My reading and thinking crosses boundaries and contexts all the time, which Ben at the laundromat thinks is a good thing. He’s a retired railroad man (the laundromat is right beside the HighLine tracks of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) and believes in both tracks and traveling. I’m happy to have this kind of local endorsement, because once one gets into the lofty and defensive ranks of any profession, the policing quickly ejects me.
This morning I’m thinking about an article by Tim Ingold that evidently shook up one of my favorite disciplines, ethnography. Of course, fifty years on the Blackfeet rez more or less validates whatever data I’ve collected. But what Ingold is saying is that we must protect and care for that which we study. It’s hard to know how to do that for the Blackfeet, but I try to think how anyway and use whatever chances I get.
But I also take that attitude towards other communities, as mundane as the grain-centered prairie towns and as exotic as the international male gay arts community. I’m not them, but I reach out to both extremes in several ways: as a potential novelist, as a kind of ethnographer and as a minister in the role of chaplain rather than as community manager. (Never no more any committees!) I care about them, which means I attend to them carefully. I’m a participant in a quite marginal way and as a conditional gift from those communities. I would say, tentatively, that I have no community of my own. My family alarms and repels me and I them. Attempts to reconnect with my UU cohort have found them aging, even dying, and drawing in the circumference of their circles.
There are a few professions that require fieldwork as preparation. Amy Pollard threw a rock into the frog pond of ethnography by formally studying the distress of student anthropologists doing their first fieldwork: the practical difficulties are obvious, but the subsequent reaction, esp. the Ingold essay, pointed to an existential challenge. Who are you? Justify yourself. The only justification that counts must be love and care, not the accumulation of fascinating details. Otherwise, it’s just another rip-off in a greedy world.
Delancy Place just published a little squib about the origins of universities. ”The university as we know it today evolved from guilds or unions. Men studying at universities who reached a middling level of competence were known as "bachelors", since, though they had some ability, it was not enough to support a family." . . “Universities, which evolved from the cathedral schools (particularly those concentrated on the left bank and on the Ile-de-France of the Seine in Paris, like that at Notre Dame cathedral), originated in the late eleventh century.” Now in this time that rejects both labor and religion, it’s no wonder that universities are also in an existential crisis. I was lucky to get there ’78-’82 just before Meadville tipped over and while Eliade still walked the halls.
But there was not much care for students or for the communities they were supposed to serve or the angst and challenge of coming into a new set of people, each with their own "culture." Most of us would have responded whole-heartedly to Pollard’s study. In fact, the first collision with existential distress was seminary itself, which -- as a good school should -- demolished all one's old convictions and faiths, forcing their rebuilding on a new foundation. The same with Clinical Pastoral Education.
Likewise, on the rez there’s not a lot of investment in the steady stream of romantics walking into the abattoir of tribal politics. The only people who can do that with relative impunity are outsiders. Of course, a large proportion of the main culture in the US is still actively murderous when it comes to “gay male artists,” esp. those who are AIDS activists.
When I moved back to the high prairie, I consciously thought that I would finally be safe enough — owning my humble house and living on SSI — that I could tackle dangerous issues while escaping destruction. I was only partly right, because the real challenges were all from inside me, existential as ever. Aging is sneaky. Infrastructure issues, from sewer maintenance to the collapse of the publishing industry, take a lot of energy. I’ve continued to be as deaf and blind to things I don't like as I was in the ministry. But I will not renew my attempt to find a “charmed circle” where we are all peers.
Tim Ingold’s essay quotes Kenelm Burridge about something he calls metanoia and defines as “an ongoing series of transformations each of which alters the predicates of being.” Then he introduces a quote from Richard Rorty about “edification.” This, Rorty says, is to open a space “for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause — wonder that there is something new under the sun, something which is not an accurate representation of what was already there, something which (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can barely be described).”
Chasing the Burridge quote, I find this paragraph about his book “Someone, No One.” “Examining the concept of individuality and the ideology of individualism in terms of a dialectic between the self and the social order, the author draws a distinction between the person as an identity—a "someone"—who conforms to social roles and norms, and the individual as a nonidentity—a "no one"—who holds particular nonconformist perceptions of truth that result in conscious and independent moral discrimination and innovation.”
Well, that about sums it up, which is lucky because books at this level often cost fifty bucks each and I can’t afford them — nor has anyone got them on Interlibrary Loan. I've ordered Ingold's most recent book: "Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture." Used copy for $20. If I had the funds, I'd buy all his books. Black bottomed shame is proving to be too fundamental for me to penetrate.
As a neighborhood “Someone” you might research on Google or ask locals about, I am a “nice” old lady with high ideals, sympathetic to renegades, not inclined to dress up or show off, absolutely regular as clockwork when it comes to getting to the post office, buying groceries, and so on, nothing to sell. In the directory sorts of internet websites, I’m listed as an independent researcher, a very minor author.
As "No One", I am unknown here or much of anyplace else. My “nonconformist perception of truth” is that there is no truth, unless — like situation ethics — it is considered in terms of the specifics and conditions. The nearness of death, the limitlessness of time, the sun and the wind, the impossibility of love, the suddenness of culture shifts, are not marketable. But that’s okay. In the laundromat beside the railroad tracks, sipping ninety-year-old Ben’s coffee and swapping jokes is enough to keep me going.