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


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

26 thoughts on “vulnerability

  1. I apologize for this shameless self-promotion, but I have written a little on the concept of vulnerability. See these blog posts

    And my essay in this year’s Imponderabilia called “Becoming Vulnerable”

    I agree that it is an essential part of our ethnographic experiences, and thank you for sharing your own experiences with us.

  2. 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.

    When I was trained in Rogerian active listening skills to work as a volunteer on a telephone crisis counseling line, the trainer made a point of saying at the beginning, We are all sure to hear things that touch hot buttons in us. Do not deny them. Learn to accept them, put them aside, and be there for the caller. My takeaway, which has served me well in both fieldwork and business, is not to let my own vulnerabilities get in the way of my ability to empathize with the vulnerabilities of the others with whom I am working. I have since observed that this ability is often described in sales training literature as the key to becoming a successful salesman. That, of course, raises other, ethical issues. To what extent should keen empathy and awareness of vulnerabilities both in ourselves and in others be allowed to become a tool of manipulation, even destruction. One thinks of Ender in Orson Scott Card’s SF novel Ender’s Game, who so empathizes with his alien enemy that he can anticipate their every move and, in the end, commit genocide.

  3. An excellent post! I was wondering though if we might consider a more complicated nature of vulnerability so that it could encompass all of its uses in anthropology. All of the examples you mention in your post are an excellent picture of the kind of individualized vulnerability in which we place ourselves on a daily basis. Latour’s discussion of the causality between soil samples and safe levels of toxic exposure to pesticides might be considered a kind of disciplinary vulnerability of individual scientists, as such interpretations of causality are acceptable if and only if the rest of the academy deem them to represent the “truth”. Perhaps even more relevant to this post, is Ulrich Beck’s formulation of coping with risk (for instance, the risk of exposure to agrochemicals) as part of the process of individualization. With Lu Hsun, there definitely is an element of the 1st woman making herself vulnerable by caring for the woman who’s blood is a supposed cure, which ultimately (true to Lu Hsun’s cynicism) fails, for her son. I hesitate here to comment (i.e. place myself within a vulnerable position 😉 on your own vulnerability in the field, but I’d like to reflect on these two examples you’ve paired with your own, and perhaps you could do the same with your own work (making us vulnerable together).
    I believe Latour would argue that the disciplinary vulnerability we place ourselves within is altogether guided by the nature of the academy, namely publish our perish. The only way to publish and survive in the academy is to make ourselves vulnerable. Many of us will not succeed (most likely including myself). But I believe Latour’s point is that we have two options regarding this vulnerability and the nature of the academy as feeding into our vulnerability in publishing our work and thus the construction of “facts” or rather “factishes”. We can 1) accept it and continue to allow the processes of producing “factishes” to remain embedded (or even hidden) in the creation of knowledge or 2) make ourselves even more vulnerable by exposing, bringing such processes into the light of the scientific endeavor much as we would the biochemical processes of carcinogenic agrochemicals found in soil samples. I find that the second point is quite similar to Paul Robbins hatchet…but more importantly it seems that Latour has brought the “seed” much more into the foreground of political ecology than anyone before him. In other words, it is not good enough simply to expose “factishes” and “publish or perish”, we also need to move beyond the critique to find solutions as well.
    Conversely, I would argue that Ulrich Beck’s formulation of risk and risk society truly takes the critique of vulnerability to the extreme that Latour warns us about. I was stunned by Beck’s inability to recognize that people have both the ability to cope with or even resist risk. While he may be calling for academia to find solutions for producing knowledge with risky consequences before such knowledge is unleashed upon humanity, it seems awfully tangential to his underlying argument that risk produces a downward spiral of individualization and greater concern for and production of risky knowledge (…which produces more risk…which…). Thus I think drawing from Latour as you have is a perfect foundation.
    Lu Hsun is indeed a very provocative way of engaging with the concept of vulnerability in a class on East Asian History. I don’t disagree with your interpretation of his focus on the juxtaposition of the “extreme human cruelty and an act of socially transgressive care”, but that juxtaposition exists precisely because all of Lu Hsun’s works brought to light the structural contradictions (at least in his mind they were contradictions for coping with modernity) found in Chinese culture and more so politics. In this case that critique is about the supposed fallacy and amorality of the curative powers of Chinese medicine. The critique is not the basis of the story, but it allows for that juxtaposition to exist, because while Lu Hsun recognized the “extreme human cruelty” in the story, Chinese society did not…at least not until Lu Hsun placed his literature talents into the social discourse to bring these issues to light. And he expects a resolution such social ills as well, right? Thus he writes the crow as darting off into the horizon or the unknown…but he doesn’t know what the solution may be, just that it will be something different. Medicine is an extremely complex piece precisely because of the cultural elements he is critiquing. I wish I could find an English copy of (what I translate as) “Death by Fire” as I think it is easier to grasp Lu Hsun’s concept of vulnerability as both an individualized choice but also one that is influenced by the pressure and constraints placed on us by society.
    I see your struggle with both these aspects of vulnerability, particularly when you’ve been describing the influence of Mandarin in the disappearance of the ‘amis language. I’ve had this precise struggle in my own work in Southern Sichuan both with language “loss/shift” and loss of biodiversity (not to mention cultural complexity) in agricultural processes. And certainly the most difficult part of this process is finding that solution which both Latour and Lu Hsun expect but I suppose it is up to us to find the answer. That said I read an insightful comment by an AnaLouise on Jeremy’s (who I still owe an e-mail reply to regarding Latour and more importantly Sloterdijk!…I promise its coming!) blog, that we can’t force people to be vulnerable or cope with vulnerability, but rather that it is important to model vulnerability to provide people the kinds of information they need to make decisions that can head of possible negative consequences for themselves and society in general. This is the kind of work found in applied anthropology around the world, but the purpose of that modeling it is rarely put so eloquently as you have here. 加油!

  4. Latour’s discussion of the causality between soil samples and safe levels of toxic exposure to pesticides might be considered a kind of disciplinary vulnerability of individual scientists, as such interpretations of causality are acceptable if and only if the rest of the academy deem them to represent the “truth”.

    This is an incorrect use of IFF. The conditions under which soil samples are good evidence is not constrained by the acceptance of the academy, but on the way the sample is chosen, the nature of the tests performed, and a number of other variables, all of which are valid independently of whether they are recognised as such. The acceptance of the academy is merely an indication of the validity of the study, and not a condition, let alone the sole condition, of it.

  5. Who determines what is an appropriate way a sample, test or variable is chosen to answer a research question? How is a variable, test and sample valid no matter what the scientific community thinks? Why is the acceptance of the academy that a study represents the truth not a condition of its validity?

  6. Sorry I meant to write:
    Just to clarify can you explain:
    Who determines what is an appropriate way a sample, test or variable is chosen to answer a research question? How is a variable, test and sample valid no matter what the scientific community thinks? Why is the acceptance of the academy that a study represents the truth not a condition of its validity?

    I’m not asking to challenge your points, but rather to understand how you formulate your argument.

  7. Are you kidding? The acceptance of the academy is technically unnecessary because there is a real world outside of your head. Truth is not determined by the academy. It is instead discovered by investigating the world. Of course, we can only ever have a partial truth – science relies on no more than this – and of course, the problem of induction means that we can never be certain about the relationship between a sample and a causal principle, no matter how many samples we have. But truth is clearly not determined by the academy. Imagine if the academy chose to believe that only small, deliberately unrepresentative samples constituted valid evidence. Would they determine the truth? Of course not. The truth would be the same regardless of their stupid claim, which is why the acceptance of the academy is not a condition of the validity of a study.

    At best, Latour is simply restating the problem of induction. At worst (and probably the most reasonable interpretation, given Latour’s anti-realist proclivities), he is denying the existence of reality. As ever with that charlatan, the choice is between a mundanity answered by philosophers two hundred years ago or an insane pile of drivel that nobody could possibly believe.

  8. Sorry – responded before I saw your second comment! I thought that you were seriously endorsing the idea that the academy determines truth. That is how I would phrase my objection to the idea, in any case.

  9. Hi Al,
    Many thanks for your reply (and 2nd reply…my bad on that first posting of my questions), even despite all the snarky remarks. I’ve heard that there are some who disagree with the work of Latour but you are the first I’ve yet to encounter who has such a virulent dislike of his work. I had to ask those questions to understand your perspective better and now I do. Regarding my use of IFF being an inappropriate conditional statement, I have a feeling that we will end up at a stalemate. It does not seem possible to me that you can demonstrate that any one variable in such a study has not been required , at one time or another, to be validated by the academy, or humanity for that matter, as a *condition* for producing, acquiring and transmitting new knowledge. And you probably don’t believe that I can (And I frankly do not have the time to) prove to you that each of the methods and theories in such a study have gone through that process of validation. But in fact, it’s not necessary at all. Yes, you are correct there is a reality outside of our heads. No one, including Latour, is arguing to the contrary. Good lord the first 24 pages of Pandora’s Hope says explicitly that he is not arguing for the denial of existence. But here’s the point (or at least how I see it), before we undertake a study we make a host of assumptions that the tools, standards, variables, and tests we use to produce more knowledge have already been validated by the academy. Yet there is absolutely nothing wrong with critically inquiring into the origin of these assumptions and how those assumptions will be interpreted by others who may try to apply the results of your study. Why wouldn’t we ask who was/is responsible for the integration of such assumptions into a body of knowledge? What biases did/do they bring into the production of that knowledge before that assumption became a necessary tool for the creation of knowledge? How do policy makers interpret such assumptions differently? Such questions are just a demonstration of good science. It is another way to progress the field, because through a critical reflection it is possible to come up with better tools, standards, variables and tests. A perfect example is an interdisciplinary project on dam modeling ( near and dear to my heart. It started as does every project, with a literature review to synthesize and simplify all of the major variables that help us understand the impact of building a hydropower dam. Then you bring your indicators of impact on the road…literally you go to conferences and you debate with your colleagues as to the validity of the indicators you’ve chosen…trust me you never please everyone. But no one is saying that tools, standards, variables and tests have to be approved by every single person in the Academy before it can enter the Halls of Truth or even Partial Truth as you mention. But discovering “truth” is far from the only purpose of the scientific endeavor (or any knowledge producing endeavor for that matter), correct? Much of our work, as academics and human beings, is simply done to discover *useful* (but always incomplete) knowledge, regardless if its trying to determine the optimal way to construct a hydropower dam while protecting the rights of those that live in the impact zone and the ecological resilience of the riparian watershed or trying to classify plants and animals according to a series of taboos which make sense in your local cultural context. In an applied sense, if no one supports your tools, standards, variables and tests, then it is highly unlikely that they will find your knowledge useful. But there are also reasons why people (in the academy or outside it) may not agree with your tools, standards, variables and tests. That’s one of the reasons that the dam project (yes “dam fill-in-the-blank” was a running joke in the group) was so intriguing. After collecting our data comparing multiple dam sites, on multiple river-basins, we asked stakeholders (including academics) to evaluate the models. And from a comparison of those evaluations across stakeholder background we determined how individual bias influences the outcomes of their evaluation. Sadly I’m not sure how far along the results of that comparison have progressed as I left for Hong Kong before that process took place. But conceptually, as an applied tool, if such comparisons are placed in the public record it holds the stakeholders accountable for their evaluation and the bias they exhibit. Certainly, in some political contexts this may not be a perfect solution (Normally, I’d say it wouldn’t work in a place like China, but it depends on who is running the model and the evaluations…that’s a longer post perhaps), but I believe it is a step in the right direction. Moreover, I believe this is precisely the kind of step that Latour is arguing for, and not the extreme anti-realism (“Do You Believe in Reality?”) that he is supposedly supporting. So, as it turns out, I suppose I wasn’t kidding.

  10. Let me put it like this: Since there is a reality outside of our heads, the only way in which the approval of the academy could be a condition of the validity of a study is if the academy changed the way in which reality is. Studies are not necessarily intended to be persuasive or rhetorical, and are instead intended to be demonstrative – to represent, as accurately as possible, conditions in the world. And even studies that are intended to be useful are supposed to accurately represent reality as a precondition of their utility. A study is therefore valid if it accurately represents the state of affairs in the world, and this is clearly possible regardless of the academy’s approval.

    Yes, studies are sometimes intended to be persuasive or useful rather than merely representing what is true, but the truth of the claims on which the utility of the study is based is independent of the approval to move ahead with a plan of action on the basis of the study (because, again, there’s a world outside our heads). At no point is the approval of the academy a condition, let alone the sole condition, of the validity of any attempt to find out the truth, and that is just what a study is. What is true is true regardless of whether anyone believes it is. The idea that the approval of the academy is a condition of the validity of any study could be so only if the academy is never wrong – that is to say, only if it changes reality and is the arbiter of it. And that is an anti-realist position.

    Clearly, the academic reaction can give a good idea of how valid a paper is, as can repeated studies. But these aren’t arbiters of truth. Perhaps we should go and ask Alfred Wegener how he feels about the idea of the approval of the academy as the condition of validity.

    I realise, by the way, that Latour has argued that he isn’t an anti-realist, claiming that he is a “super-realist” or some such. But that’s only because he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that a super-realist is an anti-realist. If you believe that what people believe to be true is true (as Latour claims, deliberately ambiguously, in Reassembling the Social), then you have a problem when two people believe mutually contradictory things, because they can’t both be right – unless, of course, there’s no real world, in which case of course two mutually contradictory ideas can both be true. Either he’s deeply muddled, and not worth listening to, or he’s a charlatan, and not worth listening to. As everything he has ever written has been contrived to be ambiguous – either a ridiculous proposition that no one could ever believe or a trivial statement – I tend towards the charlatanry interpretation.

    I find it hard to believe that I am the first person you have come across who dislikes Latour. Have you never heard of Alan Sokal?

  11. Hi Al,
    What I mean to say is you are the first person I’ve had a dialogue with who is averse to Latour’s work. It would be impossible to read Latour and not know who Sokal is…but sadly I must say I am not going to go down the Science Wars Rabbit Hole with you on Savage Minds today.


  12. Well, that is disappointing. I always find the support for continental philosophy to be elusive, and it always disappears when challenged. It’s almost as if no one is sincere in their support of it.

  13. And I find recreating the Chicken-Egg argument of the Science Wars to be a waste of my time. I don’t read continental philosophy (or anything for that matter) so I can spend time defending it, but rather applying it. I hope you are able to curl up around your printed copy of “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, have a good laugh, and sleep well knowing the world outside your head will be there in the morning. I know it will be there too. Cheers.

  14. This isn’t a laughing matter. Latour now has a position at Harvard, for Christ’s sake. And no one – no one – seems willing to defend his work. All anyone says is that they can ‘apply’ it, as if pseudo-philosophical ruminations are of some amazing practical use. It is the ultimate example of the emperor’s new clothes. At a time when science is being threatened from all sides by anti-scientific beliefs, jeopardising the democratic process in many countries, including the USA, it’s a real travesty.

  15. Al, which Latour would you like to see defended? I ask because, based on the Wikipedia entry that I have just read, Latour’s thinking is a moving target and in his later works Latour is often himself highly critical of ideas presented in earlier works. I would say that he is a liminal thinker, one who is constantly pushing the envelope of conventional wisdom to see what happens. Sometimes he offers an important idea, e.g., look at what scientists actually do when they say they are doing science, as opposed to taking on blind faith the fairy tale versions of science we are taught in K-12 education. Sometimes things sound a bit crazy. Should pieces of lab equipment be treated as agents on a par with the scientists who manipulate them? Perhaps not, but to ask the question is to stimulate thinking about the assumption that the equipment used can be treated as neutral medium of the scientist’s manipulations–not a bad thing that.

    But of course these same considerations apply to those who say that they “apply” Latour, which too often means a cookie cutter approach to anecdotes filled with cherry-picked {mis}information instead of pursuing the questions he raises with rigorous, independent thought. The later Latour appears’ at least on the basis of that Wikipedia article, to be as disturbed as you are about use of ideas about social construction and the impossibility of definitive proof to deny validity to science and reducing scientific thinking to a par with magical thinking in religion, politics, etc.

    So, I ask again, which Latour would you like to see defended? And what is the point of demanding a defense?l

  16. As you point out, it isn’t possible to defend Latour as a whole, because he has – I believe deliberately – presented himself as a moving target. But of course, it is possible to defend his ideas, and more importantly, to defend their use elsewhere in the academy. (Or, at least, it is possible to attempt to defend them.) Latour was part of the anthropology curriculum and reading list when I was at Oxford, and I read Reassembling the Social for a seminar. The position espoused in that book is the one with the greatest impact in the social sciences, as far as I can see, and it is also either utterly mundane or utterly insane. The wiki article on him has quite a good section on the book, and outlines the interpretation that I believe is most likely to represent the man’s real views – the insane interpretation, in which Latour misunderstands what metaphysics is, what explanation in social science is, how ontology is different to epistemology, and so on. I have never seen anyone defend the ideas in that book because, simply, they’re insane, and they do indeed appear to deny the existence of a real world outside of our heads. And yet, they’re really popular.

    So it’s not so much that I want a defense of Latour, because that is probably impossible. It’s that I want a defense of the ideas that have gained currency in social science, and especially the ideas in Reassembling the Social that have become commonly cited by academics and commonly found on course reading lists. And the reason I want a defense is because these ideas are really dumb.

  17. Why ask for a defense if you have already concluded that the ideas are dumb? If you want to attack them, nobody is stopping you some meat on the bones of your reasons for calling them insane. That might provoke some useful debate. Just fuming about them does nothing but encourage the notion that debating with you is going to be much fun or a learning experience.

  18. I have repeatedly put meat on those bones, and whenever I do so, the defense disappears – the Latourian army retreats into the forest. The ideas can’t be challenged because no one defends them, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. If they’re good ideas, and I don’t get it, then I’d like someone to explain that to me, but no one ever has. And, believe me, with Latour, I have tried. I have attended lectures, read books, talked to people. I even read that drecky book, The Prince and the Wolves. If I’m wrong, no one has let me know it. And if I’m right, then what I want is not so much a defense of the ideas but a defense of their use and application anywhere in the academy. Why promote Latour? Why cite his books? Why give him a visiting professorship at Harvard? Again, it seems like a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Perhaps I’m not clever enough to see the clothes, but at the very least, no one seems willing to defend their existence.

  19. this argument would have been interesting in, um, 1996 maybe.

    i have no desire for “defending” latour against dogmatists; however, i should give my reason for making a reference to him (albeit a reference that unfolded into a very uninteresting, and from the standpoint of my post, irrelevant, argument ). my reference was very limited: latour, say what one will about his programmatic arguments, describes in great detail the particular vulnerability of technologies intended to make us act rightly (such as certain kinds of keys, speed bumps, or automatic seat belts) and the vulnerability of data as transferred and translated into the world of arguments about facts. i merely intended to say, “what if we focused on the moment of translation / mediation of my experience, with its own set of vulnerabilities, from ethnographic experience into the terms of anthropological knowledge? we might see a different set of vulnerabilities, and indeed very interesting ones, at that moment.” this sort of question, i think, is better than rather obvious critiques of ethnographic authority or anthropological writing. these vulnerabilities may not, as it turns out, require an autobiographical fixation–even if our posing the question is reflexive. so what the post was asking was how we might explore ethnographic vulnerability

  20. As Reassembling the Social was published in 2005, the discussion would have been impossible in 1996. And I don’t think the problem of realism and anti-realism, and its impact on social science, is something that has a sell-by date. I’m also not a ‘dogmatist’, by the way, and I would genuinely like to be convinced by arguments about Latour’s work. I just haven’t seen any. And the idea that outspoken opposition to bad ideas is dogmatism is a pretty well-known way of shutting down discussion, which only allows bad ideas to proliferate.

    My apologies for the way the comments have gone, by the way. On this site you can never assume that the discussion will continue around you, for whatever reason, so I’m sorry for the diversion.

  21. Al, I wouldn’t call you a dogmatist. But let me break it to you, in our discussions here you certainly come across like one. You present yourself as someone who knows what is real and describes any other view as insane. You say that you are asking for debate, but when push comes to shove it is always my way or the highway. Is this any way to make friends and influence people?

    Now, I can almost hear you roaring, “I am not here to make friends and influence people. I am looking for the truth.” Given the interactions in which we have participated here, I would certainly believe that. The trouble is, in my case, it sounds too much like my dad, a deeply religious man for whom the world was black and white and he knew absolutely which side he was on. That may not be a factual description of you. It is absolutely a factual description of the way you come across to me—and I, too, see myself as a defender of science in an age of unreason.

  22. “what if we focused on the moment of translation / mediation of my experience, with its own set of vulnerabilities, from ethnographic experience into the terms of anthropological knowledge? we might see a different set of vulnerabilities, and indeed very interesting ones, at that moment.”

    DJ, please extend this thought. What interesting vulnerabilities do you see in this moment of translation?

  23. You present yourself as someone who knows what is real and describes any other view as insane.

    Not any other view – just the view that in order to explain human social activity we have to abandon the idea that there is a single real world outside of our heads, as Latour proposes. When did that become a realistic possibility for anyone to accept? How did that become so mainstream that it is represented at one of the best universities in the world? Again, if it’s because I’m missing something, I really want to know, but everyone seems to know already that the idea isn’t defensible. Does no one have the courage of their convictions?

    I’m aware that I argue vehemently, but that’s because if I believe something, I make sure I have a good reason for it. And it seems to me as if it’s a peculiarity of anthropology to avoid confrontation, to always try to reconcile ideas, even the worst of them, with one another, and to privilege the feelings of others over attempts to find out the truth, even when the feelings are petty and the truth of considerable importance. I just like to hope that the people with whom I am talking don’t have excessively fragile egos. It isn’t as if I spend my time insulting other people – I haven’t even insulted Latour, in fact. Is everyone so afraid of accusations of dogmatism that they won’t even defend the ideas that they have turned into their livelihoods? And does no one else find this bizarre?

  24. @john
    there are several pieces here.
    i’m thinking about the choices that one makes when translating–the sorts of reasons that malinowski tells us to take notes in “the field language;” but, as is the case where i work, there is no single field language but several, the vulnerability of translation is compounded. but here i am, trying to write an article in english or in mandarin, so i need to make choices about diction and form that betray as well as mediate.

    vulnerability also in terms of how we pull experience into the framework of conversations in the discipline. why this conversation and not some other one? does it / should it just give me the willies a little when i’ve created a piece of “data” which i can transpose into different arguments–something very different than my experience because it is relatively stable and can be moved from context to context? for all of the ink that’s been spilled about the fieldworker’s biography we actually see very little about these sorts of critical choices and constructions. what would making that visible mean?

    vulnerability, as well in terms of our choice of audience. one of my recent projects has been thinking about some combination of concerts and songwriting workshops as a form–somewhat like ethnographic film, but of course a bit distant from recognized conventions of anthropology. working on this project has me asking more about how we might make our work more available, which is also a question of vulnerability.

    those are just a few of my hunches. (and @al) what i’m really advocating by opening the latour box is a painstaking reflexive attention to how we actually _work_ and not just to _texts_. i think that we can agree that the way we compose the networks that we call “a world” does differ according to specific social practices. that sounds like a basic anthropological position to me. as for our own vulnerability, i also would argue that these practices of composition deserve our attention, both “in the field” and “in the office”

  25. and btw

    @eddie thanks for talking about lu hsun. let me know about some of your work on language and biodiversity in sichuan; i’m more or less swimming with problems of both right now (literally, because one of the current problems talked about most in a’tolan is the decline of the ocean fishery). you can always email me

    @john i suspect that ethnographers might have something to learn from social workers and psychologists on this score

  26. DJ, I am intrigued by what you are saying here. I am pretty sure that most of us have felt awkward and unsure when translating, deciding how much to reveal in professional presentations of self, and marketing what we do to new audiences. What I am trying to figure out is what choosing “vulnerability” as a unifying theme adds to conventional ways of talking about these issues. After all, Traduttore, traditore (To translate is to betray) is practically a commonplace among translators. Malinowski’s diaries are a good example of why it may not be wise to let it all hang out when we write. Every performer has experienced stage fright when confronting a new audience.

    Please note, I am not saying that “vulnerability” is wrong. I am trying to figure out what it brings to the table when we discuss these kinds of issues. I am treating this as an ethnographic problem, like trying to sort out the differences as well as the overlaps between shen (Chinese) and kami(Japanese) and the multiple senses of the English “God.”

    I find myself musing around the various suggestions found in such phrases as “vulnerable position,” “vulnerable population,” “vulnerable city,” and “vulnerable self and thinking about vulnerability to external factors relates to vulnerability to internal factors, which are seen as weakness or betrayal. Don’t know where this is going yet, but I’d like to hear more of what you are thinking.

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