Lily King’s Euphoria (2015, Grove Press) did not exactly leave me euphoric. On the bright side, I could almost feel the humid air of a tropic jungle while reading – at a quite enjoyable safe distance of the book, and not as suffocating as IRL. Also, it’s a page-turner, and sucked me in right from the start. The story is based on a part of the life of Maragret Mead, easily anthropology’s most popular (in the sense of widely-known; otherwise it is safe to say controversial, as well) figure at least in the English-speaking world. It describes a love-triangle between three anthropologists doing fieldwork among what they call “primitive tribes” on an island in New Guinea. In essence, it’s a story about love and ambition, women in science, and fieldwork.
But then, King’s appreciation of fieldwork is flat, with the enthusiastic Nell, who always seems to find joy in work, the ambitious Fen, who’s effortlessly going native, and the shy but smart Bankston, who’s facing an existential crisis in the face of the other. Fieldwork is about collecting facts in far away places and extracting the underlying logic. While this is historically accurate, because questions of representation and a different concept of culture were not yet to be thought of in the between-the-wars-era, it is a little disapppointing in endorsing the stereotypes of hiking-boots-and-khaki-pants-wearing pseudo-explorers.
But what disappointed me most, was that the guiding principle for the book clearly wasn’t “Show, rather than tell.”, because literally everything was told, either through letters, or the retrospective account of Bankston. The story could easily have filled 200 pages more, if it hadn’t been mostly telling what happened in the jungle. But overall, it was a worthwhile read, and possibly a good choice for a vacation in the warmer parts of this world.
How did I come across the book?
In my search for ethnographic novels, I came across Lily King. This is interessting insofar, as it is not a novel by an anthropologist, but about three of them, for a change.
When and where did I read it?
Right before heading to the field, pendeling between my two homes in Zurich and Konstanz.
Tobias Hecht’s After Life (Duke University Press, 2006) had me thinking. “An ethnographic novel” is the subtitle to this work at the borders of anthropology and fiction. It uses both real and fictional characters to tell the story of an anthropologist struggling with mental illness and investigating the life of street children in a Brasilian city. Her main informant is a transsexual adolescent called Bruna. But instead of outlining the story line, I just want to explore a few issues I had with the lecture.
First, there is the question of genre. An ethnographic novel is a novel based on fieldwork, so it seems. There are several other examples for this, as Laura Bohannon’s Return to Laughter, or Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola. It might even extend to novels about anthropologists, which would most prominently include Lily King’s Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead. I still have to read all of these, and am curious how they will explore the possibilities of the genre, and what other characteristics I can make out in them. The anthropological approaches in Hecht’s novel are that he based his story on his fieldwork, and includes a real character and some of the transcripts of interviews with that person.
Second, there are the characters: I found the female lead seriously lacking authenticity. Why does she have to undress so often? Granted, its hot. Yet, it doesn’t advance the story, it doesn’t help characterizing her or her state of mind, and it certainly doesn’t break with the clichéd objectification of her body. I think I see that making the anthropologist a female helped Hecht to detach his own story from the one he was writing, but it certainly came at the cost of verisimilitude. His rendering of Bruna works much better, but much of what Bruna says is extracted from the ‘real’ Bruna, so I am not sure if this should be credited to Hecht.
Third, I find some of Hecht’s introductory statements quite troublesome. He seems to confuse a few categories, when he says “… struck me as real, as being the absolute truth, the one born of the fiction we want to be.” (p. 8) While I appreciate the idea of a truth born out of the fiction we want to be (speaking of authenticity…), I have troubles with the categories in more general terms. Because the relationship between reality and truth to fiction is not one of opposition. The opposite of fiction is non-fiction, and says something about the character and form of a statement, not its ontological status. That would be the domain of reality. Truth is yet another matter and relates to questions of epistemology more than anything else. But all that of course depends on who you’re reading.
Forth and finally, I really take issue with him being so gutless. In the introduction, he recounts a few incidents of situations that made it difficult for him to believe ‘the real’ Bruna. In one, he lends her a recording device, and she goes around interviewing ‘other’ street children, until in one recording he realizes Bruna is interviewing herself, changing her voice and name and all. In a footnote, he furthermore mentions how he helped her sell some paintings to pay for a house, but she instead decided to spent the money on something else. He starts a paragraph explaining how his research could have been rendered an ethnograpgy, but pointing out all the troubles he went through (“… the constant second-guessing on both our parts, the misfortunes of invented characters who brought forth real tears in Bruna…” p. 6), decides that “The only way to do justice to her life, it seemed to me, was to yield to her inventions.” There would have been other options to handle these problems anthropologically. What is more, he is invoking outdated standards of what is allowed in ‘science’. What’s worst, he’s victimizing her when he assumes her life needs justice to be done to, and I feel a constant subtle impression of him advocating an ‘only fiction, not real science’ approach to his material. And that left me disturbed and deeply disappointed both in terms of what an ethnographic novel could be, and how it relates to the material behind.
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.)
Half of the year has passed, so we’re also halfway through Conference Season. For my part, I hope I am actually through with it for this year. I’ve been presenting three different papers in four different locations, and this experience made me want to share a few thoughts and impressions. Sometimes, the choices of which conference to attend can be tough, especially if the budget is small and the options many, so I will give you a short overview about pro’s and con’s of some of the typical features. They’re probably not exhaustive, so feel free to add others in the comment section!
The Annual/Biannual/etc. Association’s Conference: Even though depending on the association, this one is likely to be the biggest in terms of numbers of people attending and papers presented. Panels are 100% sure to be parallel, with you having to choose between all the interesting topics, because (Murphy’s Law for Conferences:) they’re most likely going to happen at the same time. Also, Networking can be difficult and exhausting here, because of the sheer number of people to engage with. But the upside is that nowhere else will you have the opportunity to attend a great variety of different topics in such a short time, and you get a good idea of what people are currently doing in your field. Also, using this one to the full capacity, it offers you the possibilty of attending sessions on topics that are underrepresented at your home institution, or things you always wanted to have a closer look at, but didn’t have the time to read into on your own.
The Exotic Destination: There’s a conference on something related to your research focus in [fill in your dream destination]? If you have the possibility to get funding for that, well “Hell, yeah!” Make sure to apply on time, and make use of your trip by extending your stay as much as possible. Be aware: People who come to conferences like that and only show up to present their own paper, suck! You don’t want to be one of those, so make sure you do spend some time with your peers. Some of the most enjoyable stays can result from exploring the destination together with others who think the same, but also attended a good deal of the conference, so you can gossip together while enjoying a sunset somewhere you might never have had the budget to go to by yourself. Continue reading
I waited years for this book to appear. To be honest, I waited years for any book to appear. Panikherz by Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre (2016, Kiepenheuer & Witsch) is the autobiography of my German word-and-description-acrobacy hero. So no wonder it’s the first book I finish reading in months. I was literally soaking up every single sentence of the book – it could have been about anything, I would have loved it anyway. If I wouldn’t know better, I’d say he’s a Taussig-style anthropologist working on German upper (middle) class decadence. But then I’ll find myself missing what seems to be so central to the book: it’s an autobiography focussing on cocaine addiction. [Logical consequence: my next read will be Michael Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum.] Also, just as he did in his debut Soloalbum with Oasis, he intertwines the story of his life with the music of Udo Lindenberg, and quotes from his songs pervade the text.
But honestly I don’t care much to review the story here, that’s not why I love his texts. It’s not so much about the stories he tells, it’s about his capacity to move, to affect. This book hurts, if you let it. If you prefer to keep your distance and discuss whether pop literature is actual literature, whether there’s enough story, or too much egocentricity going on (Seriously? It’s an autobiography. Why would one even criticize that? Also, I saw someone criticize name dropping: you seriously have never tried reading Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – that one clearly defined name dropping in biographies. Unreadable to me.), if you think content is more important than form: fine, don’t read it. But if you care about being moved, if you love accurate descriptions of everyday realities (meta level: use everyday language and dismantle it’s superficiality with precisely that kind of language), and if you appreciate authors who take risks not only on paper, here’s your guy.
How did I come across the book?
As I said, I waited years for this book to appear. I’ve been reading every single one of his prior books, desperately hoping for something longer than 200 pages, and something that wasn’t just another essay-collection. This year, my hopes and wishes have finally been heard (and so they will next year, a new book for 2017 is already announced on his publisher’s homepage).
When and where did I read it?
I started chapter-wise before going to bed, then had it with me for a conference-trip (long-distance flight, lonely hotel room). For the last 200 or so pages I almost couldn’t put it away. At the last twenty, I thought about not finishing it, because I just never want his texts to end. Plus, it would have gone so well with a joke he’s making in these pages. Talking about jokes, I think this quote makes clear that the weapons are here first and foremost turned against the author himself:
“Aber ich arbeitete ja nicht mehr für Schmidt; ich lag ja in einem beschissenen Einzelzimmer in der Entgiftungsabteilung einer, ja: Schwarzwaldklinik. Wo war da der Witz? Ich war jetzt selbst einer.” p. 283
“To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor.” – Bob Solomon
Halfway through the semester, it’s evaluation time again! And just because I like my seminar, that doesn’t mean my students do, too, especially considering that lately I forced them through tough theoretical readings and noticed an increasing disatisfaction on their parts. But, and that might be worse, I also noted an increasing disatisfaction on my part, because discussions would become slow and time and again they tried to force me to give them some ready-made answers to questions where “it depends”. Plus, many times I just feel they prefer to stick with their preconceptual ideas of affect, when for 8 weeks now we’re actually reading different approaches they could chose from to have a fruitful discussion. However, I also see evaluation as an opportunity to reassess my expectations and impressions of my performance, because in the end the important thing is that we all learn something from this.
So yesterday I handed out the evaluation sheets, and shockingly got the results back this morning already. I was hoping for some time to digest, especially since yesterday’s session wasn’t what I would call a complete success. Now the reason I got the sheets back so early is because they’re computer-based and converted into statistics, and my report is now full of colorful lines and circles which I feel I would need an introductory seminar to statistics to actually fully grasp. But then again, there’s the comment sections, and these do time and again offer clues on what the lines and circles might mean. First of all, let’s say it worked out fine, I’m mostly above average, which I think is great considering the international (50% are exchange students!) and interdisciplinary backgrounds (there is even a sport science student!) of my students and the demanding readings, and especially that this is the first seminar I invented all by myself.
What I learn from this, is that I have to continue thinking about how to make my learning philosophy much clearer, because my students want “clear” and “exact” answers, when I want them to learn that precisely those do not exist in many of the texts we’re reading and the problems we’re working on. In a similar vein, this goes for me chairing the discussions. I do not like to interupt people in class, and of course I do not have something to say about every comment they make. But for them, this might often look like I don’t care, or don’t moderate strictly enough. So I’ll have a look at the university’s advanced vocational trainings on these issues. Overall, the survey left me quite motivated, however, and I will try my best to make some concepts a little clearer in the next sessions. Also, there was this one comment that really gave me the feels: “This is one of the best seminars I have ever had. (…) You’re a wonderful and inspiring instructor. This is university as it should be.” How would I not want to make the most if this class now?
I had this place abandoned for a little while. The opening of conference season and my first real (!) own (!) seminar (!) had me quite occupied. But by now, the presentations are written, half the course is over, and the other half sufficiently prepared to dedicate some time to this space again. Maybe later on I’ll write about this year’s conference season, or about my experiences with teaching (there’d be a lot to say…!), or start an unfinished-books-reading list, but for now I rather work on a few things I wanted to publish here.
The first thing I came across months ago already, but especially teaching made me aware of how urgent it is. Over at The Golden Bork, there is this wonderful entrance about spelling names of famous anthropologists. It includes the all-time-favorites Geertz (it’s Gur, not Geer – sorry.) and Obeyesekere and many a french name (looking at you, anglophil-centered anthro-geeks!), but also Arjun Appadurai. Do not miss the comment section if you want to know how to say Bourdieu in english!