The Fallible and the Untrustworthy: Writing Culture as the Unreliable Narrator

Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States.Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her upcoming book on her blog, Peregrination.

I was recently thinking about Wayne Booth’s model of the Unreliable Narrator. He defines such a narrator, whether in literature, theater, or film, as one whose credibility is seriously suspect. While Booth strongly implies that an unreliable narrator is simply one whose values differ from those of the author, he also understands the archetype as a function of irony and acknowledges it as a narrative construct rather than a moral judgment of a particular character’s personal failings (1961). Ultimately, the Unreliable Narrator is not so much a tool of deceit but a balancing act between representation and believability – what the author can actually tell us about a person or event and to what degree that representation can be considered accurate.

As anthropologists, and specifically as ethnographers, we often find the problem, one might even say the specter, of the Unreliable Narrator permeating our own attempts to tell the stories of others. In early fieldwork, this role was often filled by the “native”. For comparative religions it is usually the “believer”, while in medical anthropology it is typically the “patient”. These categorical unreliable narrators were thought to lack self-awareness, make mistakes, misrepresent themselves or others, or unwittingly tell lies in such a way that repositioned both the author and the assumed reader as distant interpretive authorities, credulous as to the validity of the narrative. The real irony of this is that the Unreliable Narrators in these cases were the very people whose “everyday lives” ethnographers sought to access and analyze.

The death of anthropology

How then might the Unreliable Narrator reveal something about our struggles with anthropology? If we take the anthropological project more as a kind of self-definition through the act of defining others (Seizer 1995, Bashkow 2006, Rosaldo 1989, and Clifford 1986), the role of the ethnographer and of his “natives” comes to illuminate that very same balancing act between representation and believability as before.

This is a kind of existential crisis that underlies so much of the “death of anthropology” debate and the arguments about what is salvageable about the history of the discipline and what isn’t. That is, everyone involved represents their own distinct form of unreliability.

But also, that unreliability does not make things unbelievable. The strength of anthropological understanding lies just as much in its conditions for creating knowledge as in the actual knowledge it creates. To date, I’ve lost count of the number of articles (justifiably!) dismantling the anthropological project, where our investment in an anthropological truth is not necessarily contingent on it being static in nature but rather dependent on sustaining a particular point of view.

Inventing culture

In the style of reflexive anthropology, James Clifford’s ubiquitous notion of “partial truths” specifically positions the genre of ethnography against the possibility of any singular or “one truth”. The impossibility of complete ethnographic objectivity is, for Clifford, the result of choices. Every method, group, author, or informant adds biases and predispositions that alter the course of the research. Even the simple act of choosing a subject or formulating a question introduces assumptions, interests, and directed lines of inquiry that produce some kinds of knowledge to the exclusion of others– some answers or stories will be privileged over others.

These choices then not only reflect upon and define the self of the ethnographer but also outline the limits of possibility by which the information gathered comes to light. Clifford himself points out that “the interpreters constantly construct themselves through the others they study” (1986: 10). In this way, anthropology as a discipline comes to acknowledge that the production of ethnography invents cultures just as much as it seeks to represent them. The dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity on which concepts of authority and authenticity so often rely breaks down within a mode of communication that creates the very thing that it seeks to convey.

The unreliable anthropologist

Clifford himself rather gleefully presents the unreliability of even the most famous of early ethnographers through his brief discussion of a photograph of Bronislaw Malinowski included in Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Poking a bit of fun at Malinowski’s representations of his own fieldwork, Clifford comments that “where a photograph of the ethnographer’s tent among Kiriwinian dwellings is prominently displayed, there is no revelation of the tent’s interior. But in another photo, carefully posed, Malinowski recorded himself writing at a table… This remarkable picture was only published two years ago – a sign of our times, not his” (1986: 1-2). Meaning here, that even Malinowski’s later biographers were cognizant of his particular image.

Ultimately, if we also follow Clifford’s pointed assertion that “ethnography has literary qualities” (4), the turnabout of the ethnographer as the real Unreliable Narrator doesn’t seem so implausible. But this doesn’t imply that ethnographers are simply purveyors of a kind of unconscious fiction for the worlds they attempt to portray (as some writers in reflexive anthropology seem to think).

Instead, it is both Clifford and Geertz’s assertion that the acceptance of the limitations of ethnographic representations and even of the nature of truth itself is a kind of liberation, one where “the vision of a complex, problematic, partial ethnography” will lead “not to its abandonment, but to more subtle, concrete, ways of writing and reading, to new conceptions of culture as interactive and historical” (1986: 25).

Partially knowing

As I noted earlier, one of the characteristics of the Unreliable Narrator is that it lacks self-awareness or that it unintentionally tells untruths, but the Unreliable Narrator is also a problem of partial knowing just as much as it is a problem of partial truth. Here enters the question of intent. In most literary cases, the Unreliable Narrator is unwitting or unaware of their own narrative shortcomings even though we, as readers, usually sign on to their version of reality as truthful in a relative sense.

In anthropology, there is no small amount of theoretical space dedicated to a division between intentional action and the idea that at least a portion of human agency is unconscious and automatic. In Practice Theory, for example, theorists largely concern themselves with the notion of “what people do”, such as cooking, reading, speaking, walking, consuming, dwelling, etc., and tend to locate their interests in the specific doings that are physical, repetitive, temporally embedded, and ordinary.

For Pierre Bourdieu, everyday life is embodied by “habitus” – the lifestyle, the values, the dispositions, and the expectations of particular groups that is acquired through the activities and experiences of day to day life. He defined habitus “as a subjective but not individual system of internalized structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class and constituting the precondition for all objectification and apperception” (1977: 86). In other words, habitus is the collection of unconscious habits, skills, and presumptions that both are acquired during the course of our daily lives and frames how we live those lives.

In somewhat more ethnographic terms, habitus is understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions, taste and the accompanying social structures that are reproduced through them (Scott 1998). This also means that, for Bourdieu, ordinary occasions of everyday life are “automatic and impersonal, significant without intending to signify” (1977: 80).

You don’t know what you know

The ethnographic results of such a theory are that any given individual (either anthropologist or participant) may not apprehend the meaning of a given action at a given time (especially not an everyday one) or, if called to reflect on it, may provide an impulsive or equivocal answer. Bourdieu ultimately seems to have had little faith in personal agency and in some ways, framed all of life experience as a kind of unreliable narration.

Bourdieu’s main contribution was, of course, to see habitus (and doxa; that which is taken for granted in any particular society, the limits of what is thinkable and sayable (1977: 167, 169)) as an important factor contributing to social reproduction because it generates and regulates the practices that make up social life. Simply put, the conditions in which an individual lives generates routines, habits, and desires compatible with those conditions.

Going for a walk

On the other hand, Michel de Certeau, a contemporary of Bourdieu, examined the way in which people come to individualize collective culture by altering the way that they respond to their environments. These responses may include modifying utilitarian objects or public spaces, rituals, laws, or language to make them personal. In particular, what I find interesting is his distinction between totalities vs. spatio-temporal realities.

Framed as “strategies” vs. “tactics” , de Certeau noted that human agency most often comes about through individual tactics that disrupt the control and intentions of strategic systems. His most famous analogy is that of the walker in the city where “the city” is a construct created by government and corporate strategies who engage in urban planning, building, and the production of maps that present the city as a unified whole. By contrast, the walker in the street moves through the city in ways that are never fully determined by those plans or maps, taking tactical shortcuts despite the strategic grid of the streets.

The walker then, is our ethnographic subject. If, as de Certeau stated, “a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities and interdictions, then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities” (1984: 98), then might we also imagine that the relationships between the ethnographer and the ethnographic subject also realize some possible truths as actual truths? That these relationships make “them exist as well as emerge” (1984: 98)?

Unreliable agency

In this way, agency and unreliability become strange bedfellows. To be agentive is to be unreliable, to employ tactics is to move against the system in unexpected, unaware, and sometimes unknowably subversive ways. Perhaps then de Certeau offers us some measure of hope for the validity of our Unreliable Narrators within the anthropological project as they continuously define “self” through what they define as “other” in the context of their actions and practices.

It is unlikely, however, that Bourdieu would have seen either the ethnographic subject or the ethnographer as having agentive capacity beyond the radical constraints of doxa and habitus regardless of their perceptions of greater agency (though Giddens notably disagreed on this). Unreliability then, would remain in the realm of point-of-view.

De Certeau, however, saw as much truth in those acts that occur in time and space as in the cultural sets of rules and norms that exist beyond time and space. Therein lies our partial truths: the truth of the ethnographer and the truth of the subject both as tactics working against the strategy that is the systematic production of ethnography.

Telling unreliable stories

All in all, my thinking here is really just about the tangled relationships between story-telling, stories, and story-tellers. The notion of the Unreliable Narrator is, for me, not a critique of the perceived moral failings of the anthropological project, but a methodological narrative construct integral to the work of writing culture. The question of unreliability is not a question of believability but of what parts of a complex and convoluted truth we the readers are willing to sign on to and invest in. It reflects an understanding and acceptance that no single truth is wholly accurate but also that no individual account is without some measure of reality.

It might, at first, appear that I am arguing for ignorance and self-interest as a kind of truth, but in some sense, how is it not? If we are to continue to challenge ideals of authority, legitimacy, theory vs. practice, and what it means to be human, we cannot ignore the problematic literary constructs of person (of the 1st and 3rd variety) that are, by necessity, part of writing ethnography.

If we are, in the end, setting out to write the stories of others in the context of writing culture (or against it as the case may be), do we not then commit to the ideal that truth is many? Assuredly, however metamorphic the actual truth may turn out to be, culture itself has always been downright lycanthropic.

References / further reading

Bashkow, Ira. 2006. “Whiteness and Method” (pp. 15-19) from the Introduction to The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World (Chicago, 2006).

Booth, Wayne C. 1961. The Rhetoric of Fiction. University of Chicago Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. University of Cambridge Press: New York.

Clifford, James. 1986. “Partial Truths,” in J. Clifford and G. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986): pp. 1-26.

Craig, Sienna. 2014. “On Unreliable Narrators”. Savage Minds – Notes and Queries in Anthropology. Website.

de Certeau,  Michel. 1984. “Introduction” and “Walking in the City”  in The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”: pp. 3-30. Basic Books Inc.: New York.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984.  The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.

Jackson, Michael. 1998. Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project. University of Chicago Press.

Olson, Greta. 2003. Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators. In: Narrative. 11: 93–109.

Ortner, Sherry. 1984. “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (1984) 26: 126-161.

Rosaldo, Renato. 1989. “Introduction: Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” in Culture and Truth (1989): pp. 1-21; also found in Text, Play, and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society, E. Bruner, ed. (1984): pp. 178-95.

Scott, John and Marshall, Gordon, eds. 1998. A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press.

Seizer, Susan. 1995. “Paradoxes of Visibility in the Field: Rites of Queer Passage in Anthropology,” Public Culture (1995) 8:73-100.

[Image of the fountain pen writing on black lined paper is taken by Aaron Burden sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the pen resting on white lined paper is taken by Aaron Burden sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the inverted Yosemite Valley in a crystal ball is taken by Mathilda Khoo sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the clown fish is taken by Marcus Lange sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the pedestrians is taken by Nick Shandra sourced from Unsplash.]

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