Philosophy and Literature 17 (1993): 188-92.
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 authors 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 dont 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 mustnt do, ever, is interrogate or criticize the Other. I often had the feeling that its 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 Cliftons recent formulation....in Eric Cheyfits broad understanding of the term....Calvin Martin and Robin Ridington, who have urged....Stephen Tylers call for....Jean Baudrillards denunciation of....Richard Rortys neo-pragmatic demotion of philosophy to....Gerald Vizenors explicit linkage of....what Gayatri Spivak, in a brilliant recent discussion....As Jean-Francois Lyotard has written....in Christopher Norriss phrase....by the continuing meditations...of Jürgen Habermas....as David Carroll writes...as Paul Goodman used to point out.... Ive only reached page 11. Krupat doesnt let up, ever: three paragraphs before the end of the book, its in Werner Sollorss 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? Its 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 doesnt much care for postmodernism either, or Rortyist conversation. He finally seems best to like Linda Alcoffs positionality, described as a strategy of self-conscious self-displacement within the epistemological and discursive frames any critic cannot help but inhabit. And thats 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 Aristotles 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 were 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 Ive forgotten whatever Krupat said about it. In fact, Ive 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 hes discussing amoebas, or crustaceans what does it mean for a lobster to have experiences? Does boiling them live cause ... uh ... discomfort?) Answers to Krupats questions, Id 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 Krupats addiction to evidence established elsewhere, perhaps its 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 someones claim about the frequency with which Alice Walkers 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 writers life stands for a larger whole) and, second, to minimize individualism. But then Krupat adds his inevitable but-I-dont-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 Krupats 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. Im unfamiliar with his last named writer, who wrote Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and Living My Life, but were 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 peoples literatures. Now, as we know, in todays 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. Lets 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 Ive just pointed out, thats 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 Krupats implied sense of diminished capacity.
But if youve any doubts about whether you, dear reader, should be hopping on the bandwagon of ethnocriticism and multiculturalism, youd 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. Dont you be foolish, dear reader! I hate even to think of the position Ill find myself in a few years down the way: seated on a low stool, under a bare lightbulb. Oh, please Professor Krupat, Im 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 its published lots of women too! Well, maybe they were mainly white, but....Yes, weve 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 dont remember that....
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