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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 289-298

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Response to Victor Li

Gananath Obeyesekere
Princeton University

I AM NOT SURE WHAT I COULD SAY OF VICTOR LI'S SUPERB PAPER, BECAUSE I agree with most of what he says—and that includes some of his criticisms of my own work. His is not only the most thoughtful and sustained critique of my debate with Marshall Sahlins, but it also raises the larger issues pertaining to our own discipline. I think these issues cannot be resolved within the compass of a single article but they must surely provoke us to consider them in our own ethnographic and theoretical writing, especially the central issue of relativism, the problem of alterity, the questionable nature of ethnographic authority, the exoticization of other cultures, and the larger issue of how one can even begin to study another culture or, for that matter, one's own.

Let me make a few methodological arguments with respect to two issues in Victor Li's paper: that of ethnographic authority and that of agency in relation to culture and the Foucauldian notion of power, both underscored in Li's article in various places. First, Li seems to be more sympathetic to the current critique of "ethnographic authority" than I am. It seems to me that an author, almost definitionally, cannot escape author-ity, however much he [End Page 289] tries. Even those of us who would deny ethnographic authority are making authoritative methodological statements. I would say that it is not so much ethnographic authority that is at issue but ethnographic authoritarianism, which is especially manifest in the belief in the ethnographer's capacity to stand outside of himself and dogmatically understand another culture. Second, I fully agree with Li that the anthropological idea of culture (and this includes Sahlins's notion of structure) has a rigidity because, among other things, it has no place for agency. This is true even of Clifford Geertz's idea of culture because even though he shows webs of significance everywhere, he rarely shows the spider at work! (Obeyesekere 1990, 285-6). This idea is quite unlike that of Max Weber, for whom culture has to be mediated through the consciousnesses of special agents, such as prophets, magicians, and charismatic leaders, such that understanding cultural genesis and change was less a problem for him than for his Geertzian followers. Indeed, Talcott Parsons, one of Geertz's formative influences at Harvard, claims (rightly, I think) that Weber implicitly recognized a human drive toward meaning (Parsons, xlvii). Sahlins also inherits the French structuralist bias against agency that ironically might link him with (for him) the detestable Foucault.

Sure, power might constitute a special form of agency for Foucault, but while he brilliantly exposes the discourses of power underlying the emergence and persistence of epistemes in Western thought, he also, at times, reifies power to such an extent that it loses interpretive or explanatory significance. That "apotheosis of power" is very much in the spirit of Durkheim's apotheosis of society. Yet, unlike Foucault, Durkheim can link society with agency even when he uses such dubious notions as "collective consciousness" that in turn have agential significance in producing "collective representations," an idea that roughly approximates the ethnographic notion of culture. For me reified Power can be as empty of significance as reified Culture.

Aside from these two provisos I have little to add to Victor Li's powerful critique of the dominant tradition of ethnographic writing. Instead, I would like to respond to a persistent critique of my work by Sahlins and others: the idea that Western scholars "slavishly repeat the irrational beliefs of our [End Page 290] ancestors" (cited in Li, p. 206). "Slavishly" is not my usage, but I have been accused in the many reviews of my book and during coffee table conversations of suggesting that Western culture has no space for improvisation whereas non-Western cultures do. This accusation is simply not true, and in fact I have insisted that one must be emancipated from the radical binary distinction between the West and...


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