Week 9 & 10: Composing Discomfort and Slippage (Julia)

To retrace our steps, just as Kelly did, I would like to return to discuss some key thoughts about last week’s readings as well as to connect them to our present set of texts. To begin, I would like to turn to Nervous Conditions to reflect on the ways in which Cerwonka lays out and analyses the notion that the ethnographer must engage with ethics as a continually generative experience. As Cerwonka states, “good social research clearly demands a highly developed, ceaseless, daily engagement with ethics as a process” (4). This daily engagement with ethics constitutes, as Marcus and Fischer claim, the ethnographic “process of knowledge” (26). As we read Cerwonka’s text unfolding we saw how investing in ethics as a continual process of rigorous work means that one must deal with experiencing many emotional highs and lows as essential to one’s “practice of ‘understanding’”(5) as well as learn to sit in a perpetual underlying feeling of uncomfortableness.  I really liked how the exchanges between Cerwonka and Malkki really elucidated how significant and present the feeling of discomfort is for the fieldworker as well as how this discomfort is, fundamentally, a function of continually being engaged with the ethical dimensions of being an ethnographer.

As we read Cerwonka’s experiences, her uncomfortableness was partially a result of the precarious inside/outside status of the fieldworker as at once isolated and integrated within the community she is studying (echoing Clifford’s text from the week previous).  While Cerwonka challenges the archetypal masculinist ethnographic trope of considering anthropological objectivity as derivative of total isolation from the anthropologists own family/culture, Cerwonka still embodies a tangible complicated mixture of inside-out-of-place-ness while conducting her fieldwork. Furthermore, at the time that Cerwonka was having these e-mail exchanges with Malkki, she was, according to her disciplinary background, an “outsider” to anthropology.

In relation to Cerwonka’s reflexiveness and insider/outsider status, I would also like to discuss the situation that Kelly explored in her reflection regarding Cerwonka’s deliberations about deciding to watch a woman being strip searched by the police. I share Kelly’s queries relating to engagement, intervention, complicity and the underlying concern of who is foremost benefiting in relation to this act. I found myself not completely satisfied by Cerwonka’s honesty and deliberations post-decision because I felt that she was utilizing what she articulated as a bad choice to serve as a good instance in which to further along and renew her commitment to processing ethics. The problem for me is that while Cerwonka was processing her ethical convictions through writing, she did not seem to be enacting her conviction through actions during or after the fact. My question is: what is the merit of Cerwonka’s ethical work through writing if she will witness a woman be subjected to a racist, sexist and fatphobic police assault without advocating for her at the time of the assault of afterwards? This is likely seeming dogmatic and to be honest I am having a hard time thinking of it in any other way. This is why I think it would be extremely useful to examine this kind of ethical query in relation to the anthropologist as a witness in our discussion tomorrow.

Moving along! All these questions about ethical methodology leads me to an examination of Malkki’s notion that the improvisational quality of ethnographic methodology can be compared to jazz. As Cerwonka states, “improvisation in ethnographic research grows out of extensive training and lends such research heuristic flexibility, as a result, a high degree of empirical precision” (23). I cannot help but think of this analogy between ethnography and jazz in relation to this week’s examination of race. What does it mean to compare a nuanced mode of ethnographic methodology to a musical genre whose origins are wholly steeped in African/American culture? Can the stylistic musical qualities that define jazz be utilized in this instance while leaving its origins out? Especially because the stylistic qualities themselves were derivative of, and generated through, particular African American aesthetic sensibilities? Perhaps this is a null point? In any case, this analogy reminds me of the piece “The Syntax of Scat” (2002) in which Brant Edward’s tells of the origins of scat music as deriving from Louis Armstrong dropping a sheet of music during a recording and then making up a series of words and noises to get himself through the song. Because this literal dropping of the paper was responsible for starting the genre, Edward’s contextualizes scat as a site of “slippage” and disarticulation. This slippage and disarticulation was further meant to elucidate how the pain of a history of racial violence could never be communicated through formalized language and could only be told through moans and incomprehensible sounds, jerks and expressions.

I relate Edward’s analysis of scat to our readings in a few different ways. In regards to Cerwonka’s first experience in the field, she seems to undergo this significant feeling of slippage from her well trained scholarly ways of knowing. In the past few weeks we have been reading about the ethnographer’s writing practices and the importance of going through this process of dis-orientation and dis-organization that are so essential to the process of undoing and bringing to consciousness the subtle and palpable feelings and knowledges that ethnographers bring into their examinations. And although in the end our writing is supposed to turn into a finely tuned composition, perhaps it always belongs to scat, belongs to a melody that could only be formed, that could only resonate, as a form of slippage? As Marcus and Fischer explain, field work essentially “has been a messy, qualitative experience in contrast to the positivist social-science vision of method” (22). Perhaps it also belongs to scat, or rather, is part of scat, in the sense that the origins of anthropology are entrenched within the systems of racism that produced this painful moaning that lingers on the tongues and in the bodies of racialized people. And furthermore, an increased awareness of colonialism and racial inequities meant that anthropology had to drop the methodological composition that formerly orchestrated it – just as Armstrong had to drop his piece of paper – and learn how to improvise. In other words, the terrible realities of racial violence that occurred outside of and within ethnographic texts could only be accounted for in anthropology through creating a slippage within the discipline, creating – as Marcus and Fischer point out – a crisis of sorts, a period of profound disarticulation.


With this in mind, I would like to turn to this weeks readings. As I am aware that I this response is already quite long I will give a short recounting of my major thoughts from these texts and will endeavor to incorporate them further in my response for next week. As Kelly did such a great job of synthesizing and examining Stoler’s provocative piece, I would like to examine only one particular aspect of “Carnal Knowledge” that I feel also ties into Foucualt, as well as Rose & Nova’s texts. Stoler explains how degeneracy was defined as “‘departures from the normal human type… transmitted through inheritance and lead[ing] progressively to destruction” (62). In explaining the value of children born of a union between a European male and a concubine, Stoler states, “children of these unions were ‘the fruits of a regrettable weakness’, physically marked and morally marred with ‘the defaults and mediocre qualities of their mothers” (68). Later on Stoler concludes, “The categories of colonizer and colonized were secured through notions of racial difference constructed in gendered terms” (75). Also commenting on race, Foucault states, “In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable” (256). After discussing Nazism, Foucault argues that “Socialism was racism from the outset” (261).

The aim that I have in referencing so many quotes is to query whether these authors are missing incorporating an analysis of a feature that is essential to formulating the very notion of biological race. The concept of biological race, and of unequal biologies based on race, is fundamentally premised on a system of biovalue that favours and condemns certain biological traits over others. Hence, the mixed-raced child born of the concubine is framed as biologically weak and defaulted. But it is only because biological “defaults” and “weaknesses” were demonized, stigmatized and discriminated against, that races perceived as embodying such features could legitimately and justifiably be discriminated against. Hence, race becomes biological degeneracy, and perhaps the reason this held so much discursive biopolitical power is because biological degeneracy was impacted with the power to exile the person to whom it (apparently) belonged. Hence, while “Racism justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower” (258), ableism is the grounds in which the very notion of biological racial inequity is formed. Accordingly, ableism justifies racism which then justifies death. As a result, biological racism is only ever biological ableism strategically applied to the concept of race in order to justify it. Maybe I am on the wrong track with this but I really think it would be interesting to throw disability into the mix in our discussion this week about race, as I feel that both race and sex have been, and continue to be, enacted through it. Furthermore, examining biopolitics with this in mind might be interesting?

As my closing remarks, it was very interesting to read how biopower, as it was taken up in Rose & Nova’s “biopower today” and Foucault’s lecture was expanded upon by Rose in the article we read last week in preparation for Rose’s talk. Rose’s explain how this biopolitical move into the “technologization of vitality” has lead to a shift of subjectivity in which we understand ourselves as “somatic” individuals” (The Human Sciences in the Name of ‘Biology’, 2). And in this present phenomenon of somatic individualism and biological citizenship, our constant dedication to the project of life and vitality minituralizes in to one that is subjected to a molecular gaze in which our “life processes are anatomized at a molecular level” (1) thus multiplying our attention and responsibilization to ourselves to the magnitude of a microscopic pointillism that constitutes our intercellular functions. While I really enjoyed reading these texts and examining the where’s and what’s of biopolitics and beyond, what I thought was missing was a comprehensive analysis of how this biopolitical terrain is always imbued with, and informed through, conceptions of biovalue.

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