[(essay date July 1997) In the following essay, da Silva focuses on the use of an Indian setting in Baumgartner's Bombay to represent the protagonist's existential crisis, contending that colonial appropriation of Indian cultural values persists in the postcolonial novel.]
The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz has long been associated with a shift in the discipline of anthropology that stresses its own arbitrary nature and argues instead for a more modest approach, seeking "what generality it can by orchestrating contrasts rather than isolating regularities or abstracting types" (Local Knowledge 13). In a particularly felicitous turn of phrase, Geertz elsewhere writes of the anthropologist's job being akin to "strain[ing] to read over the shoulder of those to whom they properly belong ... [the] ensemble of texts" which constitute their cultural self (Interpretations 452-53). This is a description of the anthropologist's craft which at once evokes a sense of childish innocence and a potentially less benign tendency to stick one's beak where it is not wanted. In stark contrast with that other, more conventional civilizing quest for the erasure of alterity, Geertz's view of anthropology speaks then of a rather civilized search for the Other. His metaphor seems to suggest that this kind of anthropologist always refrains from running away with the Other's texts.
In an essay entitled "Being There?: Literary Criticism, Localism and Local Knowledge," David Simpson provides a valuable critique of Geertz's stance, focusing on his views of this new, humbler, streak of anthropological scholarship. Noting that "anthropology is among the most ethically fraught of all disciplines" (13), Simpson goes on to note that today's anthropologists are wary of the "real consequences"--presumably to others but possibly also to themselves--of the sort of work they do. In contrast, he asserts, no "literary critic need worry overmuch about the results of his or her bad writing, since the text remains potentially a blank space for new readings once the necessary demystifications are achieved" (13). I am not sure that I agree with Simpson here. For whatever "real consequences" any "Other" cultures and peoples have been exposed to over a period of centuries, they have, more likely than not, been the result of a capitalist need for markets, rather than of any immediate anthropological faux pas. That is not to say, however, that anthropology and its practitioners on occasion have not been directly involved in the translation of the Other into a capitalist commodity, albeit unintentionally. Furthermore, literary critics such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Gauri Viswanathan, to name but a few, have themselves spent considerable amounts of time and energy seeking to demonstrate precisely the level of noxious involvement of literature in the process of colonization. Finally, I am not sure that agreement on the ways in which the "necessary demystifications [may be] achieved," or indeed what they may actually be, would be easy to reach.
It is not the purpose of this essay, however, to take issue with either Geertz or Simpson. Rather, I am interested in the implications raised...