Friday, August 27, 2010

An Inflamed Curiosity

Five of my ghazals appear in Common Knowledge (Volume 16, Issue 3, Fall 2010), a journal published three times a year by Duke University Press, in association with Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat Gan, Israel. The poetry editor Belle Randall read my "Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet" in PN Review, and contacted me. The journal editor Jeffrey M. Perl also liked the ghazals enough to publish them.

I was sent a couple of months ago an earlier volume (Volume 11, Issue 3, Fall 2005), and I started reading it this week. Conducted within its pages is Part 2 of a symposium called "Imperial Trauma: The Powerlessness of the Powerful." I enjoyed David Cannadine's paper ""Big Tent" Historiography" in which he reflects on the implications of the growing American dominance of the study of the British empire. He points out the Americans' inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that the USA is an empire, that it has been an empire since its earliest days. I was also fascinated by the tale Maya Jasanoff tells in her paper "Cosmopolitan: A Tale of Identity from Ottoman Alexandria" about the 18th century French dragoman (interpreter) Etienne Roboly who was arrested and jailed on the basis that he was a subject of the Ottoman Emperor, and not of France. The hybridity with which he lived his life in cosmopolitan Alexandria caught up with him.

Inga Clendinnen's paper "The Power to Frustrate Good Intentions, or The Revenge of the Aborigines" was yet another good read. In it she examines the relationship between Australian anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner and his Nangiomeri informant Durmugam. Respectful, even admiring, of Stanner's field and advocacy work, Inga showed persuasively how Stanner's account of Durmugam, and the latter's colonised tribal society, was deeply influenced by the scientist's own biography, despite his nuanced understanding of the place of anthropological research. In Stanner's view,  if history was "the narrative of how one thing leads to another," anthropology was the study of "the constants which persist when one thing is leading to another. . . . Anthropology postulates change and, mainly, studies continuity. History postulates continuity and, mainly, studies change." Stanner looked toward a new "social history" to identity "the persistent relationships which impose limits and directions on what change can be in a particular society."

After analyzing the fallacies in Stanner's thinking, and the discrepancy between his thinking and his action of calling on the force of White law on behalf of his friend Durmugam, Inga concludes that in the Nangiomeri man Stanner "was haunted by an unstained vision of the physical hardihood, intellectual sophistication, and spiritual exuberance of the "Traditional Aborigine."" In contrast, Kenneth Read, in his The High Valley, is much more aware of the emotional nexus between anthropologist and subjects. Inga describes Read's mode of attachment to his subjects as "a kind of generalized sensuousness. He knew the succor he could draw from the line of a shoulder, the curve of a lips, the warmth of his new friends' startlingly comprehensive hugs (these could include affectionate grabs for the genitals)." A professional skepticism like Stanner's is not enough. The anthropologist needs also to be aware of his desires.

Inga's conclusion is superb. It generalizes the anthropologist's problem to everyone's. "I sometimes think," she writes, "that the captivation of the imagination--the tension between attraction and analysis, between our fascination with difference and our desire to overcome it--lies at the heart not only of the anthropological enterprise, but of all serious expeditions beyond the limits of our skin. An inflamed curiosity is especially essential if we are to keep the hope of transcultural understanding alive."

3 comments:

Shropshirelad said...

Hi Jee!

Congratulations on the ghazals! Glad to see they are getting out there. It is a wonderful series.

Sorry I missed your reading on Thursday. Nakamori-san is in town this week and I couldn't make it.

I was wondering if you had a link to that symposium on Empire or if you know if it is only available in print. I am very curious to read it...

All the best,
-E.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Eric. The reading went well. The journal is only available in print, but I could lend you it if you would like to read it.

Shropshirelad said...

Thanks! I would love to read it, if you are done.

Next time we get together I will send a reminder...