[-empyre-] IV body, placement, ethnography

Jonathan Marshall Jonathan.Marshall at uts.edu.au
Wed Oct 10 10:51:27 EST 2012


At first I went online through printouts from a friend, then I was in a tiny shared phd students’ room, with one minute screened mac, in the Sydney University anthropology department, with my hands screaming with pain, and the knowledge that this work was pain – sometimes clutching thick sticks in my fists, so I could type letter by letter. How could anyone forget the body, or the materiality of being who we are? And it was clear that this pained emplacement online was not one that was mine alone. The point here is that I was never elsewhere, never 'virtual', never disembodied, never reifying the virtual until the presence of pain was a problem - perhaps that lead to missing something that other people felt, but I was always in a room typing and hurting. And how was that different from being in a room typing and hurting? Well sometimes I got responses, and sometimes I had some idea of how what I was typing was being received, but often not. Was the silence significant? Was the response speaking to me, or to something else that I was being hung off? Would the response hurt? Would indeed what I wrote hurt, by accident? But that was the same as giving a seminar paper to the department, except that in those days online flame had nothing on the SU anthropology department in full flight.... (Nowadays much different :)

In this small room, just off the department's main office, I was constantly interrupted, becoming for a tiny while the internet expert, as staff where just having the lines put in. People would wonder what I was doing, read over my shoulder, ask when the computer would be free, and so on. At one time the computer was replaced without consultation and all my records and fieldnotes vanished – luckily I had printouts in rows of arch bind folders (still have them, taking space and place in a garage), so I didn't have to begin again. The records were concrete, just as was everything else....

Later on I got the net on at home and worked there, but always there was a place out of which interaction came (not a space beyond place), there were phone calls (mainly to Australian members) and meetings, without any sense that these were virtual or less virtual. In some cases these calls and meetings gave deeper involvement in people’s lives and the gossip about other people on Cybermind, or about what was happening on Cybermind, again showing the affective and embodied pull of online life and the hope and distress invested in it, and the effort that people put into interpreting what was going on and how to react.  I was not alone in ‘doing ethnography’ online, most of the group was doing it too.  Without these closer contacts and the tone of these passions in my ears, I probably could not have had what width of view that I gained. Of course, I realised that sometimes I was being 'used' by others to promulgate their views of particular people into the 'record'. And any record would in both senses of the word be 'partial'.

Was this sense of mutual ethnography an early explorer effect? I’m not sure. People still seem to get intense, intensely involved, and suffer with insult and exclusion (I think of observing, trying not to be too nosey, my teenage godchildren dealing with facebook, and ringing their friends to talk about what someone else has done and what it means, or how they should behave, or how they should best steer the exclusion of others without offence), but perhaps it can be now more part of people’s life, or there are parts of their life about which they are more abstract? Or perhaps it is now more conventional, there is nothing new?  But then again, how long is it you can go online without observing, or inferring, passion and hurt in yourself and others? And that affect seems to have effects.

If life involves suffering, online life also involves suffering. However, if lucky, life is not just suffering, and that platitude can be true online.


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