From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Behold the Black Caiman
Releasing words into the world is part surrender, part surprise. It is startling how quickly they begin to run amok and circle back around ferally, callously, or—as in this new forum—generously. I appreciate the chance to respond to some of these insightful provocations about writing and thinking.
A disclaimer: Behold the Black Caiman is a difficult book. It is designed to unsettle and interrupt, in order to more closely approximate the experiences of its subjects and ethnographic encounters with them. It offers a glimpse of what I argue is a kind of becoming based on reworking the terms of colonial negations into the terms of moral life. It chronicles a dysfunctional apparatus of dispossession in order to trace the critical, creative, excessive vitalisms of those who live within and against it. The book strives to mimic and unleash part of this vitalism within the text itself. In doing so, it is concerned with opening spaces on the margins for anthropologists and Ayoreo alike. All to say, the book’s imagery and terms were crafted to defy captioning, especially by me.
This defiance, mentioned by all three of the commentators, may run against some splintery grains of academic call-and-response. I’m not sure, exactly, what to make of it. (Does it mean there is, finally, some separation between myself and the text?) Certainly, I won’t try to explain it away. Given the peculiar nature of this defiance, perhaps the most fitting response is some hastily scribbled marginalia.
This book did not begin as a search for a case study that would illustrate or challenge a fashionable theoretical concern. Just the opposite: I jumped into a deep end without knowing its depth or which way the currents moved beneath the surface. Any relevant insights in the book emerged piecemeal over a decade of something akin to floundering. Putting even a fraction of it into words was a conundrum all its own: existential, stylistic, analytic, and political. How could I critique anthropologically an incoherent system of dehumanizing violence sustained, in part, by critical vocabularies of anthropology and my complicity with them? How could I describe in text the ways subjects always exceeded, opposed, or negatively charged textual descriptions of their lives? How could I create knowledge by casting knowing in terms of its opposites? How could I write at all if it meant becoming the Black Caiman I was pitted against?
I had to find a solution that I could live with. Academic etiquette and esoteric debate were, usually, the least of my worries. I kept writing and rewriting and returning. Over and over again. I suppose this peculiar accretion is significant. Among other things, it allowed an interrupted and unreliable voice—the closest I can come to an honest one—to emerge. This style is a conceptual device that also reflects a frustration with the insidious creep into ethnography of pat phrases and dead-end words and guaranteed punch lines. Inspired by Ayoreo, I tried to write as recklessly as possible.
I greatly appreciate how each participant in the forum responds in a different, but equally considered way to the many questions posed by this recklessness. Austin Locke concludes his elegant summary of the “rupturing of rupture” in the text by asking what footings of care are left for ethnographers, once they give up their assigned roles “as the sorrowful, colonial bearer of ashes . . . the fetishizers and archivers of tradition, the helpers of the devil.” It is a timely prompt, and relations of care remain an all-too implicit but crucially important subtext of the book. Both Iwashita and Dostaler frame indirect responses to the question posed by Austin Locke. In Iwashita’s generative and gracious reading, the book is “a quiet bow” to the “contingencies of seeing” that is nevertheless an open-ended invitation into the limits and transformative powers of the ethnographic encounter in general, an insight that calls for further reflection elsewhere. Dostaler, in turn, carefully asks how the textual traces of such encounters may inform a comparative approach to difference, and then outlines an intriguing answer by drawing from some of the most productive recent work in the discipline. While he recognizes that this may not be the project of my book and knows that there is not sufficient space to formulate a direct response here, Dostaler rightly invites a concluding note about the book’s relationship to concepts.
To be clear, the book is an experiment in the stylistic genres and conceptual foundations of an ethnography aspiring to speak to contemporary conundrums of existence. It presumes, on a basic level, that ethnographic concept work neither begins nor ends with coining a citable phrase or three. It takes for granted that such labor is painful and unfinished. If not, then it isn’t any kind of work at all. Good ethnographic concept work, I think, seethes with discomfort and risk. Through it, our taken-for-granted logics and schema are twirled wantonly into the air or dragged up kicking from some muddy hole-up or chipped away at slowly. Doing so often takes a toll. If done properly, this kind of work is also uniquely able to displace, disturb, and democratize those knowledge practices that happen to count as theory (another suspect word) for any given group of people at any given time and place.
Ethnographic arts, I think, can conjure this strange magic not by aping what we’re told counts as philosophy, but through intimate collusions with always open-ended vital arts and bedeviling non-senses and the unruly human capacities to critically reflect on and creatively engage or subvert or ignore or succumb to our existential conditions and contingencies, however overwhelming these may seem. Among other things, this means that ethnography is most potent not when it works from theory down to illustration but when it goes the other way. That is, when it builds from often mysterious capacities up to feral words that, once set loose on the margins, may—if we’re very lucky—return to pose riddles that instantiate novel figures of thought and set us to waiting, eagerly, for the ethnography and ethnographers yet to come.