Beyond The (Familiar) Text: A #AAA2015 Roundtable Review

Beyond The (Familiar) Text: Anthropological Innovations In Method, Form, And Content

Organizer: Yarimar Bonilla (Rutgers University) Chair: Steven Feld (VoxLox) Presenters:  Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University), Jason De León (University of Michigan), Natasha Myers (York University), S. Lochlann Jain (Stanford University), Anna Tsing (University of California, Santa Cruz), and Elaine Gan (University of California, Santa Cruz) Sponsored by: Society for Cultural Anthropology

This roundtable showcased projects that extend ethnographic methods and forms beyond text. The five presentations explored sensual and affective modes of storytelling through film (Povinelli and Feld), photography (De León and Gan), drawing (Myers and Jain), and exhibitions (De León and Gan). I will briefly discuss these presentations and offer readers the opportunity to further explore the projects through their respective digital platforms, as well as an archive of the roundtable created through Twitter and Storify.

While ethnographic attention to sight, sound, texture, and movement reveals novel objects of inquiry and goes beyond writing, the panelists did not specifically address the extent to which these avenues are new in anthropology and cross-disciplinary collaborations. Following the discussion, I am left contemplating the ways in which “tradition” in the discipline seeps into practices like presenting at a conference, even at time when we are talking about innovation, creativity, and experimentation.

Elizabeth Povinelli first introduced the work of the Karrabing Film Collective, an indigenous media group based in Australia. After showing their short film Salt, Povinelli discussed how Karrabing challenges the oppression of settler colonialism through the aesthetic form of film.

Jason De León similarly explored the ways in which undocumented migrants tell their stories through narratives and photography, as well as the materiality of living sparingly (e.g. out of backpacks) in precarious conditions. Povinelli and De León both showed how visual forms in ethnography demonstrate struggle differently than text alone, making visible the lives of those rendered invisible by state domination and colonial violence.

Natasha Myers reflected on her bodily and sensory engagements with the cultures of life sciences. Myers sees herself as a sensor in the field, asking questions like, “How might I become a nose to better sense the smells?” She demonstrated how she transformed the energy of bodily movements into visual media through drawing in her fieldnotes—curved, dynamic lines representing energy forms that “leap off the page.”

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Figure 1. "dance #358, gestic diagram" by Natasha Myers

S. Lochlann Jain similarly discussed how drawing and art can disrupt reliance on text. Jain showed Things That Art Cards, small rectangular cards that challenge categories and provoke critical, analytical thought. Bringing the possibilities of art to her students at Stanford, Jain developed an Empathy Lab as an interdisciplinary space to explore the aesthetic, performative, and bodily in research.

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Figure 2. Things That Art Cards by S. Lochlann Jain

Lastly, Elaine Gan presented multimedia projects that provocatively explore ecological relationships between time, landscapes, plant life, and human life. Her three-dimensional installations show how art in ethnography is not only about adding images to text but also about crafting new modes of inquiry for critical analysis. For Gan, employing multiple genres in ethnography is like working with a loom, selecting from array of materials to weave a story together.

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Figure 3. "Chronometers for Time Travelers", Elaine Gan, 2011 (digital media installation)

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Figure 4. "A Fungal Clock: Experiments in Representing Time", Elaine Gan and Anna Tsing, 2012 (interactive browser-based project)

The roundtable presentations highlighted the ways in which anthropologists are pushing against the traditional boundaries of ethnography and asking critical questions about the limitations and possibilities of visual, sensory, and digital modes. The innovative methods, forms, and content were refreshing, offering creative imaginings for where the discipline might be heading. However, the question still remains: what are the limitations of visual and sensory forms and, alternatively, what is the value of text? Povinelli suggested that while films such as Salt have an argument, they do not necessarily make the argument. De León adds that his backpack-driven art installations conveyed a variety of messages to the audience but perhaps did not offer quite enough; the installation’s audience expressed empathy but also wanted more context in order to understand how they should feel.

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Figure 5. “State of Exception” by Jason De León (exhibition)

Along these lines, discussant Steven Feld commented that his more aesthetic work focusing on sonic media had been criticized for its lack of political engagement, clearly showing that art and politics do not correlate for some audiences. These comments lay bare the challenge ethnographers who are engaged in experimental forms face: navigating between fostering an open interpretive experience for audiences and making their political projects explicit.

The panel did an excellent job of including visual media and offered more to see and watch than most of the other panels I attended at the AAAs. However, with all of this talk about sensory, sonic, and kinesthetic forms and content, I am left wondering how these approaches could inform more conventional practices in the discipline. An audience member raised a similar point, asking the panelists how the roundtable experience might have been different if they had allowed their forms to speak for themselves. We might think about this in terms of the tools employed in teaching, the modes through which we publish and make our work known, as well as the very format of presenting at the AAAs. What if instead of sitting in chairs, looking at the screen and listening to text as talk, the audience was somehow engaged kinesthetically? What if instead of being shown drawings and art, we were somehow engaged in the process of making art? What if obscured ecological relationships were somehow revealed in an interactive moment? What if we were asked to listen to sounds other than talk? Feld noted that sound is often absent in presentations like those of the roundtable because of expectations of literal-ness. It is ironic that a session focusing on experimental ways of doing anthropology ends up adhering to largely conventional forms.

So what do innovative methods, forms, and content look like for anthropologists? Are we on the brink of a “beyond text” revolution, and what will it take to get there? These were some of the questions raised by audience members and by chair Yarimar Bonilla. What was lacking in the discussion, however, was attention to the historical, even though the roundtable abstract promised to question whether such discussions are really new. Arguably anthropologists have been paying attention to multiple sensory modes for decades through the very nature of ethnography; the challenge has been transcribing experiences and conveying affect back to audiences. Feld raised the point that more interdisciplinary collaboration is needed, since artists have been grappling with these challenges for a long time. Disciplinary silos hinder collaboration and make transformations in anthropology slower than they could be.

The panelists agreed that spaces for innovation in method, form, and content can be cultivated through interdisciplinary relationships, “side forms” of research, and experimental spaces—it is a matter of looking for where these sites already exist. While artistic, visual, and sensory research is pushing inquiry and representation, the textual tradition remains important. The panelists suggested that while more training in art, sensory engagement, and bodily forms is needed, the ability to write well is also necessary in order to produce a dissertation, publish in academic journals, vie for tenure, and make arguments explicit. Thus, as much as some anthropologists are experimenting beyond convention, there is also a clear limit to how far anthropologists can and are willing to go at the present moment, at least with respect to this conversation.

The final aspect of the roundtable I want to reflect on is the role of digital platforms. While many scholars are increasingly using digital modes of presenting research and connecting with audiences, the presenters in this panel were exceptional in this regard. Elaine Gan, Jason De León, Steven Feld, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Natasha Myers offer ways of experiencing their research through cleverly made websites. Yarimar Bonilla, Natasha Myers, Jason De León, and Lochlann Jain frequently use Twitter to engage tweeps in their recent work. While these digital forms are still relatively text-dependent, they allow words, conversations, and images to flow differently than typical journal articles. While more could be said here about the value and limitations of these media, we can also keep the conversation going online. You can review the live tweeting from the roundtable via Storify and add to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #byndtxt. Special thanks go to Yarimar Bonilla for organizing the roundtable and for encouraging us to use Twitter as a way to play with and beyond text.