nietzsche 1967-1980b. The impossibility of an epistemological Archimedean point is also argued in: Rorty 1979; and from a totally different point of view in: Putnam, 1978, 1981. Such impossibility, in other words, is a received idea in contemporary philosophy.

[24]     Cf. Koepping 1984; van Binsbergen 1984.

[25]     Merton 1968: 51; Hayek 1973-1978.

[26]     Fabian 1983.

[27]     Lyotard 1979.

[28]     Asad 1973; Copans 1975; Said 1978.

[29]     Rattansi 1994; Boyne & Rattansi 1990; Donald & Rattansi 1992; Spivak 1987, 1988, 1990.

[30]     For an example of such a strategy, cf. van Binsbergen 1992b: 58f.

[31]     Habermas 1982.

[32]     Cf. van Binsbergen 1984, 1988b.

[33]     Cf. Chilungu 1984.

[34]     Mudimbe 1988, 1991, 1992b; Mudimbe & Appiah 1993; Appiah 1992; Jewsiewicki & Mudimbe 1993. Cf. van Binsbergen 2001.

[35]     Cf. Lewis 1981

[36]     Winch 1970: 100f; Sogolo 1993; Jarvie 1972.

[37]     This argument is carried forward, or so I intended, in the Preface to this book.

[38]     Van Binsbergen 1980a, 1980b; 1985b, forthcoming (c).

[39]     Van Binsbergen 1988a.

[40]     Van Binsbergen 1991.

[41]     Cf. dos Santos 1901; van Binsbergen 1996b.

[42]     Van Binsbergen 1991: 314; obviously I then used the concept of ‘culture’ in a different sense from my present argument.

[43]     From numerous discussions of this ancient Chinese divinatory text I mention: Legge 1993; Jung 1974; Wilhelm 1948.

[44]     Van Binsbergen 1994b, 1995, 1996b, 1996c, 1996e, 1999f, in preparation (b).

[45]     This is no exaggeration, cf. the extensive criticism of this line in my work by Amselle 2001: 53f; Amselle’s disgust is so great that he can only understand my defense of Afrocentricity as an act of sheer opportunism — which I then happen to share, much to my honour and pleasure, with another target of Amselle’s, CathÚrine Coquery-Vidrovitch, one of France’s leading African historians (Amselle 2001: 109f and n. 90).

[46]     Carroll 1998.

[47]     The topic of Afro-european or Eurafrican cultural and historical continuities is pursued at length in van Binsbergen, in preparation (a), cf. 1997c.


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