american literature · Ethnicity Studies · Ethnography · graduate school · Native American Studies · Writing

James Clifford and the Predicament of Culture

Early in my academic career, I encountered Paula Gunn Allen. A woman of Laguna-Sioux and Lebanese American heritage, she is the first indigenous studies scholar I encountered. I read her essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale” in my undergraduate literary and critical theory course. I was a senior, in my early twenties.

This text was my entry point into questioning interpretation, the central location of the English language in my ideological upbringing, the notion of misrepresentation–incidental or intentional–my academics. It was the first time it actually occurred to me to be skeptical of experts, particularly experts that are outside of a group and in a position of power over a group they are representing.

My first semester in my doctoral program, I got in into my head to write about ethnographic methodology in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In this process, I encountered James Clifford, and his writing about the subjective practices involved in ethnographic methodology.

Now, I’ve just finished reading his book The Predicament of Culture. I don’t have anything earth shattering to say about it, other than the observation that I found his chapter on ethnographic authority to be extremely useful. Ethnographers have continually grappled with and tried to find ways to account for (whether by acknowledgement or omission) the multiplicity of voices that enter into field notes, and make their way, visibly or invisibly, into the textual product of the ethnography. It will be an intriguing way to focus in on the texts I read and write about in my dissertation. Whether they are fiction or nonfiction, there is still a way that the authority of the ethnographer/writer is supported by informants. Whether the writer chooses to render those informants as an authority in the text or renders them invisible–or something in between– is reflective of cultural ideologies, cultural relationships, and the overall beliefs about the purpose and ability of the ethnographer.

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