Guide Little Bit Know Something: Stories in a Language of Anthropology

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One of the key theoretical moves you make to fashion a more interdisciplinary conversation about ethics is expanding the notion of affordances. Psychologists and media scholars have used this concept to discuss human interactions with the material world. When a cloth can be torn but not made to radiate light, this is a way that matter matters. In your framework, what is the grounding for resistances and limitations, for determining what is possible and impossible? But ultimately these are only available to experience because they have some material manifestation.

The attraction of affordance lies in this. It treats the components of the world as real, and as making certain things possible. One example I use, echoing something George Herbert Mead wrote long ago, is the chair. So the affordances of the chair only exist relative to the capacities of someone who might take them up.

You could use that chair to block a door, hold down papers, prop up an art work, hit someone over the head, burn to keep warm, hide behind, step on to reach something out of reach, or, for that matter, you could simply ignore it.

Little bit know something : stories in a language of anthropology

That is, affordances are summoned up in response to projects of some sort. As new projects develop, hitherto unforeseen affordances will emerge into view. Impossibilities have to be part of the story too: you could say that a chair will not enable you to fly. It also casts doubt on certain strong claims about ethnographic difference—namely, that there are some societies where people really have no concept of interiority or intentions. To make this claim is not to eliminate interesting differences among social realities. Rather, it pushes us to examine them more closely, to ask, for instance, what is at stake for some societies that forcibly deny the intention-reading that they are, in fact, doing all the time.

But this should not lead us back toward any of the familiar reductive forms of determinism. In this book, you address the possibility that self-consciousness or reflexivity can be a necessary but not sufficient first step towards social change. Sometimes self-awareness does not change social interactions, or only does so for a fleeting moment. What do you think makes self-consciousness socially successful so that it shapes how others evaluate ethical behavior as well?

This is a question about the role of ideas and values in the extremely complex social and political histories out of which they emerge and on which in turn they have their effects. The extraordinary speed with which gay marriage has gone from being an easy political wedge issue to divide classes and regions in America to much wider acceptance than anyone expected is a fascinating case.

We have more perspective on the abolition of North Atlantic slavery. As historians have pointed out, in Britain the arguments against slavery were already well known in the seventeenth century and increasingly came to find acceptance over the course of the eighteenth. But all sorts of other things had to happen for those ideas to induce the social changes that finally came about in the nineteenth century. These elements are heterogeneous and their conjunction is largely contingent.

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So the history of ideas matters—they have to be available and they have to be plausible. But ideas only become socially viable when all sorts of other factors come together. Ethical concepts, social institutions, political organizations, laws, technologies, economies, and so forth have quite different logics and temporalities, and are enmeshed in distinct kinds of causality. Explicitness has such power for enabling shared agreements about what is ethical to travel across cultural contexts in your account.

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What do you think of social orders that disavow explicitness, viewing explicitness as largely irrelevant for social interactions to function? An ethical vocabulary is not just a set of labels for ideas or values that are already there, waiting to be named. But explicitness is just one moment in the ongoing dialectics of objectification and subjectification. It involves stepping into what I call the third person stance, taking a distance from the first person of experience and the second person of address to see oneself and others through generic categories. It is a kind of self-distancing that induces particular forms of self-consciousness.

For this reason, explicitness has also been held in suspicion in various ethical regimes. We can see this in certain styles of romanticism and mysticism which treat self-consciousness as a form of inauthenticity, and celebrate being in the flow of things. Such regimes aim—paradoxically—to actively inculcate effortless, habitual ways of being ethical.

The goal is to live entirely in the first person, as it were. But this can be only part of the story. On the one hand, an ethics that wholly lacks the first person stance would be unsustainable—it would have not claim on anyone. But to insist that ethics is only one or the other—either objectification or being-in-the-moment—is to deny the fundamental motility of human life.

People cannot remain entirely present in the first person, nor is it possible to sustain the third person stance only. We are always in motion among them. So, to turn to the rest of your question, what about this period of capitalism? We could say that neo-liberalism expresses an ideological reaction against the third person stance of the centralized nation-state, with its blueprints and planners. Does this make it a-ethical?

Not necessarily. After all, there is an ethics of autonomy there. I call this an ethics because the autonomy expressed in neo-liberalism is sometimes treated as a value in itself, beyond any instrumental justification. However, although none of us as human beings can, or would want to, avoid ethical judgments, in our limited role as anthropologists we should not be in the business of making ethical pronouncements ex cathedra.

Having said that, neo-liberalism does deny or ignore something very basic to ethical life as I describe it in the book, the fact that people are thoroughly enmeshed with one another in very fundamental ways. You imaginatively move a step beyond the insight that ethics is the challenging task of living alongside other people to argue that ethics at the core is about the challenging communicative task of living alongside other people when no one has telepathy. That is, communication is profoundly at the heart of what it means in a given historical and cultural context to be ethical.

Say that you are as persuasive as I hope you will be. What types of research projects should people explore beginning from this insight? If people lack telepathy, then we have to take communication very seriously. That means that every time we want to say something about experience, affect, concepts, values, intuitions, subjectivities, we should ask how they are mediated.

For on thing, communication takes place over time, but, as I show in my chapters on social interaction, it always loops back on itself, opening messages to revision, reframing, denial, anticipation, dissemination, and so forth. It is always embodied in semiotic forms words, images, actual bodies, spaces, places, rituals, institutional procedures, and so forth. It follows that research should be very attentive to the formal and material properties of our evidence. So much contemporary ethnography tends to be literal-minded.

And far too much of it is based on interviews. So the first point is just to take semiotic mediation seriously. Partly this just means paying close attention the form and not just content of communication. In my book, I look briefly at feminist consciousness-raising during its radical moment, in the early s, before it became absorbed into mainstream therapeutic culture. As with my discussion of Vietnam, this example draws on the historical perspective that we lack when looking at current events. Out of their conversations they created a new ethical and political vocabulary for experiences that had until then seemed idiosyncratic, pathological, or simply inchoate.

One could argue that new ways of being a person, of flourishing, and of identifying harm came into existence that simply did not exist before. But history is full of projects that go nowhere: objectified values and concepts remain only theoretical unless they can enter into the flow of everyday life in some way. To see how this pans out ethnographically requires careful attention to semiotic mediation. As the Vietnamese and feminist examples suggest, the interplay between the explicit and tacit, or the said and unsaid can be crucial to understanding how social movements pan out.

To repeat, the idealized third person stance—an ethics of pure principles—remains only notional unless it offers some concrete ways of being inhabitable. But as soon as something becomes concrete—for instance new kinds of marriage, styles of child-rearing, acceptable means of making a living, or practices of ethical pedagogy— all sorts of unforeseen affordances are likely to become visible and unintended consequences likely to emerge, such as new kinds of semiotic transgression or performative failure.

Your cover is so striking, when I got the book I immediately flipped to see where the cover came from, only to discover it is one of your paintings. Could you talk a bit about the story behind the cover — did you paint this piece intending it to be the cover? That cover image is part of a series that I painted many years ago. As it happens, an abstract painting that one of my old studio mates had given me was on the wall, and worked very well. However, none of the pieces I myself owned seemed to work. But someone suggested I use my own painting.

The original is in blacks and greys, which seemed a bit too somber, so I invited the press to alter the color scheme. Since my first books had been green and blue, I favored red, but that turned out to look a bit too much like bloody bandages. Page 99 of my dissertation provides a short glimpse of a key tension which characterizes Israeli Life Coaching as well as other projects of self-realization and therapeutic technologies.

One of my contributions to this line of exploration is a focus on a local style of speech called dugri direct speech that entails a certain notion of caring and reshapes, in specific ways, the ethical dilemma between liberation and domination. In short, dugri speakers speak their minds in a straightforward manner that is sometimes even intentionally aggressive. Accordingly, this also means that smiling politely and avoiding confrontation is seen as inauthentic and careless.


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The prevalence of dugri style of speech among Israeli life coaches, which encompasses making concrete assertions and determining what is right and wrong for a specific trainee, undercuts some global therapeutic notions which favor self-reflection and self-realization over such local professional calculations. Dugri is idiosyncratically Israeli. But could such styles also be found in other cultures? Robbins very vividly demonstrates an aggressive type of fearless speech, and I wonder — is it part of what renders coaching so popular in other places around the globe too?

Are we witnessing the emergence of a new technology of selfhood which challenges the hegemony of a reflexive, psycho-therapeutic emotional style? Tamar Kaneh-Shalit. Tamar Kaneh-Shalit, Ph. She is a psychological anthropologist who is interested in self and emotions; education and care professions; media, immigration and identity.

This study is in collaboration with colleagues in Russia and Israel. You can reach her at tkaneh gmail. I have to say that it is downright inspired to look ethnographically at how advertising agencies create iconic and compelling images of Asian Americans as a racial group. By choosing this site, you are able to reveal so much of how difficult it is to treat Asian Americans as a unified group, as well as showing in detail how the racial images we are surrounded by are constructed through the effort of convincing co-workers and clients that an ad will persuade.

And now you are looking at spelling bees as a mass-mediated event for telling a melting pot story. Can you talk a little bit about your process for deciding on a research project and that an ethnographic site will allow you to explore the kinds of questions you want to ask? Each of these research projects partially emerged from the one that preceded it. I spent a lot of time with people in their homes and many watched diasporic channels on satellite TV. I noticed ads specifically aimed at South Asians in the US. Being familiar with Indian advertising from my numerous visits, I knew these ads were different and was quite curious about who was making them.

After much online research about agencies and several rounds of emails and phone calls, a few agencies welcomed me to conduct interviews. One agreed to allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork provided I sign a nondisclosure agreement. Thanks to the generosity of that agency, I was able to do enough research to write a book.

I just returned from attending my fourth National Spelling Bee and finally feel like I really know people in that world. In both of these projects, there was so much to observe that my questions were either well addressed or replaced by more interesting ones. African American advertising agencies were the first agencies founded to address diversity. How do you think the strategies and solutions African American ad agencies developed has shaped what Asian American agencies do?

Or in other words, how have the specific quandaries advertisers face in addressing African Americans or Latinos shaped what it means to advertise to any racialized group, regardless of whether the solutions that originally evolved are appropriate for that particular racialized group? What differs between African American advertising and other minority advertising is primarily representations of language and culture.

What currently transcends any of these racial categories is the ongoing need for multicultural advertising to demonstrate their relevance to corporate clients who question whether ethnically specific advertising is even necessary when so many of these consumers are also reported to consume mainstream media.

I was struck while reading how much this is a book about cultural expertise. This is particularly vivid when you write about how vulnerable Asian American ad executives are because their clients might dismiss their pitches once they have consulted with their co-workers. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how people in this profession understand expertise in general, and how this connects to the cultural expertise that some people have in this system.

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Fans of the series may recall that ad man Don Draper was a fur coat salesman before he stumbled into advertising. I think this character point remains relevant, in that many ad executives seem to have found their way into advertising despite a lack of academic training in it. While ad executives are highly skilled and their years of experience make them experts, advertising is the less scientific arm of marketing, in which ad makers rely on existing market research to develop creative concepts.

Asian American advertising additionally involves a complex set of cultural and linguistic considerations that makes arbitrating cultural expertise quite difficult. While ad executives do all they can to maintain authority over the content of their creative work, as workers for hire, they often have to bend to the will of their clients.

I think this sometimes takes a toll on ad executives, especially when their clients are insensitive and in some moments, just plain racist. You mention that advertising executives use the terms iconicity and indexicality all the time p. What was it like to do research in a context where you and your informants seem to share similar analytical categories for understanding communicative practices including the importance of cultural difference , and yet in practice these categories are deployed in very different ways?

These terms appear in analytical registers used in the critical readings of art, film, television, and other visual genres. Ad executives were using these terms to create and construct meaning, rather than analyze and deconstruct it. The very deliberate process of what they thought could be iconic, or what a particular image or phrase might index to an imagined viewer, was anthropologically quite fascinating. Their use of these terms was ethnographically revealing of the intended meaning of their choices. Addressing this range of semiotic possibilities allowed me to productively consider their understanding of these analytical categories alongside mine, as well as those of clients and audiences.

You began this research in , and mention that there have been noticeable changes over the course of your four years of research. Similarly, back at university, deadlines looming, it can be challenging to recreate the field experience in all its texture and detail. In scaling between the minutiae of the daily life at the fieldsite and the broad theories of articles, we may be tempted to gloss over messy detail in favor of a satisfying theory. While leaving the field "behind" may be most relevant to those working in far-away sites, even for anthropologists working closer for home, some of the same challenges may remain when negotiating between the field experience and writing up research: how, for example, does one balance between writing about an informant who has become a close friend?

How can one convey the energy and complexity of a site within the structure of an academic article? Borges' detective offers another interesting twist for the reader: it turns out, after all, that the detective had entirely misunderstood the situation. A parallel to this dynamic may arise in field research as well: who is really defining the situation, who is leading whom, and who is the "gatekeeper" deciding which information is told and which withheld?

If there is a case of an anthropologist being "misled" by informants, this in itself provides an interesting puzzle: what was the purpose of the misdirection? What can one learn from what is kept hidden from whom? As the anthropologist Bloch notes, examining the "systems by which we conceal the world" are often as important to examine as the "systems by which we know the world. Similarly, the image of the anthropologist writing up fieldnotes taps into the larger power dynamics established through the very act of recording information.

Especially working in communities which may not be very comfortable with literacy, the act of writing itself often becomes encoded with associations of power and oppression Skaria Particularly working in postcolonial societies, the person who is writing things down is often connected to the person who is able to create, circulate, or modify an official record ibid.

In an attempt to partly even out this divide, anthropologists are today often encouraged to give a copy of their written work to the communities where they studied. The appropriate extent and nature of the information transfer between ethnographers and the communities where they work remains a subject of debate today, as anthropologists walk the ill-defined and controversial line between moral "engagement" and more direct "activism" Hale ; Kirsch The four stories I briefly highlighted above offer anthropologists allegories for thinking about ethnographic practices. In the story of the library inquisitors: an allegory for making sense of seemingly limitless, but unordered, information.

In the story of re-writing Don Quixote: how to both write about and through the experiences of others. With poor Funes cursed by perfect memory: how both remembering and forgetting is required for making sense of things. And finally, in Death and the Compass, to realize the importance both what one does and does not understand about the places where one works.

Particularly helpful in understanding ethnographic practices is the metaphor of labyrinths that Borges implements in many of his stories. These mazes arrange themselves into circular patterns, and necessitate thoughtful navigation replete with false starts, sudden barriers, and a logic that seems to fold back upon itself. For Borges, we often construct our own labyrinths, and then forget to leave ourselves a trail of breadcrumbs so that we can escape again. Wandering lost through aisles of the library or footpaths of the jungle, we may at times feel overwhelmed by the information around us.

Facing the fieldnotes we ourselves created, trying to reason through a theoretical tautology, or realizing once we are back home that there was a crucial question we forgot to ask: such common fieldwork experiences reflect dimensions of Borges' labyrinths. Borges also, however, reminds us that the most complicated and paradoxical situations hold keys to deeper truths. It is often what we do not at first understand -- the observation that does not fit neatly into our preformed narratives -- that ultimately provides us with the best fodder for thought.

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It is by working through such labyrinths, then, that we may continue to strive towards the chance for deeper understanding and insight. Borges, J. Labyrinths: Selected stories and other writings. Clifford, J. Writing Culture: Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press. Coronil , F. Smelling Like a Market. The American Historical Review February Evans-Prichard, E.

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Appendix: Some Reminiscences and Reflections on Fieldwork. In Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: University of Oxford. Foucault, M. New York: Vintage Publications. Geertz , C. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Book Publishers. Hale, C. University of California Press. Jackson, J.

In Roger Sanjek ed. Fieldnotes : The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Kirsch, S. Critique of Anthropology 22 2 Malinowski, B. New York: Dutton. Marcus, G. Ethnographies as Texts. Annual Review of Anthropology Ortner , S. Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 1 Sanjek , R. Fire, Loss and the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Sivaramakrishnan , K. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Skaria , A. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. I am also grateful to the Schwartz Conference Fund through the Department of Anthropology at Yale University for their travel support, which allowed me to attend the conference.

I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers, as well as the members of the Social Ecology Doctoral Lab at Yale University, who provided useful feedback on earlier versions of this paper. About the Author. She can be contacted at sarah. Metaphysical Community the Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect. Greg Urban - David Carey - Matthew Clark - Antropolog'ia Simb'olica. Vine Deloria - Michelle Hegmon , B. Ford eds. Indians and Anthropologists Vine Deloria, Jr. Zimmerman - Gersion Appel - - Ktav Pub.

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