My experience in anthropology has been primarily backwards, or an inversion of the normal experience within the field. That inversion is replicated in the organization of this book. Here, we will take theory from the field of a non-Western culture and apply it to cultural domains of a Western culture. This is a new and different kind of ethnography, so we will call it the new ethnography. This new ethnography might best be described as comparative philosophy.
In the normal course of an anthropological career, one goes to graduate school at one of the major research institutions for several years, getting trained in whatever bodies of theory and methodology that particular graduate program has to offer. Then one writes a research proposal, gets funding, goes to the field for a year or so, and returns to the university to write a dissertation based on the field research. Usually three to four times as much time is spent at the university as is spent in the field. My experience was just the opposite.
I spent eight years in the field among the Navajo before I ever went to the university, and I spent only 18 months at the University of Chicago getting an MA and a PhD in Anthropology. I did my research before I wrote my research proposal, wrote my dissertation before being admitted to candidacy, and defended it six weeks after receiving my MA. I experienced culture shock at the university, not in the field, and I returned to the field to teach at the Navajo Community College after completing my rite of passage in graduate school.
The most important aspect of this inverted career was the perspective it gave me on this strange tribe of academics and what they believed. I actually expected what they said and wrote to make sense, to shed light on my experience in what they called the field, which in reality had become home for me. Instead, I used what I learned in the field to make sense out of what I was hearing at the university. As a result, I inverted the normal relationship of field/home and data/theory. I got my theories for understanding the world and human experience within it from the Navajo. My intellectual friends and relatives among the Navajo were my colleagues, not my informants. I did not study the Navajo; I studied with the Navajo. I was there to learn ideas, not to collect data. From the theories and philosophies I had learned on the Reservation, I tried to make sense out of the beliefs, sacred literature, rites of passage, and strange behavior I found among the culturites.
Standard anthropology is intellectual provincialism if not cultural imperialism. It gets its theory from its Western ancestors and applies these theories to the data it finds in other cultures throughout the world. More recently, it has also applied some of these theories to Western peoples and cultures as well. This provincial binary opposition is ingrained in anthropological thought and sanctified in anthropological discourse. The natives have beliefs; the anthropologists have theories. The natives deal in myths; the anthropologists deal in knowledge. They tell stories; we write history. Their doctors are medicine men; our medicine men are doctors. Their psychiatrists are shamans; our shamans are psychiatrists. They have ethnoscience, ethnobatany, etc., while we have the real thing. They have cognized world views, while we have actual knowledge of the world. I submit that this is nothing more than intellectual and epistemological provincialism.
Anthropologists often do great violence to the philosophies, knowledge, and experiences of other peoples. The natives simply become tokens of some Western theoretical type. When we “explain” their beliefs and their behavior by our theories, we not only do indefensible violence to their beliefs and theories, we make two more grave errors. First, we miss the affinity between their beliefs and their behavior, on which our first understanding of them should be based. Second, and probably most important, we miss the opportunity to learn from them and to include what they have thought and experienced in a consultable record of what humans everywhere have thought and experienced:
The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said. (Geertz 1973:30)
The new ethnography, as I practice it, treats the philosophical and intellectual stock of each culture as a distinct body theory, a unique intellectual construction regarding the world and human experience within it. The cultural constructions of all peoples are, for purposes of comparison and cross-cultural fertilization, held to be on a par with each other. Ethnography thus becomes the exploration of the philosophies and aesthetic accomplishments of humans everywhere, including those of the West. I view anthropologists as simply other natives immersed in their own cognized views of the world. To transcend this monocultural perspective, we must immerse ourselves - to the degree possible - in other cultural worlds, learning to converse with the intellectuals and artists of those other worlds.
The approach to ethnography recommended here was actually suggested to us long ago by Emile Durkheim, a social philosopher of the 19th Century. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he argues that when the ideas and theories that inform what Westerners call magical rites are understood, they “no longer appear as very simple notions . . . but rather they appear as priceless instruments of thought which the human groups have laboriously forged through the centuries and where they have accumulated the best of their intellectual capital” (65:32-33).
We regard the natives of other cultures not as informants, but as colleagues and teachers with whom we can attempt to converse and from whom we can hope to learn. And, to the extent they are interested, we can share some of our thoughts and experiences with them, so that we both may become enlightened and enriched from the cross-cultural encounter. This kind of an endeavor provides the basis for cross-cultural fertilization in art, science, and philosophy. As such, ethnography becomes an adventure in comparative art and philosophy, rather than an exercise in intellectual provicialism or cultural imperialism.
While it may seem hopelessly idealistic to some, this has been the actual pattern, both formally and informally, of our experience with the Navajo. We did not study the Navajo; we studied with the Navajo. Both of us have taught and shared with Navajos whatever we have had to offer in the way of theoretical and artistic insights as teachers at the Navajo Community College, as well as with Navajos in other places and forums. Likewise, our thought and art have been changed and enriched by what we have learned from Navajo thought, art, and experience.
The new ethnography takes Navajo comprehensions and truths at their Navajo face value. As natives of another cultural world, we are in no place to pronounce their comprehensions and truths to be anything other than what they are: Navajo understandings of the world and their place within it. It is inappropriate logically and ethically to use the theories of one culture, based on its presuppositions and its epistemology, to study, analyze, and interpret the comprehensions and truths of another cultural world, which is constructed out of different presuppositions and built on a different body of historical experience and collective thought.
What we have to do in this style of anthropology is to understand and interpret another cultural word in its own terms (Schneider 1968: 1-14). In this way we try to see the world as they see it and try to understand their experience in the world as they experience it. Of course, accomplishing this feat is impossible in a total sense. We can never be Navajos, or totally think like Navajos, or experience things like Navajos do. But we can do this to some degree, and the greater degree to which we are able to do it, the better ethnography we are potentially able to write.
We do not do surgery in the sewer simply because it is impossible to create a completely sterile environment. Likewise, because it is impossible to ever totally understand another cultural world as the natives do is no reason not to try to understand some of it as the natives do. The only alternatives to this approach are to transform other peoples into tokens of one Western type or another, illustrations of one Western theory or another, or simply to proclaim them incomprehensible and make ethnography reflexive explorations of self. Every ethnography will contain distortions, but we should not resign from the task because it is impossible to write an ethnography without distortions. What we should do is be aware of the problems of distortion and strive continually to reduce them as our understandings continue to grow and improve. Commentary on our ethnographies by Native scholars and artists will provide our best gauge for how well or how poorly we are grasping the intricacies of their world.
Navajo comprehensions and creations should be put on a par with those of other peoples, including those of the West and those of the anthropologist. This does not necessarily mean Navajo creations or comprehensions are any better or any worse than those of other cultural worlds. What it does mean is that the unequal superior/inferior, subject/object, observer/observed, scholar/informant relationships that have characterized anthropology in the colonial setting must be put aside and must be replaced by an egalitarian relationship in which anthropologists realize that they are simply other natives with other beliefs and other cognized world views.
When we started learning about Navajo art and culture, we did not go there to study dynamic, holistic symmetry. This comprehension of Navajo art and culture emerged from our exposure to and immersion in Navajo art and culture. It is our characterization of what we learned from and about Navajo art and culture, and it represents, according to our best approximation, how the Navajo see the world, and how they express their comprehensions of the world in their visual arts. Dynamic, holistic symmetry is what we think we found in the Navajo cultural universe; it is not something we imposed upon it. This interpretation has emerged out of nearly 30 years of living, working and conversing with Navajo people, much of which was in their language and in their communities.
In the following three chapters in Part Two of this book, we look back at Western art and science from the theoretical and aesthetic perspectives we learned from our encounter with Navajo art and culture. This is not done in the spirit of reductionism or in the spirit of imperialism, but in the spirit of exploration and comparison. Reducing Western art and science to Navajo premises would be as wrong as reducing Navajo art and thought to the premises of Western art and science. Likewise, to use one as a measure or a standard by which to judge the other would be equally inappropriate. But to compare the two to see what they have to say to each other, to see how they can reflect upon each other, to see how they can enlighten each other, is to practice the best kind of comparative art and philosophy.
Dynamic, holistic symmetry does not dominate Western art to the degree it dominates Navajo art, but it is present in significant ways and in significant places in Western art. What Navajo artists see in the world and express in their art has not totally escaped Western artists, and is given significant expression in the works of a number of Western artists. In the next chapter, we look at particular artists and particular art traditions in the West in which something similar to dynamic, holistic symmetry is given expression. We also explore how Navajo art in particular and American Indian art in general may have provided some of the stimulus for these expressions of holistic symmetry. Just as African art provided a major stimulus for European art, American Indian art played a major role in the development of distinctively American artistic traditions.
The cross-fertilization that has already happened in the field of art could also occur in the fields of comparative science and philosophy, but only a few, such as Capra in The Tao of Physics, have dared to take this adventure. The new science is desperately searching for new metaphors by which to understand the new world of particle physics. The Great Machine metaphor of the Newtonian age will no longer suffice. The images and concepts found in Navajo art and culture may provide some of the stimulus needed to formulate and articulate the kind of new syntheses and new metaphors that we hope will enlighten us all about the worlds in which we live. This is the impetus for the final two chapters in this book, which look at modern science in the light shed on it by Navajo aesthetic and philosophical propositions.