The Predicament of Culture is a critical ethnography of the West in its changing relations with other societies. Analyzing cultural practices such as anthropology, travel writing, collecting, and museum displays of tribal art, James Clifford shows authoritative accounts of other ways of life to be contingent fictions, now actively contested in post-colonial contexts. His critique raises questions of global significance: Who has the authority to speak for any group’s identity and authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture? How do self and “the other” clash in the encounters of ethnography, travel, and modern interethnic relations?
In chapters devoted to the history of anthropology, Clifford discusses the work of Malinowski, Mead, Griaule, Lévi-Strauss, Turner, Geertz, and other influential scholars. He also explores the affinity of ethnography with avant-garde art and writing, recovering a subversive, self-reflexive cultural criticism. The surrealists’ encounters with Paris or New York, the work of Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris in the Collège de Sociologie, and the hybrid constructions of recent tribal artists offer provocative ethnographic examples that challenge familiar notions of difference and identity. In an emerging global modernity, the exotic is unexpectedly nearby, the familiar strangely distanced.