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Escaping Essentialism

October 20, 2012 by Fan

Escaping Essentialism

Fan Zhang


What do Talal Asad and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have in common? Both are Western anthropologists born outside the West – or to be precise, born in the liminal areas between the West and the Orient: Asad was born in Saudi Arabia to a Jewish Pole-turned-Muslim. Spivak was born in Calcutta, the West Bengal’s capital used to be the capital of East India Company. Both of them were educated and have careers in the West.

To this extremely short list I would like to add at least three names: the literary critic Edward Said, the Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong, and Melford Elliot Spiro. The inclusion of a non-anthropologist, a Chinese and a Western-born part-time psychoanalyst on the list needs justification. The justification, hopefully, would shed light on the elusive nature of the Subject, its collective representation in the name of ideology when the focus is an ideal totality, and discourse when the discussion is more empirical and object-centered. Hopefully, it would also demonstrate the importance of world history in shaping the  subject, ideology and discourse.

Asad’s 1979 article is an attack on essentialism in anthropology. It also intends to restore an authentic Marxism. A particularly refreshing punch is thrown in the very beginning of the article when Asad denounces both the universalist camp and the relativist camp: both fail to “produce a viable theory of social change” (Asad 2006:244). Using a Foucauldian analysis of discourse and its objects, Asad points out that the reason for the failure is that social structure, “the object of change”,  is conceptualized in a wrong way (Asad 2006:244). What goes wrong? It is “constructed out of essential human meaning” (Asad 2006:245).

The appearance of the words “essential” and “meaning” in the above sentence can be confusing, because Asad spends rest of the article criticizing anthropology’s essentialism and its over-emphasis on “meaning” as given by assumed ideology. The universalists or “rationalists”, who probably can be represented by the French top-down school (descendents of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss and often arm-chair thinkers), pay attention primarily to cultural classification. The relativists or “empiricists”, who probably can be represented by the English functionalist school, pay attention to physicality and bodily existence and their extension in social totality. The meanings induced or deduced by both, however, are subject to a priori ideology. None of them gives  “events” or “parole” or “utterances” due consideration. None of them sees history. None of them allows human agency.

Recent attempts at overcoming the impasse also meet with failures. Maurice Bloch in his critique of anthropology misunderstands Marxism and turns to a crude naturalism (Asad 2006:246). Bourdillon understands that “events” are not solely decided by social structure, but he still considers social structure a fundamental and indispensible way to look at social phenomenon (Asad 2007:247). Edmund Leach in his reconciliation of French structuralism and British functionalism wrongfully equates Kachin “ideology” with Plato’s metaphysics (Asad 2007:248-249), overlooking down-to-earth human realities abundant in his own ethnography. In Mary Douglas’ Africa and in her world view, individuals who don’t like dominant ideology have only two choices: adjust or leave – social structure is unchangeable (Asad 2007:251).

What can Asad offer? Nothing new, he admits. He only wants to restore a true Marxism in which the mode of production is the true force producing history, and history is producing the change of social structure which is the basic object of anthropological discourse (Asad 2007:251-253). Marx’s concept of ideology, the crest of superstructure, is not unresponsive to and unchangeable by infrastructure, as wrongly assumed by half-baked Marxists in anthropology.

Nothing in Asad’s critique is outside the terrain of Western scholarly tradition. But in disputing a priori approaches Asad evokes the concept of authenticity (Asad 2007:245), or in oppositional terms, the dualism of self and others, or the native and the non-Native.

This brings us to the Spivak article and the aforementioned inclusion of the three names.

In my extremely crude fashion, the gist Spivak’s article can be summarized as “white male chauvinists egos need brown women’s stroke”. The article itself, of course, is rather a lot more nuanced. Western intellectuals, even when they are attacking essentailism, they often stay in an essentialist glasshouse themselves – and the talks of “the Others” are often mere tropes to strengthen the glasshouse they stay in, because self or the Subject always need “the Others” and the object to be untouchable.

Foucault and Deleuze in their deconstruction operate strictly within the Western subjectivity – they take down the old discourses but build new ones. The problem of both Frenchmen, Spivak points out, is their inability to criticize “the historical role of the intellectual” (Spivak 2010:275). They keep their intellectual toolbox closed, refusing others’ examination. As Western elite intellectuals, they only pay lip service to the oppressed mass and the Third World or other civilizations.

The only person deconstructing from within, according to Spivak, is the “esoteric”

Derrida who often writes in an obscure style. For Spivak, to escape essentialism is to combine authentic Marxism and Derrida’s decentering practices.

Spivak demonstrates her position with the Indian case of  widow’s self-immolation. Her angry tone is not seen in the Asad piece but more ostentatious in Edward Said’s 1989 speech Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors in which he accuses Clifford Geertz and other interpretative anthropologists’ leniency given to native perspectives is only a smoke screen: in pretending “none of us is wrong”, they are hold on to their own subjectivity and refuse native authorities (Said  1989:205-225).

This reminds me of Melford Spiro’s criticism of Geertz, who in the 1974 speech From the Native Point of View (Geertz 1984:123-136) declares non-Western individuals have no sense of “self”. Notably, in the entire essay of Is the Western Conception of the Self “Peculiar” within the Context of World Cultures?(1993), Spiro refrains from using psychoanalytic terms: his criticizes Geertz entirely on Geertz’s terms. But the psychoanalysis’s univesalist world view is there: an essay is a verbal session of therapy, and the self (Spiro the psychoanalytical anthropologist, or Geertz the ethnographers of Bali and Morocco) and others (Geertz the anthropologist, or non-Westerners who may or may not have a sense of self) are interchangeably the same (Spiro 1993:107-153) Is this the basic assumption Freud had when he combined ethnographical materials with his clinical observations? Spiro, despite being a Western-born Westerner, deservers a place on the opening list.

Everything new in anthropology is probably old: Malinowski was keenly aware of the issues of essentialism and native views as early as 1939 when he wrote the preface for his student, a then 21-year-old Fei Xiaotong, to the latter’s Peasant Life in China. He declares that the book marks “a new departure” in anthropology when anthropological works are done by a native among natives (Malinowwski 1939:xiii) and when anthropology is not the hobbyhorse of elite outsiders but out of practical concerns of native people in their struggles in the course of history. He ends the preface eloquently with this sentence:

“The present account [in this ethnography] is not a record of vanished history but a prelude to a new chapter of world history that will be written not in ink but in the blood of millions.”


Malinowski was referring to the Japanese invasion and WWII. This reminds of us the finale of his Argonaut writtern years ago in which he turns his gaze back from New Guinea to a Europe facing the looming WWI: “The science of Man, in its most refined and deepest version should lead us to … knowledge and … tolerance …, base on the understanding of other man’s point of view?” (Malinowski 1922:518). How far have we gone?





Asad, Talal

2006 [1979]. Anthropology and the Analysis of Ideology. In Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Henrietta L. Moore, and Todd Sanders, eds. Pp.244-257. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.


Geertz, Clifford

1984[1974]. From the Native Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. In Culture Theory. Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine, eds. Pp.123-136. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Malinowski, Bronislaw

1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Long Groves: Waveland Press Inc.


Malinowski, Bronislaw

1939. Preface to Peasant Life in China. In Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Village, Fei Xiaotong. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.


Said, Edward

1989. Representing the Colonized: Anthrpology’s Interlocators. Critical Iinquiry: 15 (2), pp.205-225.


Spiro, Melford E.

1993. Is the Western Conceptionof the Self “Peculair” within the Contexgt of the World Cultures?. Ethos: 21(2), pp.107-153.


Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

2010. Can the Subaltern Speak?. In Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, R. C. Morris, ed.. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.21-78.





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