Notes on: Marcus, G. What Comes (Just) After "Post"? The Case of Ethnography. In N Denzin and Y Lincoln (Eds) (1994)  Handbook of Qualitative Research (1st edn) London: Sage Publications.

Dave Harris

A typical academic conference reaction to post-modernist argument has been 'ambivalence and suspicion but as a fatal attraction' (563). Post-modernism began in the USA as a discussion about aesthetic styles, and has since been given substance by French poststructuralists, amplified by a feeling that social life was being fundamentally transformed, fragmented, a post-modernity in which post-modernism is particularly appropriate in both revealing post-modernity and enacting it. There might even be some exhaustion. However, the debate has profoundly transformed qualitative social science especially disciplines such as cultural studies as in Grossberg. What might be the effects on ethnography and cultural studies?

Ethnography has been criticised as a mode of enquiry and as writing, and we might see an influence in the emergence of different styles of reflexivity.. These disciplines were already under internal critique for being positivist, and post-modernism appeared first as an ally — some persons 'assimilated its powerful and radical aspects their own purposes while holding post-modernism itself at arms length' (564). Post-modernism helped consolidate and radicalise criticism.

In anthropology, there was a tradition of criticising ethnographic rhetoric and writing. First the number of confessional accounts revealed the messiness of fieldwork. Then anthropology was placed in the context of colonialism. Finally, hermeneutics offers the critique of different anthropological styles of interpretation. A poststructuralist literary theory helped rhetorical critique, leading to the collections by Marcus, Clifford and others, all exhibiting 'profound discontents' with the state of anthropology, and offering new objects and new styles of research and writing. Anthropology was now firmly reoriented to the humanities and the work of literary scholars, including Said and Spivak. Radical post-modernism offered alternative possibilities. [However, its critical impact has been greater?]…

Anthropologists still validate ethnography, and it is a central component of the identity of the new interdisciplinary discipline — history, feminism, film studies, comparative literature and Grossberg -type cultural studies. Post-modernism has permitted traffic between avant-garde modernism, such as surrealism, and ethnography — 'there are no innovative moves in so-called experimental ethnography so far that do not have previous histories in modernism' (565). There are new sensibilities and techniques relating to 'reflexivity, collage, montage and dialogism within an empiricist genre', leading to a current tension between liberating techniques and 'the continuing desire to report objectively on a reality other than the anthropologist's own'. It has made it necessary for ethnographers to discuss radical critical aestheticism, especially Brecht, in order not to appear just as nostalgia for radical modernism.

It is rare for people to claim to be a post-modernist. People criticise each other's practice of it, while denying that it rubs off in any way [although he says it does with Harvey, and Tyler owns up to it.] Luckily, post-modernism is 'a bricloeurs' s art' [and thus ideally suited to the academic profession of paralogy and generating research programmes]. Tyler has articulated a critique of ethnography which 'explicitly champions post-modernism and enacts it in his writing'. That involves 'a radical and endless parodic mode of writing, a 'thoroughly parodic discourse about parody', full of insights, but eventually limiting — eventually, it ends with 'some nearly unbearable truths that would make it difficult to lend special importance or justification to any practice of ethnography' [philosophy must not deconstruct itself in Bourdieu's  terms]. Another example, a paper by Coombe eventually reads 'like a law journal paper' with all the scholarly conventions. Subversion is partial, an indication of tensions rather than a more explicit claim for post-modernist practice.

Cultural translation remains a problem, always containing 'a surplus of difference' (566), like Lyotard [or Adorno] on the 'differend', 'radical, intractable difference', exceeding normal liberal notions of difference [he notes that this proceeds in parallel with consumer capitalism]. The difference of others can now be consumed, assimilated, explained by understanding codes of structure, but radical post-modernism denies this. Translation is more than a matter of good manners, and is now a fundamental challenge. The post-modern view that there can be no fixed or authoritative meaning has also radicalised critique of anthropological representation. This was anticipated by Geertz and his insistence on the need to read other people's cultures as texts. Comparison in anthropology has been radicalised by post-modern juxtaposition lacking a meta-logic, and emerging from the study itself. Thus accounts can also appear as more complex, mobile, with incommensurable elements, as the global collapses into the local or culture becomes deterritorialized — 'there is as yet no developed theoretical conception' for comparisons here.

We end with 'the "messy text"': permanent critique might be therapeutic but it leads to nervousness and the lack of productivity. Lots want to move on from experimentalism. However, ethnography is creative through 'imagination, narrativity and performance' (567), but that analytic imagination has been impoverished, by premature naming [identity theory for Adorno]. 'The object of study always exceeds its analytic circumscription' [well, he has acknowledged the influence of negative dialectics earlier, 565] proper experimental and critical work resists simple simulations by concepts, leaving a mess, 'a contingent openness' with regard to boundaries, a concern with 'position', the connections between analytic and indigenous discourse, mappings in which objects of study are defined and circulate.

[A number of important steps are indicated by his favourite publications, which include Haraway, 567]. Those texts managed to go beyond 'special pleading, self-indulgence, avant-gardeism or a  genius act'. They refuse academic colonialism of the objects of study, together with the 'deep assumption… That the interests of the ethnographer and those of his or her subjects are somehow aligned'.

Messy texts arise from space-time compressions in post-modernity, which brought with it a problem of how accounts of everyday life might be made to include the formally incommensurable, the global and the local, for example. Messy texts 'wrestle with' the old holism, found especially in functionalism. They do have a sense of the whole but 'without evoking totality', and [claim] this emerges from the research itself. The territory is mapped openly by a participating ethnographer rather than claiming to be 'drawn from a transcendent detached point'. Messy text are open-ended, incomplete, and uncertain about how to close: this often reflects an ethics of dialogue and unawareness that knowledge is only complete after different responses have been made by various readers.

The odd thing is that they often end with 'utopian hope, pragmatic resolution', and they must use some conceptual apparatus to name objects, while avoiding fiat. Of course, they are by no means uniform. They should be seen instead as 'symptoms of struggle' (568) with old traditions and realities. Ultimately, the post-modern crisis has led to a necessary focus on reflexivity.

Reflexivity has radically departed from the old 'ideology of objectivity, distance, and the transparency of reality to concepts', and opened up new political ethical and epistemological dimensions of research as integral. It has raised a politics of theory referring to different positions, interests, and stakes. [Note that he claims this insight arises from his own amateur ethnography of academic politics]. Everyone seems to agree on reflexivity, which makes it an ideology rather than a methodological matter, masking anxiety about post-modernism. There is an 'ideological reflexivity' on top of the essential reflexivity that we now recognise as integral to all discourse.  This ideological reflexivity can lead to strategies 'for certain theoretical and intellectual interests'. There is sometimes a bad faith and flippant dismissal of it, or a competitive '"more reflexive than thou" position' [and one example is 'a main line of attack by feminists on the mostly male critics of ethnography for being mostly male']. The most intense polemics occur 'in academic departments among dissertation committees over graduate student projects'. Those students particularly want to know pragmatically how to do reflexivity in writing in a way 'that will give them a credential within the disciplinary tradition'.

Reflexivity has a number of classic styles, and these have been 'institutionalised in interdisciplinary centres across American academia' (569). They include sociology as in Bourdieu and Giddens, and now influencing American cultural studies through British cultural studies [I imagine he means things like ethnographic studies of youth culture]; anthropology; feminism.

Reflexivity also has a 'baseline form', self critique and a personal quest to investigate the subjective experiential and empathic. It is this that led to most of the criticisms about self-indulgence or solipsism, but Clough insists that we take it seriously. 'Elaborate subjectivist accounts of fieldwork experience' began appearing in anthropology, not just confessional framings, but designed to expose the very epistemological and ethical grounds of anthropology to full critical discussion. Critical hermeneutics [with a reference to the Gadamer/Habermas debate] became a major influence. Again, some think that we should dismiss reflexivity altogether, or limit it to polyphonic  text or collaboration, although mostly, it 'ends with reinforcing the perspective and voice of the lone introspective field worker', which doesn't challenge ethnographic research at all. [Gale and Wyatt alternate authoritative voices]. Feminist critiques have erected subjective reflexivity into a definite 'feminist cognition… a performed politics' to challenge supposedly value free objectivist discourse. It appeared first as autobiography which carried over into ethnography. It made such ethnography not only fully legitimate but possessing 'a special power, function, and politics'. The effects in anthropology were to blur distinctions between ethnography and travel writing or missionary reports, without the impact delivered by feminism. It ended with either 'doctrinally kind of identity politics [or]… An ambitious and comprehensive means of re-envisioning the frameworks and practices of ethnographic research and writing'.

Reflexivity in Bourdieu can be seen as part of a more general type appealing especially to British and American cultural studies, and found for example in Willis — there it is part of a commitment to sustain objectivity and theoretical discourse. Reflexivity is a valuable method or research tool. Bourdieu opposes subjectivism [Logic of Practice] as intuitionism assuming some identity between observer and observed: Bourdieu himself prefers to '"objectify the objectifying distance and the social conditions that made it possible"' [between observer and observed]. This acknowledges that distance is sometimes insurmountable '"except through self-deception"' (570) and that theory itself is a spectacle requiring understanding from a different viewpoint than the stage — the difference between theoretical and practical orientations is the real problem rather than cultural differences. This is not to be solved by '"bringing the outside fictitiously closer to an imaginary native, as is generally attempted"', but rather "'objectifying the objectivity that runs through the supposed site of subjectivity, such as the social categories of thoughts, perception, and appreciation which are the unthought principles of all representation of the "objective" world"'. [ Almost as a virtual that produces actual differences -- could be Guattari!]. [Also sounds a little like Richardson's project in her book to teach ordinary people to think sociologically -- although this bumps into Ranciere's paradox] We need to discover '"externality at the heart of internality, banality in the illusion of rarity, the common in the pursuit of the unique"' and thus avoid '"the postures of egoistic narcissism"'. First we have to see how the subject itself is constructed, and not just go along with the '"forces of the world"' [looks good — must read it. I do have notes on the Outline of a Theory of Practice].

For Marcus, this separates and hierarchizes the world of the observer and the world of the academic social science, with reason privileged. Bourdieu is 'outside post modern sensibilities' [well he doesn't approve of them] that try to collapse high and low culture, the theoretical on the practical, the identities of the narrator and those narrated, and this limits the role of reflexivity. It amounts to the old self-critical reflexivity prompted by the sociology of knowledge. This 'fervent desire to assert the priority of objectivity' means ignoring subjective self-criticism, but this has always been integral to ethnography. It provides the tensions that prompt reflexivity. He does show it in some of his own works, but it is marginal. We can reread it as a testament to personal motivations which led him to criticise ethnography as a colonial project in Algeria and led to his own enquiries into French scholasticism. It was that that needed to be objectified. But it has not extended to sociological autoethnographic practice as such [pretty good {self?} critiques of academics though].

The intertextuality of representation has prompted a particular kind of reflexivity 'as a politics of location'. Ethnography is to be based on discovery. Restudies are not common. The 'persisting romantic ethic' (571) is '"one tribe, one ethnographer"', so that etiquette insists that one anthropologist does not work on another's group. We are now aware that ethnography operates in a whole matrix of alternative representations, and even gains awareness of this through a deconstructionist kind of reflexivity. Thus it does not discover but 'remakes, re-presents, other representations'. [Classic eg would be the special on WH Whyte -- see Denzin's contribution]

This is parasitic upon 'conventional narrative treatments… A more standard realist account'. The best of it shows how some groups have been heavily represented even made mythic, such as his own work on American plutocrats and how they made their fortunes. Both observed and previous observers have been represented. There is no longer 'the nostalgic idea that there are literally completely unknown worlds to be discovered', but rather an awareness of historical connections. Representations are not just a supplement to fieldwork but are 'social facts', which define discourses and positions [some work by Myers is cited who discovered a lot more complexity in an apparently lost tribe of aboriginals, and noticed the distance between the rhetorical self-awareness of anthropology and the banality of social life which is Eurocentric and centred.
Myers realise there were not just aborigines but alternative representations.] [there is a paradox ical link between this kind of rhetorical self-awareness and the persistence of intellectualism.]

Feminist reflexivity has taken the form of positioning, similar to the politics of location above. Standpoint epistemology stresses the 'situatedness and partiality of all claims to knowledge' against essentialism including binaries. It is both an ethic and a practice and opposes the rigidities of language (572). This is a 'satisfying ethics' and has produced messy texts, since any situated argument invites critical response. However it sometimes appears just as a 'deeply reflexive meditation upon relationship that produces ethnography' [too abstract and general, I think he's saying]. Or it offers monolithic construction to stand for this whole — patriarchal capitalism. Thus the concern not to totalise 'only lets this landscape be constructed in reception — by readers who will give the framework of the ethnography a larger context, and not of course necessarily in the way that the feminist ethnographer might want'. This can end in 'a sterile form of identity politics in which it is reduced to a formulaic incantation at the beginning of ethnographic papers in which one boldly "comes clean" and pronounces a positioned identity' this can 'all too often become a gesture that is enforced by politically correct conventions'. [He has more time for it is a critical technique to deconstruct authors and their identities into various 'unacknowledged gendered, racial, and cultural components'.

This does not apply to Haraway's specific formulation of positioning [a 1988 paper Situated Knowledges]. She says the problem is to both account for radical contingency for raw knowledge claims with '"a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a 'real' world… that can be partially shared and that is friendly to worthwhile projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness"' [sounds a bit beautiful soul-ish. Is pretty good though]. Objectivity refers to "'particular and specific embodiment"' [sounds a bit like actualisation], not something transcendental beyond all limits — '"only partial perspective promises objective vision"'. We have to be where general cultural narratives that are only "allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body"'. The limited focus '"allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see"'. It focuses on communities not individuals. It requires that we are located somewhere, that we are not trying to escape limits but rather to join partial views and voices '"into a selective subject position that promises a vision of the means of ongoing finite embodiment"'. [Endless deferment really, not altogether unlike Hammersley].

This is a return to objective knowledge, but a difference in terms of how objectivity is conceived. It is about 'juxtapositions and unexpected associations formed by a nomadic, embedded analytic vision constantly monitoring its location and partiality of perspective in relation to others'. Haraway has created a field of experimentation, a program of committed texts, 'the locational politics of reflexivity in anthropology'.

An underlying fear has been of 'excessive scepticism and of a paralysing relativism' so that we cross the boundary, 'beyond which "anything goes"' (573), which threatens a shared scholarly discourse. This fear should not stop us changing the ways we study contemporary societies and cultures. Messy texts are not models nor new paradigms, but rather 'they represent substantive, deep effects of post-modern debates on personal styles of thought and work in established disciplines'. They express a tension between engagement in trying to find out what is going on with 'an equally strong reflective engagement with their own self making as scholars'. [It is even heroic because] 'there are no authoritative models paradigms or methods'. We now have broad and diverse texts and concerns, and 'there is no sign of an end to change'

[Note 1 says that change should now be driven by experimentation rather than from shifts in paradigms. He is aware that 'moments of critique/experimentation tend to be unstable ruptures that fall relatively quickly to the pejorative charge of fashion'. He cites some of his favourite anthropological messy texts]

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