Gananath Obeyesekeere Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Understanding Culture: Conversation with Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Princeton University; March 19, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being an Anthropologist

But in between, there was a sort of luminal period, one might say. A couple of years after I graduated and before taking up my Fulbright, I had to have a project, so I started working on some very interesting rituals, particularly the Mauryascals in Sri Lanka. Since I was a Frazerian at that time, I had no idea that one should go to a village and stay there for a whole year, and study the village throughout its daily cycle. That was the anthropological model of which I was not aware. We had a Frazerian model where you went all over the place. So at that time, I had a terribly old tape recorder and a huge battery and converter, and went from place to place in military trucks abandoned by the British, recording these Mauryascals all over the country. On reflection, I thought, "What a haul this was." I would never have done that -- I would never have got this messy haul of data -- if I followed the conventional anthropological model. I used some of the material for my Masters. Later on, I used it for my work on The Cult of the Goddess Pattini, which is a comparative study of a single, intensive cult all over Sri Lanka and South India.

Help us understand what it takes to be anthropologist and do that work. What are the talents and skills that a student should understand, that are necessary for being an anthropologist?

I hate to pontificate on this issue, because it seems to me that different people have different stances on this whole thing. My own guess, coming from my own experience, is somewhat different from the conventional anthropologist. After all, the normal anthropologist, you might say, is someone who is in Europe, either in France or in England, studying another culture in which he was not nurtured or socialized in. In my case, it was entirely different. I was studying, in some sense, my own culture, but through the prism of an anthropological detachment, necessary to me at the time.

It was not all that different from normal anthropology. Though I was born in a village, I was raised in an urban situation. I went to schools in which the primary language was English. As a matter of fact, we were discouraged to speak our own language, Sinhala, by our English teacher. So going back to study villages was, in a sense, to understand my own culture, which is not quite the thrust of conventional anthropology. But on the other hand, the villages in which I worked were different from my urban lifestyle, my urban education, my middle-class background, the fact that for the most part I spoke English at home.

Did you remain the same kind of anthropologist in your later work, [after you had acquired] the professional skills that your graduate education gave? How much has changed in the way you do your work?

I think ... I haven't reflected on this. I would have to write my memoirs, I guess ...

We'll just say the beginning, the early part.

... to deal with this kind of thing. But, sure, certainly I've changed quite a lot, I assume, over the intervening years.

When we were graduate students, we were sometimes taught explicitly, sometimes implicitly, that it won't do to study one's own culture. I don't believe in that at all [anymore]. I think to study one's own culture through the anthropological lens, with a certain amount of detachment, is not a bad idea. I see this coming back full circle right now, where my own students in Princeton are now going to study their own cultures, either American culture or European culture. Doing anthropology has certainly expanded my consciousness to a certain degree, broadened my outlook, and [helped me to be] a cosmopolitan being, in some way. That's due to my anthropological education.

Which theory and theorists have influenced you most? Obviously, parts of Freud's work, even to criticizing it. Tell us a little about Freud's influence on you.

Freud's influence again came through my literary interest. After all, Freud was a figure of the literary imagination, I would say, even before he was a product of the anthropological imagination. People interested in literature were interested in Freud, as they were interested in Frazier. So I read Freud when I was an undergraduate. I read Finnegan's Wake, when I was in high school, I read Ulysses. We had a tremendous education in European literature, and that included people like Freud. Not that I understood Freud very much, but through Freud, I began to understand something I mentioned even in my lecture [yesterday], that the Sri Lankan Oedipus is like the Greek one. So through Freud, I began to understand my own background, my own situation in Sri Lanka. I was a great rebel as a young man; I almost never stayed at home. I'd wander out in villages even as a young person. Freud helped me to understand my own rebellious, Oedipal kinds of feelings. So, in that sense, Freud was not simply an intellectual mentor, but also someone who helped me to understand my own emotional conflicts. One might stay at the truth of that, you see. In my early work, therefore, I tried to bring Freud into the picture.

The University of Washington helped me a lot, because at that time, in anthropology when I first went there, there was an anthropologist, Melville Jacobs, who was very much interested in American Indians and Freud. Jacobs was a very imaginative writer; very few people actually read him now. I went for classes in the medical school at the University of Washington. Gert Heilbron, who was a Viennese immigrant, was a Freudian, a very standard Freudian, and a charismatic teacher. I learned a heck of a lot from him. After a while, Mel Spiral, whom I mentioned in my class, also came in, but that was during the latter part of my stay in the University of Washington, when I was doing my Ph.D. Mel was a very strong influence and encouraged me in the Freudian direction. I liked Freud for other reasons, too; that he was a great and wonderful writer. As Thomas Mann put it, he is a stylist, even in English translation.

Were there other theorists that were important either in your [early] development or later, as you achieved stature in the field?

Yes, along with Freud was my interest in Weber. That came in much later.

My Ph.D. dissertation was not at all Freudian; this was perhaps a sign of perversity on my part, or tactfulness, you might say; the dominant paradigm at that time, when I was in the University of Washington, was British social anthropology, and British social anthropology was very anti-Freudian. American anthropology was very sympathetic to Freud, as you well know, but not British anthropology. British anthropology was very much interested in social structure, the study of kinship systems and so forth.

My first foray into conventional anthropological fieldwork, where you spend some time in a particular village, was a study of kinship and land tenure in a remote village in Sri Lanka. There I brought in Max Weber. Weber became a very powerful influence at that time. Later on, I began to read a lot more of Weber, and I saw a kind of intellectual affinity to my own interest -- Freud was more emotional affinity. One of my interests at that time was using Weberian ideas of culture as a system of meanings by which human beings relate. Also, some of Weberian methodology, the notion of ideal types, which again I resurrected back in my most recent work.

So Weber and Freud became the foundations, one might say, of the beginning of my anthropological career. They are there to some extent, even though I have transformed Weber to Wittgenstein and various other influences in my life.

Is there any other theorist that one should mention?

There are many other theorists that I was interested in. Evans-Pritchard, for example, because Evans-Pritchard, from a long time, presented an idea to which I was highly sympathetic, namely that anthropology is history, in some sense. To this day I feel that, however much positivism has impinged on anthropology. Very early at that time, my first book was called Land Tenure in Village Ceylon: A Sociological and Historical Study. So history became a very, very crucial element in my own thinking. That's natural, isn't it? I mean, after all, I'm a Sri Lankan and I'm an American citizen, too. I'm a Sri Lankan, born and raised. To me, getting interested in my own past was very relevant. So through Evans-Pritchard and other thinkers of that same sort, I became very much interested in history. And that's not alien to Weber either.

What I'm hearing you say is that at the core of your work is an interdisciplinary sensitivity, that your work as an anthropologist reflects all sorts of sources in terms of the influence of theory. Weber was a sociologist, obviously; Freud was a psychologist. And that is enriching for you as you do your anthropology.

Yes, indeed, it is. I would add to that my literary interests. I'm glad that I'm not a professor of English literature; I'd rather read literature for fun. And to some extent, literary writing -- I don't know, I try to write well, and literature has been a real passion for me, a personal passion. When I have my shower, I can quote reams and reams of poetry. So storytelling has become a part of my interest, particularly my recent work on what I call "Cannibal Talk." I'm very much interested in how people invent stories; what I call narratives of the self. Storytelling is something I was nurtured in as a child; In Sri Lanka, everyone tells stories. The women who brought me up told me stories, Buddhist stories. Then in my intellectual career, I was reading novels, fiction, poetry, and so forth. So storytelling, too, is a part of my intellectual baggage, one might say.

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