Ethnography

So I’m in the Upper Amazon basin doing ethnography. But just what is ethnography? The study of insects? Close. Ethnography is both what anthropologists do and the writing they produce.

The thing that makes anthropology unique is method: while surveys, archival research, and interviews are still employed, participant observation is what anthropology is all about. In participant observation, one arrives at one’s field site and proceeds to live there for extended amounts of time (months to years, often returning) to come to know something as close to peoples’ personal experiences as possible. Languages are learned, detailed notes are taken, and relationships are forged. Participant observation has two parts, as you cold probably assume: you participate in everyday life, but you are also observing and learning rather than passively slipping into a new life rhythm. Notes and notes and notes are taken.

So what kind of writing comes out of this? Ethnography is, on the whole, thick, detailed, and precise. Details are backed up from field notes (which are copious) documents, recordings, videos. To pick up a well-written ethnography is to be immersed in a rich new setting, while also being slipped critical information through the narrative which the author will call your attention to later.

Of course, there is not just one way to write ethnography. It needn’t even be written. One of the last courses I took was titled “Experimental Ethnography,” in which we explored currents of experimentation and creativity within ethnographic writers.

Anthropologists often turn out to be good fiction writers, and vice versa, because of ethnography: both the writing and the method. In my opinion, it is not only practice at representing people in the written word, but the process of coming to know people so closely in the first place, that makes this transition smooth.

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

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More Barn Than House

“When a house is completed it is such a disappointment. No rafters. No mysterious hollowed-out shadow spaces above them. And nothing to hang the hammock onto and swing–which is why we like barns and sheds and find unforgettable that house raised twelve feet in the jungle with a palm-thatch roof and only two walls, open to the forest, complete in its incompleteness. (Maybe that’s what makes a great book, being more barn than house?)”

I just finished I Swear I Saw this–Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own by Michael Taussig, in an effort to wrangle some inspiration from someone I deeply admire (and whom I have already written about) for my own fieldwork, which is fast approaching. However, I was unable to completely separate my mental categories for ‘fieldnotes’ and ‘fiction novel’, because about as much effort goes into each one. With a little mental twisting, though, Taussig’s ideas for fieldnotes absolutely apply to the creative process of plotting and writing a novel.

It’s a wonderful little book about those moments when drawing supersedes writing in your fieldnotes–moments of such high intensity beneath which an iceberg of depth lies, a world of meaning in which only a drawing–visceral, corporeal, immediate–can evoke, etching the artist into the moment as writing cannot. Taussig takes a turn towards evaluating the entire fieldwork notebook, weaving together bizarrely disparate examples and people in an enactment of the very subject of his writing–fieldnotes as the halfway products, the undersides, of chance and fate.

“Maybe that’s what makes a great book, being more barn than house?” As I read this wondering in chapter four, I underlined it, then added a star, and then a heart for good measure. Little markers to myself that I had found something truthful on page thirty-three. A novel that is too complete is boring. I have always loved best those with room for interpretation, and been struck by how, if no room is given, I (or others) will make room for interpretation–the growth of fandoms is certainly testament to that.

Completed houses are white painted walls, working plumbing, fresh tile or carpet, and price tags. Barns are lofts, hay bales, little streams running beside them, the smell of animals, a horseshoe nailed above the door. Novels begin by the exchange of a house for a barn–mundanity for adventure.

So I will keep in mind that a good novel has cracks in it. It has squeaky hinges and rickety ladders and places for ambiguity. Places to hang a hammock.