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Imaginary Ethnographies

Imaginary Ethnographies: Literature, Culture, and Subjectivity

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Imaginary Ethnographies
    Book Description:

    Through readings of iconic figures such as the cannibal, the child, the alien, and the posthuman, Gabriele Schwab analyzes literary explorations at the boundaries of the human. Treating literature as a dynamic medium that "writes culture" -- one that makes the abstract particular and local, and situates us within the world -- Schwab pioneers a compelling approach to reading literary texts as "anthropologies of the future" that challenge habitual productions of meaning and knowledge.

    Schwab's study draws on anthropology, philosophy, critical theory, and psychoanalysis to trace literature's profound impact on the cultural imaginary. Following a new interpretation of Derrida's and Lévi-Strauss's famous controversy over the indigenous Nambikwara, Schwab explores the vicissitudes of "traveling literature" through novels and films that fashion a cross-cultural imaginary. She also examines the intricate links between colonialism, cannibalism, melancholia, the fate of disenfranchised children under the forces of globalization, and the intertwinement of property and personhood in the neoliberal imaginary. Schwab concludes with an exploration of discourses on the posthuman, using Samuel Beckett's "The Lost Ones" and its depiction of a future lived under the conditions of minimal life. Drawing on a wide range of theories, Schwab engages the productive intersections between literary studies and anthropology, underscoring the power of literature to shape culture, subjectivity, and life.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53080-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Anthropology, Psychology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Argentine writer Juan José Saer once defined literature as a “speculative anthropology.”² Envisioning the particular role of literary production in thewriting of culture, Saer locates literature in a transitional space between anthropology and cultural philosophy (Kulturphilosophie). After the rhetorical turn in anthropology, however, ethnographies borrowed more freely from narrative and literary devices, and therefore the boundaries between the two genres became more porous. We may ask what specific difference there still is between literature and recent ethnographies, and how we can theorize the specificity of literature in light of its cultural function. Perhaps the most distinct aspect involved in...


    • 1 Another Writing Lesson: Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, and the Chief of the Nambikwara
      (pp. 27-44)

      InTristes tropiques, Lévi-Strauss includes a chapter entitled “A Writing Lesson” in which he reflects upon the emergence of writing in the hitherto oral culture of the Nambikwara, an Indian tribe in the Amazon rain forest. This piece has become a cornerstone of Derrida’s theory of writing and his arguments about epistemological, linguistic, and metaphysical phonologism and logocentrism. In part 2 ofOf Grammatology, Derrida dedicates a whole chapter to a scrupulous reading of “A Writing Lesson” in which he targets Lévi-Strauss’s libertarian ideology of ethnocentric assimilation/exclusion. In particular, he faults him on the grounds of “an ethnocentrismthinking itself...

    • 2 Traveling Literature, Traveling Theory: Imaginary Encounters Between East and West
      (pp. 45-60)

      The encounter between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo is one of the most remarkable stories about the origin of globalization and the role of literature as a medium of cultural contact. As the founder of the Mongol dynasty in thirteenth-century China and unparalleled patron of Chinese literature and culture, Kublai Khan was also one of the first and most powerful imperial minds. His colonial interests led him into many disastrous foreign expeditions beyond the sea, adventures that generated a hitherto unknown oppression in his home country. He chose foreigners from Turkistan, Persia, Armenia, and Byzantium as ministers, generals, governors, envoys,...

    • 3 Restriction and Mobility: Desire, Transference, and the Cultural Imaginary
      (pp. 61-76)

      Ever since the anthropological turn in literary studies in the eighties, literary studies have raised the fundamental question of literature’s cultural function and value from the perspective of a repoliticized notion of text and reading in an increasingly diverse global world. The vicissitudes of encounters with otherness and the role of fantasies, projection, and cross-cultural transference in these encounters have further developed debates about the modalities and forms ofwriting culture. InThe Predicament of CultureJames Clifford writes, “Ethnographies are both like and unlike novels. But in an important general way the two experiences enact the process of fictional...


    • 4 The Melancholic Cannibal: Juan José Saer’s The Witness and Marianne Wiggins’s John Dollar
      (pp. 79-109)

      In his uncompromising turn against Enlightenment notions of civilization, self and other, rationality and desire, Freud returned to us the darkest icon of the Enlightenment imaginary: the cannibal. Cannibalism serves in Freud’s metapsychology as a core trope that organizes the dynamic between self and other, the vicissitudes of love, and the failures of mourning. Moreover, inTotem and Taboo, Freud suggests that eating the father is the founding act that initiates the civilizing process. In Freud’s imaginary archaic organization of kinship, a horde of brothers becomes envious of the father’s primary claim on the available women. They band together, kill...

    • 5 War Children in a Global World: Richard Powers’s Operation Wandering Soul
      (pp. 110-133)

      The figure of the child has always been pivotal in cultural attempts to define the boundaries of the human. If, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Carolyn Sargent argue, late capitalism casts the child as parasitical Other, this signals a growing tendency to reduce the definition of the human to economic production and productivity. But as Sharon Stephens argues inChildren and the Politics of Culture, in the structuring of modernity, children also function as “symbols of the future.”² The following reading of Richard Powers’sOperation Wandering Soul³ focuses on the figure of the child, including the child as a symbolic marker...

    • 6 Ethnographies of the Future: Personhood, Agency, and Power in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis
      (pp. 134-156)

      In the first epigraph, Lucretius envisions alien worlds in terms of differing assemblages of matter. Some two thousand years later, Clifford Pickover asserts that alien encounters affect the properties we assign to matter and the natural world.³ Imagining alien worlds has long been in the human mind an exercise in trying to assess the properties of our Earth’s matter. It has also been an exercise in imagining the existence of spiritual matter and the range of immaterial things such as the soul, the self, or personhood. My reading of Octavia Butler’sXenogenesis⁴ is concerned with alien encounters or the extraterrestrial...


    • Cosmographical Meditations on the Inhuman: Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones
      (pp. 159-182)

      In his short piece “Scapeland,”⁵ included inThe Inhuman, Jean-François Lyotard philosophizes on imaginary land- and soulscapes: uninhabitable spaces envisioned along the lines of a Western philosophy of space ranging from Aristotle to Kant and beyond. He quotes Kant’s reflection, included above as an epigraph, upon the transference of the soul to a standpoint of difference. Lyotard calls this condition of the soulvesania, or systematic madness.⁶ Such “madness” emerges from a radical encounter with otherness in which one loses all familiar ground, categorical frameworks, or modes of perception. It is a form of fundamental disorientation not unlike the “social...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 183-204)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-212)
  10. Index
    (pp. 213-220)