In the anthology called “Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography,” I’m reflecting on Vincent Crapanzano’s essay about “Hermes’ Dilemma.” He says that “ethnography is historically determined by the moment of the ethnographer’s encounter with whomever he is studying.” He offers an analysis of a study of the Mandan O-Kee-Pah or torture ceremony written and painted by George Catlin in 1841.
So one of the “moments” is in 1841, part of a long trip by Catlin meant to record the American Indian tribes, The next is in the 1850’s when David D. Mitchell, quoted by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, claimed that Catlin made the whole thing up. In 1866 Catlin secured a letter of endorsement from Prince Maximilian of Neuwied, who had spent a winter with the Mandan. Lewis & Clark (1804-1806) also knew this ceremony, which is now accepted as a real event, even one revived in the 21st century. (Can anyone say it’s a “revived” ceremony if the life-way that gave rise to it is long gone?) It was depicted on-screen in “A Man Called Horse.”
Crapanzano -- what a name! -- wants to seek the truth of the 1841 ceremony Catlin witnessed by analyzing Catlin’s rhetorical methods and personal style -- he appears to disapprove of them. He says Catlin uses hypotyposis (a vivid description of an event), deiclic (relating what is said to the space and time in which it is said), ecphonesic (an exclamation), and apoplanesic (promising to address the issue but effectively dodging it through a digression) methods. He adds more familiar terms: extravagant metaphor, promiscuous use of the vocative (calling someone by name), hyperbole (exaggerating), pathopoesis (he may have made this one up -- which is the beauty of Latinate pop-it-bead particle words -- but it seems to mean the poetry of suffering), interruption, suspense, subjectivism (how he felt). He is trying to make the case that Catlin was deliberately making this event as dramatic and shocking as he could. Not that one could much overstate the actuality.
Where Crapanzano fails is when he tries to convince us that Catlin does the same thing in his paintings. Catlin was the most careful and sober of depicters with his images. But he needed to sell his paintings by using dramatic language emphasizing the uniqueness of his work. He understood himself as a salvage artist, making records of disappearing people.
Crapanzano is trying to make the case that Catlin is totally blind to what the ritual means to the Mandan themselves, but neither could any anthropologist grasp something that happened in sensory experience without any word-bound theological pattern for reference that arose out of a culture developed in that specific environment. By using such fancy technical language Crapanzano is excluding the general public, including any descendants of these Mandan who have not had Crapanzano’s education. The assumption is that it is “truer” and “more scientific” to use the kind of Latinate language conventional in the 19th century. As though Catlin ought to have spoken that way.
Catlin himself made three of his helpers, Joe Kipp among them, sign statements that he had painted the accouterments accurately, got the dimensions of the earth lodge right, and described events properly. Joe Kipp, half-Mandan and a Blackfeet progenitor, is a well-known historical figure, not least because he was a handsome man, but also a powerful entrepreneur who traded, built forts, sold alcohol, ran boarding houses, and meddled in politics. His connections with the powerful were excellent. So far as I know, his record-keeping was “sketchy” and did not involve art.
Being hung from one’s impaled chest and back muscles, which is the O-Kee-Pah spectacle that Catlin painted, has become an iconic s/m personal rite. No Kipp I know has done it. Usually it’s white boys from back east who might be depending on drugs to get through the torture -- more likely hallucinogenics than pain-killers. Reports from the Indian families of 19th century practitioners suggested that the men who survived were debilitated for the rest of their lives. I have not read any reports by surviving modern adepts themselves -- just reports that it happened.
Crapanzano’s valid point is that no matter how accurate and vivid Catlin’s description was, no matter how inspired his guesses about what the meanings were, it could still NEVER mean to him what it meant to that man hanging in agony or what it meant to the man who ran up with a stick and made the sufferer twirl as he hung until the torture put him into a coma. (Actually, he was probably trying to help the impaled man break loose.) There are hints that Crapanzano secretly thinks he understands better than Catlin -- because he understands that no understanding is possible.
This happens all the time with Native Americans -- EVERYONE imagines that THEY know, even though they grew up in a city a hundred years after the buffalo-based way of life had collapsed. But it’s not just a matter of history. I remarked once on Reznet that I understood a contemporary Indian woman and some very smart and relentless Indian women went after me to convince me that I COULD NOT EVER know what she had experienced. I thank them. One person cannot have another person’s experience. I do not understand the members of my own family nor do they understand me. Hard to admit.
Every summer pilgrims arrive here to share the consciousnesses of Indians, which they think are genetically determined. They say, “Oh, but I’m deep and sensitive and open and I get it.” Impossible. One can be sympathetic or even helpful, if proper respect is paid, but to truly mind-meld? Can’t be done. In spite of a few opportunist tribal members who will assure you that they, only they, can take you into this other privileged consciousness. Of course, it will cost money.
Most of scholarly discussion like those in this ethnography book about whether any human identity or culture can ever be captured by any art form or scientific protocol has gone right over everyone’s heads. The concepts of “truth” have devolved into the aficionado’s belief that his collection of factoids and objects make him special or the Indian’s conviction, though the person in question maybe be urban and low-quantum, that the experiences of his ancestors are traced in the blood and cannot be accessed except through those who share his blood. These ideas have enormous political impact.
In fact, I would describe the word-wars about them as hypotyposis (a vivid description of an event), deiclical (relating what is said to the space and time in which it is said), ecphonesic (an exclamation), apoplanesic (promising to address the issue but effectively dodging it through a digression), extravagant metaphor, promiscuous use of the vocative (calling someone by name), hyperbole (exaggerating), pathopoesis (the poetry of suffering), interruption, suspense, subjectivism (how he felt). The time-frame is roughly the recent past, like the last two decades. So we are not wising up much.