Ethnographic writing, poetics, and sensory sensemaking

“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” ~ Oscar Wilde

Recently I came to realise that the process of writing ethnography is much more elusive than I gave it credit. Some days ideas unfold onto the blank Word document with an inescapable grace. In these moments my thoughts are busy extending beyond themselves and embodying a momentum and rhythm that I feel cannot be purified from the logics of the subject matter being explored. May the structures of sentences and the aesthetics of ideas in ethnographic writing entail qualities that are finely crafted by, and irreducible from, the logics and rhythms of the culture in question? Some days when I am writing ethnography, ideas don’t come easy to my fingers but are stubborn or subject to the awkward constipation of mental spasticity. In these moments my writing tends to obfuscate and condense; thoughts clench; theories contort; ethnography implodes. Writing itself thus appears to somewhat embody ethnographic worlds. This blog entry is an excursion into the practice of writing ethnography and includes a philosophical or rhetorical approach of questioning and teasing out the problems.

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Does ethnographic writing offer an imperfect mirror of the world? Does it offer a reductive translation of shared experience mediated through individual lenses of cultural linage and exchange? In different ways I am sure that both these perspectives and many more are correct. I want to put forward another albeit more speculative perspective that is neither mutually exclusive nor in opposition to these reflexive and semi-positivist notions. If the “form, style, and content” of my writing correlates and bursts into glory at a similar intensity to the quality of the ethnographic “truths” I am writing, then what may this tell us about the relationship between writing and culture? Do different types of “form, style, and content” in ethnographic writing sit divided and in parallel to culture and provide a variety of logo-aesthetic means of representing it? Or under the right conditions does writing itself become subtly imbued with the culture it aims to describe and explain? May writing collapse into, absorb, and become the substance of cultural mediation that it is at risk of holding at a distance? My intuition says, partially based on the tensions of writing noted above, that in circumstances when my skills are peaking, when ethnographic memories, notes, and thoughts illuminate on the Word (document), there is a curious meeting between the aesthetics of writing ethnography and the contours of culture.

Two objections come to mind here. First, some great thinkers are atrocious writers. Bourdieu, for example. And second, my intuition above may be seen as being guilty of strangling or distorting epistemology with aesthetics and, in the extreme, encouraging a kind of romanticism. In regards to the first, while it is true that poor writing can embody rich ethnography, good or aesthetically complex writing is not necessarily closed to permutations or amplifications of these other qualities and potentials I am questioning. In regards to the second objection, the reduction of culture to epistemology is arguably no more unproblematic than to aesthetics and in reality, as this short piece is trying to show, the two cannot and should not be so easily delineated.

For Anlo-Ewe-speaking people of West Africa, as outlined in Kathyrn Guerts’ ethnography Culture and the Senses (2002), thought and emotion or thinking and emotion-feeling are faculties of sensing and are linguistically grouped with seeing, hearing, smelling, and other forms of sensing, including balancing. If we interrogate the phenomenology of writing ethnography from this perspective, if we frame ethnographic writing as a form of sensing culture or cultural sensing, then what becomes of epistemology and aesthetics? Are words then more like photons that form insights in the minds of ethnographers sitting at their study desks sensing through notes, interviews, and memories? In this phenomenological framework where the act of constructing anthropological ideas becomes a matter of sensingrepresentation takes on a new meaning. Is anthropological knowledge not then a form of intercultural synesthesia in the blending and “translation” of cultures? And can this “poetics” shed light on the phenomenology of good ethnographic writing?

Like the weather in Australia, I find the timing of doing good ethnographic writing difficult to predict. The process frustrates and humbles me. Periods of poor ethnographic writing creep in like a drought, slowly devitalising the page, so slow that I only realise a lifelessness of thought when I revisit an older piece of my writing that is brimming with substance. While the drought of good ethnographic writing comes on slow with an elusive absence, the deluge of erudition tends to emerge abruptly. It surprises, opens, and nourishes my understandings with pages upon pages of ideas, anecdotes, and theories that electrify the screen in thunderous intensity. Rain drops fall loud on the corrugated iron roof and flicker to the rhythm of the keyboard mediating the grey horizons of ethnographic memory, notepads, reports, and intuitions. Time is bent like light curving across history and disclosing ethnographic encounters.

The blending of worlds.

The question of the dynamics of the emergence of ethnographic “truths” and the aesthetics of the ethnographic writings that embody them meets the phenomenology of sensing culture in various ways. It is easy and tempting to jump straight to analogy, and to understand representation as analogues to synesthesia when stepping to the alternative phenomenology being explored. However, the more important intersection that this challenging phenomenology introduces, in regards to ethnographic writing, is the unsettling effect it has upon the neat distinctions of epistemology and aesthetics that allow anthropologists to hold culture at a distance in the form of knowledge. Aesthetics is cultural substance and thus sensing culture as a methodology of ethnographic writing may subtly shift the quality of knowledge to an embodiment of alterity.

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