On Nonrecognition and Feminist Epistemology: Doing Ethnographic Theory with Mary Steedly

Smita Lahiri

Department of Anthropology and International Affairs

University of New Hampshire

January 2019

What was the project of “ethnographic theory” as originally conceived, and what might it yet become? The answer to the first part of the question can be found in the foreword to the inaugural issue of HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory, which invoked a lost golden age of intellectual vibrancy with open nostalgia. As recently as the 1980s, it noted, anthropology’s “original and distinctive conceptual wealth” had drawn interlocutors from across the humanities, engendering landmark debates at disciplinary borders.[i] Far too much of current anthropological theorizing, by contrast, was derivative, parochial, and overly reliant on Continental thought, even though the discipline’s potential for relevance had arguably never been higher. To get past these doldrums, it was necessary to find a way back, to rediscover the power of cultural translation. Anthropologists should take another look at how the Old Masters (and Mistresses, of course), had unsettled the categories of social theory by yoking them to “stranger-concepts” within local life worlds. The fact that these worlds were as or more likely to be peopled by cold pressed olive oil producers than by cargo cultists only strengthened the case.

Within a little over six years of its launch, HAU went from being a rag-tag, open-access upstart to boasting one of the highest impact factors amongst journals in cultural anthropology. Its new-old articulation of “ethnographic theory” gave it a unique brand identity: highbrow yet cheeky, retro but not stodgy. And then, between last June and December, came a storm of accusations and revelations that roiled the journal and its far-flung publics. Initial disclosures of a toxic work environment, in which HAU’s editor-for-life (a figure previously associated with this blog) had exploited and mistreated staff and contributors, were succeeded by apologies and resignations that delineated how the journal’s unaccountable leadership structure and opaque editorial process had fostered this miasma.[ii]

This post has little to add to the extensive body of commentary generated by the HAU affair. As a sporadic but generally appreciative reader of the journal who only saw its implosion from the sidelines, what I can say is that its call to return to ethnographically-based theorizing still resonates with me. I have always loved reading and teaching anthropological classics (or at least some of them), and the philosophy major buried within me in is still captivated by the Aristotelian idea of theoria as an essentially practical activity. At some point on the way to becoming an anthropologist, however, the discipline’s relentless reification of “theory” wore down my defenses. Once I was vulnerable to theory’s insidious mystique, its signature blend of awe, ambition, and feelings of inadequacy, I slid right into the habits described so precisely by da Col and Graeber: the “piecemeal reading, the assemblage of micro-excerpts, [the] fishing for catchy concepts whilst anxiously fast-scrolling through a webpage.”[iii] No wonder HAU’s 2011 clarion call to recuperate a compelling future from anthropology’s potency-filled past struck a chord in me: like any demoralized soul, I was ready for a revitalization movement.

Fast forward seven years to 2018. At the very moment when the “HAU Mess”[iv] began to unspool in public view, I was coming to terms with a personal and professional loss: the death in early January of Mary Margaret Steedly, an anthropologist of Indonesia, narrative, history, memory, and nationalism. In the way of things, these two seemingly disconnected events have come together. Along with some of her other colleagues, students, and friends, I’ve recently mourned Mary and celebrated her legacy at the AAAs in San Jose and at a symposium at Harvard, where she taught.[v] Part group therapy and part theoria, these invigorating and consoling experiences have brought me to a richer understanding of Steedly’s work as a model of what ethnographic theory can be.

Coming after Me Too, HAU’s public drubbing has been seen in some quarters as a consequence or comeuppance for pursuing a notion of ethnographic theory that appeared to disregard feminist anthropology’s contributions.[vi] Whether or not one agrees, that disregard was surely unfortunate, especially given that there was much common ground between feminist epistemology and HAU’s vision of ethnographic theory. Both projects stand for the rejection of decontextualized theory, the grounding of knowledge creation in particulars, and the intellectually transformative potential of intersubjective relationships. These were certainly hallmarks of the work of Mary Steedly, who was a leading member of the first generation of post-Writing Culture feminist ethnographers.

Steedly’s widely praised first book, Hanging without a Rope (1993), encapsulated the transitional moment in which it appeared.[vii] In structure and sensibility, it was holistic and exquisitely attuned to interconnections between kinship, religion, economy, landscape and history in Karoland, West Sumatra. Yet it was also informed by deep engagements with an idiosyncratic set of literary and disciplinary works: Althusser and Bakhtin, Faulkner and Calvino, subaltern studies and film theory. Working within many of the genre conventions of classic ethnography, Steedly pursued an avant-garde obsession with political subjectivity through her focus on storytelling. Hanging is dense with odd, fragmentary tales of thwarted love affairs, quixotic adventures, escapades in trade, and entanglements with spirits in spooky settings. Steedly develops or rather co-performs these minor themes in island Southeast Asian ethnography in partnership with her interlocutors, each of whom is delineated individually and unforgettably. The real subject of the book is how storytelling says the unsayable: how when people tell culturally shaped stories about real or fantasized personal experience, they very often (and in spite of their intentions) encode their own incomplete or eccentric recruitment by ideology. In this way, Hanging’s central subject itself bore a dual aspect, as if caught between two countries of anthropology in the wake of the Partition-like event of Writing Culture.

Notwithstanding the high-concept fancywork that informs it, the genesis of Hanging lay in Steedly’s itch to explain her recurrent and initially unwelcome observation that Karo women’s public speech usually fell short of the standards of coherence, significance set by senior men: it was simply less compelling. So, she began instead to collect women’s as well as men’s recountings of personal experience. Most fascinating to her were those that embodied “obtuseness,” a concept she took from Roland Barthes. Idiosyncratic and often hard to follow, “starting somewhere familiar. . . but swooping into uncertainties and narrative dead-ends,” these narratives did not so much subvert dominant common sense as reflect it from an odd angle. In recalling a long-lost cousin and sweetheart, a woman’s longing for the man himself could slip into her longing for the adventures she imagined him to have had; in her indulgent attitude towards the uncouth spirits who visited her, a spirit medium might commit an unwitting transgression. In the act of recounting, storytellers sometimes constituted themselves as “partial subjects” (or “double agents”) of ideology. But the estranging effects were fleeting, and the significance of the stories themselves – lacking as they did authority, memorability, durability—was always in question.  Steedly coined a devastating phrase to describe this ultimate triumph of ideology “the social production of ephemerality.”

While recently rereading Hanging Without a Rope after a gap of some twenty years, I was struck by its undimmed power as well as by the fact that it seems to have suffered a fate similar to the forms of nonrecognition of which Steedly wrote. At a time when “storytelling” is being embraced in corporate, clinical, policy, and activist settings, Steedly’s insights into how storytelling both does and doesn’t bring about empowerment and inclusion seem more important than ever. Yet my sense is that her theoretical contribution has not received the recognition it deserves. This seems to be the case even amongst those who have read and admired Steedly’s phenomenal second book Rifle Reports (2013), based on narratives of the Indonesian Revolution, or even her intervening essays on visual culture and media.[viii]

In her trenchant response to the implosion of HAU, Veronica Davidoff writes that ‘what gets recognized as theory is likely contingent on it announcing itself as theory.. a claim rooted in the entitlement and confidence that has historically been the provenance of men in academia.” It’s true that Mary Steedly did not frame or advance her claims as primarily theoretical ones – which is not to say that they were not intended as such. Reading her work reveals something more complex than diffidence, namely a desire to give these stories room to breathe. Her aim was to preserving the native “obtuseness” of her data in translation, not to swamp it with abstraction or tidy it into coherence. To put this more strongly, Steedly’s decision to foreground the cryptic elisions and luxuriant excesses of her material and to confine her own theoretical fancywork to the edges deserves to be recognized for what it is:  a praxis of ethnographic theorization.

Recuperating some classics is easier than others; a book as singular as Hanging Without a Rope doesn’t make it easy to pry its insights out of the material and put them in wider circulation.  But those who are interested in moving towards a more capacious ethnographic theory—one with more space for the tacit and fragmentary— will find powerful inspiration here. Ultimately, ethnographic theory needs feminist ethnography if it is to be a space for expansive and reflexive theorization rather than another engine to reproduce discipline-internal symbolic capital. Let’s add that to the list of takeaways from the HAU mess.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Karen Strassler, Patricia Spyer, Ann Marie Leshkowich, Manduhai Buyandelger, Carla Jones, and Tulasi Srinivas for our rich and recent conversations.

[i] Da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. “Foreword: The Return of Ethnographic Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1, no. 1 (September 1, 2011): vi–xxxv. https://doi.org/10.14318/HAU1.1.001.

[ii] Gershon, Ilana. “Pyramid Scheme. #hautalk.” Allegra, June 19, 2018. http://allegralaboratory.net/pyramid-scheme-hautalk/; Green, Sarah. “#HAUTALK: The Tyranny of Structurelessness and No End in Sight.”

Allegra, October 16, 2018. http://allegralaboratory.net/hautalk-the-tyranny-of-structurelessness-and-no-end-in-sight/.

[iii] Da Col and Graeber, xiii.

[iv] “HAU Mess” is the title of a Google Document that organized salient threads of the debate thematically for easy reference. Accessed January 14, 2019.

[v] Karen Strassler and Carla Jones organized the AAA roundtable entitled “The Said and the Unsaid: Honoring the Legacy of Mary Margaret Steedly”, which took place November 17; the Harvard Department of Anthropology’s symposium entitled “Other Voices, Other Stories: Mary Margaret Steedly’s Ethnographic Legacies” took place on December 1.

[vi] West, Paige. “Introduction: From Reciprocity to Relationality — Cultural Anthropology.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1526-introduction-from-reciprocity-to-relationality.

[vii] Steedly, Mary Margaret. Hanging without a Rope: Narrative Experience in Colonial and Postcolonial Karoland. Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[viii] Steedly, Mary Margaret. Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013; Spyer, Patricia, and Mary Margaret Steedly. Images That Move. First edition. School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2013.