“to find insight about Africa, one is still best served by looking for an anthropologist”

by zunguzungu

Predictably, Graeme Wood also screws the pooch on his review of  Naipaul’s Glimpsing Masques of African Belief: God I’m Bored and Cranky. After noting that “A Bend in the River, set in Zaire, is among the finest novels ever to emerge from the continent,” he declares that

“Ultimately The Masque of Africa‘s most serious flaw is not denigration of Africans, but rather a kind of resigned impartiality toward them. Naipaul shakes his head repeatedly at the problem of the persistence of culture in illiterate societies, but he seems resigned to the fact of the illiteracy rather than willing to embrace the nonliterate cultural systems that do exist. He allows his subjects to speak, sometimes at great length and in direct quotation, about their views of, say, the supernatural, the spirits of trees, the role of magic in everyday life. Compare Naipaul’s results to those of Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, for example, in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande, and one sees that these systems are rich in ways Naipaul does not convey, and manage also to be internally consistent. To find political correctness, one still has to look for a politician, and to find insight about Africa, one is still best served by looking for an anthropologist.”

So, to recap: Africans need to be spoken for by outsiders, being racist is bad but not as bad as being insufficiently proactive about uplifting the continent, more implications that the PC police are preventing anyone from telling the truth about African savagery, and the real truth about Africa is not to be found by asking, you know, Africans (or reading their novels), but by reading colonialist anthropology from the 1930’s.

Clifford Geertz’s take on Evans-Pritchard may not be the final word on the matter, but reading it tells you quite a lot about what it means for someone like Wood to long for the days when all writing about Africa could be that sort of thing. And as anthropology’s other great Clifford points out:

Why, to take a rather stark case, was Evans-Pritchard not killed, or at least hurt, by the Nuer when he set up his tent in their village on the heels of a military expedition? (He makes perfectly clear in his book, The Nuer, that they didn’t want him there.) Underlying his safety, and that of a host of other anthropologists, missionaries, and travelers, was a prior history of violent conflict. All over the world, “natives” learned, the hard way, not to kill whites.  The cost, often a punitive expedition against your people, was too high. Most anthropologists, certainly by Malinowski’s time, came into their field sites after some version of this violent history.

Which is why a sentence like “embrace the nonliterate cultural systems that do exist” is so silly. James Clifford’s point is not that “natives” were chomping at the bit to kill white people, but precisely the opposite: most anthropological knowledge of “natives” comes from people who, like Evans-Pritchard, drifted into colonized societies to study them only after a military force had already “shocked and awed” them into submission. The idea that such people — who sought to learn what pre-modern societies were like before modernity transformed them — could learn what pre-contact traditions were from societies that had just been the “pacified” requires some pretty rigorous amnesia. Every word they heard and wrote down would be filtered through a desperate sense that the social order was in crisis — because it was — and the assumption that the person who was asking you questions about kinship structure or religious beliefs was intimately connected with the people who had just burned down your neighbor’s house (because they were). Which is why Wood’s implied disinterest in listening when Africans talk — preferring, instead, racist travel writer/novelists and colonialist anthropologists — is so damning. The idea that Africans have novels you could read, for example, doesn’t register at all, nor does it seem to bother him that an anthropological tradition steeped in conquest and presumptions of rural and illiterate savagery might be the wrong way to understand, for example, a frantically urbanizing post-colonial continent of readers and TV watchers.