...But then I found myself describing them with words they would not use, and could not the way the drummers held the line that moved, hoeing and chanting...But then I found myself describing them with words they would not use, and could not the way the drummers held the line that moved, hoeing and chanting, down the further slope, or how the old man sowed the seed, and how the pitch of women's voices flowed across the valey as they closed the earth. These gestures are like rain. The crops will grow out of these acts. There is no book in it, no facts, no line that leads to some result; but it holds good like any truth and I have learned to write as they might sow, scything the grain against the downhill wind. We do not make it grow, we point the way. In this I go along with them.
Some deeper malaise was sapping his energies. He kept thinking about the contradictions in his position there. Occasionally, like a few nights ago, dancing with villagers outside Morowa's house, he felt completely at home and could slip into the rhythm of things with an almost somnambulent carelessness. But most of the time he was irritated by the clamour, the jostling bodies on verandahs, the strange language that enveloped him, which he strained to hear, and he wanted only to escape the solitude of his room and hide under the gauze tent and read a book. He wanted to shuck off his skin, yet also to take refuge in it. The painful thing was to realize that as long as he kept up this kind of separation between himself and the villagers, he would be passive in contrast to their activity, which made it inevitable that they would seem a threat to him. ...more
'by broadening its empirical field to include participatory knowledge and subjective concerns, anthropology places the knower within the world of the'by broadening its empirical field to include participatory knowledge and subjective concerns, anthropology places the knower within the world of the known and gives incompleteness and precariousness the same footing as the finished and the fixed. In other words, it urges us not to subjugate lived experience to the tyranny of reason or the consolation of order but to cultivate that quality which Keats called negative capability, the capability of being in uncertainties, mysterious, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'...more
This work easily tops the list of the best non-fiction I’ve read in quite some while. Certainly different (in form and style only, for the themes areThis work easily tops the list of the best non-fiction I’ve read in quite some while. Certainly different (in form and style only, for the themes are consistent) from his highly abstruse work Time and the Other. Fabian invites us to the epistemological exercise of traveling ‘through the minds of travelers’: these travelers being a collection of men from German and Belgium expeditions in Central Africa during the late 19th and early 20th century, a pivotal time in the history of contact. “Our target”, he says “is imperialist reason at the front line, rather than in boardrooms and compendia. Therefore, unreason should be sought at the points of articulation between experience and judgment, description and prescription, travel and writing, not only on the grand level of imperialists’ designs and deceptions.” Necessary to this endeavor is the excavation of innumerable details of the footsoldiers at the front line; with lengthy quotes from travelogues, the banality of itinerary and intermittent incredible instances, we indeed travel alongside in some respect.
Our companions, we are shown from the start, and with important consequence, don’t correspond to the heroic image of the intrepid journeyman, staking it out on his own, blazing fresh and exciting trails with wits, courage and scientific know-how leading the way. Rather, our traveler-heroes’ journeys through central Africa are ones marked by fever, fatigue, fear, and frenzy. The critical import of this introductory unveiling maneuver is rather staggering: for starters, by intimately exploring the explorers’ various states at odds with the ideal of a disembodied scientific mind, Fabian undermines the self-stated mastery of power’s aims and methods in the production of knowledge of the Other. Stationary more often than not, lurching with a cumbersome caravan on paths already well-trod, utterly dependent on African guides, interpreters, porters and small children, beset by melancholia, prickly heat, and ‘that terrible African fever’, we get a sense of the rather pathetic tragicomedy that was the lives of the emissaries of extermination. This counterstory is one in which they are quite literally ‘out of their minds.’
To safeguard against the destabilizing potential in close contact and the madness that the contradictions of the enterprise induce, explorers, under the rubric of hygiene and in the name of science, undertook strict regiments of self-control: painstaking and obsessive routines of collecting, measuring, sorting, and cleansing intended to serve as a last defense against encroaching savagery: for ‘in Africa, cleanliness was above all a matter of maintaining discipline in the absence of the usual social pressures and amenities of civilization.’ ‘Civilization’ traveled with them, on full display: Calipers, plaster of paris, toy elephants, Indian elephants, chronometers, phonographs, music boxes--a veritable side show operation to manipulate the presumably awed Africans at opportune moments. Keeping proper time and awareness of dates, especially holidays was of the highest importance as a ritual to reenact and continuously resecure one’s European identity. Such discipline was considered all the more important because ‘self-control was generally understood as a prerequisite for the control of others’, at the expense sadly of a more robust sense of both self and other:
More often than not, their obligations to science caused them to make their conviviality into a method. Hygiene and method allowed them to create distance, to deny or avoid immediacy when they wrote about their experiences. That Europeans considered denial a condition of producing knowledge is clear when we consider the many reported instances where their travelogues instrumentalize conviviality and, indeed, friendship. 75.
Denial, however, was not the only condition of producing knowledges employed by Europeans in their encounters. Such a protectorate, more like a thin film really, is as ineffective as a dose of cologne over such a raucous stink, and the barrier did not hold as it should:
Inevitably, explorers who subscribed to ideals of ethnographic knowledge of other peoples based on meeting them as human subjects and tried to follow positivist rules of observing Africans as objects of natural history faced contradictions and, indeed, existential tensions and anxieties. The very choice of an episteme that must have appeared to explorers as natural, hence rational, contained the seeds of madness. 183
These drunk, high, delirious, depressed, demented and in denial explorers were often in states of ecstasy, Fabian says. As the ‘pragmatic and existential negation’ of control, ecstasis indicates “an inability to follow plans and carry out schemes, as well as a capacity to go beyond plans and schemes” (9). Being “out of our minds” becomes ‘a dimension, indeed a condition of possibility, of disciplined knowledge about Others’ (280). And Fabian is especially keen to accentuating the potential productive element of ecstasy. For at times, the imperialists heard more than wild incoherent drumming pounding into their ears at night. They could not sleep with hands covering ears forever. At times too, explorers felt something for the other, something that could broach friendship, an engagement between subjects, coevalness against all odds. Much of daily life exceeded and subverted the expectations and restrictions attendant with strident mechanisms to control and relegate the boundaries of self and other. Explorers
got to “that which is real” when they permitted themselves to be touched by lived experience. More often than not, those instances involved them in quandaries and contradictions, in moral puzzles and conflicting demands. What I find striking, and worthy of much more attention than it is usually given, is that explorers frequently overcame these intellectual and existential problems by stepping outside, and sometimes existing for long periods outside, the rationalized frames of exploration, be they faith, knowledge, profit, or domination. This “stepping outside” or “being outside” is what I call the ecstatic. (8)
Ethnography based on actual encounter with strange peoples could not rest on certainties brought along; it demanded leaps of imagination, acts of identification, choosing sides in disputes, and whatever else is required if communication is to occur in situations where participants cannot simply follow their habits and routines. I don’t think it is exaggerated to qualify such acts as moments of ecstasis. As reported in our sources, they ranged from intense pleasure caused by discovery to mad projections pronounced to cover confusion and the discomfort, indeed the pain, of incomprehension. …. Travelers differed in the ways they put these experiences to productive use or let them bring out insurmountable prejudices, more often than not the latter. The point is not that these explorers seldom if ever sang, danced, or played along but that their ideas of science and their rules of hygiene made them reject singing, dancing, and playing as sources of ethnographic knowledge. 199, 127
(On music specifically: 'The objects of marvel described so far were available to view, touch, and perhaps smell. Some also rang, exploded, or were machines that made noises. But musical instruments, in the hands of more or less competent players, lend themselves neither to selective exhibition nor to detached contemplation. Sound reaches and envelops everyone in hearing distance. Music, modulated and rhythmic sound, reveals what the exhibition of objects may hide: its production is a performance demanding a sharing of time, based on the co-presence of participants in an event. As such, music effectively subverts the controlled distance and hierarchical relations that constitute the politics of scientific observation (and exhibition). Even in its most reduced forms, music induces passion and the kind of ecstasis whose role we try to document and understand in this study of European encounters with Africa.' 109
'Letting themselves be affected by African music was, I believe, one of the qualities that distinguished explorers who were able to give themselves over to experiences from others who could and would not get ecstatic about Africa— in the epistemological sense we gave to the term.' 115)
But these flashes of insight and communion through difference were denied just as quickly as they came.
meaning and understanding came to explorers in moments only and then mostly, at least in matters of culture, against and in spite of the scientific equipment and expectations they brought along. It is as if it took all the faith in scientific truth they could muster (and a few other faiths: in their superiority, in their sponsors, in their nations) to maintain their sanity and overlook the contradictions in the very premises of European exploration. Fundamental among them were the contradictory demands made by power and truth, not just in the abstract sense in which they constitute an ageless philosophical quandary, but in the concrete form of serving imperialist and colonialist designs and scientific projects. 238
An example of a certain sort of seduction being reeled back in and tightly reigned: ‘Here, with this chief, I had for the first time since I traveled among negroes the comfortable feeling of being among kind, I am almost tempted to say among good people’ (153). We see the distancing mechanisms at work quite literally, who belongs with who and why are reasserted just in time to save the explorer from the pains of difference and doubt.
Fabian asks, in a very concrete sense, ‘could anyone torn between the demands of comprehension and domination be consistently reasonable?’ ‘All this,’ he says ‘led only to madness and it is sobering to discover that the best among the explorers (the most insightful and productive, the ones we most readily see as our predecessors in the work of ethnography) also exhibited its most severe symptoms’ 238. Unsettling indeed is the exposition of the strengths of the explorers, not that they were bold heroic and individual (that unveiling sat happily enough with me), but that some possessed extraordinary poetic gifts, and could be seen as perceptive, articulate and sensitive in their day to day affairs. It is alluring to assume that anyone with a dint of intelligence, moral character and integrity would not continue to support and sanctify imperial rule. That they did and do, brings us closer to the explorers than might be comfortable. But Fabian links us further yet.
The philosophical ambition of Fabian’s more abstract epistemological critique gives way to his paramount practical animating concern, the continuities between exploration and ethnography. For the travelogue, he argues, serves as the precedent to the ethnographic monograph. And the positivism of then continues to be a model for fieldwork today. “Our discipline’s role”, he says “was to construe the primitive as an object (rather than subject) of history and as a target of colonization. Actual political complicity pales beside the epistemic work anthropology performed when it fostered such images” (165).
'The inevitably political dimension of our work obliges us to ponder not just what we represent of, or imagine about, Africa but what we inflict on it, and us, when we formulate ethnographic knowledge.' 240 ...more