I make these initial comments (1) as a reaction to a wonderful conversation I had with Morten Nielsen on a stroll at Moesgaard about a month after our CoT week, when he explained to me your ideas and rationales in designing and conducting our project, and (2) as notes I took on reading about two weeks ago your jointly composed essay, essentially explaining on paper, what I had learned from Morten during our walk.
(1) In retrospect, I am wondering how effective it was to keep us all so much ‘in the dark’ since from your essay and my conversations with you, you had very specific references and ideas in mind. There was indeed quite a bit of ‘theory’ and desire behind the design. Knowing a bit more of it would have been helpful–at least in my case. How, and how much, to disclose is itself an art.
(2) There were also certain assumptions operating about what the subject as anthropologist is like–shared ethos, shared knowledge, anthropologist as ‘out of the box’ thinker–as the primary operating identity of those who were participating. In particular, knowledge of anthropological theories of myth was presumed.
(3) There were no spectators for what we were doing except ourselves in our divided parallel groups The ‘wild cards’ did not function as
spectators or a stand-in public for us –in fact for the most performative one, we collectively were an attentive public.
(4) “Totemic dialogue” seemed to be a key kind of ‘theory or operator of the case’. But really was it in play?
(5) You open by saying “The Comedy of Things was an anthropological experiment on anthropology itself conducted by , with and on anthropologists (anything else would have been unethical).” Why, and what alternative would have been, unethical?? The parenthetical seems absolutely critical to me. This seemed to both limit and close off possibility–it in effect set the boundaries for the project, much more explicitly than I had supposed coming as participant told very little beforehand. Are we talking about the ethics of anthropologists?
of artists? of friends and comrades? More on this below…
There was an investment in a certain sort of ethos of the anthropologist…as ideal intellectual, as artist or not? To reverse Hal Foster’s 1995 essay title, “The Ethnographer As Artist?” I sensed quite a bit of resistance to such an identification, even though we were seemingly placed in this position. The Icelanders, I noticed, were amused–in their way.
I think not, as well, but in terms of historic avant-gardes, ‘chance’ (a la John Cage; the exquisite corpse of the surrelaists) seemed to be a more important principle of making than improvisation…but this is not how comics invent–timing, yes, but not ‘chance’ over improv.
I guess I would judge how good we were as kinds of comedians or producers of comedy by registering the level and quality of laughter that I heard,separate from fellowship and solidarity in a common endeavor. I have to say that I didn’t hear or see much laughter that comedy elicits. From whom? An audience, spectatorship, or public for what we were doing on site– which we did not have and for which each group serving as spectators of the performance of the other was not sufficient. What comes to mind is that very old Culture and Personality essay that Bateson wrote around the Naven ritual –where he said in American culture the children are exhibititionist, and the parents observers; in English culture the other way around–but the dynamic of Naven was precisely moieties playing the spectator/ exhibitionist roles for each other in a building process of ‘schismogenesis’. This begins to resonate with what I observed at Helenekilde!.
In retrospect, those three cds were the most important predistributed artifacts to think about. I personally would liked to have had them earlier in the game, or yes, I admit, I would have liked the sort of explanation of why we were viewing them that you disclosed in the essay, which you have just circulated. My impression is that far too little attention was paid to them by the others. They were mentioned but not much engaged with, when they were key clues to what you were up to (‘your theory of the design’, so to speak).
So, why comedy ? and in what sense, comedy? Morten Nielsen revealed how much he admired the agility and creativity of contemporary comics in the world of entertainment (e.g. Richard Pryor). So to move in the direction of the tropological history of Comedy (as Nick and I did) while it could have been interesting was probably a diverting move. You literally had the skill of comics in mind. But comics always anticipate, live or die by a public , a presumed audience, even when there is none, and they are playing only with one another. In this sense, a resource for what we were doing relationally among ourselves with the comic (like Pryor and others) in mind is the 2005 film The Aristocrats (which precisely parallels within the ‘inside’ world of comedians what we were trying to do creatively in the inside world of anthropologists).
But really, these are quibbles for certain discomforts, which were, after all, very much the point amid all that comfort, luxury, and true comraderie of those days. Indeed, it is as yet impossible (at least for me) to render any sort of coherent account of those days together –what they might mean– that possibility is potential, is in the future ,as what we made is subject to the seeing, experiencing, and discourses that arise in places where ‘art’ and ‘artifacts’ are curated. That is the point–the story of what we did can’t yet be told.
A comment on my own group …it got too textual too quickly and for too long. I was overwhelmed by the structuralist assimilation of stories, which in my case, did not do justice to the things I/we brought. Nick and I writing a dialogue (a pretty interesting one) in the context of what others were doing was like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flipping coins a la Tom Stoppard. We made that kind of space amid the industry of anthropologists being other than scholars.
Let’s see how things turn out….