What are you writing right now? Are you writing right now? An article, a paper, a book, a dissertation. A poem, a report, a proposal, an exam. A blog post. Who are you talking to about your writing? Who is reading your writing?
One year ago, we launched the Writers’ Workshop series here on Savage Minds to provide a new space for reflecting on writing. We’ve now had two successful seasons with twenty-one anthropologists contributing: Continue reading →
I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.
I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.
University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.
I ask this because I find the oft-offered advice to “write what you know” both alarming and silencing. Isn’t ethnography at least partially about unknowability? If we acknowledge that textual recording is a form of fixing knowledge, how does one write what one doesn’t know? How can our writing play on the edge between knowing and not knowing, refusing to fix the unknown by writing it into existence? Exploring this playful and vexing tension in ethnographic writing is my current preoccupation.
In my recent work on racism I have differentiated between the ‘racism of exploitation’ (e.g. towards slaves and migrant workers) and the ‘racism of exterminability’ (e.g. anti-Semitism). I argue that the latter is prevalent in the racist modes of classification of Muslims in/by the non-Muslim West.
Inspired by certain dimensions of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s multi-realism, and the teaching of a seminar around Mauss’ The Gift, I have tried to show that the racist experience of the other as exterminable involves the projection of complex layers of affective and existential angst that takes us beyond the dominant domesticating mode of existence in which we live, and where instrumental classification thrives. It invites us to perceive the experience as pertaining to a multiplicity of other realities or human modes of existence. The first is the reciprocal mode of existence classically explored in the work of Marcel Mauss on the gift. I read The Gift as pointing to a whole order of existence where people, animals, plants and objects stand as gifts towards each other. The second is what I will call, after Marshall Sahlins, the mutualist mode of existence. It highlights an order of existence where others are ‘in us’ rather than just outside of us. Central here is Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s work on ‘participation’: a mode of living and thinking where the life-force of the humans and the non-humans that surround us are felt each to be contributing to the life-force of the other. Continue reading →
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Adia Bentonas part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Adia is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She has worked in and studied the fields of development and global health since 2000, and is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s recent special issue on Ebola in Perspective. Her book HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in 2015).
“Everyone identifies with the survivor.” The man, whose name I have yet to learn, wore a sage-colored newsboy cap. We were sitting next to each other at my neighborhood café. A half-hour before, he was several feet away, sketching, occasionally eyeing my copy of The Wretched of the Earth. “Pardon me,” he said, as he approached my table. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re reading…” Within minutes, our conversation about radical anti-imperialist writing and secret societies had devolved into a meditation on how humans cope with tragic and sudden death.
“Everyone identifies with the survivor,” he repeated, as he adjusted his sketchpad in his lap.
This simple statement is a recent revelation. Although I am a scholar who reads and interprets, thinks critically about theory and teaches many aspects of writing, those actions have never made me a writer. Claiming “writer” was never something I thought about. The strength I pulled from writing was from reading the words of others, not writing my own. As a child, books kept me grounded and helped me to imagine. As I matured, books became a source of the familiar, tools I used to orient myself and keep connected after I left home. I was born in the early 1970s, on the island of Manhattan, and grew up in the shadows of tall buildings with concrete at my feet. I read about survival, never wrote about it. I was one of those folks who could never maintain a journal for more than a week. I always leaned on the strength of others to work through life’s ups and downs. These words were always healing, grounding, necessary for survival. Continue reading →
While I’m brainstorming ideas for this writers’ workshop series, my pre-school daughter is sitting next to me. Even though she can’t read or write yet, she’s fascinated by letters. As I type along on my laptop, she jots down her own invented script in a little notebook. It reminds me of my own journey of discovery of “the written word.” I had barely mastered the technicalities of handwriting when I started scribbling in personal diaries. As a teenager, I complemented these self-absorbed writings with more social formats as I exchanged snail mail letters with pen pals from across the globe. My first love relationships added poetry to the list and I became an avid journalist for my school’s newspaper (named “Boomerang,” hinting at the importance of reader reception). I continued some of that work at university, where I took a specialized course in journalism and experimented with a range of academic writing styles and formats. I also became a “critical writing fellow,” helping undergraduates to translate thoughts into words. When I moved abroad (which happened multiple times), I mailed weekly electronic “letters from [destination X]” to relatives and friends. I kept this tradition during my doctoral fieldwork, in addition to launching an ethnographic blog. So it’s no exaggeration to state that I like writing. Continue reading →
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Paul Stoller as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He is the renowned author of innumerable articles and eleven books ranging from ethnography to memoir to biography, and is also a regular Huffington Post blogger on anthropology, Africa, higher education, politics, and more. In 2013, he received the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology from the King of Sweden. His newest book Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-being in the World will be out in October from the University of Chicago Press.)
For the Songhay people of Niger and Mali life is a series of paths that end and then fork off in two new directions. At these forks in the road the traveler must choose her or his direction, destination, and fate. My choices, many of which were shaped by forces beyond my control, miraculously led me to two mentors: the late Jean Rouch, French filmmaker extraordinaire, and the late Adamu Jenitongo, a profoundly wise sorcerer-philosopher among the Songhay people. Both of these men loved to tell stories, the life source of their science and their art. They never told me how to tell a story; rather, they asked me to sit with them, walk with them, and laugh with them. In this way, they said, I would find my own way in the world and my own way to tell stories. They both believed that the story, in whatever form it might take, is a powerful way to transmit complex knowledge from one generation to the next. Like Milan Kundera in his magisterial The Art of the Novel, they believed that the evocative force of narrative could capture truths far beyond the scope of any philosophical discourse. Continue reading →
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Ralphas part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Michael is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, and Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU. He is the author of the entries on Commodity, Diaspora, and Hip hop in Social Text 100, and of the forthcoming University of Chicago Press book Forensics of Capital based on his research in Senegal.)
The idea of having your own writing style is an illusion. In fact, we learn to write by digesting the writers we love. We obsess over the elegant turns of phrase they appear to deliver effortlessly, and pore over our own drafts hoping to wrench beauty from passages that have been pummeled by angst and uncertainty. If we manage to enjoy success in writing (or really, in editing), it is generally because we have been well trained. At some point, someone made it her mission to instill in us a sense of conviction about the words we wield. We learned to appreciate the magic of authorship. But, it is easier to trace the blessed path to writerly righteousness in retrospect. Learning to write (which means learning to think and plan more carefully) can be a curious kind of training, in part because we don’t always know when it is happening. In reflecting upon my own training, I decided to dedicate this column to the person who initiated me into the anthropological guild, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Continue reading →
Like fiction, archaeology allows us to visit other worlds and to come back home again. So, it can be a useful exercise to juxtapose archaeological texts with historical novels, poems and other forms of writing. Just as a novelist does, a writer of archaeology has to attend carefully to the conventions that shape the stories we tell. The written past demands some kind of narrative coherence, a consistency in our compositional form, and in the internal logic of the world we bring into being. Like poets, we have to choose our words carefully. In this comparison we can identify the shared techniques used to evoke other worlds and to draw in the reader. We can also consider the narrative possibilities that are excluded from our archaeological writing, and ask what opportunities might be opened up by allowing different forms of voice and language. Continue reading →
When Carole McGranahan asked me to blog for the Savage Minds writing group, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. I’d recently finished my fifth book, and was in the early stages of a sixth manuscript, so it seemed like I should have something to say about how to get a big project done.
But I never realized I had a process until this morning. To get the creative juices flowing, I sketched out a flow chart of how I tackle a project from start to finish. The chart surprised me. My quirks and old habits turned out to be a defined system, one that I have implemented for each of my books without even knowing it.
Week 3? How is that already possible? We have somehow collectively arrived at week three of our ten week writing group. One-third of the way through! We kicked off this week with writing insights from Kirin Narayan (“Ethnographic Writing with Kirin Narayan: An Interview”). Much of what she had to said coursed through my writing mind this week: on trying to merge what you have to write with what you want to write; on the theoretical and ethical importance of portraying people in their complexity; and her answer in its entirety to my question “Why ethnography?” She replied:
For the discipline of paying attention; for learning from others; for becoming more responsibly aware of inequalities; for better understanding the social forces causing suffering and how people might somehow yet find hope; and most generally, for being perpetually pulled beyond the limits of one’s own taken-for-granted world.
This past month, I interviewed Kirin Narayan over email, she in Australia and India, and me in the USA. Inspired not only by her writings, but also by an ethnographic writing workshop she led for faculty and students at the University of Colorado a couple years back, I wanted to share her insights and inspiration with Savage Minds readers and participants in our ongoing writing group. Below is our exchange. Enjoy, learn, write!
CM: One of the things so unique about your writing are the many genres and forms you write across: academic prose, fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, writing about writing, storytelling, editing, books, articles, and so on. What has your writing path in anthropology been like? How much have you purposefully shaped what and how you wrote versus how much have embraced what invitations and opportunities have serendipitously come your way?
Anthropologists have always been writers. But we have not always paid attention to writing as craft or as practice, rather than as vehicle for communicating knowledge. While historically some anthropologists wrote well or across genres—Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, Laura Bohannan, and Clifford Geertz immediately come to mind—the 1980s literary turn in anthropology brought us new collective energy and interest in not just writing, but in writing well.