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date: 06 May 2021

Literature and Anthropologyfree

  • Andrew BrandelAndrew BrandelHarvard University


Literature is often understood to be one of anthropology’s most recurrent and provocative companions in thought. The relationship between the two has taken a number of different and variously interrelated forms. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the theorization of the anthropologist’s status as a writer; this work tends to take its cue from certain strands of postmodernism and invokes literary techniques as tools through which to address concerns around representation and the evocation of lived experience. A second important, if often overlooked, area of research involves the study of concrete literary practices including reading, writing, performing, sharing, and listening, whether by means of ethnographic fieldwork or anthropological modes of textual analysis. Finally, there are the myriad relationships that anthropologists have maintained with particular literary figures or texts, which have proven essential to their thinking and to their lives.


During the past century, literature has proven to be one of anthropology’s most enduring companions in thought. Systematic attempts to think across the various versions and implications of this relationship have been undertaken with greater frequency. In one of the best cited examples, Vincent Debaene (2010) catalogs some of the many terms that have been used to describe the intimacy of their connection, particularly in Paris during the middle of the 20th century—terms like exchange, circulation, and permeability. But rather than assume “anthropology” and “literature” are ready-made categories entering into various kinds of encounters, Debaene calls for a greater attention to the ordinary uses of each word in specific contexts of entanglement. Unsurprisingly, the presence of literature in anthropology occupies not only diverse terrain, but also tends to arise at critical junctures in reflection on the scope of the discipline. Of course, this is true of anthropology in literature too—many have pointed to the fieldwork practices of great writers like Rimbaud and Pushkin, for example (Bensa and Pouillon 2012; Viart 2016). Considered attention to particular uses, however, allows us to resist overarching definitions of anthropology or literature, while also complicating the assumption that literature can be simply absorbed into or expunged from ethnography. The aim of this article, then, is to highlight some of the very particular ways in which anthropology is entangled with literature, and yet still endeavors to recognize itself as anthropology.

This recognition is by no means certain.2 One thinks especially of novels written by figures like Zora Neal Hurtson, Amitav Ghosh, Ursula K. Le Guin, or J. M. Coetzee, whose belonging to anthropology is regularly contested, even if not always explicitly, as “fiction” or “folklore.” Compare these with the occasional writings of Paul Stoller, Laura Bohannon, Renato Rosaldo, and Michael Jackson, whose recognition as anthropologists is secured by an institutional audience but whose literary works are received in a more complex field of significations. It is for this reason, moreover, that scholars should perhaps resist the temptation to simply “believe” in “anthropology as literature” (Behar 2009) because this collapse takes flight from the real shades of difference that are disclosed in these uses. Scholars may likewise not be so convinced, as is Didier Fassin (2014), that what distinguishes literature and anthropology ultimately is a matter of a definitional distinction between “real” and “true” lives. Following Marc Augé, Fassin (2014, 41) writes that “writers and anthropologists share the same fertile ground” of facts and events, which serve as “raw” material with which they work differently. For Fassin, life exists in a tension between the real (what exists or has happened) and the true (what has to be regained from deception). From this point of view, anthropology and literature both move to “recapture” life, or to recreate a world (in his language, move through a vertical approach to life), but ethnography’s commitment to a certain faithfulness also to reality (the horizontal) marks an important political and ethical aspect of writing in relation to life. “If the fictional imagination lies in the power to invent a world with its characters,” Fassin argues “the ethnographic imagination implies the power to make sense of the world that subjects create by relating it to larger structures and events” (2014, 53). But it seems entirely plausible that the opposite may also be the case—that anthropology invents worlds and characters, or that this may be what faithfulness to reality looks like.3

This struggle over recognition in particular uses, one could argue, are expressions of what matters to or for anthropology. They reveal what counts for us (Cavell 2010, 85). Take the famous example of Laura Bohannon’s 1966 article on reading Shakespeare with the Tiv people, written in reply to conversations at Oxford at that time about the supposed universality of literary interpretations. Invited to tell a story one evening while drinking with village elders, Bohannon is surprised to discover friends in the bush who, in virtue of their own imputations on the material, are able to see possibilities for Hamlet invisible to her. The exchange beautifully reveals a desire for our stories to be intelligible to one another. In this way, the stakes of the encounter are neither in the mode of a simplistic cultural relativism (in which we all have separate but equal literatures) nor in a Jungian story of universal narratives, but rather in a kind of contest over literature that only becomes possible given a shared human condition. The status of literature thus appears bound up with a picture of anthropological thinking as affirming both the diversity of customary or cultural grammars, even their incommensurability, and at the same time their common background in a human form of life—that is, that we can recognize them as human (Das in press).

The remainder of this article traces three broad motifs under which the figure of literature arises in anthropological writing: first, as explicit object of ethnographic and ethnological attention; second, in the writerly labor entailed by the production of anthropological knowledge as knowledge; and finally, as companion of anthropologists, whose lives are enriched by particular works of literature. Ultimately, this exercise raises a series of questions about how one imagines domains of knowledge practice, to which there are no easy answers.

Literary Objects

Ethnographic fieldwork nearly everywhere in the world has encountered texts whose belonging, or not, to the “value-laden” and “historically specific” category of literature has proven a challenge to anthropological thinking.4 As Karin Barber (2007) has argued, anthropological research under the broader category of texts has been particularly well situated to troubling the assumption that “every culture has a category corresponding to ‘literature,’” or that literature itself manifests anything like an essential unity. Informed by scholarship in adjacent fields on the relationship between oral narrative and the technology of writing—for example, Eric Havelock, Walter Ong (1982), and Milman Parry (1971)—Jack Goody (2006, 1986; Goody and Watt 1963) developed arguments about the consequences of literacy, not only for thought, but also for empire and the rise of civilizations. Fieldwork, especially in regions like West Africa with highly complex genres of epic poetry and oral narrative, drew on new approaches in classics and emphasized the ingeniousness of “performative compositions” (Lord 1960), though as Barber justly suggests, even anthropologists who recognized and were deeply appreciative of oral textual traditions showed little concern with their production as texts.5 The rigidity of these distinctions, even when taken up in the name of anti-colonial projects, she writes, has often led to a characterization of orality by its “lack.” Literacy, however, had been understood either as contributing positively to the “evolution of rationality” or negatively as a “violent intrusion of modernity”—in either case, a characterization that may oversimplify the more heterogeneous nature of actual literary practices (Cody 2013).6 More recently, scholarship on literacy (or, as Collins [1995] argues, literacies) has taken these questions beyond the multiplicity of graphemic forms and their embeddedness in relations of power and toward an interrogation of graphic pluralism, and its capacity to denaturalize alphabetic literacies; for example, toward an analysis of the availability of particular genres to particular inscriptive practices, which is essential to “refiguring how graphic pluralism is implicated in particular semiotic ideologies” (Debenport and Webster 2019).7

Structuralist text studies similarly developed categorical distinctions between literature and other forms of language. Lévi-Strauss (1966) famously parsed artistic modes of creation from the bricoleur (who, by means of events, fashions structure) and the scientist (who, inversely, by means of structure, effects events in the world). The artist, Lévi-Strauss writes, lies “half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought,” through the integration of event and structure by means of the revelation of a “common structure” communicated either to the model, the material, or the user (or future user) (Lévi-Strauss 1966, 26). The balance, the part played by contingency, can be greater or lesser, and as such tip art into different styles. At first convinced that his method could be demonstrated more simply through a reading of a single text (rather than across variations), he quickly discovered that he had confused the literary work of singular expressions (e.g., Sophocles’ Oedipus) for myth, and that the difference required a new conception of the domain of analysis (Lévi-Strauss 1955a, 1955b; Vernant 1970).8 When Lévi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson together read Baudelaire’s Les Chats several years later, they approached the sonnet through a series of corresponding grammatical and semantic divisions in the text and shifts in point of view. This perspective reveals that the poem’s oscillations in tone and theme serve to modulate an opposition between metaphorical and metonymical procedures, whereby each tercet puts forward an inversion of the image of the cat—first as a figure who, by means of their dreams, attains a semblance of freedom from the confines of the house, and second, through the internationalization of “cosmic proportions,” as one who really achieves it. This incomplete opposition, they argue in the end, is a mirror of the one with which the poem begins, between “ardent scholars” attached to the universe and “fervent lovers” attached to one another (Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson 1962, 19–20).

Jakobson exerted considerable influence on linguistic anthropological approaches to the poetic function, the “universal form” of which he understood to simply meet a human need: “the abstractive power of human thought, underlying … both geometrical relations and grammar, superimposes simple geometrical and grammatical figures upon the pictorial world of particular objects and upon the concrete lexical ‘wherewithal’ of verbal art” (Jakobson 1968, 44; Caton 1987, 246) While some have objected to the circularity of Jakobson’s defense of the necessary grammar of poetry, Steve Caton suggests a better criticism was advanced by Marxist readers, for whom Jakobson’s account of the “transcendent” relation of poetic text to sociohistorical context is inadequate—an oversight Mukařovský (1977, 1978) tries to correct for structuralism, though neither, Caton argues, is in the end able to reconcile literature’s power “to transform and create social reality.” A similar impulse lays behind Pierre Bourdieu’s (1992, 1993) notion that literature had to be understood through distinctions in what counts as and for literature; that is, in a field of structural positions that crossed other organizing principles in various ways and could be read not only in the person of the author, but also in the homologous aesthetic qualities of the work itself. Such a view pushed against the “charismatic ideology of ‘creation,’” which covers up the conditions of their production as “creator” and thereby blocks any “rigorous science of the production of the value of cultural goods.”9

One of the principle concerns of ethnographic approaches, then, has been how to think about literature without imposing a concept of literature, as if it were merely a tool of analysis. How can one remain attentive to its reality, they seem to suggest, without enacting what can only be called a form of epistemic violence? That the concept of literature has in fact proliferated globally is, of course, part and parcel of a long colonial legacy and its attendant claims to universality and translatability. But rather than assume that literature abides bounded civilizational categories or the borders of national traditions, the ethnographic record shows how deeply entangled the concept and the texts themselves are in local, regional, and global circuits. It remains an open question whether this situation necessitates an analytical framework that goes beyond its emergence from local soil. Adam Reed’s (2011) important work on fiction reading in England responded to this problem instructively by appeal to anthropological theories of art rather than textuality (cf. Fournier and Pivat 2016). Following in the footsteps of Alfred Gell (1998), Reed argues that anthropology may sidestep problems associated with the differently constituted literary “worlds” and the Western ideological emphasis on semiosis by foregrounding the different ways in which claims are made within a field about the attribution of agency (i.e., premised on the function of the linguistic index). Helena Wulff (2017) takes ethnography of this kind to be an exercise in “studying sideways,” a term she borrows from Ulf Hannerz and Sherry Ortner, because of what she sees as a continuity between “our” lives as anthropologists and those of literary interlocutors in a wider “knowledge class.”10

Michael Herzfeld (1997) models a different approach in his “ethnographic biography” of a writer (Andreas Nenedakis), which takes the form of a “contrapuntal conversation” with ethnography, thus positioning anthropology alongside a “trajectory of life.” The conversation tacks back and forth, particularly around two themes of shared concern: the “cultural problem of motivation,” and realism. Herzfeld argues that Nenedakis’ realism is predicated on a “descriptive agnosticism,” particularly with regard to the motivations of characters. The proximity of the two undertakings—writing a novel and writing a work of historical scholarship—has particular stakes for Nenedakis, who engages in a number of public debates about the status of his own writing. For Herzfeld too, it is the source of literature’s capacity to instruct ethnography, and vice versa. Three other examples are, for him, especially noteworthy: Judith Okely’s (1986) learning from Beauvoir, nominally outside of professional anthropology, about how to be an anthropologist; Handler and Segal’s (1990) use of Jane Austen to show how a cultural account can “analytically disengage agency from a surface appearance of studied formality”; and Nigel Rapport’s (1994) comparison of his fieldwork to E. M. Forster’s novels (a move that harkens back to a long-standing juxtaposition of Malinowski and Conrad). For Handler and Segal, Austen’s approach to the characters in her novels reflects parallel concerns to those of ethnographers in the field—concerns, that is, with objects like kinship, social organization, rank, and exchange—especially since both, they suggest, work to effect cultural translations (to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar). For Rapport, somewhat differently, Forster is of interest because of the way he “writes reality,” which corresponds with the kind of writing and reading Rapport wants to undertake as an anthropologist. This correspondence takes a dialogical form in which Forster’s novels change Rapport’s relationship to the lives of those he meets in the village of Wanet, just as his fieldwork there changes his reading of Forster.11

This gesture of remaining alongside one other is also reminiscent of the position taken up by Michel Leiris (2016), the French surrealist poet who accompanied Marcel Griaule on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti. This positionality has been subject of considerable academic commentary. According to Debaene, Leiris’ work enacts a “bifurcation” of anthropology and literature. Glissant reads the text as reflecting a writer not yet given to his scientific activity. Hollier likens the distance between the two shores to the path between Charybdis and Scylla. It is known from Leiris’ notes that he intended the diary to stand in contradistinction to his ethnographic work, and even kept it away from Griaule. But as literary historians have made clear, it may be better to read it in the modernist spirit in which it was originally articulated, a position that neither erases the distance between the two, nor essentializes the externality of one to the other, and that while allowing for attention to the production of texts, did not make the moment of inscription into a universal sign of social life (Richardson 1993; Jamin 1982, 1986).

Literature is distinguished from other intellectual and aesthetic activities, Kroeber (1944, 453) once argued, by its being particularly well suited to “politico-national strivings,” a condition determined by the fact that its medium is “nothing more than the speech which is the common possession of all members of the society.”12 Indeed, especially in (post)colonial contexts, ethnographers have been attentive to how local literary practices are put to political and social use. Such a vantage has in turn complicated the easy way in which concepts or practices are understood through sedimented binary oppositions: either belonging to the colonizer or to the colonized, to the Orientalist or their imagined Other, to those with power and those without. Linguistic anthropologists have taken the lead in these efforts, like Bernard Bate’s (2009) astounding analysis of centamil, beautiful Tamil, full of literary virtuosity, in contemporary political oratory. As Bate showed, the aesthetic whereby political orators distinguish themselves from competitors through the use of archaic scriptural forms that appear in sharp distinction to “common” or “vulgar” Tamil, allows them to call up a Dravidian civilizational history opposed to the hegemonic Indo-Aryan one. Earlier, Steven Caton’s landmark study of poetry in northern Yemen had similarly described how, among the Khawlani tribes, outright warfare was regularly put off through the application of “symbolic force, or a representation of the ‘real thing,’” which enabled honor to be preserved. In the absence of a strong, centralized authority such as the state, which may have otherwise imposed a settled order, persuasive rhetoric—in which poetry is a powerful tool—becomes central to the authority of sheikhs to mediate discord.13 Khaled Furani’s (2012) ethnography of Palestinian literary transformations, particularly the shift from the measured meter of classical forms to modern free verse and prose poetry, which resist older disciplining rhythms, is another especially clear case. Working across their contemporary expressions, Furani details how notions of poetic style shift in relation to modern forms of power. While classical poetry comes to be associated with an Arabic past rather than present, with the sounds of oration, the collectivity of audiences in public spaces and the desert, modern poetry is understood to embody liberal freedom, the private self, urbanity, and the visual apprehension of text. Through these reorientations of the senses and new alignments of space, poetry enables a secularization not just of language, but of a “mode of existence” (Furani 2012, 206), of society in general, and in so doing, lays the groundwork for a new relationship between truth and power.14

The relationship between ethical self-formation and the political has been another major theme of work in this vein. Consider, for example, J. Andrew Bush’s (2017) work on the ways poetry enables the maintenance of intimate relations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ethical work is possible, Bush argued, because of the affective pleasures and joys that link poetic imagination to the household. Elsewhere, Bush (2017) shows how in the life of a man he calls Newzad, love of the Sufi poetic trope of desire allows him to think of the finitude (and not infinitude, as it is usually believed) of desire for the divine, and, by extension, a slew of other more mundane relationships.15 Another important example is Anthony K. Webster’s highly influential body of work on Navajo poetry and poetics, which extends and elaborates on Dell Hymes’ (1999) and Dennis Tedlock’s (1983) approaches to ethnopoetics. Webster’s (2016, 2009) writing explores how the aesthetic and interpretative features of Navajo (Diné) poetry and performance reflect and refract Navajo present and futures and their emotional saturation by means of iconicity. This view from the “intimate grammar” of poetry highlights its capacity to articulate forms of resistance and misrecognition, especially where “outsiders” are listening—this danger is especially palpable when Navajo poets make use of Navajo English, where the seeming proximity to “mainstream” English is heard by listeners outside Navajo Nation as indicative of a simultaneous failure to preserve authentic or traditional Navajo language and to speak English “correctly.” What the ethnographer offers, for Webster, is a route to what Navajo poets themselves describe as “really listening,” a utopian task that strives not after complete understanding, but rather a glimpse of what is being said to us.

Writerly Work

Something very different, however, is at stake in the second configuration of the relationship between anthropology and literature, and which “reflects” on the work of anthropologists as writers. Common historiography of the turn to anthropologists’ own presumptive literariness often sets off from the period between the late 1970s and 1980s. This recognition of the literary quality of anthropological writing was emblazoned by figures like Clifford Geertz (1973), who called attention to anthropologists’ own involvement in symbolic exchange through interpretation—a position he later clarifies (1988) through the language of the ethnographic text’s “personal” nature; that is, of the author-ization of the text, the author’s signature, and the discourse to which it is connected, the authority of having been “there” in the field at this time, for that event.

If, however, culture was text and fieldwork an act of reading the forest of symbols (Turner 1967), as Geertz also earlier had it, the Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) “moment” located the act of writing in the field itself. No longer, the contributors famously argued, could anthropologists abide the ideology of transparent representation. Rather, culture now had to be understood as “contested codes and representations,” the invention of which anthropologists took part in. The artificiality of cultural accounts also located ethnographic writing “beyond texts,” reaching to “contexts of power, resistance, institutional constraint and innovation,” and therefore “not literary in any traditional sense” (Clifford 1986, 2). In the spirit of Herodotus, Montaigne, and Virginia Woolf, the authors of Writing Culture imagined ethnographic work as “situated between powerful systems of meaning” (Clifford 1986, 3)—the literariness of anthropological writing thus struggled against the historically transient, power-laden, and rigid categories of art, science, literature, and history. They announced their own fictive quality of anthropological texts, their partiality. This project went hand-in-hand with contemporary attempts to decolonize Western and hegemonic authority applied to the determination of the real. Through the use of “divergent styles of writing,” one would explicate (or try to) the “specification of discourse” so as to disclose the relations of production inherent in the writing of culture. Cultural poesis was thereby seen as dialogical and made explicit the conditions of that exchange through techniques of writing.16 Literature, in this sense, and later the “literary,” appear as mere tools of illumination of a facet of reality otherwise somehow hidden from view.

Such a fetishization of form had its corollaries in some wings of “post-structuralist” anthropology and has drawn recurrently on invocations of both “realism” and “modernism,” though both at some remove from their literary uses. Michael Taussig, to take a notable example, describes a “modernist” ethnographic text generated by the “collation of meanings and power” and “irregularly challenging the inviolability of the referent, constantly problematizing reality” (1989, 18). Clifford (1988) describes the mood of Malinowski’s diary as operating in the genre of “ethnographic realism,” marked by the ironic subject position of the fieldworker and which allows for the disclosure of “discrepant” systems of meaning. He opposes this sense of realism to the “realist cultural fiction” of Malinowski’s published prose. The force of this positionality is related to what he had earlier (Clifford 1981) called “ethnographic surrealism,” a “strategy” he defines as resting on the “unmediated tension with sheer incongruity … repeatedly produced, and smoothed over, in the process of ethnographic comprehension.”

Vincent Crapanzano (2004) has stressed the enmeshment of the ethical, the literary, the philosophical, and the anthropological through a “transgressive montage” that functions as an instrument not only of our desire to dislodge our experiential categories by revealing their constructedness, but also tries to subvert the aesthetic criteria that make such constructions possible. Whether one accepts his insistence that the ambiguity of human nature and our embracing of the imaginative play, as engaged social actors, makes us bad epistemologists (Crapanzano 2014), his warning that we remember the stakes of acknowledging the strategies others deploy in response to the fact of interpretation (and thereby, their humanity) is crucial to such an endeavor. It is a response to what he had earlier called “Hermes’ dilemma” (1992) in which the anthropologist figures as messenger between those for whom they serve as porte-parole and their own “value-charged” world, and which leads him to a form of “blasphemous” reading. Language, for Crapanzano, is an autonomous and “recalcitrant instrument in the struggle between differently empowered desires [e.g., those of message-giver, receiver, and carrier]” even as it “articulates in complex ways with the sources of desire and power in any social formation.” (1992, 23, my emphasis)

For someone like Ruth Behar (1996), the writer models a way of approaching the dilemmas of witnessing that reflects an aspiration for anthropology. Drawing on the motif of travel-writing that has long-structured ethnographic narratives, Behar famously suggests that anthropology has only begun to learn to account for the anthropologist’s own “emotional involvement with their material.” Such vulnerability is an artifact of the fact that “anthropology … is the most fascinating, bizarre, disturbing, and necessary form of witnessing left to us at the end of the twentieth century.” Literature and ethnography have traveled parallel tracks, she continues later, in moving toward the insertion of the humor, “literary” and “poetic” effects, and the first-person pronoun, and in which the line between the object (say, literature) and writing about the object has been erased (Behar 1996, 29). Kirin Narayan (2012) relatedly writes of ethnography written in “lively, engaging styles”; that is, with a “literary panache” gleaned from a kind of apprenticeship to writers like Chekhov—just as there are those writers of fiction and creative nonfiction who “spoke seriously and tediously about a form of life” and seem to Narayan to “[sound] like an ethnographer.”

These efforts took another small step in the years that followed, and even further into the literary at some distance from literature. Stuart Mclean and Anand Pandian (2017) write of ecstatic, even reckless abandon, unconcerned with critical distance. They aim toward harnessing a “literary force,” a “metamorphosis of nature,” to becoming a cipher of becoming. To write in a literary vein, for Mclean and Pandian, is to be more faithful to life, and for many of the contributors to their volume on “literary anthropology,” to “convey” something of a world. While they take up Michael Jackson’s assertion that “it is the world … that calls the final shot,” it is the craftiness of the writer herself that occupies the imagination in their thought. It is the latter’s capacity to tap into a potential implicit in the world, they suggest, to try “to do justice … to complement … to reveal aspects of the real at the very limits of the perceptible” (Mclean and Pandian 2017, 19), but through an act of creation. The “genius” of this act is ascribed not to an author but to a diffuse feeling, even as it calls attention to the inscription of its artifactual nature. If many of the earlier idioms of the fictive have been carried forward, little remains of literature itself, as if it could survive apart, save an epigraph or two—the real of literature thus dissolved into ethnography, giving the author both more and less control and claim over their product. Would we not be well served, however, to more finely distinguish literature, with which we may, like Jackson, so intimately live, from this notion of the “literary” that Mclean and Pandian hope to write by supposedly erasing mediation? One thinks perhaps of Kafka’s well-known formulation, “I have no literary interests, but rather consist in literature.” If not, do we run the risk of re-inscribing the space between ourselves and our concepts as neutral “tools” that we try on and of which we can “make use”?17 Is ethnography indistinguishable from literature–should we want it to be? And if so, is it simply a matter of parroting formal qualities of the writing?

The Companionship of Literary

There is a final motif worth considering—anthropology’s relationship with literature through what we may call its contemporaneity to us, as readers ourselves. By contemporaneity, I mean to indicate how literature, even when produced in other historical or geographical contexts, is often an influential part of our lives, regularly coming to mind unbidden. Its presence is everywhere: in the novels Malinowski refers to in his diaries, in Lévi-Strauss’s (1955a) triste reveries, or in Sidney Mintz’s fascination with Powell (1979). When, and why, in the course of anthropological lives, do literary texts appear to us, not from the field as normally conceived, but from within us? What do literary examples do?

Such experiences of companionship in which a phrase, a scene, a character, or even a whole work leaps to the forefront of our minds are apparent in the words of a writer like Jackson, for whom literature is a constant resource in life and in thought. It is “but one means,” among others, “of making life livable,” one way in which we transfigure ourselves, in particular through the recognition that there are others out there alongside me; an acknowledgment that “I do not write, I am written” (Jackson 2011, 90, 93). Jackson has remarked that the burning question of his life has always been how literature supplements everyday experience (Jackson 2011, 143). He does not take refuge in books—rather, they are an antidote to the deadening of life in the academy, and in the case of his own writing, fieldwork became its reservoir. Poetry, like religion, shows up in Jackson’s writing through its capacity to draw out a “metamorphosis of self,” pushing and pulling on his experiences in the field. In the course of his ethnographic work with refugees in Sierra Leone, for example, Jackson is thinking about the suffering that people bear and their seemingly slight requirements for picking up their former lives in the wake of devastation. “In dire situations,” he writes, “we do not hope for much. We scarcely dream. Words fail us, conveying little of what we really feel. In these circumstances, it takes all our will simply to endure” (Jackson 2011, 147). And it happens that it is at that time in Freetown camps that Jackson is reading Sebald’s Austerlitz, to which he is able to return for its evocative image of suffering as “seeping into the earth” just as it “seeps into us.” When he thinks of people giving up on life, he is reminded of W. H. Auden (Jackson 2011, 192); when he thinks of the human capacity to imagine new possibilities for the relationship between their inner capacities and their environment, it is Malcom Lowry’s poems that bubble up in him (Jackson 2011, 188).

There is a striking moment when Jackson (2011) returns to the site of his initial fieldwork, and draws “strange comfort” from Cervantes’ “apology” for Don Quixote’s lack of “erudition and doctrine,” the total absence of scholarly references, philosophical citations, even theological sources. Cervantes turns to a fictitious friend who rehearses a litany of such “proper” allusions, in the course of which we are reminded of the great novelist’s absolute command of the canon. “Don Quixote is an eccentric figure,” Jackson tells us, “not simply because he is a living parody of the … tradition in which he has so ardently schooled himself, but because his errant career subverts that tradition. The world of books not only drives him mad but drives him out into the real world” (Jackson 2011, 187). Jackson confesses to his own feeling of being drawn to ethnography because it was the one discipline he’d encountered that challenged him to “cast [himself] adrift in the world, subject to its unsettling, surprising, and sometimes dangerous twists and turns.” “If my writing retains a picaresque element,” he continues, “resisting closure, it is because I can never bring myself to organize as a lineal argument the improvisatory and open-ended experiences of fieldwork, where one is typically embroiled in events over which one has minimal control.” For Jackson, literature is a constant and cherished companion in life and work. It rushes to the surface in particular moments, connecting events from one part of life to another. It strikes with particular force in the service of a construction of a narrative; that is, narrative for Jackson is a “protolinguistic” reworking of experience, a supremely political act (as Hannah Arendt had it) that allows us to “regain some purchase over the events that confound us, humble us, and leave us helpless, salvaging a sense that we have some say in the way our lives unfold” (Jackson 2002, 17). But for Jackson, unlike for Arendt, it is the context of a relationship that is transfigured by the event, it is intersubjective rather than an expression of the private life of an isolated subject. For Jackson, then, literature offers an instantiation or illustration of well-formulated theory; it is a communicative and explanatory act through which our experience is transformed, even as experience itself always seems to exceed our concepts.18

The companionship with literature can take other forms as well. Literature comes to mind in a different way for Veena Das, for example, during her work (1999) on abductions and sexual violence against women during the 1947 riots during the Partition of British India.19 In thinking about how concepts like purity and honor functioned in the constitution both of the nation and of kinship, Das is compelled to return to the writings of Sa’adat Hasan Manto and Rabindranath Tagore. “Some realities,” she writes, “need to be fictionalized before they can be apprehended” (Das 2007, 39). There are those writers in particular who, in responding to “devastation of the world,” do so in the “register of the imaginary.” Take, for example, the scenes she relays from Manto’s story Khol Do, written in the context of Partition, “though we never gaze the violence directly,” in which a daughter (Sakina) disappears and is discovered by her father (Sarajjudin), barely alive in a clinic. When a doctor in the room reacts to heat and the doctor points to a window and says “open it” (khol do), the seemingly dead body moves to loosen its trousers, prompting her father to declare “my daughter is alive.” If the scene highlights a “fractured relation to language,” it is because:

In the societal context of this period, when ideas of purity and honor densely populated the literary narratives as well as family and political narratives, so that fathers willed their daughters to die for family honor rather than live with bodies that had been violated by other men, this father wills his daughter to live even as parts of her body can do nothing else but proclaim her brutal violation …. In the speech of the father, at least, the daughter is alive, and though she may find an existence only in his utterance, he creates through his utterance a home for her mutilated and violated self.

(Das 2007, 45)

Thus, the expression “my daughter is alive,” though it appears to be an indicative statement, is better read as a gesture of acknowledgment in response to the daughter’s body’s expression of pain; hence, it “is the beginning of a relationship and not its end” (Das 2007, 48). The father’s expression breaks with a scripted tradition of narratives characterized by an “archetypal motif … of a girl finding her way to her parents after having been subjected to rape and plunder and being told, ‘Why are you here—it would have been better if you were dead’” (2007, 47). While these refusals may not have been quite so common as they seemed, Das argues, the normative pressure they asserted was clearly testament to “the power of stories.” At the same time, Manto’s story itself allows Das to “pawn her voice” to a literary text in such a way that it allows certain blockages to be moved.20 Hers is a picture of reading, therefore, as a mode of allowing ourselves to be read—to be expressed or exposed by a text and not merely to express it (see Cavell 1998). Literature allows us to relive something otherwise rather suffocating—the evocation of literature allows us to bring something back to life, not as something enclosed within texts, but as pregnant with new possibilities, which it offers through the criss-crossing of the literal and the figurative in different tempos and rhythms of life (Das in press). It moves our thinking by giving expression to something we feel inexpressible, like the privacy of our pain—not because it grants access to an internal object, but because it makes a claim on us—it calls for acknowledgment. For Das, then, these literary examples are not instantiations of a thought that exists beforehand, nor do they refer back a realm of theory as an independent or autonomous region of life. Rather, in projecting a thought or a word into a new context by means of the example, we simultaneously intuit the normative horizons of its use—as a sense of its “fit” or appropriateness to situation—and transform it. These “schemata,” then, do not take the general form of a proposition, a definition, or a rule that we then apply, as if there were a gap between the rule and the instantiation (see also Brandel, forthcoming).

The other lesson to be gleaned from such examples is that there are modes of storytelling that do not rely on “narrative” coherence, clear plot lines, or sharply delineated characters—they can also appear in fragments; they can be picked up and dropped according to shifting pressures and contingency (Das 2015, 25; Brandel and Bagaria 2019). There is no question of literature’s utility—only an awareness that it demands a response, that it exerts pressure on thinking, pressing it in new directions. The division, moreover, between regions of the fictive, the poetic, and the ordinary, is permeable. While they may pertain to different arenas of life, they nevertheless share a “common background” that makes possible our finding a footing in each. As companion in the world, literature is not taken up as an analytic affair at some remove from its appearance in our everyday lives—it is a part of that fabric, though its intensity can ebb and flow from moment to moment, in each case bringing with it the possibility of transforming our ordinary lives.

Back in the Hands of Literature

This article makes a case for taking together a range of invocations of literature within anthropological theory. It was suggested at the outset that such an analysis has the potential to tell us a great deal about the very different stakes that one may have in anthropology in general. For some, like E. Valentine Daniel (2008), the encounter with literature enables a formal innovation. Struggling to write a chronological history of the lives of estate laborers, where data seemed torn between oral accounts robust with the atmosphere but lacking quantifiable information, and archival records filled with data bearing on colonial political economy but without “actual” life, Daniel finds his writing “took on a life of its own.” The verse form, he discovered, relayed a “truth that could not be conveyed in prose … that was present at hand in oral history and ethnography that was made distance or secondary in prose” (Daniel 2008, 225). Conventional social scientific prose, he argues, not only runs the risk of “overshadow[ing] or repress[ing] this affective truth … but may even kill it.” Thus, the certainty of prose is not to be eliminated, but placed in a secondary supporting position. “Whereas poiesis is responsible for truth, prose keeps truth honest,” a formulation Daniel borrows by analogy from Tamil grammar’s hierarchization of vowels and consonants. The text, nevertheless, for Daniel remains primarily an anthropological one.

For others, the Romantic call to poeticize the world or to make science into art is neither merely equivalent to adopting the formal qualities of the poem nor of abolishing the difference between fields and modalities of inquiry. Rather, it is the ambition to place these differences into an internal and critical relation with one another, to see them as intimates and take seriously the force that effecting different combinations and recombinations (often through what Novalis called the “magic wand of analogy”) acquires (Brandel 2016). The impetus for such combinations, moreover, as the third set of examples show, often comes from the world itself. This latter sensibility requires that we think more carefully about the dissolutions that postmodernism has enabled. Must we decide whether to expunge literature from anthropology or fully absorb it? Would such an absorption require mainly that we rethink the formal qualities of our writing? And may such a language belie an assumption about the boundedness of thought that ignores the fact that they were always already entangled? Perhaps it may be time to ask of anthropology what Cavell (1979) had some years ago asked of philosophy:

Can philosophy accept [literary figures like Desdemona and Othello] back at the hands of poetry? Certainly not so long as philosophy continues, as it has from the first, to demand the banishment of poetry from its republic. Perhaps it could if it could itself become literature. But can philosophy become literature and still know itself?

Further Reading

  • Bohannan, Laura. 1966. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History. Research Triangle Park, NC: Natural History Magazine.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Caton, Steven C. 1990. Peaks of Yemen I Summon. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Debaene, Vincent. 2014. Far Afield: French Anthropology between Science and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. 1978 [1935]. Mules and Men. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Reed, Adam. 2011. Literature and Agency in English Fiction Reading. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Webster, Anthony K. 2016. Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


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  • Bate, Bernard. 2009. Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press.
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  • Behar, Ruth. 2009. “Believing in Anthropology as Literature.” In Anthropology off the Shelf. Edited by Alisse Watrston and Maria D. Vesperi, 106–116. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Bensa, Alban, and Francois Pouillon, eds. 2012. Terrains decrivains. Litterature et ethnographie. Toulouse, France: Anarchasis.
  • Bohannan, Laura. 1966. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History. Research Triangle Park, NC: Natural History Magazine.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1992. Les Règles de lart. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire. Paris: Éditions Du Seuil.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press.
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  • Brandel, Andrew. 2016. “The Art of Conviviality.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2): 323–343.
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  • 1. An earlier version of this article appeared as Brandel (2018), “A Poet in the Field: The Companionship of Anthropology and Literature,” Anthropology of this Century 21.

  • 2. I have in mind here Cavell’s (1969[2002]) notion that modernist art seeks genuine responses in the individual, since it cannot rely on an audience who sanctions a response. Such a perspective allows us to dislodge the conventional notion that what constitutes “literature” or “anthropology” is a relatively bounded “literary world” or a secure community.

  • 3. Shulman’s (2012) work on the imaginative praxis of literature in medieval South India describes how worlds are born of minds (e.g., in 17th-century Sanskrit writing on bhāvanā, an imaginative universalization). Through a series of stages, first from “direct meaning of words” (abhidhā), to a generative process of some sense (say of the desirability of Sakuntala) and the direction of knowledge (that she is inaccessible), by way of enjoyment, “spectator can relax into a direct experience, universal in essence” (Shulman 2012, 76), which is called rasa. By such a logic of imaginative praxis, Schulman describes how we may understand fiction as making use of particular kinds of truth-claims. This occurs through a combination of forces, from the external framing that grants a “cognitive advantage” to the poet who speaks (but which may subsume her as well) to our absorption in the narration, in a “fictive mode” that is inflected in the audience in personal ways.

  • 4. Ethnographers have been classically attracted in particular to those they encounter in the field who they have read as particularly prodigious or insightful or reliable storytellers—not least because it had been assumed that these key informants are those who have given us most ready access to a repertoire of cultural motifs, symbols, and myths upon which a given grammar of storytelling relies. This has had the unintended consequence of making into a problem the status of authorship and genre in oral performance and the common category confusions committed by analysts of ritual, mythic, and poetic language use (Brandel and Bagaria 2019). Edmund Leach’s work on Kachin storytelling is operating in a mythological register rather than as (poorly) disclosed historical memory, thereby “validat[ing] the status of the individual who tells the story,” or more commonly, who hired the professional storyteller, and thereby expresses a “system of ideas” (1964, 265–266, 268) See Narayan (1989) on the context-situated performance of storytelling in relation to the sense of a repository of “folk narrative.” On memory and storytelling, see also Crapanzano (2004) and Pandolfo (1997).

  • 5. Cf. Bauman’s (1975) call for analyses of verbal art to move away from text-centric perspectives.

  • 6. Some have also drawn on a philosophical conception of literature’s place in literate societies—as binding readers together and thereby “guarantee[ing] peace]—in order to understand, by analogy, the circulation of witchcraft accusations in places like East Java and Zandeland, where both attempt to name the unnameable (Siegel 2005). There are also those who have complicated this logic not by reasserting their distinction, but through an emphasis on the reposition of performance by new mediatic material conditions (e.g., Fischer 2004).

  • 7. This annual review is an excellent starting point for those interested in the history and political consequences of these debates.

  • 8. Another important example of this possibility for “misrecognition” is the reception of Marcel Griaule’s (1958) published conversations with a Dogon elder named Ogotommêli—a text that Goody (1967) argues represents either a “lone wolf” account of cosmology, irreproducible among other elders, or else a colonial fantasy. As Andrew Apter (2005) argues, however, this is to ignore the performative and poetic qualities of Dogon ritual language. On the relationship between these cases and the issue of “errors” in recognizing poetic and mythic texts, see also Brandel (forthcoming). Compare with Goody’s (over)emphasis on narrative in his work on The Myth of the Bagre, which is produced as a unitary piece of oral literature compiled from a series of performative instances (since mythic narratives are never in practice disclosed all at once and as a whole). The shift to conceiving of a domain of literature unto itself is evoked by Mary Douglas (1999), whose Leviticus as Literature advanced a then groundbreaking assertion that we ought to read the Bible as a whole and not, as source criticism’s documentary hypothesis had it, as an arbitrary string of incongruent parts. For Douglas, Leviticus’ literary style discloses a style of thought, in this case correlative or by means of the analogical accumulation of injunction.

  • 9. For Bourdieu, this is epitomized by Flaubert’s “point of view,” a perspective of all held in highest tension—a position that sought to dislodge the field of art. Of course, Flaubert was not unique in this, nor was he aware of his own tactics of distinction (qua habitus).

  • 10. A question emerges here about participation in the field’s determination of what counts for literature, a point Bourdieu makes time and time again, and which reifies something seemingly at odds with an anthropological picture of thought as I understand it. Wulff is certainly right to point out the structuring of aesthetic judgment by class, but nevertheless reproduces its structuration in assuming that literature is only that which is sanctioned by the institution. This is a particular concern for ethnographers in Europe because of precisely this assumption that we know already ahead of time what literature is in these contexts. Others, like Anne Dippel (2015), have attended to the particular ways in which a discourse emerges around institutions of literature.

  • 11. Rapport sees his project as growing out of Geertz’s concern with accounting for their authorship of anthropological texts.

  • 12. Cf. Lévi-Strauss’ (1955) argument that myth is language, specifically a part of language “where the formula traduttore, tradittore reaches its lowest truth-value” (Lévi-Strauss 1955b, 430), that is, at the opposite end of the spectrum from poetry, the latter of which can never be translated. Myth therefore reveals specific properties of language “found above” the ordinary linguistic level.

  • 13. Caton describes his method in some detail following a series of “appropriations” (from poet to reciter to ethnographer to reader) that involved a collaborative linguistic reconstruction with reciters combined with informants’ reports about grammatical forms. This leads, in turn, to the discovery of what he calls the “response laboratory,” a dialogic modality through which two poets respond to one another’s verse. This process of understanding Caton distinguishes from interpretation, where the latter is a private undertaking “betokened” by the reaction of an audience to the meaning of the poem. Agreement or rejection was often determined by political leanings of the listener.

  • 14. For another example, see Niloofar Haeri’s (2003) earlier work on the consequences of an Egyptian language diglossia that privileges literary uses of Classical Arabic over the vernacular even in everyday life—perhaps the first major ethnographic study of the sacred language. The mother tongue, by contrast, emerges as a site of both local cultural attachment and a profound ambivalence regarding modern institutions. In his work with writers in Alexandria, Samuli Schielke (2019, 103) argues for expanding Furani’s approach to the ethnography of literature and to secularism by paying “additional attention . . . to the specific societal milieus and their means of differentiation that make it possible to take for granted specific understandings of literature as ‘literature.’ Such milieus can generate bubbles, that is, communicative loops where persons in the loop can feel that their specific way of life is the normal one, and where their ideas and strivings are mutually reinforced and seldom challenged. Literary elites may appear hegemonic when seen from within, but we should not take that appearance for granted.” In a way rather similar to Furani’s work in Palestine, Schielke shows how certain forms of “highbrow” prose poetry come to be associated with secular, nationalist, and cosmopolitan politics, while classical meter seems to resonate with conservative and religious sensibilities; the former, he argues, despite their relatively limited circulation, nevertheless seems to “irritate” the latter.

  • 15. Setrag Manoukian’s (2012) account of the rise of Shiraz as the poetic capital of Iran is another example. For Manoukian, practices of knowledge require untethering from the hegemonic subject positions of their producers. This is effected in part through the dislocation of geographic position by taking up a “provincial view” from outside the capital, but also through careful attention to the particular “techniques of power” that get synced up with knowledge and culture (farhang) in service of the “arts of government.” These, in turn, reveal themselves, Manoukian argues, to be essential to dominant modes of ethical self-formation.

  • 16. The authors themselves acknowledged that this approach excludes those for whom it is impossible to experiment in form (e.g., those without tenure).

  • 17. Jackson (2009, 10) justifiably argues that the “…tendency to privilege the textual and subjective construction of ethnographic reality over the contextual pressure and intersubjective processes that determine the way in which this reality gets rendered in writing—and my dismay at many experiments in ethnographic writing that make fieldwork experience a mere point of departure for poems or stories whose aim is to display literary prowess rather than communicate an understanding.” See also Peter Geschiere (2010), for whom making good on the promise of this reflexivity would require more attention to the material contextual pressures beyond those of the ethnographic writer. Compare with those who take the creative act of writing to be a way of connecting “a storyteller to her or his audience” or “attract readers to the text” as “writerly conceit” (Stoller 2009).

  • 18. This point reflects the influence of the Frankfurt School on Jackson’s thinking, especially where the capacity of experience to overflow concepts seems to undergird whatever possibility there remains for autonomous art.

  • 19. In her subsequent work among the urban poor, Das finds herself drawn into novels in order to confront the “common sense” assumption that “we already have” ahead of time, “the conceptual repertoire for defining the moral.” It is the novels of J. M. Coetzee, in this instance, to which Das finds herself irresistibly drawn for the challenge they offer to conventional pictures of the moral life.

  • 20. This is a point Das makes in the course of reflecting on the writing of a commentary on Nayanika Mookherjee’s book on the alienated lives of women designated as birangonas, “war heroines,” by the postwar government in Bangladesh, redefining their rape by West Pakistani soldiers and collaborators as sacrifice for the nation. “By sheer happenstance,” Das writes, “in my early teens I had been quite interested in Hindi and Bangla literature (and continue to be so.) Though I had not read the 19th-century poetry and plays produced on the birangona within the national fervor of an anti-colonial movement, I had read and often recited the heroic poetry produced by women poets such as Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, and I was very attached to the figures of Rani Laxmi Bai and Begum Hazrat Mahal, who were the inspirations for the later emergence of the figure of the birangona. These memories surged, making me look again at the poems of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and leading me to formulate the idea that even though the figure of the birangona gets transformed from the heroic to the abject, there is a background in the kavya tradition that gives the figure affective force” (2017, 22).