so far, the constitutive goods of ethnography that i’ve talked about have been friendship and (an embodied awareness) of awkwardness. i’d like to see more of us take on vulnerability, because it seems to me that several of the recent mania in our discipline–most notably the hardness (quantitative) envy seen in some quarters, but also seemingly touchy-feely trendy topics like #affect–reveal distancing techniques meant to deny what we’ve known all along: not just that the fieldwork requires considerable vulnerability, but that like any other attempt of carrying experience over into knowledge, findings into academic conversation, the knowledge that we produce is vulnerable at every point it changes places, hands, or media. bruno latour has such vulnerability in mind when he talks of “referential chains” between soil samples and arguments about ecology and, i think, in his conversations of the sociotechnical “factishes” that make us act rightly
this is hardly the place to talk about latour’s arguments–it would make me far too vulnerable than i prefer–but i wonder why, apart from behar’s 1997 the vulnerable observer, we do not spend more time talking about vulnerability, if only to practice a kind of diligence. i don’t mean, by the way, the kind of diligence that has hedged ethnography about with a combination of IRB and rather patronizing ethics codes (not to mention a far too reactionary arguments about both). what i have in mind is more akin to the kind of “hyper and pessimistic activism” foucault talks about in his “genealogy of ethics,” an awareness of the dangers, the vulnerabilities that are part of our trade
perhaps i’m inclined to think about these questions: my teaching this semester has me reading behar in an intro class, as well as lu hsun’s “medicine”, a story about the limits of revolutionary violence that includes an astonishing–for such a cynical author as lu hsun–scene of vulnerable kindness. yes, a history hire at berklee college of music, i teach east asia from 1800. it’s good that i find in that bread and butter class a place to rehearse some of my research on taiwan, as well as my usually unconfessed love for chinese writers. lu hsun’s “medicine” is not, as many critics will tell you, an indictment of superstition or chinese medical ideas. it is actually a story that deftly juxtaposes extreme human cruelty and an act of socially transgressive care: a woman cares for the very woman whose blood the first woman’s son ingested as a “sure cure” to consumption. neither of the women know the fateful coincidence. still, a boundary of respectability divided them. the story is nonetheless very bleak. to me, that’s the point. vulnerability and sentimentality are not the same thing. lu hsun knew that, and i wonder whether anthropologists can tell similar stories
in ethnographic contexts, vulnerability refers to our situation in fieldwork, how we write and otherwise present our materials, and our sense of the vulnerability of the cultural phenomenon that we describe
mid way into my recent fieldwork in a’tolan, a village on the east coast of taiwan, one of my kapot (age mates) threw the large, obligatory send off party for his son, who was soon embarking on military service. all of the kapot attended. the next day, at breakfast, my kapot’s wife (the mother of the young conscript) cried as she talked with the women who worked the grill in the breakfast joint run by three other kapot wives. later that afternoon, we were having a beer. “why do you really come here every year,” she said, confronting me. when i told her, “it’s my work,” her look of dismay and partial disgust was evident. “i hope that you come here for more than just work. i hope that you love us. well, we think of you as more than just working.” i knew that; the women had attempted to arrange relationships that would, if they were realized, keep me more or less permanently in a’tolan (or at least nearby)
of course, i do think of my time in a’tolan as more than “just work,” but the details of my private life remain something between a real and public secret in a’tolan, even with my boyfriend–very conspicuous as a chinese american mathematician with no apparent reason to be there other than me–visiting the village for a month last year. as for those in on the public secret, even those who know that i am the “not marrying kind” have often joked about my progress (or lack thereof) in spearfishing and diving for sea urchins that “now you will (or how will you) be a good son in law.” these jokes are the gambit for longer discussions on ‘amis masculinity in general, but do i miss the point? the joke bids not an interview but some statement of commitment, a shared vulnerability
perhaps some of this vulnerability does come through when i’m with a group of aunties with whom i spend much time at a betel stand, conversing and sometimes crocheting hats. the men have left or are not yet back from work, so i am sitting with the women. the aunties say of my stitches, “a-de is sometimes like a girl.” i blush. they tell a few dirty jokes, asking if i understand. i blush again. later, they rope me into a performance at an indigenous community college event in taitung. for them, it is fun for us to be on stage together, but i’m of two minds, particularly when the reporter from liberty times wants to create of me a curiosity (and fit that within a nationalist narrative). but can i complain about people representing my life in a’tolan when registering the life of others in a’tolan is my stock in trade?
because i’ve written about it before, i won’t go into my decision to go on taiwan indigenous television more than to say that performing in this context had all of the pitfalls of being a televised foreigner in east asia, including the description of my ability to speak mandarin and a little ‘amis as “terrifying” (kongbu). i’ll try to understand that as “awesome.” but i wasn’t trying to be “caraw” to mark rowswell’s “dashan.” i cannot fill those canadian shoes. rather, i’m motivated by the sense, unavoidable around a’tolan and other ‘amis communities, that we will see sowal no ‘amis disappear in our lifetimes. certainly, one could see this fact as an opportunity to witness the process of language shift, including the transformation of mandarin to perform particularly ‘amis work. so why do i instead employ the language of loss rather than shift, defining sowal no ‘amis as a vulnerable object? why do i view this loss personally? is this a sentimental compulsion of our discipline, best removed from our work, or something else?
i think that it is something else, but i’m not sure that i need to write about my vulnerability more than write from it, in the sense of registering that it is present in and motivates the work. on the whole, i’ve found that my colleagues who are songwriters do a better job at this than anthropologists–but that’s a conversation for another blog post