an experience that many have had and that some have written about has been providing expert opinion. I’m sharing here to see what people’s experience might be like.
last weekend, I attended a conference of ethnic Chinese professional people of various political identities, but all living in the United States. The conference made me anxious for several reasons: first, public gigs of this sort always give me the willies; second, the organization seemed tied to political interests and organizations toward which I am at best ambivalent; and finally the organizers wanted to have several talks on “indigenous education”—an issue that has been highly politicized and contentious on Taiwan. And I found myself both as a token “American” (meaning, in Mandarin Chinese white person) and as an anthropologist who has worked in Taiwanese indigenous communities, a token indigenous voice. Continue reading
so far, the constitutive goods of ethnography that i’ve talked about have been friendship and (an embodied awareness) of awkwardness. i’d like to see more of us take on vulnerability, because it seems to me that several of the recent mania in our discipline–most notably the hardness (quantitative) envy seen in some quarters, but also seemingly touchy-feely trendy topics like #affect–reveal distancing techniques meant to deny what we’ve known all along: not just that the fieldwork requires considerable vulnerability, but that like any other attempt of carrying experience over into knowledge, findings into academic conversation, the knowledge that we produce is vulnerable at every point it changes places, hands, or media. bruno latour has such vulnerability in mind when he talks of “referential chains” between soil samples and arguments about ecology and, i think, in his conversations of the sociotechnical “factishes” that make us act rightly
this is hardly the place to talk about latour’s arguments–it would make me far too vulnerable than i prefer–but i wonder why, apart from behar’s 1997 the vulnerable observer, we do not spend more time talking about vulnerability, if only to practice a kind of diligence. i don’t mean, by the way, the kind of diligence that has hedged ethnography about with a combination of IRB and rather patronizing ethics codes (not to mention a far too reactionary arguments about both). what i have in mind is more akin to the kind of “hyper and pessimistic activism” foucault talks about in his “genealogy of ethics,” an awareness of the dangers, the vulnerabilities that are part of our trade
i’m often aware of how awkward i am. this awareness teaches me–those of us who learn kinesthetically might grasp the value of awkwardness more than, say, the value of just talk or vision. still, the sight of joggers in boston reminds me that before habitus became part of the structuralist toolkit, there was just marcel mauss’s chance observation of the nurse’s gait, the vague sense that one had seen that walk before and the moment of recognition. yes, it was in films, the starlet’s walk portrayed by nurse’s legs. was it studied or unconscious, this imitation? learned on the street or from the screen?
living between boston and a’tolan, a body picks up characteristic ways to move and be still that surprise me
friendship in tamen’s sense also might suggest why “culture” is often what my taiwanese friends call a “twilight object,” something constantly in diminishment: associations of friends tend to situate their objects this way. think of the friends of the environment near you. as for culture and its various subsets and stand-ins, these nearly always appear in conditions of endangerment, too; and so, we might begin to ask ourselves whether our interpretive work powerfully connects us to other associations (friends of shellfish, sowalo no ‘amis, or indigenous media to name some to which i belong) who were befriending these objects all along, generally aware of their precarious quality. that does not mean that the type of precarity that these friends see–and that might explain their motives for working with us–is the same as our stance on the befriended.
again, take the environment as an example.
since i’m going in this direction, what about friendship as a type of advocacy, a value that some ethnographers fiercely hold and others just as fiercely question? one of the best statements on friendship in this regard comes from the work of the contemporary ‘amis songwriter, suming rupi. recently, many would-be friends of suming’s hometown have come to stay, all professing their love for the landscape, particularly the view of the pacific ocean. on the whole these would-be friends are well meaning and participate in a type of consumer environmentalism known on taiwan as LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. in response, suming has written a song which rejects this love
suming, “don’t say you love me” video 4:50 taiwan ©2012 wonder music
friendship? I know. it does seem too obvious and perhaps disingenuous for an anthropologist to pose friendship as one of the internal, constitutive goods of ethnographic practice. but that’s the virtue i want to invoke here.
back in chicago, home of the haskell hall totem pole, there was–i wonder if anyone could tell me if it’s still there–a world map around which our administrator affixed fieldwork photographs of students and faculty of the department. back in those snail mail days before social media, this was about all the contact we could get with colleagues in the field. the map looked down from the stairwell up to the mezzanine, but was not without contention: was it part of a strategy of representation that reproduced anthropology’s complicity with colonial discourses? an attempt to employ images of rapport to shore up ethnographic authority? what the critics seemed not to get was that the map actually was a token of our friendships with our colleagues, focused on our common practices of fieldwork and writing.
but, right, critics of the map would likely consider friendship naive. there’s a history i could sketch here, but i’ll just go for the beginning and end points. if malinowski claimed in argonauts that through shared residence and daily activity the ethnographer could at least become “a necessary evil or nuisance, mitigated by donations of tobacco,” the discipline has long since shed the illusions we have of reaching even such a limited state of rapport: take marcus’s typically programmatic 1997 statement that even an assumption of the desirability of rapport had been displaced, with no replacement in sight. that marcus ushered “complicity” onto the runway as the new rapport might relegate friendship to some dusty haberdashery. i even hesitate to call it last season.
curiously, however, i had written about complicity unaware of the marcus article and came to see complicity in a positive light, as a means for sustaining a shared project in conditions of political opposition and entrenchment. because i’ve a book on that subject, i’ll just go back to bronislaw (whew!).
I’m DJ Hatfield, one of the guest bloggers for this month on savage minds. When thinking about possible themes for my blog, I just happened to be reading one of my favorite books on writing, Calvino’s Six memos for the next millennium. Originally, these memos were planned lectures about the values of good writing that Calvino was to give at Harvard; he died before giving the lectures and, indeed, before finishing the work. It might surprise several people who read savage minds that Calvino’s six memos (well, the five that he finished!) are what I turn to when I want to think about my practice as an ethnographic writer. And I think that there is much virtue in the structure of Calvino’s little book: the task he set before himself in 1984 was to describe particular qualities that writing should have if it were to meet the challenges of the next millennium–something that might have been envisioned by the editors of writing culture if a peculiar parricidal impulse hadn’t motivated that work. Of course, as a graduate student, the project of writing culture fit my bill. Now that I have a book and a few articles behind me, it’s Calvino’s project that incites my questions about what we do as ethnographers. What are the values that we would think of as central to the practice, what Macintyre in After Virtue called the “internal goods”–those values that we cultivate as we do our work in the field and out? I’d like to start a conversation on this question. As I am not sure whether what I will discuss will be values in the sense of the ends of our practices or in the sense of what orients them, I’ll leave you to give your preliminary suggestions. My postings on some of these values, plus some discussion of recent work, will appear throughout the month of October. My first internal good: friendship