Sunday, July 17, 2011


Struggling through all this po mo stuff seems to be as hard on the writers as on me.  I’ve been downloading cheat-sheets from the Internet but they aren’t much help.  This is what I grasp so far:  in the 19th century when people took up sailing across oceans and then during the 20th century wars when Euro-Americans were stuck in foreign countries, there was a great awakening to the fact that not all cultures are the same.  This gave birth to anthropology, the study of all the various kinds of arrangements (some of which seemed like major improvements to some Euro-Americans!), and there was a lot of interest in ethnography, writing about exotic cultures.  The result sold well enough that ever afterwards the Blackfeet were convinced that writing about them was a way to get rich, though they themselves didn’t (a source of resentment though Percy Bullchild was about the only one who actually WROTE) and don’t seem aware that other cultures were also pretty interesting.   (Not even Sting’s fav tribe, the Yanomamo.)
At some point those Algerian rebel Frenchmen who question everything pointed out that much of the ethnography was pretty words about what the anthropologist wanted to see and not that different from ordinary travel writing -- though the pretense was that anthros were so formidably trained that Margaret Mead could not possibly have been looking in the mirror when she claimed Samoan girls had sex without guilt.  When women and minorities finally began to think about this, it was pretty clear that the inner mental templates of Brits in pith helmets were not picking up the realities of women and minorities in these various cultures.  Some of the women and minorities began to write what they took to be the truth.  At least it was theirs.
But it was only an exchange of templates.  In fact, slowly, everyone began to realize that it’s not possible to write or even SEE anything without having a template.   To be conscious, your brain must be using a template.  The U of Chicago insistence on knowing your “method,” is really a request to know which template you’re using.  This left all the purist writers in the ditch on their backs waving their templates in the air.  But some took heart and began to write “autoethnography,” saying, “this is who I am (my template) and this is what I saw, okay?  Make of it what you will.”  I see that I’ve been doing this, all unawares.
I understand “Writing Culture” -- this anthology of essays on the subject -- to be asking “now what?”  Stephen A. Tyler has an idea he calls “evoking.”  P. 130.  “The whole point of ‘evoking’ rather than ‘representing’ is that it frees ethnography from mimesis and the inappropriate mode of scientific rhetoric that entails ‘objects,’ ‘facts,’ ‘descriptions,’ ‘inductions,’ ‘generalizations,’ ‘verification,’ ‘experiment,’ ‘truth,’ and like concepts that except as empty invocations, have no parallels either in the experience of ethnographic field work or in the writing of ethnographies.  The urge to conform to the canons of scientific rhetoric has made the easy realism of natural history the dominant mode of ethnographic prose, but it has been an illusory realism, promoting, on the one hand, the absurdity of ‘describing’ nonentities such as ‘culture’ or ‘society’ as if they were fully observable, though somewhat ungainly, bugs . . .”
These guys have a real grudge against science, which they seem to consider a plot on the part of authority figures to force them into thinking things they don’t want to.  I suspect that in the past they’ve been bullied by people claiming “facts,” which were only convenient convictions (God, family, virtue) and not conclusions tested via the scientific method and willingly yielded to new evidence. (Is Pluto a planet?)  The po-mos talk about fragmented observations, which deserve fragmented methods of report since to integrate them into a whole -- the way one is asked to do in a college paper -- is to distort them (pound them into the Procrustean template), so they say their goal is to avoid representation.  It would be better to offer a collage of methods and contents and let the consumer figure it out.  I think this is what he means by “evoking.”
So.  How heartening.  It appears that Tim Barrus and Cinematheque (now The Studio) have plunged into the mainstream of post-modern thought, using video, paintings, music, writing of various kinds ranging from poetry and simple journaling to analysis by a trained person entirely outside (me -- amateur anthropologist -- but wait, amateur means “lover.”  Uh-oh.) all fragmented under the over-arching ethical principle of evoking compassion as a human unifier.  Of course, po-mo writers who claim to be standing aside from language and merely pointing like Wittgenstein, would object to “compassion” because it is unscientific, a source of bias.  In their contradictory way, opposing science, they insist on clinical detachment.  Yet, “clinics” require symptoms, don’t they?  Accurately described ones?
I think they are begging the question, which is an old religious one:  “What shall we do to be saved?”  I don’t think they believe the world CAN be saved.  They are very serious, even grim.  They forget that one way to go over the threshold into the liminal space where change happens is to play.  No science there.  No authority figures imposing “facts.”  No haunting past or terrifying future.  In the liminal space one’s brain is out of gear -- maybe you can use your “second brain,” the enteric neural web that people call “gut feeling.”
Some writers will suggest that this allergy to science that po-mo’s have developed is at root a resistance to the colonial Brit in the pith helmet who is at heart a Victorian bourgeois intent on getting the world in order for the sake of the empire.  All while the Brit himself, now dressed for dinner, is superior.  He also diminishes science because to him it is a technology merely: putting rockets in outer space is simply an extension of railroading -- big ships, you know.  NOT a way of reflexively seeing ourselves for what we are: trivial mammals on a small green planet we are quickly rendering brown.  Not a way of reaching liminal space where all existence is equal and the science of rocket ships meets the poetry of cosmic physics.  Say, is that last evocative for you?   Why else would the space station have a glass observation cupola?

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I completely agree about templates. That's sort of the po-mo realization in a nutshell. I agree that it's also true that the native peoples have templates, too, including their own templates regarding the mainstream culture (i.e. dominant culture, colonizing culture). Everyone projects their truth onto everyone. Or they learn to embrace the complex diversity of seeing the truth from many different angles at the same time, using many different templates. (Reading science fiction from a young age was actually good training for this kind of approach.)

The literary ethnography that emerged during the time when "Writing Culture" was produced—of which I was a part, being in grad school at that time for ethnomusicology, the anthropology of music cultures, which is an ethnographic discipline—made a lot of sense to me. It still does. It is one of the positive realizations that came out of po-mo, which goes a long way to balance the wackier aspects of po-mo, which has also led some people to deliberately reject all meanings and interpretations, to reject all templates. Thus we get the worst aspects of language poetry and the logorrhea of John Ashbery, which is all intentionally meaningless.

So for some po-mo artists, they get stuck in the existential despair of being unable to find any definitive values or meanings from the world.

By contrast, those who embrace the diversity, the multiplicity of templates, have often become invigorated and created whole new ways of doing art. Tim and the boys are a great example of that. It's also what I've been trying to do, and what I think you've been doing whether or not you'd labeled it as such.