Thursday, March 23, 2017

Subjectivity, Intent and Impact: The Gordian Knot of Empathy and Interpretation

One ideal of early anthropology was that long-term ethnographic research could fully map the social structure and meanings of a specific cultural space. The ethnographer could then give total context for any individual action or social practice, and thus interpret such with a capacity beyond either naïve outsider or self-interested insider. While the realism of this ideal would be progressively deconstructed over time, it spawned a durable holism that recognized the deep interconnection of all material and symbolic contexts.

This holistic aspiration has been recurrently challenged as anthropologists came to recognize the often global interconnections and engagements which permeated the presumed isolation of even “remote” cultural spaces. Anthropology turned to increasingly complex social theories to try and reconcile the way in which its empirical subject became unmoored from static spaces and times, and eventually encompassed the most intensely internationalized settings. As a result great concern emerged for the practice of interpretation far removed from the methodological confidence of anthropology’s pioneering works. And the treacherous pitfalls of writing across stark asymmetries in power, often about people unable to equally represent themselves, even inspired claims that modern anthropology had paralyzed itself through a fetishization of the personal act of writing itself.

It is much more difficult to delineate the general trend of history as discipline, even at this high level of generality. Certainly, interpretation is at the core of archival research, and debates over sources and their meanings have roiled history as an academic practice. No self-critical historian treats their textual sources as a direct portal into the soul of their subject, and the focus of much graduate historical training is the general education required to provide context for documentary interpretation.

But I would advance that the anthropological engagement with history reflects a much greater uncertainty about interpretation, as well as a general theoretical concern with how time itself is structured as a social practice. In my own turn from ethnography to history, I felt this disciplinary anxiety acutely as I tried to reconstruct the creation of a cultural ideology, what I call American legal internationalism, that was formed in spaces both fully transnational and only lightly touched by global forces. Moreover, this ideology was premised on cross-cultural interpretations of the character of foreign peoples and their legal institutions. A further complication was that the driving force of this ideology was literal lawyer-missionaries who carried with them a presumption that their own good intentions would positively impact another society.

One highly influential book in my process of wrestling with these issues was Fredrik Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which theorized about how social identities were formed and reformed through increasingly intense interactions with social “outsiders.” Moreover, in the context of law such cross-cultural judgments had been central to patterns of degradation and subjection in pre-modern empires and modern imperialism alike. This trepidation led me to the writings of the recently passed Tzvetan Todorov, who in his The Morals of History grappled with the ethics of practicing history, especially when intimately tied to cross-cultural engagements.

No episode in the development of historical anthropology outlines these tensions better than the controversy over the arrival and death of James Cook in Hawai’i. In barest form, Cook arrived in Hawai’i for the third time in 1779 during the indigenous Hawaiians celebration of the god Lono. A month later, Cook was killed while attempting to take the local king ransom, and then ritually preserved. The details in-between and their meaning became the grist for one of the public controversies in modern anthropology between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere.
Before I knew of this controversy I had read and been influenced by Sahlins early work on historical anthropology. Sahlin’s was preoccupied with how history and time functioned in different societies, a critical issue in anthropology’s move beyond assuming the static nature of “other” societies. Sahlin’s helped me appreciate how intimately visions of legal modernization held by my lawyer-missionary subjects (and later missionary-lawyers) were tied up in progressive ideals of time, and undergirded by post-millenialist theology (which saw the return Jesus as precipitated by the proactive human purging of sin in the world).

I read Sahlins alongside Paul Cohen’s seminal Discovering History in China, which was part of a foundational reframing of the Sino-Western encounter from one where Chinese society was a passive recipient of outside influence to a proactive interpreter. Cohen’s intervention helped me reject a great many of the popular narratives of Sino-American history, but also made me realize that unearthing the subjective world of those whose writings I was interpreting in the was the critical link missing from so many debates on the structure and causalities of Sino-American legal interaction.

Yet, the renewed confidence I drew from these works was the very object of criticism advanced by Gananath Obeyesekere in his 1992 assault on Sahlin’s work, The Apotheosis of CaptainCook. The crux of Obeyesekere’s argument is that Sahlin’s was destructively mistaken in his view that the Hawaiians considered Cook a manifestation of the God Lono. Obeyesekere argued that all people, regardless of cultural context, deployed a “practical rationality” which would never have conflated Cook with a deity. Further, Obeyesekere argued that his experience as a post-colonial Sri Lankan rendered him immune to implicit ethnocentrism which infected Sahlin’s interpretation of the relevant archival sources.

Sahlins responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in his 1995 How ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, where he reasserted that his work was meant to deconstruct cultural myths, and that he could do so even as anoutsider to Hawai’i. These books inspired a series of well known review essays, most notably culminating in Clifford Geertz’s piece “Culture War.”

I will set aside the finer details of this debate to emphasis that Geertz’s title revealed how the resonance of debate was never centrally tied to the archival evidence per se, but to the authority of various positions of interpretation. The archival basis for decisively concluding what the Hawaiians did or did not think of Cook, or even if there was a single indigenous position on the matter, is still thin and drawn primarily (for both sides) from the journals of Cook’s sailors. As an empirical matter, the issue of deifying foreigners has precedents elsewhere, some of which were highly inflected by notions of European superiority. At the same time, the critical study of “cargo cults” by make clear that magical reasoning is not a practice reserved solely for pre-modern peoples. But the meaning of such episodes, and often the very real contemporary implications of these meanings, was deemed by many anthropologists more important than the truth of the past. A position far less common, I would argue, among historians.

In my own work, I struggled with the fact that I had a decided interest in the truth of what impacts did or did not arise from the subjective intentions of my lawyer-missionaries and missionary-lawyers. However, I also came to realize that the cultural ideology of American legal internationalism was in fact grounded almost purely in the interpretation of their actions back in the United States. It was not surprising for me to learn that American missionaries to Hawai’i specifically criticized narratives of Cook’s deification in their own anti-British self-presentation as noncolonial agents. Similarly, the fact that the American common law had little discernible impact on Chinese legal institutions and practices before 1949 was almost completely orthogonal to the maintenance of the idea for the broad American public that the Chinese people were consensually emulating the American legal and political example.
Perhaps this context made some of my interpretive confidence easier, as I was writing about relatively powerful actors in relationship to their home society, and my own home society at that. Anthropologists continue to struggle with the complexity of understanding and writing about transnational spaces, especially when so few places are genuinely isolated from globalization. The flipside of this is the increasingly wide access to contemporary and archival sources of writings on Western societies by outsiders. Laura Nader’s recent What the Rest Think of the West: Since 600 AD, is a collection of such accounts. Included is the telling account of Liang Qichao, seminal Chinese intellectual and reformer, upon his visit to the United States and realization that American legal practice was far removed from its missionary presentation in china. In summary terms, and an argument I will return to a later post, the Sino-American encounter was never resolved so decidedly in the favor of American actors.

All of which returns me to the idea that empathy is central to interpretation, archival or ethnographic. I have to admit I do not see this as a purely humanistic enterprise, but one that is productive in the scientific sense. Still, understanding the subjective intent of an author is still a far cry from understanding the impact of their writings, or actions, in the wider world. In this way, the holistic ideal of anthropology drives both the direction and self-criticism I feel when I engage with archival sources. I find this especially so in legal history, where so many actors produce documents through acts of highly strategic and self-aware self-representation, and have the ability to both consume and respond to contemporary challenges to their work. I felt this many times in the development of my extended case studies of Frank Goodnow and Roscoe Pound, where prior studies took too narrow of view of their social worlds, or too strictly interpreted their writings as true representations of their inner thoughts. Perhaps this is why biography is still so popular in legal history, as it is the antithesis of the often motivated interpretation found in moments of legal practice and scholarship.

Ultimately, I feel much of the anthropological questioning has, for myself, been salutary. Wherever anthropology may go as it struggles with its own academic practice, I see much of legal history increasingly embracing the explanatory power of social and cultural history which anthropological theory informed/informs. But as I contrasted some of my own conclusions with the differences or omissions in the extant histories of American internationalism, legal or otherwise, I came to see many of the same issues recurrent. A lack of contextualizing legal sources, especially elite legal sources, within broader social history – commonly paired with a singular view of legal actors through their roles in legal institutions.

It is this question of differences and omissions that I will address in my next post, “Functionalism and Synthetic History.” As I had a very specific question in mind when I wrote Futility, and a decidedly not post-modern desire to tell a causal story, my history ended up looking into arenas generally unsynthesized with legal history, such as religious history, or over-synthesized, such as diplomatic history.

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