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A Little LingAnthro for You


It can be disorienting sometimes to do fieldwork. Not the least of one's worries is, what the heck is fieldwork anyway now that it's been "problematized" (along with just about any humanities discipline I can think of). It can also be a chore to live in a new place and to try speaking a new language. So I was glad to find solace in a (relatively) recent ethnography, Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico Press, 1996). One comfort of this book is that it makes no self-doubting apologies about representation and power, issues that have been undermining ethnography for the last few decades.

An unfamiliar landscape, like an unfamiliar language, is always a little daunting, and when the two are encountered together--as they are, commonly enough, in those out-of-the-way communities where ethnographers tend to crop up--the combination may be downright unsettling. From the outset, of course, neither landscape nor language can be ignored. On the contrary, the shapes and colors and contours of the land, together with the shifting sounds and cadences of native discourse, thrust themselves upon the newcomer with a force so vivid and direct as to be virtually inescapable. Yet for all their sensory immediacy (and there are occasions, as any ethnographer will attest, when the sheer constancy of it grows to formidable proportions) landscape and discourse seem resolutely out of reach. Although close at hand and tangible in the extreme, each in its own way appears remote and inaccessible, anonymous and indistinct, and somehow, implausibly, a shade less than fully believable. And neither landscape nor discourse, as if determined to accentuate these conflicting impressions, may seem the least bit interested in having them resolved. Emphatically "there" but conspicuously lacking in accustomed forms of order and arrangement, landscape and discourse confound the stranger's efforts to invest them with significance, and this uncommon predicament, which produces nothing if not uncertainty, can be keenly disconcerting.


When I got here back in September I was thinking I knew some aspects of Czech culture pretty well. But that was quickly out the window. It can be deceptively "familiar" here at times because it is a European culture. There are a lot of things I'm used to. (Does this partly explain the dearth of ethnography in Europe? Too many people that do the stuff think it's just not interesting enough?) Well, just when you think you are finally getting close to "finding your feet" in a culture, as Clifford Geertz put it, one finds that the ground is still far away. It makes me think of the people in The Phantom Toll Booth who grow from the head downwards. Instead of getting taller and taller, they float above the ground as children and their legs don't reach all the way to the ground until they "grow up." As far as I'm concerned, I guess there is still some growing to do.

Comments:

Blogger amy7252 said . . .

I think the deceptive familiarity of Europe is exactly why so few people want to come here and study it. Everyone wants to do something really exotic and strange. I guess the Czech Republic just doesn't cut it anymore. (Darn that whole Cold War ending...)    

10:39 PM, March 16, 2006


Blogger Karla said . . .

One of the stories I didn't send you (since I never finished it) is sort of on this theme.    

11:54 PM, March 16, 2006


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