Semester Wrap-Up: Part 2

May 18, 2009

More reading highlights from the semester:

taussing-nervous1) Michael Taussig’s The Nervous System

Michael Taussig explores the ways in which the combination of state-sanctioned violence and a climate of silence engender a perpetual “state of emergency,” where the chaotic is the norm. His metaphor of the nervous system works well on several levels. In terms of memory work, it evokes the non-linear way in which an individual or community remembers. It also suggests an embodiment that, as we have seen in previous readings, is an important component when theorizing trauma. In addition, he explores the concept of “writing the nervous system” and explains that it “calls for an understanding of the representation as contiguous with that being represented and not as suspended above and distant from the represented” (10).  He inserts himself into this text, realizing that his own representations cannot be distanced from the represented; he blends the subject and object of study. At times, he addresses the reader explicitly, asking, “But what about people like yourself caught up in such matters? What sort of talk have you got?” and then, “What about myself, for that matter?” (29). This rhetorical technique helps to illuminate the “nervousness” in both Taussig’s content and style. 

In chapter 3, he raises some interesting questions about the academic process of contextualization, positing that it has become a sort of talisman, mystified in a way that suggests its knowledge translates into a guaranteed understanding of social relations and history. Instead, Taussig proposes that social relations and history themselves are “fragile intellectual constructs posing as robust realities” (45). And that our “contextualizing gaze” (45) creates a view that is too narrow, not allowing for creative blending within and between disparate spaces and times.

 2) John Jackson’s Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerityjackson-realblack

By using a diverse range of examples in the New York area, including the gentrification of Harlem, Black Jewish identity in Brooklyn and the politics of naming in hip hop, Jackson challenges ideas of racial authenticity and explores the potentials of sincerity.   Jackson’s book is a foray into “autoethnographic” work. He focuses on complications and intersections, practicing a “dark reading,” where he attempts to “feel, grope, invent, even pretend the real” (67). He is offering another way of meaning-making, an interpretive strategy that recognizes the role of the interpreter in relation to the messages that are received.  Anthropology, in other words, can have a dual nature, representing a complicated interaction between observed and observer.

As much as his book is about the difficulties involved in theorizing race, Jackson’s project is also a “rumination on the ethnographic project, itself a response to challenges arising from the alleged crises in representation and analysis of the late 1980s, crises that still haunt the discipline to this day” (9-10).  In response to this haunting, Jackson proposes the novel methodological technique of “channeling.” To deal with his own feelings of nervousness in asking subjects difficult or personal questions, Jackson channels the presence of more famous and accomplished ethnographers. He asks himself, WWZNHD? What would Zora Neal Hurston do? (24-25) Eventually, he finds that he needs to conjure up a whole new identity altogether, which leads to the rise of Anthroman.

The fears he believes accompanies ethnographic writing, what he refers to an “ethnographobia” are brought fully to the surface of his text (24). Anthroman is one of his coping strategies, an alter ego whose “Anthrosenses” won’t fail under pressure. In referring to himself in the third person, he disrupts the flow in his text, and highlights the constructed nature of his work. It is a methodological tool that illustrates his theoretical arguments. Jackson’s work recognizes the difficulty in reading his subjects, and explains that this is what sincerity demands: an acceptance of our “mutual impermeability” (87).  

I found Jackson’ work particularly interesting in his recognition of the ways in with ethnography is implicgated in the production of knowledge. For Jackson, ethnographic knowledge is produced through an acknowledgement of this “mutual impermeability” while simultaneously engaging with it.

At times, his own presence in his work is a little overwhelming. Still, the book is definitely worth-reading, providing an interesting example of creative and engaging ethnography.

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