Studying Unformed Objects: Translation

From the Series: Studying Unformed Objects

Photo by Carmen Jost, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

If you're studying how scientists and residents try to define the problem to be studied and addressed, then how do you define your own object of study—or what your project is "about"? How is it—through what kinds of attention and work—that a scientific object (see Daston 2000) emerges through the research and writing, when part of what you are watching is how topics themselves get formed?

Still Life Objects

I hadn't drawn much since I was a child. I missed it, so why not, in the new fluidity of dissertation research, take a Saturday morning drawing class? The classes taught me what we teach in introductory anthropology courses: how much we take for granted, how much our own categories inform what we see.

I tried to draw from observation, I really did, and yet in moments of laziness or apparent familiarity with an object ("I know what that is, it's a simple cube!”), my mind filled in the rest of the shapes on the page, subtly telling me:

Well, I know what a square looks like: no need to keep scrutinizing that block. Just turn your eye away from the still life to the page and draw the other two sides. We know what we're doing. Don’t waste your concentration or effort here. Fix those lines in place and move along to that pitcher. Yes, that looks more complicated and deserving of your time and attention.

But, taking a few steps back with my teacher, it was clear that something was off: from where I’d been standing, the top of the cube was a different, more squished shape than what my hand and mind had conspired to draw. Despite my efforts to follow what I saw, I’d skipped looking in this instance and drawn something from concept, not sight.

A good way around this trap was to not draw objects or things at all, but the shadows, contours, angles, and relationships that made them up. My mind may think it knows what a face looks like, but it doesn't know the shape of that shadow, or the space between that nose and lip, without looking.


Although I brought with me to my fieldwork ideas of scientific objects as the focus of research studies, and although people asked me what my project was "about” (which seemed to call for an object of study), the fieldwork I was doing felt more akin to gradually filling in a video game map than drawing a still life of objects set in front of me. In a game, you explore, wander, walk down the path until you reach a dead end, go a little further to check: "Is this really as far as you can go in the game? Or is there a way around that barrel or to scramble up that slope? Nope, that’s it." Then you backtrack. Set off in another direction. You fill in more of the map of places-you-can-go, and this transforms your map from blank space and fuzzy edges into a sketch of roads, towns, rivers, and mountains just waiting to be visited. With those in place, you know where you can go next and you can return to each town you choose to fill in or skip.

Prompting Curiosity and Care

In writing about drawing and mapping, I’m mostly thinking about those moments of designing a grant proposal and doing fieldwork. Kathleen Stewart’s provocation tackles instead the question of how ethnographic objects emerge when/through writing.

She suggests, in my reading of her text, that compositional writing doesn’t aim to populate a mirror world in some nonplace ("located nowhere in particular") or with readymade objects "like the state or regional prejudice." Instead, compositional writing spreads itself across a cartography, itself already layered with sediments of different years, people, feelings, memories, rocks, plants, critters, footsteps, "things that happened here," and “things that could happen”—like the aerial map, family photos, and landscape plans that get taken out in discussions of neighborhood, environmental contamination, and hopes for the future at my field site—each layered, vying and nudging one another for attention and a chance to take root.

These commingling layers, the very “throwing together of phenomena,” create a world (are a worlding) for the fieldworker, scientist, neighbor, or reader to care about, to explore with curiosity, to wander through, to map for themselves.1 The densely alive language Stewart quotes from Red House is a prime example: it is a call to explore, a call to engage.

To me, the power in this kind of writing is, to borrow her expression, to “prompt curiosity and care.” To invite the reader, just as the fieldworker, to continue to look closely, to wonder, what that angle really does, rather than stopping short under the assumption that we already know.

Where Do Objects Come From?

I'd like to think that the wandering, the mapping, the exploring with curiosity is where anthropological objects come from. Being in the midst of fieldwork and preliminary writing, all I can do is take this on faith. I tell myself it is OK—generative, in fact—to dwell just a bit longer in the space of curious not-knowing. I have seen this work in drawing. We will see what it does in fieldwork and writing.


1. The artwork of Simonetta Moro also plays with this process of layering and mapping formative spaces.


Daston, Lorraine. 2000. "Introduction: The Coming into Being of Scientific Objects." In Biographies of Scientific Objects, edited by Lorraine Daston, 1–14. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.