If you haven’t heard already, the current issue of Cultural Anthropology covers the “Writing Culture at 25” conference hosted by Duke University in the fall of 2011. Happily articles by each of the panel participants plus supplemental materials will be open access for the remainder of 2012 (thank you Society for Cultural Anthropology). I’m especially keen to read Kathleen Stewart’s contribution as she was scheduled to speak alongside Danilyn Rutherford at the conference but was called away on other business at the last minute.
My colleague Ayla Samli and I covered the conference for Savage Minds last fall. You can read my introduction here. Ayla’s piece on George Marcus and Jim Clifford’s papers are here. And my post on Hugh Raffles and Kim Fortun’s presentations is here. Rex also contributed some reflections on his growing appreciation of Writing Culture since having it forced down his gullet as a grad student, a collective trauma many of us can relate to.
Like so many other things I start, I never finished writing up my conference notes. Really this is one of my most embarrassing short comings, but, you know… shrugs. So here (belatedly) is the thrilling conclusion to my notes on the WC25 conference. May they color and inform your enjoyment of the polished products now available through the OA Cultural Anthropology issue.
After breaking for lunch the conference reconvened in the early afternoon with a panel lead by John Jackson and Michael Taussig, ostensibly organized around the theme of “Fieldwork.” Jackson is a noted ethnographic filmmaker and Taussig is well known for his advocacy of montage as a way of thinking about representation, so we all anticipated a conversation that would somehow make use of the visual realm.
Jackson began by referencing a documentary film about death and dying (I regret I don’t have the title) where the filmmaker himself is terminally ill. Because he wants to have his own death included in the film the director includes in the documentary his instructions for how he wants to film to end even though he will never actually see the final product. Jackson saw this as in congruence with ethnographic representation post-Writing Culture. Informants, collaborators, and other stakeholders can influence the anthropologist in the composition of representations. But for the most part these representations circulate in social spheres that they’re not really a part of, like conferences, classrooms, and tenure review committees.
For a filmmaker like Jackson, Writing Culture is a point of entry into this conversation of how we as anthropologists go about “communicating with the dead.” Film especially bends towards the aesthetics and emotive capacity inherent in anthropology.
We learned some about his current field project concerning Black American Jews in Israel and Jackson’s interests in the anthropology of religion and “spiritual subjectivity.” This particular community, it seems, already had a well established culture of video-taping everything from life histories, to stories of salvation and conversion, and even visual thank yous between community leaders and their flock.
Eventually, Jackson tells us, he opted to put his own shooting on hold in order to participate in and observe the community’s production of their own films – even appearing in them as a talking head and authoritative voice. So in a surprising twist the camera turns around and the anthropologist/ documentarian becomes a character in the documentaries produced by the people he studies.
It was fascinating to learn about how this utopian community of Americans overseas went about recuperating Black culture through their own interpretation of Judaism from “vegan soul food” to pop music and basketball. All the while DVD’s of these self-produced films about community events circulate widely among the believers. “Books you pay for but DVD’s are like water,” and they flowed readily from hand to hand, bringing with them all the “paraphernalia of commodification,” but not really because they’re only ever exchanged as gifts.
Jackson asked, what can video do to build a community? How is that community sustained by these performative productions made for the self but also for outsiders? And how is all of this to be distinguished from representation by the written word?
Whereas Jackson’s talk was chatty and informal, Taussig took on the mantle of storyteller and read us direct excerpts of a paper, periodically pulling out of this mode to comment on what he was reading. Taussig called Writing Culture “a call to practice literature,” and perceived in that volume a sympathetic connection to the avant garde of the 1920s and 1930s because it collapsed the field and writing phases of ethnography into one. “Making Culture might be another way of saying it. The analysis of culture that becomes what it analyzes.”
The subject of Taussig’s talk was the humble field notebook and how it functions as a kind of recording device, “a genie, a repository for partial thoughts, marginal scribbles.” In the insulated world of the author, pen in hand, scribbling away, the writing becomes more important than the anthropology. For Taussig the notebook is like object art.
Now he is storytelling in Columbia where the monstrous slips away into the everyday of low grade paranoia, a hysteria of history. Momentarily he dwells on Faulkner’s ambition to represent the multiple realities of As I Lay Dying by printing the text in different colors corresponding to different characters’ perspectives. Similarly for Taussig the stories stack up on top of each other, promiscuous and mingling. He shares with us coca stories and tobacco juice stories including vividly detailed description of colors and textures.
Far from the city, in tiny villages of peasants and Indians photographs are passed down over time to Taussig .These photographs compress time as they document confrontation with police and paramilitaries. “The past is not what it used to be, not with video cameras.” Theory gets boring and fades, but pictures can age like wine, getting better over time. He is searching for an anthropology of “amphibiousness” in order to traverse a land that moves, unstable, slushy. Even kids in the mud need to find a place to shit.
Later Taussig finds himself flipping through his notebooks discovering scribbles instead of photos. The drawings are strange now and it is not always obvious what they meant to him when they were jotted down. It is in the notebook that we get this anything goes juxtaposing of stories, history, pontification, exposition, and jokes. A fieldwork notebook can be seen as a modernist art object, fetish, or talisman. Here Taussig’s exemplary texts come from Benjamin, including his essays on collection and surrealism matched with the juxtaposition of observations and philosophical aphorisms in One Way Street.
Using PowerPoint, Taussig shared some illustrations and scribbles from his new book I Swear I Saw This, which got a nice write up here in the LA Review of Books. This was immediately intriguing to me and I’ve covered my own love for using popular illustration to convey topics of importance to anthropologists in my Illustrated Man series for Savage Minds.
Taussig’s “new” move was instantly familiar to me as resonant with one of the biggest current trends in juvenile literature (no, not vampires, that’s young adult): the illustrated diary. From Diary of a Wimpy Kid to The Dork Diaries and beyond, 6 to 12 year old’s cannot get enough of these books which are, like I Swear I Saw This, printed to look like ruled paper as if they were composition books. I chuckled to myself as I wondered whether he was more of a “wimpy kid” or a “dork.”
Q&A session for Jackson and Taussig
Audience Member: Fieldwork was once thought of primarily as a means to an end. Now it is more like fieldwork for fieldwork’s own sake without any recourse or justification. When writing in a diary or a notebook who are we writing for? You might say, The Self. But is there more than one? In a strange way the notebook is kind of an extension of the self, or displacement of the self to a dislocated place.
Taussig replies by way of telling a story set in Columbia. Here he was taking an outsider around, someone who didn’t necessarily know anything about the countryside Taussig was taking him to. This turned out to be a really productive field exercise because his guest served as a catalyst for stories and then later, in the writing phase, the outsider could easily be trotted out again as a foil.
James Clifford to audience: The ignorant third is the reader. The one we’re having this conversation for.
Clifford to Taussig: I attended a talk you gave, this was some time ago, which you performed like Hugo Ball with a paper bag over your head.
Taussig (laughing): Hugo Ball was my hero because he was the most serious of the Dadaists. Once I had a woman come up to me and say that she remembered me giving a talk with a paper bag over my head and then at the end of the talk I mooned the audience. But I don’t remember that. (For more on asses, check the cover of Defacement //MT)
James Clifford to John Jackson: It’s not your montage, it’s their montage. But it comes without the conceit of giving voice to the voiceless.
John Jackson: The magic of the visual is that it appears to be self-evident and to speak for itself.
In her talk Rutherford sought to defend and reclaim empiricism, which she imagined as a twisted, non-conforming “kinky empiricism.” Whether you think of kinky like a slinky or like S/M, empiricism is necessary to make truth claims that will have the power to intervene. “It’s the price of admission to speak authoritatively on subjects that matter,” to the people we study and collaborate with. Kinky empiricism distinguishes itself by eschewing the god-trick of objectivity and taking seriously the situated.
Writing Culture foregrounded the production of ethnography and Rutherford wants to extend and defend this by means of a detour through David Hume. For her Hume epitomizes both the skeptical and the ethical in a way that is incessantly critical of the apparatus by which we attempt to know.
Is the postmodern move one that takes us away from empiricism? This is just a potted history. Writing Culture is actually a warrant for introducing more reality, not less. Writing Culture said we must go further, we must say more about our disciplinary parameters. This is, in fact, a greater empiricism that gives us the confidence that we can do justice in our efforts to represent a messy reality. Looking outward and looking inward are actually two sides of the same kinky coin that yields a more, rather than less, complete description of reality.
It was clear that Rutherford held a special affection for Hume and she felt that his philosophy with its emphasis on circumstance, moral reasoning, and examination of inference and interpretation, could have a pronounced positive impact on anthropology. His work embodies the question of “What is the probability that a certain person will have a certain experience?”
Rutherford pointed out that Hume concludes that there is no way to prove experience teaches you anything. In fact you have to assume experience teaches you. This is like Writing Culture which taught us to trust experience but also work to undermine it. Hume had sympathy for the outcome of inference: one feels what one imagines the other feels. With this embodied intersubjectivity, the empirical and ethical go hand in hand.
She concluded by returning to the importance of making truth claims, here her exemplary text was Philippe Bourgois and Jeffery Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend, where the authors document the real world effects of their own practices. We need to build alliances to policy and quantitative methodologies, she said, while also inhabiting moral reason.
Q&A with Rutherford
George Marcus: Is anthropology truly subversive in relation to the other social sciences? Is it immature to make that assertion?
Rutherford: To be effectively subversive is to be like Kim Fortun and proceed without knowing where you’re going (see my post on Fortun here). We have an ethical obligation to rethink risky engagements. Compare that to economics which is snuggled deep into the armpit of power.
Matt Thompson: What is meant by kinky? What is that word doing for you?
Rutherford: Kinky is the reflexive and the non-normative/ non-conforming. It is constantly asking: what is this ethical quandary?
Jim Clifford: But can you sell it to political economy?
Rutherford: Probably not.
Ann Alison: Where does this leave us in regards to theory?
Rutherford: What are the analytic tools, the styles and habits of thought, we need to make an argument that intervenes in the world? So going beyond theory, what is meant by anthropological thought?
Jim Clifford: This is a very clever detour through Hume.
Rutherford: [nods emphatically]
Clifford: How is empiricism different from positivism? And why not reclaim realism? The serious representation of the real which is contingent and positioned but which has to be taken seriously. (This is referring to a separate 2011 talk by Clifford, covered here.)
Rutherford: We live in a world that demands us to act. In academia you have to make a claim, that is the price of admission in academic circles. We should look to Science and Technology Studies, which has delivered a critique of social construction. Talking about things as produced doesn’t make their impact any less real. So with kinky empiricism we’re not talking about a simple description, but on top of that there is a twist of ethical obligation. There is less self satisfaction and more targeted intervention.
Audience member: How do we approach the possibility of failure?
Rutherford: In the contact zone you can attempt things that are unthinkable otherwise.
Taussig: What about the sublime? What role does it play in the ethical/ empirical?
Audience member: And how do you keep the writing kinky?
Rutherford: You can’t control it, like all moments of creation, after the fact you see what you’ve done. Again, see Righteous Dopefiend as an example of occupying a contact zone across disciplines.
Hugh Raffles: What about kinky as taking pleasure in fieldwork and writing?
Jim Clifford: We should find ways to play with the essay form. Like many anthropologists I have poems tucked away in a drawer somewhere. You build that into the writing, like Benjamin who showed us the miracle of poetic prose. The trick is to be taken seriously academically, but to be something more. Use poetry as a playpen to try things out. It’s a safe space.