Is twenty-five years a long time?

That depends, of course, on your yardstick. “In geologic time,” as Hugh Raffles (this issue) notes, a quarter-century is “only the slightest breath.” But in the frighteningly short span of human life, it's a long stretch indeed—a baby's journey to adulthood, the better part of an academic career, or, in the case at hand, enough hindsight to grasp a book's significance within a field.

I was in graduate school in 1986 when James Clifford and George Marcus's Writing Culture appeared. It was instantly anthropology's most talked about book, and, in fact, the flagship text for the debates about reflexivity and representation that defined that whole decade in the discipline. You simply had to read—and have an opinion about—Writing Culture unless you wanted to appear as if you’d been living under one of Raffles's proverbial antediluvian rocks.

Those opinions were quite radically polarized. Neither Marcus nor Clifford ever identified as a “postmodernist.” That did not keep some critics from branding the two Writing Culture editors as the ringleaders of a sinister “postmodern movement.” Along with Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer'sAnthropology as Cultural Critique (1986), Clifford'sThe Predicament of Culture (1988), and other influential new texts, the essays in Writing Culture seemed to threaten the old disciplinary principles of truth, science, and objectivity with the relativizing epistemic murk of newfangled literary theory and other dubious influences.1 Then as now, job interviews at AAA meetings were conducted in those horrible little curtained booths at the convention hotel. You had to be ready to be asked about your views of “postmodernism” as if it were self-evident what that notoriously slippery and by now antique-sounding term meant, let alone that one had to be “for” or “against” it. It sometimes felt as though someone might push the button to the trap door under your chair if you gave the wrong answer.

Why did Writing Culture generate such strong responses? Other calls for radically rethinking anthropology, after all, had already been sounded amid the turmoil of decolonization and social protest during the late 1960s and 1970s. A pair of earlier landmark anthologies—Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes 1972) and Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (Asad 1973)—had circulated newly critical, sometimes denunciatory views of real and imagined disciplinary failings. The ascent of various brands of Marxist and feminist theory measured the turn toward a more politicized anthropology that foregrounded the themes of culture, power, and history in new ways.

Much about Writing Culture bore the imprint of 1960s radicalism, and, in fact, its contributors were mostly baby boomers who had marched against the Vietnam War and otherwise been influenced by the countercultural currents of those times. An antiracist, anticolonial sympathy for the subaltern ran through the book. What Writing Culture added to the mix, however, was the overlapping new influences of literary, poststructuralist, and postcolonial theory in various guises. The anthology's essays were by no means uniform in their agendas. Even so, the citation of such otherwise disparate bedfellows as Derrida, Bakhtin, Baudrillard, Foucault, Frye, White, Barthes, Said, and others marked the growing interest in the politics of discourse, language, and representation that was to define so much inquiry in anthropology and related fields to the twentieth century's close and into the new one. As James Clifford (this issue) observes in hindsight, Writing Culture occupied a “transitional moment,” somewhere between the agendas and sensibilities of the late 1960s and fin de siècle ones.

It was the new concern for reflexivity and representation that especially irked some. To treat ethnography not as a transparent record of other realities so much as a genre of writing with its own conventions, tropes, gaps, and silences was little more than self-indulgent navel-gazing in one view. And then there was the anthology's tilt to a “postmodern,” if I may be excused the word, skepticism about neat explanation and model-building in favor of a more mobile, open-ended view of culture and society as a terrain of hybridization, disjuncture, and heteroglossia. It was not just old school positivists who found such tendencies objectionable and worse. Censorious criticism also came from the left, especially Marxist and feminist scholars. The Marxian-minded Nicole Polier and William Roseberry (1989), for example, lamented that Writing Culture strayed too far from the ostensibly solid ground of political economy into the treacherous shoals of a depoliticized, la-la land culturalism.2 Feminists objected, reasonably enough, to there having been only one woman, Mary Pratt, among Writing Culture's nine contributors; they also faulted Clifford and Marcus for failing to acknowledge feminist genealogies of ethnographic experimentation and textual theorization.3 To the harshest critics, the postmodern turn of the 1980s was a step backward, a rear-guard action that threatened to undercut hopes for a transformed anthropology.

But for many others Writing Culture, if certainly not exempt from criticism, cleared exciting new ground. To those who admired the book's verve, intelligence, and originality, it held out what John Jackson Jr. (this issue) calls “license to think unabashedly” about the craft of ethnography, and, more broadly, about the problems and possibilities of anthropology as a whole. The book found readers in literature, history, visual studies, and other fields, and beyond the United States (it has been translated into Mandarin and four other languages). Several hundred citations in Google Scholar is one modern barometer of an influential academic book. Writing Culture has been cited 6,518 times and counting.

We present this special issue of Cultural Anthropology to mark the 25th anniversary of Writing Culture's publication.4 As a start, we asked James Clifford and George Marcus for their thoughts on the occasion. Clifford, always the brilliant historicizer (and, it is sometimes forgotten, a historian and not an anthropologist by training), takes us back in time. His essay reflects on Writing Culture's place in the intertwined stories of his own personal biography; the larger arc of late-20th-century anthropology; and the changing global geography that he calls the “decentering of the West.” For his part, George Marcus, ever the astute and sometimes visionary trend-spotter, casts an eye forward. His article focuses on emerging disciplinary developments—new collaborative projects, digital media experimentation, and the accompanying growth of what Michael M. J. Fischer has termed “third spaces” like studios, archives, and installations.5 Clifford writes here in a more uncertain, personal, and sometimes wistful register by contrast to the more confident, programmatic Marcus piece. The two Writing Culture editors brought quite different and yet complementary sensibilities to the project in the first place. Their own distinctive angles of approach remain on display in these two essays 25 years later.

We also invited six of today's leading anthropologists to contribute essays for this Writing Culture anniversary. Each contributor takes the book as a launching point for probing matters of concern in their own thinking about anthropology and the world. Their essays underscore Writing Culture's role in catalyzing debate, reflection, and fresh disciplinary directions; they share Jackson's feeling that it “licensed” various kinds of experimentation. The pieces, taken together, suggest that anthropology continues to struggle within and against many of the same desires, tensions, and possibilities that Writing Culture pried open for examination a quarter-century ago, albeit in sometimes unexpected ways.

The problem of writing was at Writing Culture's core, as the book's very title announced. Anthropologists now, of course, still grapple with the poetics and politics of ethnography. How, as Kathleen Stewart asks (this issue) with characteristic inventiveness, might we try to step “outside the cold comfort zone of recognizing only self-identical objects?” Her concern here lies in the anthropology of emergence, and, in particular, the problem of precarity from her New England hometown, a Texas swimming hole, and the American road to her mother's decline. Stewart sees Writing Culture as having encouraged the art of “reattuning” so as to “register the tactility and significance of something coming into forms through an assemblage of affects, routes, conditions, sensibilities, and habits.” Raffles offers his own version of such experimentation in his meditation on stones. The lines between ethnography, poetry, autobiography, and creative nonfiction blur, sometimes melt away, in these two wonderful short pieces.

Writing Culture aimed to denaturalize ethnography by throwing its history, politics, and canonical conventions open to scrutiny. One enduring disciplinary habit, however, remains to presume a divide between field notes, typically unpublished, and the resulting ethnography, the great fetish of the finished book still the gold standard for tenure and professional prestige. Yet Michael Taussig (this issue)—who has so influentially experimented with form and writing for almost three decades—wonders if “anthropology has sold itself short in conforming to the idea that its main vehicle of expression is an academic book or journal article.” He speaks in praise of the humble fieldwork notebook. Our notes, Taussig suggests, “capture ephemeral realities, the check and bluff of life” in ways that our more formal published ethnography sometimes fails to do.

Digitality, obviously, introduces a whole new, unanticipated set of factors into the equation. In 1986, most anthropologists still prepared their manuscripts on that now-obsolete inscription device, the typewriter; none of us had yet heard of e-mail and the Internet, much less had any premonition about how they would rule our lives. John Jackson Jr. (this issue) asserts that “the digital rewires anthropological possibility” by “bending time and space” to recalibrate “the dyadic relationship that serves as a pivot for the entire ethnographic encounter.” Here the visual—enabled by new digital cameras, streaming, webcasts, and other 21st-century media—assumes a larger place in anthropology than in a precyber world when the written word seemed so far and away the dominant mode of ethnographic representation. Another consequence of digitalization, Jackson suggests, has been new monitoring and accountability. Jackson worries about members of the Black Israelites, the religious sect he has studied, watching and perhaps disliking a talk he gave about them at Stanford University, now archived as a webcast. The Internet, Jackson concludes, humbles “the ethnographer's aspirations for a kind of one-sided voyeurism.”

But what now about the politics of ethnography? It can be argued that a sea change occurred in anthropology starting with the upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s.6 Ever since, and for all the changes, the discipline's zeitgeist has been flavored, perhaps dominated, by an implicit, sometimes very explicit moral and political zeal for unveiling the workings of power and domination. In their contributions, Kim Fortun and Danilyn Rutherford paint Writing Culture not as having been some depoliticizing retreat into textual indeterminacy but, rather, an invitation to think through the challenges of disciplinary engagement, activism, and responsibility. Neither Fortun nor Rutherford, although alert to ambiguity and contradiction, wishes to wallow in what David Chioni Moore calls “anthro(a)pology” for our discipline's shortcomings.7 Fortun instead envisions ethnography as a means for eliciting the “future anterior,” a “space of creativity, where something surprising, something new to all emerges.” Her own multimedia, crossprofessional, and transnational Asthma Files project exemplifies such an endeavor. Rutherford coins the label “kinky empiricism” to describe her agenda. This would entail a supple, unapologetic, conjoined commitment to the empirical and the ethical that eschews the false guarantees of analytical closure much less moral certitude. Both thinkers put forward, in other words, their own strong cases for an anthropology that might matter for the better in a dangerous, divided world.

It's clear enough that Writing Culture left its mark. By now, certainly, our disciplinary geology has put down many layers of sediment. The latest debates, texts, and trendy theories deposit themselves over the ones that came before, only to be covered over themselves with a bit more time's passing. But, like the special stones we keep from old walks, the books that matter most to us always have a place on our shelves.

Writing Culture, for many of us, remains just such a book.

  • 1

    See Taussig 1987, p. xiii.

  • 2

    See Polier and Roseberry 1989.

  • 3

    See, for example, Mascia-Lee and colleagues (1989) and Behar and Gordon (1996).

  • 4

    The papers were initially presented at the “Writing Culture at 25: Theory, Ethnography, Fieldwork” conference, cosponsored by the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and Cultural Anthropology, Durham, North Carolina, September 30–October 1, 2011. Video excerpts from the presentations can be found at

  • 5
  • 6

    See Marcus 1998, pp. 57–78.

  • 7


  1. Top of page
  • Asad, Talal, ed. 1973 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. New York : Humanities Press.
  • Behar, Ruth, and Deborah Gordon, eds. 1996 Women Writing Culture. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  • Clifford, James 1988 The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press.
  • Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. 1986 Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J. 2003 Emergent Forms of Life and Anthropological Voice. Durham , NC : Duke University Press.
  • Hymes, Dell, ed. 1972 Reinventing Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Marcus, George 1998 Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
  • Marcus, George, and Michael M. J. Fischer 1986 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Mascia-Lees, Frances, Patricia Cohen, and Colleen Ballerino Cohen 1989 The Postmodernist Turn: Cautions from a Feminist Perspective. Signs 15(1):733.
  • Moore, David Chioni 1994 Anthropology Is Dead, Long Live Anthro(a)pology: Poststructuralism, Literary Studies, and Anthropology's “Nervous Present.” Journal of Anthropological Research 50(4):345365.
  • Polier, Nicole, and William Roseberry 1989 Tristes Tropes: Postmodern Anthropologists Search for the Other and Discover Themselves. Economy and Society 18(2):245264.
  • Taussig, Michael 1987 Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.