The Architecture of Anthropological Time

Johannes Fabian and Anselm Franke

Johannes Fabian’s book Time and the Other (1983) is a landmark publication of critical anthropology. Part of the critique of the discipline that emerged during the period of decolonization and the Vietnam War, it analyses a central device in the “making” of the object of anthropology—the Other, identified as temporal distancing. While all ethnographic fieldwork is based on communicative exchange and shared time, it is this dimension of “coevalness” that gets systematically denied in the theoretical discourse of anthropologists, who situate their object in a time different from “ours”.

Anselm Franke: You began doing anthropological fieldwork in 1965 in Katanga, the Shaba region of the Congo, where you studied a contemporary Christian religious movement, the Jamaa, who were followers of the Belgian Missionary Placide Tempels, the author of the considerably influential Bantu Philosophy. Can you tell us what you learned about the “object” of ethnographic research back then?

Johannes Fabian: One of the discoveries I made was that a movement such as the Jaama moves. It doesn’t hold still, whereas most of the research habits or methods that I had heard of, learned about, or considered applying presupposed that you had an object that holds still. It threw me into quite a predicament when I discovered that I had a movement that didn’t have membership rules, that didn’t have a written constitution, whose founder denied being the founder, and whose members insisted that the movement wasn’t a movement. That gave me a jump start on reflecting on what we do when we are doing ethnographic research, what we talk about when we talk about the objects of research, and what is possible and what is impossible in our investigations.

AF: In 1971 you published an article where you report about your research on the Jamaa, but you also raise, for the first time, the issue of time.

JF: Yes, that was called ”Language, History, and Anthropology”. The central issue in that article was the question of intersubjectivity. I had these two questions and two theses: What is objectivity in anthropology? Objectivity in anthropology is just that: it is intersubjectivity; and, What is the medium—what are the means that assure us of intersubjectivity? That is language. This was part of what was called critical anthropology, and reflexive anthropology. In this essay, my two major influences at the time came together. On the one hand, it was Habermas’s critique of positivism-pragmatism. On the other hand was a person who was very important in American anthropology, Dell Hymes, who talked about the ethnography of communication, or communication as ethnography. That lead for different reasons to a language-centred approach. I will try to reconstruct how I got from there to Time and the Other. Within one or two years or so after writing that essay I was invited to contribute to a volume on death in American experience. For a very young man like me at the time, to write in the company of Talcott Parsons and other luminaries was an important invitation. My first reflex was to say no, and my second reflex was: I am going to do it, but they are going to regret it. The essay is the first time I spoke about the Other. Not that I wasn’t aware of that notion. I had reread German phenomenology, but in anthropological discourse I don’t think many people discussed the Other. For the first time also I argued that part of the construction of the Other occurs by making the Other a spectacle. And I used the example of the Roman games where exotic people were put to death by exotic animals while the population watched.

AF: I found it fascinating how far you were taking this argument in Time and the Other, by suggesting that there is a connection between spatio-temporal distancing (situating the Other in a geographically remote and a distant time, such as an “archaic past”) and the visual regimes that both make the Other into a spectacle and provide the syntax of order for anthropological knowledge. This idea of the role of visualism in modern and colonial knowledge production and in social relations in general is something that interests me particularly from the perspective of an exhibition-maker, where one often finds these two aspects—spectacle and ordered knowledge—overlapping in uncanny ways.

JF: There was the first inkling of the Eye... which was also a pun: the “I” and the “eye.” That was conscious. Then I submitted the abstract for a paper to be delivered at a meeting of the American Anthropologists called “The Eye and the Ear, Root Metaphors of Knowledge”. The response was overwhelming (in a small way) and I knew I was on to something. The abstract was written in 1976, and I started writing Time and The Other almost immediately. The manuscript was finished in 1978, but then it took another five years to get it published. It was an attempt to make theoretical sense of what happens during fieldwork, which later led to a frontal attack on my discipline. However, all too often I find that people overlook something that has been very clearly stated: that what I try to understand (and overcome) is a contradiction, not a crime. It is not about what anthropology does wrong. What I wanted to point out was: you guys are contradicting yourselves. And the contradiction is between the practices of empirical research, which demand recognition of what I called coevalness, and a discourse that systematically places those we study in a time different from ours.

AF: This contradiction is framed in terms of practice and theorising respectively, right? In the sense that the practice basically consists of sharing time dialogically, and that this dialogic aspect is later turned into a monologue of “anthropology” speaking about the Other (its object), or in your words, “coeval research” versus the “allochronic interpretation” that occurred later. I am also thinking of the conclusion of the book, where you bring in Marx’s notion of practice and sensuous knowledge, in what I think is an attempt to reconcile that contradiction. You demand from your discipline, and your colleagues, especially those that deem themselves Marxists, to develop a Marxist concept of the practice of ethnography, one that does justice to the relation between knower and known, sensuous engagement and activity.

JF: Who made you read it?

AF: My own interest in the field, which comes from a different angle, related to the exhibition as a medium and genre. My interest also comes from the constitutive role that primitivism plays in modernist art. Inasmuch as I see your work as a major contribution to the decolonization of the discipline of anthropology, in the artistic-institutional field we have to account for a necessary decolonization of the imaginary, and thus also of canonical art history, and the institution of the exhibition within this larger complex. I am particularly interested in what has happened since the 1984 Primitivism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The critique of this exhibition was crucial to what has happened in the field of art since in terms of content, discourse and internationalization, particularly with regards to the critique of how modern Western institutions created the image of the superiority of the history they represent, and it was formative both for the way critical discourse in the field would deal with the “making of the Other”, and also “other” objects of art. The discourse of primitivism in modern Western culture at large was crafted on the imaginary of an “archaic” past that modernity had broken with and that history, just as every individual, had to overcome or suppress. To my knowledge it was Claude Lévi-Strauss who ended the primitivist age or imaginary in the The Elementary Structures of Kinship, where he deconstructs what he calls “archaic illusion”.

JF: Lévi-Strauss’s work had a tragic side. The unmasking of the archaic illusion was his aim but the approach he chose and his style of thinking did not support the effort. In his heart he was right, but in his head he was wrong, in my opinion. That’s why he is also the target of critique in Time and the Other. I didn’t want to have a confrontation with Lévi-Strauss. He was too big, and it would have distracted from my project. But he has done a great deal for allochronistic discourse, or “time‑distancing”.

AF: Can you recount for us where the key of the argument is, when you say that Lévi-Strauss’s project of undoing the archaic illusion failed? Where he re-inscribed himself in an “allochronic” discourse as you call it, or even elevated it to a higher level, which I understand is the argument at one point in the book?

JF: What made me distance myself from him starts with two simple questions: How do we know what we say we know? Second, how do we present what we know? There we parted ways right away. If you put your bets on a semiotic, structural theoretical approach—and that’s what I am trying to show in Time and the Other—you will inevitably finish up with an allochronic discourse; a discourse that puts those whom you talk about in a time other than yours. The first part of my book is a series of exercises, trying to show how this device works in various schools of anthropology of temporal distancing works.

AF: How did this become a political issue for you? Against Lévi-Strauss, you make your anthropological project into an explicitly political one. You always make it clear that there is an aspect of dominion that sparks reflection on the discipline. It’s not just an epistemological interest in terms of how we come to know what we know, but also of how this comes into application.

JF: Whereby Lévi-Strauss was very political—he played a role in UNESCO; he was a public intellectual in France; he “did” politics I have never done—not in Holland, not in the States, and certainly not in Germany. That is simply because I don’t think it is my role. Epistemology as I understand it must include the willingness to justify, or defend, or critically discuss what you call knowledge also in terms of the actual circumstances (personal as well as historical) under which it was or is being produced. Whenever you evoke that context, you are faced with relations of power, certainly in anthropology where the whole field was allowed to be played by the powers. That is not to say that anthropology has to be dismissed as a colonial enterprise. That is a conclusion that may be taken and acted upon, and that is understandable, but it is misguided. It was certainly not what I said in Time and the Other, although some of the early critics who read the manuscript for the publishers said just that: if this guy is right, then anthropology is finished. On the contrary, it was either an attempt to show that anthropology is alive, or an attempt to show that anthropology can be kept alive.

Back to epistemology and politics: I want to insist that for me, there is no epistemology outside of a political and historical context. So that is sort of an affinity to Foucault, who has in some ways influenced me or confirmed me in ways that I wasn’t able to express in the manner he did. It is politics in that sense, not in the sense of daily politics.

When anthropology was hit by the postcolonial crisis of the 1960s, it became obvious that colonial times were over. Having been, or having been perceived as, the handmaiden of colonialism, anthropology was in trouble. The reaction of the majority in the discipline was an attempt to put things right ethically. Colonialism was perceived as a problem of ethics. I thought that was totally wrong. The emphasis on epistemology has to be understood in part as a counter move to taking the crisis as an ethical or moral crisis. That is still an issue in my mind. Sometimes I say to my students: look, this is the heritage of the Enlightenment philosophers who knew that a lot of things were wrong in the world and that the two major causes were evil and ignorance. We can’t do much about evil, so let’s fight ignorance. Never mind what colonialism did to our moral standing: what did it do to our minds?—What made us be “out of our minds”? (He laughs).

AF: Out of Our Minds is what I wanted to get to as well. Out of Our Minds has always seemed to me an application answering some of the questions left open by Time and the Other, in the sense of what a writing of history would mean in which coevalness is retrospectively inserted or done justice to. You take quite a traditional Enlightenment stance, because you are going against the myth machines—but this time it is the myth-making machines of explorers, Western heroes, missionaries, and their deliria.

JF: After Time and the Other, I was in the situation where American poker players say “put up or shut up”. I tried to put up. There came the series of books that went into history, and reported on the discovery of performance and of material culture in the form of popular painting in Katanga. In all of these endeavours, this notion of coevalness has been central. I don’t write about it, I just try to show what happens when it’s not denied. How can we communicate this when we reflectively talk about it, or when we present the results of our research as knowledge?

AF: Wouldn’t it also be a question of how to write not in a monologic way, but to keep the intersubjective or dialogic constitution of knowledge—which coeval also means—, in which one part normally got bracketed out?

JF: That’s true. There was a moment in American anthropology when this realisation came, but it led in my opinion to the wrong conclusions: fieldwork is dialogic, therefore the most appropriate literary form of presenting the results of fieldwork is dialogue. That’s a non sequitur in my view. We may choose to document dialogues, but inasmuch as our writings represent the results of processes of knowledge, it’s for me absolutely inescapable, logical, that the beginnings cannot be mirrored by the results. The process transforms. Knowledge is something that is being produced, and by being produced it is being transformed. What was, above all, wrong with calls for writing ethnography dialogically was the assumption that this would guarantee its validity. That is: if you present what you learnt dialogically as a dialogue, you are going to be objective. And that’s a non sequitur, isn’t it?

AF: Let me try to understand this correctly. The denial of coevalness is a denial of a certain kind of dialogue.

JF: No. The denial of coevalness is a denial of a condition of the production of knowledge.

AF: It brackets out a condition.

JF: Yes.

AF: So the conditions would be somehow…

JF: … Shared time, intersubjective time, et cetera. These are (or used to be) acknowledged, sometimes theoretically but mostly practically, while fieldwork occurs. Yet they would not affect the discourse that was then built upon that kind of research. It was a discourse that denied its own conditions of possibility.

AF: Let me try to draw one analogy, coming from the introduction to The History of Madness by Foucault, that has to do with this dialogic versus monologic knowledge in modern disciplines and institutions. In his case he speaks about psychiatry, and he has a poetic way of putting it: there was a moment when modern man ceased to communicate with the mad man and psychiatry started a monologue that had ever since not stopped speaking about him.

I’m trying to see if we can draw a parallel that would allow for some generalization about modern ways of knowing, to which denial of putting the conditions at stake and asymmetry in the dialogic relation are constitutive, and how this function is covered up by a mythological machine, such as is objectivism. In Foucault’s case it is the description of the monologue that psychiatry establishes on the mad man, whose own language in this moment becomes some code to be deciphered but is not taken seriously anymore… which seems to me to bear some parallel to the question of what coevalness is.

JF: I have always been insecure about that term. It is a fact that I made it up: the adjective “coeval” exists, but coevalness is a constructed term. And it is a term that I’ve never thought of as a stable concept in a stable theory, as it were. It must always be defined contextually. And it’s a fighting term also.

AF: But it brings together contemporaneity and synchronicity, right?

JF: Sort of. In Time and the Other, I talk about why I didn’t choose to speak of synchronicity. While I think and write in English I also think in German. So inevitably I came to Gleichzeitigkeit, and the inevitable next step could have been to think of the “denial of coevalness” in terms of Ernst Bloch’s Ungleichzeitigkeit but I realized that this was not what I meant. The translation I chose for coevalness is Zeitgenossenschaft. The contemporary and the contemporaneous. Synchronicity is not unrelated to it, but synchronicity in the strict physical sense, of physical time, is irrelevant for my argument, because it is an actual given; there is nothing we can do about it. Synchronicity, in the terms of the sociologist Alfred Schütz, who wrote about it in his essay on making music together, however, is interesting since there we come to practice. And in practice, when you talk about time, you have to talk about timing. I learnt a lot about this when I worked with popular theatre and performance. Coevalness is a condition of possibility, but it is also an achievement. It has to be made. It is not given. The same goes for intersubjectivity. Lévi-Strauss’s solution for the problem of intersubjectivity was a classical one: we all have the same brains, therefore we can communicate. Fine. That may be true, but it doesn’t help me as an ethnographer.

AF: You have been breaking quite obviously, at this moment, with language.

JF: No. I think that language remains a central aspect of all cultural practices. There was a distinction made by de Saussure between langage and parole, but de Saussure only made it because he wanted to get to langage. He had to disregard parole. We moved in the opposite direction, from language as system to language as speaking, which meant moving from semiotics to pragmatics, in philosophical terms. The danger of this was that one became single-minded about it. Furthermore, when you do ethnographic work and you communicate about it, the question of documentation arises. I belong to a generation that did not go around with video cameras. We used tape recorders to document conversations and other speech events and when we talked of those documents as texts we meant this literally. When Clifford Geertz said the anthropologist’s work is like reading a text over the shoulder of its informant, this was a metaphorical text; a cultural text. It was a metaphorical use of the term.

AF: … Which is opposed to the literal.

JF: Yes. A recent book of mine, based on text documents stored in a virtual archive in the Internet is called Ethnography as Commentary.

AF: To you, what should a historiographic practice look like that has to account for the denial, in the case of Time and the Other—the denial of coevalness, in the political sense of the denial of full subjecthood, rights, etc.?

JF: A project of mine where I think these questions are raised, but perhaps not answered, was a book called Remembering the Present.

AF: The book with the paintings of Zaire’s history that you encouraged Tshibumba Kanda Matulu to make.

JF: Yes. The paintings are the work of a popular painter, whose project was to paint and narrate the history of his country and who explicitly defined himself as a historian. He produced a double record: one was the paintings he painted, the other the narrative and explanation, which were part of the conversation we had. In the book you can see that the historiographic work is done through confrontation. His pictures confront texts, academic notes and essays confront Tshibumba’s work, and nowhere do I claim to have had the last word. There’s another example, too: a book called History from Below. In that case, there was a document which was a history of the town of Lubumbashi, Elizabethville… as it used to be called, compiled by someone for an organisation of domestic servants. It was called “The Vocabulary of Elizabethville”. That was my first experience in confronting popular historiology and historiography. All I can say to the questions you asked is that this approach is confrontational rather than dialogical. Dialogical is a too-irenic term; too peaceful.

AF: Let me try to stay with this for one more round, because it seems to me that it is also something I encounter repeatedly as a figure, as a trope in Time and the Other; a trope which I would sum up as the instant when critique actually ends up. It’s something that you also allude to in the introduction of Out of Our Minds, when you speak about the difficult task that is the historiography of the colonial project, because of the clouds in which the idiom drapes itself, and you suggest that writing a counter-history alone won’t do.

JF: We overcome, but we don’t finish with our adversaries, or dismiss them. We need to fight to survive, intellectually, and often also physically. This doesn’t mean that the outcome of the fight has to be the annihilation of the Other.

AF: Out of Our Minds takes the radical critique of the seventies and the eighties that revealed the colonial machines within the discourse and practices of Western epistemologies a step further, in terms of what the image of Western “rationality” is, and how it produces itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a lot of magic and mockery involved. But it seems to me that overall this critique has become somehow marginalized and diluted. It’s about single projects; single figures which carry on certain projects, but the power of the institutions and the machines still clings very much to positivist proceedings… Am I wrong?

JF: Inasmuch as we conceived our critical projects as subversive they did have a certain effect. Right now, to be a die-hard positivist, you have to be out of your mind, and not in the nice sense of it. (They laugh). The general climate has changed, but I’m very much convinced that, in a way, one of the senses of positivism is this hope that once and for all you can put science and knowledge on firm foundations. That you are busy positively. We’re not. We are subversives. We’ve got an attitude. Anthropology with an Attitude was the title of a collection of my essays. We are negators of certainties, not creators of certainties. We act as if we had certainties; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do our work. Marx never gave a foundation for anything; he was a mover and he continues to move us. That is an answer to a question you formulated in your letter: How Marxist are we? I learnt thinking from Marx—among others. And that hasn’t changed. One of the research projects I proposed long ago was on language and labour, first on a theoretical level (language and work), and then looked at empirically in the industrial and crafts context of work in Katanga. I did an enormous amount of work; loads of documents and recordings that will never be used. The aim of this project was not to argue that work is a form of communication, which it is, but that communication is a form of work; a sensuous, material transformation of matter, as it were. And those are Marxian concepts.

AF: Can you tell us how this works; how this translates into the idea of the archive and the documents that you are now working on?

JF: The theoretical discovery that I made after I started this archive had to do with the conception of presence. What does it mean to say that an anthropologist is present in the field? I have been talking and thinking about this question for a long time. But what about the virtual presence of the documents on which I must base what I call knowledge? It is a virtual presence not only for the writer but also for the reader. I don’t have illusions that people who read this little book on Ethnography as Commentary will all look the text up in a search engine, but the text is there. That gives a different quality to ethnographic text, and that calls for commentary as a genre of writing ethnography. Of course, commentary is an ancient genre. There is an interesting little book that I cite, The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen, who argues that online virtual presence was prefigured by the Talmud. The Talmud has been a text (or actually two texts) surrounded by commentaries. Although they may date from different centuries, the graphic presentation of text surrounded by commentaries makes the two co-present—coeval, if you wish. That is a vision I have of writing “ethnography from the virtual archive”—ethnography in the co-presence of its documents.