Tagged: Non-fiction

23. Reading: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebbeca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2017 [2005], Canongate) is the first ever non-work related nonfiction essay collection I have read. And I have to say, I don’t think I have ever read something like it. I remember essays from my English classes, where we regularly had to hand in essays on course related topics, and I remember how I hated it. My essays, of course, were nothing like those of Solnit, who mastefully combines the natural, the experienced and the whimsical into thought collages that transport and transform. She elaborates on the theme of getting lost, or of losing the way in unexpected, yes: ways, and the paths she choses to go about her topic are the conversion of the very principle of getting lost, without, however, ever being random. They are not hard to follow, but hard to guess in advance, but Solnit takes you through them like the experienced guide on that tour through the Alpes/Andes/whatever your prefered mountain range is called. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be back to the point from where the excursion started, but most likely be transformed, having gained from the view.

How did I come across the book?

In a Verso christmas sale, I stumbled upon Wanderlust and emailed the reference to a friend. That was the first time I heard of Rebecca Solnit. Later, I found her name again when someone explained the origins of the term “mansplain”. I was intrigued about Men explain things to me, but wanted to make sure I wasn’t deceptioned again. (I tend to expect more radical thinking from nonfiction than the authors are willing to expose.) SO I decided to try something unrelated first, and the Field Guide spoke to the anthropologist in me.

When and where did I read it?

The last weeks of the semester seemed endless, and I really needed a tinyplace to go to on my own, so I got lost in this book whenever I needed a minute to focus.

Nonfiction seems to me photographic; it poses the same challenge of finding form and pattern in the stuff already out there and the same ethical obligations to the subject. (p.144)

11. Reading: The Republic of Cousins

Germaine Tillion’s Republic of Cousins. Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society (Al Saqi Books, 1983), apart from being a study about kinship and marriage in the southern meditarranean countries, is also an impressive plea for a political approach to the study of culture. From a feminist point of view, Tillion engages in the study of historical and current gender relations in the Mediterranean. She compares data from her own field work with historial sources back to the prophets to show how the place of women in Mediterranean societies is – just like anywhere else – anything but a natural given.

Tillion proposes, furthermore, an “ethnography devoid of virtue”, if it’s a virtue to observe and participate without interpreting what is observed and described. Since Geertz, latest, anthropologists understood that no such thing is actualy possible, because every observation is already shaped by our understandings, and therefore, interpreted in terms of the things we already know. However, it was interesting to see, that these ideas had been around way before Geertz wrote them down (the original work is from the late 1960s). Tillion’s writing offers an interesting mixture of scientific discourse about marriage rules without the pretence of a false objectivity, yet manages to include her political position. She does this transparently but without ever using “I”.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my supervisor, because I was searching for more experimental/engaged forms of anthropological writing. I’m not sure it fulfilled this purpose, because I expected something more in the style of Michael Taussig. But it was good to see that “experimental” could also mean something else, and especially Tillion’s willingness to judge other’s customs was interesting to see in an ethnography.

When and where did I read it?

I started during a vacation I was taking right after my latest field trip. I read the first part on my way to and in Berlin, mostly on trains. The second part I finished in Moscow on several nights before bedtime.

13. Reading: Works and Lives

This has been fun! Clifford Geertz is one of those anthropologists whose writing has inspired generations of anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, as well. I have to admit, however, that I find his theoretical works much more interesting than his fieldwork-based writings. While the latter once are beautifully written stylistically, for my taste they often lack the theoretical vision of his other works. In Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford University Press, 1988), he dissects the writings styles and construction of a verisimilar perspective on the Other in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski and Ruth Benedict, some of the discipline’s big names.

In six short essays, he shows how these four authors partly owe their place in the discipline to a particular style of writing, each relating to specific aspects of their actual field research, and in alingment with their theoretical proyects. While overall balanced and sensitive to racism and sexism (especially in the cases of the latter three of utmost importance, given their ways into their fields), I found it disappointing to see that only in the essay about the only female anthropologist analyzed in his collection, he found it necessary to speak about her pressumed mental health. While he did judge the other author’s personality traits, only in her case did he go as far as to insinuate “issues”, which was furthermore innecessary to understand her writing.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my second supervisor after I presented a chapter on writing affective ethnography at the grad school’s colloquium.

When and where did I read it?

Over the weekend in Konstanz/Zurich. It’s entertaining, insightful and at times very funny. Especially Geertz’s non-fieldwork-based texts have always struck me as beautiful in both scientific and aesthetic aspects, and I am especially thankful for this programmatic advice:

The most direct way to bring field work as personal encounter and ethnography as reliable account together is to make the diary form […] something for the world to read. (p. 84)

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.


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)

9. Reading: Panikherz

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

What do you read while in the field?

In a few weeks, I will head to the field again, and since I started this blog, I have become a little more reflexive about my reading. Now as I am leaving, I was wondering about what colleagues read while in the field. I was thinking that sometimes, we literally don’t have time to read anything while on the road, because we still believe that every second the most important thing of the entire trip could happen, revealing to us the clue to finally understand the people of that extraordinary place and time (which is why we don’t sleep, also). Yet,  my experience has also been that there’s sometimes pretty long flights or train or bus rides, or we just end up alone in a hotel room without much to do for the rest of the day. Or, yet another possibility, we organize our field trips in ways that include special reading periods, where we can check back with that concept of place or this theory on ritual, etc.

In the last case, my question is already answered. But in a more general way, I would like to know what you read while doing field research? Do you prefer fiction from the region you’re working in? Or something as different as possible, like, say a thriller from 18th century Norway while doing research on popular dance in Cuba? Or Science Fiction? Do you skip fiction altogether while in the field, but instead go with classic descriptions of other people’s field works a la Malinowski or Lévi-Strauss? Books on Methodology, even? Or do you just grab whatever crosses your way at the airport bookstore?

I wonder about these questions, because I think the books I chose to accompany me while away might have an impact on what I do there. There’s always the possibility of finding inspiration for things to watch out for, or make me aware of things I might have otherwise missed. So in a way, a careful selection of readings might help me in the field. But it can also go wrong, of course, as was the case on my very first real field research as a B.A. student. I had Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 with me, and retrospectively might have spend more time with it than with doing interviews. So the right book can also turn out to be wrong. I’m curious about your experiences. Let me know what you read!