Rereading Mules and Men: Toward the Death of the Ethnographer

Essay Excerpt

If empiricism and the unexamined acceptance of subjects as stable, self-identical entities is crucial to our literary canon, they are also essential articles of faith for the social sciences, or were up until quite recently. The authority of the ethnographic account depends upon the reader's confidence that the ethnographer has experienced the subject culture first hand. Entirely outside awareness is the prior assumption that the ethnographer represents a centered consciousness capable of recording meaningful data and making sense of it. As soon as one calls into question the notion that observer and observed (and consumers of anthropological texts) are fixed entities capable of establishing various relations of identification and detachment, the whole enterprise of ethnographic realism begins to unravel. Mules and Men, I want to argue, calls into question just these taken-for-granted fixities. In it we see participant-observation fieldwork taken about as far as it can go. The text brings us up hard against the inherent paradoxes of this method, which are the paradoxes of empirical ideology generally. 

What I propose, then, is an anticanonical reading of Mules and Men, one that highlights those elements that run counter to the easy totalization and tight closure privileged by the liberal/classical literary and ethnographic traditions. Behind the fieldworker's easy rapport with her informants, behind the tale-telling episodes and the social vignettes that seem to give the reader easy access to the Otherness of Black southfolk culture, there exists a narrative shadow. Mules and Men inscribes a trajectory-not so visible perhaps as to be called a plot-which in some sense is about the instability of the subject position. One way to make this trajectory more visible is to notice how it closely parallels the fully realized innocence- to-experience plot of "Their Eyes Were Watching God." (Dorst, 308)

About the Author

John D. Dorst is a Professor at the University of Wyoming. He has a B.A. in English from Oberlin College, an M.A. in folklore from U.C. Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in folklore/folklife from the University of Pennsylvania (1983).  His research and teaching specialties are American folklore, material and visual culture studies, and ethnographic approaches to the study of American life. His newest teaching area is food studies. Major publications include two books: The Written Suburb: An American Site, An Ethnographic Dilemma (1989) and Looking West (1999), both published by University of Pennsylvania Press.  The latter is an examination of visual experience in the modern American West, combining literary and ethnographic approaches to understand a distinct “way of seeing” in the literary and literal landscape of the West.  His most recent publication is an essay on James Agee’s American documentary classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, viewed in relation to the conventions of ethnographic writing [“On the Porch and In the Room: Threshold Moments and Other Ethnographic Tropes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in Caroline Blinder, ed., New Critical Essays on James Agee and Walker Evans, Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2010.]  He is currently working on an essay about the “cybernetic imaginary” of folklore studies and on a long term project that explores the craft of taxidermy as a unique form of artisanship and materiality.  Dorst has been the recipient of a Fulbright Senior Fellowship (to Roskilde, Denmark) and of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.  He has twice been acknowledged by the College of Arts & Sciences for excellence in research and has given a UW Presidential Speakers Series lecture, “From Grendel’s Arm to the Chadwick Ram: The Poetics and Politics of Animal Trophies.” In 2002/03 he curated an exhibit, Framing the Wild, for the UW Art Museum and the Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY.  He has been a member of the Wyoming Humanities Council, a long-time advisor to the Folk and Traditional Arts Division at the Wyoming Arts Council, and has served on the Executive Board of the American Folklore Society.

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