The Fieldwork Encounter, Experience, and the Making of Truth
Crisis and the Critical Moment
American anthropology opened up a Pandora's box the moment it specified culture as its object, simultaneously setting itself at a distance from the natural sciences and defining itself in contradistinction to both American cognitivism and French structuralism. By the 1980s, the discipline was engaged in a soul-searching movement to critically assess its object, its principal method, and the most current form of the write-up of research results. In 1986, two books appeared seeking to provide a focus for this wide-ranging debate: Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, and Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, by George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer. Both attempted to take the pulse of the discipline—to assess culture, fieldwork experience, and the classic anthropological monograph.
In part, this stocktaking was a consequence of the attack launched by Edward Said on "Orientalism" in his famous book of that name published in 1978. Said examined the rhetoric of Western scholarship in colonial or neocolonial settings and radically questioned its authority and claim to grasp the objective truth of non-Western societies. In a similar move, Marcus and Fischer (1986: vii, 8) wrote that the limitations of the ethnographic form and its failure "to describe social reality" had brought anthropology into a political and epistemological "crisis of representation." Clifford (1986: 12, 26) argued for "hybrid textual activity": a shift in "dominant metaphors for ethnography ... away from the observing eye and toward expressive speech (and gesture)." Both volumes urged anthropologists to engage in experimental writing that was more partial, historical, and self-critical of its truth claims and authority than ethnographic accounts of the past had been.
This diagnosis drew its strength from the identification of what were said to be three denials running through the practice of anthropology: that ethnography is a literary genre which denies itself as such; that reliance on observation leads to a denial of the role of the ethnographer in shaping the object/subject studied; and that ethnographers tend to deny the constructed character of their objects and of the knowledge they produce, from the initial period of fieldwork through to the writing of their essays and books. These denials, according to the many subsequent exponents of this diagnosis, were buttressed by the colonial and postcolonial relations of domination, which turned colonized peoples into objects of the ethnographer's "gaze."1 Ethnographers, primarily members of Euro-American societies engaged in the pursuit of science, were accused of fixing other people in totalizing cultures and representing them as radically distinct from their Western selves in time and space.
The sense of crisis among anthropologists was much stronger in the United States than in Europe, although one might have thought, given the European origin of colonial projects, that the legacy of colonialism there would have been more burdensome. Despite the critique lodged by Said on representation, and by Johannes Fabian (1983) on the use of the visual in fieldwork, the practice of "participant observation" in fieldwork, as elaborated by Malinowski and Boas, remained in favor in many quarters—especially outside the United States, where anthropologists also turned to the study of difference and domination in their own societies.2 European scholars had generally kept a distance from the American penchant for a clichèd casting of the whole of anthropological research conducted between the two world wars as being just about kinship and ritual in "primitive societies." Major research on themes and topics such as power, politics, violence, resource use, production, and consumption, to cite only a few examples, has a long, uninterrupted history, exhibiting continuity as the same objects were reelaborated in light of changes brought about by processes of decolonization.
We ask, in this volume, about the current status of this epistemological crisis in the wake of these critiques. Specifically, on what basis can ethnographic work and experience claim to authorize socially significant and accurate accounts? For while the "writing culture debate," as it has come to be called, has cast doubt on the authority of the ethnographer, it at the same time has deferred addressing the relative truth-value of the ethnographic account itself, resulting in a quiet renunciation of any rigorous notion of the validity or comparability of fieldwork discoveries. What then remains, in particular of the ethnographic record, and more generally of the anthropological enterprise?3
This debate, though quite narrowly oriented toward a review of the representational strategies used in ethnographic texts and the authority derived from such strategies, has nonetheless broadly influenced how research projects in the discipline are formulated, and it has subsequently shaped public understanding of what anthropology does. At the same time, the focus on representation and authority has often, especially in graduate education, supplanted the art of reading ethnographies for what knowledge they reveal about the people and places studied, and it has nourished a metadiscourse suspicious of the ability of any ethnography to offer an adequate, much less a "true," account of the encounters on which fieldwork is based. While the general call to be reflexive, also a central tenet in this critique, has had a salutary effect on the discipline, it has been displaced by a reflexivity exercised on and about ethnography-surrogates—more often than not limited to representations of the past or present rather than addressing the practice of contemporary ethnography.
In the past two decades, anthropologists have indeed embraced the call for experimentation. Sufficient time has passed, we think, that an appraisal of the result of this move is now possible. It was only logical that the critique swept away many of the assumptions about the objects of ethnography: their primitiveness, isolation, ahistoricity, statism, resistance to modernity. Acknowledgment of change, temporality, movement, wide-ranging circulations of people, things, and meanings, and transnationalism led researchers to question the relevance of all interpretations and explanatory theories based solely on cultural frames and on information gathered through fieldwork experience alone. "Culture" itself has since been rethought and not infrequently abandoned as a central concept. Now anticipated and imagined futures are often privileged over action informed either by past experience or by patterns of interdependent traits and local factors. And there is full agreement that we all, Western and non-Western alike, are contemporaries living in an era that resists simple classification.
In response to the diagnosis of an anthropological "crisis," one experiment proposed to do away with "traditional" fieldwork altogether in favor of an approach that Marcus (1986) summarized rather obscurely as "putting things together," a formula he correlates with the concept of culture as cultural critique. Putting things together relied heavily on vignettes, travelogues, media images, texts, and literature of the most diverse origins and types. Clifford (1986) proposed replacing prolonged acquaintance with places and people with travel and moments of "hanging out." Another alternative, suggested by Arjun Appadurai (1990), was to follow the global flows of finance, ethnicity, media images, ideas, and technologies, thereby focusing on the transnational constitution of social imaginaries.
Today there are a bewildering assortment of approaches within the discipline, including anthropoesis, dialogism, genealogies of modernity, history, world system, transnationalism, autoethnography, the staging of multiple voices, science studies, simple activism, and critiques of knowledge through the study of constructed subjectivities. Dialogism purported to avoid power and domination, and performance became a key word in framing how fictionalization was at work in every description and interpretation. Proposals proliferated for reconfiguring cultural analysis, for blurring genres, for recapturing anthropology, or for rethinking, rethinking, rethinking.... Today the crisis seems to have receded; but for all the novelty of issues opened for inquiry and approaches tried out, we find ourselves in the presence of new orthodoxies that leave some of the most crucial epistemological conundrums in anthropology unexamined.
By any standard, contemporary anthropological work is uneven and, despite the multiplicity of approaches and sites studied, makes repetitive theoretical claims. Things are constructed; things are plural; things are unstable; things have histories; most things are in-between. Many anthropologists now see the world as being in constant motion and as consisting of fragments with no wholes, "assemblages" with no criteria of inclusion into descriptive or analytical units other than the choice between alternative narrative theories or the subjective interests of the writer. Along these lines, the insistence that all translations are partial, all truths relational and perspectival—sound ideas and assumptions with which we agree—often becomes an excuse for offering superficial translations that prefer surface over depth.
Understanding the problems entailed in the translation of meanings is central to the anthropological project, but it goes far beyond the ethnographer's linguistic skills in translating utterances or texts from one language into another. Obviously, anthropologists translate—or at least they used to—their interlocutors' key words and of course, wherever found, also texts; such translations get at deeper levels of meaning as anthropologists become more thoroughly acquainted with the languages and ways of life of their interlocutors. But for those engaged in the debate surrounding the culture concept (with some notable exceptions, such as Dennis Tedlock and Paul Friedrich), insistence on the multiplication of the languages of the translator and of the translated went hand in hand with an abandonment of deep translation. Instead, the focus has been on representations, as researchers draw from theories and paradigms of writing or from genealogical investigation. The "representations" school tends to neglect the fact that the construction of reality has always already been undertaken by the people themselves in their own languages before the intervention of the ethnographer as translator.
This prior reality, of both the ethnographer and those he or she studies, is what haunts the interactions of Stefan Senders (chapter 7) with German repatriates from Russia. When translation entails speaking in a mother tongue that one must first acquire as an adult, the translation of words and concepts and texts is relatively simple compared to the emotional difficulty of translating accumulated experience into effective responses to legal and bureaucratic narrative demands. To obtain access to prior and present realities and to reach an understanding, Senders must first submit to and acknowledge a mutual castration in language. Translation costs.
In the name of experiment, then, it is not necessary to accept three common correlates: that ethnography is primarily a "style of writing," that anthropology is primarily about the translation of other linguistic concepts and cultural worlds into the languages of the anthropological profession, or that anthropological accounts cannot be read for the truth-value of their depictions. On the last point, we contend that the relation of power to our depictions of reality is highly ambiguous, largely because of the ambiguities of power itself. For example, if relations with our interlocutors were truly ones of domination, in any unambiguous and nonreciprocal sense of the term, then we might expect most of our depictions to take the form of essentialist projections. But how many ethnographers in the field in fact have such simple relations, unsullied by difficult transferential and countertransferential investments? If the ethnographer invests in a long-term relationship with others, and over time manages to bridge some of the cultural differences and achieve a level of trust, then the relations between power and the depictions of reality are likely to be highly nuanced and contradictory, as every essay in this volume demonstrates.
Sally Falk Moore's narrative (chapter 6) of the riddles and contradictions of her own long-term fieldwork experience in Africa, affected by uneasy and changing balances in relationships both official and unofficial, speaks most directly to the issue of power and representation. But the conclusions we might draw from her account apply more to the ambiguity and unpredictability of these relationships, and their uncertain relation to forms of knowledge and power, than to the macro-narratives of neocolonial domination or theories of the ethnographic gaze. Along similar lines, Leo Coleman (chapter 5) analyzes a respite he took in the context of his first extended fieldwork in India in terms not of the predictability of power but of the different emotional investments made and asked for by Christian, Hindu, and secular actors. Likewise, Eugene Raikhel (chapter 8) takes up encounters in two clinical settings of alcohol treatment in Russia that are anything but linear narratives about biomedical authority; one demands of him that he be a scientist, the other a patient in recovery.
In short, when the theory of Orientalism is made into a dogma, followers run the risk of depicting interaction as either determined by power and domination or, alternatively, as taking place in the absence of power and domination.4 Neither depiction does justice to the ethnographic enterprise.
Although debates about culture and power have had considerable impact in shaping new approaches to fieldwork, some anthropologists have continued to employ functionalist, structuralist, and interpretive approaches. The opening of new topics of inquiry does not mean that "old" ones have been abandoned. At best, the old approaches develop in new directions, as is evidenced by nearly a century of work on political economy, inspired by Marx; on value, inspired by Simmel; on collectivities, inspired by Durkheim; on rationalization, inspired by Weber; and on psychic processes, inspired by Freud. In any case, at the same time that approaches have diversified, the notion of evidence itself has enlarged, as well as the sorts of arguments or propositions advanced and deemed acceptable by the varied constituencies of the profession.
Being There assesses the effects of these critiques on the practices of anthropology, but not by engaging in another discursive analysis of the discipline, or by offering prescriptions about what should be done. We instead attempt to demonstrate what, in fact and in writing, anthropology does or can do in and through experience-based fieldwork. Authors in this volume query the nature of encounters, experience, experiments, reflexivity, truth, subjectivity, objectification, projection, transference, risk, and affect with primary but not exclusive reference to Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tanzania, the Canadian Arctic, India, Germany, and Russia. With a focus on what happens in fieldwork encounters, each of the eight essays attempts to bring ethnographic practice and reflexive writing together so as to produce knowledge that can acknowledge its relationality and still aim for truth.
Subversion of Experience and the Circulation of Ethnographic Effects
Within anthropology, recent theoretical discussions of fieldwork have largely undermined belief in the necessity of experiential encounters and consequently have limited researchers' ethnographic curiosity. In "writing culture," knowledge from encounters is replaced with the use of what we are calling surrogate ethnography, puppeteering, and textualism, discussed below. Our purpose here is not to document the widespread resort to these new practices but merely to draw attention to their popularity, to how they work, and especially to what they are replacing. We therefore focus, in this introduction, on two key representatives of the textualist turn within anthropology: Talal Asad and Nicholas Dirks. While criticizing the effects of this turn to texts and discursive genealogies on fieldwork practices, we nonetheless wish, at the outset, to acknowledge the significance of such work.
Talal Asad, for example, decries the importance given to the "shift from armchair theorizing to intensive fieldwork," which resulted in "the pseudoscientific notion of fieldwork." He thus prefers to locate the rise of modern anthropology in Marcel Mauss—who brilliantly read and theorized ethnographic accounts—rather than in the ethnographic work, on which Mauss's writings are based, of "Boas, Rivers, and Malinowski" (2003: 17). But collapsing the practices of ethnography and the ingenious interpretive skills of Mauss into the term "modern anthropology" elides the significance of ethnographic work altogether. Would anthropological theorization have been possible without prior encounter-based fieldwork? Asad's proposal for anthropology to be "the comparison of embedded concepts (representations) between societies differently located in time or space" (17) could just as well serve as a program for true armchair disciplines such as modern philology or comparative literature—divorced from the risk-laden practices of engagement with others in the exchange of knowledge in fieldwork. These disciplines and this proposal, of course, have their merits. But Mauss himself, after all, appreciated the empirical possibilities of ethnography and strongly encouraged his students to do fieldwork. He even assembled the thirty lectures he delivered every year under the title "Instructions in descriptive ethnography, intended for travelers, administrators, and missionaries" into a "manuel d'ethnographie."5 Why should modern anthropologists reject their own tradition of ethnographic fieldwork in favor of mimicking textual analysts?
To be sure, many other factors conjoin to make practices of fieldwork seem quaint and out of touch with a "postmodern" reality. The advent of the Internet alone, with the rapid rise in its widespread use, has furthered a concern for the virtual over the immediate and face-to-face and has encouraged the practice of "surfacing," which substitutes thin for thick description. Much the same can be said about approaches that rely on other media such as television. In many instances, downloading from the Internet and watching television together have substituted for (rather than being incorporated into) Malinowski-inspired notions of fieldwork as co-residence in a place over a sustained period of time.
Particularly unfortunate is the way in which this lack of interest in experiential encounters has influenced the use and understanding of theory. For example, media artifacts are often used to demonstrate how producers dominate their audience, especially the poorest of them, and at the same time such analyses assert the inscription of all viewers, including American anthropologists, in networks of cosmopolitanism. These networks themselves are then glossed as yet other aspects of transformation and globalization, an explanation that is then equated with theory making.
Perhaps even more important for ethnography is that glossing cosmopolitanism seems to obviate the necessity to describe how it plays out in the daily concerns and concrete actions of people: that is, in their subsistence activities, family structure, marriages, relations with parents, siblings, and neighbors, interaction with bureaucracies, communication with the dead, practices of religion—all domains of ethnographic inquiry that have become somewhat marginal over the past several decades. Chat room participants or characters on the screen never share conversations, fights, arguments, or affection with each other or with anthropologists in the ordinary sense of these terms. It is precisely intensive, intimate, reflexive engagement with the quotidian that provides Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi (chapter 4) with access to the meaning of a visceral experience of disgust with an image of meat in India. After having witnessed the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, he reaches a deeper understanding of forms of complicity in this violence only through face-to-face interaction and mutual investments in individuals. On that basis, he finds that culinary practices, linked to religious affiliation and caste, have become integrated into aspirations of social class that align with a politicized Hindu nationalism.
Rather than explore what possibilities unfold in fieldwork encounters in the present, two of the dominant approaches have relied instead either on deconstructive procedures inspired by the work of Jacques Derrida, which emphasize the instability of binaries and the nondirectional "dissemination" of meanings, or on genealogies of "knowledge/power" inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, which track historical concepts or categories back to colonial times (and only rarely to the precolonial). These approaches to reading have been especially productive in the fields of history and literary studies. But as utilized within anthropology, such procedures and genealogies have frequently had the effect of limiting curiosity. The practices of participant observation are reduced to visualization, or a predatory dominating "gaze," as fieldwork is denounced as "fetish," a "metaphysics of presence," a "power-laden construction." Fieldwork settings therefore become suspect, cast as arenas of overdetermined, perverse relations.
Despite assertions that the site of the field encounter is, at base, unethical, and not a fertile space for the production of knowledge, the turn to historical and genealogical work still aims to produce an ethnographic effect through the use of surrogate ethnography, a practice that Abdellah Hammoudi (chapter 2) analyzes with reference to depictions of ritual. Proto-ethnographic texts from colonial archives and diverse "native" texts supplant the ethnographer's embedded and negotiated, experience-based knowledge of a place, a people, a culture. Or the ethnographer is situated in fieldwork only at the beginning of a narrative, whose authority is thereafter derived solely from the reading of archival texts. Ethnographic authority is exchanged, in these accounts, for expertise in understanding textual patterns and "arrangements" or "assemblages": anthropologists read written accounts of events, which they redact into sequences and situate in discourses. Another popular form of authority is puppeteering: the act of arranging and manipulating texts and staging contests between theorists (usually drawn from a small number of philosophers canonized within an imaginary monument to High Theory), or between a theorist and her fieldwork interlocutors, to buttress the puppeteer's claims to know.6
Writing based on these premises sets up fieldwork as equivalent, if not inferior, to historical-archival reading or to purely discursive analysis of the written by the West on the Rest and on itself, as if these substitutes could not only replace fieldwork experience but also escape its ethical dilemmas. One of these dilemmas is how to prevent the Rest from becoming invisible except as peoples engaged in battles constructed by the discourses of the West. Such a focus on the West as source of discourse and domination turns much anthropological writing into a one-track critique of modernity within modernity. When such writing makes an appeal to the agency of the Rest, it is frequently to a textual agency of what people—usually elites who claim to represent the group—say or write above themselves. Insofar as the Rest is concerned, anthropology as cultural critique becomes rather muted, if not engaged in apologetic discourses. The result is often single-edged critiques that avoid critical encounters with the other; concepts are almost always asked to interrogate the West, its constituted and seemingly complete knowledges, alone.7
Ironically, the anthropological embrace of textualism is a position that historians have since abandoned—what Pierre Nora calls the "cult of the document ... a religion of preservation and archivalization" (1996: 8). For example, Nicholas Dirks, an influential proponent of textualism who has quite productively inflected historical accounts with an "ethnographic sensibility," wrote in an essay on the textualization of India: "For all of anthropology's emphasis on its originary encounters, ethnographic presents/presence, and fieldwork, anthropological knowledge has always been dependent on texts. The textual field that is the pretext for fieldwork has been erased[,] ... but the erasure has further fetishized the anthropological field in relation not only to an earlier disinterest in ethnographic writing but also to a systematic inattention to ethnographic reading." He then scolds anthropologists for their resistance to footnotes, which "conceals a lack of serious concern for the reading behind (before and after) the writing of culture" (Dirks 2000: 153).
Not satisfied with denigrating the cultural encounter as mere fieldwork fetish, Dirks also proposes a focus on the written, and on reading the written, rather than on the process of writing. A putatively nonfetishized, redemptive form of anthropology—the reading and writing of textualized history, with footnotes—replaces the fieldwork encounter and the process of making the other and the possibilities of communication with the other present in writing. No longer haunted by the metaphysics of presence and the fetish of fieldwork, work of this sort testifies to a "superstitious respect and veneration for the trace, [which]," writes Nora, "negates the sacred but retains its aura" (1996: 9).
"Traces" in the text retain the aura of the sacred—when properly collated into a historical narrative that foregrounds the relation of action to power in its textual qualities—while negating any possibility of experience that might if not approximate the sacred, then at least unsettle the authority of textual codifications of the past. As Hammoudi (chapter 2) demonstrates in a critique of constructions of Muslim religious experience drawn solely from literary sources, such texts are set up as either prior or equivalent to action, and only rarely evaluated in light of the concrete actions and experiences of the protagonists written about.8
It is revealing to dwell on Dirk's use of "fetish," "erasure," and "presents/presence," because his deployment of such concepts epitomizes the invocation of High Theory to support a radical shift from fieldwork encounter to textualism. Fetish takes its meaning as a contrast to what Dirks might call "reality." But fetishized fieldwork in relation to which reality? Dirks complains about a "disinterest in ethnographic writing." Presumably, reality is the reading of "ethnographic writing," in contradistinction to the fetishized activity of anthropologists who do fieldwork. Hence, rather than viewing reading and fieldwork as being in a mutually supplementary relationship—alternating in turn, with neither activity reducible to the other—reading is seen as epistemologically superior to or, more radically, as encompassing fieldwork experience.
So what about the "erasure" of the textual field as a pretext for fieldwork? For one thing, the wealth of texts written by anthropologists has hardly been erased in the discipline. On the contrary, pre-fieldwork graduate study in anthropology in the United States consists largely if not entirely of acquiring textual knowledge, of debates about evidence, representation, history, argument, theory. This American training contrasts with a northern European tradition of fieldwork "expeditions," large and small, in which groups of scholars work together intensely in one place over a period of time.
From Dirks's perspective, the "textual field" might be understood in terms of "structuration," or that which structures the field of inquiry, to use the rather heavy but useful Bourdieuian concept. But here is the problem: There is no way to draw a clear line between the structure of the textual field and the actual vagaries of fieldwork.
At issue, ultimately, is both a fear of the field situation and a desire to incarcerate the anthropological endeavor in what we might call "textoscapes." Perhaps only a library habitus could inspire a theory that posits a relation of parallelism between the experiences of reading and of fieldwork. Relatively speaking, these two experiences are quite dissimilar: the former a highly structured field within a larger tradition, the latter a highly unstructured field reliant on serendipitous encounters. In fact, this discrepancy itself, between the textual field and the fieldwork setting, tends to generate for the researcher more felicitous and infelicitous surprises than does textual analytics alone. The gap between reading and fieldwork activity might well account for much of the innovation within anthropology as a field, explaining why paradigms change, or why earlier views codified in texts are repudiated. Moreover, experiences of power relations between cohorts, or rivalries between colleagues and schools, might well be more integral—the central pre-text to fieldwork—to the choice and popularity of topics within anthropology than is the practice of reading.
Finally, why the discomfort with the notion of "ethnographic presents/presence"? The phrase refers, at least obliquely, to Derrida's critique of what he calls the "metaphysics of presence," a concept that John Borneman (chapter 9) queries in his interactions with the ubiquitous secret police in Syria. It is certainly true that an encounter and an exchange, verbal and nonverbal—Being There, in short—guarantee nothing. And indeed, discrepancies between what is said and what is meant, in interaction, in writing, in reading, can play out ad infinitum; ambivalence, contradictory meanings, tensions cling to every word and utterance. Such is the predicament of discourses that every meaning implies a deferral. It is also certainly true, however, that the more one shares time and speaks with people, the better acquainted one becomes with the texture of other life, making it more probable there will be a closer fit between the order of words and the order of things.
In her attempt to understand what may move young people to suicide among the Inuit in Canada, Lisa Stevenson (chapter 3) demonstrates precisely how Being There—intimate acquaintances and mutual investments in one place over time—makes possible an alternative and deeper understanding of the words used for life and death. To be sure, within anthropology, except for some reference to witnessing, the notion of Being There has lost its tragic register. Its relation to visuality changed forever with the 1971 publication of Jerzy Kosinski's novel by that name. In the 1979 film made from the book, Chance (played by the incomparable Peter Sellers), when asked what kind of sex he liked, replied: "I like to watch." Yet anthropologists need not reduce themselves to the comedic and performative senses of Being There, to being the voyeur or tourist who watches and then, depending on textual skills and mastery, cynically decodes what is seen. Co-presence is also a source of knowledge that makes possible a transformation of what we know, specifically of the anthropologist's own self-understandings. Misunderstandings, tricks, double meanings, opaque metaphors, and self-interested distortions are always present in communication, but what is important is that the engaged ethnographer learns something of the "grammar" that guides the actions of his interlocutors.
In light of the above, it is important to understand the attitude toward texts displayed by Clifford Geertz, the American Ur-Vater of much of this cultural rethinking. He was perhaps the most prominent anthropologist of his generation who drew inspiration and language from philosophy and literary criticism, as he practiced a style of writing that mixed genres. In his well-known essay elaborating Ricoeur's idea of modeling social action as a text, Geertz (1973) never assumed that social action actually was a text. Reading the text was merely analogous to interpreting social action from fieldwork experience, and he equated neither of these two comparable modes of study with fieldwork. Geertz directed his primary attention to many objects that are not texts (such as political action and markets in Morocco, rituals and agricultural practices in Java) and that he, in his interpretation, did not reduce to or make dependent on textual qualities. Unlike the textualisms derived from Derrida or Foucault, Geertz's use of the text was merely heuristic. He did not retreat from fieldwork encounters to pure library work or to an exclusive reliance on vignettes, pictures, media materials, and rhetoric.
In criticizing textualism, we do not dispute that many of its forms are indispensable, particularly for understanding the history of ideas—including anthropological ideas. Without such documentation and reading, we could hardly acquaint ourselves with our predecessors or with the work of our colleagues, or decipher texts produced by interlocutors in our fieldsites. To ignore written accounts would thin our notion of tradition and severely limit our ability to understand in what traditions we work. Nor do we dispute the anthropological insights generated from an appreciation of philosophy. But an appreciation of texts within ethnographic research is not the same as the textualism that is the necessary province of literary studies, history, and philosophy. No doubt the study of literary output, with a recognition of the authority of textual constructions, adds a good deal of information about prevalent concepts and their institutional settings, but it does not tell us much about the pertinence of all this to human action. For instance, it says little about the reception of these texts, about the processes of making decisions or taking risks, and about how humans understand concepts—and if and how they follow through on those concepts in their own networks of action.
Ultimately, an exclusive reliance on texts relegates to the background the study of political action, the social structures and consequences of power, and it restricts the ethnographic to the study of producers and readers of texts, who most often are members of local and international elites. However creatively we might interpret documents, a textualist approach is often duplicative of literary studies and, in its insistence on power as the core substance of all experience, overlaps with political science. By insisting on it, we ignore what anthropology can bring to literary scholars and to political scientists, what other scholars cannot produce or intuit from the study of documents: the diverse forms of social action and interaction, interlocution in experience.
These considerations lead us to conclude that it is perhaps a crisis of identification among ethnographers that motivates them to prefer philosophical reflection on the practices of textual reading, deconstruction, genealogy of concepts, and discourse analysis to the fieldwork encounter. New philosophical reflection often takes the form of what we above called puppeteering—the staging of dialogues between past and present, between theorists, or between theorists and native interlocutors—instead of grappling with the actual dialogues that go on in the field: episodes of asymmetrical conversation, argument, misunderstanding, agreement, mutual sharing, affection, aggression, and manipulation.
Though philosophers throughout the first part of the twentieth century often looked to ethnographic accounts and non-Western concepts for critical inspiration, the relationship has since been inverted. Many anthropologists now subsume their specific ethnographic fieldwork or histories into whichever philosophical concept, theory, or methodological approach appears most in fashion. These are many, and they come in and go out of vogue quickly: for example, juxtaposition, governmentality, assemblage, materiality, agency, resistance, biopower, postcoloniality, deterritorialization, sovereignty. We are not pleading here for a particular balance in the relation between ethnography and philosophy, but we want to draw attention to how this relationship, which has been unstable and mutually productive over the past century, has now stabilized into a kind of slavish subservience of the anthropologist to particular philosophical schools. To equate theory making with the illustration of specific philosophical trends is a travesty of the kinds of articulation possible between High Theory and anthropology, and it suggests inattention to the range of views and open questions about human consciousness and action. With its exclusive attention to language and the written, it partakes of "neo-scripturalism": the dedication to and worship of texts.
Today ethnographic experience and discovery rarely stimulate philosophical thinking, but such was not always the case. From medieval scholars to the eighteenth-century Encyclopèdie edited by d'Alembert and Diderot, the confrontation with cultural difference and, in the latter case, with the "noble savage" unencumbered by civilization was integral to undertaking a project of self-definition and to formulating a concept of humanity. Some philosophers, such as Lucien Lèvy-Brühl, subsequently even became ethnologists. Moreover, one cannot overestimate the importance of ethnographic work on sacrifice for the theories of Marcel Mauss on the gift or of Georges Bataille on expenditure, not to speak of the debt to ethnographic accounts of the philosophical doctrines of phenomenology and existentialism.
In the 1960s, the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard formed the substance for arguments about the relativism of belief by Peter Winch, and about rationality and the commensurability of moral systems by Alisdair MacIntyre. This reflection leads us to ask, Is any equivalence between the highly productive relationship of, for example, Lèvi-Strauss with Sartre in the 1950s and 1960s and that, a half century later, of anthropologists with Homi Bhabha or Judith Butler? The point, we emphasize, is not to warn anthropologists against learning from philosophers and social theorists but rather to bring to consciousness the fact that we are no longer producing much work that challenges them and their concepts. The tendency of anthropologists to deploy their work only as illustrative cases for philosophical trends or concepts threatens to make anthropology into a sterile intellectual exercise.
To be sure, following the lead of philosophical schools has alerted us to themes and objects either absent from or marginal to classical anthropology. In mimicking the movement of the globalizing world itself; developing a multiplicity of fieldwork sites in ways that include following people or objects on the move; concentrating on borders, borderlands, and the interstitial; and focusing on instability in objects and relationships, anthropologists have in this critical moment produced a massive body of work. When considered up close, however, these innovations merely remind us, over and over again, that everything is moving, unstable, and embedded in globalizing processes—meager theoretical insights from such a large output. Both in theories of fieldwork and in theorizing about contemporary societies and cultures in flux, the claims seems to boil down to the usual criticisms of essentialism and naturalization, and to a repetitive insistence on the constructedness of cultural norms. No doubt such critiques are a salutary antidote to hegemonic stereotypes rampant in the first world, but they can hardly be taken as new theories that can inform how we can learn from, with, and about the contemporary world.
Likewise, while one should applaud experimentation with forms of writing (no two ethnographies today seem comparable), one should also question whether experiments in form are matched by conceptual innovations in the use and organization of evidence and by the depth to which questions are explored. Ethnographies do not, after all, constitute a genre, despite various attempts to standardize them. They are better characterized as belonging to an antigenre that nonetheless builds on all others. They take up the challenge of novelization theorized by Mikhail Bakhtin, as "drawn to everything that is not yet completed," open to an "inconclusive future," affirming that the "author [is] in a zone of contact with the world he is depicting" (1981: 27, 28, 30). But a narrative that wanders and jumps about in order to depict an inconclusive future needs even more experiential depth than does a simple story subsumed under a sophisticated theoretical frame.
Writing not based on much experience in the field, much acquaintance with people or with the questions that concern them, cannot fail to show a certain vagueness no matter how theoretically competent the writer. Rhetorical and performative virtuosity can rarely compensate for the lack of fieldwork experience, which provides an opening to dilemmas in the contemporary world. One consequence of their lack of experience is that many anthropologists instead look for evidence chiefly in archives. For them, consequently, fieldwork as a series of human encounters in communicative events has become subsidiary—the Derridean supplement, necessary but also a substitute—and therefore mimicked or replaced by surrogate rhetorical techniques.
In this volume, our concentration on the possibilities in experiential encounters leads to an exploration of questions about understanding how subjectivity is assumed in an inconclusive present, and it suggests modes of engagement in generating the knowledge and social and political action that enable ongoing relationships. We highlight fieldwork encounters in which experiential insights are arrived at not only through visualization and observation but also through linguistic exchanges, (mis)translations, feelings of attraction and repulsion, discussions and arguments, and fights and power tactics, as well as through the study of knowledges that societies have produced about their past and present. Although our encounters no longer focus on the revelation of passive interior states within cultures, we also do not think that their primary function is to yield evidence of Western hegemony. What specific kinds of insight, then, do they provide?
Fieldwork encounters, we hope to demonstrate, are modes of ethical engagement wherein the ethnographer is arrested in the act of perception. This arrest can lead both to a productive doubt about the ongoing perception of the phenomena in interaction and to the possibility of elaborating shared knowledge. We thus explore fieldwork experience mainly not as a geographical orientation to the mapping of place or personhood but as engagement with both Being There and with forms of distancing that help make cultural difference visible. That is, fieldwork is the registering of sensory impressions in a (temporal) process of mutual subject-discovery and critique, an engagement with persons, groups, and scenes that takes into account the dynamics of our interactions as well as the differences between our locations and those of our interlocutors.
We open a discussion anew about the status of visualization, observation, and description by emphasizing the thorough mediation of exchanges, linguistic and otherwise, in interlocution, and we explore what opportunities fieldwork experience provides for a special kind of reflexive experience and perception. We do not, in this venture, wish to return to an innocent understanding of fieldwork experience as a transparent transmission of impressions; rather we seek to reconceptualize the relation between observation, experience, and representation as one of dialectical objectification. Along these lines, the relation between subject and object may be more unstable and variable than critiques of colonialism or power/knowledge allow for, and there may be specific arenas or modes of interaction in which knowledge is more at play and its consequences less predictable.
In explicating notions of experience and subjectivity from this perspective, we hope to recast the understanding in anthropology of what "theory" does and can do, with an emphasis not on prescriptions of what cannot or should not be done but on possibilities of sharing experience that lead to objectivities-in-progress and to interpretations that might converge into historically situated propositions and double-edged critiques. Objectivities-in-progress are possible only if ethnographers reestablish a critical distance from the people and processes they study.
The "abolition of critical distance," as Fredric Jameson reasoned in his seminal 1984 essay "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," resulted from the disappearance of "the old-fashioned ideological critique" (86), as well as from an inadequate historicization of the present. Also, loss of confidence in an older, mostly Marxist-inspired apparatus of concepts such as ideology, alienation, progress, and objectivity led to assertions of an "I'm okay, you're okay" or even "I'm okay, I'm okay" subjectivism and to the use of languages of mutual affirmation, effacing the necessary analytical break from the "native's point of view." Double-edged critiques would require the anthropologist to integrate a more dialectical understanding of historical encounters—in their extremes, catastrophic or emancipatory—that might lead to mutual, intersubjective questioning rather than smug assertions of identity rights or untraversable differences.