[-empyre-] November 2007 on -empyre- : Memory Errors in theTechnosphere: Art, Accident, Archive

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina gabyvargasc at prodigy.net.mx
Wed Nov 14 16:02:08 EST 2007

Hi Mik, thanks for asking.

Most anthropological field methods involve catching random snippets of local
life; even if one of us is let's say at a dance where most everybody is,
what s/he will catch during the event is always very limited.  Even random
sampling is random.  We are trained to write down everything we see and
hear, to organize our pictures and videos using our field diary as the
backbone guide to our archives.  Then we are expected to build coherent
narratives from what we've got in this necessarily haphazard way.  These
narratives then get back to the place they are supposed to be about, falling
on hands that span the socioeconomic and political scale, and then things
become very complex.

For example: Alice Fletcher's and Frances Desmore's work on American Indian
music in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning
of the 20th is now used by many American and Canadian Indians today to
re-create 'traditional' elements of the music and the dance.  Suddenly,
something that happened in one particular occasion becomes something that
always happened in all occasions, such as the blowing of a whistle that is
taken to mean that the drums should keep on playing.  This is a relatively
innocuous example, but what if an anthropologist registered say, the local
logic of a blood feud and then explained it to the larger public linking the
surrounding environment to the local ways of life and making it all seem
impossible to disentangle?  This has happened in Central Sardinia, where
women are still seen by the police as suspicious of sending their men to
kidnap people because some anthropologist in the past said blood feuds and
kidnappings are orchestrated by the local women there, instead of stating
that in a particular occasion this happened in that specific way . . . When
I was in Sardinia it was the shepherds and their wives who always explained
to me 'their feud culture' with reference to anthropology books.  Of course,
the police was always ready to blame them first for anything and then ask,
so they had no interest in questioning the image of shepherds and their
wives as criminals created by anthropologists so many years ago.

In the American Plains, as in Chiapas and in Central Sardinia what
anthropologists recorded and so fixed almost a century ago is still haunting
the living decades and even centuries afterward.  I am not sure there is a
clear way out of this, but anthropology has now become more reflexive and
less ambitious.  Now we want to understand more than to explain, and this
makes us suspicious of all forms of recording as 'repository devices of
memory' and of the unquestioned identification of 'memory' in any of its
forms as 'truth'.


On 11/13/07 9:27 PM, "Madeleine Reich Casad" <mir9 at cornell.edu> wrote:

> Hi Gabriela,
>> This is something we have to deal with all the time in
>> anthropology: by the
>> time a book or an article are published what we are describing has
>> changed,
>> often quite dramatically.  Then, the 'natives' we so 'documented'
>> make use
>> of these documents to re-create themselves in the present, taking
>> those
>> documents as 'true repositories' of their past.  First our
>> documentation and
>> writing 'fixed' the 'real' and then it all gets entangled in weird
>> ways with
>> the re-enactment of the 'real past'.
> This is so interesting... Could you say more about how and why and by
> whom such re-creations are contested or seen as problematic?
> Thanks!
> mik
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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