Ethnocentrism is the feared ghost of the anthropologist’s good conscience. The colonial agenda of early anthropology, in the 19th century, would soon be complemented by the conscientious methodological and ethical concerns of mid 20th century ethnologists, within which the structuralist lineage would quickly acquire a leading position. Claude Lévi-Strauss displayed some strategic intelligence when acknowledging that his “theory of myth is itself on a par with myth,” that is, as Soper (1998) suggests, that we could perhaps “view the very quest for such objectivity as part of the mythology of the West” (63). Or was it the sign of a genuine empathy, an authentic foot of equality between western culture, necessarily the reference for him, and the faraway societies he was studying?
Jacques Derrida, in his admittedly exploratory critique of structuralism, would not miss this issue, which tied at once research methodology, cultural ethics and more largely, the very structures of larger tropes in the heritage of European intellectual traditions – what he would soon call logocentrism. Derrida remarked that even when the ethnologist denounces ethnocentrism ; she enacts it by holding on particular frames of analysis – for Lévi-Strauss, the universal ‘play’ of signs and their formation into what may become a full-fledged ‘science’ of signification (ibid., 64). Soper is quick to note, however, that to the rigid format of structuralism, post-structuralism would necessarily offer only a rather spineless wave of cultural relativism. The classical criticism that post-structuralism, and deconstruction in particular, are apolitical, is once again brought about. More, Soper even expects from these intellectual directions a certain human apathy:
“Universalist discourses about ‘humanity’ are indeed at risk of introducing an ethnocentric bias into their view of what is common to us all; but discourses that would deny any shared structure of cognition, need and affectivity may also license a callous political neglect of the sufferings and deprivations of others” (ibid., 65)
The post-structuralist thinker is turned into a free-play fanatic, a modern-age cynic whose pessimism about the world’s destiny moved her to focus exclusively on the formulation of an always more abstruse philosophical prose, even if just empty. In other words : either one feels for others and extends some form or the other of ethnocentrism, or one refrains from any discourse altogether and lives in emotional autarchy.
It is thus the symbolics of the circle that prevails throughout western philosophy, culminating in the paradox of ethnocentrism in the field of anthropology. Placing post-structuralism under the fold of structuralism and western ethnocentrism in general, it is implying the impossibility of a discourse not conforming to the model of the circle. It goes without saying that Derrida, but also Deleuze and many others, did attempt to offer other symbolics for the possibility of discourses.
The actual picture is naturally subtler. In “Structure, Sign and Play” (1966), Derrida is precisely trying to explore the possibility of an academic approach to knowledge, and in general, of a multi-culturally mindful intellectual activity, that would transcend the binaries of structuralism. Some of the respondents, during the famous 1966 John Hopkins conference, questioned Derrida’s very capacity to submit a discourse wittingly expressed ‘from the margin’. This was indeed the challenge after structuralism : how can one hold a discourse that does not silently maintain the referential centrality of the very position of the speaker or author? It is indeed a question of the point of referentiality that is at stake here. If the problem is that of ethnocentrism in the midst of a growing international intellectual community, we should remember that the notion of centre came, through the Latin centrum, and before, from the Greek kentron, referring to the sharp pin that remains stationary in a pair of compass. It is thus the symbolics of the circle that prevails throughout western philosophy, culminating in the paradox of ethnocentrism in the field of anthropology. Placing post-structuralism under the fold of structuralism and western ethnocentrism in general, it is implying the impossibility of a discourse not conforming to the model of the circle. It goes without saying that Derrida, but also Deleuze and many others, did attempt to offer other symbolics for the possibility of discourses. That Kate Soper is not seeing in them anything new is not sufficient to disregard their achievements – it only reveals the surviving incomprehension that the subtleties of post-structuralist ideas have faced, and keep facing today.
Image courtesy: Kandinsky