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  • Fabian as Investigative Style
  • Richard Fardon
Johannes Fabian . Memory against Culture: Arguments and Reminders. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2007. xi + 191 pp. Bibliography. Index. $21.95. Paper.

If Johannes Fabian were reviewing this book I fancy he might start with its title, "memory against culture" and ask himself what was to be inferred from the use of "against." Perhaps, as he does on occasion here, he would explore what happened when the title was translated into French, German, and Swahili. Would the connotations in those other three languages be as broad, even shifting, as they are in English? Falling far short of his facility in the first two languages, and with no Swahili at all, I nonetheless have my doubts. "Against" is used to open out two debatable terms in a typically Fabian way. No advocate of fixed systems or classifications, Fabian has always preferred good questions "against" definitive answers. One way of reading "memory against culture" would be dialectically, and this would capture something about the book, but it would ignore this reader's sense that memory emerges as the winner, if only for the time being, from these dozen, mostly occasional, "arguments and reminders."

Although we might approach an ethnographic question via either of them, memory is a more challenging frame than culture. The likely pitfall of organizing our curiosity through culture is the tendency for it to coalesce in ways formally similar to national culture. It doesn't have to do this; we can pluralize public culture, popular culture, elite culture, and so forth in an effort to reflect the complexity of our contemporary subject matter. But slipping back into a conception of culture as over-integrated, and overly connected to proclamation of some essentialized identity, is a constant danger. The contrary danger arises from channeling our interests through the conceptual pathway of "memory": the harder we think about it, the more everything becomes an aspect of memory, or begs memory as a condition of its possibility. It is typical of Fabian's thought that he prefers to risk fuzziness around an area of inquiry than to court reification. (I'll come back to memory later, since it is the heart of this collection and key to the development of Fabian's ideas in the quarter of a century since his name became known as the author of one of anthropology's most famous late twentieth-century books—Time and the Other [1983]—a source of kudos to a scholar then in his mid-forties, but a reputation trailing a burden of expectations.)

At one time or another, I must have read most of Fabian's major writings, and by now I bring anticipations to them: I have a partial sense of how they work. (By "partial" I mean both my sense of how they work and my feeling that this sense is only part of how their author intended them to work; full appreciation of these dimensions would involve an intellectual trajectory, [End Page 165] particularly through continental philosophy, closer to his than mine has been). This sense of the limits to one's own familiarity occurs only for those authors whose writings we deem it worthwhile to read deeply. Fabian's works (using that term advisedly) typically involve the creation of an intermediary, textlike object of analysis—one that can be (to some degree) shared with his readers in what is (at least relatively) a preanalyzed form. This may be a found object (existing independently of his researches) or one jointly worked on with African interlocutors; the difference between the two matters, but it does not include a distinction between a textlike object and its amenability to further analysis. Fabian's method requires his readers to experience the object of analysis in some independence from its analysis. This is immensely difficult (both practically and theoretically), but the emphasis Fabian places on this method is evident from his determination to make his sources available.

In his analytic approach, Fabian tends to move upstream of his source: he poses questions about the conditions of the production and performance of the textlike object. Doing so is a practical corollary of the epistemological interest he...


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