Monday, June 29, 2009

World History Association Conference in Salem: William McNeill, Leaving Western Civ Behind, and Why World Historians Need to be Anthropologists

My presentation "East Side Story: Indian-Americans and the Dance at the Gym" is a work in progress, with further field research and writing needed prior to submission for peer-review publication. However, William McNeill's lecture on "Leaving Western Civilization Behind", and Jerry Bentley's comments afterwards, stimulated the following remarks which I made at Sunday's Panel on "Commodities, Culture, and Globalization," prior to discussing Gujarati NRIs and the viewing of my powerpoint presentation:
Professor William McNeill told us the other evening of the profound effect that anthropological concepts of culture had on his thinking as he struggled over the years with formulating paradigms for comprehending the world. And as he reminded us in his humorous reference to himself as John the Baptist heralding the appearance of the appropriately named David Christian, there would be no world without the Big Bang, and hence, no prehistory or world history at all. I would like to take that statement as an opportunity to remind ourselves (though we don’t really need it) that there would be no humans to situate in the larger universal and planetary contexts without human reproduction over the many thousands of generations that witnessed the eventual spread of humanity to all points of the globe, where, in each place human groups adapted to the conditions of local environments and created forms of social organization in order to survive and, as cultural anthropologists are wont to say, “ get the business of daily life done.” But, as anthropologists also tell us, humans don’t simply “work”. One can consider this from a religious perspective (“man does not live for bread alone”) or a sociological one. It was Durkheim who first pointed to some of the mechanisms by which societies cohere and function or fall apart. He also stated that we turn our obligations into virtues, suppressing our individual desires for the good of the larger community, and, in so doing, contribute not merely to the endless course of human reproduction, but also the to reproduction of society and culture. Jerry Bentley reminded us, in his remarks following Professor McNeill’s talk, of the dictum that we make history but not under circumstances of our own choosing. However, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously wrote, we do choose to entangle ourselves in webs of meaning that we ourselves spin. And the aspect of this human web to which I wish to call attention today is the very one that Professor McNeill identified as having the most impact on his thinking over the years. It is the web of shared assumptions, of common understandings, of beliefs, values, and other cultural means that define for people in any society who they are and what they stand for in the world. The inherent problem faced by any social order is this: how to reproduce itself over time? My work on Indian-American Gujaratis is very much a work in progress, but I am looking at them not just from above, as it were, across large amounts of time and space, but also, as a cultural anthropologist would, from the ground up. There are certain generalizations that are manifestly universal according to the ethnographic records of all the ways that humans have been and are human. When we are dealing with the globalization of the past, such as, say, the Indian Ocean World of one thousand or more years ago, it is one thing to learn, from written records, about the goods brought by caravans to port cities, and the vessels that carried the goods and where they traveled to, what they carried back, who did the transporting, who received the goods, and so on. We can also trace the trajectories of the big ideas, religion and language, using such records. But it is something else altogether to learn about common understandings, the shared ideas and assumptions, the networks of social bonding and social capital that made these exchanges possible and that constituted the very stuff of meaningful everyday life. Unless we have a corpus of such rich and accidentally discovered materials as the Cairo Geniza, it is very difficult to give names and put faces on the ordinary people who were the agents and beneficiaries of all this activity, and to understand what “goods”, in a semantically broader sense, meant to them and to their sense of social and cultural identity. Indeed, if we are concerned with trade diasporas, as I am in this present ongoing work, the inherent problem of social reproduction is compounded by the fact that one is living as a religious and racial minority among strangers. The local community that I am studying consists of Indian-American immigrants and their descendants who originated in India’s western state of Gujarat, long known as exporters of valued textiles from Egypt to Indonesia, and otherwise as traders and entrepreneurs overseas. The people about whom I am writing have been known to me for over 20 years, but I only began to learn significant things about them some three years ago, after a Fulbright experience in India.
Let me start, then, at 20 or so years ago. Imagine a “multicultural day” at a suburban, mostly white, middle-class small town-high school. A Hindu girl whose parents came from Gujarat is sharing with her peers some of the textiles that are indeed among the more visually spectacular and beautiful possessions that define group identity, and she showed with pride the saree that her mother was married in, and told fellow students that her mother’s marriage had been arranged. She spoke of how the garment has such and such a design and is worn in such and such a way, and she also showed some of her mother’s bangles and gold ornaments. During the Q & A period, she was asked about her own ideas concerning marriage and without hesitation, and in a decidedly American way, made it clear that she didn’t intend to have anyone other than herself choose her life partner. All of this struck me at the time as of great sociological and ethnographic interest, but I didn’t really give any of it a second thought until several years later, when another female student, also of Gujarati origin and enrolled in my anthropology class, said to me : “Oh, you really must come to our garbas.” I had no idea what that meant, did not, in the event, attend any, and came away with only a superficial understanding of garba as a dance party of some kind. I didn’t get in touch with that person again until many years later, after having been in Gujarat myself, where, among other things, I visited the original Swaminarayan temple in Ahmedabad/Amdavad, and traveled to the town of Patan, not far from the border with Rajasthan, where I saw the most famous textiles of Gujarat being produced by male weavers belonging to one of the only two or three caste families that still produce the patolu, a double-sided silk ikat tie-dye saree or pattern for other garments, prized and priceless examples of which can be admired hanging adjacent to the Ardebil carpet in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum while you are waiting for the dim light to be turned on the carpet (which I think they do every half hour or so for one minute, can't recall exactly, but what is of most interest is that Patan patolus
are there, rather than in some other gallery.
When I returned home after six weeks of travel throughout India my mind was full of new ideas and learning and I turned my attention back to the students of Gujarati origin, and wanted to know more. Did their stories constitute just another chapter in the history of American immigration and multiculturalism, or was there something more to it, given what I learned was their relative insularity, and, for the most part, highly conservative way of life? It didn’t take long to figure out how it came to pass that 50-100 families from Surat and other sites in Gujarat were living either in town or nearby: immigration laws were liberalized in 1965, around the same time that the federal interstate highway system turned what once were major arteries all across the U.S. into secondary roads. So joint families, some with members having earned advanced degrees in India (MBAs, Engineering, etc. ) became small-business owners especially of motels and filling stations, preferring, en masse, to work for themselves. It was a hard climb up, because of stereotypes about their race, their accents, their religion, and much else besides, but they have in recent decades created their niche. Not long ago, it occurred to me that my friend Moshe, who deals in precious stones and has contacts in Israel, Africa, Antwerp, and Mumbai, WAS or could have well been the brother of medieval Maimonides, who perished in a shipwreck on his way to India to procure diamonds. And that Dipak, the Surti father of one of my students, was or could well have been his Indian supplier. But here they both were, right in front of my eyes, agents of world history but hidden in plain sight. And so too, is the dance at the gym, organized by local Gujarati associations all over North America and elsewhere to celebrate the goddess festival of Navaratri each autumn. I now call your attention to it as a sort of document that can be read, a total social fact (as Durkheim’s nephew Marcel Mauss called such phenomena), that opens a window into not only the ethnographic present of my subjects, but also into the worlds of the past, or the imagined past, in which many of them still cognitively dwell. The dance also opens a window into the globalization of the present, in which Gujarati Hindus play prominent transnational roles in economic, political, and religious domains.