EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution
Intimacy, immanence and narratives
Date and Start Time 02 August, 2014 at 16:00
This plenary session explores the connections suggested by three anthropological spheres: intimate ethnographic relationships, the medium in which they are presented and the knowledge they produce.
The panelists of this plenary shall present ethnographic work in different mediums - text, cinema, and sound. They will consider whether any fundamental epistemological commonalities are characteristic of ethnography, regardless of the medium it is presented in. Or is it the case that mediums and formats are fundamentally unique, each one articulating different realms of experience.
The plenary will situate 'narratives' as central to the anthropological project and regards the synonymic value between knowledge and narrative. In other words, that the imponderables which ethnography seeks come into being as they are narrativised. Narrative strategies, in this sense, are as much ways of knowing as they are knowledge itself. From them are intimated inextricable links between method, medium and anthropological understanding. The plenary speaks to a hermeneutics of ethnography, examining the capabilities and continuities of different ways of narrativising empirical materials.
A common ground to assess the continuities across ethnographic mediums is to acknowledge the intimacies that are created through observant participation. The result of these methodologies is, arguably, the creation of an ethnography that generates its own context - not exclusively the illustration of a pre-existing one. Works which are successfully produced through this frame are participatory works that immerse the reader in the piece's narrative. Concomitantly, the reader is a participant in the creation of ethnographic meaning, 'labouring' and engaging actively with the text. The ethnography is thus rendered as an authored narrativisation of an empirical experience, rather than being an articulation of transcendent principles, which propose external causes to the world and the unfolding of life. A creative tension is then generated between the authoring of compelling narratives, the conditions made possible by direct experience, and an ethical commitment to empiricism.
Discussant: Andrew Irving
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Storytelling and the evocation of the social
In this presentation I discuss how anthropologists can use ethnographic narratives to evoke the themes—love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, courage and fear—to name a few—that define our humanity. No matter the medium, it is the story that empowers an ethnographic construction to connect writers to readers, filmmakers to viewers and artists to audiences.
When I travelled to Paris back in the day, I’d trek over to the Musee de L'Homme to visit Jean Rouch. If our paths crossed, he’d invite his "Yankee Friend" up to his makeshift projection room for screenings. During these informal gatherings, which could last for many hours and include five to ten people, Rouch would lean back on his front row chair, a rather primitive seat fashioned from wood, and patiently watch film after film. During these sessions he would frequently wonder about a film’s story. "If a film doesn’t tell a good story," he would say, "it doesn’t work."
How do you tell a good story in prose (ethnographies and memoires) in film (documentaries, ethnofiction, or experimental works) or in multisensorial installations (fusing sound and image)? How can you use narrative to evoke the themes—love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, courage and fear to name a few—that define our humanity? In this short presentation, I tap into more than 35 years of storytelling experience to isolate several elements that—at least for me—evoke powerfully the complexities of the social. I argue that although textual, visual and acoustic media are effective means to the end of social description, it is the story that makes or breaks a representative construction. It is the story that connects writers to readers, filmmakers to viewers, and installation artists to audiences. It is through this palpable connection, I suggest, that our works remain open to the world.
"Mycological" is an experimental nonfiction sound piece which listens in on communities engaged in naturalistic observation and analysis, from intimate encounters between amateurs on forays to mechanized processes of laboratory research.
Mycological is a sound piece which takes as its subject certain aspects of human encounters with fungi. Fungi were once thought of as kinds of plants but are now categorized as their own kingdom, which also includes yeast and molds, and is estimated to include over five million species, only 5% of which have so far been described. Genetically more similar to animals than to plants, fungi nearly always coexist in symbiotic, mycorrhizal relationships with other life forms and thus index above all interconnectedness. Mycology is unusual among the sciences in that advances in the field have historically been made by both professionals and amateurs, and these two groups have likewise been interdependent in the creation of mycological knowledge. Amateur mycology in the US goes back to the late 1800s, when it was a subfield of amateur botany, and clubs were formed in many American cities. The Boston Mycological Club, founded in 1895, is the longest running such club, with a growing active membership. While members often join initially out of a desire to safely forage for wild mushrooms, many develop fascinations which go far beyond the edible fruiting bodies, to the ecological and morphological aspects of fungi more generally. This piece was recorded in biology labs and the herbaria at Harvard University, and during forays with the Boston Mycological Club, and listens in on processes of observation and knowledge production.
Untitled is a 14-minute shot depicting a couple’s playful bickering at the foot of a temple in Nepal. Free of obvious ethnographic contextualization or overarching narrative, its minimal editorial choices are the generative core guiding seeing and knowing. The openness of the work is reflective of my own experience of fieldwork, where knowledge is partial and generative and the immensity of the present overwhelms ideas about meaning.
Untitled is comprised of a 14-minute static shot depicting a newlywed couple’s playful bickering at the foot of a small temple in rural Nepal. The shot is presented free of ethnographic contextualization and an overarching narrative, a snippet of life framed by the camera and left open for interpretation. In spite of this, or perhaps for this very reason, this fragment becomes a world in itself, reflecting in its particularity universals about the complexity and vacillating nature of intimacy. Analogously, Untitled inspires questions about ethnographic intimacy and the responsibilities that come with the presumed privileged access of the maker, whose relationship to the film subjects is unclear. The piece seems to propose that ‘less is more’, although maybe only deceptively, and engenders an appreciation of the fragmentary nature of our understanding. To complicate the apparent simplicity of the work, the couple’s spat is highly discursive and yet their ongoing banter is purposefully unsubtitled - with one key exception, the finale of the piece when a principle film subject directly addresses the maker. "Are you uncomfortable?" Why or why not? Does your relationship to the work, its subjects, and the maker vacillate along with the capricious play of the couple? In what ways are you implicated in the multiplicity of subjectivities and visions embedded in the piece?
Untitled shares a noted hallmark of film and video work emerging from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is the sense of being thrown into the world, where context emerges within and between shots, from the in-betweenedness and fragmented nature of a film’s construction. Even when stripped bare and largely free from narrative, editorial decisions about framing and cutting are the generative core that guide our seeing and knowing. In my experience, this is reflective of the experience of fieldwork, where knowledge is partial and generative, rather than conclusive, and the immensity of the present overwhelms ideas about meaning.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.