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Delanceyplace: Women Prepared To Criticise

In his book Lost People, the liberal anthropologist David Graeber makes an interesting observation about the respective roles of men and women. After two years of extensive fieldwork in Betafo, Madagascar, he observed that "authoritative men tend to avoid displays or references to conflict" and "build up the placid surfaces that women would then mischievously puncture and expose.

My style of research ... mostly consists of people talking; often, of many talking
at once. I rarely conducted formal interviews; instead, I would take out my tape
recorder and turn it on whenever I had the slightest excuse; usually I would ask
some questions or raise issues, but, once everyone was aware of the sort of topics
that interested me things would often follow of their own accord. ... It helped
that verbal performance is so much appreciated in Madagascar; rather than people
freezing up or becoming stifled, the presence of a tape recorder would often set
people into playful competition in conversational skills, wit, or knowledge. Of
course, in a place like Betafo, who said what in front of whom was a question full
of politics. The political aspects of conversation are one of the major theoretical
issues of this book. ...

Avoiding topics people didn't want to talk about did not mean I only got the 'official
version' of events. To be honest, I often found authoritative accounts rather boring;
they interested me in so far as they were full of holes. I always assumed when you
see hesitation, confusion, tension, ambiguity, when people seemed to want to talk
about something and not to want to talk about it at the same time, that this is
was the surest sign there was something important going on. It was usually easier
to explore such territory with women. Women may have regularly deferred to men as
the authoritative voices for representing the community, but as often as not, they
would push the men on stage only to subvert their message as soon as they were done
with it. Even the old woman who took me to her son to narrate village history ended
up interrupting him, as soon as he was drawing to a close, to tell the story of
a notorious local witch -- completely shattering the image of solidarity he had
just done his best to convey, and causing much consternation among the assembled
menfolk. Things like this happened again and again. At times it seemed to take on
an almost ritualized cast. In the end, I came to conclusion that it was this very
process -- men building up the placid surfaces that women would then mischievously
puncture and expose -- that history and moral discourse really consisted of. The
object only existed when it had been halfway ripped apart. ...

Many argue that all societies distinguish between a public sphere identified especially
with men, and domestic sphere, identified especially with women; and that one way
that women are suppressed is by being denied full access to the public arena. Bloch
argues [Madagascar] is no exception. But one extension of the ritualized nature
of public discourse in [Madagascar] is that -- as I have already pointed out at
some length -- authoritative men tend to avoid displays or references to conflict,
so that it is especially women who voice it, just as it is especially women who
are publicly critical of established verities.

Author: David Graeber
Title: Lost People
Publisher: Indiana
Date: Copyright 2007 by David Rolfe Graeber
Pages: 15-16, 129

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