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Culture Through Time: Anthropological Approaches.

Culture Through Time: Anthropological Approaches. By Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (ed.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. 330 pp.).

This book is not for students but for specialists--the growing number of anthropologists and historians who are exploring each other's discipline. The essays are difficult; organized by common themes, they confront distinct problems. With the exception of Peter Burke's conclusion, all are by anthropologists and reflect a thorough immersion in one "culture through time." The cultures range from pre-contact Hawaii to complex, and contacted, Japan.

The overriding question is how an anthropologist can write history. For virtually every contributor, this involves exploring the meaning of narrative, of event and of sequence, as well as asking about the relationship between "their" and "our" understandings of change. Virtually all the essays look at representations of history in symbol, scenario, and performance. And as Ohnuki-Tierney tells us in a thoughtful introduction, the role of the individual as subject and actor, powerful and powerless, takes primary place in such anthropological history (p. 17). In essence, the eight substantive essays are about cultural formulations of history and about historiography as practiced by natives and by ethnographers. Furthermore, not only practiced but used: the volume alerts us to the fact that history serves a purpose--whether that of the Aryan conquerors Edmuch Leach describes, or the new state of Israel in Handelman and Shamgar-Handelman's account of the search for a national emblem, or the neighbor who holds back the key James Fernandez needs.

Fernandez, Handelman and Shamgar-Handelman, and Ohnuki-Tierney focus on symbols as the representations and reproducers of history; symbols do not "just" embody meanings but become the building blocks in a consciously-manipulative linking of past to present. Sahlins, Valeri, Ormer, Peacock, and Leach analyze various interpretive strategies--the narratives and performances that embody a view of events and that justify authority, royalty, consumption, and power. Ohnuki-Tierney reminds us of the self-other reflexivity that propels Japanese historiography (pp. 145-47) and Peacock tells us that a different kind of mirror image plagues the ethnographer writing history (pp. 262-64).

The categorization is somewhat misleading since the majority of essays compare symbolic with narrative forms, interpretation ("story") with history, self with other. Sahlins, for instance, shows the symbolic content of entering a world system as Hawaiian kings grew fat, consumed conspicuously, and adopted British names. Likewise, Fernandez's complicated analysis of the various symbols in a Spanish town is "really" about community narratives, European history, anthropological approaches, and, undoubtedly, Fernandez himself.

But who comprehends the symbols and the symbolic behaviors described in these essays? However baffled a reader may feel, wouldn't the ordinary Hawaiian, Sherpa, or Javanese feel even more baffled by these dexterous analyses of pictorial, verbal, and dramatized "tellings" of the past? The contributors raise that issue. Who is "cognizant" of the meanings of symbols? Who understands the connections between a representation of the past and actual events that have occurred, are occurring, and ought to occur? The essays show that those who understand (and those who do not) may be commoner or king, audience or actor, colonist or native. Perhaps, as Ohnuki-Tierney and Peacock imply, it does not matter how effectively a person can provide exegesis; what matters is that people, including the visiting anthropologist, are pulled by powerful symbols into an interpretation of time, culture, and culture through time that determines their statements and actions. It also matters, in all the essays, that people actively and continually construct the symbols through which history occurs. Change is a product of individual purpose, always motivated if rarely understood.

The thesis of the book is complicated. In her introduction, Ohnuki-Tierney offers the word "transformation" as a way of clarifying the issues. "Transformation" indicates the persistence of structure through the modification of the symbols that construct and conserve events. But this is not a readily applied concept. As Ohnuki-Tierney herself asks, "when does transformation represent historical stability, and when does it represent historical change?" (p. 151). "Transformation" incorporates change and continuity, local and global processes, articulated and "lived" interpretations of events. The concept does, however, suit the essays, concerned as they are with the duration of culture and the alteration of content. Ultimately it is locally applied-tailored to the particulars of a culture, even when those include centuries of time (Japan) and distances of space (Hawaii to England). The problem Ohnuki-Tierney raises is not solved and ought not be: the tension between cultural stability and temporal shifting constitutes history for these anthropologists.

Data in the essays include performances, emblems and insignia, and monasteries, as well as the more traditional historical evidence in texts and archival sources. The authors imaginatively combine written documents, fieldwork observations and subjective reactions, and theory. The lesson for the historian lies there (Valeri's distinction between Hawaiian narrative and chant, for instance, can be a method for assessing text more generally) and in the exquisite combination of particularism and generalization several of the essays achieve (e.g. Sahlin, Fernandez, Burke). The rewards are well worth the struggle. Culture Through Time is not easy reading but, with a breath here and there, provides one of the best "conjunctions" of history and anthropology we have.

Judith Modell Carnegie Mellon University
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Author:Modell, Judith
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:855
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