Thursday, April 24, 2008

Crapanzano's Tuhami

After twenty years I remain enchanted by Vincent Crapanzano's Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (University of Chicago Press, 1980). It can be read as a work about the ethical dilemmas of friendship, social inequality, difference, the quest for humanistic knowledge, mental illness, empathy and the imagination. I recall Crapanzano taking a stance that we can know the reality of another only by what he says. However that's not exactly what he says. He says, "I have forced myself into the theoretical position that we can know the experience of another only by what he says (as though a text can be understood without the assumption of intersubjectivity), and, at the same time, I have made a plea for a more immediate intersubjective understanding" (p. 152). Crapanzano regards this as a paradox. I don't quite see it that way because I'm coming at the said with a different set of as thoughs. Anyway, now the question arises for me as to why Crapanzano should feel that he has forced himself into the position that we can know the experience of another only by what he says. Before addressing that let me add some nuance to Crapanzano's position. I begin with a lengthy quotation:

Some phenomenologically influenced sociologists, like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967), have suggested that the psychological theories at the disposal of an individual realize themselves in his experience.

If a psychology becomes socially established (that is, becomes generally recognized as an adequate interpretation of objective reality), it tends to realize itself forcefully in the phenomena it purports to interpret. Its internalization is accelerated by the fact that it pertains to internal reality, so that the individual realizes it in the very act of internalizing it. [P. 178]

I have suggested this, too (1973, 1975)—and suggest it here—but with one caveat. What the ethnographer or the psychologist is provided with is either an immediate or a mediate verbal text and not a direct access to the mind of his informant or subject. The extent to which such texts accurately report the experience they purport to describe, the extent to which they "realize" themselves in the experience, must inevitably remain open questions. They must not be dismissed, as some of the behaviorists have dismissed them (with a vehemence that is somewhat suspect), nor should they be ignored, as some of the more soft-minded humanistic psychologists have done by the simple assumption that what a subject says he has experienced is, in fact, what he experienced. In our everyday transactions we act, indeed we must act, as though the experience an individual reports is, in fact, the experience he experienced, unless of course he is being duplicitous or self-deceptive. In other words, in everyday life we collapse the conceptualization of and phenomenology of experience. Without entering here into questions of the temporality of experience—immediate utterances versus retrospective accounts—it is important to recognize that the two, the conceptualization and the phenomenology, must be analytically separated if an epistemologically valid science of man is to be achieved.

(pp. 20-21)

I suspect that the analytical separation of the conceptualization and the phenomenology of experience may engender a professional self-deception, and that we have good, which is to say valid, reasons for collapsing the two in daily life. On the other hand, I can see the distinction Crapanzano draws and I can acknowledge that his questions remain and must remain open—why must they? Here I am particular keen on leaving open a question of how a symbolic interpretation of experience finds its truth in an experience. Why must this question be denied closure? I lean towards thinking that an ethical imperative keeps this question open, but I won't rush to that conclusion.

The distinction between fantasy and reality agitates Crapanzano. Tuhami, as Crapanzano reconstructs their encounter, helps him to a realization that fantasy is not untruthful, which suggests that the difference between fantasy and reality shouldn't be pinned down too neatly. Here, though is a twist: Crapanzano says, "The fantasies of the Other, even when we ourselves invent them, are always more real than those we attribute to ourselves" (p. 59, my emphasis). What exactly is meant by "fantasy"? Crapanzano says something provocative about fantasy: "One of the characteristics of fantasy is the blurring of narrative performance and subject matter" (p. 66). Does this contention betray a dismissal of fantasy, or, perhaps, a wish to do away with an entire episteme? Oh, let's be ambivalent for a moment. Here Crapanzano describes what he believes to be Tuhami's sense of their encounter, and points to a conflict of views:

Tuhami responded to our encounter, as I have said, with an ease of fantasy and self-reference. It was often impossible to distinguish what was real from what was dream and fantasy, hallucination and vision. His interest was not in the informative but in the evocative aspect of language. He contradicted himself so often that even the minimum order I bestow on his life belies its articulation. What I take to be real (and, at least heuristically, I must take something to be real) is my assumption.

(p. 14, my emphasis)

One can vacillate between the two attitudes towards language in an encounter, call it a negotiation or some such, but this raises a question of whether the parties to an encounter must respect each other's fantasies about language, or each other's linguistic realities—can we honestly say at this juncture that we know our inventions of another's fantasies to be real, even in the sense that the real is a metaphor for the true? I don't want to get hung up in a disagreement about language just yet, and yet it appears at every turn. For instance, when Crapanzano expounds on the meaning he gives to the term "Other," he brushes up against the question of whether the language of the interpersonal encounter is essentially a mode of symbolic representation, and whether symbolic representation so dominates the encounter as to mute alternative evocations, that is, to mute personal voices.

The Other includes not simply the concrete individual who stands before one but all that he stands for symbolically. At the most abstract level, he is the transcendental locus of meaning; he is also typified by social roles, conventionalized perceptions, culturally determined styles, and a whole array of idiosyncratic associations that may be less than conscious. He is, to use the language of psychoanalysis, the object of transference.

(p. 9)

An interesting juxtaposition. If I may be permitted to separate the who of the other person from the what of the other person, to which domain would a transcendental locus of meaning belong? Does meaning belong to whats? Does transcendence? Are the whats of the world only animated by transference? Is is possible for a who to exist without any element of what whatsoever? Crapanzano warns against an obsessive desire to know the Other fully (p. 134), which is apropos here. Is the meaning of the Other itself ever fully known? (Is meaning itself?) If the meaning of meaning needs to be worked out, is that the business of the encounter? Might the meaning of meaning be the play of the encounter? Yet I wonder whether there aren't some meanings that shouldn't be played with. This too must remain an open question.

Having recognized that our knowledge of other people must remain partial, imperfect really, it must be added that there are limits to the partiality of understanding. "To understand the Other," Crapanzano tells us, "the ethnographer must come to participate as best he can in the Other's reality" (p. 141). A significant reason for this is that participation in another person's reality cultivates a capacity for empathy, and without empathy understanding suffers. Arguably understanding without empathy should go by some other name. However doubts must be raised as to whether we are surreptitiously giving "understanding" a special meaning in order to wiggle out of a difficult debate. Possibly it is an ethical imperative, difficult to defend (particularly within given disciplinary contexts, and the context of everything a monograph symbolically represents), that requires that our understandings of other persons be immersed in care. That is, understandings of other persons must be empathic. And they must be careful.

So what of my initial question? Crapanzano's discomfort appears to be epistemological, though there are ample grounds to question its roots. My discomfort is a little different. Can it be ethical not to take a person at her word? We do of course allow for situations in which people don't quite mean what they say. People joke around, for instance. Duplicity may be found out. Contradiction may be pointed out and logically discussed. What do we make of self-deceptions generally? Is it proper, ethically or otherwise, to say that another person deceives himself? Under what circumstances? Are there questions that belong to the encounter, questions that become improper when posed to third persons? Understandably intellectuals will chafe at the notion that the encounter may set boundaries of propriety around questioning, or around saying. Well, there remains a question of deceiving oneself about the self-deceptions of the Other, the possibility that one has confused one's own inventions for the Other's fantasies. As far as I can tell this doesn't get wrapped up.

Not wrapping up then, does my curiosity about other people's experiences militate for placing trust in the utterance? Could a convocative humility, if knowledge can know such a thing, actually be intrinsic to certain manifestations of curiosity?

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:31 AM.


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