Treading the Dualistic Universe
- A Critique of the Critique of Development Discourse
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:
the rest: the West
culture as nature: culture as culture
to be looked at: look at
art: everyday life
French school: British school
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. 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: http://www.savagemind.org/2012/01/16/michel-foucault-the-anthropologist/.
- European paintings repeatedly serve as departure points for Foucault while Levi-Struass begins and ends his magnum opus Mythologique with anaylysis of classical music.
- 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.
- 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. http://www.savagemind.org/2012/01/09/on-the-same-levels-%e2%80%93-a-comparison-of-claude-levi-strauss-do-dual-organization-exist-and-the-story-of-asdiwal.
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