ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reading Fürer-Haimendorf in North-East India

Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf's works on North-East India grew out of an interest in the so-called remote pre-contact primitive societies. To him and his contemporaries in the West it was self-evident that the "primitive" or the "savage" are located outside modernity. No one today would use those categories. But this does not mean that we have broken away from intellectual habits which privilege the social imaginary of the modern. In certain parts of the world the politics of indigeneity is associated with powerful critiques of capitalist modernity. But that is not the case in North-East India. Whether or not such a critical sensibility becomes part of the political imagination will depend partly on the epistemological standpoint of those who study the region today.

Keynote address delivered at the conference on "Negotiating Ethnicity: Politics and Display of Cultural Identities in Northeast India" at the University of Vienna, Austria on 4 July 2013.

The late Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1909–95) is a familiar name to most people interested in North-East India. They know about the books written by him including The Naked Nagas, Himalayan Barbary, The Apa Tanis and Their Neighbours and The Konyak Nagas,1 or at least have heard of them. Fürer-Haimendorf was an anthropologist though his books were not all anthropological texts; some were written with a wider readership in mind. Indeed the German translation of The Naked Nagas was published by a mass market publisher, Brockhaus Verlag.2

We live at a time when cultures, as Ashis Nandy puts it, “have begun the return, like Freud’s unconscious, to haunt the modern system of nation-states.”3 It may be productive at this juncture to reflect on Fürer-Haimendorf’s intellectual project: of finding, understanding, recording and collecting for posterity the specimens of what he viewed as archaic and isolated cultures that were sure to vanish, or at least to change beyond recognition, under the onslaught of industrial civilisation. Of course, this project had its roots in a very particular political and intellectual milieu.

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