Excavating the Self

Anthropologists not infrequently find themselves reflecting ‘anthropologically’ on themselves, their actions, their relations. If social action is a ‘text’, our social action often unfolds with in-text citations. Whether this habit is obsessively reflexive and irritatingly self-referential, or interestingly enlightened and productively analytical, we tend to live our lives amidst an invisible but ever present series of citations. These pop up in our everyday speech in odd ways, sometimes amusing, sometimes surreal. They recreate (and test) academic habitus.

For example: noting Mary Douglas’s canny reflections on the cultural construction of drunkenness (in Constructive Drinking) whilst getting drunk with friends, querying the appropriate kin term for describing the exact genealogical heritage of one’s pets (is it properly a ‘clan’ or a ‘sib’??), commenting on the Dumezilian ‘structure’ of a 19th-century civic center plan (with cultural, administrative, and provisional functions carefully mapped), etc. The mention of a key thinker or concept is either met with a knowing nod, an appreciative grunt or chuckle, an admonishing correction, or, the worst possible result: unknowing silence.

As it happens, each of the examples above comes from my own recent experience. I have just moved to Helsinki, Finland, from San Francisco, California, having taken up a position as a visiting lecturer at Helsinki University in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Moving out of my home of 10 years (a small apartment in the Western Addition neighborhood) prompted me to wonder how and why I had invested both the physical space of my home and all the things (read: crap) I had accumulated in it with value. Was it appropriate for me to be 48 hours from my groovy Virgin Atlantic flight, looking at piles of boxes and the grimy residue that had accumulated under various pieces of furniture, and think of “Igor Kopytoff”? How weird.

Nevertheless. Emptying closets full of old drag (including two fabulous red and black feather boas), protest signs (signifying opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq by so-called ‘coalition’ forces), a scuba diving t-shirt from Madang recording the Tok Pisin terms for scuba gear, pants of differing waist sizes, steel-toed boots, notebooks from freshman year in college — these things are the residue of my life. I imagine future archeologists discovering this treasure-trove (so I imagine) of millennial personhood. It occurred to me in going through all these things that strategies of personalization, the making-unique of commodities in consumer culture — what most Americans are doing most of the time when not working — is fundamentally a psychic process.

I imagine the title of my treatise, The Psychic Life of Things: Theories in Objection. Opening chapters cite important contributions from Mauss to Munn on the social creation, negotiation, and negation of value, including the idea that objects in exchange accrue value as the residue of the social relations (classed or classless, hierarchical, gendered, erotic, et al) that elicit them. Interesting twist: an account of objective interpellation, ways in which objects call us into being as their subjects. Ownership as a regime of personhood in which those things one ‘owns’ or at least ‘has,’ insofar as they signify self to self, and to others, are both the effluvia of social life, detritus – junk – but also the material substrate of what we as persons are. There’s probably a Heidegerrian term for this (which I am hoping Rex will supply) and perhaps even a Sartrian one (any takers?). Accumulation carries consequence, and when you try to get rid of things, a cliche takes hold: do I own this stuff, or does it own me? Yet, what struck me in disconnecting myself from all my junk (or not disconnecting: some of it was placed way way way back in the recesses of the unconscious, namely, paid storage) was the emotional aspect of all that.

Sociophenomenological or not, it makes you cry to throw away the cherished counterfeit Picachu’s purchased in 1999 in Tijuana on the eve of fieldwork in New Guinea. How emotionally vexed and vexing it is to get rid of things that remind you of yourself.

Well, I’ve moved from a junk filled apartment in a working class neighborhood of an American urban dystopia (SF is very far from the Emerald City, Toto) to a superclean modernist apartment in a famed planned community called Tapiola. It’s like tough love. Reflections on living in a hyper-rational environment in coming days and weeks…In the meantime, a hearty thanks to Rex for inviting me to join this ongoing discussion. I am quite new to this particular digital genre, and so I beg readers’ forebearance where necessary as I learn its conventions and techniques.

13 thoughts on “Excavating the Self

  1. Whether this habit is obsessively reflexive and irritatingly self-referential, or interestingly enlightened and productively analytical, we tend to live our lives amidst an invisible but ever present series of citations. These pop up in our everyday speech in odd ways, sometimes amusing, sometimes surreal. They recreate (and test) academic habitus.

    To what extent do they also isolate us from students and others, outside our professional tribe, that we aspire to influence?

    My own mental midden includes the memory of my first year of college teaching, and how I filled my lectures with allusions to names and theories that, in retrospect, meant nothing to the students I was trying to interest in anthropology. It wasn’t that the names weren’t deserving of respect or the theories lacking in relevance to my students’ personal concerns….but my fresh out of grad school self was still unaware that mentioning something “we all know” may be a semantically null act unless we take the time to establish the relevance for the particular set of others with whom we are trying to communicate.

  2. John — I think that being passionately engaged with your work does not isolate students, but provides them the best possible example of living the life of the mind. I’m sorry that you were unable to convey your own enthusiasm to your students effectively. As for isolating us from those we are trying to influence, I do think that anthropologists ought to be able to write for a popular audience when occasion demands it, but I don’t think we need to reign in our enthusiasm when we are getting drunk with friends.

  3. Rex,

    Slow down a bit. I’ve got nothing against name-dropping while boozing with fellow anthropologists, nor against passion for the discipline. I enjoy both. Still, as a field, we now tend, I believe, to communicate less well than we could–in part because of the habitus Strong describes.

    The good news is that the habit(us) can be overcome. My first year I sucked as a teacher. My second year I was better. By the third I was getting to be pretty good.

    Still, it wasn’t until Kazuhiko Kimoto, the senior creative director who hired me as a copywriter, beat me over the head a few times that I truly became conscious of the need to get out of my own head and speak to my audience, offering new ideas but starting with language they understand.

    So, while I’ve got no problem with the proposition that jargon and in-group references are ways in which members of groups distinguish themselves from others (one of those “No, duh” things you learn in Sociology 101), I can’t help seeing the irony when people too addicted to this habitus turn around and complain because others don’t listen to them.


  4. The problem here is that you assimilate what is to me an interesting post about the reflexivity of studying humans while being human into a functionalist argument about ‘name dropping’ and boundary maintenance.

    If Strong were complaining about being a bad teacher, a poor copywriter, or unable to get a popular book published then I can see where he would be coming from. There’s nothing ironic about him not being interested (in this post) in doing the sort of stuff _you_ care about.

    I say this not because I feel the need to defend Strong (he can do that himself) but because of this assumption that actively living life as an intellectual is an ‘addiction’ that can, thankfully, be ‘overcome’ and that I or anyone else must automatically be a bad teacher because they are wrapped up in what they do, as you imply. How does the fact that people are not good at teaching when they try it for the first time come to be labeled a problem with ‘academic habitus’ rather than ‘inexperience’ and why is it that Strong’s biography is being figured here as a recapitulation of yours?

  5. Rex,

    Again, you are misreading me. I do not regard living life as an intellectual as an addiction. Au contraire, I find it a great and largely healthy pleasure. I use “addiction” only to refer to certain conversational habits, which, while they may be perfectly fine in conversation with other anthropologists, may be dysfunctional in the classroom or in trying to communicate anthropological insights to people unfamiliar with the names we drop or the theories to which we allude. I am simply responding to Strong’s remark,

    These pop up in our everyday speech in odd ways, sometimes amusing, sometimes surreal. They recreate (and test) academic habitus.

    and noting that the habitus in question may sometimes be a barrier to communication with those outside our academic tribe.

    Why do I care? I don’t think I’m mistaken to believe that our ability to do the research we want to do, reflect on what we have learned, and pass it on in classrooms depends, however much we may hate it, on the largess of legislators and corporate patrons who need good stories to persuade them that what we do is valuable. Speaking to a larger public in terms that public can appreciate is no longer an option to be despised but an urgent necessity on which our survival as a field may depend.

    That said, could we perhaps shift our attention to the latter half of Strong’s post and that vivid account of stripping away the detritus that once seemed so important to self-definition and moving to that ultraclean, modernist space in which Strong is now living? What to you make of that?


  6. “interesting post about the reflexivity of studying humans while being human”

    I wonder how is with the others: Has the anthropologist become kind of “natural observer” or has “the natural observer” (or “the observer by nature”) become the anthropologist?

  7. I find the way in which Orange phrases this question interesting, calling for a global judgment about “the” anthropologist, an ideal type if there ever was one. My own work is framed by the understanding that anthropologists are various, like the people whose lives they study. To use Clyde Kluckhohn’s famous trinity: Both are (1) in some respects like all other people, featherless bipeds, for example; (2) in some respects like some other people, the result of interaction with members of groups that share, for instance, language, ritual, cuisine, costume or a way of construing kinship and marriage; and (3) in other respects uniquely themselves. At the end of the day, both are human beings whose understandings of themselves and others are partial and largely mistaken, if examined with the critical eye of scientific method.

    The implication for fieldwork is, for me, nicely expressed in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Comment in Response to a Query from Novy Mir, where Bakhtin remarks that all cultural understanding involves dialogue between individuals who speak from different positions and perspectives. Or, to use more everyday terms, none of us sees ourselves as others see us. None of us is God, whose perspective reveals us as we truly are, in total, precise detail. Thus, ethnographic understanding emerges, like all human understanding, from conversation, in which multiple perspectives are required to even approach the truth.

    The serious questions of ethnographic method all, then, have to do with what we, as individual anthropologists, bring to the conversations that constitute our fieldwork. One of those questions surely concerns the biases generated by the issues and experiences that have shaped our own lives, as well as those generated by the theories and methods we use in the field. In this regard, I agree with the psychoanalysts, who demand rigorous self-analysis as a prelude and complement to the practice of their profession.

    But that is enough of how this anthropologist would answer Orange’s question. What do others have to say?

  8. Yes I think that this is the import of the ‘latter half of Strong’s post’. We all live situated lives, as we all well know. But anthropologists, unlike people doing bench science, are acutely aware that they are their own data collection instrument. The question then arises about how exactly we are constituted.

    I’m deeply skeptical of the possibility of projects which correct the biases of subjected situadeness in order to arrive at objective truth — as if we aren’t god but could triangulate her True Location with the proper calibration, and that enough reflexivity will allow us to work through the distortions introduced by our subjectivity such that we might find her. Possible or not, I’m skeptical about the value of the exercise at all, even if its couched in a ‘we may not reach the destination, but it’s the journey that matters’ sort of idiom.

    Strong’s sense of being, as Marx (or was it Bob Marley?) put it, possessed by his possessions actually points towards a different problematic that I find more interesting — not of overcoming the biases inherent in our personal identity, but the terrifying sense that we don’t have a personal identity, that it is an accomplishment tenuously kept in place by things as trivial as tshirts and tchotckes. And _that_ sense of the vulnerability and changeability — rather than the strength — of identity is born of the experience of dislocation that comes from fieldwork rather than the introspection that comes from a clinical encounter. I think this is particularly true of working, as we both did, in Papua New Guinea, where people very much have a sense of being composed of other things and people.

  9. I agree with skepticism concerning the “it’s the journey” metaphor. We do, I trust, still dare to hope that, while our journeys will never reach a Final Destination, we are, nonetheless, improving our understanding. The question is how to measure improvement.

    To fully embrace rejection of the omniscient observer implicit in what Geertz, speaking of Evans-Pritchard, called his “African transparencies” does not, however, imply that all perspectives are equal. And, speaking personally, I have never found a satisfactory substitute for the basics of scientific method, a collective and on-going conversation in which participants systematically compare hypotheses and data and make a point of going out of their way to search for falsifying evidence.

    I have learned through my own experience that the circumstances of fieldwork may make it impossible to collect data that admit of hypothesis testing in a rigorous statistical sense; also that working hypotheses may take the form of stories instead of mathematical formulas. But if, in the field or in writing up, I cannot be Isaac Newton or even Charles Darwin, I can still try to be at least Columbo or Hercule Poirot, reserving judgment and asking what the evidence tells me.

  10. You see the question I think Strong’s entry suggests is: who is this “you” person you keep talking about? And that’s a wierd question because we assume that most of the time we know. What the simplicity of pronouns hides, and what excavating your closet might reveal, is that it is actually a pretty difficult question to answer.

  11. It is interesting to look at how Western conceptions of identity are encoded in the narrative structure of our films – where the main character must always have an “arc” … That is one of the things wich makes a film like The Big Lebowski so interesting – he doesn’t really do anything, make anything happen, or change in any significant way.

    But what I find really interesting in Strong’s post (Rex if you want meta blog comments take a look at this) is the way in which he slides between physical and intellectual “posessions.” The books we own are possessions in many ways: physical objects, cultrual capital, and also ideas which shape our very sense of identity.

    Reading about the early/late periods of various scholars I sometimes wonder to what extent it makes sense to impose a single stable identity on to them. I know I myself am often overly influenced by the last (good) book I read …

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