Tagged: scholarship

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 The green and yellow landscape on the cover is withdrawn from the viewer by a fence.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.

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5. Reading: Sensuous Scholarship

Sensuous Scholarship by Paul Stoller (1997, University of Pennsylvania Press) partly comes across as one of the many stories I hated when I started studying Anthropology. Curiously, stories about far away people in far away places doing nearly everything very differently from what I had known were difficult to read for me. For a long time, I didn’t quite see any sense in reading about shamanic rituals in Central African villages or time conceptions in the Brazilian Amazon. But as with good wine, good scholarship also has to mature, I assume. So I ended up enjoying stories about far away places and discovering similarities, or better even, different approaches to same problems that offer new perspectives on my own culture.

The intention behind Sensuous Scholarship is not first of all to engage the reader with far away places, but much more to advocate for a different, less text-based kind of scholarship. Now this is not to say that it is less of a scholarly work – the biggest deception for me was precisely this: it is just another averagely scientific text. Even in the central part of the book, where Stoller writes about the connections between body and memory and how the past becomes embodied memory, he stays well behind Michael Taussig’s eye-opening essay History as Sorcery (1984 [!]). What I had hoped for, was a little more sensuousness in language, too, that would support the idea that “the world, for the sensuous scholar, remains a wondrous place that stirs the imagination and sparks creativity” (p.136).

How did I come across the book?

Searching for methodological approaches to researching affect, it sounded like a catch. Plus, it had a section on memory and the body.

When and where did I read it?

Mid-january, two-day home-office session while trying to write a synopsis of my research project.

At some point – I was already giving up a little on the book, because I felt it didn’t move me in the way I had hoped for – this passage struck me as revealing:

Lying unconscious on the dune, Chefferi’s being is momentarily lost between the worlds, between the Red Sea and Tillaberi, between the colonial past and the postcolonial present, between his presence and that of his medium. So it is when Hauka spirits encounter themselves and others in the netherworld between possession and “conscious”.

Chefferi is neither “European” nor African; he is neither man nor woman, Christian nor Muslim. (p.72f)

And I came to think that maybe what I am searching in my readings about far away places – beside some theoretical insights for my own projects – are those moments of human encounter, in which difference disappears for just a brief moment, and through whatever means, (in this case, spirit possession,) and people connect with each other on a different level, on a level where it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you understand.