Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Damnable Bell

In preparation for publishing a new chapbook of poems that use images from the myth of Ys, I wrote this little piece on Joanna Newsom's song "Sawdust and Diamonds" from her 2006 album Ys.

For those who don't know, Ys was a city off the coast of Breton, France, that was flooded and sunk in the Middle Ages by its Queen, Dahut. I'm (re-)writing my own myth of Ys that will be released with the new poems, so to get the basics of the story refer to these sources for now, and know that there is more to come. A few key details to know: my reading is a feminist one. I do not cast Dahut as a corrupt woman. In my story of Ys Gradlon, her father, is to blame for Ys' corruption and eventual destruction. Thank you to Bird Lindsey for this summary of one possible feminist story of Ys: "In some stories Dahut's painted as a woman of lust having many lovers and being evil and flooding the city when she didn't get her way. I see it as a woman who was born at sea, who resembled her mother, which brought her father joy and pain. He built a city for his lost love and Dahut on the water so he would never have to leave his dead wife. How I see it is, Dahut represents women and the city is patriarchy... [Dahut] is accused when she doesn't love men back; they make up lies because their pride has been hurt about her being a 'whore.' [Dahut] finally destroys the city...just like how we have to destroy our society that was built for us, without our consent."

Joanna Newsom resurfaces the story of Ys in her album of the same name. The track "Sawdust and Diamonds" most directly references the story of Dahut, daughter of Gradlon and Queen of Ys. In the first verse Newsom sings: "drop a bell down the stairs / hear it fall forevermore / drop a bell off a dock / blot it out in the sea / drowning mute as a rock / sounding mutiny." This lyric is a reference to the church bells of Ys, which rang wildly in the vacuum that the ocean's rushing water created as it devoured the city. In Breton the bells can still be heard when one is out at sea.

Like Dahut's narrative, "Sawdust and Diamonds" (as well as many other tracks on the album) tells the story of Newsom's manipulation. Over the course of the song she is turned into a series of puppets--a woman, dove, a donkey--and is handled and forced to perform over and over. Who moves her is unclear; we imagine a man, but Newsom continually addresses herself: "settle down, settle down, my desire."

Though Newsom appears conflicted about the role she plays in an abusive relationship, it is clear that her lover isn't a safe person. Newsom sings "push me back into a tree / bind my buttons with salt / fill my long ears with bees / praying please, please, please / love, you ought not! / no, you ought not!" This image--Newsom as a clumsy animal with a buzzing in her ears attempting to fend off a violent hand--comes shortly after her portrait of herself in a public cameo with the same person: "and the articulation in our elbows and knees / makes us buckle as we couple in endless increase / as the audience admires."

These vignettes are punctuated by the image of "a little white dove / made with love / made with love / made with glue and a glove / and some pliers." As the song progresses, Newsom reveals that the dove is also herself: "and a system of strings / tugs on the tips of my wings / see me warble and rise like a sparrow." However, it isn't until close to the end of the song that the origin of the dove is revealed: "A slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision / while, somewhere with your pliers and glue, you make the first incision / and in a moment of almost-unbearable vision / doubled over with the hunger of lions / 'hold me close' coos the dove / who is stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds." In this verse there is no escaping that the same "you" being addressed throughout the song as both Newsom's collaborater and manipulator is also the one who created her.

Finally Newsom tears it all down: "and I crash through the rafters / and the ropes and the pulleys trail after / and the holiest belfry burns sky-high... / then I hear a noise from the hull / seven days out to sea / and it is the damnable bell / and I believe that it tolls / that it tolls for me!" Again Newsom's ambivalence about her own guilt or implication in the relationship surfaces, but we see the choice she has made. Ys, Gradlon, the dove, the knight--they're left behind in the ocean. Newsom closes "Sawdust and Diamonds" with the image that opens it--she stands "at the top of the flight / of the wide white stairs," presumably looking down at the sea and wondering: "though the rest of my life / do you wait for me there?"

Sunday, April 27, 2014


Luna-1 is a recording project that I started in 2007, revisited a couple times in 2009 and 2011, and have mostly let languish in the invisible drawer of my laptop. Recently, however, I've felt like sharing. Here's a couple rough pups for y'all... and maybe someday they'll become velveteen rabbit-real.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Short Run of Physical Copies Comin' UP!

I'm putting together a small run of physical copies of Everyone I've Loved! Look for them (hopefully) at Bluestockings in NYC, and perhaps on the internet. 

These things cos $$$ to make so donations are super appreciated right now, especially if you want one! I'll update soon with the official release date and book specs. 
For now, here's a preview of the work in progress 

Friday, March 21, 2014



Everyone I've Loved is ready for release two weeks early!!!!!!!! 

This book is about embracing queerness, questioning heteromonogamy, and knowing the boundaries and limits of loves that transform. It's also about Taylor Swift, swingsets, emotional processing, and queering pop culture.

  It will look better in yr pdf reader than on the internet, so:
Click the image below to download and consider leaving me a lil donation ♥

ALSO ...... I'm working on expanding this project into a full-length book!! 
Enjoy yr time getting to know the cast of characters in Everyone I've Loved --
the projected release for a fuller version of our stories is Winter 2014.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Writing Towards an Ethical Anthropology: Navigating the ‘Cleft’ between Ethnographer and Subject

written 12/12/12

In her 1995 article, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes a problematic encounter that she had with squatters in the Chris Hani camp, a shanty town outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Three young boys had been accused of stealing and were badly beaten, kept in confinement for three days, and threatened with “necklacing”—a process in which tires full of petrol are wrapped around the necks of moral offenders and set on fire. When it seemed that the smallest was in danger of dying from internal organ damage and infection, Scheper-Hughes made the contentious decision to take him to a nearby hospital, thereby breaking the terms of his punishment. In writing about this decision, Scheper-Hughes situates herself not as an anthropologist, but as a mother, and her decision in the context of the boy as someone’s child. Scheper-Hughes uses the dyadic model of a mother-child relationship to legitimate what she frames as behavior stemming from a “precultural” ethics. Thus, In “The Primacy of Ethics,” Scheper-Hughes is not merely an anthropologist coolly observing the ethical arbitration of others—she situates herself with her subjects as a participant in calling for an ethical anthropology.
            The ire created by Scheper-Hughes’ behavior among the squatters at Chris Hani—as well as the myriad botched interventions of anthropologists across the world—problematizes the notion of the anthropologist as a potential abettor of lethal power asymmetries, at least in the field. Scheper-Hughes' experience is one of many that shows how, often through crises of confusion and miscommunication, ethnographic encounter can a crucial role in confusing anthropology's navigation of power and domination in a globalizing world. With this prompt, Webb Keane calls for an
ethics of interpretation within anthropology in his 2003 article, “Self-Interpretation, Agency, and the Objects of Anthropology.” Keane argues that the tensions between ethnographer and subject—and their mutually destructive potentiality—arise from the inherently objectifying nature of linguistic processes, and suggests an interrogative praxis that “demands some portable objectifications” (2003:243). However Keane does not elaborate on the structure or implications of what such structures, or an anthropology capable of creating them, might look like. In response to Keane and Scheper-Hughes' lack of elaboration in their respective ethics, I will turn to an exploration of George Marcus’ “para-ethnography” and “para-sites” as a possible solution to the dilemma of the anthropologist as an ethical actor in the field.
Scheper-Hughes’ central concern in "The Primacy of the Ethical" is the existence, following Emmanuel Levinas, of a “precultural ethics.” Scheper-Hughes quotes Levinas: ‘‘Morality does not belong to culture: [it] enables one to judge it.’ Here I will tentatively and hesitantly suggest that responsibility, accountability, answerability to ‘the other’—the ethical as I would define it—is precultural to the extent that our human existence as social beings presupposes the existence of the other” (1995:419). Scheper-Hughes asserts that the existence of “the other” is the first condition of a relational ethics, and that “in presupposing all meaning, ethics makes culture possible” (419). Here, Scheper-Hughes argues that, by virtue of being human, we are all already ethically bound to one another. As such, an anthropology that ignores this accountability in favor of contriving a perspective in which “all humans are equal in the sight of anthropology” (Scheper-Hughes 1995:416) inherently betrays a mandatory collective obligation to be ethical.
The aspect of anthropology that Scheper-Hughes views as being the greatest obstacle to the fulfillment of a moral telos (Faubion 2011) within anthropology is its grounding as an objective science that presupposes a lived distance between anthropologist and subject as such. Scheper-Hughes asks that instead, anthropologists “make ourselves available…as comrades (with all the demands and responsibilities that this word implies) to the people who are the subjects of our writings, whose lives and miseries provide us with a livelihood” (1995:420). In suggesting a horizontal relationship between the anthropologist and her “subject”—and, as such, the dismantling/desubjectification of her subject qua subject—Scheper-Hughes hits on the central node examined by both Webb Keane's ethics of interpretation and George Marcus' para-ethnography: the problem of estrangement and objectification in the ethnographic encounter.
In “Self-Interpretation, Agency, and the Objects of Anthropology” (2003), Keane primarily concerns himself with negotiating the tension that has “always marked ethnographic knowledge…[that] between epistemologies of estrangement and of intimacy…[where] the latter has increasingly claimed the epistemological and moral high ground in much cultural anthropology, especially in America” (223). Keane aligns an anthropology of estrangement with classical anthropology;1 by proxy, “the current emphasis on intimacy and engagement, and the suspicion of objectification, are associated with post-colonial critique, practice theory, deconstruction, power/knowledge, and identity politics” (Keane 2003:223). In Keane’s genealogy, anthropology’s attitude towards “objectification” is ultimately what serves as the hinge between the two epistemologies. Principally, Keane situates the disagreement between intimate and classical anthropology as being around “the assumption that the separation of subject from object can be understood only in negative terms, that to say that a field of knowledge ‘depersonalizes’ is ipso facto to discredit it” (2003:222). Thus, Keane’s juxtaposition of “estrangement” and “intimacy” mirrors the disjuncture that Scheper-Hughes posits as existing between classical anthropology and her proposed “barefoot” (Scheper-Hughes 1995:420) anthropology that privileges intimacy, empathy, and a moralized accountability as field methods.
              Both Keane and Scheper-Hughes’ focus on legitimacy in anthropological ventures is incredibly important, as epistemic certainty about ‘proper’ field methods and broader field ethics is what drives both scholars to make prescriptive claims about anthropology as a discipline.2 Even more specifically, concerns about the relationship between “objectification” and legitimacy is what sets the stakes in both Scheper-Hughes’ and Keane’s delineation of a more ethically oriented anthropology. Both recognize that, following Foucault, truth games and relations of power in knowledge production are ultimately what set the terms for the exercise of biopower, the categorical neglect or augmentation of certain forms of life by dominant institutions (Foucault 1997:295). Fundamentally, it is anthropology’s relation to exercises of biopower—and the role that anthropologists could play in mediating the biopower manipulated by larger and more aggressive entities, such as states—that seems to be at stake for both Scheper-Hughes and Keane. Fundamentally, Scheper-Hughes is concerned that anthropology functions primarily to reify already existing power asymmetries and—when life is at stake—she finds this morally reprehensible.
By proxy, Keane’s project is genealogical rather than (directly) polemical. Keane therefore takes issue with both “estranged” and “intimate” anthropologies, and seeks especially to problematize the idea of the latter due to its recent emergence in the field. In critiquing “intimate” anthropology, Keane takes particular umbrage with the fact that Lila Abu-Lughod’s “specific example of what a humanistic ethnography of the particular3 would consist of requires both author and reader to accept as transparent certain [social] categories… For this view of humanism assumes there is nothing problematic about ordinary language, as if we had full mastery of it and as if it did not bring all sorts of things into our lives including both tacit values and modes of self-deception and domination” (Keane 2003:236). Specifically, Keane reads Abu-Lughod’s analytic focus on metalanguage—the subject’s speech about herself and her world—as fundamentally ignoring the communicative separation that exists not only between anthropologists and their interlocutors, but also between the intentions and actions of all agents. Keane reminds us that “to privilege the agent’s own description of the action, especially as it is linked to intentionality, commonly presupposes a sovereign self-consciousness, a figure [of] increasingly spectral character” (2003:233). It is via this appeal to the ontological uncertainty of the subject as a knowing and intending actor4 that Keane arrives at the conclusion that undergirds his argument: that “even such transparently natural and intuitively obvious concepts [such as visibly policed ethical mores] are not immediately present to the senses but depend on some mode of self-interpretation, and thus some potential for self-objectification…” (2003:236). Ultimately, Keane does not view studying metalanguages as a solution to the self/other divide that “intimate” anthropologists seek to avoid.
As part of his critique, Keane offers a perspective that discredits an exclusive focus on metalanguage like Lughod's. Keane's critique posits that objectification and estrangement is inherent in all language, a position bolstered by Derrida's concept of iteration. Derrida argues that, as a code, it is the function of language to create discrete and separable categories that can be inexactly reproduced absent the distinguishing markers of context that created them.5 In Derrida’s analytic mode, even the subject’s speech about herself is alienating and othering due to the way language is structured. Simply, Keane uses Derrida to argue that language use precludes direct or “transparent” communication.6
Keane uses the concept of iteration to particularly critique ethnographies that privilege subject’s speech about herself over the analytic capacity of the anthropologist. In this system of thought, an “intimate” anthropology that places studying metalanguage at its core would not actually bring an anthropologist “closer” to her subject, as “even ‘we’ (whoever that problematic category might be) are not fully transparent to ourselves” (Keane 2003:236). This “we” includes both the anthropologist and her subject, for in Derrida’s analytic both are equally opaque to themselves and one another.
However, while Keane specifically attacks “intimate” anthropology’s reliance on metalinguistic analysis and the ethnographer’s experience,7 he does not completely dismiss “intimate” anthropologists’ fears of objectification. Keane writes,
But does not estrangement lead to betrayal or reification, as Abu-Lughod claims? I want to suggest that, real as these dangers are, they do not inhere in either objectification or metalanguages per se… Disruption and objectification are already innate possibilities, since metalanguages of action are not simply for ‘me,’ private and conceptual—they are for ‘you.’ They are thus subject to objectification and circulation as semiotic forms. As semiotic forms, they circulate publicly and are realized materially. Metalanguages are therefore not simply more or less arbitrary interpretations of a world. Rather, they are causally linked to material processes along several dimensions, and in multiple directions (2003:239).

In this passage, Keane delineates the space in which iteration in language may move subjects to action or make an impact their behavior. This transition point is also where the material stakes of speech and interpretation begin. As such, iteration is also the place in which ethics enters the picture for Keane.
To produce my own critical terms, Keane’s focus is on interpretation—the process of objectification that transforms action into sign; and realization—the process by which signs become embodied and produce material impact. As I have noted above, it is in the domain of the ethical that Keane’s analysis intersects with Scheper-Hughes, and where Keane’s fixation on the terms of objectification rests. As both scholars show, the interpretive cleft produced within processes of communication has enormous consequences for ethical arbitration.
            In an attempt to restore a sense of mutuality to the interpretive process between ethnographer and subject. Keane suggests a “third” analytic possibility. Keane's ethics of interpretation rise in recognition of the stakes for bare life—such as the lashing, confinement, and threat of “necklacing” for the three young boys at Chris Hani—that processes of semiotic interpretation and realization can create, not to mention the incredible power wielded by the anthropologist in determining the course of these processes.
Contra to the options of either the “intimate” anthropologist deciding “openly to claim the project of demonstrating human self-determination,” or the “objectifying” anthropologist to “seek some ultimate determination that will settle matters with, perhaps, a wearied sigh of relief” (2003:242), Keane asserts that we may
Keep in sight the problematic ground of the ethnographic particular neither as a privileged foundation for knowledge nor as a locus of self-determination. Rather, this ground characterizes the space of encounter in which people seek or deny one another’s recognition… On the one hand, our encounters should take us away from them, and demand some portable objectifications. On the other hand…our engagements should return us to them again. This, at least, would acknowledge that the instigation for social knowledge arises from within society (2003:243).

It is here that Keane concludes, but as mentioned above, this premise is neither satisfactory nor conclusive in that it does not address alternative material possibilities. What on earth would such an anthropology look like?
             For Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an ethical anthropology would be a profoundly collaborative and revolutionary effort—she writes, “We can disrupt expected academic roles in the spirit of the Brazilian ‘carnavalesque.’ We can make ourselves available not just as friends or as ‘patrons’ in the old colonial sense…[but] exchange gifts based on our labors, use book royalties to support radical actions, and seek to avoid the deadening treadmill of academic achievement and in this way subvert the process that puts our work at the service of the scientific, academic factory” (1995:420). While this is a heartening suggestion, it doesn’t answer the question of what to do in situations like the one Scheper-Hughes encountered in Chris Hani.
              Scheper-Hughes’ model of the anthropologist-as-comrade begins to negotiate a type of relationship that could narrow the political gap between the ethnographer and her subject, but does not concretely address the concern grounding this essay. Scheper-Hughes' work in Chris Hani shows that the power afforded to the ethnographer by her position as an 'objective' moralist and scientist amplifies beyond reconciliation an estrangement already made manifest by linguistic processes. Fundamentally, relationships between subject and ethnographer in Scheper-Hughes’ “barefoot anthropology” still fall prey to the alienating potential of language dynamics as Keane lays them out in "Self-interpretation." Referencing Sarte, Scheper-Hughes writes that “the generative prestructure of language presupposes…a given relationship with another subject, one that exists prior to words” (1995:419), but this presupposition does not account for the fact that such a relationship does not necessarily imply the existence of “another” that is at all legible or even identifiable.
The inability of a “barefoot anthropology” as Scheper-Hughes outlines it to navigate and account for the miscommunication and misrepresentation inherent in the ethnographer--interlocutor relationship is a relevant concern for Scheper-Hughes because identifying processes of objectification is at the center of understanding her problematic interaction in Chris Hani. This becomes especially evident in the way that Scheper-Hughes writes about the experience.
Though many residents of Chris Hani were furious with Scheper-Hughes for her decision to rescue the youngest boy from his punishment for theft, Scheper-Hughes ends her description of her time in the camp with the following testimony: “I interfered not to be partial to three boys who wronged the community but because I felt sorry for their mothers, who were ashamed of what their sons had done but who were afraid to help them. [Here the older women nodded their heads in agreement]… When I left Chris Hani, a few older men scolded me for having exceeded my role as a visitor and a guest, but the women invited me to a farewell beer party” (414). In this passage, Scheper-Hughes directly implies that these women are grateful to her for potentially saving the boy’s life, and seems to position the Chris Hani mothers’ gratitude as being more significant than the frustration voiced by male members of the town.
The way Scheper-Hughes frames the significance of the Chris Hani mothers’ gratitude is the fulcrum of my critique, for it is the place in which Scheper-Hughes creates the mothers as her subjects: women whose (legitimate) emotions and desires seem to rebel against the prescriptive norms of life in Chris Hani. In the context of this portrait, Scheper-Hughes’ conviction to save the smallest boy can be read in an additional context—that of Scheper-Hughes’ emergent and prescriptive ethical convictions about doing anthropology. She writes, “Anthropological writing can be a site of resistance…a ‘negative worker.’ The negative worker is a species of class traitor…who colludes with the powerless to identify their needs against the interests of the bourgeois institution: the university, the hospital, the factory” (1995:420). Scheper-Hughes situates her decision to save the smallest boy in the context of this disciplinary frame, and her doing so immediately begs the following questions: if Scheper-Hughes indeed viewed herself as functioning as a “negative worker,” what or whom was she working against? The patriarchy? The men in the town that Scheper-Hughes contrasts with the mothers of Chris Hani certainly did not constitute a bourgeois organization. Indeed, their decision to punish the thieves was one made specifically outside of hegemonic institutions; Chris Hani was a camp comprised of people who had fled the heavy police surveillance and brutality of apartheid.
Scheper-Hughes' situation of Chris Hani's men and women as opposite communities, one of whom she can directly ally with, is the critical moment in which her intervention fails. Though it is arguable that Scheper-Hughes' discussion with the residents of Chris Hani about alternative punishments for the boys such as having them do community service (1995:414) could have been generative, her intervention caused lethal harm. Scheper-Hughes reports: “The intervention in the incident with the three youths had provoked a crisis and the security committee had quit the night before, and there had been bloodshed in the camp… At the grave site…a close friend of the deceased suddenly came alive…stamping his feet and chanting in English, while staring fixedly in my direction, ‘Who’s the killer? Who’s the killer? Who’s the killer?” (1995:413). This is the extent to which Scheper-Hughes comments on the murder sparked by her behavior.
How are we to read this elision in the context of Scheper-Hughes’ fixation on her conviction to save an endangered life? This descriptive asymmetry is one of the many moments in which Scheper-Hughes betrays the deeply problematic nature of trusting anthropologists to be able to interpret their subjects adequately and intimately enough to become necessarily productive parts of those subjects’ lives. Scheper-Hughes writes of the relationship between ethnographer and subject, “Just as many women fail to recognize a human kinship with the newborn…so the anthropologist can view her subjects as unspeakably other, belonging to another time, another world altogether. If it is to be in the work of an ethical project, anthropology requires a different set of relationships. In minimalist terms this might be described as the difference between the anthropologist as ‘spectator’ and the anthropologist as ‘witness’” (1995:419). What is the difference between witnessing and observing?
Scheper-Hughes likens it to active listening, explaining, “Observation…is a passive act which positions the anthropologist above and outside human events as a ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (i.e. uncommitted) seeing I/eye. Witnessing…is in the active voice, and it positions the anthropologist inside human events as a responsive, reflexive, and morally committed being, one who will ‘take sides’ and make judgments…“If ‘observation’ links anthropology to the natural sciences, ‘witnessing’ links anthropology to moral philosophy” (1995:419). By identifying reflexivity within the act of witnessing, Scheper-Hughes aligns the anthropologist-as-witness with a Foucaultian ethics that includes the possibility of “a subject ‘developing’ itself or ‘becoming more deeply’ itself or acquiring or discarding one or another dimension of itself – but without becoming someone or something else in the process” (Faubion 2011:46). As such, attempting to bridge the gap between self and other thus become the askêsis (ethical work) for an ethnographer engaged in an “ethical” anthropology.
As Marvin Harris notes in his critique of “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,” “Scheper-Hughes intends to ‘speak truth to power.’ But I cannot see how she expects to do this and at the same time accept the Foucaultian mantra that ‘the objectivity of science and of medicine is always a phantom objectivity’” (Scheper-Hughes 1995:424). This criticism highlights the central problem with Scheper-Hughes’ conception of “witnessing:” that once again, the “anthropologist-as-witness” does not sufficiently address either the social or linguistic conventions that so often prevent accurate or appropriate interpretation and response on the part of the “witness” or observer. If we are to accept Foucualt’s assertion that all academic observation is inherently bound up in games of power—which dovetails neatly with Derrida’s argument that all “subjective,” intentioned individual communication is inherently subject to iteration and manipulation by virtue of its exposure to the countervailing forces of the world—the dichotomy between scientific/anethical observation and empathetic/ethical witnessing that Scheper-Hughes builds her argument upon falls apart.
By asking that anthropologists intervene in the field, Scheper-Hughes is in no way outlining a disciplinary convention that would ensure that such interventions would be ethically equitable—if such a thing is even possible. As Scheper-Hughes’ own case history shows, even the most sincere belief that one’s own behavior is ethical does not necessarily make it so. Without the instantiation of concrete consensus processes, an individual decision that affects a group cannot be understood as adequately representing the will, or ethics, of that collectivity.
In the case of Scheper-Hughes and Chris Hani, Scheper-Hughes’ “precultural” ethics seems to be that life is good and worth saving whenever possible; in “The Primacy of the Ethical" Scheper-Hughes equates the ethical with “compassion, empathetic love, and care” (1995:418). The relevant concern in the context of this assertion is not whether anyone in Chris Hani would have disagreed with Scheper-Hughes, it is the following: what other forms of life can the cessation or preservation a particular life endanger or conserve? What about expressions of love and care are not universal or "precultural?"
Scheper-Hughes implies that, by attempting to stay out of cultural processes—working to conserve culture inasmuch as it existed prior to the arrival of the anthropologist—many anthropologists mortally neglect already endangered life.8 Scheper-Hughes suggests that forging a personal relationship with one’s subjects is the means to avoiding this kind of neglect. However, it seems that Scheper-Hughes does not quite connect care and mutual communication in her model. By neither including the Chris Hani squatters in her decision to save the youngest boy, nor her characterization of the community's reaction, Scheper-Hughes both injured community members and opened the potential for grave misrepresentation in her work.
Thus, though practiced incompletely in her own work, Scheper-Hughes’ analytic states that the paramount responsibility of the anthropologist is to attend to the flourishing of her subjects. Scheper-Hughes writes, “Not to look, not to touch, not to record can be the hostile act, an act of indifference and of turning away” (1995:418). The fundamental questions that this statement raises are: how can the anthropologist know when her intervention is actually beneficial, and when it is not? How is it possible to determine ethical behavior if ethics is essentially defined as the protection and enhancement of life? Is it possible for anyone but the subject to know what will assist her?
In hopes of providing an answer to the question of an alternative, potentially more ethical ethnographic and field methodology, I turn to para-ethnography as defined George Marcus in his 2009 article, “Multi-sited Ethnography: Notes and Queries.” I show how Marcus’ model addresses some of the gaps left by Scheper-Hughes’ and Keane’s theories of interaction. Like Scheper-Hughes, Marcus is invested in “displac[ing] the anthropologist-other binary” (Marcus 2009:186), and similarly to Keane, Marcus criticizes the trope of “being there” in contemporary fieldwork (Marcus 2009:191). I conduct this comparison with the following consideration: the primary gap in Scheper-Hughes’ model is its inability to adequately navigate the potential for unethical behavior created by the communicative gap (following Derrida and Keane) that perennially exists between ethnographer and subject. In brief, this comparison focuses on Scheper-Hughes’ tacit assertion that it is possible for the anthropologist to interpret her surroundings adequately enough to interfere without negative consequence.
It’s arguable that Marcus’ analytic has similar shortcomings, as it also relies on communication and collaboration between speaker and interlocutor. However, the difference between Marcus’ para-ethnography and Scheper-Hughes’ “barefoot anthropology” is that para-ethnography is decidedly more rigorous in its description of the means by which anthropology can become more transparent to those it documents. Implicit in both Scheper-Hughes’ and Marcus’ analytics is the idea that a more transparent anthropology would have more potential to be ethical.
Marcus describes para-ethnography as the study of “how culture operates within a continuously unfolding contemporary and where everyone, directly or indirectly, is implicated in and constituted by complex technical systems of knowledge” (2009:184). In other words, Marcus’ analytic serves to reveal the extent to which all persons, objects, and actors are implicated in cultural processes in horizontally networked model that places more emphasis on temporality than place. As Jalbert notes in “Para-sites and 3rd Spaces” (n.d.), “This differs from previous ethnographic work relying on analytical questions established by the ethnographer in participatory observation or deep description that fail to implicate impacts of the researcher…instead allow[ing] subjects to co-construct articulations of studied knowledge.” As such, a para-ethnographic perspective aims to overturn classical understandings of agency and authority in processes of cultural change by situating the researcher as a co-instigator of social processes, rather than their observer.
Marcus’ para-ethnographic project distinctly concerns itself with temporality instead of space, and this is the key way in which it differs from Scheper-Hughes’ approach. Marcus writes, “What is at stake in our conceptualization of the paraethnographic are formations of culture that are not fully contingent on convention, tradition, and ‘the past’, but rather constitute future-oriented cognitive practices that can generate novel configurations of meaning and action [emphasis mine]” (2009:184). It is here that Marcus’ project dovetails both with Scheper-Hughes’ cry for an ethical, if not interventionist anthropology, and Webb Keane’s appeal to the development of an ethics of interpretation within ethnography.
However, it seems that Marcus’ intervention is intended to occupy the realm of the potential, rather than the present. Marcus writes, “Multi-sited ethnography is also about mediations and interventions. Michael Fisher (2007) thinks of this as the forging of third spaces – reflexive domains with scenes of social action – regimes of living, global assemblages – in which questions of ethics are considered; the anthropological ethnographic intervention is distinctive here. What seems basic is that once ethnography becomes multi-sited and engaged intellectually with its subjects, its arguments and articulations have constituencies within the field and unpredictably beyond it” (2009:194). Marcus’ description of para-ethnography’s merits reveals the central problem in Scheper-Hughes method: she does not consult her subjects about her depictions of them, but rather only about their feelings. She looks only at past metalanguages without constructing a contemporary one that includes her influence and voice.
In conclusion, the problem with Scheper-Hughes is that while her approach is concerned with ethics, it is not methodologically reflexive—at least in the case of her interaction at Chris Hani, Scheper-Hughes does not incorporate relational ethical praxis into her field methods or her field writings despite the fact that both are sites of ethical work and ethical consequence. Though Scheper-Hughes is greatly concerned with her ability to make an impact in the field as a politically engaged agent, she neglects to acknowledge the processes of objectification that contribute to the “ethical” decisions she ends up making both in the field and in her ethnography. By proxy, Marcus’ model manages to address the stakes of ethnographic objectification while also opening a space for dialogue about these processes that is inclusive to subjects. In so doing, Marcus also opens up a space for better ethical consideration within anthropology. While it is true that Marcus’ model is more oriented towards post-facto ethical consideration, I argue that his focus on directly engaging subjects’ feelings about their representation by anthropology provides the basis for a kind of askêsis that is as yet unseen in contemporary anthropology. Marcus’ project is still a study of metalanguage, but it is a metalanguage that is permeable and—to satisfy Webb Keane—portable. Para-ethnography allows the subject to come to the “other side” of the anthropological process, and thereby enables her to serve as a teacher to practitioners of a discipline that is still in its formative stages of ethical development.

Agamben, Giorgio
1995 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques
1988[1971] “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern University

Faubion, James D.
2011 An Anthropology of Ethics. Leiden: Cambridge University Press.

Foucalt, Michel
1997 The Ethics of the Concern of the Self As a Practice of Freedom. Ethics: Subjectivity
and Truth, Vol. 1 – Essential Works of Michel Foucault. New York: New Press.

n.d. Para-sites and 3rd Spaces. Concepts in Science and Technology Studies. Accessed
12/9/12, Available online at –

Keane, Webb
2003 “Self-Interpretation, Agency, and the Objects of Anthropology.” Comparative
Studies in Society and History, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 222-248.

Marcus, George
2009 Multi-sited Ethnography: Notes and Queries.” Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory,
Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research, ed. Mark-Anthony Falzon, pp. 181-
195. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy
1995 The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. Current
Anthropology, Vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 409-440.

1 George Marcus (2009) describes the kind of anthropology I’m referring to as “Malinowskian.”
2 Foucualt asks, “After all, why truth? Why are we concerned with truth, and more so than the care of the self? And why must the care of the self occur only through the question of truth? …How did it come to be that all of Western culture began to revolve around this obligation of truth?” (Foucault 1997:295).
3 Abu-Lughod proposed that “anthropologists write ‘ethnographies of the particular’ as instruments of tactical humanism,’ stressing specificity and internal complexity over generality and simplicity” (Keane 2003:236).
4 I use Sewell’s invocation of contemporary anthropology’s relation to the “intelligent and suffering human persons who transform structures by their effectual actions” (Sewell 2010:206) to inform this reading.
5 Following Derrida—all language is both predicated on arbitrary sign assignations and unavoidably iterable. “A written sign, in the current meaning of this word, is a mark that subsists, one which does not exhaust itself in the moment of its inscription and which can give rise to an iteration in the absence and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who, in a given context, has emitted or produced it” (Derrida 1988:9).
6 Derrida writes, “Given the structure of iteration, the intention animating the utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its content. [As such,] the iteration structuring [language] a priori introduces into it a dehiscence and a cleft [brisure] which are essential... this essential absence of intending the actuality of utterance, this structural unconsciousness, if you like, prohibits any saturation of the context” (1988:18).
7 “The very unity of the [analyst’s] object of study is conditional on the situated character of human experience, which is what motivates the interest in the object in the first place. This is a very peculiar kind of knowledge and…encounters serious dilemmas that are both epistemological (what kind of starting point can something as problematic as ‘experience’ possibly offer?) and ethical (whose ‘country’ is it anyway?)” (Keane 2003:226).
8 This includes “bare life” as Giorgio Agamben describes it: “human life…included in the juridical order solely in the form of its exclusion (that is, of its capacity to be killed)” (Agamben 1995).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

my upcoming book!!!!!

I'm extremely excited to announce that I am working on a book and hope to publish it soon!!! Here's the cover (click to enlarge, it looks better that way).

"Everyone I've Loved" is about embracing queerness, questioning heteromonogamy, and knowing the boundaries and limits of loves that transform. It began one important, clear-skied night on a swing set in Portland, Oregon. I put on my headphones and, after a few quiet swings to ambient tunes, put on Red by Taylor Swift. I soon found myself flying through the dark air and SCREAMING along to the album. I knew all the words without realizing it. I totally fucking loved it. And for the first time, I noticed that each song corresponded deeply to someone I have loved. I spent an hour swinging, shout-singing, and shuffling through the songs, trying to figure out which love corresponded to which song. It was amazing to me to have tangible way to see who I had cared for and held in my life, and how. I suddenly saw a clear roster of people who had played defining roles in my life, and who I continue to care for. It felt incredible to realize how important these people are. It was so powerful to view these defined, contiguous relationships as continually evolving forces in my life rather than failed romances. It was the most surrounded and held I had ever felt while alone.

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Read the rest (and look at all the pictures) when it comes out!!!