3. Dialogical anthropology


Vincent Crapanzano (1995) refers to Dennis Tedlock as one of the principal advocates of dialogical anthropology. He discusses Tedlock’s views of dialogue as paradigmatic of dialogical anthropology in general. His approach is critical and has an interpretive orientation. One thing Crapanzano tries to demonstrate is that dialogical anthropology is not a panacea. The study of language as dialogue in regards with the study of culture and the practice of ethnography are, rightly, for Crapanzano, well known topoi of the discipline of anthropology since its early stage of existence. Crapanzano’s critique focuses mainly on Tedlock’s dialogical empiricism. He argues that it is important to account for the political, psychological and rhetorical aspects of any dialogue and to do so the anthropologist should avoid relating particular dialogues or dialogue in general as formations of amity, egalitarianism, and revelation. “Power and desire can contradict the amity that dialogue connotes” and “dialogue not only reveals but also conceals” (ibid: 270). Similarly, Tedlock’s view of anthropological field experience as a privileged instance of dialogue is unacceptable because, as Crapanzano puts it, “the persons involved in a dialogical exchange always stand far apart, otherwise no conversation or dialogue could take place anyway” (ibid: 270-71). Conversation and dialogue are often fused and, eventually, confused in the context of dialogical anthropology (ibid:270). Moreover, dialogical writing is reduced to writing as representation whereby dialogue corresponds more or less to an empirically perceived conversation. Crapanzano draws a dividing line between dialogue and writing: Etymologically, at least, there is an immense difference between a dialogue, a speech passing between two who are in some way opposed, and a monograph, a writing, a text, that stands alone and is fated or embodies fate. The one is agonistic, live, dramatic; the other is pictorial, static, authoritative. At least, since Plato’s Phaedrus, the two have been understood in opposition to each other and have been defined as such (ibid: 276). I agree with Crapanzano that “(t)he pitting,” as he puts it, “of dialogue against monograph has probably led to an oversimplification of both” (ibid: 277). Yet, such categorical conceptualizations of dialogue and monograph run contrary to the idea of juxtaposing the various logics encountered in culture and ethnography, which I define as the symbolic process of transformation from the cultural to the ethnographic. The dialogical element is traceable (and equally strong I would add) in both modalities: the cultural modality, through, say --to follow the logic and the jargon of the passage cited above--“dialogue,” and the ethnographic modality through “writing” (“the monograph”).


In critiquing Tedlock’s dialogical empiricism, Crapanzano expresses a dialogical hermeneutics that reflects the logic of The Interpretation of Dialogue, the book that hosts his article. This logic, according to the editor, Tulio Maranhão, revolves around the centrality of the transformation of the quest for dialogue from an ontological to an ethical endeavor (1995: 1-24). Maranhao refers to Bakhtin, Buber, and Levinas to account for dialogue as “an ethics of answerability, of respect to otherness and of disclosure of identity” and to orient dialogue towards “the relation between Self and Other, not in particular manifestations or in consciousness” (ibid: 16).


In a book titled The Dialogic Emergence of Culture, the editors Bruce Mannheim and Dennis Tedlock depart from phenomenological hermeneutics and its emphasis on the crisis of representation to advocate a critical alternative through dialogical anthropology (1995:2). This alternative is discussed throughout The Dialogic Emergence of Culture, where it appears as the overall thesis of the book. Mannheim and Tedlock argue that their objective is:


to further the dialogical critique of anthropology, and to explore the practice of an anthropology that actively acknowledges the dialogical nature of its own production. In the pages of this book are dialogues among natives, dialogues between field-workers and natives, and dialogues among returned field-workers. Whatever claims may be made for the ontological priority of thought over action, or of culture over its particular historical enactments, it is only in a world that has already been constituted through dialogue that an anthropologist can study the cultures, and indeed the languages of others. (ibid: 3)


The perspective from which dialogue is considered as taking place on three different levels (among natives, between field-workers and natives, and among returned field-workers) is empirically correct. Yet, it is narrow enough to include another order of dialogue: dialogue as the juxtaposition of different logics of culture and ethnography. Although Mannheim and Tedlock acknowledge that “(e)thnography is a peculiar kind of dialogue and a peculiar zone of emergence at once constitutive of and constituted by radical cultural difference,” (ibid: 15) they nevertheless remain bound by an ontological empiricism which is most potently expressed through the field experience versus ethnographic representation problematic. Dialogue and the dialogic cannot be reduced to any particular exchanges (real or imaginary) among people, be they natives, field-workers, or (if I may add to the list) writers. Invoking Roman Jakobson, Mannheim and Tedlock draw a categorical distinction between dialogue and monologue and assign a status of priority to the first over the latter (1995: 2). In spite of (or rather due to) such a positivist view of dialogue and monologue, a transformational process whereby dialogues may be subjugated to the purposes of a monologue is conceptually acknowledged and given theoretical credibility. The emergence of the dialogical element as a par excellence cultural reality and the characterization of the monologic as an instance of “social pathology” and political manipulation are problematic in many regards. A critical response to these ideas would confront, prior to and beyond anything else, the fact that they both express empiricist and positivist concerns that run contrary to the supposedly dialectical nature of the dialogical principle. To discard dialectic as “an antagonistic trope, oppositional, in which a synthesis comes out of opposition,” as Alton Becker (1995: 246) does, only to favor the dialogic as a process of concurrence, cooperation and egalitarian coexistence is neither persuasive nor sufficient to establish both claims. Becker’s dissociation of dialectic from the dialogic serves only to diminish rhetorically the importance of a dialectical criticism of the empiricist and positivist accounts of the dialogic given by the authors of The Dialogic Emergence of Culture. Despite their theoretical differences, the authors of The Interpretation of Dialogue and The Dialogic Emergence of Culture consider Bakhtin’s dialogical principle as conceptually central to any critical discussion on dialogue and the dialogic. Deborah Tannen distinguishes the polyphonic structure of Bakhtin’s notion of dialogue from the conversational aspect of the dialogic:


For Voloshinov and Bakhtin, dialogue is crucial: not dialogue per se, that is, the exchange of turns that is of central concern to conversation analysts, but the polyphonic nature of all utterance, of every word. This polyphony derives from the multiple resonances of the people, contexts, and genres with which the utterance or word has been associated (1995:198).


Jane Hill also notes that “Bakhtin’s ‘voice’ defines subjectivity as dialogic in its essence” (1995: 139n1). It is important for the discussion that is being developed here to recall that for Bakhtin the epitome of multivocality in dialogism is the novel. The importance of this association is due to a double justification. The novel constitutes a dialogical universe in the form of narrative. This view justifies the perception that dialogue is not conversation. However, Bakhtin’s theory concerning the dialogics of the novel has caused some critical responses within dialogical anthropology, most notably by Tedlock (Tedlock and Manheim 1995: 17). Tedlock argues that the main tenets of dialogism --heteroglossia, heterology and heterophony-- are encountered in full, not only in the novel, but in storytelling as well. This is a carefully calculated move, as it helps Tedlock to substantiate his idea of dialogue as conversation, as well as his view of the dialogic as an ontological exchange among specific people interacting in the capacity of the native, the fieldworker, and the ethnographer qua writer of fieldwork experience. It is interesting to note in this context that the reading and writing dimensions of the ethnographic process are totally absent. Although I disagree in general with Tedlock’s dialogical empiricism, I find his idea of storytelling as an ideal expression of dialogism quite useful, especially regarding the reading and writing (or telling) dimensions of ethnography. Ruth Behar, one of the authors of The Dialogic Emergence of Culture draws on Benjamin’s distinction between storytelling and information to suggest that the art of repeating stories applies to reading as well as to telling them:


(I)t worries me that one does violence to the life history as a story by turning it into the disposable commodity of information. My at least partial solution to this problem has been to focus on the act of life story representation as reading rather as informing, with its echoes of surveillance and disclosures of truth. And I try to make clear that what I am reading in a story, or set of stories, that have been told to me, so that I, in turn, can tell them again, transforming myself from listener to a storyteller (1995: 152).


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