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, April 10, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (34)—Snake Alley

[a] Market 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. 

This note is a continuation of my thoughts about a vibrant and intellectually perplexing day that I spent with the Hsiung (Xiong; 熊) family in 1986. I am not giving away their identity here. Trust me. This note describes a snippet (so to speak) of a brief first experience in Taipei's Snake Alley—near the Longshan Temple and a very big market that draws people from all over northern Taiwan. My first impression, after a quarter century of writing and reading and writing fieldnotes's all right. The positives lie in the detail, even if they are crass and seemingly uncaring. That is what strikes me the most—the coolness of it all. This raises the question that has troubled me for some time. To what extent should every fieldnote "tell" how I really feel? To what extent does the ethnographer need to express personal feelings about such things as killing living creatures? This is something with which I have struggled in the last few decades. On the one hand, I strongly feel that the ethnographer's feelings about what s/he is studying really matters. On the other hand, I can't help but assert that description matters...and in a way that trumps my own feelings.
[b] Market stuff RF
Suffice it to say that "back then" I was far more firmly in the latter camp. I sought to describe and tune out my own disgust. This is an open question, but I must say that "feelings" (while natural and inevitable) need to be controlled in the narrative. While this fieldnote errs on the side of description, and doesn't really engage my own feelings about dying snakes, the real problem (as always) is that there needs to be more analysis. 

Even little nuggets of analysis would help. On the other hand, that is what fieldnotes are all about. One writes and writes...and then puts it all together in another form. There is enough here, I think, to build a fairly sturdy analysis. 

These images are much more stark than even the note expresses. One watches the manly drinking of snake blood against the backdrop of dying snakes. That is all there is to it. The "libidinal magic" is at the heart of a much bigger story about divination, global commodities, natural history, and culture. As usual, I fault this note for not being a finished piece, yet that (of course) is not the purpose of the lowly fieldnote (as the introduction explains).

2 February 1986
After the cultural center, we went down to south Taipei and walked through the famous “Snake Alley” market. You might guess how this area got its name. Merchants in Snake Alley sell snakes and their organs, especially those organs that work mysterious libidinal magic, like the gall bladder. If you want, for example, to buy a snake’s gall bladder, this is what happens. First, the proprietor asks you which snake you want. In the cage they are a mass of writhing, corrugated skin; the bigger the snake, the more you have to pay (basic microeconomics works here, too). 

Then the proprietor takes his pocketknife, slits a four or five inch vertical stripe in the snake’s abdomen, pops the organ into a plastic bag, and pours the green bladder juice into an unsterilized glass. The buyer usually downs the glass there and takes his bladder-baggie home. You can also buy snake blood. All the while, the snake hangs from a metal clip, writhing to a slow, knife-inflicted death, its protruding intestines resembling cottage cheese on a stalk of celery. 
[c] Choice RF


  1. First of all -- Chinese people eating snakes, one of the key examples of Chinese foreigness Mongolians will always give you... and blood-drinking, like eating raw meat, would also I believe strike them as down-right inhuman... so I bet they probably drink it ritually too sometimes. Anyways...

    Thanks in no small part to Nancy and her friend/my advisor Rena (Lederman), I'm fascinated by other people's fieldnotes... I'm struck by what you call the "sense of audience" in your notes and how it differs from that of my own. My notes, at least for the past few months, are quite stream of consciousness rather in neat sentences, and I think of them as 1) inscribing not just on the paper but in my mind/memory and furthering analytical themes, which I usually don't write in the fieldnotes but in other forms of writing as letters and through face-to-face conversations, which then appear in later fieldnotes and 2) something that I might come back to not just to check for details (though I find that is mostly the case when I do consult them) but that will raise a tide of emotional responses that bring back strong memories (as well as evoke past analyses and stimulate new ones), often with even more detail than I wrote down, but also often missing some of the transcribed details. In other words, I don't worry about trying to write about how I felt about people dragging that sheep up the steps in the dormitory where I live to butcher it in the common kitchen on the second floor, because when I read the fieldnotes just mentioning it as one of the things that happened that day (nowhere near as poetically evocative as your "bladder-baggie," "unsterilized glass" and "cottage cheese on a celery stalk," I'm afraid), I'm probably going to feel how I felt when I saw it, and how I felt a month or so before that when I saw some guys bleeding a sheep out into a tub in the kitchen, to seeing Grandpa hanging up an elk in his garage to drain... and on and on down a chain of associations as far as I let myself go... (yes these definitely need to be controlled in a narrative). This is also I think why I dread looking over my past fieldnotes though when I do they are incredibly engrossing. They consist mostly of reported conversations and interactions more than descriptive details, eluding to other fieldnote-conversations, so when I read them I am reminded, for example, of relationships that I feel I have l let flag, terrible under-reciprocation. They also tend to evoke the sort of thing that you bemoan in the 1911 holiday* note, the strong emotions and opinions that may embarass, but captivate, my present self. Nancy always advised me to keep separate notebooks -- one a journal about feelings, rocky relationships, etc. and the other more "descriptive," which definitely worked for me when I worked with her on an ethnographic project in 2008. But now I think that these have, not regrettably or unproductively, merged. One of Rena's tips, write so that your future self (which I am thinking here as infinitely multiple) will know what you are talking about, fits what I am doing well here I think. (Though I also worry, will I still experience the feelings connected to the descriptions when the time-distance is 10 or 20 years instead of 2 or 5 years? On the other hand, another argument for writing about feelings, and also analyzing, too much in the fieldnotes rather than working through them in conversations-- face to face or letters-- and evoking them in successive reading and writing, it just takes so long and can be so distracting...)

  2. Thus, though I only have one daily journal/fieldnotes notebook, it's not that I don't find using multiple modalities and places for writing extremely important. For some reason, I am having trouble writing fieldnotes, but not letters or blog comments or Facebook captions, about my recent visit to the Mother Tree... probably because it was experienced mostly in a non-verbal, collective conversational mode... for example, the way I stopped short and felt as though everyone present gasped when I accidently knocked off some vodka offerings off one of the tables as I tried to "prestate," rather than scatter or drop or deposit, some dried curd (aaruul) my companion had given me on the piles of bottles, cups and cartons of vodka and milk strewn all over with candies and curds. And now I can't help but wonder whether or not this is why I have had a sinus infection for the last 48 or so hours...

    *interestingly not celebrated in Mongolia, but with a couple of Revolution-era (1920s Communist as well as 1911 fall of the Qing) period movies beating Hunger Games at the box-office though the later has way bigger and more prominent posters, I can see it happening in the near future.