An object was threatening to take form on my desk on Friday, an abject thing really, that might be labeled ‘a pile of books I absolutely want to read but don’t have time to’. Every once in a while, the rug needs to be pulled from under this notion of being so absurdly busy… and I filled my bag with items from said pile-in-the-making. Those other things got moved to today’s to do list which will be further stressed by the writing of this post. So be it.
My weekend was therefore spent with Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer, a truly powerful work. It draws the reader (me) into considering and feeling how entwined life and research, past and present, self and object can be, how we spend so much energy into separating them and how research, ethnographic writing (and life) might look if we didn’t worry so much about making and keeping these things separate. (A latourian shorthand for this book would be ‘we have never been detached’–but as evocative as this might be, it doesn’t do justice to the reading of the text).
In some ways, this is a book that claims the authority to know through what strikes me as a typically American appeal to emotional authenticity. Furthermore, the book’s various essays are arranged so as to build a tension that culminates in a narrative told around a keynote speech by Behar, where her risky, difficult and beautiful project to bring the vulnerable observer into her academic practices enables her to score. But to her credit, this culmination is not presented as a resolution, since other needs, connections and desires are generated by this intervention, reaffirming that reflection and critique are not, ever, to be wrested from emotion and attachment.
But but, for all my buts, this book is so mighty good it reconfigured me as a reader. I read and read and read, neither in the place where I do my work reading (couch in office) nor where I do my pleasure reading (in bed) but in the middle of the living room, where I turned pages, laughed and wiped tears, reading for hours, astonishingly enough, uninterrupted by family life. I am now accompanied by questions that seem difficult, perhaps because unusual, the feeling that they are legitimate to pose, and a curiosity about why they have not come up before.