Last night I had the pleasure of attending my first anthropology conference/guess speaker at Concordia. The chosen room was pretty small to fit such a well known anthropologist, and it filled up fast. Max, Enkerli and I (members of a secret society of Concordia bloggers) agreed to all write up the event. Enkerli decided to one up us all and twittered the whole thing while it was ongoing.]
Fabian’s work has popped up in a few classes I’ve taken, and I latched on to its rebellious, critical tone/attitude. This conference however was extremely polite and well mannered as there were no yelling matches or even debates (perhaps with more time there would have been). It was a nice way to be introduced to Fabian’s new book “Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive.”
He found inspiration for the book through his attempts to archive documents he had created years past. As the online archive took shape, he realized that such “virtual” archives could have a profound influence on the way ethnography is done. He argued that the Internet would in this way “invigorate ethnography” by freeing it from conventions of traditional publishing. [you can bet I'll be going through the recording I made to find juicy quotes to support my thesis]
Fabian’s archive brings traditional ethnographic documents and makes them available online so that others can comment on, and see the underlying documents he used to write up the book. It is part of anthropologists efforts to make the processes by which events are observed and made into documents more transparent.
In the section of his talk titled “Crossing Borders” Fabian discussed the way he broke away from traditional ethnographic method and how such a departure was enormously beneficial. He argued that there should be no focus on a specific method, since it needed to adapt and that every time he did ethnography he did it differently.
He entered the event [which forms the base of his ethnography] not as an ethnographer, but as a client. He hired a sorcerer/magician to do a protection ritual for his house after having been broken into. In this way he was a client and not a participant-observer (at least in the beginning.) At some point during the ritual he realized he probably wanted to jot down some notes, and he wonders if this is the point where a necessary duplicity occurred. He was an honest client, who engaged the sorcerer to protect his house. At some point along the way he began to look at it ethnographically, and he states that this kind of duplicity is unavoidable and not something to be seen negatively. This was perhaps his way of de-emphasizing the term “participant-observer” and its neutral connotations. The ethnographer is not neutral, nor objective, and this isn’t a problem. [kinda felt like we were past this, but rock on there are a lot of people still holding on to the scientific side of anthro so it probably needs to be said over and over].
For Fabian ethnography is about crossing borders while making a record of the crossing. He discussed how he stepped out of Western rational thinking by hiring a sorcerer to protect his house, which was an act of transgression. I don’t like the way he assumes a Western rationality vs other forms of rationality, but it probably appeals to many anthropologists so he certainly knows his audience. If you want to hear about Western rationality, ask me about how I cast a protection spell last week on my condo :) So to wrap this section up, he deemphasized participant observation, and instead emphasized the act of recording and performing (epistemological duplicity in his words).
Ethnography and Literary Form
He opened up this section with a more typically Fabian question: “Is it simply too late to write ethnography?” His point being, literary forms are bound to specific times and perhaps the time had come to bury it. He used this question however to feed into his argument that the Internet and archiving might instill ethnography with new energy.
He argues that there was a lot to be said for commentary as a literary genre in ethnography, discussing the ability for both the text and commentary to be presented online. In this way, the text made of an event would be presented along with comments on the text, within a community of readers. He called this the “co-presence”. This sounds a lot like the blogsphere, but unfortunately when I asked him if he read anthro blogs he responded he simply did not have the time (booo!) but that he was aware a lot was going on in anthropology there (here).
So without having read the book, I am a bit disappointed that his talk was oblivious to so much that is going on online. Archiving interviews and discussions isn’t really new, but such is life – it really is impossible to keep up with everything going on in Anthropology. Further he downplayed ethical issues involved with making documents so very public, saying that yes he did everything he could to avoid publishing damaging information, but he did not go into detail as to what this involved other than differentiating damaging words from critical ones.
His virtual archives involve bringing traditional ethnographic documents into a public archive. He did not discuss *creating* the documents in public like anthro bloggers are doing, nor did he discuss the ability to use other peoples public documents (ala doing research online).
He argues that “the presence of an ethnographic text” necessitates “the absence of the event it documents”. Interestingly Enkerli was twittering away while the conference was going on (I just wanted to argue with the obvious, but Fabian did not go into any detail as to how online archives could provide for different ways of recording information). Yes, he only had an hour, and I haven’t read the book so its hard to be critical.
Personal note: I dislike the term “virtual” archive, and think “archive” is good enough, but he cast some linguistic magic and argued that the word actually came from virtue – and hence should be interpreted as giving strength (thats very nice, but I’ll stick to a much simpler single word “archive” and let others debate its virtual/real/imagined properties).
On method, he argues that one of the greatest things about anthropology is the lack of consensus and shared habits. The state of anarchy is actually an asset which gives the ethnographer freedom, which is why some ethnography works. I have to agree, I’ve been free to invent methods to approach the questions I found interesting and relevant. But I think a lot of fields do this, and perhaps cover it up after the fact.
He finally got into some nice controversy when he talked about ethics and ethnography, arguing that no code of ethics would give legitimacy to ethnography, and that instead legitimacy depended on “habits of disciplined inquiry”. (go swap habits of disciplined inquiry everywhere you see “method” and boom, problem again).
I enjoyed his position that the best research was done free of grant money and grant control. I try to approach everything I do honestly, from a flexible “unforced” position. In this way I manifest genuine motivation and interest in the topic/task. I wonder if this reflects the reasoning behind Fabian’s statement. Maybe he was trying to cheer up us poor Concordia students and our 1 or 2 SSHRC grants, while we sat next to McGill students and their bigger budgets!).
Who is he writing for? He writes his ethnography for other ethnographers. So count him out of the “public anthropology” field, and kick me in the head for not asking him more questions about this. I would love to hear if he thinks anthropology should be a more public discipline.
What do we do when ethics boards ask that we destroy our field notes after a certain period?
Sign it and forget it.
(Thanks to Dr. Amit for the great question).
Does he support the HTS? (Woooot great question) (And no it wasn’t from Max!)
NO COMMENT. (BOOO!)
But then he followed up with a few points which perhaps allude to his position:
anthropology has always served power, (more linguistic magic), “statistics” comes from some word meaning “state knowledge”).
He argued that ethnography can’t be used unless you do it. This is pretty interesting, since I agree that I can’t imagine how many ethnographies I’ve read could be used by the military in any way except perhaps to put people to sleep. He argues that ethnography is a “trivial method of information gathering” and that without actually doing ethnography there is little in it of value. Again Fabian downplays the importance and value of structured method, and he reinforces the fact that ethnography is written for ethnographers.
Perhaps contradictory, he argued that interlocutors (his term for informants, since he is against the idea that ethnography is about getting information – but I’d like to hear more on this position) should perhaps be listed as co-authors, but not be burdened with the responsibility of authorship (blame for bad writing, misrepresentation etc). But if they are co-authors, should it not be written for more than just other ethnographers?
So to try and wrap this up :
He did not approach the project in a traditional way. It was through the practice of archiving documents and placing them on the internet that he came upon the idea and inspiration (it was not theory driven). He sees great value in providing ethnographic texts and discussing/commenting on them within a community of readers and authors. It is important to “lay open the processes by which events become documents, and documents ethnography”, to which he feels providing transcripts and other ethnographic texts can contribute. Also while writing his ethnography he could not refrain from the “telling of a story”.
[I'm a big fan of calling myself a story teller rather than ethnographer!]
[Also, I entered this conference with that epistemological duplicity discussed by Fabian, and it was very interesting to see how the hierarchy of anthropologists took on new roles in the presence of the revered member. As I left I saw a very tired Fabian surrounded by fifteen or so of my professors, being led down to an after party. I wish I could have been there, and I can only imagine what rites they performed!!! lol]
[Fabian gave me some juicy quotes to support the idea that publishing is a rite of passage. He referred to peoples "initiatory ethnographic experience", as if fieldwork was initiation into the brother/sister/hood of anthropologists]
[he also said he appreciated having chance to speak to anthropologists as retired life didn't give him much chance to interact... Dear Retired professors, get on the blogs!]
[summaries suck, to the point issues are better]