Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow Mountain Wilderness: In “The Predicament of Culture,” Clifford questions ethnographic authority in shaping representations of ‘culture,’ Harbin

Harbin ethnography:

... In engaging questions of representation as virtual, anthropologists draw on the significance and problematics of ethnographic authority.

In “The Predicament of Culture,” Jim Clifford questions ethnographic authority in shaping representations of ‘culture.’ Modernity, characterized by rootlessness, mobility, alienation, scattered traditions, craziness, and disorder (Clifford, 1988:3-4), entails historical uncertainty and undermines concepts of cultural ‘essence.’ Informing method in this actual / virtual Harbin ethnography, Clifford’s ‘workaround’ approach to representing ‘culture,’ for which, as he suggests, there is no solution, precisely because the ‘culture’ concept entails predicament, the creation of virtual Harbin, potentially by many end users and avatars, creates a variety of aspects of the virtual, as kinds of social science fiction. For Clifford, the crux of the ethnographic problem of representation revolves around the production of texts, which inescapably entails the production of a kind of fiction. Engaging Clifford, I want to suggest ‘resolve’ this ethnographic predicament of culture by suggesting these this actual / virtual Harbin comparison, as alternate, relatively inclusive, and even generative, form of ethnographic representation. For Clifford, the problem of ethnographic representations of ‘culture’ is partly definitional, situated within an historicized ethnographic landscape of conjunctural processes. In the context of today’s world, ethnography involves questioning reflexively the ethnographer’s authority to objectively and realistically portray the ‘other,’ as well as ways in which the ethnographer is a ‘product’ of culture. Culture itself has more to do with intersections of traditions rather than identifying what epitomizes cultures. For Clifford, modern ethnography:

“Seen … generally, … is simply diverse ways of thinking and writing about culture from a standpoint of participant observation. … Ultimately my topic is a pervasive condition of off-centeredness in a world of distinct meaning systems, a state of being in culture while looking at culture, a form of personal and collective self-fashioning. This predicament – not limited to scholars, writers, artists, or intellectuals – responds to the twentieth century’s unprecedented overlay of traditions. … A modern “ethnography” of conjunctures, constantly moving between cultures, does not, like its Western alter ego “anthropology,” aspire to survey the full range of human diversity or development. It is perpetually displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form both of dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less and less distinct (Clifford, 9).”

For Clifford, the concept of ‘culture’ nevertheless does have coherence, cohesiveness and differentiating characteristics. It is in the intersection of actual and virtual Harbin as method that I hope to create more predicaments of culture vis-a-vis ethnographic representation, - but new ones.

In the generation of virtual Harbin in a multimedia, 3-D, virtual world like Second Life, the coherence, cohesiveness and differentiating characteristics (Clifford) that emerge, now find form in multimedia and the 'virtual,' thus moving the challenges/problems of ethnographic representation beyond their rootedness in text and single authors. ...

( - February 2, 2011)

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