Anthropological Criticism: An Essay

Anthropological criticism refers, broadly speaking, to a form of criticism that situates the making, dissemination and reception of literature within the conventions and cultural practices of human societies. Such an undertaking has become increasingly suspect in the twentieth century as critiques of the idea of the centred subject and of a stable field of knowledge have been voiced. Anthropology is seen as upholding a privileged position whereby the dominant codes of western culture, including patriarchy and imperialism, survey, classify and govern the cultures of the east, the third world, of people of colour, women and those of different sexual preferences. As such, the discipline appears to perpetuate the same/other binary that is a part of the logocentric tradition of western culture.

Anthropological criticism came into sharp prominence during the early years of the twentieth century. The Cambridge school of classical anthropology took up the work of Sir James Frazer and applied the methods of his magnum opus, The Golden Bough, to the study of Greek drama. The conclusions of this loosely knit group of scholars and writers, sometimes known as the ‘ritualists’ (Jane Harrison, F. M. Cornford, A. B. Cook and Gilbert Murray), were that a pre-history of myth and ritual is present in Greek drama. Classical drama was thus read as a displaced narrative of much older, pagan ceremonial forms.

In 1957, the Canadian critic Northrop Frye published Anatomy of Criticism, a text that blends the moralism of Arnold with the speculative insights of the Cambridge ritualists. The sheer inclusiveness of Frye’s work, together with the close and rigorous readings which he presents, have given this work the status of a twentieth-century classic, a ‘masterwork of modern critical theory’. Frye’s system projects the seasonal cycle on to the four narrative categories of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony. These generic markers are crossed with patterns of isolation (the tragic) and integration (the comic). In western literature, these narrative and thematic elements are the territory of a hero who is, respectively, mythic, romantic, tragic, comic and ironic; this ‘ironic’ hero (as created by Joyce and Kafka for instance) is seen as a renewer of the cycle: ‘Irony . . . begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily towards myth and dim outlines of sacrificial ritual and dying gods begin to reappear in it.’

As this brief account indicates, Frye’s scheme theorises the literary imagination in terms of mythic archetypes, a communal consciousness that shuttles between the poles of utopian longing and dystopian fear. The slippage between literature and myth appears to disconnect Frye’s theory from the social issues which are frequently raised in his writings. Consciousness of this disconnection is reflected in Mary Douglas’ attacks on the ritual and social myths centred around purity and pollution. As she puts it, ‘myth sits above and athwart the exigencies of social life. It is capable of presenting one picture and then its opposite.’ Frye, for his part, stresses the ‘sequence of contexts and relationships in which the whole work of literary art can be placed’.

In terms of twentieth-century critical methodologies, one of Frye’s greatest achievements lies in his steady resistance to the insidious lure of New Criticism with its promise of a safe, technically proficient literary method. His object has been to maintain and elaborate the links between social structure and literary artefact: ‘criticism will always have two aspects, one turned toward the structure of literature and one turned toward the other cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature’.

Frye’s method was quickly overtaken in European literary theory by the rise of a structuralist literary criticism. This model of analysis, stemming from Russian formalism and the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, received a new lease of life through the post-war anthropological texts of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss seeks to demonstrate that the language system, like other sign systems, reveals the structure of culture, that the linguistic model can be applied in a wide variety of contexts including those of food and clothing. This structure is regulated, as is language, by rules and usages which seek to enculturate the natural, to produce ‘human’ meanings. Language ‘constitutes “at once the prototype of the cultural phenomenon (distinguishing men from the animals) and the phenomenon whereby all the forms of social life are established and perpetuated”’. The structuralist movement sought to identify the ‘codes’ of literature; instead of close reading, the task of criticism was to note the ‘mythologies’ (Barthes) and patterns (Greimas) inscribed in the processes of reading and writing. The value-laden term ‘literature’ is replaced by the objective term ‘écriture’ in the cultural poetics of this group of (mainly) French thinkers.

clig1The last forty years of anthropologically based criticism owes much to the  seismic shift in literary theory that the rise of poststructuralism and, in particular, postcolonialism has brought about. In his 1973 collection, The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz suggested that the term ‘thick description’ (a coinage of Gilbert Ryle) offered a powerful means of articulating a new model of anthropology. ‘Thick description’ seeks to outline ‘the multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit’. For Geertz, human behaviour represents a dense signalling system which can only be comprehended through an imaginative engagement with the cultural contexts of its occurrence. The toolkit of the observing anthropologist includes the kinds of linguistic and visual sensitivity that belong to artistic practice: ‘. . . the line between mode of representation and substantive content is as undrawable in cultural analysis as it is in painting’.

Geertz’s position, rooted in the semiotics of the 1960s, unsettles the subject/object relationship that was a founding doctrine of the anthropological discipline, and initiates that shift toward the discourse theory of the social sciences that is current today. The literary critic Edward Said, in a series of illuminating texts, also interrogates the foundations of anthropology and has suggested that the examination of cultural practices is inevitably tainted with the ‘sameness/difference’ binary that produces a cultural value for self/other, man/woman, west/east, and civilised/primitive.

In a feminist contribution to this topic, Sherry B. Ortner maps domestic/public skills and concrete/abstract thought on to the nature/culture division. Woman’s oppression is located in a biologically grounded understanding of difference. It is owing to this that she is reduced to a ‘structurally subordinate domestic context’, and systematically socialised so as to identify with the maternal role, that she appears to be ‘rooted more directly and deeply in nature’. The Elementary Structures of Kinship by Claude Lévi-Strauss, which contains the discussion of the incest taboo, has also been viewed as a text which seeks to naturalise a dominance/submission pattern in male/female gender roles in that its theory of a primeval ‘exchange of women’ associates these roles with the origin of culture. Gayle Rubin exposes the sexism inherent in cultural practices when she argues that the expression ‘exchange of women’ ‘is a shorthand for expressing that social relations of a kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin, and that women do not have the same rights either in themselves or in their male kin’.

Such race and gender issues have intensified concerns about the legitimacy of anthropology as a discipline. The ‘theory wars’ in English studies have deepened this discussion as a result of the poststructuralist turn in literary criticism. The Enlightenment had posited a claim for a centred, stable subject, purposive, rational and expressive relationships between people and a stable epistemological framework. The poststructuralist critique of these claims reduces cultural binary distinctions to issues of signification, the interpretive needs of particular communities, and so on. Postcolonialism has, on the whole, taken a more robust view of the issues of representation and language, seeking to implement a radical politics of difference as a strategy in the critical analysis of western intellectual narratives.

One of the earliest models of interventionist criticism that reads ‘anthropologically’ in order to point up the ideological determinants of textual meaning is an essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by Chinua Achebe (1977). Achebe sees the novel as saturated in racism; he reads its misrepresentations of Africa as typical of the prejudices of the European observer. The canonical authority of Conrad’s text makes this critique all the more telling:
Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? 9 (Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1988)

The links between this broader view of literary meaning and the eighteenth-century conception of literature as an artefact constructed from a nexus of elements drawn from social life can readily be seen. The further point can be made that at a certain stage in this conceptual enlargement, the term ‘literature’ becomes absorbed into the more general category of culture.  This is the process that has resulted in literary studies becoming pressed into the service of cultural studies in many academic institutions.

Cultural studies thus opens up the anthropological aspects of literary study from two directions. The first is represented by a group of scholars whose expertise was formed in a literary studies context but who now use literary theory as a provider of tools for many different kinds of analysis. Homi K. Bhabha, Robert Young, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Frederic Jameson would be among this group of scholars. The second direction is taken by anthropologists seeking to foreground the issues of textuality and often using similar source material to that developed by the new literary theory for their projects. James Clifford and Clifford Geertz have applied discourse studies to the conceptual field of their discipline and have produced, from this practice, a striking renewal of a discipline that has worked for some time to marginalise the empirical (and value-laden) context of its origin. An anthology entitled Writing Culture provides a useful introduction to the hybrid discipline that has resulted from this convergence. James Clifford argues in his introductory essay that ‘writing has emerged as central to what anthropologists do’, and that, ‘[m]ost of the essays, while focusing on textual practices, reach beyond texts to contexts of power, resistance, institutional constraint, and innovation’.  Much of the material gathered in this text deals with the underlying assumptions, power systems and mechanisms of production that enable texts to be articulated and circulated. Race, gender, class, religious affiliation, sexuality and mental, social or physical disadvantage would be among the factors that lead to gain or loss in this respect. As Paul Rabinow suggests, ‘we need to anthropologize the West: show how exotic its constitution of reality has been’.

This aim bears a striking resemblance to the literary based work of Frederic Jameson and Homi K. Bhabha. For instance, Jameson’s attempt to shift the critique of narrative into the political arena considers the ‘textual revolution’ as that which ‘drives the wedge of the concept of a “text” into the traditional disciplines by extrapolating the notion of “discourse” or “writing” onto objects previously thought to be “realities” or objects in the real world, such as the various levels or instances of a social formation; political power, social class, institutions and events themselves’.

Anthropological criticism appears, in these recent formulations, to be returning to the motives that first propelled it into existence. The preoccupation with language, discourse and textuality that inspired the ‘new science’ of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prompted the attempt at an objective account of the phenomenal world. The new fields of law, medicine, education, art and science were driven by this revolution. Yet this great leap forward has been haunted by a history that was once forgotten  and is only now being repeated. A subsidiary definition of anthropology in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to it as ‘[a] speaking in the manner of men’. This curious phrase takes on a topical resonance when read with an awareness of the self-reflexive critique that many anthropologists now bring to the originating ideology and linguistic structure of their discipline. For it suggests that anthropology is not a master-narrative (despite the term ‘men’) but a narrative that is always under construction, a staging of presence, a framing of subjectivity inside the linguistic field. Such notions lie close to the line of modern philosophy that links Adorno and Benjamin to Foucault and Derrida. Memory, mark, inscription and trace are key terms in this work as it preserves, celebrates and mourns the privileged and marginal moments of the happening of a ‘rational’ civilization. An eloquent account of this position is given in an essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as she writes of the recognition, within deconstructive practice,
of provisional and intractable starting points in any investigative effort; its disclosure of complicities where a will to knowledge would create oppositions; its insistence that in disclosing complicities the critic-as-subject is herself complicit with the object of her critique; its emphasis upon ‘history’ and upon the ethico-political as the ‘trace’ of that complicity – the proof that we do not inhabit a clearly defined critical space free of such traces; and, finally, the acknowledgment that its own discourse can never be adequate to its example.  (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds (London: Methuen, 1987)

In this quotation, an agenda for an ethical deconstruction of the sameness/otherness binary is put forward. The critic, while aware of the way in which language, race, gender and class affect her ability to speak ‘in the manner of’ others, still seeks a speaking position that intervenes in the political world and that values the subject, however dubious the springs of its being.

Source: A History of Feminist Literary Criticism Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Sellers. Cambridge University Press 2007

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