Night Thoughts on George Steiner and James Clifford

1 Nov

An initial glance wouldn’t afford much sense of the similarities between George Steiner, humanist critic of Western culture, and James Clifford, self-reflexive anthropologist. I perhaps wouldn’t have seen it myself, truth be told, were it not for happening to read Steiner’s Grammars of Creation and Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture in succession. 

The former begins:

We have no more beginnings. Incipit: that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty “inception”. The medieval scribe marks the opening line, the new chapter with an illuminated capital. In its golden or carmine vortex the illuminator of manuscripts sets heraldic beasts, dragons at morning, singers and prophets. The initial, where this term signifies beginning and primacy, acts as a fanfare. It declares Plato’s maxim – by no means self-evident – whereby in all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent. Today, in Western orientations – observe the muted presence of morning light in that word – the reflexes, the turns of perception, are those of afternoon, of twilight. (George Steiner, Grammars of Creation: Originating in the Gifford Lectures for 1990 [London: Faber & Faber, 2001], p. 1).

Immediately after encountering this opening passage I recalled a passage in The Predicament of Culture:

Ethnography, a hybrid activity, thus appears as writing, as collecting, as modernist collage, as imperial power, as subversive critique. Viewed most broadly, perhaps, my topic is a mode of travel, a way of understanding and getting around in a diverse world that, since the sixteenth century, has become cartographically unified. One of the principal functions of ethnography is “orientation” (a term left over from a time when Europe traveled and invented itself with respect to a fantastically unified “East”). But in the twentieth century ethnography reflects new “spatial practices” (De Certeau 1984), new forms of dwelling and circulating. (James Clifford, “Introduction: The Pure Products Go Crazy”, in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988], p. 13).

I do not want to dwell upon Clifford’s conception of ethnography here, but on his remark about the word “orientation”. Each author, we can see, presents the term quite differently. To my own knowledge, the word comes from the Latin orientem, from oriri, “to rise”. This sense, interestingly enough, itself recalls one particular theory of the etymology of the name “nihon” (日本), or “Japan”, as meaning “sun-origin” or (the land of the) “rising sun”.  This nomenclature apparently derives from Imperial correspondence with Sui Dynasty China and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to that country. Still, the Latin derivation in any case literally meant “rising”, and did not contain these geographical connotations.

Clifford’s gloss on the idea of “orientation” recalls the history of those colonial and imperial projects Edward Said first explicitly linked with the profession of (particularly French and British) studies of the Orient, i.e. “Orientalism”. Though Said’s analysis goes as far back as to involve the work of Homer, Aeschylus, the Chanson de Roland, and Dante, in the modern sense of “orientation”, as distinct from the older history of the word “orient” as a noun, I can’t really argue with Clifford. Steiner seems to only view the term as a noun,  the sense of orientation as referring to the place from where the sun rises, free of the imbrication of this term in its metaleptic leap from noun to verb, from “transparent” indication of location to its new efficacy in later centuries being brought to “bear” upon that “Eastern” location as an instrument of action and will to power. And though the word “orient” as an old French noun, while preceding Dante, (though not Homer), is not what Steiner is referring to, it too could be implicated in the orientalism Clifford and Said draw attention to.

But Steiner is far from politically disinterested in these opening pages. At times he sounds almost as if he were channeling Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, albeit a Spivak leavened with concern for one of Steiner’s characteristic obsessions, the legacy of the Holocaust:

Inhumanity is, so far as we have historical evidence, perennial. There have been no utopia, no communities of justice or forgiveness. Our current alarms – at the violence in our streets, at the famines in the so-called Third World, at regressions into barbaric ethnic conflicts, at the possibility of pandemic disease – must be seen against the background of an exceptional moment. Roughly from the time of Waterloo to that of the massacres on the western front in 1915-16, the European bourgeoisie experienced a privileged season, an armistice with history. Underwritten by the exploitation of industrial labour at home and colonial rule abroad, Europeans knew a century of progress, of liberal dispensations, of reasonable hope. (Grammars, p. 2).

I call it the “legacy of the Holocaust”; Steiner might take me to task in saying so, though:

I do not want to enter into the vexed, in some manner demeaning, debates over the uniqueness of the Shoah (“holocaust” is a noble, technical Greek designation for religious sacrifice, not a name proper for controlled insanity and the “wind out of blackness”). But it does look as if the Nazi extermination of European Jewry is a “singularity”, not so much in respect of scale – Stalinism killed far more – but motivation. Here a category of human persons, down to infancy, were proclaimed guilty of being. Their crime was existence, was the mere claim to life. (p. 3).

This is a digression, however. The last word might have to go to the moment back to Clifford. Reading Steiner I thought of the criticism (perhaps all too easy, in the present conjecture, to make), that Steiner seems to suggest (thought he qualifies the impulse as not a new one in the Western context “the crises of the Roman imperial order…the apocalyptic fears at the approach of the first millennium AD…the wake of the Black Death and the Thirty Years’War” [p. 1]) to posit that “We have no more beginnings.” I certainly don’t disagree with Steiner here, in the sense that the aporia that has succeeded the end of messianic visions emanating from the West is inescapable; but it helps to read these sentiments against Clifford’s, even if I am weary of his sentiments about culture and identity necessarily being “inventive and mobile. They need not take root in ancestral plots; they live by pollination, by (historical) transplanting” (p. 15).

Twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages. This existence among fragments has often been portrayed as a process of run and cultural decay, perhaps most eloquently by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Triste tropiques (1955). In Lévi-Strauss’s global vision – one widely shared today – authentic human differences are disintegrating, disappearing in an expansive commodity culture to become, at best, collectible “art” or “folklore.” The great narrative of entropy and loss in Triste tropiques expresses an inescapable, sad truth. But it is too neat, and it assumes a questionable Eurocentric position at the “end” of a unified human history, gathering up, memorializing the world’s local historicities. (p. 14-15).




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