WC25: Ethnography with Hugh Raffles and Kim Fortun

Each of the panels at the conference to honor the 25th anniversary of the publication of Writing Culture were titled with a single, simple word: Ethnography, Fieldwork, Theory; each featuring two presenters and a somewhat passive moderator from the Duke faculty. There was coffee and fruit salad. I greeted my friends and took a seat with Ayla next to a pair of poorly behaved elders who chatted amongst themselves through both presentations as if they were the only people in the room.

Kim Fortun began her talk on the production of ethnography in what she termed “Late Industrialism” or the world economic system since 1984. A lasting effect of Writing Culture has been to compel all of us to recognize the conditions in which ethnography is produced and to be aware of how dominant ways of understanding shape what ethnographers see. Today, Fortun said, that must include the media noise of Fox News and the mainstream refusal of scientific explanations – from climate change denial, to the rejection of evolution, and the denigration of experts as elitists.

Projected onto the screen behind her was a cycle of images of factories, corporate advertising, and environmental devastation. Ours is a world where amphibians have become the canary in the coal mine, their rapidly dwindling numbers and sensitivity to grotesque developmental mutations evidence of pervasive and invisible pollution in our air and water. Clearly, Fortun sees her work as addressing how humans experience and understand the environmental effects of industrialization.

Later in the conference she was praised for the juxtaposition of word and image in her presentation. I disagreed, I thought it was lazy. The degree of awareness brought to the text (as is fitting for a conference on Writing Culture) made the lack of engagement with the image especially pronounced.

Fortun’s driving question is this: What makes ethnography an appropriate “technology” for understanding and confronting the contemporary world scene? It is in ethnography, she said, that we find new possibilities to circumvent activism as usual, transformative ways to usher in the future. The audience was implored to design ethnography to be accommodating to open-endedness, the foreign and overlooked, conscious of historical conditions, and always engaged with internal critique.

Ethnography provides us with a powerful and effective way to read historical conditions that resist explanation. Invoking Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies, Fotun offered us a devil’s bargain of sorts. When confronted with “discursive gaps,” events and conditions that defy our ability to think and understand them, we are tempted to accept “discursive risk” by using familiar idioms of thought nonetheless. Cannot ethnography be used to break this cycle? Can the ethnographer say something different?

Ethnography can be used to describe, yes, but also to respond. In confronting the contemporary world system we need new knowledge, but also new knowledge forms. Ethnography’s greatest strength, Fortun said, lies in its ability to sally forth not knowing in advance what this response will sound like. In this sense the production of ethnography can come to resemble performance art. With ethnography we have a method that embraces the ignorance of the researcher. The anthropologist is one who can tolerate truly not knowing where one is headed. You begin a project quite literally not knowing how to end it, allowing it to be transformed in the process of bringing it into being.

Ethnography is not a town hall, but polyvocal. It is not about fairness or turn taking, but collaboration in that sense of laboring together. The job of the ethnographer, she imagined, is to set the stage for an encounter, to create a space for creativity where something new can emerge.

Fortun then went on to elaborate on two projects, one her own and the other a body of work she found exemplary (was it a student of hers or a colleague? I can’t recall): Asthma, the Foucaultian subjtivization of asthma patients, asthma research, air quality and industrialization; And, the US food delivery system, urban planning in the development of retail centers, food retail, and convenience stores – from the convenience store CEOs all the way to the cashiers.

Writing Culture, with its emphasis on the role of discourse in constituting the real, gave us language as a place to play. So run with it. Run with the possibility of fashioning ethnography into something other, whether that be writing a book, compiling an archive, or organizing an event. This is how we will confront, for example, industrial recklessness, or any other problem that won’t settle down. This is how we will address a popular culture that is shrill in its will not to know. Create a space for something new to emerge. Draw people in and set games in motion.

Hugh Raffles took the podium and mumbled shyly into the microphone.

“I can’t hear you,” the elderly woman next to me hollered, “Speak up!”

He adjusted the angle of the mic, “This is just the way I speak.”

“I’m not deaf!”

“There’s still some seats in the front,” he said still friendly. Unfortunately for us she and her obnoxious companion didn’t budge, contenting themselves with a steady stream of complaints.

Then she turned to me, “Has he written a famous book?”

Raffles began with a joke, his first impulse for this conference was to write a manifesto of sorts. One which would document, “everything that drives me nuts” about anthropology. One: we are not interrogators. Two: ethnography should not be like an abusive relationship. Everyone chuckled at his audacity before he slipped into his scholarly report which was, honestly, a bit of a shaggy dog story and something of a letdown compared to Kim Fortun’s righteousness.

Stones. Raffles seemed to be working on some kind of analytic meditation on rocks. He told a brief story about a walk on the beach where he and his companion encountered some unusually beautiful stones and a stray dog. The played fetch with rocks, the humans and the dog, until the game was over. He asked, “What can a stone do?”

Switching gears, Raffles gave us a history lesson on the London Stone, starting with a peasant uprising in the 1400s, tracing connections through Shakespeare to Dickens. Why is the London Stone significant? Is it, as some have declared, merely famous for being famous? Is there a connection to the Romans? To the Druids? The story of the stone became longer and more convoluted as Raffles cast the stone as “a portal to the past, sucking up ideas of the present.”

Some believe the London Stone is the city’s Palladium, that the well being of the city depends on its preservation. He described a number of events which led to the near destruction of the London Stone, most recently this has included urban development. To me the whole thing evoked Benjamin’s Angel of History turning around to face the detritus of history piled up like a regurgitated landfill.

Everyone seems to think the London Stone is significant, but nobody quite knows why. I fully expected this sacred geography to come round with a mystery novel’s twist ending. All that was missing was the occult paranoia of Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper story. But instead we went to China.

In China the right stone can do a lot. Speaking stones guide scholars and poets in their dreams and self-cultivation is valued as the basis for stone appreciation. Raffles had a number of compelling stories of the gifting of stones to important political figures from the times of feudalism through the Communist Party. These magical objects of desire grew to have such a high demand that their excavation was banned. Raffles spent time in China, interviewing stone aficionados and stone dealers, who told him of the role stones play in their meditation practices. The most special rocks were revered as teachers. “You can travel in a stone like that. You enter it and it enters you.”

The connection of the Chinese example to the previous two stories escaped me. There seemed to be a recurring theme of spirit, of people relating to and finding meaning in their environment. But there was also this problem presented by capitalism threatening sacred geography and the commodification of stones with special cultural value. The presentation reminded me somewhat of my own style of storytelling, which my friends often criticize as being too opaque or rambling. Now on the other side of it I appreciated better what they were trying to tell me. I made a mental note to do a better job of explaining why my stories matter in the future.

By way of conclusion, Raffles broke from his tales of stones to reconsider the possibilities of ethnography. He invoked George Marcus’s essay on “baroque ethnography,” and likened ethnography itself as listening to stones, the contemplation of stillness, searching for a way past an impenetrable surface. Finally, the audience was cautioned against ignoring the potential for finding self-transformation through ethnographic practice.

“Dreadful,” the woman next me declared, bathing me in her warm peanuty breath, “I hope they didn’t pay him.”

During the Q&A session she would take the microphone and call them both out for failing to produce actual ethnography (because neither one spent an extended period of time studying a single community, natch). Orin Starn picked this line of thinking up and rephrased it more generously as, “What is your investment in calling this ethnography?” A worthwhile question for anyone attempting an experimental writing piece (or performance art, as the case may be).

This panel reminded me of just how open-ended calls for anthropologists to contextualize and situate our studies really are. Context is inexhaustible! How do you know when to stop contextualizing? Or, how do you know which contexts to acknowledge and which ought to be glossed over?

I also truly appreciated Kim Fortun’s call to embrace that uncertainty in her description of ethnography as embracing not-knowingness and keeping comfortable with letting the “not yet” be.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

4 thoughts on “WC25: Ethnography with Hugh Raffles and Kim Fortun

  1. Nice post, Matt. Thanks for giving us the next best thing to a front row seat. I suspect that, having worked in advertising, I am better equipped than many to appreciate the thrust of the question, “Can the ethnographer say something different?” In the knowledge-work economy, nobody, ethnographers, copywriters, consultants…gets very far by only repeating what has been said before. That said, however, the constant pursuit of a new angle, a fresh insight, can easily lead to exoticism, to missing at least two parts of Clyde Kluckhohn’s maxim that in some respects every human being is like every other, in other respects like some others, and yet, perhaps in many respects, uniquely themselves. Confronted with a “discursive gap,” we always have to ask if failure to fill it is a matter of simple ignorance? Could it be that with a bit more study, a few more relevant facts, what seemed so mysterious turns out to be not all that very mysterious at all?

  2. This summary is far from “a front row seat.” I was there, and I think this is a poor representation of Raffles’ talk. “Recurring theme of spirit, of people relating to and finding meaning in their environment” is not Raffles’ concern.
    The jarring tone of this post is unpleasant and unprofessional (and not really humorous). It is too easy to say that Fortun’s use of images was “lazy.”

  3. Dragana, could we ask you for a summary of what you saw and heard? Just bitching is, I’m afraid, all too common “professional” behavior.

  4. I asked the camera man at the conference to email me when the video he was producing would be available online. No word yet as to when or even if the whole conference will be up, but there are now some short video segments I can post.

    Isn’t this neat? Imagine if the AAA put online every paper presentation, everyone roundtable. I’m really glad Duke did this. I had half a mind to bring my camera from home!

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