Archive | April, 2013

19 April Readings: Speaking in (Native) Tongues, or The Elusion of Race

19 Apr

He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books…
He thought that some of these faces might be right for him…
And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind…
Or somewhere in the back of his mind…
That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal…
He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people…
Maybe they imagined that their new face would better
Suit their personality…Or maybe they imagined that their
Personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance…
Although some people might have made mistakes…
They may have arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them…
Some may have gotten half-way
There, and then changed their minds.
He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.

–Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen”, Remain in Light, Sire Records, 1980

Much of the conceit of nativity – which I would argue exists even when we, out of political correctness, put the word “native” in self-distancing scare quotes – seems sometimes as if it were a kind of common sense among anthropologists, as when I was told that I should be more natively familiar with contemporary real estate in Australia than the Dreaming. What I wonder is, in what exactly does this nativity inhere? Familiarity with Anglophone culture/s? Being clean cut? Able bodied? (My own superficical) knowledge of Australian culture? Much of the conceit of the native is like that of the imagined community, existing in empty time and gliding into a limitless future. Yet one’s “own” culture is always a translation. I often reflect upon this when reading history – for example when I look at Japanese history, which feels mysterious and exotic to me, I often reflect upon how it ought to seem different to reading, say, English or Australian history. And yet both of these feel somehow equally mysterious and exotic. According to the limits of my “nativity”, my reading anything dating prior to Australian colonisation would presumably be an act of “non-native” or “away from home” “fieldwork”. Accepting that this wold be absurd, how far back do we have to go before we sense that a native culture is in fact exceedingly difficult to define? I can read Shakespeare, albeit in modern spelling. I can’t read Beowulf, except in translation. Admittedly, I can only read back as far as postwar writing in Japanese, not quite as fluent as my eighteenth century and earlier abilities in English. But then again, neither can most other Japanese-speakers: prewar Japanese literature (Dazai Osamu for example, or in the case of English, Shakespeare say), is usually read in its revised, modern spelling; and something like The Tale of Genji, or Beowulf, is read by very few in the original.

Whether we define nativity in terms of blood relations or cultural familiarity/influence (and the former, though disavowed in liberal societies as being a primary consideration in determining one’s racial or cultural identity, still wields a strong pull: we don’t usually consider anthropologists who spend more time “in the field” than at home “natives”). One of the interesting aspects of Said’s thesis in Orientalism was that the ability to speak of another culture was argued to be problematic, yet on precisely whose part is never explicitly spelt out. As a result, many subsequent theorists have gone to some lengths to be “correct” or more reflexive in their speaking positions: Is anybody in the West who describes the Orient Orientalist? Can natives speaking of their “own” culture be Orientalist? If so,how would we ever find an Archimedean point from which to recognize ideologies outside Orientalism? Since no culture is homogenous, there is no speaking position which does not exclude – if not culturally, ethnically; if not ethnically, genderedly; if not genderedly, religiously; if not religiously, mentally.

Dorinne Kondo draws attention to the fact that linguistic fluency is, technically, unattainable – fluency is simply another way of saying that one rarely faces contexts where the right word escapes one. Yet languages in universities are still taught as if all one ever did was buy train tickets and visit temples and art galleries (if only!). The reality however is more likely to be filled with questions such as, “Why do you speak our language?/What made you want to learn xxxx?” or endless agonising moments of realising that you cannot imagine what the most idiomatic way of asking for your fish to be filleted or your tire pumped might actually be. As Kondo points out, not enough is made in language teaching of “culturally appropriate modes of moving, acting, and speaking.” We do, to be sure, often teach students “cultural notes” and the like. But a more physical engagement remains missing. Language courses tend to act as if one learnt language, then became culturally acclimatised. Nothing could be further from the truth. To paraphrase ideas already made familiar by the work of people like Saba Mahmood, Judith Butler, and Althusser (one prays, then believes, as Althusser claimed in his essay on Ideological State Apparatus; Althusser was also an influence on Butler: the “subject-to-be will have to ‘find’ ‘its’ place, i.e. ‘become’ the sexual subject (boy or girl) which it already is in advance”, also from the same essay): one mimics/performs the cultural modes of a partciular language, and then, as a result, learns that language. There is a very good reason why, for all the PC language of multiculturalism that once seemed inescapable twenty years ago, many foreigners and migrants still strive for something more reminiscent of the melting pot or assimilation theory of culture: it is because difference brings punishment, while assimilation brings reward. As Kondo remarks of playing the role of daughter in the Sakamoto household, “(t)his seemed to please them and reinforced my tendency toward behaving in terms of, and identifying with, my Japanese role.” One prays, then believes. Although language and cultural acclimatisation are painful processes (including in one’s native culture, as childhood memories often attest), university language teaching still seems to emphasise comfort and familiarity. The idea seems to be that one will, after a very long time, at least be able to read in the target language (though not necessarily to speak it). I am exaggerating, though I daresay not so much as I wish to (children in Australian primary schools fare even worse: at an age when people are at their most susceptible to the fun and physicality of learning a new language and culture, Australia, under the banner of cultural plurality, wastes years of its children’s time teaching them the first five letters of the Japanese alphabet or “Hello” in French, and little else besides). Contra this methodology, the idea should be to produce native speakers – Anglophones, Sinophones, and whatever the long awaited term for Japanese speakers may one day prove to be. To be sure, as Kondo remarks, a white- (or black-) faced speaker of Japanese may be discouraged by some who react coldly or refuse to acknowledge them. As it happens, in my experiene, this tends to be common among establishment figures or middle aged men (who seem to be wary of men of my age in any culture, mind!).  To be sure, I don’t think one can overstate the importance of blood in some countries. Predominant ideologies in Japan tend to divide the world in two types of people: people with Japanese blood and people without it. The former are made up nihonjin (“pure blooded”), nikkeijin (descended from Japanese blood) and haafu (“half” or “mixed blood”). The rest of the world is in turn ascribed a place in terms of (usually national) descent. Naturalised Japanese occupy an interesting place in this categorising process: the fact that they are naturalised however is rarely neglected mention. In other words, one rarely hears of “hyphenated identities” except in terms of blood ties. I find it interesting for example that Professor Laura Dales claimed that her appearance prevented her being accepted as Japanese. This seems to suggest (leaving aside qualifying factors such as accent and so on, which can be honed in order to allow for one to “pass”) that all haafu can never be accepted, which is/has hardly been the case.

Assimilation, I think, exerts a strong pull on migrants. In Cuba, after being unable to reply to a man who asked me the time, and being asked by a visiting American tourist group who I followed as they were given a tour by a lecturer of Havana University as to exactly “how many years I had studied with the professor”, I still sometimes feel that part of me is “lost” for not speaking Spanish. This may sound completely absurd; nonetheless I think it demonstrates precisely why the pull of ethnic belonging can be so strong in spite of any practical reason for feeling it. For example, when Kondo claims to have grown up with a sense of somehow ‘being Japanese’ in spite of growing up in a non Japanese-speaking household and having an avowedly largely American attitude, I am quite skeptical, yet can understand that the imaginative idenitifcation, as a reslt of her facial appearance in American society and so on, might be strong. (Similar remarks could be said of Kylie Kwong or Amy Tan, who claim a sense of “home” in China, which begs the question of what role the countries with which they are more culturally and materially familiar and presumably at “home” – Australia and the U.S. respectively – are supposed to be: second homes? “Not real” or temporary homes?). Of course, such imaginative identification is often culturally particular too. Many might claim to be Asian-Austalian, but fewer seem to have to answer for being British- or Scottish-Australian. Kondo remarks of not recognising herself in the mirror that this can be a frightening process – at one extreme, a sense of losing touch with the self. On the other hand, there are some who might want to lose touch with themselves (some migrants, or people who take plastic surgery to soften or manipulate certain traits of their racial appearance), but I won’t digress into that here.

Having said all this, I would have been interested to know more of how Kondo found herself being interpellated or encouraged to be Japanese. Within cultures there are distinctions of identity, and in Japan two of the strongest are those of age and sex. In language terms, awareness of gendered- and age-specific ways of speaking are important, though there is growing freedom within these roles – gendered language seems now to be much weaker than it once was, and politeness levels, although still strong, contain room for negotiation as well (though this should not be overstated).

One thing I can say I am very conscious of as an especial difference in culture between Japan and Australia is attitudes to young people. Young people in Australia seem to have quite a lot of importance for their age – it is rare to sense that simply being young will, in and of itself, prevent your rise in the world. Japan could hardly be more different. Being young in Japan is the first clue one usually has in beginning to understand that, regardless of any talent or ability, it will be some time before one will gain the opportunity to be taken seriously, or even taken to be anything much at all. One recent exception to this, and an inspiration, is Kato Yoshikazu:

I found it interesting that in both Kondo’s and Beshir’s readings, reference is made to “American friends” who in both cases are depicted as not really aware of how ordinary locals lived (Beshir, 444: “With time, a surprising number of American researchers and students adopted a rebellious attitude that bordered on racism. Because they did not feel connected to any part of the culture and lacked an understanding and appreciation of the society, a certain percentage of the American scholarly community decided that it was useless to try to assimilate. Instead, it was easier to adopt a supercilious attitude and point out that the reason for the many obvious problems in a country such as Egypt had to do with the incompetence of the people.”) Although many countries have a sort of “tourist life” of government platitudes and beaten tracks for those who are seen as or see themselves as only visiting briefly, I wondered if things have changed since. I once mentioned in another Asian studies class that I was suspicious of today’s ethnographers spending government money traveling overseas for fieldwork when we have the Internet and programs like Skype. Although (negative) reactions to my suggestion were not unpredictable, it is interesting to note those types of fieldwork which might necessitate such an appraoch – study of, say, people who spend their time on the Internet, unemployed or working casually, and who rarely leave the house (relatively common in countries such as Japan and Korea). Surely Skype would be the most appropate mode of “field travel” in interviewing such “informants”? Certainly I understand that Internet technologies and programmes tend to be US-centric and that not everyone in any case uses the Internet, but I sometimes think there is a certain nativism or even romanticism among those making those kinds of arguments – even in Cuba the Internet has penetrated to some degree. I suppose my larger point is simply a sense of shock at how much more viscerally accessible the Internet has made overseas culture: between Net TV, iPhone apps, Couchsurfing, YouTube and Skype, not to mention working at an ethnically-specific job, it is easy to feel as though you no longer live in “your” country (or indeed, have not left, if working as a migrant). In other words, barriers to one’s ability to live in an “ethnic bubble” have all but evaporated (excuse the mixed metaphors). I am not denying structural and material limitations to this. But as psychological experience, when everything you see, hear, read, watch and converse with speaks of another culture, and that to live in this way requires no particular effort, you know that the world in which anthropology was originally conceived has changed a great deal.

Eventually Kondo begins to sense that the gap between American career woman and Japanese daughter is not fusable: she has to elect one. This reminded me of Ribi Hideo, the American academic who decided in the early nineties to quit his positions at Stanford and Harvard for a life writing and living exclusively in Japanese. Reading his pre-conversion days is like reading the work of another person. Although I never had the chance to meet him, I do not doubt that the sense of meeting a Japanophone was distant to the point of irreconcilablity compared to if I had been going to meet, say, a Harvard Japanologist. Like the common migrant story – becoming a child in a foreign culture, when one was one a doctor or respected personage back home – there is a sense that there is no comparability between the daughter/academic or Japanologist/Japanese author roles.

Kondo mentions having “slender hope of appraising what was going on around and inside of me” if she did not become more aware of the “American” in her “Japanese American” identity. I wonder how a third identity might have differently affected this sense of disintegration. Hideo for example has for the last ten years written less about Japan and America, as in the past, and more of Japan, America, and China, creating a triangulation that mediates between all three cultures. I must admit, I was curious to know why Kondo wrote as if she would have had no diversity of roles to play back in America, and yet felt as though she experienced so many as a “Japanese”.

Kondo ends by remarking that “the power to represent rests, in the end, with the editorial authority of the writer.” To this I would add: but also with publishing houses! I suspect it will be increasingly common to see disputes among academics from different cultures, many of whom may interpret the same subject completely differently (a disparity that is usually hidden by the hegemony of English, which means Anglophone academies usually work in total ignorance of publications in other languages, especially those outside of Euro-America: a completely different situation to the non-Anglophone academy, where bibliographical references in languages like German, French and English are often glossed in the original, without translation; a situation that those same languages could never hope to be afforded in the Anglophone academy). Furthermore, the development of many countries who previously could not afford to make their points of view heard internationally is changing the academic landscape, and we already are increasingly seeing new monographs from publishing houses which previously were limited to domestic publication and consumption of their ideas and discourse. I found it funny to think that something of the cultural pluralism that avowedly exists in liberal societies and talks of the Japanese American or Asian Australian could, as Kondo’s experience of fragmentation suggests, be accused of “gazing in fascination at our own reflected image, only to mistake it for the face of the Other.” After all, a term like Asian Australian ethnicizes the former while specifying and humanising the latter. More specifically, it tends to mean, in the case of literature, a study of things written in English; rarely is mention made of anything written in an “Asian” language. The distinction between the humanitas and the anthropos remains a difficult one to overcome.

This Land Is Your Land: Encounters

Yet the Boasian tradition offers more than experimental methodologies; it offers a radically different understanding of the epistemology of fieldwork. This understanding does not rest on a distinction between ethnographic Self and native Other but, instead, draws its analytic leverage from a rigorous historicity that refigures the question of Otherness in terms of temporal rather than cultural alterity. (437 Bunzl)

P 438, sherif

Indigenous ethnographers and “partial insiders” raise questions about the boundaries of understanding and interpretation. Ideally, the fieldwork process “nativizes” the anthropologist, shaping him or her into an interpreter and objective authority. Clifford and Marcus (1986) have pointed out that “insiders studying their own cultures offer new angles of vision and depths of understanding (p. 9). Nonetheless, as a number of researchers (Altorki & El-Solh, 1988; Karim, 1993; Okely, 1996; Robbins & Bamford, 1997) have indicated, indigenous ethnographers and “partial insiders” are also constrained in their research and analyses both by boundaries imposed through the anthropological discipline and by personal, gendered experiences in the field. Increasingly, the realization that boundaries are blurred with shifting and ambiguous identities has highlighted the fact that research is infinitely layered and interwoven. This challenges assumptions of oppositional subjectivities rooted in Western, binary thinking.

Does it? Or does it simply repeat them in a negative mode? Aren’t cultural plurality and a certain permissible sort of border crossing encouraged by the West? I would be curious to know furthermore how the anthropologist can be both an “interpreter” and an “objective authority”.

446: I became increasingly careful in my own writing to avoid superimposing theories and generalizations onto their lives. Instead, in my fieldwork accounts, I consciously let my informants speak for themselves, in an attempt to show the dilemmas and commonalities that they face in their lives.

Although this risks repeating the humanitas/anthropos distinction whereby the West creates theory and ideas, while the periphery simply communicates transparently and speaks for itself. As Bunzl puts it, “If anthropologists focused on nonliterate peoples, it was only because other disciplines were already concerned with the investigation of literate groups.” (437)