Field of Dreams: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

Field of Dreams: Ethnographic Dreaming as Evidence, Accident, Discovery  

Presenters: William Mazzarella (University of Chicago), Harris Solomon (Duke University), Naisargi Dave (University of Toronto), Hannah Woodroofe (University of Chicago), and Steven Caton (Harvard University). Discussant: Stefania Pandolfo (University of California, Berkeley). Sponsors: Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness.

“Field of Dreams” was a vibrant panel. It was also a strange one, for it turned the gaze onto the ethnographer’s inner self as each panelist followed their fields inside themselves in dreams or dreamlike modes of consciousness. This session urged attendees to pay close attention to the internality of the fieldworker. In one case, elements of an ethnographer’s dream appeared in a real situation in the field. In another, the ethnographer’s field encounter produced a dream that recurred for many years. The very psychology of intimate encounters with the strange and unfamiliar was at the core of this panel.

Image courtesy of Daisy Rockwell
Image courtesy of Daisy Rockwell.

William Mazzarella had a dream many years after an encounter with an ethnographic subject, Kersy Katrak, an advertising magnate who was also thought to be a con artist. In this dream, Mazzarella relived the anxiety of an unsuccessful interview with Katrak. Through this, Mazzarella acknowledged to himself that he carried around a bit of the field with him, interpreting this message from Katrak to be a form of consciousness of the inner space of dreams in mundane everyday encounters. Perhaps, he argued, it is even a way of unlearning the “professional poise” of the ethnographer approaching his field and his subjects. Mazzarella used the canvas of Katrak to urge ethnographers to find fields within. The paper cast a haunting presence over those who heard it.

Harris Solomon took us directly to his field: a government hospital for the mentally ill in Mumbai. He told a story of a man, Mangesh, who was in pain as he received injections and had various procedures performed on him. He intermittently shouted “Hema!” Who was Hema? Dreaming, for patients like Mangesh, was induced by the administration of “milk of amnesia,” an anaesthetic called propofol. Propofol is frequently administered to patients in order to put them in a comatose state. “I’ll put you in a coma” was the teasing, threatening refrain that floated across the hospital premises. In conversation with the work of Gaston Bachelard, Solomon reflected on the spread of dreams into other bodies and spaces, beyond the body of the dreaming person. He ended the paper with a question: what becomes of dreams when they cannot be communicated, when the external world has no access to their content? I was most struck by the tyranny of enforced dreaming in Solomon’s beautiful ethnography, the threat of medication. In locating his dream vignette in the space of a roughly handled government hospital ward, Solomon implicitly made the point that personhood somehow survives the constant pressures from governing technologies to be “comatose”—to enact docility, passivity.

Naisargi Dave proposed a philosophy of “row, row, row your boat.” She challenged the very project of anthropology insofar as it privileges making the strange familiar by placing it in context, making it useful and legible in the larger scheme of things. She assailed the model of “ethnography as labor camp” and defended the “philosophical freedom to be and remain astonished.” In order to drive this point home, she cited the example of a scene of mundane cruelty to chickens against the backdrop of the rise of the Hindu right in India, which opposes meat-eating. Dave called for a reading of the chickens’ pain, divorced from the political context of meat-eating, as opposition to the Hindu Right. I interpret Dave as calling for a philosophy of the moment, a philosophy of contraction of the perceptual schema. She gave the example of Brigadier Chauhan, who has a dream in which his favorite cow expresses her pain, after which he decides to turn vegan. It is here that Dave hinted at the potential for dreams to be kernels of ethical and political action.Yet I wanted to hear Dave elaborate on the philosophy of “row, row, row your boat”—what are the contours of “life is but a dream”? If we are to take this statement literally, I believe, then Dave’s paper might be urging us to live truthfully within our dreams and to not worry about their proximity to or distance from reality.

Hannah Woodroofe presented a charming paper on the afterlives of left-behind bourgeois houses in Youngstown, Ohio. She referred to these structures as “unruly houses,” which have taken on rules and designs and spatial allocations of the unhomely—quite literally, as in, the homeless. This unruliness is manifested by the presence of shit in the kitchen and a burnt pillow in the bathroom, scenes that live in their direct attack on the bourgeois aesthetic. Of course, the shadow of an economic downturn pervades this paper and the ghostly, unhomely occupants arise in animating the story of economic defeat. What does the defeat rubric do to the analysis of home? Home is, after all, a place to which we retire in our effort to keep the struggles and defeats of the world at bay. The paper reminded me of Mary Douglas’s famous refrain about dirt as “matter out of place.” Is the out-of-place logic and the indiscipline associated with it a register of the after-house/dream-house? I wanted to hear more from Woodroofe about the temporal form of the “after”—after what, I wondered? After a bourgeois property-laden claim? What, then, is the temporal quality of afterness?

Steven Caton’s paper reversed the temporal sequence of dream and real encounter from the one seen in Mazzarella’s presentation. A prophetic and cautioning dream turned into a reality of conflict in the Middle East even as Caton was conducting his fieldwork. The paper, in its evocation of the haunting presence of a worrying mother, reminded me of Fellini’s film , in which the voice of the mother becomes a dreamscape for the son (now a grown man) to inhabit as he makes sense of his creative struggles.

I left persuaded by the panel’s invitation to take seriously the internality of the fieldworker’s self; the gaze turned inward as a field penetrates the professional boundaries of the research project. Dreams, I think, are places where fieldwork happens. Dreams are places into which the field often extends. As a student of landscapes, I was tempted to invite the panelists to extend their attention to the notion of dreams as places: taking the word dreamscape literally, to think of dreams themselves as sites.

I wonder, too, what the panelists would make of projects of conscious, awakened dreaming, those of revolution and of alternate futures. The fertile intervention of this session might well be extended into theories of ethnography and the realm of dream-led ethical and political action, and from there to the role of anthropology in inspiring new forms of collective dreaming.