I keep thinking of this American Chopper meme and why it makes me laugh but also bugs me. The argument of the moustachioed man is one that is familiar to me but I find it to be naive. When such pure standards are set for decolonisation, the baby is inevitably thrown out with the bath water. As Graeber and Wengrow put it: “To say Mi’kmaq thought is unimportant would be racist; to say it’s unknowable because the sources were racist, however, does rather let one off the hook.”
Anthropology may never be decolonised but that fact shouldn’t be taken as permission to avoid dealing in complexity (or dare I say ‘entanglement’) altogether. Anyone who works seriously with archival materials knows that knowledge is distorted by the power dynamic producing it, but it is never completely in its thrall. It has its own mercurial logic that very often eludes the structure that hopes to contain it. Edward Said is easily invoked by those who want to bring the news about how orientalist anthropology is, while his call to action is conveniently ignored. Said’s methodological program is all about how to do the the liberating work of reanalysis, knowing that this work will never be perfect and never be finished. Denying any possibility of reading against the grain, or finding the countersign (per Bronwyn Douglas), is to take colonial discourse at its word and to hand it all the easy power that it pretends to have already.
It’s also a neat pretext for denying Indigenous voices simply because you don’t like the packaging they arrive in, per Graeber and Wengrow’s critique. And quite apart from being a bit self-satisfied and activist-splainy, this denial amounts to accusing black and Indigenous anthropologists of double consciousness, or of being duped, rather than being much better informed about the dynamics of knowledge and interpretation than you are.
To paraphrase Said himself, “read a fucking book” (Said 2004 ,’The return to philology’). OK, well not exactly but that’s the gist.
Years ago, during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, I asked a professor of philology at the University of Cape Town how it was that some non-white students like himself were able to graduate at all under the apartheid regime. He said that it was simple: racist ideology loves to project itself as totalising but it never fully succeeds. This is just the kind of gritty optimism that should precede the troubling task of reading colonial texts.