Monday, November 13, 2017


This discussion is a cross-fertilization between two articles.  One is in Cultural Anthropology written by the jury for the Gregory Bateson Book Prize:  Lucas Bessire, Paul Eiss, Amira Mittermaier and Karen Strassler. in Cultural Anthropology 
The other is a1986 article by Pamela Banting in  that proposes an archive itself can be treated as a literary genre.

The Gregory Bateson Book Prize is awarded by the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), the largest section of the American Anthropological Association. The Bateson Prize reflects the SCA's mandate to promote theoretically rich, ethnographically grounded research.”  The essay by the jury is new: Oct. 16, 2017.  Banting’s article dates to 1986, more than a year earlier.  And yet it reads like an answer to the later plea for innovative forms to meet the demands of deeper, sharper and more ambiguous issues.

Here are my fav sentences and phrases from Banting:

“deconstructing traditional ideas of the book and the author — the creative, subversive powers of the archive”

“the silent labyrinth of the archive”

“speech has long since expired at the cave mouth”

“the voice of the absence of presence”  (tapes )

“The mirror world of the archives (the pictographic cave). . .invites the gaze and the gesture (of writing).”

“the text spills over in excess of the author. . . .but the author herself is not wanted — dead or alive.  Absence is the mark of her presence.”

“The researcher looks not for the essence, the uniform, the original, the definitive statement, but the trace, the residual remainder, the inconsistent detail, the wild deviation from the usual response, the point where the correspondence falters, where documents have been lost, destroyed or otherwise concealed. . .”

“This radical dispersal of the author (paradox of the archive that it poses as a collection while creating in actuality a diaspora) annuls her copyright.  Neither the name nor the book is any longer her property.”

“In the archival vault, writing violently asserts its kinship with death.”

Banting quotes Jacque Derrida from a chapter called “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing.” in the book entitled “Grammatology”  “The idea of the book is the idea of a totality, finite or infinite, of the signifier; this totality of the signifier cannot be a totality, unless a totality constituted by the signifier exists it, supervises its inscriptions and its signs, and is independent of it in its ideality.  The idea of a book, which always refers to a natural totality, is profoundly alien to the sense of writing.”

Derrida is thinking of the codex — pages between “boards.”  An archive is shelves.  And then there is the blog, which is a sort of archive.  Writing is an act of the moment as the instrument creates a record.  Pen scratching, keyboard clicking.   Archiving looks across all the years, the instruments, the kinds of records.  

“It's generally recognized that the first blog was, created by Justin Hall, while he was a Swarthmore College student in 1994. Of course, at that time they weren't called blogs, and he just referred to it as his personal homepage. It wasn't until 1997 that the term “weblog” was coined.”

Perhaps the Bateson Book Prize committee is also trapped into limiting themselves to codex versions of manuscripts, as produced by presses.  (Page impressers)  They received a hundred submissions, but if they were open to internet material, there would be thousands.  It would become unmanageable unless limited in some other way that being a “book” from a “press.”

The four judges note particularly that “affect” (emotion) is important in conventional ethnography, using touching stories as entry to the subject so as to be a “placeholder” for “more substantive concept work.”  Affect is sort of a hook, but also ornamental.

This sentence:  “Many books we read explored the inarticulate and the ineffable as a vital dimension of contemporary existence, while others convincingly attend to the labor by which the elusively immaterial and ephemeral is made tangibly present and comes to exert material force, whether in security threats, outer space, mediatized voice, traumatic pasts, metabolic combustion, buried waste, neurological plasticity or distant wars.”

And this phrase: “Common attempts to describe the protean, as-yet-unformed, or socially fluid in prose that was oriented toward elucidation and argument, within texts conforming to a restricted repertoire of conventions and formulaic structures.”  They call this “domestication of an exciting aperture.”  It is the dilemma of the academy where new ideas must be forced into the demand for old forms.  And old professors.  It’s especially problematic when the subject is a category of people who are exotic, whether Amazonian uncontacted tribes or obscure communities of whores.

This approach could also be called “the gaze of the anthropologist” or even “spying in the house of science.”  Which suggests that the problem (which might be more of a preference) could be solved by moving from a codex to a blog or “vlog” (with video capacity).  Why not open the peephole into a window or even a door?

The affect dynamic suggests that whomever the anthros have put under observation must be given a voice and permission to express themselves.  It is an opening for morality of a universal kind.

This kind of thinking about archives which are “shelves” and “archival boxes” relates to what I’ve been thinking about as a “body of work”, a goal for anyone working with narrative and adjunct materials.  It takes time and diligence to create one, but then the problem is what to do with it and why.  Where is the value?  Not counting monetary, the first impulse.  It is necessary to acknowledge the value of knowledge.

The real impact of anthropology has been not so much on the writing/creation as it is on the “reputation” and merchandizing of the key personality as “special”, “privileged,” and a credit to their family and alma mater.  Writers of best-sellers are given the status of nobility.  So much of the vertical literary social world depends upon these dynamics that the ideas of horizontal development are not likely to be welcomed, except by those who expect to profit from access to the archives.  This will mean they’ve figured out some venue and method of delivery, which isn’t close to being practical yet.  Academia comes the closest.

But no creator can keep from creating a body of work and archiving it may be posthumous.

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