Unreal Nature

January 31, 2011

Vocation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

… The need to think through, to defend, and to extend an approach to social research that takes seriously the proposition that in understanding “others,” uncapitalized and plural, it is useful to go among them as they go among themselves, ad hoc and groping, is producing an extraordinary ferment.

… Who knows the river better … the hydrologist or the swimmer? … It is not … a matter of the shape of our thought, but of its vocation.

This is from the essay “The State of the Art” in the collection Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics by Clifford Geertz (2000):

… Those people with pierced noses or body tattoos, or who buried their dead in trees, may never have been the solitaries we took them to be, but we were. The anthropologists who went off to Talensi, the tundra, or Tikopia did it all: economics, politics, law, religion; psychology and land tenure, dance and kinships; how children were raised, houses built, seals hunted, stories told. There was no one else around, save occasionally and at a collegial distance, another anthropologist; or if there was — a missionary, a trader, a district officer, Paul Gauguin — he or she was mentally pushed aside. Small worlds, perhaps, but pretty much our oyster.

This is no longer. When one goes to Nigeria, Mexico, China, or in my own case, Indonesia and Morocco, one encounters not just “natives” and mud huts, but economists calculating Gini coefficients, political scientists scaling attitudes, historians collating documents, psychologists running experiments, sociologists counting houses, heads, or occupations. Lawyers, literary critics, architects, even philosophers, no longer content to “draw the cork out of an old conundrum/And watch the paradoxes fizz,” are getting into the act. Walking barefoot through the Whole of Culture is really no longer an option, and the anthropologist who tries it is in grave danger of being descended upon in print by an outraged textualist or a maddened demographer.

… What we do that others don’t, or only occasionally and not so well, is (this vision has it) to talk to the man in the paddy or the woman in the bazaar, largely free-form, in a one thing leads to another and everything leads to everything else manner, in the vernacular and for extended periods of time, all the while observing, from very close up, how they behave. The specialness of “what anthropologists do,” their holistic, humanistic, mostly qualitative, strongly artisanal approach to social research, is (so we have taught ourselves to argue) the heart of the matter. Nigeria may not be a tribe, nor Italy an island; but a craft learnt among tribes or developed on islands can yet uncover dimensions of being that are hidden from such stricter and better organized types as economists, historians, exegetes, and political theorists.

… The worry on the science side has mostly to do with the question of whether researches which rely so heavily on the personal factor — this investigator, in this time; that informant, of that place — can ever be sufficiently “objective,” “systematic,” “reproducible,” “cumulative,” “predictive,” “precise,” or “testable” as to yield more than a collection of likely stories. Impressionism, intuitionism, subjectivism, aestheticism, and perhaps above all the substitution of rhetoric for evidence, and style for argument, seem clear and present dangers; that most dreaded state, paradigmlessness, a permanent affliction. What sort of scientists are they whose main technique is sociability and whose main instrument is themselves? What can we expect from them but charged prose and pretty theories?

… The need to think through, to defend, and to extend an approach to social research that takes seriously the proposition that in understanding “others,” uncapitalized and plural, it is useful to go among them as they go among themselves, ad hoc and groping, is producing an extraordinary ferment. It is not perhaps entirely surprising that such ferment looks threatening to some of those caught in the middle of it — as Randall Jarrell says somewhere, the trouble with golden ages is that the people in them go about complaining that everything looks yellow. What is surprising is how promising even salvational, it often looks to others.

The conjunction of cultural popularity and professional disquiet that now characterizes anthropology is neither paradox nor sign that a fad is being perpetuated. It is an indication that “the anthropological way of looking at things,” as well as (what are more or less the same thing) “anthropological way of finding out things” and “the anthropological way of writing about things,” do have something to offer the late twentieth century — and not only in social studies — not available elsewhere, and that it is full in the throes of determining what exactly that is.

… Who knows the river better (to adopt an image I saw in a review of some books on Heidegger the other day), the hydrologist or the swimmer? Put that way, it clearly depends on what you mean by “knows,” and, as I have already said, what it is you hope to accomplish. Put as which sort of knowledge we most need, want, and might to some degree conceivably get, in the human sciences anyway, the local variety — the sort the swimmer has, or, swimming, might develop — can at the very least hold its own against the general variety — the sort the hydrologist has, or claims method will one day soon provide. It is not, again, a matter of the shape of our thought, but of its vocation.

Yes, as always, I am thinking of photography while Geertz is talking about anthropology. And though off on a slight tangent to the rest of the piece, that Randall Jarrell quote, “… the trouble with golden ages is that the people in them go about complaining that everything looks yellow,” seems to me to be appropriate for most of the complaints one hears about digital photography.

-Julie

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