Wednesday, October 6, 2010


The other name for this blog was to be "Synesthesia Ethnographica" and it was to be subtitled "The roar of the greasepaint/the smell of the crowd."  I'm just toying with "I Spy" because Mr. Aimai pointed out that the first rule of everything is "make sure they can spell your name correctly."  Still, both names have something in common.  They came to me in a dreamlike state while I was talking to my friend Stacy Pigg about anthropology, ethnography, society on the internet, politics, and our experience, as anthropologists, of being strangers even in our own countries.  Sometimes that feels uncomfortably like being a voyeur, eternally peeping through someone else's window. Sometimes it feels like being a naturalist with a really good microscope.  Sometimes it feels divine, like your third eye has opened and you can see the ley lines, or the bhuts, or just into the souls of things.

 I'm an anthropologist.  I am an anthropologist.  I am an anthropologist.  I am an anthropologist.  I am an anthropologist like some people are dancers, or singers, or artists.  Or that creepy dentist you have who toys with the long, slender, fingers of a serial killer while he tells you about his passion for making casts of teeth.  Its not a job, its a life.  As Gish Jen said to me once, about her own vocation, "I write under compulsion. Nothing else could make me do something so difficult every day."  That applies to me, as well--I see at the world ethnographically regardless of my desires.   But its not really painful: working in the field in Nepal, writing to rule, trying to please an academic audience was painful thanks to a lifetime of performance anxiety.  But simply doing participant ethnography: being with people, talking to them, hearing their stories, watching their behavior and thinking about how the world is put together? That's always a pleasure. And its all the more a pleasure when its practiced at home, rather than abroad. For one thing, in my case, the cooking's better.  For another I don't want to commute to work a thousand or so miles when I have young children at home.

Which brings me to my next subject.  Children are natural ethnographers and natural students of society and culture.  When we are parents we have two choices: to squelch their curiosity and their analysis or to encourage it.  One of my foundational memories is of walking through an airport with my grandfather, a  political journalist.  He pointed out to me what had been invisible to me, because it was taken for granted.  As I child I moved through a world of grown ups and children: I did what I was told, went where I was told, saw what the adults in my world thought it appropriate for me to see.   At my height, and in my view, the airport was simply full of busy travellers.  He looked around, almost casually, and showed me that the travellers around me were entirely white--this was in the sixties--and he said to me, conversationally, that in this country wealthy people travelled by plane, and poor people travelled by bus. The absence of non-white people around me was really the presence of something else: the entire history race and class in this country.

This is my earliest memory of being asked to see, not just to look-- to see the tip of the iceberg and to know that below the water line is more ice.  Or to see the tree line at the top of the mountain and to grasp that the line occurs because of ecological conditions.  All these people were different, and all had come to the airport for their own reasons, heading to their own destinations. But my grandfather had shown me that underneath those thousands of individual stories were hidden lines of history, power, money, race, religion, ethnicity, gender.

Here's another foundational memory of culture, and oddly enough it comes from a different grandparent: my father's mother.  She was a remarkable woman--family legend has it that she was the first married undergraduate at  Radcliffe. That is, she wasn't the first undergraduate ever to be married, but the first they allowed to stay in school.  The Dean called her in, asked her not to tell the other girls about sex, and then anxiously asked if she knew about contraception.  This grandmother accompanied my grandfather to Indonesia and Pakistan in the heyday of the Ford Foundation's development dreams.  In Indonesia she was invited to be one of the "four happily married women" to bathe the groom (this is the way I remember the story, at any rate, it might have been the bride) before a wedding.  "How do you know I'm a happily married woman?" she asked her hosts, ever curious.  "Is your husband alive?" they asked her. "Yes."  "Do you have sons and daughters and are they alive?" "Yes."  "Then you are happily married." They said to her.  That was my first introduction to the notion that happiness itself is a cultural and social construct.

To cut a long story short, since life has intervened and I'm probably writing this in a hospital room while Mr. Aimai has an intravenous drip of pain killers, I moved my ethnographic enterprise home when I had children.  Now I've decided to take it online.  I've decided to keep practicing participant ethnography in a few disparate communities and I'll write about what I find here.

This can't be any lonelier than lying upstairs in a Nepali attic filled with the sounds of cooing pigeons and scurrying rats, singeing the fringe of my hair on a candle held between me and a book...can it?


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