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
© 2018 The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania