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

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina gabyvargasc at prodigy.net.mx
Mon Nov 19 04:18:03 EST 2007

Hello.  Sorry to have been off email for a while.  Since the discussion has
already gone somewhere else I will only say that the playwright invented a
process of what he calls 'reverse ethnography' whereby he 'goes to the
field' meaning he makes short description of actual people he meets and then
turns several of them into a single stereotype, who becomes a character in a
play where other such built stereotypes interact discussing water or just
using it (to drink, to water their garden, to splash each other).  The
reaction of anthropologists to the play was to accuse him of racism, sexism
and chauvinism of all kinds, because he did not explain how he had
constructed the characters but only played them out.  Then he incorporated
the anthropologists' criticisms in the re-writing of the play, with a new
character (an intellectual) who criticizes all the others within the same
play, and they all respond to him.  Each of the characters, then, represents
the record of his research as a form of (purposely) distorted memory, and
the intellectual represents the memory of critique.  In the final version he
has explained the whole process, lending a different viewpoint to field
research performance as we understand it in academia and recasting
description in a different light.  His name is Chris Danowski and there are
some descriptions of his plays at


On 11/16/07 12:36 AM, "Madeleine Reich Casad" <mir9 at cornell.edu> wrote:

> Hi Gabriela,
>> I really like this discussion on memory so far, because it touches
>> on issues
>> we are dealing with in the social sciences right now.  In fact, for
>> the book
>> on representations I asked a friend of mine who is playwright to do
>> a play
>> around the issue of representation and memory.  He did a script on
>> water
>> issues along the Mexico-US border, which he then performed during
>> an anthro
>> conference.
> Play and performance as a mode of academic anthropological
> representation--that's excellent.  Is that approach viable within the
> field of anthropology today?  It would be interesting to hear more
> about how you and the playwright were talking about this problem, and
> how the performance eventually played out in the professional/
> academic/disciplinary context of the conference, if you'd be willing
> to say more about that.
> Mickey
>> Gabriela
>> On 11/14/07 8:32 PM, "Madeleine Reich Casad" <mir9 at cornell.edu> wrote:
>>> Hi Gabriela,
>>> Thanks for this elaboration.  In your Sardinia example, the shepherds
>>> and their wives seemed to embrace that particular "feud culture"
>>> mythology?  Did they say much about how that sense of the past
>>> interacts with their present-tense cultural identity and present-
>>> tense cultural conflicts (with the police, eg)?
>>> Mickey
>>> On Nov 14, 2007, at 12:02 AM, Gabriela Vargas-Cetina wrote:
>>>> 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'.
>>>> Gabriela
>>>> 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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