Anthropological Criticism

There is no one clearly defined anthropological criticism, but anthropology, traditionally defined as “the study of man,” has made its impact felt in literary criticism in multiple ways through the twentieth century. The rise of comparative evolutionary anthropology in the last third of the nineteenth century, initiated with E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture in 1871 and culminating with James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (published in various versions from 1890 through 1922), provided literary criticism with its first strong anthropological impact.

Influenced most strongly by James Frazer, the Cambridge Ritualists, or Hellenists, most notably Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, and F. M. Cornford, applied then-current anthropological notions to the study of the classics. Following an evolutionary framework, the Hellenists held that classical religion and, significantly, art had their origins in primitive ritual. The civilized myth and literature of high Greek culture was evolved from vital primitive rituals that reflected primal mystical ways of thinking: the pantheons of humanlike gods, for instance, developed out of the tribal and totemic worship of animals and plants and, before that, the even more elemental and less anthropomorphic fire or lightning. The ur-ritual was that of the conquest of life over death as reflected in the annual change of the seasons, and it was this agon that gave birth to the chants and gestures that later developed, in evolutionary fashion, into poetry and drama.

James Frazer/National Portrait Gallery

In works such as Harrison’s Themis (1912) and Cornford’s Origin of Attic Comedy (1914), the Cambridge Ritualists most strongly advanced their arguments on the primitivist-ritualist nature of Greek art. Murray and Cornford in particular emphasized the ritual origins of Greek drama, seeing in both tragedy and comedy the survival of five or six primitive stages—in the case of tragedy, the contest itself, the sacrificial death, the messenger announcing the death, the lamentation, and the resurrection. This eminently anthropological approach revitalized the study of the classics and soon made its way into the analysis of modern literatures. Murray’s 1914 lecture “Hamlet and Orestes” marks the first application of the ritualist approach to nonclassical material through a comparative study of the ritual beginnings of Greek and Shakespearean drama, and this was followed by Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, the 1920 study of the Grail romances as civilized versions of fertility rites. (T. S. Eliot cited Weston’s study, along with The Golden Bough, as a prime influence on The Waste Land.) In the 1920s, as Stanley Edgar Hyman notes, the influence of the ritualist approach spread to Northern epic poetry, fairy tales, and folk drama; and in the 1930s Lord Raglan’s influential book The Hero (1936) considered the ritual patternings of the hero figure in literary and nonliterary materials alike, while William Troy began his ritual studies of modernist authors, such as D. H. Lawrence and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Stanley Edgar Hyman in Vickery, Myth 50-51).

Modernist literary creation of course was galvanized by the anthropology of Frazer, Tylor, and other comparativists, as John Vickery and others have well documented in their treatments of the high modernist art of W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and Lawrence. And yet modernist criticism also was significantly affected. Pound and Eliot in particular borrowed from comparative anthropology in several important areas. The comparative method itself became an enabling tool in the critical articulation of modernist organization and technique: most notable is Eliot’s conception in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” of the “mythical method” that, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” takes “a step toward making the modern world possible for art” (177— 78). Also, “primitive mentality” (as borrowed by Eliot from Lucien Lévy-Bruhl) and “blood consciousness” (as loosely borrowed by Lawrence from Frazer and Harrison) became very significant critical terms for meditations upon the nature of the modern literary artist. Finally, the very rhetorical authority of the modern literary and social critic was significantly augmented by the breadth of the comparative anthropologist’s reach and the profusion of sources within that figure’s grasp.

It is utterly significant that Eliot’s celebration of Frazer in his notes to The Waste Land and in his review of Ulysses falls within a year of the publication of Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), the model for the emerging anthropological monograph, a kind of study based upon participant observation and dismissive of the evolutionary method and comparative organization of the armchair anthropologist (Manganaro 19). Modernist art and criticism found evolutionary comparative anthropology more enabling than the new ethnography’s emphasis upon societal function within the particular culture, and in general the Anglo-American functionalist monograph did not exert significant influence upon Anglo-American criticism of the first half of the twentieth century. And yet the push for a tough, unimpressionistic, and even scientific criticism by professional critics such as Eliot and I. A. Richards roughly parallels the increasing professionalization of the discipline of anthropology as shaped by Malinowski and others after him. And in a general sense New Criticism’s insistence, from the 1930s through the 1960s, upon a noncomparative analysis of the discrete literary text, an approach shorn from loose historical and biographical considerations, exhibits an important parallel to the standard monograph of mid-century cultural anthropology.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, however, New Criticism faced a formidable challenge in myth theory and criticism. What John Vickery in 1966 called “the critical shift in the last decade or so from rhetoric to myth” (Myth xi) signaled a need for criticism to move beyond the restrained and relatively objective explication of single texts to the sustained and even passionate meditation upon the larger mythic patternings of the human mind that produce ritual, myth, legend, romance, and ultimately literature. Indeed, much of the rhetorical power of myth criticism lay not just in a claim to erect or preserve a literary or cultural tradition (as did New Criticism) but in the feeling that it was participating vitally in a pan-disciplinary effort, often combining the “findings” of anthropology (Frazer), mythology (Ernst Cassirer), and psychology (C. G. Jung primarily but Sigmund Freud as well) to get at the ways that humanity makes meaning. Nowhere is this clearer than in the immense success of an inaugural work of myth criticism, Joseph Campbell’s 1949 Hero with a Thousand Faces.

But of course the anthropological sources for this criticism were quite skewed, and their findings often considered defunct. Myth critics such as Campbell, Philip Wheelwright, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Richard Chase, and Northrop Frye implemented certain Frazerian and Cambridge Ritualist assumptions that had been put into question by anthropologists, classicists, and mythologists years before. Many myth critics, for example, celebrated the recurrence of Frazer’s scapegoat figure in literary creation long after anthropological research effectively disproved its existence in real cultures. And as Richard Hardin has shown, while much substantial drama criticism, such as that by Francis Fergusson and C. L. Barber, was enabled by the ritualist turn, works such as Fergusson’s influential Idea of a Theater (1949) depended heavily upon, and significantly perpetuated, the oversimplified Cambridge Ritualist notion that “Greek tragedy originated in primitive Greek ritual, with the corollary that other forms of drama, perhaps all drama, had such roots” (Hardin 847).

Myth Criticism of Northrop Frye

Myth criticism reached the height of its status in the work of Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism (1957) attempted a comprehensive classification of literature into four narrative categories (comic, tragic, romantic, ironic) that corresponded to four mythoi (spring, summer, autumn, winter). Like Hyman, Campbell, and other myth critics, Frye was heavily dependent upon ritualist assumptions. As complex and qualifying as his arguments on literary creation and genre can become, essentially he lays over literature a simplified evolutionary grid on which ritual evolves into myth, which evolves into literature. Anatomy represents the height of myth criticism’s authority because of Frye’s sheer comprehensive aim and supposed “scientific” method, but crucial to its success, as Frye realized, was the ability to obscure its dependence upon the Cambridge Ritualist argument that ritual chronologically precedes myth and literature. “It does not matter two pins to the literary critic whether such a ritual [the “content of naive drama” as reconstructed in The Golden Bough] had any historical existence or not,” Frye notes in Anatomy. “The literary relation of ritual to drama… is a relation of content to form only, not one of source to derivation” (109).

Criticism dependent upon Cambridge Ritualist assumptions faded with the 1960s, though one still encounters the occasional essay on the dying god as it operates in the work of some author or movement. But vital criticism implementing ritual as a social phenomenon or organizing principle of literature has since surfaced: one prominent example is René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred (1972), which proposes sacrifice as a mediation by which humans have regulated what is otherwise uncontrollable violence. In general, ritual as an anthropological concept has remained attractive to the literary critic precisely because it represents, according to Francesco Loriggio, a powerfully primal example of “socially manifested behavior” (39). The focus upon that behavior by anthropologists, resulting in “a study of ceremonies, of acts that are at once socialized and archaic in nature” (39), appeals to literary criticism’s inexorable urge toward the social and pragmatic in the broadest sense and certainly has generally influenced literary critical theorizing upon concepts of collectivity, performance, and the materiality of language.

It is no surprise, then, that there has existed since the inception of Marxist theory and criticism a strong yet complicated series of links between anthropology, literary criticism, and Marxism. In The German Ideology Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves state that “language is practical consciousness … language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men” (Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2d ed., 1978, 158). This innately anthropological stress on the inherent socialness of language use parallels in fundamental ways early anthropological notions of collectivity, such as in Émile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), and will reverberate in m. M. Bakhtin ‘s important notion of language as social utterance and in turn will enable the criticism of theorists as various as Kenneth Burke and Raymond Williams.

But perhaps the most explicit use of anthropological notions of collectivity in Marxist literary criticism can be found in the work of British critics Christopher Caudwell and George Thomson. Both Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality (1937) and Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (1941) theorize upon the development of modern social formations, from the ritualistic to the religious to the secular, in a manner that derives directly from Cambridge Ritualist notions of the evolution of primitive society. Caudwell argues for the practical and communal purpose of poetry as both a distillation and a projection of group experience in ways that strongly depend upon Durkheim and Jane Harrison. Thomson also borrows from the ritualism of Harrison in the Marxist effort toward cultural critique. Thomson views catharsis, for example, as an effort at aesthetic socialization that can be turned toward social formation. Drawing from anthropological accounts of collective frenzy, Thomson notes the “subversive” side of the cathartic process, asserting that “the artist leads his fellow men into a world of fantasy where they find release, thus asserting the refusal of the human consciousness to acquiesce in its environment, and by this means there is collected a store of energy, which flows back into the real world and transforms fantasy into fact” (360).

At the same time, but on the other side of the channel, the College of Sociology, composed of Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris, and others, was similarly concerned with anthropological accounts of primitive collectivity and their potential for revitalizing modern society. Like the British Marxists, the College relied upon evolutionary conceptions of savage solidarity, explicitly influenced by Marcel Mauss but, as Michèle Richman has shown, owing a great debt to Durkheim’s important Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Between 1937 and 1939, the College met with the explicit aim of forming a “moral community” that would attempt to revive the “sacred” within everyday life through collective energies. The participants, themselves creative artists, critics, and intellectuals, produced an interdisciplinary pool of writings that, though not always explicitly in the realm of literary criticism, had a significant impact upon later critical writings: Bataille’s notion of expenditure within primitive societies (as derived from Marcel Mauss’s reflection upon potlatch in The Gift) was extended by Jean Baudrillard in The Mirror of Production, and his notion of transgression, in all its complex forms, has a significant connection to later radical critics such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida , as James Clifford has shown (Predicament 127).

Anglo-American anthropologists from the beginning professed “literary” affiliations: note Frazer’s flamboyantly literary style (vacillating between “grand” and “plain” styles of writing) and Malinowski’s own authorial identifications—W. H. R. Rivers is “the Rider Haggard of Anthropology,” Malinowski once wrote, “I shall be the Conrad!” And yet the links between literary pursuit and anthropological endeavor in France were much stronger, less attenuated. As Clifford demonstrates, French ethnographic experimentation in the 1920s, especially as manifested in the College, was directly affiliated with the artistic avant-garde: Michel Leiris, for example, was a member of the Mission Dakr-Djibouti (1932), an ethnographic expedition that spent almost two years in Africa. The almost seamless relation between anthropological experience and literary experimentation produced what Clifford terms “ethnographic surrealism,” in which cultural encounter in all the delight of its tension and juxtaposition approximates surrealist collage.

The undecidability and incompleteness of ethnographic surrealism, as typified in the College and fostered by Mauss, had a significant impact upon Deconstruction, but Structuralism is also indebted to Mauss and his disciples. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s tribute to Mauss’s “constant striving toward the fundamental,” his ability to “hit the bedrock” of social phenomena (“French Sociology” 527) suggests Mauss as a formative influence upon structural thought. Now, as Clifford notes, Lévi-Strauss overplays the connection, portraying Mauss as a kind of “protostructuralist” (Predicament 128), and clearly Lévi-Straussian structuralism, with its emphasis upon getting at the essential truth of culture by grasping the underlying structural relation of that culture’s terms, is indebted much more directly to the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and N. S. Troubetskoy.

More important here, though, is not the origin of Lévi-Straussian anthropological structuralism so much as the debt of structural literary criticism to Lévi-Strauss. Jonathan Culler has pointed out the possible limitations of Lévi-Straussian structural analysis for literary criticism (53-54); still, Lévi-Strauss, especially in texts such as The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), Structural Anthropology (1958), and The Raw and the Cooked (1964), decodes the myths of exotic societies in ways more compelling to literary criticism than much structural linguistic interpretation. Lévi-Strauss’s identification with literary criticism is also due to his co-authoring, with Roman Jakobson, of the inaugural tour de force of structuralist criticism, the analysis of Charles Baudelaire ‘s poem “Les Chats.” Lastly, as James Boon has illustrated, Lévi-Strauss’s adoption by the literary-minded is indebted not only to his own literary style and organization (especially as illustrated in Tristes Tropique [1955]) but to an important message that runs throughout his work, namely, that both artists and students of culture construct significance out of “texts,” whether cultural or literary. In this respect Lévi-Strauss’s study of “savage” tribes and minds had a formidable impact upon deconstructionist criticism.

In America, the textual or discursive nature of anthropological interpretation has been most visibly advanced by anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner. In books such as The Interpretation of Culture (1973) and Local Knowledge (1983), Geertz has theorized upon and practiced an anthropology that is essentially semiotic, approaching cultural phenomena as a system of signs to be read by the anthropologist as culture reader. His Works and Lives (1988) makes the claim that anthropology is essentially rhetorical and hence the best anthropologists are those that persuade us through their writing of the viability of their other-cultural experience. In works such as Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974) and From Ritual to Theatre (1982), Turner approaches culture as essentially performance, sketching cultural activity in metaphoric and specifically dramatistic terms. Both Geertz and Turner, like Lévi-Strauss, have enabled the literary analysis of culture by collapsing several distinctions: between culture in general and aesthetic practice, between anthropological and literary interpretation, and between ethnography and the literary text as written products.

The publication of the influential critical anthology Writing Culture (1982) marked a fairly dramatic departure from previous anthropological writing. Following in the legacy of Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, and Turner, the contributors to this volume (which include its editors, James Clifford and George E. Marcus) emphasize the “poetics,” the writerly nature of anthropological pursuit, but they also persistently assert the “politics” of anthropology as an institutional endeavor. Influenced by the recent critical and social theory on power relations (as in the work of Foucault), colonialist discourse (especially Edward Said‘s 1978 Orientalism), and postmodernist theory (of Jean-françois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson, among others), the contributors to Writing Culture seriously indict anthropology as a political activity while also celebrating its potential as an exercise in otherness and as a powerful tool of cultural critique. Clifford’s own Predicament of Culture (1988) and Marcus and Michael Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986) also significantly advanced these arguments.

The new interpretive anthropology, especially as typified in Writing Culture, has met with some criticism on several grounds: its sometimes naive affiliations to 1960s radical ideology, its insufficient consideration of feminist concerns, and its historically narrow focus upon modern ethnography. The lack of a feminist viewpoint may be the most telling absence, but since Writing Culture much feminist anthropological theory has emerged to augment and challenge interpretive anthropology of the 1980s and 1990s, for example, Trinh T. Minh-Ha‘s When the Moon Waxes Red (1991) and Micaela di Leonardo’s collection Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge (1991). The deep involvement of this new anthropological writing with postmodernist, colonialist, and feminist theory illustrates the extent to which disciplinary boundaries are breaking down, or at the least, loosening, so that literary criticism necessarily entails the interpretation of culture, while anthropology necessarily means the reading of a discourse (anthropology’s increasing involvement in the theoretical and curricular reconfiguration known as Cultural Studies is testimony to this development). The immediate future of “anthropology” in literary criticism may be less a matter of the influence of anthropological theory and more a matter of shared discursive and societal concerns.

Cultural Anthropology of Clifford Geertz

Benedict Ruth and Cultural Anthropology

Key Theories of Claude Levi Strauss

Claude Levi Strauss’ Structural Anthropology

Anthropological Criticism: An Essay

Archetypal Criticism

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949); Christopher Caudwell, Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry (1937); F. M. Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy (1914); Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912, trans. Joseph Wood Swain, 1965); T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” (1923, Selected Prose, ed. Frank Kermode, 1975); Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (1949); James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (2 vois., 1890, 3d ed., 12 vois., 1907-15); Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957); Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988); René Girard, La Violence et la sacré (1972,Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory, 1977); Jane Harrison, Themis (1912); Denis Hollier, ed., The College of Sociology (1979, trans. Betsy Wing, 1988); Micaela di Leonardo, ed., Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era (1991); Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949, ed. and trans. James Harle Bell et al., 1969); Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1925, trans. Ian Cunnison, 1954); Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study of Tradition, Myth, and Drama (1936); George Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens: A Study in the Social Origins of Drama (1941); Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974). James Boon, From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi- Strauss in a Literary Tradition (1972); James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (1988); James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986); Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975); Richard Hardin, “‘Ritual· in Recent Criticism: The Elusive Sense of Community,” PMLA 98 (1983); Stanley Edgar Hyman, “The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic” (Vickery, Myth); Claude Lévi-Strauss, “French Sociology,” Twentieth Century Sociology (ed. Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert Moore, 1945); Francesco Loriggio, “Anthropology, Literary Theory, and the Traditions of Modernism,” Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text (ed. Marc Manganaro, 1990); Marc Manganaro, Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell (1992); George Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (1986); Michéle H. Richman, Reading Georges Bataille: Beyond the Gift (1982); John Vickery, The Literary Impact of “The Golden Bough” (i973); John Vickery, ed., Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice (1966).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Anthropology, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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