Writing Space for Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali's prior posts: post 1 -- post 2 -- post3]

I’m still buzzing over Deepa’s question, posed as a comment at the end of my last post, “why must you write?” I read this question in two ways – 1) why must you write professionally, and 2) why must you write, ethnographically, about yoga and breathing. The question is a great opening into the final week’s prompt, which asks how academic precarity or marginality generates new intellectual possibilities. In my case, knowing that my situation could change, will change, at some point in the next few years, I chose a project that is more long-term. Something I can stay with through various contexts, a project that will travel with me in some form or other. Both yoga and writing (yes, writing) are such projects. Both offset the uncertainty I otherwise experience. Choosing projects that are close to home, and present a host of new and surprising challenges, is part of where I think we’ll also find new intellectual possibilities, and collaborations.

Yet it’s also critical to have the support of institutions, organizations, and colleagues. You’d be crazy to think you can go it alone, and why would you want to anyway? This post starts with the impulse to write as critical, generative practice, and ends with some comments on a roundtable session from the May SCA meeting, a session that speaks to the culture of academic precarity, marginalized work, and how we might support new modes of scholarship.

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In my first two years of graduate school, while at the University at Albany, SUNY, I had a fellowship with the New York State Writer’s Institute. At the time, I had not a clue how fortunate I was. I wish I had been taking notes. Diligently. What I would have been writing down is how visiting writers responded in the Q&A sessions that followed their seminars and readings. Invariably, an audience member (or members) would ask the visiting writer about their writing practice, how they worked and got published. Some writers were new authors, reading from their first novel or short story collection. Others were award-winning authors with writing careers that spanned decades. Now, as I just revealed, I did not take notes from this period, but I did manage to pull out a few general threads that I heard consistently over my two-year stretch at the Institute. One response repeated enough for me to hold onto is that it is through the practice and process of writing that ideas, arguments, and stories take shape. Characters come alive in relation to other characters and events. Stories come into being on the page, despite the extent of thinking and planning you do in your head. Ideas, narratives, and arguments might be floating around beforehand, in conversation with others even, but the process of writing translates and transforms them. For ethnographers, writing carves out a space for data, theory, and analysis to converse. For me, writing is a space of play and reflection. And it’s continued writing practice that makes this space, holds this space. These are things we’ve all heard, and felt and know as writers. But I think it bears repeating, again.

The reflections of professional writers are one signpost; the August issue of Cultural Anthropology, a special issue that marks the 25th anniversary of Writing Culture, is another. I won’t spoil things much, I’ll just say that the issue has been shaping my thinking lately and that I had Kathleen Stewart’s essay in mind when I wrote last week’s post. Writing helps me make sense of and translate what I’m picking up through the body. Writing’s gift is that it takes experience and brings it into different forms. Stewart (2012) writes:

Precarity’s forms are compositional and decompositional. They magnetize attachments, tempos, materialities, and states of being. Their slowed, more capacious, description is a writing culture lodged in emergence, generativity, and potentiality. The writing itself attunes us to how things are hanging together or falling apart or wearing out in time that compresses or stretches out into an endurance. Such objects of analysis register the tactility and significance of something coming into form through an assemblage of affects, routes, conditions, sensibilities and habits. Rather than rush to incorporate them into a representational order of political or moral significance, we might ask what it means to meet the world not as representation, interpretation, or raw material for exploitation, but as a nearing, the ringing between composing subjects and objects…(Stewart 2012: 524)

Breathing, I would argue, is a form of precarity. But why must I write, ethnographically, about yoga or breathing or my work for Cultural Anthropology, for that matter? One reason, again something I’ve learned from asana and pranayama, is that you can make something you’re very familiar with strange again. In asana, you adjust your body in such a way—lengthening your torso, bringing your scapula towards each other, or exhaling completely—to create space that allows for different and sometimes deeper engagement. Subtle adjustments or completely new poses give perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise. In a similar way, writing gives objects of analysis a different form, and through the writing process I get a feeling for and familiarity with these objects that I didn’t have before. Writing can help provide critical distance. It’s also in the space of writing, ethnographically, that I wrestle with ethics and ideas. The discomfort or uncertainty that writing gives rise to leads me to play with established paradigms and ways of doing things. It’s a space, a practice, a relationship that continually makes for new intellectual possibilities. And taking these kinds of risks is part of the intellectual work that needs to be done, I think.

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When I consider what I need to do to get a tenure track job, two things come to mind immediately—I need to publish peer-reviewed articles and I need to have marketable research. I had coffee with a recent graduate last week. On the job market, her sole focus, she told me, is to get two articles under review this year. She’s figuring out which of her dissertation chapters could be turned into articles, and for what journals. For many heading into, thinking about, or already on the market, we must write to get a job. (I’m also thinking about Alex’s most recent comments on publishing here.) Choosing what to write about and how to write about it is critical. But it’s not just writing. It’s what projects to take on (would you sign on to collaborative research?) and the mode of dissemination your work takes (through film, open access journals, workshops, or blogs).

In May, at the biannual SCA Meeting, I attended a roundtable panel, “Work, Lives, and Death in Alternative Careers.” Organized by Kim Fortun and Michelle Stewart, the panel included half a dozen participants and functioned very much like a large working group. The discussion focused on what it would take to broaden the range of work that counted in hiring and promotion. Film, digital media projects, and collaborative research served as examples. There were other examples as well, and each pointed to the difficulties of getting professional recognition or credit for nonconventional work—work that took a form other than the peer-reviewed article or monograph. The session had an objective—to produce a statement supportive of alternative modes of scholarship, which might be adopted by the SCA (and perhaps other AAA sections and anthropology organizations). One question opened by the session was, how do we assess new forms of scholarly work, and what existing modes of evaluation might we utilize?

Our group ran out of time before we could get anything on paper, but the session’s attendance and conversation spoke clearly to broader needs. I also left the session with the sense that lots of people are thinking about the very issues that have been discussed in this guest group blog. New intellectual possibilities are already becoming projects in marginalized spaces. Academic precarity seems to be virtue or obstacle, and sometimes both, depending on location. As Alex said this week when commenting on publishing practices, we live in strange times. What I think is most needed are new paradigms, practices, and maybe even structures that can support emerging scholarship. It’s good to be part of a broad community of practice having these conversations and working to build needed infrastructure.

Ali Kenner is managing editor and program director at Cultural Anthropology, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also teaches Vinyasa and Kundalini yoga in Upstate New York.

2 thoughts on “Writing Space for Ethnography

  1. Ali, when you write that,

    it is through the practice and process of writing that ideas, arguments, and stories take shape. Characters come alive in relation to other characters and events. Stories come into being on the page, despite the extent of thinking and planning you do in your head. Ideas, narratives, and arguments might be floating around beforehand, in conversation with others even, but the process of writing translates and transforms them. For ethnographers, writing carves out a space for data, theory, and analysis to converse. For me, writing is a space of play and reflection

    I feel the presence of a kindred spirit. Reading about the panel in which you participated is also tremendously exciting. Allow me, if I may, to add an item to the agenda.

    While for those inside the academy, getting recognition for unconventional work as part of career building is, of course, a central concern. There are those like myself, whose careers have taken us out of the academy without killing off our inner academics, who long to be involved, albeit at a distance, in academic life. Thus, for example, Open Access publishing is very important to me, as it is to anyone who pursues academic interests without a university library card.

    Anyway, we, too, are greedy for recognition and may, in return, be in a position to lend a helping hand to our academic colleagues. Thus, for example, I have, living in Japan and connected with the Japanese advertising world, been able to quietly lend a hand to young scholars doing research in Japan. At a minimum, I am almost always good for at least one free dinner, which I’m happy to provide in exchange for fresh academic gossip and scandal.

    How to stimulate outreach in both directions, into and out of the academy, is very much on my mind.

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