Review: Reversed Gaze, Chapter 1: Imagining Anthropology, Encountering America

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Imagining Anthropology, Encountering America”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze (pp.1-23). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Willingness to deconstruct analytically the formation of anthropology, since ‘the reflexive turn’ era, is immediately captured by the reader in the opening introduction to the first chapter of the book. The author starts with questioning the reduction of anthropological discourses on subjectivity to the fieldwork practice out there, to the implications of textual representations, to the encounter with the ‘other’, and to the subsequent repercussions on such tendencies on the production of ethnography as a source of anthropological knowledge. The reader’s engagement with the author’s stream of thoughts propels the former to probe the prevailing one sidedness of conventional reflexivity in the discipline. The same stream of consciousness in the text seems to be disturbing. It confronts the reader with the idea of an unfamiliar holism. It explores new arenas within anthropology as a form of culture, in addition to being a discipline, which ought to be studied as well. One way of studying a culture can be simply reduced to ‘studying up’ the active agents, or participants who are part of a culture, who constitute, re-produce, consume and pro-create a culture: The discipline of anthropology. In other words, the author diplomatically questions the essence of the representation of anthropological knowledge in the midst of a peculiar one way historical mode of practice. Western ethnographic representations, despite the scope of the reflexive revelations conveyed, fail to trespass the bestowed authority and the relative freedom on how to capture ‘the realities of the Other that they study’ (2010:2). Accordingly, the idea of studying the practice of anthropology from within, and the challenge to ethnographically ‘studying up’ professional anthropologists, account for willingness to enhance anthropological knowledge by exploring ‘the hidden/unrevealed’ (2010:2) aspects of ethnographic representations. To put the idea into practice, the author studies his own subjectivity in relation to his initiation, and eventual immersion, as an outsider, into the culture of American anthropology as an African student and a professional anthropologist later on. Hence the project envisaged seems to liberate anthropology from its ‘western’ elitist, racist and post-colonial residue through a re-examination of the unequal power relations embedded in the construction and the becoming of the discipline.

Faithful to his standpoint, Mwenda Ntarangwi traces, in a reminiscent style, the early phases of his initiation to the journey of anthropology as a student and a professor as well. He attaches considerable effort to logically shaping a seamless web of ideas that are meant to constitute the becoming of his identity. The process of organizing such ideas in a logical way foregrounds his constant attempt to meet, and abide by, the expectations of western readers, or standards. Surprisingly, the author’s ‘African ethnography’ on his early encounter with anthropology, during the process of representation, appears to utilize the same mechanisms of exclusion and ‘logical’ inclusions pertaining to other existing ‘western’ ethnographies. His chain of ‘reminiscent’ logic begins with an inherent aspiration to indulge into a ‘holistic study of music’ (2010:40). It is remarkable how his breaking down of such an abstract general idea accounts for a series of subsequent standpoints regarding his, perhaps, existential preoccupations. His logic of finding a niche in anthropology is being explained by a vested interest in multidisciplinary trends of thought outside, yet intrinsically linked to the practice of, anthropology. Hence the becoming of his identity is due to the oscillation of his intellect in probing ideas of social justice, popular music and culture, gender relations, marginal or subaltern social positions, social agency in relation to social conditions of subjectivity in being.

In addition to what has been conveyed above, the author’s physical translocation and immersion into American culture, while studying anthropology inside out, enables him to nurture a ‘reversed gaze’ that is, I believe, necessary for democratizing, or rather, de-politicizing the discipline of anthropology. His voice is situated within the interpretive approach to culture and to anthropology. Holistic thoughts appear to find a comfort zone in deciphering meanings to his being an ‘outsider within’ during the process of his becoming a professional anthropologist. He fully questions everything from such an estranged, yet beneficial, social situation. He navigates the world views and anthropological theories for the sake of understanding his own subjectivity; the very subjectivity which bestows him with the privileged strength of maintaining his intellect’s nourishment. Yet the book’s style of ethnographic writing, opted for so far, connotes a regulated conformity; a prescribed diplomacy in the expression of thoughts; an awareness of the targeted population of ‘white’ academic readers. The African voice in the African ethnography is not quite assertive yet; the gaze is reversed but not on equal basis. It seems to be waiting for approval; for the approbation of the historical power structure in the discipline of anthropology. Reversing the western gaze does not seem to derange yet, and to provoke the prevailing paradigms of meaning emanating from a historical one sided way of practicing anthropology. The well-established western hierarchy in the culture of anthropology still acquires the exclusive use of orchestrating the mediated discourses of tolerance and accommodation. It is strange how words such as tolerance, accommodation and the fixing of names, which at a surface level appear to be positive and for the common good, are charged with ‘unrevealed/hidden’ revelations on a ubiquitous power structure that defines, categorizes and marginalizes those who are different.

Having said that, the first chapter of this book does not merely invite the reader to think about reversing the western gaze for the sake of doing something different, or even for the sake of equalizing power relations. That would be I suppose the explicit tone. As a non-western reader, having the chance to come across such an iceberg form of ideas, in my first semester at a master program in anthropology, I do have the resonant impression that one’s awareness of one’s own subjectivity, whether in the field, in academia, at home, on earth etc. constitutes a first step towards inventing a new form of ‘sociality’ based on selfless equal dialogue, and transcending the illusive categorizations which fix supposed being subaltern voices. The text should be a reminder that the stage of ideas is not orchestrated from above; because I think there is no such a thing as above; it can be just an illusion that shapes collective consciousness in a conforming way. Accordingly, the fact that I am blurting out such random, yet pertinent ideas, on the text that I was assigned to engage with as a student is a reminder that the reading material ‘Reversed Gaze’ is in the process of breaking the ice of division between some ‘us’ and ‘them’. The debates taking place at the graduate seminar in reaction to the assigned reading material proves that ‘African ethnography’ is alive and healthy. It provokes the intellect and makes it think. The residue of the historical violence should not be a pretext to maintain the ‘nod’. I don’t think that the author of the text should really engage into ‘the process of this forgetting of my (his) own way of seeing the world and attempting to adopt another’ (2010: 22) for the sake of fulfilling an (un)biased understanding of the other, even if this process is going to be temporary and for a very short period of time. I doubt whether one can have control over such forgetfulness procedures. People do carry their own ‘backpack’ of the past and present collective memories and worldviews. The challenge is not to forget one’s self for the sake of understanding, but to synchronize an equal dialogic nature with other selves. The holistic approach to the expressive in culture, and the harmonious longing for quiescence should enhance, rather than divide, the making of history, the adoption of a new direction in conceiving of inevitable questions to the very meanings that we seek to decipher, whether by reversing the gaze, studying up the familiar, our inner selves, the institutions, the ideas, and the illusive otherness, which shape the way the intellect does its own practice.      

In a very short period of time at the seminar “New Directions in Anthropological Research”, I realized that this very weird intellect of mine, as a student in anthropology, rapidly engaged with the reflections and the ideas discussed in class. Different minds conveying different standpoints, and negotiating new floating around webs of viewing human existence, anthropologically, even if it is most of the times an unconscious practice of thinking. With the aim of considering a sort of continuity to the holistic approach that the author of the text advocates, I think that it’s time to consider the idea of liberating the collective consciousness of the subaltern from the illusion of being in an inferior position. Every living human organism is in the process of making history happen, without realizing it, for the time being; it can be a simple idea such as reversing the gaze, conceiving of new forms of sociability, free modes of belonging to the self and the other, who is part of our selves. Ideas such as ownership and property of a commodity, such as text for example, reinforce the rigid divides that create hierarchical differences, and this can be in academia as well. The tendency is that people forget the fact that the very property or commodity does have value only in relation to the other. Privilege itself can be experienced and lived to the fullest only in relation to other selves. Hence, the text ‘Reversed Gaze’ is inspiring only in relation to the debates that it provokes during the seminar, by the students, and the public professional readers who engage with it constructively.

I really enjoyed reading the book; it is inspiring and thoughtful. It reminds other minds of their capacities to engage in processes of constructing other re-definitions to conceiving of the here and now. It provokes silence and habit in everyday life. Yet it is not charged with a disenchanted voice that is committed to change the way things are. The style of writing is conformist, and correct as the North American lifestyle wanted it to be. I hope that the diplomacy and conformity stems its conspicuousness due to the technical bureaucracies imposed by the publishing institution only.                   



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