Stephen O. Murray on “The Ethnoromantic Temptation” (1981) – Review


Kind of Review : “The Scientist and the Irrational – Volume I – Contributions from Ethnology and Anthropology” (1981)  Edited by Hans Peter Duerr” ​​- The title is still appealing.

Translation : November 8, 2021 | dvg   Review written in German : 11.1.2020 (LINK)

Sorry, German is essential for this book and the essay reviewed. By the way, I know and appreciate a lot of Anthropology books that have not been translated into English and are not available digitally.

In autumn 2019, while rummaging through an antiquarian bookshop, I came across two thick paperbacks that were published by Syndikat in Frankfurt forty years ago (1981). But as a high school teacher, I looked in a different direction. Its soiled cover still exudes some of its former elegance – bold colored frontispiece surrounded by white. Inside, there is bold black printing in a reader-friendly size, in complete contrast to Suhrkamp’s scientific paperbacks!

The 690 pages are about “Years of Apprenticeship”, “Shamans, Witches, Ethnographers”, “… “What the Professor Didn’t Say”, “The Description of the Stranger in Science”, “Irrational in Science – Lifelong”, ” Religion of the People and Religion of the Scholars” and much more. A whole volume of “Ethnology and Anthropology”!

“The Ethnoromantic Temptation” (p.377ff.) left the strongest impression on me on nine printed pages by Stephen O. Murray (*1950 in St.Paul, Minnessota, including “The Scientistic Reception of Castaneda” 1979). I am uploading my reading notes and subjective conclusions from autumn 2019 today. I hope the messages from Murray & Co get through to you anyway.

One learns a little about the etiquette of academia from Murray, particularly when “scientific contempt remains invisible” (382). Editors of scholarly journals draw lessons from bad experiences (here with Castaneda), “but they see no reason to warn those whose faith has not been shaken.” (ibid.)

‘Ethnology’ – A hornet’s nest of pronounced individualism, full of jealousy lines about fictitious territories, demarcations, outbidding in the face of hopelessly oversized challenges through “field research”.

Torn between the allure of the exotic, the unusual in general, and the claim of being scientific, the field researchers alternate between megalomania and despondency.

As always, with the ethno branch I have chosen a direction with a short but all the more dramatic history of science, from the beginning of this (20th) century, when there were few anthropologists and many dying cultures (380) ( …) to contemporary anthropology, where each anthropologist has his own village or culture rather than a monopoly over an entire culture, or even earlier an entire culture. (381)

It lacks a reliable institutional framework and generally recognized methodological rules. Moreover, the reproducibility of (allegedly) objective results is mostly fictitious anyway, because “a reproduction of research findings” is unattractive: “While originality attracts scientific attention (and the rewards that come with it), reproductions do not…” Murray quotes the Warning from a “methodology course” that “work for the purpose of confirming or refuting previous research would have to be at least three times as good as an original research to have a chance of publication.” (381) As in the F.A.Z. (section “Nature and Science”), the warning applies in general to the sciences.

The situation is exacerbated by peculiarities of the research field: “Moreover, the external pressure on even the most isolated societies is so great that differences found at follow-up examinations are more likely to be attributed to social change than to faulty observations made at the initial examination. “ (381 f.)

Hence the abstract self-reference in the constant dispute over the dominance of competing technical terms (now, for example, gender and postcolonial). And the extensive reassurance in the annotation apparatus (usually without naming the page, the name has to suffice), which nobody will ever check. “Schools” and “authorities” also serve to distinguish oneself from “travellers and missionaries”.

Note that ethnologists communicate publicly in a ritualized form, by lecture, essay or study, armed with scholarly annotation apparatus, patiently queuing for peer review, keeping their primary field notes sealed during their lifetime, and finally in one anyway Dispose of remote archive for posterity. The trend described on p. 381, due to a growing supply of anthropologists, to specialize and downsize ‘heredial farms’ has aggravated the evils of segmentation and “exaggeration of the exotic” (Maurice Bloch, 378).

Murray’s gloss is full of succinctly worded experiences. eg: ‘When a person lives in awkward circumstances in a distant place among people with whom he (Finally, someone speaks the misery!) can relate only with difficulty, and observes a dozen phenomena, eleven of which seem just as familiar as at his house, it is the twelfth, the different thing that is reported (….) to justify the physical and mental injustice.” (377f.)

I realize that I am emphasizing banal power relations and social functions as a kind of correction of a romantic cult around “cults”, or rather, to make the tension between the two types of phenomena visible, on the shoulders of MacGaffey, Kejsa-Engholm and Till Förster, of course (“The Obvious and the Hidden” 1998).

I often get the impression that the researchers get lost in the details, or describe in detail what they have ‘understood’. I read all about the fullness – or sometimes poverty – that Josef-Franz Thiel experienced in his multifaceted, dazzling field report “Years in the Congo”, which never loses its grip on reality. (LINK (deutsch) In a more literary, elegant way, Michael Oppitz ensures that the reader is regularly reminded where he is and where he is not, be it through surprising ironic sprinklings into a descriptive text.

Why are ‘monographs’ as boring as conversation dictionaries? Especially when they pass off ‘familiar’ phenomena as interesting ‘unfamiliar’ ones? Perhaps because the authors have never visited local history museums at home.

Why are ethnographic photos so banal and almost useless in the required format? Why can’t most field researchers take photos at all? Uncreative bureaucrats? Archivists distant from aesthetics? The collected objects are described in such a one-dimensional way?

What is ‘important’ somewhere? Do you let informants push you around?

No actual “professional training” (388) in dealing with the (positivist) “measuring instrument”, which in the case of anthropological training is “the human observer”. – Maja Nadig, the Parins, Erdheim and ethnopsychoanalysis had a good communicative and reflective approach!

‘Up until the 1950’s, “reports written in the first person were considered formal failures within anthropology, but (…) if one does not know what actually happens to the ‘field worker’, half or even the greatest / part of the process is lost.” (quoted by B. Myerhoff 1980)

I try to describe the “field worker” as a witness, but that doesn’t quite add up. He’s not a mere observer, but neither are court witnesses. He comes with expectations and questions. Is prejudiced and naive at the same time. He sees what he ‘knows’ – if he is not mistaken about it. All the rest gets complicated. Coincidence shouldn’t play the main role, but shouldn’t the research program (“working with more prostheses and narrower hypotheses today” 384) meanwhile blossomed into the prevailing ‘agenda’) then not become a covering tunnel vision?

On the other hand, he is dependent on translators, their language skills and their own intentions. Who does he confide in? How do others rate him? How do you deal with it, does it build it into local everyday life? Zoé Strother’s two-year experience offers visuals of her ambiguous and ambivalent status. What would she have brought home if not for the deep conflict in the village?! I asked myself that weeks ago! (LINK)

The volume shows different border crossings. Only people like Feyerabend, Oppitz and Parin, also Ralph Linton in Madagascar (and of course Zoé Strother) seem relaxed to me, who “pick up” the reader – with his life experience as at a bus stop or on the platform. A nice word! Don’t we all love to be picked up by someone we can trust and who isn’t so terribly complicated and demanding? Who doesn’t invent new terminology or otherwise put too tight a corset on us. Who tells no more trifles that common sense can know?

Michael Oppitz photographed a “shaman spotting a witch” in the village of Taka in 1981 (39, 59). “I see Kathka see this witch, but I don’t see the witch myself. At the same time, at the scene of the incident (…) an intensification of tension can be felt. (…)” (38)

This way one can cross the ‘border’, because the author’s modesty opens up an undivided space of experience.


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