Otavio Velho

In 1982, the Swedish journal Ethnos dedicated a special number to the subject of peripheral anthropologies and the building of national anthropologies. In an evaluative epilogue, titled “A view from the center”, George Stocking Jr., the renowned historian of anthropology, commented:

Indeed, on the basis of what is presented here, anthropology at the periphery seems neither so nationally varied nor so sharply divergent from that of the center as the conception of “the shaping of national anthropologies” might have implied.(1982:180)
Further along, Stocking mentioned the failure of peripheral anthropologies to sharply “differentiate themselves or to present radical alternatives to ‘international anthropologies’” (1982:185). He concluded the article by saying:

While such problems may be viewed as temporary aspects of the shedding of dependency, these resonances of the sense of malaise at the center suggest that the identification with “nation-building” has not enabled peripheral anthropologies entirely to escape involvement in the post-colonial “crisis of anthropology”. What the outcome of that involvement may be is beyond the scope of these comments. (...) What does seem likely is that institutional inertia will carry on a certain “business as usual” until the year 2000 – at which point those of us who are still around may judge for ourselves (1982: 186).

Congratulating ourselves for still being around, now that the time has come it seems appropriate to make the effort to judge the situation, as Stocking suggested more than twenty years ago. Perhaps his article would then be a good place to start. There would be many points to discuss, but I would like to concentrate on the author’s (frustrated) expectations, which will take us back to his text after a brief digression.
In an article about the Brazilian philosopher of law Roberto Mangabeira Unger and his proposals of social and political reform, written in 1991, less than ten years after Stocking’s article, Richard Rorty compares Unger to none other than Walt Whitman. According to Rorty, the encouragement sent by Whitman from the New World to Europe, in the eightees of the 19th century, was comparable to what Unger sent from a Third World country (despite the fact that he taught at Harvard) to the rich democracies of the Northern Hemisphere at the end of the 20th century.

We hope to Heaven these imaginary institutions do sell in Brazil; if they should actually work there, maybe then we could sell them here. The Southern Hemisphere might conceivably, a generation hence, come to the rescue of the Northern. (Rorty 1991:181).
Gore Vidal is to Rorty an example of a paradigmatically Alexandrian figure, an expression used by Unger to refer to the kind of American intellectual Rorty himself identifies with, “still trying to be a liberal, but unable to repress his excitement over the rumors about the barbarians” (1991:184). Such intellectuality has to recognize the fact that the familiar language games have turned into “frozen politics”, serving to legitimize the forms of social life from which they “desperately hope to break free” (ibid:189).
Towards the end of his text, Rorty insists that ”if there’s hope, it lies in the imagination of the Third World…” (1991:192). My argument takes the direction that although Rorty shows hope regarding what could be expected from the “romanticism” of Third World intellectuality, and Stocking shows disappointment, even if momentary, the attitude is in both cases “Alexandrian”. In fact, to Stocking’s disappointment could be added Rorty’s if he realized that, contrary to his own belief, Unger finds his main audience not in Brazil, but in the academic circles of the United States.
We might say that besides being Alexandrian, the attitude is in both cases an exoticizing and orientalizing one, although always in a benevolent or even messianic way. We are apparently witnessing a moment in center-periphery relations when the domination that calls for mimetic reproduction is being substituted by the agonistic demand for an “other” that can provide difference. At least this seems to be occurring in certain fields, among which is anthropology. Yet communication of this change does not seem to be complete, finding more resonance among intellectuals that are closer to the center and who take on the paradoxical role of proclaimed rebels, as has already been pointed out in post-colonialist debates. In Brazil, however, this communication does not seem to be incorporated by the immense majority of intellectuals generally, or by anthropologists in particular. What their expectations are in this case is the other side of the question.
But maybe this situation is not restricted to Brazil after all. At least this is what I understand from an article about the relationship between Islam and the West (Abaza and Stauth 1990) whose implications for the debates on the Middle East and Southeast Asia can be put aside for now. Abaza and Stauth contest current approaches that see fundamentalism as today’s functional equivalent to Weber’s interpretation of what Calvinism was to the West. Such approaches would have the revisionist purpose of admitting the possibility of a nonwestern capitalist development. In contrast, the authors provocatively invert the positions, opposing the religious fundamentalisms of Western modernity and the secular fundamentals of modern tendencies in Islam. They identify, in the perspective they criticize, a tendency of “going native” among both Western and local academics, in the name of a reductionist Foucaultian discourse that would demand (at the time) an “indigenisation” of the social sciences in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia.
The important point that we should keep in mind for our discussion, is that according to these authors, criticism of traditional Orientalism would have paradoxically contributed to creating a new form of Orientalism, triggering an attack against the secular Third World intellectuals. Abaza and Stauth therefore invert the Weberian interpretations (both orthodox and revisionist) according to which the West appears secular while the East remains religiously inspired. Fundamentalism then would actually be a product of mass culture, an Oriental version of Western imagery of projected “religious spirituality”, and an aestheticizing of the “Orient”. Those who demand “indigenisation” ignore the fact that the “local knowledge” with which they intend to construct an alternative has been for a long time part of global structures, participating in a “global game which itself calls for the ‘essentialization’ of local truth” (Abaza and Stauth 1990: 213). Inversely, the authors question if modernity in the West did in fact lead to a complete process of secularization. They also question to what extent Islamic fundamentalism might be, instead of a reaction to an excess of modernization and secularism, a reaction to “an incomplete and false transposition of religious language into the language of ‘modernity’” (1990: 216) that would take place in the West – the language of a negated Christian fundament. Surprisingly suggestive of an intellectual finesse rarely appreciated, it may not be inappropriate to say that Islamic fundamentalism would thus harbor a point of view which in the West – in contrast with the discourses of modernity and of Weber himself together with that of the great majority of social scientists – would probably be endorsed by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche and his critique of the secular masks that perpetuate the (Christian) negation of life, secular man being the “last Christian”.
On the other hand, “native” anthropology did not produce alternatives to Western methodology, as Stocking had also concluded more generally when he mentioned the “resonances of the sense of malaise at the center”(ibid:186). Such native anthropology would find itself too ingrained in the epistemological, methodological and politico-ideological criticisms of Western science,
(...) the ‘indigenisation perspective’ falls into the very trap of cultural
globalisation against which it wants to stand up: the claim for cultural and
scientific authenticity in local traditions is in itself a production of modernity. (Abaza and Stauth 1990: 219).
If we take the expression in a non-territorialized sense – as is becoming current – one can say that in Brazil we have also had an Orientalism (of the old kind) though this is not the occasion to discuss it in detail. In fact we have even had a quite peculiar kind of second degree Orientalism, since the Portuguese colonizer himself was often taken as a kind of oriental vis-à-vis the actual West. Gilberto Freyre (1946) may probably be pointed out (especially for foreign audiences) as an iconic figure in this matter, although he is far from being the only one. But at least in the case of anthropology, partially in reaction to Orientalism and the structures that sustained it - combined with other general factors - an institutional apparatus that was meant to be a monument to modernity was built from the last century’s mid-sixties on. It prolonged - but gave a new turn - to the modernizing efforts already being carried out since the thirties at the University of São Paulo. This apparatus was backed by the creation of a (post)graduate system modeled – contrarily to that of São Paulo - after the (North) American one. This forced anthropology into a university environment based on a departmental structure. As a byproduct this loosened anthropology’s ties with the museums (even when nominally connected to them) to such an extent that the new situation has been entirely naturalized, especially by the new generations. One important consequence of this was in fact the avoidance of a confrontation with the issues involved – for good or for bad – in this arranged marriage with the university.
A large part of the generation who was responsible for this institution-building graduated in the United States, but also in Great Britain and France. To make all of this possible, they could count on the military governments established in 1964 with their dreams of national grandeur channeled in the direction of the development of science and technology. This was in obvious contrast to what happened approximately at the same time in Argentina. But such development also relied greatly on the support that came from the United States (mostly through the Ford Foundation), many times activated in the name of liberal ideals to counterbalance the military regime itself. In order to make the best of this rather peculiar (double-bind) combination, a good deal of political ability and institutional engineering was required from the anthropologists that in a way heralded a double discourse to which we shall return further on.
All of this resulted in an impressive intellectual and institutional arrangement including that of our scientific associations, such as the Brazilian Anthropological Association (already existent at the time) and the National Association of Graduate Studies and Research in the Social Sciences. This development included, as well, a notable devotion to identities such as that of the anthropologist and a cult of the discipline’s classics.1 It was this anthropology that Stocking was reacting to in his 1982 article, evidencing another of the double-binds Brazilian “modern” anthropology finds itself in since the discipline is at once modeled after central anthropologies and expected to provide solutions to the dilemmas of these same central anthropologies.
We could, evidently inspired by Foucault, consider in detail the questions of power involved, probably even following a more refined line of thought than the one criticized by Abaza and Stauth. But even then, we might not go much beyond what today is already common sense, risking an excess of complacence towards those who are supposedly dominated. Such complacence could end up revealing, in Nietzsche’s terms, a spirit of resentment. Inversely, it might be preferable to be more provocative, and I would then suggest that the irony of this situation (for both sides) should not be overlooked, since it could possibly become a finer instrument of thought.
The burlesque image of a colonized elite taking their tea at five is provocative, especially when the ritual is slowly abandoned by those who created it, multiplying its suggestiveness. Brazil is certainly exemplary in this respect. We need only recall the powerful social and political influence of Comtean positivism amongst us, which lasted much longer than the time when in France it was down to a museum (sponsored, it seems, by Brazilian funds). This was true to such an extent that the expression “ideas out of place” (Schwarz 1977) was coined to illustrate the deep shifts in meaning that result from transpositions of context, although such expression does not always convey the organicity that these meanings attain in new contexts.
Would it make sense to view our universalist “modern” anthropology in such terms? If so, what would be the “way out” if on the other hand we took into account the remarks made by Abaza and Stauth on “native” anthropology’s predicaments? These are difficult, but crucial, questions for a Brazilian anthropologist to consider. I will here probably only highlight some points, in order to try to contribute so that this discussion is not abandoned or put aside, which still seems to be the dominant tendency.
Brazilian anthropology (or anthropology “in Brazil” should we prefer to strongly emphasize universalism) has attained considerable social prestige (and scale) since the 1960s. It has a public influence which may paradoxically seem unimaginable from the point of view of colleagues from the “center”. This influence pervades the media, the educational system and even State policy (as in the case of the legalization of the use of some hallucinogenic substances when taken in a ritual context, just to give a very anthropological example). There is a popular saying in Brazil that warns us: “one should not make any changes when a team is winning”. But maybe this is exactly where we should begin, by checking more closely the success of the “team” and what it means when it comes to anthropology.
Abaza and Stauth resort to Bourdieu in order to explain a going-native attitude on the part of Arab intellectuals. According to them, competition with Western colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s consisted of “a process of establishing our own competence in a position of bargaining for the ‘real’” (Abaza and Stauth 1990: 220). Access to information resources became important in this competition. In Brazil this also happened (and still happens). However, in this case to a certain extent it became a frozen battle, faute de combattants. And this was due precisely to geopolitical changes – to which the Middle East was, in contrasting ways, of course also susceptible – that should not be ignored. In Brazil the construction of the “modern” apparatus of anthropology in the 1960s coincided with great international attention (and tension) to Latin America, especially to Cuba. This attention, at least in the case of Brazil, prolonged an interest which had been growing since the eve of the second World War. The Brazilianists who were foreigners, were salient characters, serving mostly as role models. This has changed however and attention to Latin America – although with some variation from country to country - has decreased considerably not only in foreign affairs, but – revealingly – also in the academic circles of the United States. In the case of Brazil, instead of becoming competitors, on the whole the Brazilianists simply vanished, particularly the seniors among them.
My point is that the Brazilianists’ absence contributed decisively to prevent the construction of a nativistic anthropology – analogous to the kind of social sciences Abaza and Stauth mention - as an internal reaction. However, I also think that the ghostly presence of the Brazilianists contributed to a lighter and perhaps more subtle development which could be described in the following manner: we are loyal to “universal” anthropology; but, at the same time, as proclaimed natives we insist on having a special knowledge and sensibility to consider and deal with Brazil.
This was associated with an anthropology that was done almost exclusively in the country, an “anthropology at home” avant la lettre, which made possible the perpetuation of this ambiguous – sort of double-bind - position. “Comparison” was of course a key notion to establish Brazil’s necessarily contrasting position. But comparison was usually constructed in binary and oppositional terms without there being, however, any systematic research carried out abroad to support it. Its purpose was basically only the creation of a counterpoint – a kind of Occidentalism (Latour 2000b: 207). This produced a methodological conundrum that was overlooked and resulted in abstract – although in some cases very suggestive – generalizations and little attention to possible convergences and/or symmetries.
I would like to illustrate this ambiguous attitude by commenting on a text of questionable taste, published in 1992 by the anthropologist Paul Rabinow (Rabinow 1992). The article was written after Rabinow’s stay, in 1987, as a Fulbright visiting professor at the Museu Nacional (my institution) in Rio de Janeiro. In his article, Rabinow cannot help but convey a certain orientalizing view, although disguised by a post-modern style that allows him to make commonplace observations from an apparent, but not very convincing, distance.
It is interesting to imagine, for example, if today, years after what has since then happened in his own country, Rabinow would still, upon arrival at the airport, consider strange the attitude of Brazilian customs, heir to our dictatorship. At times, this orientalization also seems to be – on his part – a product of misinformation and – on the part of his informants, anthropologists included – ignorance or typical desire to attend to the expectations of the interlocutor. When he talks of “(…) one of the many formerly coffee-covered hills punctuating the topography around which modern Rio has expanded and in whose newly wooded groves the syncretic candomblé cult is practised nightly” (1992:250), he manages in a single sentence to exaggerate the number of hills in Rio that were covered by coffee plantations in the 19th century; guess (wrongly) to be recent the reforestation of these same hills, confuse the candomblé from Bahia with other less internationally known African-Brazilian cults, and ignore that at the time these same cults (although this was not yet much talked about) were in large part being substituted in the region by Evangelical (Baptist and Pentecostal) churches. All of these orientalizing mistakes seem to legitimize the suspicion of Brazilian anthropologists regarding the competence of (North) American colleagues to understand Brazil.
But Rabinow also makes other commentaries.2 He describes, for example, the visit that he witnessed of four African social scientists to the Museu Nacional. He mentions their attack on Brazil’s supposedly harmonious racial reality and their denunciation of the absence of black students and teachers in Brazilian universities (our post-graduate department included). He points out the defensive stance of Brazilian anthropologists on the racial issue, which would be to them a problem of a strictly socio-economic nature or something of such cultural complexity and subtlety that would make any kind of generalization impossible without previous consideration of the contexts involved. Rabinow also recalls the lack of interest on the part of anthropologists at the Museu regarding the Ford Foundation’s suggestion to organize a commemorative exhibit on the centennial of the abolition of slavery (1988). He mentions as well another episode – this one very similar to a story told by Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques – when, during a dinner party in São Paulo, extremely sophisticated and cosmopolitan social scientists demonstrated nostalgia for paternalistic relations with their maids and performed a “…sociologically objective absurdity of intelligent people lamenting their future maid-less state when millions upon millions of Brazilians are living near or below subsistence …” (1992: 258-59).
Rabinow’s commentaries could well be discarded as pure anecdotes and, once again, indicative of the foreign observer’s lack of sensibility. This is what has usually happened, I myself having read his article only recently. Really, one need not be an anthropologist to make such remarks and Rabinow himself admits that he did not write an ethnography – as indeed the mention of an “objective absurdity” seems to confirm. In Brazil, incidentally, as I shall try to suggest, being an anthropologist can even, alas, get in the way when it comes to such matters.
It could also be pointed out that the African-Brazilian movement for equal rights did not attribute – at least at the time - much validity to the centennial of the abolition of slavery. But the truth is that Rabinow’s commentaries would only be considered nothing more than simplistic if they did not touch upon some taboos. The text’s lack of delicateness could have been a good – even indisputable – pretext to ignore it, plunging it into great silence.
Without intending to get at definitive conclusions, my argument suggests that this outsider’s point of view reveals the extent to which anthropology in Brazil might have created a new or neo-Orientalism malgré its intentions of being part of universal knowledge. An interesting symptom of this is the way Gilberto Freyre has been rediscovered and celebrated as a recognized ancestor after a period of ostracism that was probably necessary for the establishment of a new hegemony and during which “modernity” seemed to be an absolute criterion. Although the notion of nation-building was originally cast in a universalist mood (Stocking Jr. 1982; Peirano 1980)3, such (neo-)Orientalism would have as its touchstone an evident connection with it, often presented in culturalist terms. This without mentioning the class interests – much less admitted than nation-building – of the anthropologists involved. Such class interests would be furthermore characterized by a certain mannerism in which politeness and etiquette attain unprecedented importance, constituting what from an outsider’s point of view could be described as a triste anthropology, like the tropics.
When Lévi-Strauss mentioned tristesse his main reference was to Indigenous life conditions. To use this adjective to describe intellectuals could be a revealing extension already implied by Lévi-Strauss, itself part of the confusion of who the “real” natives are. If we were to consider anthropologists – that are supposed to have special resources to deal with the country – as part of the elite, we would then have to decide what kind of natives they constitute and what this dealing implies. Such ambiguity is so complex as to include the observers themselves. There is no doubt that, in a certain sense, the colonial elites can appear more modern and secular than the metropolitan ones, as Abaza and Stauth proposed. Especially if we consider the fact that the colonial administrative apparatus often found amongst us less resistance to put into practice a modern social engineering project than was the case at its ports of origin. This is an important, often neglected, point. Moreover, “ideas out of place” are so precisely because they constitute a radicalization of the original models, making the colonial elites more literal, “more royalist than the royals”.4 There is such strict affirmation of the universalism of the law and the separation of social realms, for example, that affirmative action appears as a transgression of both principles, which in academic life are supposed to be represented by the absolute primacy of merit. At the same time, universalism is combined in a curious way with a neo-orientalism that denounces such actions as being (culturally) bred in the North.
There is an interesting contrast between the situation commented on by Abaza and Stauth and that of Brazil. In many Islamic countries there is a denunciation of the incomplete nature of Western modernity that smuggles in values that in fact seem to demonstrate the pertinence of Bruno Latour’s call that “we have never been modern” (Latour 1991). In Brazil, things happen differently. Among us, such contraband is not denounced and whatever there is of non-modern in the Western models is ignored. Such unrecognized non-modern aspects constitute true blind spots, for otherwise Western models could not be invoked to legitimatize our own modernity. This is the opposite of what happens in Islamic countries, although over there it may be a reaction to a similar tendency (as shown by pre-revolutionary Iran). The fact that many Western countries are monarchies or have State churches, for example, or that in the United States there is an evident presence of religion in politics, is little explored among us. We end up searching for an abstract model of modernity with the ideological tenacity of a “new-born Christian” and without any pragmatism.
This is what happens – as I have already pointed out – with the principle of equality before the law. Minority rights cannot be taken into consideration, nor can collective subjects be recognized. The possibility of affirmative action or of positive discrimination is ignored in the name of universalism, even when someone like Rabinow considers this a “sociologically objective absurdity” in a country that has one of the worst income distributions in the world and where – to use data relevant to the theme of this text – the average salary of blacks with undergraduate diplomas (themselves a minority) corresponds to sixty four percent of what is paid to whites of equivalent education. Despite Rorty’s wishes, language games freeze in our country too. And even more alarming is that, like adults who learn a second language, we never really attain the necessary familiarity to manipulate such games, or to reassess the way others manipulate them, in order to face a world in crisis and in rapid change of civilizational model.
Anthropology in Brazil seems to resist recognizing these facts, probably due in part to the previously mentioned class interests that make it difficult to objectify this profession of objectifiers, as Bourdieu proposed and Abaza and Stauth recalled. But this difficulty of Brazilian anthropology also results from the role that has been attributed to it – including by the discipline itself – and is associated with nation-building. This occurs even when its quasi-systemic connection with nation-building is not explicit (or intended), its reception – which feedbacks into its production – taking on the responsibility for the connection.
The anthropological version of nation-building specialized itself – through various ways and with great performative effect – in an extreme valorization of native discourses that would serve to contrast the posture of political science, sociology and economy. In the variant of nation-building dominant in Brazil it is important to note that in contrast with other cases (such as Argentina) group formation is emphasized as going far beyond the confines of the State or of political institutions in general. This opens a strategic space for anthropology. In my opinion, however, this did not go simply in the crucial and eventually neglected direction of letting ourselves be affected by our “informants”. It took a populist turn (in the sense of the Russian narodniks), but tended to freeze and reify these discourses in detriment of analysis. This “going to the people” thus actually represents the paradoxical threat of impoverishing the ethnographies, even more due to the recourse to technology such as tape recorders and photo cameras (not to mention the internet); easy mimetic solutions only in appearance. The next stage is often the (paradoxical) abandonment of the field itself, which ends up being substituted by general formulations in the name of “culture”, this being connected to a fading of the “referent” to which we will shortly return. Populism goes on now – and this is also a crucial but paradoxical twist – to assume its much less attractive Latin-American meaning (which may have always been there) with anthropologist taking the place of “real” natives.5 These general formulations tend to reaffirm the hetero- and self-images on which social groups can mirror themselves, a little along the lines of what happened in the United States through the means of the (picto)graphic art of a Norman Rockwell.6 Through such diffuse social constructionism divergent discourses are transformed into variants, but still in the name of diversity. This occurs even when this means a step-by- step reduction which does not lack sophistication. It is as if in the name of the nation we proclaimed its tutorship and in the name of diversity we ended up domesticating the other. In the case of the Indians, for instance, the only alternative to extinction in this scheme seems to be their “assimilation” into the national fold.
It is as if the whole world constituted a homogenous field subjected to the scrutiny of ethnography. This is another aspect of an exacerbated modernism which should not be overlooked, although not much importance is generally given to distinctions between the highlighted language of words (discourses) and the language of the body and (other) acts with relevant consequences for the purportedly valued “thick” descriptions. A skill is developed for the construction of the text that permits a double reception through a pattern (and an aesthetics) that increasingly and paradoxically leads in practice to less ethnography and more interpretation, though the latter may be disguised as the native’s point of view. No loose threads seem to be allowed, although these are typical of actual ongoing research. Through a combination of circumstances the referent becomes more and more vague, this being also, on another level, partly the result of deadline restrictions that among other consequences drastically limit fieldwork. In the name of models that supposedly replicate those of the First World, government agencies impose upon research bureaucratic and time limitations inspired by the “hard” sciences that in fact have practically no equal anywhere else. And since this is done particularly through the (post)graduate system the problems involved in the arranged marriage with the university thus reemerge for anthropology. This is a good example of a domestic attitude of trying to be “more royalist than the royals”, in this case in the replication of an “audit culture” (Strathern 2000) and a reified science (Latour 2000a) which find remarkable possibilities of combination with our own old-style bureaucratic tradition that goes back to colonial times.
It is precisely because anthropology in Brazil reached a high level of organization that we should not be complacent towards it. It is evident that anthropology has contributed to the self-knowledge of an extremely vast and complex country. The anthropologist, in this case, is turned into an informant to the public about its own society. This consequently reinforces digestible mass-media anthropology. Here we distance ourselves from the “esotericism” of the scientific communities pointed out by Thomas Kuhn (1970): the objective is a self-recognition of society that at the same time stands for its (re)construction. This way, the anthropologist becomes part of a great national project and is often envied by colleagues from other disciplines.7 Anthropology then becomes almost a mass phenomenon, closer to (North)American models than to European ones, contrary to what Stocking supposed about its scope, and to what Rabinow remarked about the predominance of a French influence in the country which in fact has rapidly receded. At the same time, the coincidence of its reorganization and growth in scale with the development of a post-graduate system closely surveyed by the State has allowed for the maintenance of a high level of organizational and intellectual homogeneity.
The other side of the picture is that it becomes difficult to find in this anthropology a moment for elaborations of a more complex nature. If space were made for such considerations, they could put us in a privileged position to discuss serious contemporary issues and dilemmas in dialogue with groups and individuals that deal with them. But contrary to Stocking’s belief, we do not face the questions of the “malaise” and the crisis of anthropology. The textual critique of representation of the 80s and 90s, for instance, as well as its developments and follow-ups, encountered strong resistance among us.8 Not because we have found other solutions, but because recognizing problems and obstacles that may undermine the public authority of the discipline, as well as the systematic use of literature from outside the discipline as a critical expedient, are not part of anthropology amongst us. Some of the critique is eventually absorbed, but relieved of its cutting-edge and in a “doing prose without acknowledgment” sort of way. It is difficult to find in this “Norman-rockwellian” anthropology a place for that which could threaten it. It seems revealing that the sensibilities regarding such enterprise are very acute, not to say paranoid. The exercise that has sometimes been suggested elsewhere, of not taking ourselves too seriously, is in this case entirely out of context.
But none of this is outwardly evident, since both public success and the legitimacy of the discipline depend on an image of a strict observance of scientific objectivity. Such observance is oftentimes identified with a ritualistic reference (and reverence) to the classics that constitutes the means through which the anthropological community seeks to distinguish itself from the colleagues of other disciplines, as well as from the media professionals.9 Such ritual seems to constitute our “tea at five” when, for example, we refuse to recognize the discussions – elsewhere today very lively – on the Eurocentrism of Weberianism. And it is this subtle combination of universalism and neo-orientalism that seems to confuse observers, such as Stocking, who complain of a lack of originality. It is necessary to underscore that the public of Brazilian anthropology is limited above all to the country, but not necessarily to the discipline: hence the extreme importance of publishing books and appearing in the media. This inward orientation by the way, has so far also served to create a quite autonomous system of evaluation and to minimize the domination of English as a lingua franca in a manner which is hard to realize from the “center”. The production directed outside the country – outside the country but in this case restricted to the discipline – does not usually constitute more than an eventual byproduct.
Maybe this other side of nation-building could only emerge in these contradictory times in which the myth of globalization assaults us, together with the realization of concrete processes and entities – such as transnational bodies and networks – that constitute shared references which even impinge upon what were until recently very “local” issues, such as Indian land claims (Velho 1999-2000). Only now has the cosmos of nation-building – that certainly constituted a vital force – begun to reveal more clearly its restrictions, which can start menacing the previously mentioned success of the “team”. Whatever there is of the normative in the presuppositions of our activity – disguised as scholarly common sense much more than in the case of the explicit search for the “good society” that political scientists inherited from philosophy – now emerges. Room is then made for other, vaster horizons.
Part of ethnology – which in Brazil is synonymous with the study of Indian groups – in diverse and apparently contradictory ways in terms of what further ahead will be called a “second discourse” seems to already have escaped these constraints. This is very significant, since although only a minority of Brazilian anthropologists is actually engaged in ethnological research, Indians have a great iconic meaning for the country and for the discipline itself. The discussion about indigenous land claims (as in Australia) has become a key issue. Thanks to these new developments many Indian groups have reemerged all over the country – not only in the Amazon but even in the urbanized South-Southeast and in the Northeast – and the Indian population (contrarily to nation-building expectations) instead of disappearing or dissolving itself is increasing at a faster rate than that of the population as a whole. And the same may be said of the symptomatically small group of anthropologists that study religion, most of whom are very much aware – in spite of the disenchantment argument – of religion’s persistent power of conversion and public presence in its increasing diversity, contrary to scholarly common sense and also to much of nation-building expectations (Velho 1999-2000).
On the other hand, whereas for empire-building anthropologies doing “anthropology at home” may be a way of exorcising empire-building, for nation-building anthropologies it is not at all necessarily liberating and may become compulsively repetitious and self-referential when “home” is interpreted in a restricted sense. Not to mention that when that is not the case, “home” can become a tricky notion in a country as vast, varied and unequal as Brazil. After all is said and done, at least in this case carrying the same imaginary passport is no guarantee of being closer to the “natives”. Anyhow, the number of studies done outside the country by Brazilian anthropologists begins to increase, and contrary to what Rabinow observed, Buenos Aires no longer seems more distant than Paris (Velho 1997). There is an equal increase in the number of anthropologists working outside academic circles (in NGOs for instance), who are exposed to other influences and networks. As perceptions change within society (and in politics), it is fair to expect that the owl of Minerva will finally ruffle its feathers, even if, alas, in a reactive manner.
What can substitute this pervasive atmosphere of nation-building that being quasi-systemic went far beyond individual intentions or accomplishments? The answer will again most likely be strongly influenced by geopolitics to an extent usually not recognized, as for instance in our recently intensified relationship with Argentina and the rest of South America. However, one should also recognize that the “pure” science of anthropology in Brazil did develop thanks to the “impurity” of nation-building, as even the military regime (1964-1985) did not overlook. It was a sui generis kind of “application,” paradoxically and uniquely inherited from more traditional intellectuals and essayists. It is particularly unique when compared with “applications” from other sciences, even though the term itself – “applied” anthropology – is still close to anathema, as if to maintain a distance from “technology”. But it is an application that competes more easily with what comes from outside the country, giving anthropologists a surprising, although limited advantage vis-à-vis colleagues from harder sciences. However, in contrast with similar cases of combination of purity and impurity examined by Bruno Latour (1987) this made specialization difficult and ideologized the discipline’s routine, since the “object” that was created by its activity is the rhetoric itself of the discipline, immediately communicable (in spite of the addition of a few legitimizing scholarly references) in the name of science and at the service of nation-building. Thus, besides a practice it also constitutes a real, assumed second, discourse. Although it is directed towards a different public and a different context from that of the discourse of pure science, besides not having necessarily the same agents as its main exponents. Through different channels and brokers it even constitutes a kind of “pop anthropology” as a strategic part of a “culture”. Also in contrast to Latour’s cases vis-à-vis the discourse of pure science it is closer to splitting (as in Gregory Bateson’s use of double-bind theory) than to concealment – which is exactly what permits it to gain a discursive form.
What can substitute nation-building? Human rights? The empowerment of subordinate groups? Concern with the environment or awareness of our part in it? Cosmopolitics? Technology? Global justice? A mix of some or all of these? Something else? And what will be the outcome of this substitution? Whatever the answers to these questions, this may not be a matter of choice, since one thing seems sure: the increasing massification of democracy makes it more and more difficult for intellectuals to act as privileged spokespeople (in fact, in many cases, strictly spokesmen) for societies who have the pretension of formulating the relevant issues and disregarding those that go against its set agenda. Nation-building is not only substituted, but whatever comes in will probably not occupy the same place and will also probably be less mimetic of what Latour (2001) would call the regimes of enunciation that have to do primarily with religion and revelation or with group formation. Not in order to become “purely” scientific, but on the contrary, simply in order to be better able – albeit weakly from the point of view of science – to display the networks of which we are part of and that in fact reach far beyond academia and are not restricted to the channeling of undistorted information. Will we then maintain a splitting mechanism between the discourses? Contrariwise, will we take a turn towards the concealment of a second discourse, transformed into a muted practice? Or who knows if the two discourses have not been feeding on each other all along – lending, for instance, political authority to science – and that we will finally have a single discourse, a middle path close to actual research practice that not only supersedes nation-building, but also the discourse of a reified Science? Although in the latter case this single discourse will not exclude all sorts of mixtures and the full recognition – at last! – of its connection to a collective in the wider sense of the term and the implications of the collective nature of its production for the claims to authorship, individual or corporate.
Be it as it may, this is part of another story. A story that could conduct us beyond the circle of chalk that circumscribed us for so long so that our double-binds may result more productive and provide practical and concrete answers to the questions proposed today. The trick will consist, therefore, in revising the models of reference not only amongst us, but above all, at their main source. We might in this way cease being narcissistic specialists of ourselves, a convenient role in which it sometimes seems some of our colleagues from the North also prefer to see us cast, as long as they have the last disciplinary word on the forms – supposedly “neutral” – of presentation. Instead of creating, once more, an orientalist distance from the central countries, we will be distancing ourselves from the dominant images we have of them. Such images have in fact prevented genuine proximity. For this we should adopt a stance of attentiveness and affordance (Ingold 2000) in place of a simultaneously nihilist and omnipotent social constructionist one, which believes we can inscribe meaning in a world otherwise devoid of it.
At the same time, inspired by C. S. Pierce and Sherlock Holmes, we should substitute the cult of pictography for a symptomatology, a decryptography – and an abductive one at that – which collects evidence horizontally (or across the board, so to speak), thus disrespecting limits (Eco and Sebeok 1988). For this it will certainly be crucial to observe other possibilities in the world to help break the hypnotic effect of the occidentalist models. Just as the opposition between “World religions” and “local religions” tends to become at least virtually obsolete in times of globalization, the same may happen with “World anthropologies” – taken in a restrictive and non-generalizable way – versus “local anthropologies”. So called “South-South relations” – not necessarily in a spatial sense, for they could include Siberia, for instance – may hopefully have the potential of a vivifying and strategic (even therapeutic) effect in this respect. And the change from nation-building may also help to overcome the risks of incommensurability. All of this while fully taking advantage – before we ourselves become Alexandrian – of the knowledge and human resources we have been able to accumulate. Since we have already mentioned tristesse, we can recall what Spinoza described as affections of sorrow in the Ethics. Who knows if henceforth we might not make a fuller transition from such affections to those of joy, that increase our power of action in the context of wider and richer attachments and mediations?
1Stocking symptomatically called attention to the fact that I capitalized “Anthropology” in an article of this same Ethnos issue (Velho 1982), suggesting that although I (already) mentioned a conflict between “local demands” and “Anthropology as a science” this fact assumed “the ultimate indivisibility of the latter” (Stocking 1982: 181).
2 Besides making indelicate remarks about the Brazilian colleagues who hosted him in the country, Rabinow meant his paper to be a post scriptum to Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, but the lack of finesse on his part (which includes the confession of his intentions) shows the limitations of his apprenticeship.
3 In the already mentioned special number of Ethnos, Stocking (1982) refers to the anthropology of nation-building in contrast to that of empire-building, a classification that has since then become canonical.
4 This seems to be the case when in countries such as Brazil one becomes aware that the politics of free commerce are pursued in a way that seems more purist than that of the central countries themselves. The same happens for instance when the favelas (shantytowns) that have always been locally covered up are transformed by outsiders into international tourist attractions. The native elites are in both cases caught off balance - again the double-bind.
5 In the article published in Ethnos (Velho 1982), I had already discussed what I called “anthropological populism”.
6 As goes the title of Christopher Finch’s (1994) introduction to an album of Norman Rockwell magazine covers: “Norman Rockwell portrayed Americans as Americans chose to see themselves”.
7 Parodying a colonial writer that talked about Blacks, Indians and Whites, a political scientist commented that “Brazil is the political scientists’ hell, the sociologists’ purgatory and the anthropologists’ paradise”.
8 I personally think that a creative appraisal of anthropology as a whole in this debate should be done with the reincorporation of Gregory Bateson’s (1904-80) work, especially if we intend on making a non-regressive critique of culturalism. In this paper my appreciation of Bateson has only been hinted to by my frequent references to his double-bind theory, suggesting that its application might be a way to pursue some of the topics here developed.
9 There is also an effort to attribute this function to certain key concepts, but the very success of the discipline makes this increasingly difficult. In a recent television documentary the host asked an Indigenous man the name of a dance that had just been performed, obtaining the following answer: “This dance is called The Ritual”.
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