For our next meeting, we will be reading Sharon Traweek’s paper Warning Signs, and Ellis ‘ book, Final Negotiations. See you on the afternoon of the 12th!
Starting reading on the train yesterday. Strange experience. After about ten pages, I was quite grossed out with the whole thing. She was stupid. He was repulsive. Was I allowed to feel this way? Could I stop reading on the basis of this? Somewhat vindictively, I was thinking that by putting these characters, their emotions and their relationship so much to the forefront of this book, this was also entitling me to react to them on that basis. I managed to make myself read/skim/read through the first part. Stopped that when I got to the part where she becomes an unpaid nurse to a chronically ill tyrant. And then skimmed the last part, where she talks about writing the various versions of the book. And I read enough of that to realise that, yes, indeed, the whole point was more or less to provoke an emotional reading.
Now, having slept on this, I am feeling somewhat less vindictively repulsed. I’m also rather in awe of (and quite curious about) what it must have been like to publish something like this in the American academic climate of the mid-nineties, at the height of data-rape hysteria on campuses and institutionalised political correctness.
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.