This post builds on the research article “Looking Away” by Lisa Stevenson, which was published in the February 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Sander Hölsgens: “Looking Away” (Stevenson 2020) opens and ends with a narrative description of a portrait of a woman named Kautaq Joseph. What is it about images that draw us nearer to or distance us from the people we encounter?
Lisa Stevenson: In my writing and thinking I have been mostly interested in describing the potential of images (broadly conceived), as entities that can “express without formulating” (Foucault 1993, 36), can communicate contradiction without resolving it, and can hold us in their sway with the force of an unresolvable presence. There is, of course, a wealth of important thinking about the way images can wound, can seek to impose normative conceptions of selves, of communities, of worlds. John Berger (1982, 128) helps us to think about the difference between a photograph that “instigates ideas” and a photograph that closes down thinking. Essentially Berger is interested in the resonances, or chain of associations, a photograph has with the world it is part of. A photograph that is easily dismissed, generating no further ideas, allows for only a very limited chain of associations. Tina M. Campt (2017) writes about the way photographs taken for the purposes of the state (e.g., passport photos) emit frequencies that run counter to those very purposes, in some sense setting off an alternate chain of associations. However, being an attentive ethnographer has usually meant resisting the temptation of being “caught” by images, has meant formulating the power of images in the negative: in terms of their deceit and irrationality. Anthropology in an unparanoid mode might pay more attention to moments of possibility, of creativity, and of the openings some images allow in the darkness in the present moment. This might mean being vulnerable to forces that cannot, at least for the time being, be fully named. I think, for example, of Toni Morrison writing from a child’s perspective in The Bluest Eye (2007 ) in a passage where she is describing the protagonist’s mother talking to her friends:
Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre. (Morrison 2007, 15)
Aren’t we, as anthropologists, often like those nine- and ten-year-old girls, listening for truth in timbre? And isn’t our writing often a way of sharing such singular moments, when we sense the truth in timbre, or hope in a photograph, or even the sadness of a disappearing present? It’s not about knowing ahead of time what kind of images will hold me, or generate ideas, but it’s about describing that experience as best as I can. Communication as a kind of contagion.
SH: In the piece, you gesture towards “an un-stately, unseemly, un-fixative, way of looking” (Stevenson 2020, 7), as a critical response to the colonial gaze. How are hesitation, contradiction, and uncertainty important to an anthropological mode of looking (and remembering)? And what kinds of work or practices does it provoke?
LS: I take this question as asking, “what is an interruption—and also, what interrupts?” In a life, a story, a sentence, an interruption disrupts the forward pulse, the straining toward an ending, toward satisfaction, closure, belief, dénouement. An interruption can take the form of a moment of disorientation, of terror, of boredom, of uncertainty, a holding back. Or a sentence can have something in it, a structural lurching, that throws you back.1 In a way of seeing, an interruption prevents one from moving on, from believing that one has seen all there is to see, has arrested the thing itself, has understood fully what is there. The interruption draws you back into the image, to live with it, rather than to dispose of it. It’s that simple.
What it is that interrupts (the longing of) a life, a story, a sentence, a way of seeing is more difficult to describe but keeps happening: a virus threatens our lives and our sentences but also threatens to undo some of our political structures, an unexpected name in an inbox threatens the certainty of personal history, a small detail in a photograph troubles the sense that the person pictured can be easily categorized, positioned, and dismissed, a look in an eye refuses the quick and easy feeling of moral superiority, the sun through the window reflecting against the wall disrupts the bleakness of an afternoon. Forgetting can be also be an interruption to the anthropologist’s will to synthesize and to make sense of (every)things. I know a student who came back from fieldwork and claims to be amnesiac. I tell him laughingly, that I too was amnesiac. He comes to my office to find out what I meant. It obviously isn’t a laughing matter for him. He says there are fragments but nothing more. I tell him to write the fragments, and they will pull the world along with it. I believe that, because he, sitting there, pulls the world into my office and it is such a relief. Fragments are all I have.
Looking away, as I argue in this essay, (following John Berger  on painting portraits) can be a disruption that allows—dare I say it—a kind of truth that is beyond names, identities, and well-worn concepts to surge up. It is a technique for allowing ready-made concepts to dissolve and for experiencing the presence or aliveness of the other. What would it be like to think of fieldwork as looking and then looking away? Recently, through the wall that separates our bedrooms comes the sound of the kids singing a lullaby I used to sing to them, years ago, when they were babies. “Where did you find it?” I ask clumsily. “It was there in my head,” one says. It’s a sudden interruption to the grim grey of coronavirus just to think of what we can find, discarded, forgotten, in our heads.
SH: In Life Beside Itself (Stevenson 2014), your ethnography on care and biopolitics in the Canadian Arctic, you write how you chronicle experiences that are not fully yours, nor are fully other than you. You try and make room for moments of doubt and hesitation that dissolve the “professional distance between the ethnographer and her subjects. For a moment both are thrown into the same frame” (Stevenson 2014, 2). I found myself thinking of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s practice of “speaking ‘nearby,’ with, across and in between” (Balsom 2018). How would you describe your own positionality?
LS: To tell you definitively who I am, or who anyone is, is impossible. To be able to sense who I am or communicate something true about me “on the back of language” is another matter. Thus, I could tell you a story, about myself or someone else, but that would only gesture to my, or the other person’s, specificity. What is significant, then, is not that we have an exhaustive narrative for ourselves or for another, but that we see each other as having a story (or a poem, a song, or an image) that might be told (written, sung, or painted). Why, at this point in our political life, do we continue to pit one identity, one congealed story, against another? As anthropologists, we write about the ways such congealed and violent stories have wreaked havoc in our own, or the lives of people we care about, but should we reproduce them in our own politics? Can we find another terrain on which to live, to write, and to fashion our politics? Isn’t there an important sense, in moments of being together, that an experience is shared? (Or do we mistrust that too much to write about?) Isn’t there difference that doesn’t congeal into a type? Can we paint or write something that is alive? In “Looking Away” (Stevenson 2020), I am offering this attempt to paint or write a portrait as a particular form of care, a particular way of being together that refuses to pawn a style, a manner of speech, a hairstyle as a document that exhausts the other.
SH: “Looking Away” (Stevenson 2020) seems to be in conversation with Life Beside Itself (Stevenson 2014). In both pieces, you gesture toward a contradistinction between the logic of the state and everyday lived experiences. You seem critical of the kind of governance and care that is mainly concerned with the statistical maintenance of life itself, as opposed to attending to individual lives. What do you think anthropologists can do when it comes to such counternarratives?
LS: The violence of the Canadian state’s response to the Inuit tuberculosis epidemic lies in the way Inuit themselves were reduced to statistics (in this case serialized individuals) that reflected well or badly on—were useful or useless to—the Canadian state. This means that the identification numbers given to the Inuit no longer represented a collection of human beings, known as the Canadian Inuit. Instead, for the Canadian state the Inuit were nothing more than their numbers. This fact had a cascading set of consequences for the lives of individual Inuit, which I outline in Life Beside Itself. In contrast, as we muddle through our everyday lives, the singularity of the other makes itself known repeatedly, through the surprise, delight, and friction that the other continually generates. To be able to hold open a space where the strangeness, the desperation, the joy of being alive and human is not forgotten, seems to be one of anthropology’s tasks as we endure the coronavirus times, and the rise of a pernicious form of biopolitical thinking that allows us to forget the spark of aliveness lurking behind every social security number, and in every (re)counting of the dead.
SH: You’ve published ethnographies, made films, and designed performances. In “Looking Away” (Stevenson 2020) and Life Beside Itself (Stevenson 2014), you trace the lives of images. Do you make any distinctions between these modalities?
LS: Notice this about images: They don’t separate out skin color, skin texture, from shape of the eye, from a look in that very eye, or a bend in the wrist, or a crease in the pant, or a fierceness in the jaw, from the stain on the shirt collar or the wound above the eye. It all comes at you jumbled, pregnant, there. The predicates that one can list about a photograph are never the photograph itself. Notice this about texts: There is something (about which you can see I am obsessed) that is communicated on the back of language. Something in the montage of words that goes “further” and with which the translator of texts always struggles. At the moment I think of the relationship between film-work and writing-work in terms Georges Didi-Huberman (2008) offers. He says: “In each testimonial production, in each act of memory, language and image are absolutely bound to one another, never ceasing to exchange their reciprocal lacunae. An image often appears where a word seems to fail: a word often appears where the imagination seems to fail (Didi-Huberman 2008, 26).
1. Mónica Cuéllar Gempeler writes elegantly about the way that a negation in a sentence can make you stay with the sentence, unable to leave it alone. She comments on a passage in the novena for the dead, a prayer said by those in mourning over the span of nine days, “if a kernel of wheat does not fall to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it brings forth much fruit” (Cuéllar Gempeler 2020, 95) The counterfactual negation interrupts the flow of an indicative sentence. What is actually happening and what isn’t?
Balsom, Erika. 2018. “‘There is no such thing as documentary’: An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha.” Frieze, November 1.
Berger, John. 1982. “Appearances.” In Another Way of Telling, by John Berger and Jean Mohr, 83–129. New York: Pantheon Books.
———. 2017. Portraits: John Berger on Artists. Edited by Tom Overton. New York: Verso.
Campt, Tina M. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Cuéllar Gempeler, Mónica. 2020. “A Song for Staying: Narrative, Absence and Mourning in Rural Boyacá.” PhD diss., McGill University.
Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2008. Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. Translated by Shane B. Lillis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1993. “Dream, Imagination and Existence: An Introduction to Ludwig Binswanger’s ‘Dream and Existence.’” In Dream and Existence, edited by Keith Hoeller, 29–78. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International.
Morrison, Toni. 2007. The Bluest Eye: A Novel. New York: Vintage. Originally published in 1970.
Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 2020. “Looking Away.” Cultural Anthropology 35, no. 1: 6–13.