09 January 2009

Because I feel compelled to say something about this

Last semester I took an anthropology class. It was eye-opening because it gave me the words to discuss issues that had been floating around in my mind. I am a Comparative Literature major and although I love it, there are some facets of the discipline that are easily criticized. One of them is that we in Comparative Literature experience such an overview. It is sometimes impossible to find anything in common with someone in the same discipline. This can be good because you learn a lot of small details about niche subjects. But the downside is that unless you study it, a subject that is otherwise interesting to you will never be explored more than on the surface or other than what a colleague/peer knows about that subject. A good thing about comp lit is that there is a heavy focus, recently, on post-colonialism. For those of you who are lost, this means studying something after a culture has been colonized. In Comp Lit anything can be a text, but in the classes I have taken we have ‘read’ prose, poems, and films. With the idea of post-colonialism comes the essential notion of ‘othering’. In terms of Latin America this most notably occurred in the manuscripts that Cortes and Columbus sent to the Spanish crown, and even in what was written by the otherwise sympathetic Bernal Diaz about the indigenous people of Mexico. In the anthropology course that I took we did a lot of work concerning what othering meant in the world of anthropology. I did not now what cultural anthropologists did until I took this course, but it turns out that they go to a culture, ingratiate themselves best they can, live there, and write field notes every night. They also conduct interviews. Once they feel that they have answered the question they set out because of initially, they go back to wherever it is that they came from and hole up. Then, they produce an ethnography.

Enthnographic work involves writing about the experiences of a people. Within this text it is the duty of a conscientious anthropologist/ethnographer to identify their own biases, talk about the history of the region and specific subset of people they are studying, and cite previous enthnographic work that has been of influence. It is also common, especially these days, to quote every-people (and Comp Lit loves?) Edward Said, Slavoj Zizek, and Susan Sontag. A really stellar ethnography is Fear as a Way of Life by Linda Green-if you want to learn more about Guatemala and feel very sad (but oh so intelligent) check it out.

A problem, referred to as the ‘crisis in Anthropology’ is that this field relies on colonization. If a group of people has not been colonized in some way, then we would not know about them, and therefore would not be able to write an ethnography about them! Crazy, huh? Othering occurs inevitably in this field. This happens when someone says “The Mexicans are a kind people” or “It is their tradition to initially be shy around foreigners”. And if you really think about it, anthropological-style othering also happens when someone is a tourist. And in writing this blog and generally having plenty of time to think, I noticed that a part of this piece, to provide a highly biased guide for someone hoping to travel to Mexico City, involves a plentiful dash of othering. Why is this a problem?

Why not? It is impossible to categorize behaviors and common traits within a culture based off the interactions between individuals. With this comes judgment, which many disciplines would say is a fundamental problem. If I were not an American from the United States, would I be making these assumptions based on certain facets of behavior? Who would be wrong if they were to say that with a different background I would pay attention and give weight to other modes of behavior, and make judgments based on these attributes? The answer is, no one would be wrong. The criticism my extremely amateur brain can find within the discipline of anthropology is that it jumps from the concrete to the highly theoretical with little warning. And the notion of othering is one example of this. So, you may ask, why the enthnography overview? What is the point?

The truth is, it is my belief that we of North and South America are all Americans. Mexico is part of both Latin America and North America, and this is an interesting dichotomy that by being here I wish to explore further. The dichotomy is heightened even further by being reflected in my own life, by using both Spanish and English while living here. Remember, both languages are remnants of colonization! And tourism in another country is, in itself, a form of colonization. These are not my own claims, there are many cultural anthropologists that have made these assertions. Yes, I am aware of the problematics at hand. But these must be confronted directly, because it is only then that we can learn from them. With the othering of Mexicans that could possibly go on by being an observer also comes the 'othering' of myself by documenting my travels for those that are outside of the culture of Mexico City.

If any of these smaller details were eating at you, now your fears are (hopefully) assuaged.

In other news, yesterday the group of international students and the Mexican students that like to help us went to the Zocalo. This is the city center, where I had the privilege to explore a bit last week. Yesterday went to the Templo Mayor museum, which was well worth it. With a student ID/ISIC card you can get in for free. Do this! Right now there is also ice skating in the center because of January 6th. On the weekends there are Mayan raindancers, which is pretty exciting as well. Then we walked to Belles Artes, and ate at the Sanborns nearby...beware, owned by one of the richest men in the world (but the tacos de pollo con guacamole y frijoles refritos was pretty good).

More on the food as my palate expands...

1 comment:

  1. really interesting points you raise. it's important that travelers, especially students hoping to "immerse" into a culture (as impossible as that is...), keep these thoughts in mind. i will do my best, personally... thanks, mackenzie. i agree.