“Ethnology is in the sadly ludicrous, not to say tragic position, that at the very moment it begins to put its workshop in order, to forge its proper tools, to start ready for work on its appointed task, the material of its study melts away with hopeless rapidity.” –Bronislaw Malinowski
Malinowski, arguably the first down-and-dirty fieldwork anthropologist to get out of the armchair and step off the veranda into the mud and symbols of colonized cultures, was writing in the early nineteen hundreds. The project is different now, the sphere of self-reflexivity has expanded, and globalization has forced the field of study to politicize far beyond a simple transcription of observations. Too many have remarked that there is no unsullied tradition, too few islands are left unexplored for the possibility of a “lost tribe” that can’t chime a Coca –Cola ad.
What was this tradition that was lost? Anthropology metaphorically agrees with Heisenberg, saying that observation already alters the movements of culture, but (being of a more melancholic disposition than hard scientists) ethnographers sure do miss the way it was. So even the best of them get a little nostalgic for that first trip to New Guinea back in the sixties, when the little children still wore leafy thongs and scarified themselves rather than smoking cigarettes and hating on the Christian missionaries. And if those memories are the closest we can come to virgin symbolic growth, well what’s the harm in getting a little teary-eyed?
Nostalgia is, in its connection with childhood, an emotion toward lost innocence. To feel nostalgia for past cultures is, arguably, to produce an innocence in them that most likely never existed and also to reproduce the relationship of colonial domination that would subordinate less “developed” peoples. This is how Renato Rosaldo’s argument runs and he would have us re-examine the term nostalgia, claiming it was first applied to Swiss mercenaries with acute homesickness. Admittedly I am not sure whether his point is that the term has origins in violence or that soldiers are mama’s boys way deep down, but the overall idea is that being nostalgic in this way makes racial domination more acceptable by converting it into an innocent mistake.
This is a subtle trap, and one much more likely to be tripped by anthropologists themselves. In fact Rosaldo suggests it may even be as unavoidable as history. The problem is implicit in the attempt to transcribe something that is in the past, and in the attempt to represent a culture that is, even as you speak or write or film, coming to terms with the outside influence you represent. The best one can hope for is to make the audience aware of your awareness, so that they don’t make the same mistake you did and mistakenly think that you thought you knew what you were talking about. I don't think that and I doubt you do either.
Now with these new anthro-goggles, see any of the following movies again:
Out of Africa, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Dances With Wolves, Tears Of The Sun
Renato Rosaldo, "Imperialist Nostalgia", in Culture and Truth, 1989.