A CEE RECAP of THE 2018 AAA EXECUTIVE SESSION
By Alex Chen
On Saturday Nov. 16th, Dr. John Jackson, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania) and Dr. Deborah Thomas (University of Pennsylvania) co-chaired an executive session on multimodal anthropology at the American Anthropological Association Annual meeting, bringing together a panel of experienced and emerging scholars whose fascinating experimental work spans everything from choreographed ritual art to 3D printed necklaces. Underpinning the group “provocation” on multimodality was the desire to create collaboration, space, and theory that engages with a world that is increasingly mediated by technology and social media.
Working primarily in photography, Dr. Ruth Behar (University of Michigan) relayed a serendipitous story of how a photograph she took of an interlocutor 40 years ago ended up as a tattoo on the interlocutor’s grandson while Dr. Arjun Shankar (Hamilton College) theorized on the ideas of refusal and of listening to images taken by one’s interlocutor. Listening was taken up by Dr. Laura Kunreuther (Bard), who pointed us to the importance of digital infrastructures in enabling and limiting multimodality while revealing the heavy editing process that underlies the apparent transparency of sound recordings. Dr. Maryam Kashani (University of Illinois) took up video opacity as a way to assert sovereignty for Muslim American communities struggling under increasing encroachment by the surveillance state, while Dr. Deborah Thomas screened a film that mined the archive of drone surveillance footage in order to prompt an affective response against state violence.
Yet joy and hope can also spring from multimodality. Dr. Harjant Gill (Towson University) presented his collaboration with Indian NGOs to use Virtual Reality as a means to promote dialogue and empathy on critical issues of gender and sexuality. Dr. Aimee Cox (Yale University) showcased her collaborations with conceptual artists like Saya Woolfalk and Simone Leigh, including a ritual performance in Manhattan’s Fulton Center and Transit Station that brought attention to the solar, commercial, transit, and ancient spiritual energies that animate New York City as well as an installation called “Potted Woman” that interrogated the embodied experience of enclosure. Dr. Elizabeth Chin (Art Center College of Design), taking on the provocation mantle, presented her work with students at the Laboratory for Speculative Ethnology – including a “hands up don’t shoot glove,” a beautifully sequined accessory that starts taking photographs for upload into the cloud as soon as the gesture is made – while donning a laboratory jumpsuit she fashioned from Dutch Wax Print fabrics from her collaborations in Uganda.
We are so excited to announce the launch of the Center for Experimental Ethnography!!
Why a new Center? And what is “experimental ethnography”?
Over the past twenty years, we have seen an “ethnographic turn” across a range of disciplines, a turn that has been grounded in participant-observation research and inductive analytic and theoretical processes. This turn has occurred not only within the humanities and social sciences, but also in professional schools, fine arts, and architecture. Whether in business, medicine, or law, photography, sculpture, or performance art, qualitative social science methods that yield thick descriptions of persons, locations, and processes of meaning-making have become more common as scholars and practitioners seek insights into the everyday worlds and ideas of their collaborators in the field.
At the same time, contemporary developments in technology – including inexpensive cameras, editing software and internet platforms for sharing work – have made new representational techniques widely available and familiar, especially to younger generations now moving into academia. As a result, we are witnessing a shift in orientation from the page to other representational formats – film, performance, soundscapes, games, drawing and design, among others – as researchers experiment with new platforms. These two shifts are opening new questions about the public responsibilities of the University in the twenty-first century.
What tools for research and communication should we offer the next generation of Ph.D. and graduate professional students?
What difference does genre make in research dissemination – analytically, epistemologically, and politically – and what modes of representation are meaningful and relevant?
How do non-text based formats transform the processes and products of research, and the boundaries of discipines?
In what ways is this work accountable to the communities from which it emerges and through which circulates, and what counter-spaces can be built to create new kinds of dialogue and new forms of recognition?
The CENTER FOR EXPERIMENTAL ETHNOGRAPHY is a forum dedicated to exploring these transformations. We seek to support the work of faculty and students who are working extra-textually, whether this be through the medium of film, performance, sound, creative writing, or art. We recognize that knowledge production is participatory, embodied, and social. We know that the space of the 21st century university must extend beyond its walls and beyond books and labs. And we understand that sometimes the most transformative experiences come through an encounter with a film, a performance, a poem, or a soundscape.
At the Center, we endeavor to coordinate scholarship, research, and public partnerships related to multi-modal work practices; to consolidate those activities in which we and our students are already engaged; and to grow these generative connections in order to make Penn a nationally- and internationally- known hub for these types of inquiry and practice.
By hosting Visiting Scholars each semester, we envision a dynamic and vibrant space that puts Penn students and professors in constant contact with others working in these fields elsewhere. We also seek to forge connections with Centers and Programs doing this kind of work internationally, and other institutions worldwide, serving as a hub for a wider network. We hope you will join us!!
Deborah A. Thomas
STAYING ATTUNED TO OSCILLATIONS AND UNCERTAINTIES: WRITING ETHNOGRAPHY IN TIMES OF CONFLICT & TRANSITION
Pise seguro, salve su vida (Step safely, save your life)
Step sound, step sound, step down with care,
take the shortcut if you dare,
leave the beaten path to piss,
pick fruit, seek share, I hit or miss.
Step right, step left, step light, my friend,
one step down to rise again
metal click beneath a boot,
a shredded leaf, a splintered root…
“Why engage in experimental ethnography?” is a question I have been asked on more than one occasion. Or more bluntly, “Why do you need to write like that?” in reference to the use of literary and poetic forms of expression in ethnography. I return to the bearing of these questions in the context of the political conjuncture in my long-term “field site,” Colombia, to briefly reflect on the role of experimental methodologies in research, analysis, and writing in times of conflict and transition. Colombia has endured over fifty years of social and armed conflict. Aspects of this war have ended and/or are transitioning after a peace accord was signed in 2016 between the national government and the longest-standing guerilla organization in the Western hemisphere, the FARC-EP. Simultaneously, socio-environmental and territorial conflicts are perpetuated and new configurations of violence are emerging within a post-accord scenario. How does one engage in an anthropology of the emergent and transitional – the open-ended, that which has no guarantees, the affective charges and fleetingness of hope, the conjugations of uncertainty – in ways that are other than historical or the present captured in retrospect? How does one hold in tension the way brute violence explodes, interrupting the rhythms of daily life, while also remaining a latent potential boiling beneath the surface and a blurred topic of conversation and embodied memory? How does one articulate the indeterminate times of glyphosate, its metabolism in the biochemical matrices of soil, the life that grows in the midst of poison sprayed by the crop duster planes of the antinarcotics police? How can we stay attuned to the tentative gradualness of an economic reconversion when open pasture is allowed to return to secondary forest, or the oscillating continuum of destruction and germination in the powerful force of a river as it overflows, reclaims territory, and returns to its previous course?
I have been interested in these sorts of questions and phenomena. If the social sciences and humanities aspire to analyze and articulate the complex processes and multiple temporalities that correspond to the interfaces of socio-natural disasters, climate change, and the layered trajectories of war and so-called post-conflict and transitional justice scenarios, there is a necessity to think the long times of rocks in concert with human calendars and the micro-intervals of the metabolisms of microbial ecologies. There is no easy tense to grab hold of when explicitly dealing with transition and transformation. It is hard and often irresponsible to claim definitive breaks in social patterns, structural conditions, and historical cycles, transcendent political success, or consolidated movements and agentive capacities. Justice is always an aspirational and ongoing pursuit. Action is dispersed, at times intensely frenetic and in other moments dulled and imperceptible. The fear of stepping down on a solid and receptive ground is palpable and persists long after landmines have been removed from a landscape as I attempt to convey in the opening sketch of this blog. Imagining how to write these oscillations, potentialities, and uncertainties, keep them alive on and beyond the page, and circulating among diverse publics requires multimodal approaches and interdisciplinary practices. Whom do these methodological exercises serve and for whom might they be a priority? Taking inspiration from social movements in Colombia as well as diverse initiatives at the interfaces of the arts and sciences in the environmental humanities, there have been moves to explore the memories and experiences of war, violence, and constructions of peace through the bodies of soils, water, and rocks as inseparable from human lives and corporalities. For me, experimental ethnography – be it poetry, creative non-fiction, audiovisual work, soundscapes, or performance – does not “give voice” to or represent the subaltern (human and nonhuman), but rather attends to relational modes of existence and shifting affects, which require different genres of expression and creative impulse. If we assume the challenge and ethical obligation of imagining how to cultivate alternative worlds and realities rather than to only diagnose the conditions and conjunctures of the world as we currently know it, then we must be willing to ethnographically follow and perform these temporalities, sensorial experiences, and affective registers without the guarantees of permanence, certainty, and conclusive prose and arguments.
Written by Kristina Lyons
PENN MUSEUM 336
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