week 8: back to the basics: reading and writing (kelly)

There are a few things happening in the readings this week that speak directly to the kinds of anxieties that, I think, both Julia and I have been having while reading these ‘foundational’ anthropological texts. One thing in particular that we have both pointed to is the empty space of the enthnographer. The enthnographer/anthropologist is a figure that has been haunting the texts both as the ‘scientific’ authority (observer) and the‘academic’ authority (author) or as Clifford describes it: “[the] fusion of general theory and empirical research, of cultural analysis with ethnographic description” (121). The problem is that this figure is in many ways not an invisible figure but is a scientific and heroic (124) “persona” that is able to get at “the heart of was culture more quickly” (124). What I seemed to struggle with most of all was how the fieldworker had to be, on the one hand, present in the everyday day life of the field and, on the other hand, wholly absent from the stories that they are telling. It is this double duty of a simultaneous absence and presence that I have found the most troubling up until now. The ethnographer needs to be physically present in the field and also, at the same time, absent from the texts that they are writing. And, it wasn’t until this week that I also began to think about writing, in the ethnographic process, as an active practice of inscription as opposed to passive description.

I also have hard time inserting myself into the texts that I write. Like the present/absent fieldworker, I have always spoken through others without ever “placing [my] own reality in jeopardy” (133). This is something that I have struggled with all semester. As I look back over all of my reflections, I am absent from them. This is not a new struggle for me, but something that I have always found very difficult, which is why I find all my work is often very safe. This is why I think I have become drawn to anthropology, it forces the theorist to ‘be-in-the-world’ and to engage in practices that necessarily put one’s own reality in jeopardy. Or at least the kind of anthropology that is starting to take shape in this week’s readings does this kind of work. It is seems like a very difficult task to situate one’s work “on the borderline between oneself and other” (Clifford citing Bakhtin, 133). Clifford argues that the fieldworker needs to “actively negotiate a shared vision of reality” (134), which is not an easy task. It is also one that necessarily opens up previously “closed authority” (134) in the field; something that I have always been wary of. More to the point, I have always kind of relied on authority as a way to erase myself from the texts that I write. I am not sure that I have really engaged in active writing process and, moreover, I am not sure I know how.

Clifford also turns the tables on authority by bringing that to the fore another invisible figure: the reader. Clifford describes an ethnography that allows for a multi-vocal writing process. For Clifford, these kinds of texts need to be open to readings that are “beyond the control of a single authority” (141). This is something that I have since thought about a lot. I am not sure that I write in such a way that is open to multiple and unpredictable readings. Such a process of writing, of losing control is neither easy nor ‘safe’ (I am bit uncomfortable terming it this way). The obvious question is: how?

For an answer, I will turn to Geetz (maybe I am invoking him as an authority because I don’t want to risk answer this difficult question and became use, also, I found his meditation of writing ‘thick texts an excellent methodological tool). Geetz points us, right out of the gate, not what say they do but what they actually do. Although, this may seem like an obvious point, but it is not something that we have addressed up until now: what does it mean to do ethnography? I think part of the answer is the difference between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ texts or inscription and description. My interpretation of this distinction is that thin texts offer equivocations: winking = facial tick. Whereas, with a thick description, the winking is a facial tick, a secret code between friends and a ruse. It is not just the symbol but also the thick ‘substance’ that surrounds it: the context (Geetz 14).

Geetz also draws the reader’s attention to the inherent tension between behaviour and the intangible symbolic systems of cultural forms. He writes of behaviour that it must be attended to because through behaviour “cultural forms find articulation” (17). Geetz is directly addressing another tension that has certainly marked all of the readings that ewe have done up until now: the difficult relationship between the observeable and the abstract; experience and theory; content and form. What Geetz does that is markedly different from other theorists who also address this tension is he situates the anthropologist at the liminal point between this dualism. Through anthropologist constructs a reading of “what happens” and then “divorces it from what happens” (18), and this risks leading us “somewhere else” (18): i.e.: appealing to another authority to mask the very thing the anthropologist is writing about. I think I do this.

There is something happening in the active act of writing, of divorcing that I want to focus on this week. I want to reorient myself not only towards the kinds of ways we have been thinking about anthropology but also towards my own writing practice. Geetz captures the kinds of ways I would like to reposition my own work and my conception of what an anthropologist does when he writes: “The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages” (22; emphasis original)

I would like to end with Douglas, as her work is doing some of the very things both Clifford and Geetz describe. Primarily, Douglas is present to us in a different way than any of the other anthropologists we have read up until this point. In her analysis of pollution and contamination as a site of cultural production, Douglas makes her own purifying rituals seem strange. Yet, she does not make them strange in the way that they culturally incomprehensible, like to primitive man to the an advanced, Western audience or the neurotic to the sane man, but in a way that allows for an understanding of culture that exposes one’s “normalness without reducing their particularity” (Geetz, 14).

I am going to stop here, although I also want to focus on contamination and purification as a way to think about order. Douglas’ work on purification and pollution indicates the kinds of rituals that surround the order of things. The kinds tables that order to world, that bound objects always need to be made and remade through ritual. And, finally, I have not addressed the main theme this week, culture, on purpose. The obvious question (what is culture?) has also lurked beneath this reading experiment. Culture is the arbitrariness, the table, the context of action and still I am not sure if any of these are actually what it is. I hope that in our conversation this week, we can talk culture because it surely isn’t something that can be done alone.

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