WWeek 12 (Julia): Getting a sense of ethnography: gesturing towards a multisensory anthropology

Kirksey and Helmreich’s “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography” articulates an anthropological turn in which creatures “previously appearing on the margins of anthropology – as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols – have been pressed into the foreground of recent ethnography” (545). Multispecies ethnography is a site of “becoming” in which nuanced connections between species are creatively enacted through the absence of hierarchical power relationships. These nonhierarchical relationships mingle, touch and intertwine in the promising vitalic space in which the finely severed lines between nature and culture bleed into each other like watercolours. What this means is that the “encounters between Homo sapiens and other beings generate mutual ecologies and coproduced niches” (546). Multispecies ethnography embodies a logic of decentering and dis-order, embracing instead the dispersed and vibrant topography of a swarm. Appropriately then, Kirksey and Hemreich locate the anthropological multispecies salon as a kind of “para-site” (546).

It was helpful and fascinating to have this reading by Kirksey and Helmreich pared with two multispecies ethnographies: Helmreich’s “An anthropologist underwater” and Candea’s “‘I feel in love with Carlos the meerkat”’. Helmreich’s ethnography follow’s Feld’s call to do “an anthropology in sound” (622). Hence, while Helmreich submerges down below in his cyborg submarine, he only immerses with his ocean environment through soundscapes. In this sense, Helmreich’s multi-species ethnography is founded through exploring the anthropos of our sense of sound. What Helmreich’s work foremost did for me was open up the ways in which a multispecies ethnography might excitingly render a multisensory ethnography. But more on this later!

Candea’s insightful and at times hilarious piece focuses on the television animal soap-opera drama Meerkat Manor as a way of examining the relationships between the researchers (KMP), the viewers, science, empathy, writing practices (ethnographic and screenwriting), information technologies (television, camera’s, editing, blogs), and human-animal relations. All of these relationships allow Candea to examine the standardized perception of considering engagement and detachment as binary oppositions. Instead, Candea proposes an anthropology that approaches “engagement and detachment, not as a dichotomy but, rather, as a symbiosis: the vital, necessary, ever-changing, and often microscopic co-implication of two profoundly different forms” (255). Part of this argument resides in Candea’s reconsideration of the prime importance of interaction in ethnographic work and animal-human relations, in which he instead prioritizes the discipline and restraint involved in cultivating a professional ethic of interpatience. Interpatience, as a “negotiated abstention from action, could provide a tacit alternative to the tangled philosophical complexities of relating Nature, Science, the Human, and other such ontological juggernauts” (251). In this account of interpatience, I was reminded of last week’s discussions of agency, and especially of Mamood’s discussion of piousness as, not antagonistic to agency, but as an essential manifestation of its nonliberal renderings. In any case, interpatience opened up the modes of ethnographic practices for me in much the same way that Kelly’s articulation of cultivating an ethics of “asking” did.

Hence, what these ethnographies explicate is Kinksey and Helmreich’s notion that the meaningful crux of multispecies ethnography is its attunement, radical rendering and pointed challenge to discourses around “anthropos”. Multispecies ethnography starts from the place in which anthropos has changed and thus begins with the question: “What is anthropos becoming?” (548). A multispecies ethnography is one that feels that not only have the facts of life become “highly malleable” (55) but so too has the ontological nature of life itself. As Tsing articulates, “Human nature is an interspecies relationship” (551).  And as Downey and Dumit state, “like all primates, we cling to the backs of others” (8). Species co-constituted each other. They mix. We are formed through couplings (perhaps even metaphorically diasporically articulated?) assembled through the friendly and fraught dynamics of interacting and interpatience. What this thinking of para-sited connectedness does is reroute imprinted sensibilities of kinship and relatedness thus “making and remaking biological knowledge and substance” (550). Thus, the ethical and socio-political questions become one of how anthropologists can and should speak “with and for nonhuman others” (554).

Helmreich’s piece “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs and transductive ethnography” might, in some interesting ways, provide an answer to this question. This answer belongs to one of listening. As Helmreich writes about the immersive soundscapes that constitute his experience embodied within a cyborg submarine, Helmreich asks anthropologists to attend to the work of “sounding, listening, and hearing” in order to “listen for that which we usually only hear” (629). This is so important to Helmreich because it primarily and essential requires one to doubt their usually invisible and often standardized modes and systems of sensing. Helmreich explains how Thompson demonstrates the ways that electroacoustic devices in the early 20th century were generated to produce soundwaves to be measured and standardized. Hence, at this time “the spacialization of sound came ideally to be dictated not by the acoustics of places… but by techniques of sound reproduction, aimed at making diverse places… all sound the same” (623). To me, this relates back to Downey and Dumit’s piece, “Cyborgs and Citadels” in terms of identifying the ways that an important part of the citadel of science is erected upon constructing a citadel of our sensorium. Perhaps the image of the rihzome is clichéd at this point. Even so, it might be a useful image to consider in terms of asking: how can the science of our senses become rhizomatic? Would this metaphor of the rhizome accomplish anything in terms of how we learn to listen to, and immerse within, our divergent surroundings?

A huge part of our anthropos comes to us through our senses. We have read of how the anthropologists job became one of being able to defamiliarize themselves from themselves. In some of my previous reflections I have discussed how people like Mead and Clifford, mandated a nuanced mode of travel, not only across the globe and through time but required the most air mileage for venturing inwards. Hence, the anthropologist must travel deep within herself in order to bring herself outside of recognizable modes of relating to herself. I think I also described this as a cognitive estrangement of sorts. Anyhow, in the same way, I feel that Helmreich is identifying the need to get a sense of our senses by these identical means of sensory defamiliarization, inward and outward travel, and cognitive estrangement. This brings me back also to “Nervous Conditions” in which Cerwonka locates the importance of uncomfortableness as a centrally important indicator which flags the commitment to ethics as a processual concept. Accordingly, uncomfortableness in our sensory selves might be an important indication of breaking away from our own and our cultural citadels of sensing.

I want to return for a minute to Helmreich’s notion of doubting our senses. How do we learn to doubt our senses? How much doubt is enough? Are their depths to this doubt that are important to reach? And, perhaps aligned with this, how do we learn to listen to our sensorium? I remember at our last group meeting Natasha discuss the various ways in which anthropologists have to, depending on their subject, change and (re)train certain senses. I would very much like to read/learn more about this!

Perhaps pertinent to this discussion is David Panagia’s writings on the politics of the sensible. I would like to include an excerpt that I feel senses something of each of the readings we have read for this week. As Panagia states:

Speaking nonsense… is perceived as an unwelcome failure that needs to be overcome with better thinking, more deliberation, and the kind of storytelling that will help make sense of the world and justify our place in it. But the thing about the activity of sense making is that it always takes sense itself for granted; we always already know the shape and sound an utterance must have in order for it to have meaning or to count as political speech; we are never really content in addressing nonsense as we rarely feel comfortable with disruptions. And yet moments of sensation puncture our received wisdoms and common modes of sensing. (2009, 2)

Hence, the experience of sensation embodies a “heterology of impulses” (2), a moment of unrepresentability, a space of disruption and nonsense that is often ignored through this project of sense making, of making sense out of the sensible. Perhaps ethnographic work should take place in these moments of breakdown, where “the certitudes of circulation collapse” (3). I am very interested in the notion of a multisensory ethnography, in getting to know the various relationships ethnographers have with their senses. I want to read and write ethnographies that listen, that “finger-eye” (Kinksey & Helmreich, 564) their way to a touching new way of feeling our anthropos.



Panagia, Davide. (2009). The Political Life of Sensation. Duke University Press: Durham & London.

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