Accepted paper:

Culture in question: Modern times and the Vanishing Primitive

Author:

Pnina Werbner (Keele University)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on my study of Tswapong girls’ puberty rituals, my paper argues that the critical nostalgic tradition in anthropology does not arise merely from a quest for the exotic or a desire to capture a vanished cultural “essence,” as some have argued (e.g., Clifford 1986: 113, 124; Marcus and Fischer 1986: 24, 167).

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on my study of Tswapong girls' puberty rituals, my paper argues that the critical nostalgic tradition in anthropology does not arise merely from a quest for the exotic or a desire to capture a vanished cultural "essence," as some have argued (e.g., Clifford 1986: 113, 124; Marcus and Fischer 1986: 24, 167). To the extent that recognizing one's worth means recognizing one's distinctiveness, uniqueness, self-mastery, ethical subjectivity, and autonomy, rituals such as the mothei puberty ritual may be said to dignify women as individuals, despite their poverty and marginality, and to establish their place in a society of women. Among Tswapong, the mothei ritual not only signifies the achievement of seriti, dignity, but it also empowers women and is characterized by mutual help and sociability. It is a ritual that deploys physical ordeals and dramatises respect through the medium of humor, fun, and transgressive enactments of sexuality, drawing on a local lore of songs, dances, stylized burlesque, and parody as well as on substantive cosmetic bodily treatment, to fashion a woman and endow her with fertility, strength, and moral authority. Nevertheless, for young teenage girls attending local high schools who aspire to be 'modern', the mothei is fast being discarded in favor of sesha, "modern times," by many of the girls who regard themselves as "modern" subjects. Whereas, in the past, a family's status in the village was enhanced by the size of its mothei feast, the celebration is now an expense few can easily afford. This raises dilemmas for the anthropologist studying a local culture.

panel G22
Exoticisation, self-exoticisation: agency, identity and transformation