friendship as ethnographic virtue

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!).

malinowski’s account situated his relationships with people in the field somewhere in between utilitarian relationships (exchanges of information and tobacco) and those based upon the avoidance of boredom (i’m not sure whether aristotle had a category for these friendships, now the function of smartphones). friendships described in other ethnographic work turn out to be more complicated. for example, in appetites judith farquhar describes her friendship with an academic advisor in the early years of reform and openness in post-mao china. farquhar admits that their shared appreciation for pragmatic philosophers, common interests in philology, and long afternoons spent in study felt like love. farquhar employs her experience of friendships to examine transformations in chinese society. her discussion also underlines that friendship as an ethnographic value is not just the interpersonal relationship but its grounding in a shared practice: in farquhar’s case, a common friendship of language. but the friendship might as well be of sea urchins, songwriting, or second life.

in a little book that should get more attention from ethnographers, friends of interpretable objects, miguel tamen argues that interpretation consists of a set of peculiar uses of the verb “to say:” friends (and would be friends) of otherwise mute or unintelligible objects adopt a stance from which they have a warrant to decipher what the befriended would say were they to speak, a representation of what the befriended would say if the befriended could get our attention in our own language. these friends defer to the befriended in the sense that friends occupy a position in which they cannot be indifferent to the destruction or diminishment of the befriended. indeed, the friend perceives that such a loss would diminish herself. Whether befriended objects are sonic traces of history, elements of a contemporary soundscape, Enter the Wutang, songbirds, betelnut stands, or coral reefs, interpretation indicates an organization of a group of “friends” who advocate for, represent, or otherwise speak on behalf of these objects. It also means that the friends of such objects attribute to them intentions, rights, and liabilities which the friends are uniquely qualified to discern and elaborate. interpretive practices, says tamen, make all kinds of unexpected things speak but also bind the friends of those things into associations.

DJ gets a fishing lesson | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

along the pacific coast of taiwan where i do my ethnographic work, ‘amis men befriend but rarely speak on behalf of fish (they do frequently spear a few of them, however). when they do speak for fish, it is usually in response to the inquiries of a youth or the clumsy ethnographer who has just begun to befriend the ocean. sea urchins, they say, hold assemblies at night; some species of fish tease divers by making eyes or being adorably annoying (in taiwanese mandarin, sajiao). what’s more, the men view their friendships with marine creatures as necessary to a good life. although fish are food and the ocean a larder, the men feel an intimacy with the ocean that exceeds utility and that drives them to find sites to dive or gather wherever work might take them. recently an ‘amis friend visited boston. on the ride back from the airport he asked, “so boston is near the ocean. let’s micekiw (gather shellfish) tomorrow!” this desire, it seems to me, indicates that tamen might overstate speaking for the befriended; but there is a relationship between verbal and nonverbal ways of deferring to befriended objects. labor migrants in taipei during the 1970s have lived at construction sites, and days off with good weather found them seeking sites to renew their friendship with the ocean. in recent years, as taiwan’s pacific coast has been threatened with tourist development, many of these men have found themselves caught between a desire to speak for the ocean and their reluctance to join environmentalist movements.

shared friendships define how we produce ethnographic knowledge. to the extent that i have begun to understand labor migration or land rights disputes in the ‘amis town where i work, it has often been through registering the differences between my own friendship with the ocean and that of the ‘amis women and men with whom i live. this sort of registration occurs often in fieldwork and can sometimes be jarring. once while working on an earlier project in quanzhou, china, a friend with whom i shared a love for nightmarkets and religious processions–really all things naojiat (renao, noisy hot or bustling)–invited me to a friend’s rooftop to watch the execution, scheduled that afternoon in a nearby stadium, of at least a dozen death row criminals. the stadium would be closed, of course, but we could view the execution from the roof. it promises to be naojiat, he said. recoiling with disgust at the prospect, i wondered how i could have such a friend. lacking this moment, however, i might have missed the ambivalence of naojiat. the different stances we take in relationship to befriended objects need not provoke disgust or horror to be effective. the point is that we register them.

of course, many ethnographic works have focused on subjects that the ethnographer dislikes. christine yano, who has written a book on enka, readily admits that she is not a fan. i’m not at all a friend of mandopop or k-pop, but i need to listen to it. in these cases, are there other friendships that sustain ethnographic work? if friendship is an internal good of ethnographic work, we would expect to find it here, too.


deej / caraw is an ethnographer and sound installation artist currently working in ‘atolan, taiwan. his research interests include indigenous labour histories, gender, and the ethics of locality

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