Reflections on Ethnographic Writing Today

Photo by Håkan Dahlström, licensed under CC BY.

Serving as the jury for this year’s Gregory Bateson Book Prize gave the four of us a remarkable opportunity to take the pulse of the discipline. It provided a rare chance to read broadly and a privileged glimpse of the important work being done beyond our areas of specialization or topics of interest. Here, we reflect on this process to formulate some general observations about the current state of ethnographic writing and open them to wider discussion.

This year, the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) received over one hundred submissions from more than thirty presses. The jury’s mandate was to select the book that best exemplified the SCA’s commitment to work that is ethnographically grounded, innovative, and interdisciplinary. Many texts made extraordinarily valuable contributions without fitting these criteria. Quite a few others did. Ultimately, we were drawn to two books that we read as mirror images of one another: Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things and Nitzan Shoshan’s The Management of Hate. Both are concerned with similar issues: the politics of affect, the haunting of the present by unresolved pasts and threatening futures, epistemic uncertainty and right-wing seductions. Yet they approached these topics in strikingly distinct ways. Shoshan’s is a densely conceptual, powerfully argued text that tracks a disturbing logic across sociopolitical and analytic scales. Lepselter’s evokes its subject through a mimetic proximity that reveals uncanny resonances between fragmentary narratives, memories, and the perceptual experiences of those on the margins. Where one captures, the other releases. Separately and even more powerfully together, these books provide complementary purchase on the conundrums of our political present. We find them essential works for today, with insights that transcend this moment and its defining locations.

A striking number of top texts shared the prizewinners’ focus on affect. Collectively, this heuristic investment moved beyond past tendencies to invoke the affective largely as a placeholder bracketing more substantive concept work. Instead, we took note of a growing and apt concern with the affective thresholds of political rationality in an age of epistemic and semantic crisis. This poses timely questions, and also finds a corollary in shared ethnographic engagements with that which is formless, emergent, or immanent. Many books we read explored the inarticulate and the ineffable as a vital dimension of contemporary existence, while others convincingly attended to the labor by which the elusively immaterial and ephemeral is made tangibly present and comes to exert material force, whether in security threats, outer space, mediatized voice, traumatic pasts, metabolic combustion, buried waste, neurological plasticity, or distant wars.

Yet we were struck by consistent tensions between content and form across the submissions. Many otherwise excellent ethnographies were undermined by a profound mismatch between the energies of their topics and their modes of representation. We noted, with irony, common attempts to describe the protean, as-yet-unformed, or socially fluid in prose that was oriented toward elucidation and argument, within texts conforming to a restricted repertoire of conventions and formulaic structures. Even texts that claimed to experiment with form tended to deploy a limited set of recognizably edgy techniques. This standardization serves to domesticate what is otherwise an exciting aperture in anthropological inquiry. Indeed, part of what drew us to Lepselter’s book was precisely the way it challenged our expectations of what an ethnography is and should do. Of course, we are not arguing that established genre conventions have no merits, nor are we making any prescriptive claims of our own. Instead, we wish only to suggest that the power of ethnography lies in its ability to surprise, provoke, and trouble, no less than its capacity to assuage, systematize, and explain.

What seems to be at issue here is more than the oft-noted contradiction between claims to inclusive politics and the perpetuation of esoteric, elitist prose. Rather, we wonder if orthodox textual forms and the careerist structures that endorse them are adequate to the kinds of subjects we are increasingly compelled to engage. We wonder, too, if there has been a retrenchment of the discipline away from more radical cross-disciplinary engagements. Perhaps our increasing fragmentation into specialized subdisciplines fosters a more narrow set of conversations within anthropology rather than an urge to reach beyond it. How can we cultivate genuinely transdisciplinary intellectual work that pushes us into conceptual borderlands, fundamentally destabilizing our sense of what constitutes our objects of inquiry, our stance toward them, and our ways of communicating about them? What kinds of training, publishing, criteria for advancement, and institutional arrangements would help revitalize anthropology’s contributions in a moment when our insights have never been more needed and have rarely been so effectively sidelined?

We are left with two distinct impressions. First, we are heartened by the many serious works that further disciplinary conversations about the big issues of our times, not least by expanding the range of subjects that fall under the anthropological purview. Fresh insights from our colleagues’ work continue to inspire. Second, we have the sense that the reach of anthropology into new theoretical and topical terrain has yet to yield a commensurate stretching of ethnographic form. We are optimistic that such shifts are on the horizon, if not already underway. More than anything else, our survey of the field leaves us appreciative of our colleagues’ work, and eagerly awaiting the ethnographies to come.