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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 625-638
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Histories of the Other
The attempt to edify (ourselves or others) may consist in the hermeneutic activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture or historical period, or between our own discipline and another discipline which seems to pursue incommensurable aims in an incommensurable vocabulary.
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
In engaging in any interdisciplinary endeavor, it is probably wise to consider Rorty's analogy: to consider the other discipline (for there is always an other discipline in any interdisciplinary work) as an alien land, culture, or time. Rorty continues: "For edifying discourse is supposed to be abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings" (360). This kind of estrangement is a guard against both the hubris that allows us to think that we have their number and the shallow kind of interdisciplinarity that is not a real attempt at engagement, but merely a rearrangement of disciplinary purviews and objects of study.
The comparison between other disciplines and other cultures is particularly apt when considering anthropology, because it can be both the Other and a very sophisticated site for thinking about the Other. Anthropology at its best can be a constant and provocative reminder about the difficult, dangerous, and deeply rewarding project that Rorty calls edification. Not only having served to remind us of other ways of thinking, behaving, and existing in the world, it has developed complex theoretical discussions and methodologies addressing the very problem of how people from extremely different perspectives learn from one another.
Yet anthropology—especially cultural anthropology—is not widely perceived by scholars in history, literature, and other humanities disciplines as being all that "incommensurable." The frontier that surrounds the discipline of anthropology is fairly well traveled, and many disciplinary visitors know a bit of the lingo: a [End Page 625] smattering of its history, some of its methods, rhetorical techniques, and current debates. Through a selective tour of reading—starting, say, with Claude Lévi-Strauss's Amazonian writing lesson, continuing on to Bali with Clifford Geertz to learn how to read a cockfight like a text, and winding up in Paris with James Clifford to hang out with some modernists—literary scholars may even regard anthropology as comfortably familiar: they're basically like us, only perhaps better traveled. 1 Alternatively, we can take a thrilling historical tour—to Frazer's Golden Bough (1907-15) or Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society (1877)—in which we may shudder with horror at what primitives and barbarians (racists, imperialists, teleological thinkers) these Others are. But this kind of disciplinary tourism is only trivially edifying, at best. Rather than engaging with (learning from) the Other, we may instead be going to the Other to confirm the basic generality of our agendas, the basic rightness of our views.
As an anthropologist might tell us, one way to be renewed in our sense of estrangement is to get away from the border a bit and engage in the difficult business of trying to capture how the Others talk about themselves when they are among themselves. Such talk can be hard to follow, focused as it is not only on the specialized intellectual problems of the field, but also on the sometimes more covertly articulated problems of the formation and maintenance of group (that is, disciplinary) identity. Luckily, such moments of frankness are available to us in the form of disciplinary histories, which, in the narration of common origins, ancestors, and traditions, are often written with just such an eye to group formation and maintenance, particularly to the edification and inculcation of the young. Under review are two accounts of the history of anthropology as practiced in North America, offered by and for practicing anthropologists and their students.
Both Regna Darnell's Invisible Genealogies...