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Ethnography of Representations

Omri Grinberg

PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

· Peer Review

What a proper ethnographer ought properly to be doing is going out to places, coming back with information about how people live there, making that information available to the professional community in practical form, not lounging about in libraries reflecting on literary questions. Excessive concern…with how ethnographic texts are constructed seems like an unhealthy self-absorption…(Geertz 1988: 1).

[M]y work gets thought in me unbeknown to me. I never had…the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no ‘I’, no ‘me’. Each of us is a kind of crossroads where things happen. A different thing, equally valid, happens elsewhere. There is no choice, it is just a matter of chance. (Lévi-Strauss 2001 [1978]: 1-2).

In the first quote above, Clifford Geertz sarcastically summarizes a common academic observation regarding the reflexive scholarly engagement with the significance of ethnographic “scenes” of research and writing. When it is placed following Geertz’s statement, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ claim appears paradoxical: on the one hand, the ethnographer is portrayed as a subject that vanishes from her/his own text once published. On the other hand, the ethnography is the result of the ethnographer’s alleged arbitrary positioning that is the base-experience from which s/he structures the representation.

In this paper, I will confront these permanently at-stake issues of anthropology by examining the theoretical foundations of an ethnography of representations (hereafter, EoR) as a methodological model: the process of creating a critical theory oriented ethnography based on an interdisciplinary comparative analysis of several texts that represent the same subject of research. It is, simply put, the foregrounding of texts not created by and through our own fieldwork as equally important in our attempt to reach a thick description. Thus, I distinguish between the ethnographer’s own experiences and their textual representations, and other forms of pre-existing texts gathered in or about the field of research. This is especially relevant when conducting research on a subject or field that may, as I encountered in my study of Palestinian children who work in Israel, be too distant from us methodologically, geopolitically, ethically, and otherwise. In this way, I bring into practice Akhil Gupta’s (1995) critical clarification regarding anthropology's valorization of “presence” in the field, and the ethnographer’s inability to comprehend certain schemes without going beyond this spatio-temporal confinement. (1)

By representations, I refer to constructed textual expressions (whether written or visual, poetic or bureaucratic) that function and are mediated within and through the broad conventions of genres of communication and discursive fields (mass media, art, academia), and in turn can be viewed as part of (a) discourse(s) on the subjects/matters they represent (see: Hall 1997). Representations are then sites of power and order-making, of the symbolic as a source of identity (Hall 1992: 238). While ethnography (just like any other scholarly text) is necessarily a representation, an EoR is wholly and crucially different from a critical evaluation of ethnography as representation (though the two are interrelated). An EoR, succinctly explained, analytically distinguishes between data collected by the scholar in the field and through human senses and inter-personal communications, and representations of the same subject matters (whether individuals, historical events, institutions, spaces, or phenomena) constructed by others.

To thoroughly contextualize and explain this method, I divide this paper into three parts. In the first part, I display how ethnographies always are, at least to some extent, ethnographies of representations; I do so through a set of close readings of ethnographies generally perceived as canonical, or at least important in the history of the discipline. My main claim here is that anthropology has long relied on representations as crucial sources of data that mediate fieldwork into text and/or as part of a comparative analysis. It has mostly done so without distinguishing these representations, and differentiating ethnographic experience from data collected through fieldwork. More importantly, anthropologists generally do not adequately consider the analytical, ethical, and political implications of this overlooking. This first part is divided into four sections, each consisting of a close reading of one or more ethnographies. In the second part, I more thoroughly define “EoR”. The third and concluding part of this paper discusses the incompleteness of representation, and the significance this has for anthropological studies.

Part I: Unarticulated Instances of an Ethnography of Representations

In this section, I sketch out three manners in which representations critically function as means of making sense of fieldwork and enable ethnographic writing. This part is divided into four different subsections: I begin by destabilizing the notion of ethnography’s reliance on fieldwork, as seen in Karen Strassler’s Refracted Visions (2010) and Donald Moore’s Suffering for Territory (2005); I then focus on ethnographic texts that reflexively contend with the mediation of an interpreter and/or informant, as discussed by Vincent Crapanzano’s Tuhami (1985), and in journal papers by Michael Lambek (1997) and Emmanuel Tehindrazanarivelo (1997). The third section examines anthropologists’ reliance on “indigenous” or “folklore” texts as exemplified by E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s in The Nuer (1969 [1940]), Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (1993), and Eric Mueggler’s The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001). The fourth and most extensive section is essentially an example of an EoR that does not recognize itself as such: Joao Biehl’s Vita (2005). This famous ethnographic account of Biehl’s relationship with Catarina relies not only on texts Catarina herself wrote (specifically, a “dictionary” of representations that can be viewed as paralleling those discussed throughout this paper), but also documents, mostly texts of medical bureaucracy and protocol. Biehl’s text is unique and particularly important when compared to other representations I discuss, since it partially relies on representations that are not a form of self-representation, but on others’ representation of the declared main subject of the book, Catarina (though I would claim that it is Biehl’s attachment to her, as an ethnographer, that is the main issue dealt with throughout this ethnography).

This particular assemblage of texts is not entirely a random selection: I initially wrote about them as part of the final paper I submitted for Professor Naisargi Dave’s graduate course “Critical Issues in Ethnography”, given at the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, 2012, upon which this paper is based. The texts I engage with here were some of the ethnographies we read and discussed in that marvellous course; I take these texts as fitting for an analysis that views them as representative of the discipline, given their placement in this course and the status of many of them as ethnographic benchmarks representative of certain anthropological genres, subfields, and generations. (2)

Reliance on Fieldwork

It is important to note that anthropological research has maintained—despite methodological and theoretical explorations from within the discipline, and technological innovations beyond it – an almost fetishistic commitment to fieldwork conducted in THE field, an ironically Geertzian form of ethos (Geertz 1973) practiced mainly through the near-sanctity of field notes (Clifford 1990). This disciplinary commitment to portray the “authentic” physical experience of the anthropologist in the field through ethnographic writing is challenged, not contradicted, by the role other representations play in the sense-making of the field. This challenge can be elevated to unintentionally elevated to a reflexive ethnographic mise en abyme, as displayed in the following two brief examples.

Strassler’s introduction to her study on photography and photographs in Java begins with the following words: “On days when the heat became overwhelming, I often went to visit Ibu Soekilah” (2010:2). The first chapter begins with an extended vignette detailing how she “…accompanied amateur photographers on another “hunting” expedition…” (Strassler 2010:30). This first quote performatively establishes the author’s physical experience of the field, and her hinted-at close relationship with “a local”. The second quote – as is even more evident in the context of the book itself – is not unlike classical anthropological accounts of exoticized, or orientalised indigenous activities somewhat distant and foreign to the “occidental” participant-observer’s gaze.

Such carefully placed self-referencing accounts become rare as the book progresses and becomes more committed to its focus on the elaborate functions of photographs/y. What is then the role of these exposition-like almost unnoticeable anecdotal bits of information? My claim is not that they are void of anthropological significance, but that their main textual function is to enable the reader to locate Strassler in the field, since much of her study relies not on the analysis of experiences within the field, but on analysis of data collected in the field. Strassler’s (2010) study emphasizes its disciplinary validity through her embodied experience in the field and the almost inter-textual reference to the canon of anthropology. Her work in the field is not quite the crux of what follows in her book, though it is textually presented as the basis of her research; rather, Strassler’s presence and “credibility” in and through the field serve to mediate between the various representations of the field and their analysis, as well as between her study and the discipline it seeks to be part of.

While Strassler moved, in metaphoric as well as theoretical-textual senses, from outside the field and back in to structure her ethnographic account, Moore’s (2005) study on space/place in the postcolonial context of Zimbabwe is based on a counter-movement of sorts: he was traveling physically-geographically and methodologically from the field outside to come back in. Perceiving “Kaerezi as a place entangled with multiple sites, and hence a site of multiplicities”, and disenchanted with “essentializing assertions that link place and culture while mobilizing through translocal, spatially and culturally hybrid networks”, Moore “often had to attend elsewhere…[to] travel”, reaching “an appreciation for Kaerezi as a place entangled with multiple sites, and hence a site of multiplicities” (2005:19).

To make sense of “his” field – in the geopolitical as well as the “scholarly” sense, and explicitly committed to both – Moore had to turn (in a conscious and well-articulated manner) to other locations, other representations of the field, among them media reports and planning documents – the colonial archive. By doing so he was able to note a dialectical process (that parallels the one he himself went through) through which the meaning(s) and realities of space are constructed by outside forces and from “within”, forming what he terms “entangled landscapes” (Moore 2005:22-25). It is Moore’s movement to the outside of the field and indeed beyond fieldwork, seeking other representations beyond his own, that allows him to organize and make sense of his fieldwork, building a coherent academic representation of his site-specific study.

Mediation as Representation

The functions of representations in anthropology do not rely on a movement from-to the field, they also occur within the field. While it can be generally claimed that the social scientist’s encounter with her/his subject(s) of study is always mediated through performance and thus constructed through some sort of re/presentation (cf. Goffman 1959; Scott 1991), I show below how the ways in which ethnographers rely on informants and/or interpreters/field assistants further indicate the inherent role of representations in the weaving of an ethnography.

Crapanzano’s (1985) depiction of his reliance on his field assistant, given the name Lhacen serves as another layer of complexity in a theoretically dense and ethically, politically, and methodologically charged ethnography. Lhacen’s figure portrays a case in which the ethnographer’s field of vision is to a great extent designed and filtered by his interpreter, who is also an interlocutor that is not quite acknowledged as such. Though Lhacen’s “role in the exchanges between Tuhami and [Crapanzano] varied over time” (1985:145), there is much more beyond the practicality of communication here. “It was Lhacen who discovered Tuhami and served as an “anchor”: “He gave me distance and protected me from direct and immediate contact [with Tuhami] and from the fears and pleasures of such contact” (Crapanzano 1985:45-46). Lhacen is portrayed as the ideal mediator between researcher and researched, serving “a similar role” for both; “He did not, at any rate, get in the way” (Crapanzano 1985:46).

What is “the field” here? Crapanzano’s (1985) reflexive account is constructed through the reciprocity between himself and Tuhami as subject and symbol; Tuhami (and, perhaps, Morocco, or Moroccan “men”) are mirrored (represented) to Crapanzano through Lhacen’s reciprocity with both Tuhami and Crapanzano, and by Lhacen being an indigenous subject himself. “Tuhami” the book, the ethnography, is the synthesis of this complex dialectical process, significantly if not completely based on the role of Lhacen as mediator between Crapanzano and the “reality” he seeks to describe and analyze. Lhacen is certainly a representation, and an agent of representation who produces a representation whose contours are present, even if it is not fully recognized as such and is subject to re-representation by Crapanzano.

The relationship of Lambek (1997) and his friend/colleague/informant Tehindrazanarivelo(1997) is idealized in a manner similar to how Crapanzano idealizes Lhacen. “Partak[ing] of both a deep “ancestral” knowledge…and from grounding in European knowledge” (Lambek 1997: 45), Tehindrazanarivelo is an ideal informant, even though – and possibly because – he is not in the field; he contributes to Lambek’s research before and after Lambek goes to the field in their meetings that take place “at home” (which in this case is a problematic and problematized concept) in Toronto.

Reflexively recognized as leading to “anxieties of fieldwork” (Lambek 1997:48), this relationship is one of friendship and one of career (and hence, economic and prestige) interests, blurring the distinctions between home and fieldwork and thus bringing to the surface the tensions between the two (50). Undoubtedly dear and invaluable to Lambek, it is fair to assume – based on the candid interchange through publications between the two – that Tehindrazanarivelo was/is indeed an agent of representation, shaping not only Lambek’s fieldwork, but the latter’s epistemological stance regarding both Malagasy culture and what is fieldwork. As Tehindrazanarivelo notes, this sort of influence should not be assumed as only possible when one is engaged with an “ideal” informant:

"[P]eople in the field" not only observe the fieldworkers, but also make their own analyses, draw their own conclusions based on their own hermeneutics. In a way, they write their own "book" encompassed by the living traditions of the community. (Tehindrazanarivelo 1997: 55).

As I will show in the following subsection, this possibility of relying on “indigenous” subjects’ analysis of their own culture, a sort of “organic hermeneutics”, has long been used by anthropologists, though it often seems represented as the result of the scholar’s own work of interpretation. In other words, and as suggested by Tehindrazanarivelo, data collected through interactions in the field can be viewed as a representation in itself.

Folklore Texts as Representations (3)

One of the key textual fragments through which Evans-Pritchard (1969 [1940]) portrays the Nuer’s “interest in cattle” (16-51) is his “free translation of two songs” (46-47) that he considers as “a fragment of a fragment of the [Nuer’s] linguistic field relating to cattle” (48). Evans-Pritchard admits that this is a matter that requires further research, but this does not adequately explain why he refrains from analyzing the two song passages. Instead, Evans-Pritchard summarizes his presentation of them, the call for more research, and the short affirmation of the Nuer’s focus on cattle by noting, yet again, how they represent “over-emphasis on cattle…strikingly shown in language” (Evens-Pritchard 1969:48). Evans-Pritchard does indeed view these songs as “representative” of this certain aspect of what he encountered in his fieldwork – to which this ethnography is committed. His translation, textual adaptation and framing of the songs do not dislocate them from their cultural-discursive contexts and meanings, but rather displays how they are indeed “pure” representations of his thesis.

Whether this is a replicated anachronistic reading, it is still important to note that The Nuer is a startling encounter with anthropology’s role in the colonial-oriental project. Evans-Pritchard (1969 [1940]) does not simply ignore the songs, but rather refuses to view them as representations with implications beyond the representative framing of his own fieldwork and text. This overlooking of the allegorical and indeed straightforward polemic and critical value of the songs is indicative of how methodological faults carry crucial ethicaland political implications within and beyond the discipline and academic discourse.

While scholars’ use of such texts necessarily and inherently strives to strengthen their own claims, Tsing’s “explor[ation of] the political strategies of shamanic chants” (1993: 96. See, further: 96-103, 235-252) serves as the counterexample to Evans-Pritchard (though I have no indication that this was done intentionally and directly against Evans-Pritchard specifically). By tactically bracketing her readings of these chants “as important political arenas…[that] renegotiate the state’s terms for political subjectivity” (Tsing 1993:96), Tsing acknowledges how, for her, they function not as representative but as a representation that both enables a critical analysis and is the mediator of the dialectical movement between scholar, text, and field. If Evans-Pritchard completely overlooked the power relations that bring representations into being, and how representations are in turn displayed and subverted through power relations, Tsing bases her readings on this very crucial realization.

The polymorphous essence of these representations is not marginalized by Tsing’s readings, nor are they displaced from her experience of encountering them in the field (see: Tsing 1993:103). Instead, these representations mark and act as opportunities for Tsing to “move” within and between contexts and discourses, expanding the analysis and knowledge of Philippines’ specific shamanism and its sociopolitical contexts, challenging “anthropological literature on women’s creative expression” , and allowing her to “[investigate] the conditions of creative self expression” by considering other representations (such as drawings) (Tsing 1993:235).

Mueggler’s (2001) ethnography of the people of Zhizuo is another striking example of the role folklore poetry-songs and shaman-type texts can serve as key representations in the effort of describing and analyzing the deep structures of culture and history (2001: see mainly, though apparent throughout the book, the chapter “Digested Words”, 127-159). These "amateur" texts allow Mueggler to try and make sense of everyday lives and ritualistic practices, and more generally to ask, “[H]ow do people inhabit worlds fissured by violence and loss?” (2001:23). While Tsing’s (1993) tactical readings of representations open for her opportunities for movements within her field and beyond it, Mueggler emphasizes the organic ties of songs and chants to the macro-level sociopolitical - or “national” (2001:160) - and to the micro-level psychological – or “intimate” (2001:22) - lives of his informants. Like Tsing, Mueggler acknowledges the inherent hermeneutic value of representations.

Of specific value and uniqueness here then is not only how representations allow scholars to make sense of data, but how those producing representations – in this case, the subjects of research– use these representations to construct, understand, and challenge the present-day as it is simultaneously brought together and fragmented by divergent (often painful) histories and memories.

Biehl, Catarina, and the Danger of Representing Time (4)

Catarina’s “dictionary” entries, scattered throughout the book and mesmerizing Biehl on what seems to both the intellectual and emotional levels, are key representations in an attempt “to restore context and meaning to the lived experience of abandonment…[and] to produce a theory of the abandoned subject and her subjectivity that is ethnographically grounded” (Biehl 2005: 23). Whether in their complete abstracted form or more realistic interpretation, these “verses”, encouraged by Biehl who provides Catarina with notebooks and then collects them, serve several functions: as abstract texts theoretically analyzed, as autobiographic fragments, and as traces of data Biehl further engages in, whether with Catarina or other informants or on his own through speculation and deduction.

Though unique in their emotional power and in context, poetics, and the resulting theoretical considerations, Biehl’s use of Catarina’s representations as part of his methodology, and as incorporated into his text, does parallel the previously discussed use of folklore representations by Tsing (1993) and Mueggler (2001). The crucial difference lies in how Biehl’s own ethnography (including interviews or conversations he conducts with various professionals, family members, and others at Vita), Catarina’s writings, and the latter’s medical records, are cross-read and analyzed by Biehl to form the text. Persistent through these three separate representations are Catarina’s agency and Biehl’s role as, in Catarina’s words, “the one who marks time” (Biehl 2005:98).

From the texts discussed here, Biehl’s work is then closest to what I define as an EoR: melding the ethnographer’s experiences to representations beyond texts produced by the ethnographer and/or the main interlocutors in the field, analyzing each (whether separately or through comparison), and then textually attaching them to form a thicker description than the one available through the experiences in and of fieldwork alone.

However, the distance between Catarina and Biehl – the unavoidable and most essential of failures in this sort of ethnography, but by no means the only potential one – is left unchallenged, in an ethically unnerving manner. Biehl is time, he is the one who defines for Catarina that her brothers are in fact “ex-brothers” (2005:96); he represents her representations of herself and is her ethnographer-biographer, who tries also to be her saviour. When reading his conclusion, as Biehl tells Catarina that “[v]ery few people have the ability to think the way you do, and you have the words for it” (Biehl 2005:358), I cannot help but think that Biehl refers (also) to Biehl, as does Catarina’s reply: “I know. I am a judge of the law” (2005:358). The potential radically subversive and reflexive attention to how the ethnographer might identify her/himself in these two sentences is left echoing not as aporetic potentiality, but as unarticulated failure.

Part II: EoR Explained Through Methodological Particularities (5)

Though it might seem as a reactionary protest against “classical” fieldwork, bolstered by contemporary scholarly cultural and technological trends, this is by no means the goal of the EoR; it seeks to bypass difficulties of obtaining data through fieldwork without functioning as a coy or simplistic solution, while simultaneously neither negating the importance of fieldwork nor over-emphasizing its inherent challenges. As part of its ethical effort to engage politically through scholarly work, it confronts the subject position from which academics write, and the disciplinary power relations that shape what we do and how we do so. As such, this effort necessitates an undoing of methodological traditions and a countering—whether playful, painful, or both—of the colonial traces embedded in scholarly practices, certainly those of anthropology.

An EoR takes place mostly – if not exclusively – in a work station (library, office), and demands a constant confrontation with questions of how ethnographic texts come into being. The ethnographer uses tools from different disciplines to compare and bring together the main themes that arise from the analysis of several representations of the same (or at least, similar) subject of study: a place, group, institution, individual, event, artifact, archive, or phenomenon. By doing so, the ethnographer constructs her/his own representation, forming a thick description of discourse that is also a meta-narrative, whether a harmonious single narrative or a number of narratives complementing each other.

To paraphrase Lévi-Strauss (quoted at the beginning of this paper), the ethnographer serves here as a junction of representations; this work of assemblage – an inherently ethical-theoretical and methodological task of writing – does not allow the ethnographer to erase her/himself from either the representation or from the process of its construction, but also tends to reject the auto-ethnographic impulse. The challenge lies in confronting the web of subject positions that enable the formation of the representations and characterize the knowledge they produce, while persistently focusing on the field and subjects of research rather than on the researcher her/himself. The representations may include literary or journalistic texts, protocols, photographs or any sort of archival material, films, other academic studies, and of course, field notes, interviews or any other data produced by the ethnographer her/himself. The EoR is then also, as I will shortly explain below, an ethnography of discourse (on discourse, see: Foucault 1981) which is distinct from an ethnography of the ethnographer’s experience in and of the field. The issue of the desk-field binary will be left unproblematized here, though certainly requires further analysis along the methodological lines I draw.

Though it may serve to guide the comparative analysis, I believe that the ethnographer’s representation of their own experiences in the field should not be privileged and should be viewed mainly through the same lenses used to discuss other representations; most importantly, the two types of representations should be distinguished and their dynamics carefully explored (see, for example: Hull 2012; Riles 2006, on the anthropology of documents). This is crucial since such a shift is what the distinguishing of an EoR from other forms of anthropological or interdisciplinary studies relies on, and it affirms the place of the scholar within a discourse that is – due to the work of the scholar’s her/himself – necessarily in a process of formation.

An EoR is then radical in its seeming effort to reconsider without giving up on the value of the data collected in fieldwork, thus destabilizing the often taken for granted hierarchies of value prevalent in the discipline’s tradition. Fieldwork and its notes and/or interviews can no longer be perceived as inherently more immediate and scientifically significant than other representations, but are rather viewed within a web of meaning-making, as an element within a discourse that now becomes the field in which the ethnographer operates. The position of ethnographer within this discourse is crucial, but so are the positions of the other agents of representations, an awareness that helps us to avoid the over-emphasizing of the reflexive element of ethnography (See: Salzman 2002).

This methodology, as interdisciplinary as it is, is still essentially ethnographic in nature. Whether taken as a construct or model, the EoR is committed to and serves the purpose of constructing a thick description – aesthetically as well as methodologically ethnographic – of the subject of study (Geertz 1973). Geertz’s classical methodological construct is thus challenged through its expansion: the thick description now relies on various representations and not only on fieldwork and its immediate contextual realities, and is, in essence, a thick description of a discourse and not of a specific geopolitical and/or cultural space and time.

Each representation is analyzed by both the methodological tools that are applicable to its specific discourse(s), and by focusing on its ethnographic attributes. Specifically, I suggest adapting Bill Nichols’ methodology of “axiography” in critical readings of documentary films (1991), that centers on locating and articulating the degree and type of embodied and voiced presence of the author in the text, and the spatial and affective relations of closeness and distance between representer and represented. This outline of an ethical critique of documentary film can easily turn into a method of writing, in which the ethnographer maintains a constant awareness of the placement and relationships of (spatial and affective) closeness and distancing between representer and represented, specifically in relation to the presence of subject’s bodies and voices within the text. In parallel, the ethnographer examines her/his own relation to these representations and to those that constructed them using the same set of configurations, and by doing so further developing their relation.

An EoR then threads together into a cohesive text the insights gathered from the following explorations: if, where, and how the representation reflexively addresses itself as such (see: Katriel 1999), the characteristics of the discourse in which is it constructed, the subject positions of the agent(s) of representation in comparison to that/those represented, the tools of documentation and representation used, the aesthetics of description, the political and ethical implications of the representation, the spatial as well as embodied presence/absence and closeness/distance of various subjects in the text, and – perhaps most importantly – how the power relations of the representer-represented have shaped this representation.

My own use of this method, and my articulation of its principles, occurred as I worked on my MA thesis which was about a specific phenomenon of child labour: Palestinian children, mainly boys ages 3-16, from the Israeli-occupied West Bank that make their ways to central traffic junctions in Israel, either granted entry through formal check-posts or finding illicit ways under/over the separation barrier, to sell various goods, clean windshields, or beg for money from the drivers passing by (See: Grinberg 2016a; 2016b). Given these children’s vulnerable situations, and them as children combined with my own subject position as an adult, Jewish-Israeli male with, at the time, basic knowledge of spoken Arabic, my ability to gather insights from fieldwork in junctions was limited. Despite some initial interesting observations made by watching the children from afar, this method was both ethically problematic – due to issues of research ethics and political and theoretical dimensions of representation – and limited in the usable data it produced. Rather than give up on this research, I collected various representations of the children: a short documentary film by a Palestinian-Israeli female cinema student; a long journalistic text by one of Israel’s most prominent (and one of the few) anti-occupation journalists; and minutes from sessions in the Israeli parliament’s Committee for Children’s Right. I then analyzed them in comparison to each other and to my own notes from the field; the notes were then not a text in themselves—though some did appear as such in the thesis and subsequent publications—but rather as a representation that requires a certain critical reading.

While this combination of research method, analytical orientation, theoretical framework and style of writing certainly does not make everything alright in terms of research ethics, in this case I perceived its utilization as an issue of political urgency (cf. Bethlehem 2001) that responds to the on-going violence of Israel’s occupation, and the realities of Palestinians’ lives that it takes a dominant part in shaping. Were I to give up on this research, or to insist on an inadequate and likely to fail version of “real fieldwork”, I would have been unable to produce a representation of these children. My publications on the topic, based on an EoR, has so far remained the main critical academic account of their lives as I could see them through my own eyes and through those of others who have represented these children.

Conclusion: Failures of Representation and Anthropology

To conclude, I wish to highlight the importance of recognizing the inherent failures of the task of representation, certainly in anthropology. I return then to Strassler’s (2010) book, where she problematically eschews acknowledging and discussing the implications of her inter-disciplinary shifts between studying the socio-cultural, national and subjective role of photography in Java and “readings” of photographs (on inter-disciplinarity and its political significance, see: de Certeau 1988; Hall 1992). However, Strassler does note how those who document their surroundings (through photography, in this case) are “amateur anthropologists of sorts” (2010: 63). Such representations offer a “refracting of both ethnological discourses of cultural authenticity and bureaucratic procedures” (Strassler 2010:177). I view these recognitions of the value of “indigenous” representations as more than a “token”-appreciation; they serve Strassler in her articulation of how representations constitute “[a]n interplay of seeing and not seeing, preservation and loss” (2010:297). This sort of (what we might call) “academic confession” is dualistically targeted at both a reflexive intellectual discourse and a personal awareness. “[E]rasure threatens not only those archives directly tied to national histories but also personal archives only obliquely or as an accident of history caught up in the fate of the nation” (Strassler 2010:298).

Representations offer ample opportunities of understanding through “learned” speculation, but their “ ‘meaning’ or ‘value’…cannot be excavated via virtuosic readings of [their] mute surface alone, nor fully exhausted by historical and social analysis of their ‘context’ ” (Strassler 2010:299). This sort of recognition, placed in the conclusion of a text that is concerned with and relies on readings of representations and an analysis of how they are produced, marks how, in certain instances, “anthropologists…honor the failed and the unseen” as Naisargi Dave (2014:161) phrased this disciplinary undercurrent. In other words, it is through Strassler’s somewhat confused – yet still rich and insightful – attempt of placing representations at the core of an anthropological effort and an ethnographic text, that we can see how “the successful can be precisely to fail” (2010:161).

True for ethnographies as much as it is true for all other representations, each incompleteness or failure of a representation is different and reveals varying facets of both the subjects represented and the power contexts of the representation. It is through acknowledging these failures and attempting a cross-reading of them that an EoR may serve as a representation that – among other functions – does ethical and political work by challenging the very discourses and mechanisms that allow its formation. Whether intended or not for Strassler, considering the incompleteness of representations opens for the ethnographer the opportunity “to refuse [the] mastery…of a discipline and its norms” (2010:161).

1: As Gupta aptly puts it:

…I do not want to suggest that the face-to-face methods of traditional ethnography are irrelevant. But I do want to question the assumption regarding the natural superiority—the assertion of authenticity—implicit in the knowledge claims generated by the fact of “being there”…Such claims to truth gain their force precisely by clinging to bounded notions of “society” and “culture”. Once cultures, societies, and nations are no longer seen to map unproblematically onto different spaces…one has to think the relationship between bodily presence and the generation of ethnographic data. The centrality of fieldwork as rite of passage, as adjudicator of the authenticity of “data”, and as the ultimate ground for the judgement of interpretations rests on the rarely interrogated idea that one learns about cultural difference primarily through the phenomenological knowledge gained in “the field”. This stress on the experience of being in spatial proximity to “the other”, with its concomitant emphasis on sensory perception, is lined to an empiricist epistemology tha is unable to comprehend how the state is discursively constituted. (Gupta 1995: 376-377).

While Gupta refers to the state and to (additional) ethnographic reliance on newspapers, I broaden this critical perspective to other authoritative forces beyond the state and other representations of the field beyond journalism.

2: This paper also incorporates elements from my MA thesis written at the Cultural Studies Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010. I wish to thank Prof. Dave, and my MA supervisors, Prof. Edna Lomsky Feder and Dr. Louise Bethlehem, who contributed greatly to development of the ideas presented in this paper, as did conversations and correspondence with Prof. Tamar Rapoport, Dr. Carola Hilfrich, and Prof. Reinhold Goerling.

3: Strassler’s use of photography perhaps seems similar to the use of the anthropologists discussed of folkloristic texts, but it is still significantly different since her focus is photographs and photography, while the examples of references to folklore provided here are not studies in which the declared core or goal of the fieldwork are/were these representations.

4: I will not discuss the photographs that are part of this book, as they are mostly disregarded in the text itself, and (due to this disregard and for further reasons) are far too problematic to be assessed here.

5: For the sake of brevity and focus, I will not expand on further theoretical-methodological matters that are taken into considerable consideration in an EoR. These include, if crudely tucked into a list: the political as well as methodological implications of this sort of interdisciplinary effort as it brings forth discoursive and identity-culture tensions (see: de Certeau 1988; Hall 1992); the supposed authority of the scholar to grasp and represent experience and the power-relations that construct experience(s) (Scott 1991); the awareness to and struggle with representation (vertreten) and re-presentation (darstellen), specifically in post/colonial context (Spivak1988); and the difficulty imposed by the inclination to locate our own identities in representations and its implications (Pace 2002).

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Meet the Author

Omri Grinberg is a Vanier doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. Omri’s dissertation is about the practices that make human rights a historiographic genre that transforms violent experiences to archivable text documents; it is based on 18 months of fieldwork in Israeli NGOs fighting against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. He has a Master’s degree (summa cum laude) in Cultural Studies from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Contact Omri Grinberg here.

This piece was submitted in April of 2017, and accepted on April 30th, 2017, after review by Adam Kersch, PhD student, Anthropology, UC Davis and Peter Muirhead, PhD student, Anthropology, University of Toronto.

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