Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Romance and Exotic Beings: A Review of André Béteille's "Some Observations on the Comparative Method"

While André Béteille’s discussion on the employment of comparative analysis in social anthropology presents the inherent complexities and difficulties encountered in the method, it somehow overlooks how these scholarships on culture and society have in fact vastly contributed to the Orientalist discourse that enabled the West to shape its invention of the Other. 

As Western anthropological studies devote its attention both in classifying and typifying non-western societies, its byproduct reflects a purely imaginative endeavor to understand the exotic Other and to produce a system of (interested) knowledge that asserts Europe’s intellectual authority to study non-Western, “primitive” societies. 

Anthropology, for literary critic Edward Said, is just one of the many Western disciplines that capitalize, through hegemony, on knowledge production and representation of Oriental cultures to – simply put – fulfill its desire to “demystify” what is exotic and hence dominate it. In other words, it is no coincidence that when Said describes the Orient as a Western constructed place for “romance and exotic beings”, cultural anthropologist Levi-Strauss too, as cited by Béteille, refers to anthropology as a discipline that “combines science with romance”. 

I contend, in this paper however, that the love affair does not end there — that this imaginative and fatal attraction for the Other results in what Spivak termed as an “epistemic upheaval” that aids in the construction of our present-day “postcolonial, neo-colonized world”. 

It is crucial to elaborate, at this point, how anthropology has historically been complicit – through its theoretical illustrations and interpretations of “primitive” cultures – in generating interests to warrant “civilizing missions” as a rationale for colonization of non-Western societies. 

Since the Philippines is evidently a product of American civilizing mission; I cannot help but wonder: how much anthropology is involved in rousing American interest in “civilizing” the undeveloped Other, as showcased for instance by ethnic “savagery” of Filipinos at the 1904 St. Louis Fair? 

As pointed by Béteille himself, it is undeniable that, because of the discipline’s “strong emphasis on Otherness”, anthropologists develop an ambivalent attitude towards the Other and end up valorizing their own culture. Worse, this valorization of Western culture was sustained by scholarly publications of anthropological studies that legitimized and even reinforced the long history of “scientific racism” in the West.

Racial bias that affirmed superiority of the white race, for instance, was largely perpetuated by anthropological studies around 18th century, that measured intelligence and degree of savagery by skull and penis sizes. Though these anthropological productions of myths are now debunked, it is still relevant to examine how the discipline can easily become an instrument for Western colonial domination. 

As the West presently moves towards universalizing the influence of globalization, it is only right to remain critical towards how social anthropology might again be deployed to unlock the complexities of cultural “interpenetration” of societies around the world. 

Social anthropology’s role becomes even more significant since – again, through institutionalized scholarship – it aims not only to reveal the growing intricacies of “globalized” culture, but it can also be used to penetrate the fusion of identities, languages, and practices in our increasingly cartographed globe. 

Social anthropology, therefore, is aware of its potent force in today’s world; but this reality Béteille mildly obscures in the essay as he speaks for the institution devoted particularly to an interested understanding of non-Western cultures by the West.    

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