Add to bookbag
Author: Gaurav Desai
Title: Commentary: 'Only connect...'
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Commentary: 'Only connect...'
Gaurav Desai

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 1, pp. 11, 1991
Author Biography: A graduate of Northwestern, Gaurav Desai is a Ph.D. student in the English Department, Duke University.

COMMENTARY 'Only connect ...'


When I was a freshman in college, one of my English professors suggested to me that the task of every good critic was to make interesting connections between what may at first seem to be unrelated texts. I was quite intrigued. Soon the activity began to take on the role of a game, and like the students Stanley Fish describes in his famous essay, "How to Recognise a Poem When You See One," [1] I started taking a great amount of pleasure and pride in coming up with increasingly intricate interpretations of texts and sometimes farfetched, but nevertheless "clever," intertextual commentaries in which I was beginning to learn the rules of the game, rules which would hopefully make me a literary critic.

Indeed, establishing connections between texts can often be a valuable activity in as much as such interconnections may throw light on the logic of cultural order, on ways of speaking about reality and even on the epistemological assumptions of certain institutional practices. Thus for instance, a lot could be learned by going through the essays collected in this issue of Passages with a particular sensitivity to the treatment of potential and actual violence in the practices under scrutiny. That is, by tracing the charges of potentially violent effects of the lyrics of 2 Live Crew, the violence that may be discerned in the animal sacrifices that are present in Ifa divination, and the differential treatment of the cultural significance of female excision in the article by Lionnet and the review by Fischer, we may be able to better understand the very charge of "violence" in its often problematic relationship to discourses about the "other." Likewise, we can learn an immense amount about cultural modes of resistance by taking a close look at the ways in which African-Americans create rap music, or the ways in which the Okiek of Kenya use dress-codes to "reinvent" a cultural order and

"make (that cultural order) work for them, as a utilitarian source of group survival and personal survival, and then to place a stamp of elegance and elan upon the reinvented mode." [2]

Or again, we could choose to trace the very idea of "tracing" in these articles by looking first at Peter Amuka's discussion of the problematics of recording and re-presenting, then at Leon Forrest's discussion of this representation of African-American women in American history, then at Michael Fischer's review of the photographic representation of the Okiek and his own search for an adequate mode of representing these representations, turning next to Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s function in the trial as the icon of ivory tower authority, subsequently examining Lionnet's description of the framing of "universalism" and "particularism" in the context of the debates on female excision, and finally considering, in the work of Morris Meyer and Ogunda Bede-Fagbamila, the attempt to create a non-representational ethnography.

But while such tracing may indeed be useful to our own understanding of cultural phenomena, a more urgent evaluation is increasingly being called for both within and outside the academy. Textual criticism is, of course, a very useful and necessary activity, but when it limits itself to a display of the acrobatic skills of the critic, it fails to make necessary connections beyond the boundaries of its own institutional spaces. It is then that it becomes vulnerable to some of the recent charges of elitism and hypocrisy made against it in the non-academic press. Recognizing this, some literary critics, anthropologists, performance studies scholars and other humanists are beginning to make a genuine effort to open up their discourses so that they are accessible to, and easily appropriable by, those outside the ivory tower. Although in the interests of space, I will have occasion to focus on only three of the six articles included here, it may be said that all the essays collected in this first issue of Passages are symptomatic of some of the most controversial and politically charged debates which have connected the ivory tower to the concerns and struggles of those outside the walls. The most obvious instance of such controversy and debate surrounds the testimony provided by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on behalf of the African-American rap group, 2 Live Crew. Reading the lyrics of the songs against a tradition of parody and "signifying" in African-American culture, Gates' testimony helped acquit the group of the charge of obscenity. [3]

What is interesting about the trial and defence of 2 Live Crew are the mixed reactions of the majority of the observers. While a few were upset by the sexism and while few saw the isolation of 2 Live Crew as a racially based attack (since there are quite a few white groups whose songs have equally "obscene" lyrics), the vast majority of commentators have been uneasy when confronted with all the contingencies involved. But uneasiness has not led to inaction. For indeed, this uneasiness can be discerned even in the voices of those who have taken a public stance on the matter. I think we can hear this uneasiness in Gates' own remarks on the charges of sexism; anticipating the charge that the lyrics of the songs were not necessarily obscene, but rather misogynistic and abusive to women, Gates wrote in a New York Times article, "2 Live Crew Decoded,"

Their [2 Live Crew's] sexism is so flagrant, however, that it almost cancels itself out in a hyperbolic war between the sexes. In this, it recalls the inter-sexual jousting in Zora Neale Hurston's novels. Still, many of us look toward the emergence of more female rappers to redress sexual stereotypes. And we must not sentimentalize street culture; the appreciation of verbal virtuosity does not lessen one's obligation to critique bigotry in all of its pernicious forms.

Further, the tone of the remarks with which he closes the article in the New York Times is at once forceful and cautious:

... The very large question of obscenity and the First Amendment—cannot even be answered until those who would answer them become literate in the vernacular traditions of African-Americans. To do less is to censor through the equivalent of intellectual prior restraint—and censorship is to art what lynching is to justice. [4]

The force of this statement seems not to be that the lyrics are unproblematically justified, but rather that they cannot be deemed "obscene" since those who are responsible for passing the judgement do not possess the interpretive strategies to appropriately "decode" them.

In short, there is some "signifying" going on in Gates' own rhetoric and actions. The two quotes from the "2 Live Crew Decoded" piece say different things to different audiences; those who look up to an "authoritative" interpretation of the lyrics—from a prominent university professor doing research in African-American culture— hear him saying, "these lyrics are not to be read literally. They are parodies of existing stereotypes and are intended to blow up those stereotypes. People who do not understand the intricate cultural logic of a particular practice have no right to judge it as obscene"; those, on the other hand, who challenge the propriety of a defence based on the workings of parody by arguing that the potentially harmful effects of art cannot be controlled by the artists' benevolent intentions—that is those who want to foreground the real effects of potential (mis)readings of the lyrics—are being told through those same quotes, "look, I know that the lyrics are not entirely unproblematic, but there are lots of other social discourses and practices which indeed originate in white cultures which are abusive. There is no real justification for isolating 2 Live Crew for this sort of treatment. I'm going to argue for reading it as parody so that their work will count as art, and thus will be absolved of any charges of obscenity." [5]

Whatever one may feel about Gates' involvement in the 2 Live Crew case, at least two points are noteworthy; some of the hypothetical situations that we invent in the classroom when discussing political praxis are indeed not so hypothetical; and there are ways in which we, as academics, can participate in the real struggles of people outside academia. And once we do, we may learn to appreciate that the occasional intensity that we feel when we reach certain impasses in our arguments may indeed be ultimately futile. This is not to advance an anti-intellectualism, but rather to suggest that the insistence of a search for a holistic account of a political practice (that is, an ideal political practice in which all considerations of race, gender, sexual preference, age, class and so on are taken into account) may unfortunately keep us quiet for a long time to come. [6] Until that utopia is achieved, (assuming, tentatively, that it will) certain strategic stances must be taken, weighing the possible choices and implications noticeable in a particular situation and then just acting on them. It is only if we act in such a pragmatic fashion that contradictory interests will not lull us into apathy.

I am addressing these issues here in the context of Gates' strategic pragmatism because I want to suggest to Lionnet that as far as I can see, the debates around the practice of female excision, just as the debates around the appropriateness of defending 2 Live Crew, will not be resolved theoretically. For here again, the charges are similar—on the one hand a progressive political theory cannot advance a "universalist" position without being ethnocentric; on the other, it cannot fully defend "particularism" and cultural autonomy of the other culture without, in this case, also collaborating in a practice which is seen as oppressive and misogynistic. But to say that it cannot be resolved "theoretically" is not to say that in practice nothing can be done about the situation. In practice, of course, both the parties in the debate would attempt to persuade the other as to the reasons why they hold the particular belief or condone the particular practice and suggest reasons as to why the other side may fruitfully consider changing positions. And I think, in this process, Lionnet's strategy of shifting from the analysis of theoretical impasses to the focus on literary texts and personal testimonials is precisely the right one. By looking for some of the incoherences in a cultural order and foregrounding them—in this case by listening to the voices of those subaltern women who speak up against the practice based on their own personal experiences—an alternative political strategy may emerge. This strategy would be a tentative, local, or contingent one, and I would argue that it would lose none of this force because of its loss of appeal to universals.

But what are we to make of a text such as that co-written by Morris Meyer and Baba Ogunda Bede-Fagbamila? Clearly some of the practices described here will offend some readers, but how will they articulate their discomfort? For here, there is no single clear-cut "us" vs. "them" division—"we" kill animals for some reasons that are socially sanctioned (food, leather products, etc.) and so do "they." "We" are not offended by practices such as open-heart surgery because we can account for them in our own structures of belief and so can "they" account for their need to sacrifice animals in accord with their beliefs. At some level, the distinction between "us" and "them" is blurred much like the similar conflation of the ethnographer and informant. In our postmodern dispositions we feel inclined to praise the project. The particular text we are presented with matches up to what Stephen Tyler has suggested we ought to expect from a postmodernist ethnography:

"The point is that questions of form are not prior; the form itself should emerge out of the joint work of the ethnographer and his native partners. The emphasis is on the emergent character of textualization, textualization being just the initial interpretive move that provides a negotiated text for the reader to interpret. The hermeneutic process is not restricted to the reader's relationship to the text, but includes as well the interpretive practices of the parties to the originating dialogue." [7]

And indeed, the ethnography of divination becomes so in two ways—it is an ethnography about Ifa divination and simultaneously partakes of the divination itself. Because of its metonymic relationship to the practice of divination, it is in some senses non-representational, approximating the import of discourse which, in Tyler's words,

... is 'the other as us,' for the point of discourse is not how to make a better representation, but how to avoid representation. [8]

We can, then, admire the wit and, as the ethnography puts it, "political irony and humorous self-reflexivity" of the project. But, as with any text, we may be justified to expect a certain degree of balance—and the extensive metadiscourses in this ethnography may be tiresome to some. Since the text is only an interpretive rendering of the oddus and the accompanying verses, we may at first be a little surprised to find so many of the verses encouraging so much self-reflexivity on the part of the scribes and allowing so much justificatory discourse on the nature of textuality. But we need to remember that the verses are indeed interpreted against the context of the client's own questions. (Note however that this does not render the text any less authoritative—the most important claim advocated here is that this ethnographic text is no different in kind from any of the Babalawo's other divinations for other clients because it is the result of a similar practice). Yet, if it is indeed the case that the client is the one asking the questions, we can certainly hold Meyer responsible for insisting on spending so much space reflecting on his practice and so little on other aspects of the culture of the Babalawo and his religion. When at moments in the text we read phrases such as

Before the ethnography divinations began, I requested that the text be divided into sixteen sections. This was the number of oddus, or divinatory signs. That number could be justified by its central and symbolic importance to the informant's system of logic ...

or when we get a long explanation of the importance of distinguishing this ethnography from other ethnographies such as Nisa which have been critiqued for unequal textual control between natives and informants, we begin to wonder whether the aim here is more the anthropologist's dream of the "perfected ethnography" which escapes all critiques or indeed a real concern to address some of the cultural dynamics and political implications of religious groups which are indeed "marginal" in American mainstream society.

But perhaps we have got it all wrong? What if we read this text as parody? What if we are once again in the presence of a "signifying" practice? I think we need to read this text as a parody, as a satire on the sometimes simulacral "postmodern" ethnographies that are increasingly being produced, ethnographies which either verge towards solipsism or else towards complete self-effacement. [9] Indeed, read in this light, the text is a masterpiece: we are in the presence of a "narrator" whose only concern is, as I have suggested above, the production of a "perfect" or "ideal" ethnography which is beyond critique, (and therein lies the solipsism) and at the same time we are in the presence of someone who is attempting to undermine his own control over the text (a tendency towards self-effacement). In this process, the parody attempts to show us how in some efforts to produce postmodern ethnographies some of the most important political issues surrounding the practices described are either ignored or just displaced lightly.

To be sure, the ethnography points to some of these political issues—the arrogance of communities who do not understand the religious significance of animal sacrifices, of people who conflate religion and cultism whenever they are confronted with a system of logic incomprehensible within their own, the hypocrisy of a society which participates in such religions but only as entertainment (I am thinking of the client who wants to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon)—but the casual manner in which these are treated is a clue to reading the text as a parody. Furthermore, the persona of the ethnographer is also a subject for mockery. Not only do we see his insincerity in the incident where he drinks and smokes after having just received Obatala as his guardian spirit, but later on he remarks rather flippantly,

It is my own belief that the Latin community should be open about their pride and beliefs. They have nothing to be ashamed of, no reason in our free society to hide their philosophy of rituals.

Clearly, this is a joke in which the writers are making fun of the naive cultural relativist who has so much faith in his or her "free society" to the extent that (s)he does not even bother to historicize some of the intricate sociopolitical causes and effects of the secrecy of the practice of Santeria.

There is more that can be said about this text, but I think it best to stop by saying that the divination is probably correct to assume that its reception will follow the process of skepticism first and then acceptance. For I think it is only after we recognize the text as a parody of certain trends in contemporary ethnography that we will be able to read it as a brilliant satire.

On a final note, I would like to suggest that the essays in this issue by Amuka, Fischer, and Forrest can also be read along some of the lines I have put forward. I hope I will be excused for not discussing more fully the ways in which these articles, whether on art exhibits, African-American women in performance or on the re-presentation and recording of Dodo songs, raise issues of pragmatism and political practice and of signifying and parody.

1. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

2. The quotation is from Leon Forrest's paper in this collection.

3. The group was found "not guilty" on October 20, 1990.

4. Both of these quotes are from Henry Louis Gates Jr., "2 Live Crew Decoded," The New York Times, June 19, 1990, A23.

5. According to a Supreme Court precedent set in 1973 (Miller v. California), in order for something to be considered obscene, the material has to be devoid of literary, artistic, political, or scientific merit.

6. This is not to imply that coalition building or a general critique of oppression is undesirable. My position is far from suggesting that one kind of oppression needs to be countered before any other. Rather I argue that while we should be ever-aware of the multiplicity of lines of domination and oppression in our societies, in cases where it would seem that to fight against one kind of oppression may in fact jeopardize our fight against another form of domination, we should nevertheless be able to weigh the effects on all sides and take a stance, even if it happens to be a tentative one.

7. See Stephen Tyler, "Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document," in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 127.

8. Tyler, 128.

9. Need I say that not all postmodern ethnographies do this. This is only to be read as a warning against the extremities that may be reached by following some of the postmodern experiments in writing ethnography.

passages |