This is a narrative
Five people are thrown together. Each has brought a history with them. In particular, each has brought a piece of writing; each has written a text concerning what their meeting will or might or should or could entail. Each has also assembled a set of artefacts: two jokes or humorous anecdotes; two myths or legendary accounts. One joke and one myth is meant to be associated with a space (time and place and phenomenology) called ‘home’. One joke and one myth is meant to be associated with a space called ‘the field’ or ‘fieldsite’ or ‘fieldwork’ or ‘place of ethnographic work’.
What happens? The five people sit together around a table. They orient their bodies relative to one another. They speak and gesture relative to one another. In particular, they start to speak about the artefacts they have separately brought together to this place and this room and this table and this moment of interaction… relative to one another.
There is a desire to make connexions. They wonder and ponder: what effects do one set of artefacts, or components from one set of artefacts, have on others? (This is a kind of transference: the real wondering concerns what effects might these five individual people have upon one another?)
So: five artefactual sets. Each is imbued with a kind of history and energy by their individual creators. What is communicated to others to whom these are new objects, objects without connotation—without history and biography? The objects may possess a denotation that is legible—‘This is a DVD of an American stand-up comedian; it is meant to be humorous’; ‘This is a set of newspaper cuttings from Mozambique’—but the connotations are hidden from those who have not created the assemblages and brought them here.
And yet: The five people begin to allow themselves to seek out connexions, or affordances, between themselves as speakers, as bodies, as bringers of artefacts. They open themselves up to one another. It is a form of generosity, a form of confidence, a form of friendship, even a form of new beginning, transcendence, liberation, purification. They ask: what connexions can be seen to exist here? What contingencies can be seen serendipitously to emerge? The five people enable effects to become felt and visible between or among themselves. A certain slippage occurs. Whether out of frustration, tiredness or a certain fruitful absentmindedness, the five people lose sight of whether the new ideas and concepts arise out of bits of text or bits of gestures or bits of voicings or bits of memories. Their ongoing engagement with one another, with the artefacts and the texts, seem even momentarily to bracket-off the distinctions between themselves, also between things, concepts and texts.
What kind of between-ness or among-ness is this? It is not an integration. It is not a homogenizing. It is not a generalizing. It is not an averaging. The connexions concern journeys and the journeys entail passages. The five people juxtapose their bodies, their histories, their sets of artefacts against one another’s. And they effect journeys across. They find bridges—or affordances—by which one person and one history and one artefact or set of artefacts can be seen or felt or heard or said or conceptualized or otherwise experienced as connecting with another or others.
What is the effect of this juxtaposition, of this journeying between discrete people and histories and objects? The passageways made between also effect a moving forward, a progression. The oscillation or sideways shuttling is actually a zigzagging. You might think this is a description of a Hegelian dialectic: from ‘thesis’ to ‘antithesis’ to ‘synthesis’. But this is not Hegelian. Each element that is juxtaposed retains its integrity. And yet the experience of connecting the two (or more) discretenesses moves the experiencer forward. The shape is like the marks left behind by a snake in sand. Why should this be the case? Why should a sideways or oscillating movement between juxtaposed objects lead to an experience of progression? Because life is a journey of personal ontogeny. Each human being is set on a life-journey that has one direction: a moving on that is cumulative, that is non-reversible, that is gradational—a growing by way of steps—and that is a growth that is also a decay. Memory is fallible. The machinery of consciousness and embodiment is finite. We move forward in our being and our knowing but we also move towards death and putrefaction.
Where has this brought us? What have we discovered through and between ourselves?
Anthropological knowing has a shape to it.
It is a movement between discrete objects—individual people, histories, consciousnesses, artefacts, in a word materiel—that is also a moving forward of experience.
There is a grammar to anthropological knowing, comprising terms, and the syntax that tells how to use and combine those terms. Here is our grammar:
- The anthropologist begins with his or her materiel: individual human beings, their histories and their artefacts, material and sentimental.
- The anthropologist employs a punctuation that reminds him to honour and preserve the intrinsic human integrity of his materiel: one individual is not another individual; one history is not another; one artefact is not another.
- The anthropologist analyses his or her experience of the juxtaposition: what did it feel like? what does it say? to what does it give rise?
- The anthropologist moves forward from one juxtaposition to another and another. He or she moves down a pathway whose significance floats. The pathway is a floating signifier in the sense that it does not possess the same grounded reality as the objects that he or she is juxtaposing. The significance of his or her journey floats in the sense that its meaningfulness is carried by and with and only with his or her knowing body. Where will that path lead? Maybe to less and less meaningfulness as conceived of in terms that existed prior to the journey’s beginning. There is no pre-defined route or terminus to the journey the anthropologist takes through the experience of juxtaposition and the knowledge that floats within him or her.
- But: there is always a call to order. The time of a fieldwork experience is limited. The length of an anthropological text—article, book, film, soundscape, dance—is limited. The length of an anthropological career is limited. The length of a human life is limited. Beneath the materiel and the punctuation and the analysis and the floating signification lies the order of the human condition.
The above is an honest narrative. It describes a discovery of anthropological method with neither a priori nor a posteriori elements. We cannot prove this.
But we hope the honesty will emerge, too, in the reader’s and the participant’s own (juxtapositional) experience of our serendipitous efforts to make affordances. For juxtapositions may proliferate. There is no end to the new juxtapositions that may be felt authentic. There is no end to the remembered and misremembered experience of juxtaposition. One starts again: we start again, the reader starts again, effecting affordances and the passageways they give onto.
There is no absolute return in life but there is always the choice of life. Anthropology is the study of effects that energetic things-in-the-world (people on their life-paths, with their life-ways and their life-projects (their artefacts)) have upon one another.