Monday, March 21, 2011

Meeting Old Friends Anew

“The tidy, systematic and well-rounded texts written by anthropologists are more often than not the end-product of long periods in the field characterized by boredom, illness, personal privations, disappointments and frustration: few anthropologists can state squarely that their fieldwork was a continuously exciting journey of exploration, full of pleasant experiences.”

Those are Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s words, in his Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, which I came across while preparing to teach an intensive course on Anthropology and Development this May (suggestions for readings and lesson plans welcome).

Eriksen’s words rather neatly describe many of the feelings that dogged me during much of my time in CAR. I went to the dentist today for the first time since I began my fieldwork and learned that I had developed the bad habit of clenching my jaw so hard that I’ve worn through enamel and am now grinding down tooth. My life has none of the stress of, say, an investment banker’s, but I nevertheless think that fieldworkers can lay claim on a particular kind of anxiety (am I doing all that I can? What more should I be doing? Argh -- if I’m bored it means I’m slacking!).

But what an unalloyed pleasure it has been to re-acquaint myself with friends from Ndele and Tiringoulou and Kaga Bandoro and Bangui and beyond as I transform fieldnotes into dissertation text. Acquaintances, pestering youth, stonewalling functionaries, confidantes -- they all become friends in hindsight’s warm gaze. More importantly, there is something I find inexplicably satisfying about presenting a person in all his/her complexity. The other day I was writing about the Chef de Cantonment in the Ministry of Water and Forests in Ndele. He’s someone who, in the span of a couple-hour conversation, might explain Chadian gris-gris innovations; negotiate responsibilities with his boss in Bangui (his cell phone ring: “Appel en provence directe des Etats-Unis, ville de New York!”, layered over a siren); give a forehead kiss to his two-year-old daughter, who toddled into his office every day on her way home from nursery school; argue his theory of the symbiotic relationship between humanitarian aid and rebellion; and haggle over roadblock fees with passing Sudanese truckers. All this while also making peace when his subordinates fight (including with him). Even just re-reading these opinions and tales is a surprising, fascinating jaunt as unknown and known alternatingly intersect and then veer off from each other.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein describes a similar feeling as one of the things she had to get used to, and came to love, when she shifted from academic philosophy to fiction:
“The struggle for clarity doesn’t cease when you write fiction, but it’s a clarity that can’t be pursued to completion, or else the whole point is lost. Hammer home what you, the author, take its meaning to be, and you hammer the entrance closed. The shaping of a work of art means, paradoxically, preserving some space for ambiguity. … Characters let me know they’re becoming real when they start surprising me. Keep them one-dimentional and the deadliness of total control is yours. Give them many dimensions -- details suggestive of rich inner lives -- and a certain wildness takes hold.”

The people who fill my fieldnotes are just that -- living people. They’re not characters. I certainly don’t consider myself to be creating a work of art, but just a rather humdrum humanities-tinged social science text. Clarity must remain my watchword. I’m sure most of those complexity-indicating details will not survive once I turn to editing. (My adviser’s one entreaty was that I please not write a 600-page dissertation, and I’m happy to oblige.) But, oh, how lucky am I who got to meet these people, these endlessly surprising people! “Wildness” is an addictive privilege. Who cares about anxiety.


  1. Hello! regarding anthropology and development these two books have really got me thinking lately... you may likely know of them:

    Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda by Peter Uvin

    The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho by James Ferguson

  2. Thanks, Brendan! Those two will both make it on the syllabus, if only in excerpted form. (With a week-long intensive -- class from 8am to 5pm -- it'll be hard to assign as much reading as I might like, I'm afraid...)