This is the seventh post in our blog series designed to help you link your teaching with the 2016 Annual Meeting theme, Evidence, Accident, Discovery. The series offers relevant teaching resources to instructors of undergraduate and graduate courses on methods, ethics and theory. Think of it as a week’s course readings in a (virtual) box…
This week’s post comes from John L. Jackson, Jr. at the University of Pennsylvania.
Multimodality, Accidenticality and the Possible Futures of Anthropological Research
Some anthropologists might find it compelling to characterize our discipline as both the most humble and most hubris-filled in all of academia.
No other field has nearly as many card-carrying members in scholarly discussions that animate the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. Not physics, not philosophy, and not economics. In fact, there aren’t any serious conversations taking place anywhere in the academy that anthropologists consider beyond their scholarly reach—be those conversations in a scientist’s lab, about a work of fiction, or with community members fighting to change public policy.
The humongous size of its intellectual tent is one version of the field’s ostensible hubris, a version that still brackets out any critiques of anthropology’s oft-bemoaned reliance on opaque theory and dense jargon, which might be a slightly different kind of disciplinary hubris.
On the other hand, anthropology boasts a gentle humility that stems, at least in part, from one of its most important methodological contributions: immersive ethnographic fieldwork. Long-term “hanging out” only works because of the simple premise that anyone is a valuable ambassador for the cultural world he/she/they represent. Of course, ethnographers aren’t supposed to take what people tell them at face value, which is why we spend a lot of time thinking about potential discrepancies between what people espouse and what they do, what we hear when we listen and what we see when we look.
In many ways, this is also a question of what counts as “evidence” within the discipline of anthropology today. Fields like physics and economics are powered by the sense that numbers are more stable and irrefutable evidentiary grounding for claims about our world than the flimsier observations of the ethnographic researcher. Those disciplinary formations usually try to bracket out (control for) what might be called the merely accidental, whereas some very prominent anthropologists persuasively laud the fundamental value of “chance” in (and to) all ethnographic encounters. The “accident” is significant not just as a provocation for subsequently (and supposedly) accident-free and objective quantifiable analyses. The accident can be what catalyzes and constitutes the claims we make about the world itself, no matter how much anxiety it produces in us to imagine that our methodological toolkit can’t escape the effects of what we might call “accidenticality,” the careful interrogation of chance’s value to any ethnographic gambit.
In an academic moment when authority is wedded to claims about enhanced objectivity and mathematical predictability, hitching anthropology’s wagon to the whims of chance/accident will sound to some like a self-defeating way to further marginalize the discipline vis-à-vis other more respected (and highly compensated) social sciences. But it makes sense to theorize and empirically capture the unavoidability of chance.
For a critical mass of graduate students here at the University of Pennsylvania, one version of what such an appreciation of chance’s productive force has accommodated is more robust investments in “multimodal scholarship,” in learning how to teach students to conduct research in a more sensorially expansive way. For us, it has meant engaging works in “sensuous scholarship,” ethnographic film, “acoustic ethnography,” and performance theory/performative ethnography to think about how to better render the complex cultural landscapes of our research activities. This approach expands upon the established conventions of the subfield of visual anthropology (still regrettably undervalued in anthropology’s own prestige hierarchies). Instead, we are talking about finding ways to move beyond the version of “thick description” which holds that film cameras can only produce ethnographically thin and empirically inadequate accounts of social life. Academic fears about the intrinsic ethnographic limitations of the film camera (The Ax Fight being a canonized articulation of those limitations) mask a perhaps more troubling concern about the camera’s eye: that it captures too much, not too little; that we can control what we write on paper so much more strictly than what we record through a camera’s over-filled and symbolically complicated frame; that one of the best ways to spy what might be called a kind of “metaphysics of chance” in the ethnographic field is to simply press RECORD.
Work in multimodal scholarship is about teaching students to link improved visual literacy to a much more purposeful recognition of the ethnographer’s (racialized, gendered, etc.) human body. Part of what we learn together is also the necessity of being humble about how much retooling it will take to get multimodal scholarship right, as well as the difficulty of coming to some kind of agreement on what standards of evidence lay behind our judgments about what constitutes more or less compelling versions of multimodal scholarship. Even still, I’ll admit that there might be some undeniable hubris, perhaps, in the very idea of raising the level of difficulty of the ethnographic “text” beyond the already-challenging genres of ethnographic film and written monograph; however, multimodal research strikes many as the methodological future of us all.
Whether it means checking out Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, examining the work we are doing here at Penn under the auspices of CAMRA (including the annual Screening Scholarship Media Festival), submitting something to “Ethnographic Terminalia” during the AAAs, emulating some of NYU’s important and ongoing work in Culture and Media, or just going back through the scholarly work of Zora Neale Hurston for its innovative energy and ethos, there are tons of resources available to students and faculty interested in ethnographic research with a more pointedly multimodal emphasis.
Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (HarperCollins, 1938).
John L. Jackson Jr. “Theorizing Production/Producing Theory (Or, Why Filmmaking Really Could Count as Scholarship)” Cultural Studies 28(4, 2014): 531-544.
Paul Stoller, Sensuous Scholarship (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
Michael Taussig, I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Field Notebooks, Namely My Own (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Debra Spitulnik Vidali, “Multisensorial Anthropology: A Retrofit Cracking Open of the Field,” American Anthropologist 118 (2, 2016): 395-400.
Interested in attending the 2016 AAA Annual Meeting? Register at www.americananthro.org/aaa2016.