RSS Feed

June, 2012

  1. Treading the Dualistic Universe

    June 23, 2012 by Fan


    Treading the Dualistic Universe

    -        A Critique of the Critique of Development Discourse

    Fan Zhang

          This paper intends to lay out a blueprint for a critique of the anthropological critique of development. It is also an attempt at a new style of academic writing pertaining to Foucauldian concepts treasured by contemporary anthropologists in the English-speaking world.


          In one revealing moment in the documentary Milking the Rhino (2009), the European manager of a Namibia lodge demands local villagers not to peddle their wares when the Western tourists visit. “They want to see authentic African life”, she explains. “But this is authentic – this is what they really want to do”, her local interlocutor argues in vain.

    A fundamental pair of dualistic oppositions in social life is disclosed upon careful inspection on the above summary: culture and economy. Endless spin-offs of this dualism can be played out in anthropology’s fantastic binary universe. For the purpose of this succinct essay (and by essay, I mean essai that is more than a thesis1), I will only select a few pairs serving as an index or a map threading developmental ideas into anthropology’s discourse of dualism:


    culture: economy

    nature: culture

    the rest: the West

    culture as nature: culture as culture

    authenticity: inauthenticity

    non-participation: participation

    to be looked at: look at

    symbolism: materiality

    art: everyday life

    multi-sited: single-sited

    world: local

    national: regional

    anthropology: history

    knowledge: power

    French school: British school


    (essay/essai: thesis)


    The relation between the last two pairs and proceeding oppositions is the most obscure but fundamental. The puzzle will be solved in the end of this paper. It’s sufficient to say here that this dualistic universe contains anthropological fields, developmental discourse, critiques of this discourse, and anthropological theory in general. The scope of this paper, thus, will slightly go beyond a critique of developmental discourse into a critique of this critique.


         Let’s begin with the first pair, culture versus economy.

    The mechanism of the Namibian project is conservation by tourism with the participation and empowerment of local community. Participatory development is its philosophy. Eco-tourism inevitably leads to Western tourists’ encounter with and interest in not only Namibia’s natural landscape but also its human landscape, or “culture”. Culture is thus seen, consciously or unconsciously, as part of local ecology.

    The participatory value for local people, on the other hand, is that they can benefit financially from eco-tourism. It is assumed – by the European lodge manager at least – that this will sufficiently compensate local population’s loss in stopping hunting wild animals. But reality doesn’t just stop at assumed sufficiency: local people will use all their ingenuity to advance their own financial interests when opportunities present themselves – they want to peddle their wares.

    The manager’s displeasure demonstrates that local people’s economic candour is seen out of participatory development’s project control. The direct logic of this need for cultural authenticity can be explained as such: since the pristine quality of local ecology is the mandate – tourists are here to look at not to change nature –  by logical extension without need for further articulation, the pristine quality of local “culture” is a given. Understandably it will be upsetting if the visitors realize that they have changed local people’s way of life. This awareness, in turn, will threaten to give tourists the impression that they might have changed the pristine nature as well.

    In other words, there are two types of culture according to this direct logic: Western visitors who come here to look belong to a culture outside nature, while non-Western residents who are here to be looked at belong to a culture that is within a nature that should be controlled or conserved.


          The underlying logic of the need for authenticity mentioned above, however, must be traced in history. As Professor Tania Li points out in The Will to Improve, contemporary development interventions’ constant concerns for authenticity are in fact continuous with earlier colonial powers’ strategy of governing through supposedly customary communities (Li 2007:675). Cultural traditions, in a way, are artificial constructs useful for political control. In other words, participatory development could be a form of indirect rule. The locals don’t have the power to participate equally and fully.

    But it is useful to remember that this assessment of participatory development is based on the observation of a “still” in an unfinished and unfinishable motion picture: it is neither the full picture nor the full story. A lot of nuances and changes must be allowed. It is also important to look at a “community” issue beyond local setting on national and global levels. Fred Meyer’s analysis of Australian aboriginal paintings’ proliferation, which I will relate in relative details, gives us a good example.




    The art-world boom of Oceania aboriginal painting since 1980s created rapid development of an indigenous art industry. There are admirers and distracters from different camps (Meyer 1995:45).

    For admires, native art’s abstract character is pleasing to modern Western sensibility. New Age spiritualism embraces its assumed “holism” or “totality”. Do-gooders make a point of supporting native rights by purchasing native art.

    For detractors, aesthetically the industrial proliferation of aboriginal art deprives its “power of strangeness”; politically it is a form of soft neo-colonialism in a world of unbalanced power-relations (Meyer 1995:70-76).

    On the national level, Australian government eagerly supports aboriginal art in a campaign to create cultural identity of a fully Oceania state as opposed to a former British colony (ibid).

    Meyer presents with approval many detractors’ opinions – some of them are his colleagues in anthropology, particularly those specialized in post-colonialism and post-development. In defence of the admirers, however, he points out that local population, in catering to international tastes, moral obligations and national agendas, not only benefit financially from the sales but also take the chance to revive traditional narratives such as mythologies and beliefs (Meyer 1995:86).

    More importantly, the new “traditional” native art, as an object allowing multi-sited appropriations, is absorbed by and transformed by – and is absorbing and transforming – different discourses across the globe. The concreteness of its materiality is inseparable from the vaporous ambiguity of its symbolism and affects this ambiguity is able to inspire. It is not a fixed thing but a process the meaning of which is in constant production. It connects “no man’s land” between various territories and traditions. It hangs on in world history, waiting for meaning-creation: an American buyer of native acrylic paintings might be accused by moral essentialists of superficial either in artistic taste or moral imperative, but this act of buying might well be the gateway to much deeper connections.




    In treating travelling and objectified art, we see look at and to be looked at are not necessarily excluding each other. We see materiality and symbolism embodies each other. We also see in elevating single-sited analysis to mutli-sites (Marcus 2007:1139), layers of dynamic meanings could be evacuated.

    But what about local people who live an everyday life and who are not obviously part of global spatial transition as high art and artists are? Do they have the power to “look back”? Does it matter if they do look back?

    Professor Tania Li in her study of local compromise in Indonesia and Anna Tsing in her study of  Meratus participation in “green” development offer relatively different answers. Professor Li concludes that local people’s (cynical) understanding of power relations in their everyday life could enforce the hegemony and could be taken advantage by those who are in the power (Li 1999:295-322). Tsing, on the other hand, is more optimistic: with the right leadership stance, it becomes possible to enter into collaborative projects for truly successful local advocacy (Tsing 1999:201).

    What accounts for the difference? We might look beyond similar developmental discourses at different oppositions to local actors. In Professor Li’s article, the other side is national governments throughout recent Indonesian history. In Tsing’s article, however, the other side is mainly NGOs.

    Here emerges the question of scale. Anthropology is traditionally the study of small communities. It takes care of “people without history” (Eric Wolf). Contemporary anthropology, however, inevitably encounters nation-states and historiography. Is there any possibility of an at least partial convergence of the scholarly discipline of anthropology and history? Professor Li in her study of communities fully incorporates national history. In fact, her study is part of Indonesian national history. So is Tsing’s exuberant In the Realm of Diamond Queen in which she, like an historian, gives name to the Meratus people and introduce them into Indonesia’s national consciousness (Tsing 1993:9, 300-301). If we take one step higher in scope and put anthropology at the service of the study of world history – a concept that has been instrumental in forming anthropology via Kant, Hegel, Karl Marx, Max Weber and a tragically lesser-known Arnold Toynbee, a concept more or less re-incarnated as a less original concept of world system, we may use treat national culture as a type of local culture and put the former firmly within the scope of anthropology. This is something this brave new world is looking for when professional historians are busy with miniatures and when political scientists such as Samuel Huntington keep producing coarse ideologies.

    One might argue that “national community” doesn’t exist – it amounts to nationalism at best (or at worst) – there are always various local communities that are ignored or oppressed by nation-states. But as Professor Cohen points out in the class, to begin with local “community” is also more or less a myth, a social construct serving particular needs.

    To get out of an argumentative mood, I will simply point out that this is only an analytic tool not without significance. In critiquing development discourses, we have been limiting our discussion mainly on aid-based development projects and on the post-WWII era. But as Escobar admits, the point of this periodization is not necessarily about new ideas or new objects, but about a new system of relations, or “discourse” (Escobar 1997:86). It is thus beneficial to look back at pre-WWII modernization across the world in order to truly understand the strength and weakness of postwar development discourse while at the same time look ahead. The most salient case for the former is Japan. The most salient case for the latter is China. Japan’s development is not a failure: it manages to achieve industrialization without giving up cultural traditions. Its history has been studied by anthropologists from Ruth Benedict to Dorinne Kondo. The lessons learned are not irrelevant to other parts of the world. The lesson can also be learned from newly emergent economies such as China, which at this very moment holds both symbolic and material significances to Africa and beyond (Moyo 2012:2019).

    Those facts haven’t escaped James Ferguson, hence his rejection of being labelled as a “post-development anthropologist”: “The claim that ‘development’ is over would surely sound strange to many people in … China, who … take [developmental] promises very seriously … not without reason.” (Ferguson 2006:2238)

    Ferguson’s voice is meek (“not without”). By comparison, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who stays firmly within the development discourse, has the guts to say “let’s get rid of aid-based development model from the West; let’s learn from the Chinese” (Moyo 2009:1935).

    The fundamental difference between Ferguson, an anthropologist specialized in Zambia, and Moyo, an economist from Zambia, is that the latter believes in a strong nation-state while the former advocates relative benefits of a weak state (Ferguson 2006:2559). There is a clear anarchist undertone in his writing, which is in line with anthropology’s post-War II trend of moving away from co-operation with or participation in governmental affairs (Mead 1973:11).



    It’s high time to introduce the dynamic dualism of power/knowledge – instrumental in understanding our course materials – into the understanding of history of anthropological thoughts and our particular critique itself. The very fact that Anglo-American school of anthropologist have been ambivalent about their roles with regard to authority and government (ibid) decides their interest in concepts dealing with governmentality. It will be otherwise unfathomable that Michel Foucault, a philosophical historian (and not a very rigorous one according more specialized historians) whose primary concerns had been European modernity and state-building becomes the chief inspiration for Anglo-American anthropologists, although previous cosiness with Claude Levi-Strauss in the British functionalist school had setting up the stage for “detemporazation” (Ferguson 2006:2365).

    If we look back at our list of dualisms which in its discursive way brought out a discourse of anthropological study of development, not just a discourse of development, we will notice terms on the right side (materiality, economy, participation, single-site, everyday life)  can often characterize the British school, while terms on the left side (symbolism, “culture” in small c, high art2 , arm-chair approach to the field) often characterize the French school. It is between those two schools that modern anthropology in general and discussions on development in particular struggle. It can also be characterized as a kind of ambivalence caused by a need for action and a need for reflection. I don’t believe anthropology has found it, considering how irrelevant it is to the general public3. African development was one of the key topics on last year’s Munk Debate on China attended by thousands of enthusiastic listeners and broadcasted live across the globe. The economists Dambisa Moyo and Li Daokui,  the historian Niall Ferguson, the journalist Fareed Zakaria, the statesman Henry Kissinger and Bill Cohen were invited to give speeches. It would be nice if they have invited at least one anthropologist.




    A last word on the style of this very short paper, which is as important as its contents: the adoption of Foucauldian concept of discourse and the Deleuzian non-linear “rhizomian” thinking in anthropology (Ferguson 2006:2365) should have changed the highly linear and hierarchical academic style of anthropological writings in this milieu. But aside from Daniel Miller whose ethnography The Comfort of Things takes the discursive route (and since becomes a best-seller), essay in its original form (essai) still seems to be forbidding. Are we holding on to our own essentialist high-ground so as not to be criticized by others? I’m one of the others and this paper is a timid attempt at difference.

    The object of this paper is both development discourse and its critique. The discourse of this critique of the critique of development discourse is anthropology’s dualistic universe. This discourse can be historicized and critiqued, but that’s another story altogether4.






    1. 1.     Modern acadmic use of the word “essay” is an abuse of its original meaning given by Michel Montaigne. Contemporary anthropology in the English-speaking world tries to immulate French school’s postmodern concepts, but fails to grasp its substance which happens to be its style. A brief treatment of the subject can be found in Michel Foucault the Anthropologist, my response blog writtern in Professor Naisargi Dave’s Posthuman Anthropology class:
    2. European paintings repeatedly serve as departure points for Foucault while Levi-Struass begins and ends his magnum opus Mythologique with anaylysis of classical music.
    3. Copies of an The Economist commentary on the need for anthropologists on Wall Street, such as Gillian Tett, were posted across the third floor of the Anthropology Building last year.
    4. A treatment of this subject, based on this short paper, is forthcoming. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of concentric dualism as opposed to diametric dualism serves as conceptual guideline. The argument will be made on the concentric nature of imbalanced dualism as seen in local communities versus either NGOs or nation-states. The ongoing transition from a sacred discourse (eg. Christianity) to a secular one (eg. nation-states and NGOs) with a consistent languague of moral imperatives (either on developmental terms or human-rights terms) is the key narrative. The philosophical treatment of the subject can be found in my paper on Levi-Strauss written under Professor Gillian Gillison.







    Escobar, Arturo

    1997. The making and unmaking of the third world through development. In The post-development reader. eds. Victoria Bawtree, Majid Rahnema, 85-93. Cape Town: David Philip.


    Ferguson, James

    2006. Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke University Press. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Li, Tania Murray

    1999. Compromising power: Development, culture, and rule in Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology 14, (3) (Aug): 295-322.


    Li, Tania Murray

    2007. The Will to Improve. Durham: Duke University Press. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Marcus, George E.

    2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. Anthropological Quarterly 80(4): pp.1125-1145.


    Mead, Margaret

    1973. Changing Styles of Anthropological Work. In Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 2. Re-published in digital format on Kindle Fire. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2009. Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2012. Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World. New York: Basic Books. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Myers, Fred

    1995. Representing Culture: the Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings. In G. Marcus and F. Myers eds., The Traffic in Culture. Berkeley: University of California U. Press, pp.64-91.


    Tsing, Anna L.

    1993. In the Realm of Diamond Queen. Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press.


    Tsing, Anna L.

    1999. Becoming a Tribal Elder, and Other Green Development Fantasies. In Transforming the Indonesian Uplands. Tania M. Li, ed. 159- 201.


    Zhang, Fan

    2012. On the Same Levels: A comparison of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Do Dual Organization Exist? and The Story of Asdiwal Accessed on June 22, 2012.





























  2. A World Without Me, A Project Without a Task

    June 15, 2012 by Fan


    A World Without Me, A Project Without a Task

    Fan Zhang


    “This is a self-reflective narrative, a wrenching dialogue with myself, based on my encounter with development …” (Shrestha 1995:266)


    The following text prepared for this particular assignment, not unlike Shrestha’s words quoted above, is autobiographical in nature. I don’t hold grudge against lofty ideas articulated on high theoretical planes. In fact, I have the highest regard for those who keep scientific detachment and distance from objects and objectives studied. But weakness of my position – and weakness of my character – decide for me that I could and should only begin my engagement of the issue of development with myself in order to reach certain degree of depth and sincerity. I only hope crucial questions of development’s moral nature, participant distance and its totality beyond technocratics would be succinctly but properly addressed in the process.




    In concluding my mini-ethnography of UofT’s Anthropology Students’ Association (ASA) written under Professor Tania Li, I wrote:


    “My observation of the Chinese peasantry or ASA members is: they don’t need anybody to save them. They have far more determination, intelligence, resource, and power to save themselves. What I see in anthropology, through this three months’ fieldwork, is a need for elitism. It is translated into a community that is not based on physical proximity but conceptual proximity. It transcends Fei Xiaotong’s native anthropology into the realm of Nicolas Rose’s nativity.” (Zhang 2012:14)


    A few explanations are necessary in order to develop the above paragraph’s relevance.



    In my observation of ASA which I treat as a microsm of current anthropology as a discipline, I notice that almost all its active members are Caucasians despite the association’s open membership. Its institutional culture can also be described as highly Euro-Canadian. Using Nicolas Rose’s analytical framework, in spite of the association’s university setting, it is a culture before the Age of the Third Way: its nativity is not yet decided by creative proximity but ethnic or geographical proximity (Rose 1999:168). At the same time, ASA is a highly active and efficient organization with great potential and in the process of rapid development: there is a natural rhythm in its own development.

    This correspondences to my observation of Chinese rural society where I do have familial ties. Needless to say, physical proximity has a far great presence there and in this proximity I see an almost visceral force driving towards what is called “development”. Most Westerners tend to think recent Chinese economic reform and “success”  begin and end with its export economy (and as a gift the West gives to China, signature mentality of development thinking).  Few of them realize that they are in fact continuation of its traditional peasant and mercantile economy in the age of globalization (Mai 1992:46).

    Chinese peasantry’s “visceral force” towards development is recorded as early as 1939 in  anthropologist Fei Xiaotong’s ethnography Peasant Life in China, his PhD dissertation supervised by Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski in its preface declares that the ethnography marks “a new departure” in anthropology when anthropological works are done by a native among natives (Malinowski 1939:xiii) and when anthropology is not the hobbyhorse of elite outsiders but out of practical concerns of native people in their own struggles in the course of history. He ends the preface eloquently with this sentence:

    “The present account [in this ethnography] is not a record of vanished history but a prelude to a new chapter of world history that will be written not in ink but in the blood of millions.”


    Here comes full circle with regard to our current topic of development: the questions of distance and moral imperative, two convergeable topics.  A quintessentially English belief (Malinowski is quintessentially English despite his Polish origin) in the interchangeability of morality and self-interest – a belief that is not alien to the Chinese – and a trust in the organic force of bodily and material reality lay the foundation not only for a vision of development , the focus of Fei Xiaotong’s ethnography, but also a vision of the development of anthropology and activism that emphasizes native participation. In other words, the distance is close to but not exactly zero: Fei is a Western-trained yet Chinese anthropologist who studied development.

    For me, Fei Xiaotong, who as Chinese government’s advisor in his old age advocated freeing the visceral-economic force of Chinese peasantry, is one anthropologist, if not the only anthropologist, who has significant impact on world history. His relatively non-intervention approach, in fact, is consistent with Lao Tzu’s governing approach quoted by Professor Cohen in his lecture (lecture notes of June 08, 2012). I will tentatively call this approach “naturalist”. This approach does have a tendency to reject missionary zeal of converting the other. In Tao Te Ching where Professor Cohen’s quote appears, there is also a sentence to the effect of “the greatest favour a man can do to his neighbour is not to visit him” (quote from memory). This is the morality of distance of zero – when one has no intention of overcoming this distance.

    A salient comparison can be made to the role of religion in modern development discourse as cogently (and elegantly) described in our readings by John and Jean Comaroff: evangelist capitalists in their passion to covert the primitive other unwittingly showed their essential similarities, and developmental conversion was in fact competition (Comaroffs 2001:498-499).

    My fieldwork carried out in the anthropology department was inevitably influenced by my Sinic disposition and my reading of Lao Tzu since very early age, hence my preference for self-determination in my conclusion of ethnography of UofT’s anthropology department. I did offer a solution which is partially influenced by Nicholas Rose’s concept of “third-way”, or, the creative making of communities. I chose aesthetic identification in my approach to “others” (Zhang 2012:15).

    Professor Li in her commentary asked me: “Why just aesthetics? Why not political engagement or ethics?” I confessed my feeling of powerlessness in my reply:


    “The reason I think about an aesthetic approach in anthropology is that I sometimes feel that local populations might not need outsiders’ intervention. The greatest “cultural shock” occurred to me when I visited Chinese countryside many years ago, discovering their poverty and beauty. But many poor peasants I knew then have become enormously rich now, and they are no more innocent than city dwellers. I believe their mercantile tendency is even stronger. My concerns then seem to be irrelevant to them.”


    Here, the phrase “cultural shock” denotes a sudden close of distance and a sense of beauty as well as a sense of moral obligation inspired by this encounter. When this encounter occurred, the part of countryside I visited was already in the heat of development guided by Chinese government’s multiple successful (by their measurement of course) “Five-Year Plans”. The same plans were changing the urban landscape where I came from. My reception of the (then) poverty of rural area was immediately gained a sense of romanticism: from the very beginning I rejected the discourse of development that put technological renovation and bureaucratic sophistication above everything else: I was stunned by the beauty of poor simple peasant life in the depth of gorgeous mountains, and I lost myself swimming in sweet rivers later would turn black.

    Many years later, a lot of those poor farmers I had my sympathy for then become capitalists buying properties across the country.

    This is a world without me. This is a world that doesn’t need me

    But is this a world without anthropology? Does world need anthropology?

    Those are the puzzles I brought with me to Professor Cohen’s course on development. My initial project, unrelated in the beginning of this write-up, is in fact a project without a task. Since I don’t claim to be a Westerner, or “one of us”, I hope I’m allowed an initial position of Taoist “doing-nothingness” as my project for the world.  Anthropology, for me, was and to a great extent, still is a project of self-cultivation – the rich shades of nuances and ambiguity I discovered in it brought me great pleasure. But I’m ready to enter another side of anthropology from the shadow of subtle ambiguity: I’m ready to enter a world of doing-goodness that has the power of countering the hegemony of development.








    Comaroff, John and Jean Comaroff.

    2001. The Colonization of Consciousness. In A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Ed. Michael Lambek, 494-510. London: Blackwell.


    Esteva, Gustavo.

    1992. Development. In The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power. ed. Wolfgang Sachs, 6-25. London: Zed.


    Mai Tianshu

    1990. Zhongguo Nongming [Chinese Peasants]. Beijing: Renmin Press.


    Malinowski, Bronislaw

    1939. Preface to Peasant Life in China. In Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Village, Fei Xiaotong. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.


    Rose, Nikolas

    1999. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


    Shrestha, Nanda.

    1995. Becoming a Development Category. In Power of development. ed. Jonathan S. Crush, 266-277. New York: Routledge.


    Zhang, Fan

    2012. Third Way in the Post Third-Way Age: Community Building of ASA and Beyond.
















  3. Fragments of Memory: Lin Jun in the Eyes of an Acquaintance

    June 15, 2012 by Fan

    [note: translated from the Chinese website, this is part of Fragments Dedicated to Lin Jun]

    “My first acquaintance with Lin occurred 14 years ago when both of us were college students in Wuhan. My first impression was that he was very thin with big eyes and naughty mouth-shape. He liked to blink when talking to people – but he rarely spoke because he was shy. My friend who brought him to my place was very fond of him: “Is he cute?” He asked me again and again. They sticked to each other all the time and gradually I saw less both of them.

    But this friend did tell me more about Lin later. Lin’s parents were both factory workers with very limited income. As a child, he was sometimes beaten up, but he was loved and provided for. By the time he was in college, Lin fell in love with an handsome newly-graduate med student who rented a room in the vicinity of the campus. Lin moved out his dorm and stayed there. His lover was a bisexual who had a girlfriend with marriage persepctive. The relationship was purely casual for the med student but romantic for Lin –  he even brought him home to his mother. The “lover” got married eventually. Lin was very depressed for a long time.

    I saw Lin again many years later in Beijing when I was introduced by a friend to join a local swimming team. I met him there and was surprised by his rather chiselled body – he also dressed up like your typical gay jock. He was much less provinicial.  

    The last time I saw him in Beijing, he was with a very tall and muscular man shopping in a supermarket. We were never close friends so we just nodded at each other without even speaking a word. I didn’t expect he met his end in this way.”