Anti-anti-essentialism. 1

I tell people that I am an “anti-anti-essentialist.” I am still working on what that is supposed to mean, so let me do this in bits and pieces, and this is the first entry for this topic.

I am not at all convinced that essentialism–the notion, in anthropology, that a culture or ethnicity consists of fixed traits, is unchanging, without variation, and endures perhaps above or below history — is either always politically negative (a common assumption being that essentialism, virtually by definition rather than by practice, is implicated with the likes of Nazi ideology, racism, etc.), is analytically flawed, nor am I convinced that essentialism is even indispensable to our basic analytical thought patterns. That is a general introduction.

Let me focus on the difference between essentialist and processual understandings of indigenous identity, for now, because this is something I address in my teaching in ANTH 303, Indigenous Cultures Today, and thus the example comes readily to mind. We will see how essentialism becomes unavoidable: it is the firmament.

An essentialist understanding of an indigenous identity would focus on surviving cultural traits, those practices and customs, objects and ideas, that have survived colonialism with little or no change. Of course if “everything is constantly invented” then that alone requires that you have one eye on something fixed and stable by which you determine that something else is being “constantly invented.” Then we have to ask, how would we, the outside observers, know what is changing? With reference to what? How “deep” is the change? How do we distinguish between minor and significant changes, and serious Change? There are such things that, if they change at all, change too slowly for any of us to perceive the change, especially those of us who are outsiders to begin with and are not in a position to judge.

Rather than dismiss cultural change, I am just saying for now that matters are not quite as simple as the anti-essentialists would have us believe. If there is a problem that essentialist definitions pose, it is that whole areas of indigenized change may be dismissed as not being “truly indigenous.” Essentialism can also deny people the active role they can perform in changing their minds, doing things differently, selecting, and reinterpreting. That is why I am not pro-essentialist, though I can sound that way if the politics of contention in a given situation demand it.

A processual understanding of indigenous identity is one that is not fixated on traits, but focused on struggle, struggles that renew indigeneity, that provide new arenas and means for being and becoming indigenous. If essentialism internalizes, processualism externalizes: indigeneity is relational, it involves parties locked in contention. As the New Zealand anthropologist, Steven Webster, put this: “Maori culture is not something that has been lost, it is the loss; being ‘a Maori’ is struggling to be a Maori” (Webster 1993: 228).

So why not just endorse processualism and call that a day?

One reason is that processualism externalizes indigeneity–it focused on relations with or against others. It has no “internal” life, no received history, no “stories that mama used to tell me.”

Another reason for not simply endorsing processualism–and this is why I say that essentialism can never be avoided–is that processualism can bear essentialist fruits:


A man from the Navajo Reservation in Colorado asks the activist, “what tribe do you come from? You call yourself an Indian, but you don’t live on any rez!” [essentialist]

The Indian activist: “What the hell kind of Indian are you? I don’t recall seeing you at the Seige of Alcatraz? I don’t remember your face from Wounded Knee.” [processualist cum essentialist]

We can take the reverse situation, where essentialism becomes processual, relational, and historical–all the things that the anti-essentialists say that essentialism cannot be. An essentialist representation (“this is our culture, this is who we are, what we do, we speak this language, eat this food, this is the way it has always been”) is itself an active construction, it is the result of agency, and it is usually brought into play in a relationship with or against others. In other words, there is no essentialism that is divorced from process.

What conclusion can we draw? Well one conclusion is a particularly dismissive one, and I am afraid that I must endorse it: the concept, outside of abstract philosophy, aside from metaphysics, is actually an empty concept because it is consistently undermined and upheld, in almost equal measure (depending on the situation), in actual practice.

The critique of essentialism in cultural analysis is the critique of nothing.

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