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Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 441-445

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Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society. Michael Herzfeld. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2001; 368 pp.

Like many of us, the bread-and-butter of my teaching load is "Introduction to Cultural Anthropology." Yet, I find myself lavishing disproportionate amounts of time on my advanced classes, while my introductory lectures—occasionally emended in the course of preparing for advanced classes—are drawn from rapidly moldering notebooks originating in the misty recesses of my teaching assistantship. Textbooks in cultural anthropology generally follow the same pattern: "contemporary" issues like postmodernism, globalization and mass culture trail the ends of bedrock chapters in subsistence, kinship, marriage and ritual. Do the authors intend irony when they counterpose a section decrying orientalism to a neo-evolutionary account of hunter-gathering and transhumance? I don't know; I'm shopping for a new book.

At the outset, I should say that Michael Herzfeld's Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society is not that book. Sure, I enjoyed a brief moment of hilarity picturing my students wailing over 350 pages of Herzfeld's dense, photo-free prose, but I don't think I'm courting controversy in suggesting that this is exactly the wrong book for an introductory class, a sentiment Herzfeld himself echoes (xi). That said, who is the intended audience?

The book is drawn from a UNESCO project that culminated in two special issues [End Page 441] of International Social Science Journal in 1997. In each of the 19-odd articles, contributors elaborated various issues puissant to contemporary, cultural anthropology, e.g., Arturo Escobar's "Anthropology and Development" and Constance Classen's "Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses." From these, Herzfeld has crafted a single volume engaging these contributions around two, interrelated themes: 1) anthropology as the "practice of theory" (22) and 2) anthropology as the "critical appraisal of common sense" (19). Despite Herzfeld's dismissal of postmodernism (these days so de rigeur), the effort ends up being rather Deleuzean: Herzfeld's critical engagement places him in decidedly schizoid relationships with the original authors—agreeing, conjoining, dissenting, appropriating. The result is fascinating, but perhaps too difficult to pigeon-hole: too erudite for undergraduates, too elementary for graduate students, too parochial for non-anthropologists.

Who is it for? Well, me, of course. Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society interrogates the structure and content of my introductory courses, dissolving the staid themes of my lectures only to rebuild them into a "militant middle ground" neither dismissing the past accomplishments of anthropology nor ignoring trenchant, contemporary critiques. It is—treading again on postmodern ground—a supplement to my introductory classes, an alembic from which I can call forth more competent lectures. "Inevitably, then," Herzfeld writes, "anthropology must occupy a middle ground that gives the lie to those who would claim that empirical scholarship and reflexive critique are mutually incompatible" (21). This is an immensely productive enterprise. Of course, finding the "middle ground" between paired antinomies usually means excluding third terms. I will save those omissions—and my critical comments—for the end of the review.

Herzfeld's third chapter, "Histories," is, in many ways, stanchion to the chapters that follow. Despite the often-repeated claims of kinship with history, anthropologists have generally engaged in what might best be called "anti-history," substituting hypostatic, paired opposites like "tradition/modernity" and "pre-literate/literate" for bonafide historical analysis. Of course, nation-states and many other entities have also propounded highly selective "histories" made up of traditions and "unifying" myths. How can a contemporary anthropology make sense of these conurbations of myth and history? Herzfeld (informed by Michael Roberts, David Scott, Nicholas Thomas and Don Robotham) hearkens back to the late-1980's Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate, deciding that the arguments concerning myth, history, colonialism and positionality raised therein best remain unresolved: "the fissures may be best kept open so that we can more fully discern the ideological and political consequences of both lines of argument" (66). [End Page 442] The temptation would be to read into this a parody of mediation, where...


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