Indigenism and Essentialism, 2

In a previous post on “Anti-Anti-Essentialism,” I began by outlining some of what I think are the problems with anti-essentialism in anthropology, one of the now dominant conceptual pillars of the discipline. I wish to add a few more personal notes to that here.

Again, this is by no means “finished” work, but more like doodling for a public audience (always in hope of feedback), in keeping with the spirit of “open anthropology”.

I have been more interested in “anti-essentialism” as a rhetorical and political strategy than as simply a philosophical position. I have been specifically interested in essentialism and the politics of indigenous representation. As far as I can see, while essentialism may be inevitable (see that previous post), it is not clear that anti-essentialism is always the same as anti-indigenism, that is, opposed to the representability of the indigenous as indigenous.

Let us consider some examples of the range of positions:

  • anti-indigenous anti-essentialism: disclaiming any effort, of any kind, to even speak of the “indigenous” as itself fundamentally and inescapably entailing essentialism. To be against essentialism in this case means that no identity that permits ideas of commonality and historical continuity is valid. Exemplars of such thinking are Adam Kuper (1993, 2003, 2005) in anthropology (whose work will be discussed at greater length in future posts);

  • anti-indigenous essentialism: this is much more common outside of academia, and can be easily encountered in popular discussions about indigenous identity and indigenous rights in places such as Canada, the United States, and Australia. The idea here is simply that of the “real Indian” or the “real Aboriginal”–to be considered real, depending on the culture in question, one must look, speak, dress, and/or live in an “authentic” aboriginal manner, which means without any signs of change having occurred in the past five hundred years.

  • pro-indigenous essentialism: this is much less common, and takes us back into academia as well as advocacy. The position is more or less represented in the work of Andrew Lattas (1993), and again I will defer further consideration of his contribution. The basic idea here is that representational strategies used by indigenous representatives which adopt essentialist tactics (of perhaps dressing up to meet dominant white expectations of Aboriginal difference, autenticity, and continuity) are in fact valuable and useful if they help Aboriginals to achieve their social and political aims. Moreover, the role of the anthropologist should not be to criticize and dismantle such representational strategies–anthropologists should not feel free to morally authorize themselves to act as expert arbiters of other people’s forms of indentification, and they should not impose themselves as those authorized to create pristine political positions.

  • pro-indigenous anti-essentialism: this is a perspective that one would expect to find clearly articulated as such in the works of academics, but remains, I think, somewhat muted. To some extent one can find this in the works of two New Zealand anthropologists, Steven Webster (1993) and Jeffrey Sissons (2005), as well as in the work of Jonathan Warren (2001) on “post-traditional Indians” in Brazil. The idea here is that reinforcing expectations of continuity, cultural survival, and strong traits of indigenous difference will work to bolster ideas of “the real Indian” (see anti-indigenous essentialism above), and that this is a flaw of both anti-indigenous essentialism and pro-indigenous essentialism. What is lost in essentialisms of the kind outlined above is a notion of culture as resistance, of processual modes of identification, of new ways of being and becoming indigenous through the adaptation and incorporation of the “stuff” of modernity and cultural creolization.

Unfortunately, in the case of pro-indigenous anti-essentialism, one finds readers coming to many mistaken impressions. Those sympathetic to aboriginal causes might think that any discussion of how cultures are changed, or traditions “invented”, must be an indictment of those aboriginal causes–as Jean Jackson once put it, what is at work is a stereotype that for culture to be deemed “good culture” it cannot be seen as having been “corrupted” by the everyday workings of culture brokers. The accusation against the pro-indigenous anti-essentialist is that he/she is “deconstructing” indigeneity and revealing it to somehow be fake or adulterated. In my view, the problem rests entirely with the accuser.

In my own work, I tend to gravitate between both pro-indigenous essentialism and and pro-indigenous anti-essentialism, usually with greater emphasis on the latter. Either way, I think it is the duty of the anthropologist to not come to a decision of which of these is the preferable choice without consultation with, if not subordination to, the predominant tendencies voiced by one’s indigenous partners.

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