Thinking through ethnographic theory while running at the mountain

Had I not been so exhausted I would recall my train of thought about ethnographic theory while running at the mountain.

In lieu of such clarity and such a description is the following excerpt from the foreword of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. The ideas in this section were among those that I carried with me and thought through while traversing red-dirt and rocks this afternoon. I apologise for breaking up paragraphs for ease of reading; the formatting options available are more than a little limiting.

‘In this sense, ethnographic theory does not operate so differently from what Hofstadter (1985) described as the challenge of translating Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, with its host of portmanteau words, from English into another language. By attempting to establish an equivalence between two “nonsensical” words, one necessarily ends up having to use one’s own imagination, inventing terms and concepts, inaugurating new connections from old verbal categories.

Needless to say what we are describing here is very different from a mere romantic invocation of cultural incommensurability. Geoffrey Lloyd once noticed that no anthropologist has ever returned from the field announcing that he or she could understand nothing (2004: 4). Or as Umberto Eco (2004) notes, one should not only be preoccupied by the ontological constraints but also with the licenses of dire quasi la stessa cosa – of “almost-saying” the same thing when translating-and accepting that linguistic incommensurability does not entail incomparability but a comparability in becoming.

And most of us probably agree that 95% of what we learn in the field (whether Tibet, Madagascar or upper-class London) quickly comes to make intuitive “sense” to us. As for the remaining 5%, it is not so much incomprehensible, utterly alien, as excessive – at least in terms of the efforts required for its conceptualization. HAU is especially interested in hosting “ethnographic translations” of those excessive remainders, remainders or wonders that arise when worlds are (happily, productively) out of joint.

The widespread excitement HAU has elicited since its announcement, it seems to us, is a direct result of its ambition to return anthropology to its original and distinctive conceptual wealth- to critical concepts we bring from the field, whether exotic or urban- and thereby, to return ethnography not only to the forefront of theoretical developments in the discipline, but by doing so, making anthropology itself relevant again far beyond its own borders.

HAU aims to put all those endlessly productive difficulties that result in the comparison of different forms of life – whether “savage minds” or the creativity of urban movements, science at home or villages afield- back on the intellectual agenda; to put them to work for the benefit of all. The challenge we pose to our fellow anthropologists is therefore to produce ethnographically grounded, theoretically innovative engagements with the broadest possible geographic and thematic range’.


~ Giovanni Da Col & David Graeber 2011, ‘Foreword: The return of ethnographic theory’ (in) HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. vii-viii 


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