From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fieldnotes From History (27)—Rethinking Anthropology

[a] Xingu RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.

[b] Story RF
My post title for this fieldnote is a play upon the title of Edmund Leach's 1961 work of the same title (Rethinking Anthropology), which was published at almost precisely the time that the field of anthropology was heading into a deep chasm from which it (arguably) has never emerged in one piece. The days of "smug certainty" that anthropologists journeyed to other lands to preserve the cultures of dying peoples was giving way—first slowly, in the 1940s, then more quickly, in the 1950s—to the realization that it would never, ever, again be as "simple" as it had once seemed. Anthropologists might work in familiar locations. They might be people of the same society being "studied." And anthropologists might actually have to acknowledge that their own "voices" mattered in the telling. It is not as though Sir Edmund was the first person to consider these matters. Surely not. But his timing was impeccable.

By 1985, a quarter century after Leach's book was published, I felt many of the same concerns. They hadn't been worked out "on the ground" much better then than they have now (another quarter century later). The discipline has paid a price for the rich, rigorous subjectivities it has embraced (with my full support). This note shows that I, too—even in 1985—could not abide the idea of the "objective lens" through which Westerners would view other peoples (I had read Edward Said's Orientalism, after all). The "price" of which I speak is more one of personal befuddlement. What am I doing here? I wondered. These lines give a small sense of the direction of my thinking then...and now.
Franz Boas was a key figure in American anthropology.
John McPhee is a consummate nonfiction writer.
—The Xingu River flows into the Amazon basin. It is just an example here.

This fieldnote is part of a longer "thought" that is broken into another note. Click below for the other note.
 Melancholy                    Rethinking

25 December 1985
This experience has made me realize even more clearly what I have known all along. Anyone can travel, anyone can see the people; some can talk to them and read their books. But the lasting truths are captured by those who take even ordinary experiences and, by enveloping them in vivid, lasting prose, create something not at all ordinary. 

There can be only one Boas, one Evans-Pritchard, and one Malinowski; there is only room for one missionary and one anthropologist (like Noah’s Ark) to discover any new tribe up the Xingu. But even though nearly everyone has eaten oranges, watched tennis matches, or looked at roadcuts, John McPhee’s books aren’t ordinary. Although many people have distrusted their spouses, only one of them wrote Othello. 

This is a roundabout way of saying that—slowly, painfully—I am gaining a more mature attitude toward what academics call “anthropology,” and I call “living.”  The real test for the anthropologist of Chinese culture lies not in looking at the Great Wall, or taking a picture; it lies, rather, in describing it in a way that no one will ever forget. And don’t forget to mention the farmer in the blue Mao jacket and Adidas running shoes selling fresh tomatoes. 

This fieldnote is part of a longer "thought" that is broken into another note. Click below for the other note.
 Melancholy                    Rethinking
[c] Tomatoes RF

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