As anthropologists we research compact and ornate cultural practices that can scale up to something larger. Our informants usually aren’t aware of how their statements and practices reflect larger issues evident in broad social theories and histories—if they did than the world wouldn’t have anthropologists. They are often surprised to discover how meaningful their lives are upon reading our interpretations and manuscripts. That is, all subjects except those who have already done the literary and library work needed to contextualize their lives and passions within larger theoretical and historical trajectories. These informant-authors, in effect, know who they are–or at least who they would like to be. Anthropologists have studied text-makers–scientists, journalists, and governmental scribes–and their texts can be obliquely read as reflexive documents. Rarer still are anthropological accounts of living subjects constructing autobiographical, political, or social scientific texts. These well-published informants present a problem and opportunity that needs exploration.
It is wonderful to have hyper-literate informants, collaborators, and subjects who write and publish books, articles, and blogs and make films, documentaries, television programs, and online videos. In the history of anthropology, however, this is rarely the case and because of this paucity anthropologists are at pains to construct theories that are native to the informant. I do not envy the anthropologist who must contextualize their subjects’ interviews and practices in terms of theories and theorists that are not a part of the subject’s worldview. Using French literary and poststructural theory to describe nonliterate tribal practices seems profoundly unanthropological and yet such practices proliferate in academic journalis at an astounding rate. We need to interpret local actions and performances with the aid of indigenous theory somehow devised from observations and pronouncements of subjects. For instance, in The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff identifies a local indigenous theory of the self emerging from island life in Indonesia and uses it to guide the contextualization of his gay and lesbi informants. My job is certainly easier than Tom’s because self-publishing subjects provide so much more already contextualized information with which to construct a local theory of identity and community. My informant’s published social scientific work does much of the nuanced labor of theory building for me. The citations and name-drops in their texts make explicit the forbearers, influences, and heroes an anthropologist would archaeologically extract and artificially graft onto the informant in later chapters of extrapolation and upward scaling.
What are the rare opportunities and theoretical complexities associated with doing ethnographic investigation into subjects’ lives that are already reflexively situated in autobiographical texts?
The problems include the fact that the informant/authors offer autobiographical documents about their lives in richly theoretical prose that threatens to trump the work of the anthropologist. Without the reflexive published documents the anthropologist’s primary job is to proceed to first order contextualization–what was the cultural context of this practice? What is this practice like in a comparative sense to other proximal native practices? The opportunities for the anthropologist working with this citation-rich autobiographical literature is to take the level of extrapolation and abstraction one-step further. With bibliography dense self-authored accounts, the first tier theorizing is sufficiently complete–they tell you where they are coming from–leaving the second level of extrapolation open to answering questions like: within the field of all possible indigenous theories why did the subject gravitate towards these influences? How does this native epistemology compare to others in similar–or more daringly–dissimilar contexts? Anthropologists working without self-textualizing subjects surely can get to this second tier of extrapolation but it is more difficult and the conclusions made in that ethereal space are more tenuous.
All anthropologists work with edited documents. This includes interviews which are themselves performed edits of quickly self-truncated statements. These edits–oral, performative, or textual–makes for excellent granular units of data. But at the fieldwork stage, anthropologists need more data not less, we need less self-awareness and self-censorship and more roguish personalities, off-the-cuff actions, and improvisational performances. We need the backstage along with the front stage. Self-editing is a social fact of life but such highly edited texts cut out several important phases that would have been instructive if observed–the subject’s first impressions; selective shuffling, ordering, and prioritizing of issues; the gathering of supportive sources and examples–these are all in the data rich realm of practices and negotiations around which subjectivity and the social self are framed and performed. For example, a ghost writer is writing a book for one of my informants and I want to get the transcripts, edits, and feedback in this process to see how they are contextualized by themselves and the ghost writer for a perceived and corporately constituted audience. Finely edited books, combed over by agents, managers, editors, and colleagues do not furnish such raw data.
To what degree should we be critical about how these authors prefer to textually edit themselves into particular subjectivities? Contradicting or challenge author’s stated affiliations and origins is a practice in literary studies for revising the preferred automatic claims of dead authors but like stamping non-indigenous theory on indigenous data this too is quite unanthropological. The safe route is to step off from this first tier of reflexive theorizing into a higher level of abstraction. The more dangerous path is to read the authors cited by the informant and develop a still deeper sense of indigenous theory–this is going textually native–revealing where the informant glossed over contradictions and leaned on over-simplifications in arriving at their particular framing of the self. Using this critical textual reading of reflexive indigenous theory the jump into the second tier can be made along with the informant’s peers and mentors.