Tag Archives: books


Our next read, calling all readers! Doodle poll is in the  making and will soon reveal the date of the next meeting!

Tsing, Anna L. Friction: an ethnography of globla connection

Ernst’s bag 2

The contents

The picture of the contents of my bag becomes sharp exactly at the level where the blister pack with tablets are located; they are headache tablets mostly in the sense that their lurid colour is likely to trigger one. Surrounding it are all manner of no doubt commonplace technical paraphernalia for running the laptop: extension cord and transformer, a little remote for slideshow presentations (logically it doesn’t work with Powerpoint) and an adapter to connect the Mac to digital projectors. There is a cool 1Gb USB stick that is so small I mostly forget I am carrying it. Writing implements are things I have a close affinity with. There is a nice pen I got as a present from my girlfriend and which reminds me of the neat row of pens my father carefully kept in his suit-jackets. And there are also two pencils, containing 0.5 and 0.3 mm leads-I cannot think of many things more simply satisfying (and therefore exacting) than the smell of graphite and the feel of pencil stroking the surface of paper. In similar vein the calligrapher Gerrit Noordzij recognised in calligraphy (in translation) ‘god’s water washing over god’s fields’. Then there are business cards and the usual personal documents: passport, driver’s licence, car ownership and insurance documents, and a fancy gadget (looking like a calculator) used for ordering goods and banking online. The laptop itself is obviously there, a 17″ whopper that is wonderful to work with but very big and heavy to carry around. I don’t mind that, since it seems to me a laughably economical representation of the incredible amounts of stuff that can be stored on a drive, including in my case a home-grown database of all the articles and books I have read since starting my study of sociology in 1993 on a British Council scholarship. Today it contains 3025 entries. But there is also an endless stream of sign language movies used in past sign linguistic projects of one kind or another and a developer database containing all 24,000 educational achievement records for a national population of deaf pupils. But on it are also some 20 photo-albums, one among which now includes the photo of the contents of my bag.

And finally, there are my unfinished ‘projects’, the stuff made of words that can only in part be put in a bag-the heavier part of it fills my thoughts mostly without making much sense, which is why I need the external part that I can carry in a bag. Below an edited volume of essays by Isaiah Berlin, now out of print and purchased second-hand through Amazon, The Proper Study of Mankind (1998) is a book by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, On Justification (2006). The two books clearly interrelate in a way that matters to me. The texts are telling me something that straddles and conjoins all the projects I am working on, from educational tracking systems to corpus linguistics, and from e-philology to interventionist tactics in science and technology studies. One of these projects is represented in the pile of papers below the two books. That pile is a series of barckground reading, notes and drafts for an article that was running to version 8-at which point I made the almost sickening decision to start the whole thing over (hence probably the garish tablets). Below my pile of notes is a black A4 notebook in which, starting March 2005, I have recorded my personal notes of all the meetings I attend. It looks good inside, very tidy and each entry carefully dated, but in practice the notes reveal much about my own personal sense of the nature of meetings: I rarely find reason to return to the notes, but neither can I desist from the habit of taking the notebook into meetings and writing a further entry.

(back to the picture)


Berlin, I. (1998) The proper study of mankind: An anthology of essays. New York, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On justification: Economies of worth. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.

Eloquent Behar

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.