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  • The Limits of Community:How "We" Read Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú
  • David E. Johnson (bio)

Perhaps the most interesting moment of David Stoll's Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans occurs when he cites a "former aide worker in Quiché Department" as saying that "It's not her story, not her autobiography. . . . But the book is representative of somebody's life if not hers. Many people have a life like that" (181). Stoll locates this text as the epigraph to the section "Who Authored I, Rigoberta Menchú?," which is part of the chapter on "The Construction of I, Rigoberta Menchú." Although he does not comment on these sentences, their relation to his argument is clear: they are evidence of Menchú's having distorted her experience in order to represent the "life" of archetypal, poor Guatemalans. Menchú's effort at self-representation that would represent a people typifies anthropological encounters with other cultures. This encounter, this informant speaks for the people, the community. This person or this relation represents the norm from which, then, anthropology catalogues variations and deviations.

Even subtle revisionist anthropology fails to avoid this methodological difficulty. In The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation, Dennis Tedlock attempts to relocate anthropological discourse [End Page 154] within the dialogical frame of the event and thus to reinscribe the time of the encounter in the anthropological product, the ethnography. Yet, despite his caution and his thesis, he nevertheless has consistent recourse to the "normal" and the "typical" as the standard against which to measure or judge this particular instance of performance (36, 38, 41, 43, 62, 66, 67, 305; on formulaic openings, see 206, 209–10). Appeals to the "normal" and the "typical" belie an understanding of tradition that effectively situates a so-called oral tradition within the horizon of a certain "western" tradition or of a notion of tradition dominated by alphabetic writing. Interestingly, although Tedlock's work is invested in marking the time of the anthropological encounter, his dependence on the "normal" undermines that work. It would seem, then, that although he wants what Jean-François Lyotard wants in Just Gaming, he ineluctably sustains a certain "western" tradition. Lyotard claims: "Tradition is that which concerns time, not content. Whereas what the West wants from autonomy, invention, novelty, self-determination, is the opposite—to forget time and to preserve, acquire, and accumulate contents. To turn them into what we call history, and to think that it progresses because it accumulates. On the contrary, in the case of popular traditions, and I think that this is universal and not something limited to the Cashinahua, nothing gets accumulated, that is, the narratives must be repeated all the time because they are forgotten all the time. But what does not get forgotten is the temporal beat that does not stop sending the narratives to oblivion" (34). Anthropology thus "saves" the other—whether Quiché, Zuni, or Cashinahua—from oblivion by normalizing their stories, by remembering them. For Stoll nothing more or less is at stake in Menchú's claim that her story is the story of all poor Guatemalans.

But what if this epigraph challenged, however latently, the very possibility not only of testimonio but of any experientially based narrative, whether anthropological, theoretical, literary, historical, or philosophical? What if this epigraph, which appears to remark the limits of Menchú's veracity at the same time that it grants her text a representational function and authority, what if it—along with Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú—were read as indicating instead the border of any subjectivity determined by or in relation to one's own experience?

At the very least such a reading troubles anthropological discourse's dependence not only on the other's auto-representation, but, in its current renovated cultural anthropological guise, its own representation of itself in the dialogical scene of encounter with others. To be sure, Stoll has no interest in such a disturbing project; on the contrary, his work depends on the same calculus [End Page 155] that will have made Menchú's narrative possible. Put simply, his objection to Menchú's testimony is based on more of the same. Rather than offer a critique of...


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