Category: Reading List 2016

22. Reading in the Field: Caminos condenados

Something like a Vignette about Reading.

I open the cellophane and get a first impression. The green and yellow landscape on the cover is withdrawn from the viewer by a fence. The pages on the inside are of a thick yellowish paper with black-and-white-drawings. A friend of mine is mentioned as part of the team of investigators that gave birth to some of the material in the comic. I get exited, thinking of her and how she loved being part of that team and made up her M.A. thesis from the very material. The comic is structured in three parts. The first works as a kind of introduction,  where a peasant from the palmoil region gives a kind of historic walking tour through the land. In the second part, the reader accompanies a young researcher on her day in the village, where she gets to know more of the day to day consequences of living close to the palmoil plantations. In the final part, we can observe a cartography workshop with some villagers, in which they speak about their aspirations for the future of the land.

While I ask myself how to ‘read’ a comic book – like, it’s clearly more than reading just the text – another thought crosses my mind as I marvel at a flashback scene. During a workshop to draw a map of the future, one of the participants takes as his vantage point the past, and how he used to live on a finca with his family members, enough room for everyone and land to work and grow plants for food, access to water and all that. When he realizes what he ‘had’, he becomes silent, and we see scenes of the house, a pair of army boots, the back of a person in camouflage with a gun around the shoulder, then the finca closed down, wooden boards crossing the windows, he and his family walking away.

The images now mix in my head with a memory of the Memory Studies Association’s inaugural conference. On the last panel of the second day, a discussion arose about whether memory studies scholars should or should not pair with memory activists. While on one side, people were campaigning for the idea of an indepent scholar who has her concepts clear and analyses the data from whatever field she’s working on, on the other side voices could be heard claiming the importance of an engagment with civil society, and of leaving the ivory tower to bring all those concepts to use on the ground. Someone was afraid to engage in designing a game about the holocaust, as for him this should clearly not be the context to negotiate holocaust memory. But such a game already exists in different forms, many of them probably designed by neo-Nazis with much less reserve. The question is not whether there should be a game about the holocaust or not, because such a thing already exists. The question is, rather, whether we as scholars are willing to leave the development of those games to those who might abuse the idea, or whether we should not rather be participating in efforts to make the knowledge we generate behind closed doors available to a broader public by exploring alternative media. This includes video games as well as comic books, and might go as far as handycraft workshops or dinner parties.

In our network MemoriAL, we’ve been discussing for quite some time how in Latin America the division cannot be drawn that clearly: Many of those working in Academia on topics of collective memory have been affected in one way or another by the dictatorships of the Southern Cone, are second generation survivors, or otherwise politically engaged in their countries. But to think that scholarship on collective memory is not an inherently political act is even more absurd when doing it in overly positivist terms as a way of “rescuing narratives” that otherwiese would be lost. If there is only the slightest claim for truth in such an effort, it clearly is an activist approach to the study of memory. Granted, theses thoughts are not only valid for the field of memory studies. Topics of land tenure, gendered working environments and politico-economically motivated violence bear strong political implications. In approaching these topics throught the medium of comic, I think caminos condenados has done a brave and valuable effort.

21. Reading: The Book of Memory

Memory is an albino women encarcerated for murder in a Zimbabwean prison. In Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory (Faber & Faber, 2015), we read her letter/diary to a human rights advocate about how she came to live with the man for whose death she is now incarcerated. Many things about family ties and private lives are unspoken for well over three fourths of the book, until the puzzle takes shapes piece by piece. The entries span a period of several years, in which we also learn about life in the prison, the lives of the guards, the stories of other inmates, and of course, Memory’s life first in a Harare township, then at a wealthy district, and later also studying in Europe, until she comes back to Zimbabwe to reconnect with who has become her family.

It took quite a while to get me hooked, the many unspoken ties and secrets couldn’t evoke sufficient tension to read on for quite some time, and I was really only ready to say this was a good book during the last 25 pages. Until then, the story was ok, but never captivating, no real page-turning effect thus far. But then things started to fall into place, and even though – spoiler alert – we know Memory is innocent earlier on, the real drama about her having ended up in prision reveals itself only late in the story, but then ever more forcefully.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended on one of those “The best new books by…”-lists, but I don’t really remember which one. Also, I read en essay of Petina Gappah in the New Yorker, and became interested in her prose work.

When and where did I read it?

I tried to finish it before going back to Bogotá to do fieldwork, but didn’t manage before the flight, and on the flight watched movies instead. So I only finished within the first days of fieldwork.

If I ever get out, I will throw birds of paradise from the top of the world. (p. 270)

20. Reading: Nüchtern

This year has treated me well in terms of new books from Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre. And even through Nüchtern am Weltnichtrauchertag (KiWi 2016) is a mere 70 pages, it helps to shorten the time until the next book might be there, or at least it helps to get down from the amazing read that was Panikherz. The book is really just two essays, one about being the abstinent person in the room, the antithese to party, as he has it, and the other one is about all the cigarettes he smokes on World No Tobacco Day. There’s really not much to say about this, other than as an answer to people complaining on Amazon that it is expensive for a book of two essays, one of which is already published online. I see it more as a way of supporting authors I like to read, and people familiar with BvSB’s books will know that many of them are actually compilations of pieces he wrote for journals etc. So maybe just relax and go to a real bookstore where you can skim through the pages of the books you plan to by, and spare yourself some disappointing mail.

19. Reading: The Transmission of Affect

Teresa Brennan’s Transmission of Affect (Cornell University Press, 2004) has been bashed prominently as selectively appropriating neuroscientific research findings, but nevertheless remains a classic on many a reading list on affective transmission. There might be two reasons for this: first, her argument that the idea of boundaries (in relation to human bodies/personal identity) is a culturally specific idea, and second, her absorbing prose. Proposing bodily boundaries as a culturally specific, and therefore non-universal, conception might not sound like a radically new way of seeing things, but considering the time it took until affect and emotions became central research interests in disciplines other than psychoanalysis, it still is a much needed contribution to broadening the scope of what we consider possible and acceptable things of imagining affective transmission. Also, the argument opens up new possibilities in (anthropological) research because it focuses on the relations between peopleand their affects, rather than their interpretations of affects and emotions.

Characterized as “a soul of the nineteenth century” by colleagues, Brennan powerfully and poetically argues for connections between hormones and emotions and what influences both have on each other (because to her, the relation here is more likely of dialectical nature). Up until chapter 4 (The New Paradigm), the book is very rich, focusing on the transmission of affect in a clinical setting as well as in groups, to then elaborate her argument that the social environment is perfectly capable of influencing our biological “hardware” and how social interactions can shape it. From chapter five onwards, Brennan becomes a little more repetetive, but the lasts chapters are also the ones she was not able to revise by herself anymore. She died in an accident, leaving her former assitant and trusted researcher to finish the editing process, which apart from the repetitiveness turned out to be very convincing.

How did I come across the book?

Actually, I don’t remember that anymore.

When and where did I read it?

On a weekend, on the sofa. It is definitely a monograph where this is possible.


18. Reading: Doing Sensory Ethnography

In my search for methodological entries to researching affect, I came across Sarah Pink’s Doing Sensory Ethnography (2009, SAGE Publications) as one of the core texts on sensory ethnographic approaches. And even though the connection of affects and senses is not as obvious as it may look, given that a five-sense-sensorium is a cultural construct, and considering the debate of whether affects are or are not pre-social, the volume does offer a very broad overview about the research done in relation to these five senses (and place-making). In general, it is easy to read, not too theory-ladden, and full of good examples. I really enjoyed the scope of research (and art, architecture and everyday-practice inputs), which allow for a very nice entry into the world of sensory ethnography.

The book centers on three mayor steps in the sensory research process, which are the theoretical baselines and ethic considerations for research on and with the senses, the practices in the field, and the interpretation and representation of (sensory) findings. The last part could have been a lot more experimental for my taste, especially considering the author’s argument for ways of writing that appeal to the senses, and overall the text became somewhat repetitive toward the end. But in genera, it is a good starting point to explore anthropological perspectives on the senses and how to research them.

How did I come across the book?

I think I first heard about Sarah Pink when I was still writing my M.A. thesis. I spend a few days at the Grimm Zentrum with two colleagues, who were both working on papers related to alternative (read: feminist, decolonial) research methodologies. Over lunch, I listened attentively to their talk and made a ‘head-note’ on reading Pink someday.

When and where did I read it?

It’s been in my office for quite a while, and it’s really not a big book. However, it took me a bit to get started, and towards the end I actually fell asleep on several occassions. But I think I made it in less than a week, reading a chapter every once in a while.


17. Reading: Deutschboden

Moritz von Uslar’s participant observation-based study Deutschboden (Kiepenheuer&Witsch, 2010) took me back to where I come from: an Eastern German small town close to Berlin. He, the West German (he is mostly blind to other categories he might fit into; like male, or white, higher educated, or wealthier than those he visits) decides to visit the curious people of that remote area with much the same attitude anthropologists would do about 100 years ago. During the text, he continuously refers to himself as “the reporter” failing to recognize how it is precisely this imagination of his role that keeps him alienated from those he wants to study. Now it is true that he is not an anthropologist, but since the subtitle of the book (“A participant observation”) refers to anthropologist’s main method, the critique seems worth articulating.

It was impressive for me to see how he engages with the average male inhabitant in the village, however. In this, he got insights about them I for reasons such as gender and habitus would not be able to elicit even while being a local. There is indeed a fearlessness in his asking around that I found astounding, and which made my reading an uncomfortable experience because I was always anticipating people reactions. Especially these days, when racism in (not only in Eastern) Germany is a visible problem again, the book offers an interesting insight into the collective (male) consciousness pervading in the small town really just a few kilometers away from where I grew up. Just don’t expect to know anything more about “these people”, because the conversations are incredibly shallow, leaving me suspecting that indeed people were reluctant to go into more detail with “the stranger from the West”. In this, it is an interesting parallel to actual ethnographic accounts.

How did I come across the book?

When I moved in to my current flat, one of my flatmates recommended it to me upon hearing where I was from. Funnily, he was aiming at the Bundesland, but actually the place described in the book is even the same Landkreis, and really just a few kilometers away from my parents’ place.

When and where did I read it?

It took me almost a year to finish this book, mostly because I decided to only read it here in Konstanz, but also because it induced really contradicting feelings: sometimes I would miss home and think about the harshness of the landscape and the people compared to Konstanz’s postcard vacation atmosphere. Other times reading would bring back feelings of how I often felt I didn’t fit in with the agressiveness of people. (Without wanting to reduce them to this, I just find it remarkable how I do not identify with them at all – even though people often ascribe this very same harshness to me.)

16. Reading: Untenrum frei

Untenrum frei by Margarete Stokowski (Rowohlt, 2016) is only the third book this year I read in German, and it’s already the end of October and on my list are just two more German titles. Now that has absolutely nothing to do with the book, and does not even give for a good explanation for this curiosity. I simply don’t like reading translations, and I don’t get to many recommendations on German books or authors. (You are very welcome to change this, though!) But back to Margarete’s manifesto. I think one can rightfully claim this, as it is a very thoughtful, angry, comprehensive and funny 200-something page thinkpiece on feminism and why you should be in it, too. So far nothing surprising, as this kind of literature has had a new wave for at least the last year with works such as Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable things, or Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s We should all be feminists, among others.

But Stokowski does not just offer a German perspective. She does not limit herself to some regionalism, yet always carefully reflects her position and therefore, the impossibility of claiming a voice for someone other than herself. But her voice will  not be silenced, so much is clear after reading through Untenrum frei. It is enjoyably radical, yet never unjust – no Bra-burning, no man-hating, if you will. Instead, she wonderfully masters a mixture of sound arguments to counter many of the standardized pub talk fears and doubts about feminism, with wit and humor that make it a very entertaining yet educating read. It made me want to learn some of her comebacks by heart so as to always have them ready for the next pub.

How did I come across the book?

I saw it recommended in two magazines I am reading. Also, I have known Stokowski’s columns on gender for Spiegel Online, which I always enjoyed for their No-Shit-attitude. Plus, I often think, she is the only person there doing serious journalism, for her texts are never clickbaity and always very well argumented.

When and where did I read it?

On a four day holiday with my mom at the Baltic sea. My mom will be the next to read it, because she liked the cover a lot (it is very minimalistically chic), and heard me laugh a lot while reading. Plus, she was the one who first mentioned feminism to me and is always interested in my recommendations.

Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.  (Rebecca Solnit cited in Stokowski, p. 94)