Issue 7.3, August 1992

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Essay Excerpt

There has been a continuous struggle over the definition of the anthropological object of study. One suggestion is to see it in terms of performances (Turner 1986). Performances are processes with particular diachronic structures that reveal distinct patterns of social relationships. By studying "social dramas" (Turner1974, 1982b), the anthropologist gains access to the alien world as it is enacted in practice rather than as an abstract system. Practice always puts structure at risk, and at any time, the event observed by the anthropologist may prove to engender change in the system. Focusing on events, therefore, facilitates our apprehension of "other cultures" as life rather than as text. The same applies to biographies.

In addition to this, the explicit focus on performances emphasizes the inherent reflexivity of the event. The performance arouses people's consciousness of themselves; it reveals them not only to the world but also to themselves (Turner 1982:75, 1986:81). It is the reflexive nature of social performances that ultimately makes them the source of the theater. Both kinds of performance represent particular dramatizations of culture. One outcome of this convergence is the suggestion that anthropology in general moves toward a "theatrical paradigm"(Schechner 1982:51;Turner1986:75). This implies a concentration on the processes of social dramas and an abandonment of the timeless patterns of culture. Although my own concept of the anthropological object is different, I still find it true that the new reflexive trends in anthropology certainly challenge the traditional view of cultures and their "reproduction" in texts. Part of this discussion is of immediate relevance for the theater and its "restoration" of behavior.

We realize now that all ethnographic writings (and plays) are in some sense allegorical (Clifford1986b). Allegory designates a narrative practice in which the text continually refers to another pattern of ideas or events without assuming identity with it. Recognizing the allegorical nature of ethnography, therefore, is an acknowledgment of the story aspect of representation. It is worth emphasizing here that not only anthropologists but also their studied subjects may invoke allegories to construct their identities (Lavie 1989). The recognition of the power of allegory, therefore, transcends the realm of the anthropological discourse and reaches back into the structure of the reality to which this discourse refers. In brief, acknowledging the allegorical nature of ethnography implies a view of representation - of both selves and others - as a creative process rather than as a substantive category. That is the real advance of anthropology in the '80s- although substantially foreshadowed by Griaule, for instance.

The representation of "the others" is not a mirror reflection of their social space, the accuracy of which can be measured against reality. It is a process of reenactmen that, like the theater,presupposes both actors and audiences. Still truthful to reality, the allegorical process allows greater freedom of expression than the "realist" paradigm in anthropology because the goal is no longer seen as reproduction but as "evocation" of the alien social space (cf. Tyler 1986).

Although "presence" in the field is no longer an absolute source of ethnographic authority (Clifford 1983b), it is still a precondition for the evocation of a probable world beyond the limits of the known. The ethnographic"presence" implies much more than the physical presence in the field - the "I was there and I saw it myself" source of authority. It is also the degree to which the fieldworker impresses herself or himself upon the alien culture and participates in its reflexivity. The acknowledgment of this kind of presence is a precondition for re-pre sentation proper. (Kastrup, 339-340)