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  • Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies
  • Roger Sandall
Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies, edited by E. Valentine Daniel and Jeffrey M. Peck; 410 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, $50.00 cloth, $16.00 paper.

Blemishes notwithstanding—the anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt rechristened Ervin Meggitt; the title of one of Malinowski’s books given as Coral Gardens and Its Magic; a Greek named Pythogoras—it is clear enough from Daniel’s name-dropping introduction what this celebratory occasion is for. In Culture/Contexture we are invited to share the joy of anthropology’s marriage to “the literary” and admire some of the offspring produced.

It is the argument of its opening sentence that “the presence of the literary in anthropology is best described as ‘uncanny’—a nonscientific drive lodged in the heart of a putative science, a presence both desired and dreaded, a Freudian unheimlich.” Determined to be obscurely clever, unhealthily excited by mysteriousness, and haunted by dread and desire, Daniel may not have been in quite the right frame of mind for measured judgment. But even if he was, it is still far from clear whether what he calls “the literary” in anthropological writing is anything more than stylistic self-advertisement (which he seems to approve), or more considered prose than one might expect (and which is therefore strange, if not uncanny).

He claims that “the hothouse of positivism” blinded previous generations to the fact that anthropologists thoughtfully shaped the language in which they communicated (an astonishing claim if true) whereas “in fact, the rhetorical was the hallmark of many justly famous anthropologists” (p. 6). The list he then provides includes such people as E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Clifford Geertz, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mervyn Meggitt, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the Australian W. E. H. Stanner. Geertz’s essay on Lévi-Strauss, included in this volume, makes a very good case for regarding the latter as someone haunted indeed by “a non-scientific drive.” No argument there. As he writes of Tristes Tropiques, “That Lévi-Strauss is concerned to place himself and his text in the literary tradition established by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and . . . especially Proust, is clear from the way he writes, from what he writes, and from what he says he is concerned to do . . .” (p. 166). And surely Geertz should know. His own literary conceit is one of his more tiresome traits.

But as for the rest? Meggitt writes strong clear anthropological prose with a scientific point and purpose utterly different from Lévi-Strauss, and entirely without that author’s literary pretensions. So in their different ways did Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, et al. They would all be greatly surprised to learn that “the rhetorical” was “the hallmark” of their work. If they were “justly famous” it was for what they wrote more than for the way they wrote. In its descriptive role theirs was a prose which referred, which denoted, which told us much useful objective information about other things than the author’s fretful ego and in other language than that of the Self Expressed. [End Page 495]

To all of this Professor Daniel judiciously turns a blind eye; and this is because, unfortunately, what “the literary” does not mean in both his mind and that of co-editor Jeffrey M. Peck is precisely what it should mean in social science: words used with care, clarity, precision, no more emotion than the subject requires, as well as an overriding concern to convey both the facts and the author’s thought with no chance of misunderstanding. The ability to produce good prose when writing science is not “best described as ‘uncanny’”; it is a professional requirement. Doing so does not necessarily refiect a “non-scientific drive”; it has been a feature of science since the Greeks. This ability may be desired but it is certainly not dreaded—and someone should tell Daniel where to put his Freudian unheimlich because it certainly doesn’t belong here. Good descriptive writing and persuasive anthropological analysis are none of those things: they are simply virtues in the writing of ethnography—as indeed much else.

What of the articles? Few are wholly...

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