issue 254 - April 1994
Speaking truth to power
To conclude her story Nancy Scheper-Hughes (pictured below) takes issue
with academia and argues that seeing, listening, touching and recording
can be acts of fraternity, sisterhood and solidarity.
The mood of contemporary anthropology is somber. Its practice and poetics are guided by a complex form of pessimism rooted in anthropology’s tortured relationship to the colonial world and its ruthless destruction of native lands and peoples. This remains so even as anthropologists branch out to study the lives of peasant and urban peoples more like ‘ourselves’ in the West.
Because of its origins as mediator in the clash of competing cultures in the colonial world, anthropological thinking is radically conservative, suspicious of all proposals promoting social change, progress, development, modernization and the like. Anthropologists know in a very intimate way how often such schemes have been used against traditional, non-secular and communal people who happen to stand in the way of Western cultural and economic expansion. We dare not intrude. We can hardly help becoming involved in the lives of the people we have chosen to be our teachers, but our personal accountability to the ‘other’ must never be compromised.
Anthropological thinking is radically conservative, suspicious of all
proposals promoting social change.
Many young anthropologists, sensitized by the writings of Michel Foucault on ‘power/knowledge’, have come to think of the anthropological interview as similar to the medieval ‘inquisitional confession’ through which church examiners extracted ‘truth’ from their naive and ‘heretical’ peasant parishioners. One hears of anthropological observation as a hostile act that reduces our ‘subjects’ to mere ‘objects’ of our incriminating, scientific gaze. Consequently some young anthropologists have given up the practice of descriptive ethnography altogether.
Nonetheless my own work is both active and committed. Anthropology exists both as a field of knowledge and as a field of action. Anthropological writing can be a site of resistance. We can disrupt expected roles in the spirit of the ‘carnavalesque’. We can exchange gifts based on our labors, use royalties to support radical actions and to subvert the process that puts our work at the service of ‘the machine’ – in this instance the scientific, academic factory.
My particular sympathies are transparent. I do not try to disguise them behind the role of an invisible, omniscient or presumably ‘neutral’ third-person narrator. Rather, I enter freely into dialogues – and sometimes into conflicts and disagreements – with my teachers, challenging them on their views just as they challenge me on mine.
As a ‘critical medical anthropologist’ I am something of a pathologist of human nature, drawn to illness, both individual and collective, as these shed light on culture, society and their discontents. The view through this lens is skewed, for I am slicing, dissecting and holding up to the light the diseased tissues of the social body gone awry. The anthropologist-diviner names ills, human passions and weaknesses, distortions in human relations, all of which can produce suffering, sickness and death. But with an eye toward social healing I conclude with a search for the paths of resistance and liberation in Northeast Brazil.
I grow increasingly weary of ‘postmodernist’ critiques. Given the perilous times in which we live I am inclined toward a compromise, one that would call for the practice of a ‘good enough’ ethnography. We cannot rid ourselves of the cultural self we bring with us into the field, any more than we can disown the eyes and ears and skin through which we take our intuitive perceptions about the new and the strange world we have entered. We struggle to do the best we can with the limited resources we have to hand – our ability to listen and observe carefully, with empathy and compassion.
I believe there is still a role for the ethnographer-writer in giving voice to those who have been silenced, as have the people of the Alto by political and economic oppression, and their children by hunger and premature death. There is still value, I believe, in attempting to ‘speak truth to power’. Not to look, not to touch, not to record can be the hostile act, an act of indifference and turning away.
Not to look, not to touch, not to
record can be the hostile act, an act
of indifference and turning away.
I would like to suggest an image of the modern ethnographer as the ‘clerk of the records’. The clerk of the records listens, observes and records the minutia of human lives. She can be counted on to remember key events in the personal lives and in the life history of the community, to ‘keep trust’ and not betray confidences shared in private. The good clerk knows the history of the commun-ity. She is its genealogist. Because of her privileged presence at births, deaths and other life-cycle events she can readily call to mind the fragile web of human relations that bind people together. She must know when to speak and when to keep silent. She is a keeper of the records, a minor historian of the ordinary lives of people often presumed to have no history. In Northeast Brazil there are many lives and even more deaths to keep track of, numbering the bones of a people whom the State thinks hardly worth counting at all.
Not everything can be dissolved into the vapor of absolute cultural difference and radical otherness. There are ways in which my Alto friends and I are not so radically ‘other’ to each other. Like them I instinctively make the sign of the cross when I sense danger or misfortune coming. Also, like some of them, I sit in the back of the Church and mock the visiting Bishop when he arrives outrageously decked out in scarlet silk and lace, calling him a parrot, a peacock and a transvestite Baiana, an ‘overdressed Afro-Brazilian food vender’. But when the same Bishop-shepherd raises the staff in his perfumed hands I’m on my feet with the rest; head bowed, fingers crossed, I take on Pascal’s wager and put my faith in God... with the rest.
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes