Review of Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century

by James Clifford
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century
Book Author
James Clifford
Book Publisher
Harvard University Press
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Jonathan Friedman
Current Anthropology
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December 5th, 2012

Routing Roots and Rooting Routes: A Cosmopolitan Paradox


Department of Social Anthropology, University of Lund, P.O. Box II~, S-221 00 Lund, Sweden. zo IV 98

Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. By James Clifford. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. 408 pp.

The opposition of routes to roots is the theme of a bril- liantly written collection of essays by James Clifford concentrating on travel, movement, as opposed (con- ceptually as well as morally) to fixity and place. Clifford places the trajectory of routes in a longer-term project of dissolving the assumptions of "ethnic absolutism" and its related concept of culture as homogeneous sub- stance to "loosen its constellation of common senses" that was central to his previous Predicament of Cul- ture. The critique is summed up at the start (p. 3):

Dwelling was understood to be the local ground of collective life, travel a supplement; roots always pre- cede routes. But what would happen, I began to ask, if travel were untethered, seen as a complex or per- vasive spectrum of human experiences? Practices of displacement might emerge as constitutive of cul- tural meaning rather than as their simple transfer or extension. Cultural centers, discrete regions and ter- ritories, do not exist prior to contacts, but are sus- tained through them, appropriating and disciplining the restless movements of people and things.

He refers to Amitab Ghosh's Egyptian village, de- scribed as a "transit hall," and to the notion of histori- cal trajectory: "Stasis and purity are asserted-creatively and violently-against historical forces of move- ment and contamination" (p. 7). He claims that this is also a critique of anthropology, which is stuck in its bounding and in crisis, as opposed to an "emerging transnational cultural studies" (p. 8), which is appar- ently liberated. This is a position that one finds echoing in the corridors of cultural studies and postcolonial aca- deme, in which the postnational is touted as the glori- ous future.

But Clifford, cannier than his theoretical cronies,

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does not celebrate the new age. He is ambivalent. Transborder activities are not necessarily liberating, nor is the national always reactionary. Throughout this col- lection Clifford presents this ambivalence in the most sensitive discussion. In "Travelling Cultures" he sets out the problem of fieldwork as a kind of "dwelling" that is stuck in place; the pre-terrain is erased and only the locality itself remains. He follows Appadurai's argu- ment on " 'metonymic freezing,' " in which part of a place is taken to represent the whole (e.g., India is hier- archy), and his idea that natives, "confined to and by the places to which they belong, groups unsullied by contact with a larger world, have probably never ex- isted" (p. 24). He refers to a Hawaiian musical group that has been out of Hawaii on the road for 56 years and mentions the proverbial invention of the Hawaiian gui- tar by "a Czech immigrant living in California" (p. 26).

This pervasive picture has appeared in numerous writings by contemporary globalizers and has become something of a cliche. Ideas of locality, place, and com- munity are miserably innocent of the realities of move- ment-of the transnational and transcultural. But is there a real contradiction here? Is locality a misunder- standing because there has always been contact? The problem lies, I suggest, in a conflation of cultural things and people's lives.

The central section of the book deals with the ques- tion of the display of objects, specifically in museums, seen as zones of contact in which the true hybridity of the objects can be described but always without refer- ence to those immediately engaged with such objects and zones. The problem with all of this is the lack of a deeper ethnographic investigation into how these zones and objects figure in people's lives. Rather, they are seen in the abstract in this world of representations. The ob- jectivist mode is paramount in this endeavor, as is the necessity of creating essences in order to combine them in hybrid products, and these essences that are to be mixed are object worlds defined by properties that can be described by direct observation. Thus the mask or statue of the X appears in a new contemporary context which modifies its meaning-at least its meaning for us, that is, its object-meaning or meaning as product. This hybridity is simply our identification of "matter out of place." The strength of these chapters in my view lies elsewhere, in the way in which they problematize the museum-no longer perhaps a center of collection of empire but a zone of negotiation between the rising other and the weakening center.

Clifford employs the analysis of museums as prod- ucts of capitalist civilization, with their objectification and commodification (Harris 1990)~ but he is quick to see through this oversimplification to the more general


nature of collecting/displaying. Here the work of Pom- ian (1991) on collection could have been useful. In gen- eral, Clifford's understanding of the large-scale changes in the world enables him to escape the linear accounts that are so often encountered in the politically correct versions of critical discourse on the West.

Two major chapters end the book. "Diasporas," previ- ously published in Cultural Anthropology, and "Fort Ross Meditation" illustrate in the most powerful way the two strains that characterize this book and their ambivalent relation. On the one hand there is a fascina- tion with and a wish for the hybrid not just as an inter- esting meeting between cultures but as a kind of solu- tion to what is perceived as a (if not the) major problem of humankind: essentialism, in the sense of collective identification based on similarity, imagined or real, on the shared values and symbols that are so common in all forms of cultural absolutism. On the other hand there is an awareness, sometimes quite acute, of the power of history and of the forces not only of expanding and contracting empires but of the way in which people actually essentialize.

The first strain of thought is expressed in "Diaspo- ras," and the second is more evident in "Fort Ross." Whereas some anthropologists take a morally absolutist position on essentialism and, with Appadurai, predict the welcome demise of the nation-state in the face of the expanding diasporic world, Clifford is infinitely more subtle and complex here. Diasporas worlz best in empires of the old-regime variety. The Jewish diasporas of the past were part and parcel of imperial worlds con- structed in multiethnic terms-essentialist in certain respects, focused on place but also more generally on identities deterritorialized and brought together in plu- ral worlds of interaction. This might be understood as the bazaar model of culture, but-it is also a bizarre one-reflecting a romanticism that accentuates only certain asDects of a world that was also saturated with exploitation and oppression. This was a world of slav- ery, castration, and death-and was it so culturally en- riching for its own inhabitants, or is this some modern culturalist fantasv?

At the same time, there are large-scale movements of territorial pulsation at worlz in world history that both generate and eliminate diasporas, and the focus on Fort Ross, which has been successively absorbed by Russian, Spanish, and American empires, demonstrates what liv- ing on the edge of moving empires produces in terms of history and even historical consciousness. Clifford is here talking more of geopolitical dynamics and its ef- fects on cultural and social configurations than on trav- elling as such (p. 330):

Fort Ross. The West Coast of the United States, not

long ago the eastern edge of Russia, is being bought

up by investors from Japan and Hong Kong. Is the

U.S. American empire in decline? Or perhaps in metamorphosis? It's unclear. "Transnational capital- ism" is the inheritor of Euro-American imperial dy- namics, "Americanization" a common shorthand for the spread of techno-capitalist, market and me- dia systems throughout the globe. And simulta- neously, Anglo California is being displaced by the Pacific and Latin America. People, capital commodi- ties, driven by global political-economic forces, do not stop at national borders. Will "English Only" movements, immigration restrictions, xenophobic terror attacks, and back-to-basics initiatives be able to stem the tide? Can a rusting "American" assimilation/exclusion machine be re~aired?

The machine may not be repaired, but there are plenty of new ones around to take its place, not least in East Asia, which has (until this latest crisis) been buying up this old imperial border. All the fuss about hybridity versus essentialism, especially of objects rather than lives, may be a discourse imprisoned in the symptoms of the larger processes referred to in Clifford's last chapter.
Reference Cited

CLIFFORD, TAMES. 1988. The predicament of culture. Cam- bridge: Harvard University Press. POMIAN, KRYSTOF. 1991. Collectors and curiosities. Cam- bridge: Polity Press.
Is Change Understandable?


Department of Sociology-Anthropology-Psychology, American University in Cairo, Cairo IIJ II Egypt.

3 111 98

When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity. Edited by

C. M. Hann. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Athlone Press, 1994. 325 pp.

It is useful to recall that Stirling conducted research in rural Turkey over a period of more than 40 years be- ginning in 1949. In his research he was particularly in- terested in identifying the processes and sources of change as the villages he studied evolved from isolated agrarian settings to points within a national and inter-

The 15 essays of When History Accelerates were writ- ten in honor of Paul Stirling, now retired from the De- partment of Anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury (U.K.). The authors all had a professional connection to Stirling; many of them were colleagues at the University of Kent, and others were associated with him through his interest in applied or develop- ment anthropology. The essays deal with various as- pects of change, ranging from grand theory to detailed case studies. a

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