Bookmarks

Ethnocriticism

Philosophy and Literature 17 (1993): 188-92.

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com


The jacket blurb of Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature (University of California Press, $35.00 cloth, $13.00 paper) describes the author, Arnold Krupat, as “one of the major literary scholars now working on Native American literature.” Krupat is not an anthropologist, but teaches literature at Sarah Lawrence College. He has written two other books, For Those Who Come After (1985) and The Voice in the Margin (1989), both from the University of California Press, which also published his edited anthology, Recovering the Word (1987). This new book “moves cultural critique to the boundaries that exist between cultures,” the blurb claims, specifically between Native American and mainstream American literatures and cultures. Yet despite the author’s impressive credentials, Ethnocriticism seems to me poor work. Its faults are not trivial, but worth dwelling on, as they are symptomatic of the current state of some academic writing at the fringes of literary theory and the social sciences, in this case where anthropology bumps against criticism and would-be philosophy.

On the first page of his introduction Krupat declares that as he means it, “the ethnocritical perspective manifests itself in the form of multiculturalism, a term I take to refer to that particular organization of cultural studies which engages otherness and difference in such a way as to provoke an interrogation of and a challenge to what we ordinarily take as familiar and our own.” What this amounts to — but don’t expect an honest, straightforward enunciation of it — is that when we study other cultures, we must do so in a spirit of self-flagellation. What we mustn’t do, ever, is interrogate or criticize the Other. I often had the feeling that it’s my place to fall at the feet of the Other, seeking wisdom while begging forgiveness for being a European white man.

How does Krupat establish his case, such as it is? Here are some quotations from the first few pages: “as James Axtell has written....In James Clifton’s recent formulation....in Eric Cheyfit’s broad understanding of the term....Calvin Martin and Robin Ridington, who have urged....Stephen Tyler’s call for....Jean Baudrillard’s denunciation of....Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatic demotion of philosophy to....Gerald Vizenor’s explicit linkage of....what Gayatri Spivak, in a brilliant recent discussion....As Jean-Francois Lyotard has written....in Christopher Norris’s phrase....by the continuing meditations...of Jürgen Habermas....as David Carroll writes...as Paul Goodman used to point out....” I’ve only reached page 11. Krupat doesn’t let up, ever: three paragraphs before the end of the book, it’s “in Werner Sollors’s phrase....” If you ever meet this chap, expect him to say, “My name is Arnold Krupat, as my mother has so persuasively argued.”

And what exactly is the case he wants to make? It’s hard to say, because as soon as Krupat defines a position he might adopt, he backs off or refuses to be tied to it. The European Enlightenment is anathema, of course, but he doesn’t much care for postmodernism either, or Rortyist conversation. He finally seems best to like Linda Alcoff’s “positionality,” described as “a strategy of self-conscious self-displacement within the epistemological and discursive frames any critic cannot help but inhabit.” And that’s as clear as it gets. What is plain is that imperialism is really bad, and so is racism; anything else you care to name gets dreadfully complicated, except for manichean dichotomizing (bad) and Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle, which is oppositional (very bad) instead of dialogical (good).

Okay, so how about some ethnocriticism? There are chapters on ethnography and literature, Franz Boas, and James Clifford. In each of these discussions, Krupat incessantly drops names, quotes from everywhere, but somehow fails to come to a conclusion that leaves much impression on the reader. Still, there are one or two things to take away from this book. There is a long section on the Indian Removal Act of 1830, as shameful an episode in American history as we’re likely to find. The Cherokee Council presented a Memorial to Congress pleading their case, which Krupat reprints. His attempt, however, to deepen out understanding of the affair by providing a “literary” analysis of this document — comparing it with the Declaration of Independence, and noting its “florid” imagery — seems strained and nit-picking. The Cherokee Memorial will stick in my mind long after I’ve forgotten whatever Krupat said about it. In fact, I’ve forgotten already.

The chapter “Native American Autobiography” would, I hoped, at least introduce some interesting autobiographies, but instead it becomes choked with vast, unanswered questions about identity and subjectivity: “What, after all, does it mean for the Hopi to be ‘reflective,’ for the Yaqui to be ‘conscious,’ for the Chippewa to be a ‘subject,’ for the Ojibwa to ‘have’ experiences?” (Sounds like he’s discussing amoebas, or crustaceans — what does it mean for a lobster to “have” experiences? Does boiling them live cause ... uh ... discomfort?) Answers to Krupat’s questions, I’d have thought, would be best advanced by asking the occasional Yaqui or Ojibwa, learning their languages, or reading an autobiography written, or dictated, by one. But now Krupat becomes very cagey: “At this point it would be possible to proceed with readings of several Native American autobiographies.... The danger here is that such readings tend not to be actual ‘readings’ at all, but, instead, tautological exercises in the ‘discovery’ of literary ‘evidence’ for psychological or anthropological ‘truth’ already established elsewhere....” Considering Krupat’s addiction to evidence “established elsewhere,” perhaps it’s just as well that he begs off. (Although he is tediously cautious in his attitude toward Native texts, he has a refreshingly broad conception of “mainstream” American literature. In disputing someone’s claim about the frequency with which Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is assigned in English classes, Krupat cites proof that “John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain are, in fact, the most generally assigned American novelists.”)

He does, however, at last introduce a character named Rev. William Apes, a Methodist preacher and mixed-blood Pequot who was born in 1798 and who wrote some fascinating political tracts on behalf of the Mashpees. The trouble with this material is that, as Krupat realizes, it hardly counts as autobiography at all. Krupat might, for instance, have discussed the autobiographical (or fictional) work of the Kiowa writer Scott Momaday, or any of innumerable other Indian autobiographies. But no: instead we are given an early political tract, along with a nebulous theory about how Indian autobiographies tend, first, to be “synedochic” (the writer’s life stands for a larger whole) and, second, to minimize individualism. But then Krupat adds his inevitable but-I-don’t-mean-to-say qualification: “I would not want to be understood as claiming that all autobiographies by Indians must necessarily be unimpressed by varieties of individualism, nor that all autobiographies by Native people must take synecdoche as their defining figure.” Some European biographies by women and by Christians fit Krupat’s characterization of Native American autobiography, he says, as well as “autobiographies of writers whose deep commitment to political egalitarianism works to structure their self-conception in a part-to-whole manner; I think here, for example of Prince Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and, more recently, Assata Shakur.” Kropotkin and Goldman as analogues of American Indian autobiography? Krupat owes us at least a word or two of explanation. I’m unfamiliar with his last named writer, who wrote Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and Living My Life, but we’re informed by Krupat that Shakur always uses the lower-case “i” for the first-person pronoun, which “seems a gesture in the interest of bringing the ego back to proper scale as simply an existent among others.” Yeah, sure. If these folks were so humble, why did they publish their autobiographies in the first place?

Krupat is in a big fix. This book is afflicted by a profound bad faith which Krupat is powerless to overcome. As he wants to define it, “ethnocriticism” is nearly oxymoronic. The “ethno” part refers to Native American or other indigenous people’s literatures. Now, as we know, in today’s climate of political correctness native peoples must be allowed to “tell their own stories”; we cannot have academics like Krupat “explaining” or “interpreting” Native American literatures for us or, worse, for them. Let’s face it: the Other gets all sore. The “criticism” part, on the other hand, cannot help but imply everything the term means in English — description, analysis, interpretation, evaluation, fault-finding, etc. But, as I’ve just pointed out, that’s not to be permitted with “ethno” literatures. Krupat is in fact so cowed that he can barely bring himself to gloss the literature “ethnocriticism” is supposed to be about. So “ethnocriticism” is self-demolishing. But still, such a pretty word needs a job to do: therefore, he defines his project as using the study of the literatures of native cultures as a way for us to criticize or “interrogate” ourselves. The net effect is a tortured book that never allows itself to confront squarely and honestly its subject matter, Native American literature. In addition, this makes Ethnocriticism profoundly patronizing in its attitude toward the writings of Native Americans. They deserve, I think, to be treated as equals, not as Others in Krupat’s implied sense of diminished capacity.

But if you’ve any doubts about whether you, dear reader, should be hopping on the bandwagon of ethnocriticism and multiculturalism, you’d better think again. These studies, Krupat instructs us, are “preparations for a future that will be very different from the past dominated by white, middle-aged, middle-class males.” In thirty years, “thirty percent of the American population will be nonwhite (and women are already a majority).” Already? Krupat warns, “well before the year 2020, for all that George Bush [Sr.] and William Bennett and Allan Bloom (not to mention a very great many professors of literature) may shout against the sea, it will not fail to break upon the shore — with all sorts of foreseeable and unforeseeable results.”

Then Krupat adds a curiously chilling remark: “So it would perhaps be foolish rather than particularly brave not to be ethnocritical, multicultural, interdisciplinary, and so on.” Don’t you be foolish, dear reader! I hate even to think of the position I’ll find myself in a few years down the way: seated on a low stool, under a bare lightbulb. “Oh, please Professor Krupat, I’m not a Republican. No, Sir! I was never a member of the Republican Party, not even back in the 1990s. But Philosophy and Literature is an interdisciplinary journal, Sir. Yes....Sir, it has published white men, but it’s published lots of women too! Well, maybe they were mainly white, but....Yes, we’ve had articles on Aristotle, but we never agreed with the law of the excluded middle. Yes, Sir, excluding the middle is racist and Eurocentric! Did I ever write a review of your book? No, Sir, no, I don’t remember that....”

 


Copyright 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.