Johannes Fabian conference at Concordia

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.

Crossing Borders

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!)


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]


9 responses to this post.

  1. […] I am writing about an event that I advertised earlier here, Johannes Fabian’s address to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, co-organized with the Department of Anthropology at McGill University. The event lasted from 5:00 to 7:00pm and was heavily attended, with at least 60 people present, from at least three separate anthropology departments in Montreal (including those from the Université de Montréal). In addition, three of us are anthropology bloggers, all tied to the Department at Concordia: Owen Wiltshire (Another Anthro Blog), Alexandre Enkerli (Disparate), and myself. We all took notes, and Owen also recorded the event on a digital audio recorder. Afterwards, thinking I had a great idea, I encouraged Owen (not that he needed to be encouraged) to post his own essay on the event, and then navigated over to Alexandre to do the same…except that, as the event closed, Alexandre declared that his post was already done. I found out why his head was down for the whole event whenever I looked at him: he was Tweeting his notes straight to his blog from his iPhone, a device that I saw for the first time as he held it, a tiny thing that looks like it would make typing impossible. And yet, he was all done (see his Twitter blog here). Owen’s post is now online as well. […]


  2. My goodness, that pingback really takes up space. I wanted to say that I really like your essay. I find that I myself get a better understanding and knowledge of the event by reading my own post AND your post. Maybe if Alex also wrote a full post, it would be even better. That’s a bit disturbing though — it means all my “fieldwork” would have been better had it been “written up” by several more individuals.

    Anyway, this is great.


  3. Posted by mktheberge on September 24, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Hi Owen. I’m in the same boat as you re Fabian’s book. It hasn’t made it to the shores of New Zealand yet. So thanks to you, Max & Enkerli for blogging Fabian’s talk! It’s my first glimpse since there is no search inside option on Amazon.

    I was surprised to see that Fabian doesn’t have any interest in blogs. From reading your post it seems blogging would have been a natural line of inquiry for him to pursue–especially pertinent to three of the topics you mention in your post: the notion that the internet and virtual archiving will energise ethnography, to commentary as a genre, and the process involved in the transformation from ‘event’ to ‘documents’ to ‘ethnography’.

    Fabian is missing a key way in which the internet CAN reinvigorate ethnography by overlooking blogs. They have a unique potential to reveal the events that are turned into documents that inform the final ethnographic text. For instance, creating a post as a document (admittedly, it doesn’t change the fact that the document is a stand-in for the actual event) can enable a more direct rendering of the experience of the event than would come through in an ethnography. It is more immediate, less filtered through time and distance. Additionally, the structure of most blogs, meaning their post & comment format, opens up the document stage for negotiation and creates a certain kind of commentary or co-presence. So not only are blogs changing the way ethnographic information is created, but they are revealing some of what goes in the spaces between the event and the ethnography.

    I suppose all of what I have written above is premised on the blog being a focal point of the research. Hmm. In any case, I think the level of transparency provided by blogging, whether it is blogging as part of your research or blogging about your research, is an important development in filling in those blank and often undiscussed spaces on the way to writing an ethnography.

    Thanks again!


  4. Hey thanks for the comments!

    Mary, he didn’t actually say he wasn’t interested in blogging, but that he didn’t have time. He mentioned that he knew “things were going on there” however. At the same time, I think we need to get him blogging!

    And yes, his talk was about “writing from the virtual archive”, so a lot of my points fall outside the bounds of his talk.

    Max, yes it sure is interesting comparing perspectives and writeups!

    Now on to more reading. I’ve decided to plunge head first into Christopher Kelty’s “Two Bits” to try and contribute thoughts and edits on the webiste. I figure it will fit into my “participation” component. It also fits into Fabians support for “ethnography as commentary”.


  5. As I’ve been mentioned a couple of times, I’ll post a comment here too…
    Yes, I might do a full post based on my experience of Fabian. But it will have to wait until after the workshop, I guess. To be perfectly honest, I was attending this talk to meet “Johannes Fabian the workshop participant,” not “Fabian, J. (2005).” A good number of my reactions were related to my perception of the guy as I observed him (and audience reactions).
    A small point about Fabian’s answer on ethnography readership (especially since he made comments about readability, post-talk). From what I remember, his first answer was something like: “Well, it all depends on (the type of ethnographic project and the broader context) but, in the end, yes, it probably ends up being mostly other ethnographers who read our ethnographic monographs” (as opposed to our research articles, our course material, our conference material, etc.). Not a resounding endorsement for the practise of making ethnography as obscure as possible. Especially not from a fieldworker who’s advocating for Open Access in relation to interlocutors of any type (not just those “in the field”). Post-talk he discussed use of his work outside of ethnography. My impression is that he perceives the ethnographic monograph (even in its contemporary form, it’s a very specific piece of writing) as fulfilling some very limited purposes. After all, 90% of what we do is done outside of those monographs that we need to write to jump through hoops. So, in a way, this answer of his sounds very similar to the “yes, apart from the CIA and bible translators, very few people ever read our Ph.D. dissertations.”

    Strangely enough, I might sound like I’m defending Fabian’s ideas, which I paid relatively little attention to. I do find it funny that his talk should be “canonized” (or “made into scripture for exegesis”) so quickly despite the fact that it was about the same type of verbal performance as someone’s weekly class meeting.

    What I found more interesting included: the McG/ConU/UdeM complicity, the sense of collegiality, the linguistic anthropology connections, and all the direct and indirect references to problems having to do with the “culture of ownership” in terms of so-called “intellectual property.” Sometimes, Fabian was clearly just playing to the crowd, giving and getting sympathy for being “in the know” about this little secret we call “ethnography” (though not for long, as we should probably change the name, wink-wink, nudge-nudge…) And at times, I almost heard something like Richard Stallman speaking through Fabian’s voice. Only, it was a Stallman who had this typical emeritus attitude that he doesn’t hold some unified truth, that he isn’t trying to impose his views on others, and that he has nothing to prove. In a way, a kind of playfulness and lightness which comes from assuming the role of, simply, a scholar. Not that it’s the most awesomest role in the world. It’s just what he has been doing, on those occasions.
    He also seems really ready to hear about other people’s work and perspectives. I’ll probably try to forward him information about Rebecca Baron’s “How Little We Know of Our Neighbours” (about ethnography-based surveillance in the UK). Following a short discussion about video surveillance, he expressed a level of interest which seemed quite genuine.


  6. You did it. This is my first post ever. I hereby lose my blogging virginity.
    Thanks for the perceptive comments after just a talk. Will I get more once you have read the text and the book?
    Blogging, I suspect, is a learned habit, a sort of bodily activity like smoking my pipe while I write this (and all the other published stuff).
    It probably is healthier. Still, most likely I’ll go on putting my time and energy into the kind of writing that thrives on the tension between solitude and “publishing.”
    By all means, keep on blogging,


  7. […] Posted by enkerli on October 7, 2008 via Johannes Fabian conference at Concordia « another anthro blog. […]


  8. website address corrected


  9. @Mary, I’m glad the writeup was of interest to you! I agree 100% with your comments on co-presence of a text and blogging. Apologies for my slow response, I have plunged head first into finishing a condo renovation and basically I’m more a construction worker than an academic (for another week at least).

    @Fabian, Welcome to the blogsphere! I hope it was as good for you as it was for me! Thanks for stopping by I am honored by your visit. I will certainly be commenting more on the book as I read it. I realize I made some rather quick critiques for having only been to an hour long talk, but trying to critique comes with the academic terrain doesn’t it…

    Have you considered incorporating a blog to your virtual archive? How does blog commentary compare to the kind of commentary you discuss in your book? (I’ll try to answer this once I’ve finished reading it).

    And yes, blogging certainly is a learned habit. There are all sorts of pitfalls that come with public exposure and the ability to write fast. ie: Somehow whenever I comment on other peoples blogs I write in a reactionary way, or silly way, that makes me cringe and unable to read it later.

    When I write on this blog, I tend to (or try to) do it at my own leisure so I can find a more calm, rational, place from which to write. (most of the time). Blogging certainly is habit inducing, in that its addictive like tobacco. If I leave the blog more than week without writing something, I start to worry and develop anxiety. [hey man, its realllly good. Try it, you’ll like it!]

    It’s always fascinating/encouraging/inspiring to have direct responses from those I’m talking about!


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