In The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau explores ethnographic writing across four centuries, beginning in the mid 1500s. He finds in ethnology a field that exiles orality from Western culture and transforms speech into an exotic object. In other words, ethnology maps the division between the West and the ethnographic subject onto the division between writing and speech. The West writes; the non-West speaks. De Certeau’s work here is startling insofar as it excavates such a deep history for the rift between ethnographic writing and speech. This division is foundational. It gives shape to ethnography’s binaristic taxonomies (here/there, us/them, etc). It makes ethnographic writing and thinking possible, while privileging the position—the one who writes—which manufactures the distinction. De Certeau argues,
“On the one hand, writing accumulates, it keeps an inventory of secrets from the West, it loses nothing. Writing is an archive. On the other hand, writing declares, it goes to the end of the world, toward those destined to receive it—and without budging an inch, without having the center of its actions moved, without any change in it through its progress.”
Writing accumulates the past and declares in advance. Here, de Certeau frames writing as an expression of force. Those who write can accumulate and control archives. And those who write determine what gets said about those who speak before they ever actually encounter them. The division between writing and speech—along with its attendant associations with civility and primitivity, culture and nature—precedes any encounter with the unfamiliar. Put another way: ethnographic writing produces the history of the expedition before any explorers ever set sail.
Although ethnography exerts tremendous force through writing, its seemingly monolithic powers are disturbed in its encounters with speech. Here, ethnography and historiography part ways. Ethnography must communicate something of the present, of living bodies and cultures, of its languages and sounds. In Jean de Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage (1578), which de Certeau explores in his research, the sounds of language and the tenor of an unfamiliar voice trouble coherent narrative time. De Certeau writes that “productive time is sewn back into the fabric, history is generated anew, after the break when ‘totally ravished’, fascinated by the other’s voice, the observer forgot himself.” Continue reading