Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: Inclusivity
This panel explores the attunement and permeability of ethnographic writing to multiple genres of cultural representations in teasing out the emergent qualia of the social. Ethnographic writing as a genre by now is robust enough to offer numerous modalities of experimentation. Yet to what extent does the inter-bleeding of genres – say ethnography with novels and new media representations – help us elucidate the possibilities of contemporary life as a series of embodied sensations producing values about spaces, bodies, material objects and social relationships? Should the anthropologist take ‘non-ethnographic’ genres as merely illustrative examples garnishing the main corpus of ethnographic writing based on participant observation methods? Or does the mixing of genres productively over-ride ethnography as a stable genre in itself through diverse modes of representations?
These questions are crucial for anthropology in the contemporary moment. As ethnographic writing increasingly attempts to capture value formations that occur through the manipulation of affects, it would necessitate incorporating disparate genres to make sense of the qualia resonating from deeply stratified socioeconomic global conditions. To this extent, the phenomena and relationships we study might, of themselves, require new modes of writing, preferring weak theories, disjunctures, and loose ends. Yet, in what ways would such incorporation alter the contours of the genre of ethnography itself?
It is also up for debate as to what such experimentation can look like as a genre. Can first books risk being un-ethnographic? Can second books manage to get published without recourse to high theory? And what of the continued call for clarity and wider resonance outside academic audiences, and the critique of the social sciences as esoteric luxuries? What do we make, also, of ethnographic writing in the Global South, answering other postcolonial calls to academic sufficiency and colonial categorization, not to mention translation and literacy? What of the many of us trained in anthropological departments but involved in writing for audiences outside of Western academia?
In responding to these challenges, each of our papers engaged with complex representations of our research sites and provocations. Miller explores how a new generation of Tunisian filmmakers are using documentary to represent a more inclusive national geography, by seeking out less photogenic places, including the “shadow zones” of Tunisia’s depressed interior, and the “rough” suburbs of the capital. Krishnamurthy examines a docu-fiction film on Indian call centre workers in cohort with ethnographic work on call centre workers as reconstituting critiques of the transnational outsourcing economy. Mitra is interested in the filmic as well as ethnographic understanding of the mythical promises of the good life in the lives of mall and cafe workers in Kolkata, whereas Vasudevan examines the very place of myth in how Thirunangais/ third-gender persons in Chennai perform ethical subjectivity. Hermez attempts to push the limits of ethnography by deploying creative non-fiction in producing an oral history of a Palestinian family.
Together, our papers explore new forms of anthropological writing, calling for a focus on how we write, while continuing to echo demands for empirical rigor and worldliness.