Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!

As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Braun Room at Harvard University’s School of Divinity.  It’s Saturday morning, the 24th of October.  Later this afternoon I will be presenting one of my post-thesis research projects in a paper titled, “An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse.”

Though I gave a very similar paper at the BASR annual conference last month, a few things have changed.

Firstly, I’ve shortened a bit, for the benefit of the audience.  As well, a more complete description of this project will appear next week.

Secondly, I’ve learned a few more things this week about stereotypes.

While I’ve written about stereotypes before, and though I accept that they play a very large role in ethnographic work, I was once again surprised at how my learning about a ‘foreign’ culture provided a number of challenges to the normative assumptions I had established about Harvard, Boston, and the people who occupy both.


Let’s begin with Boston.

Those of the more fictional-minded, such as myself, might have constructed some assumptions about this city via the numerous depictions over the years presented to us by artists such as Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, and his writing partner, Matt Damon.

In fact, let’s take these three perspectives as examples.

Scorsese’s film, The Departed, won four Academy Awards in 2007: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  In it’s opening weekend, the film earned over $25,000,000.  Worldwide, it earned roughly $290,000,000.  The plot of the film involves an insightful look into organised crime in South Boston.  Here’s a description from its IMDB page:

In South Boston, the state police force is waging war on Irish American organized crime. Young undercover cop Billy Costigan is assigned to infiltrate the mob syndicate run by gangland chief Frank Costello. While Billy quickly gains Costello’s confidence, Colin Sullivan, a hardened young criminal who has infiltrated the state police as an informer for the syndicate is rising to a position of power in the Special Investigation Unit. Each man becomes deeply consumed by their double lives, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of the operations they have penetrated. But when it becomes clear to both the mob and the police both discover a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin are suddenly in danger of being caught and exposed to the enemy-and each must race to uncover the identity of the other man in time to save themselves. But is either willing to turn on their friends and comrades they’ve made during their long stints undercover?

As well, here’s the trailer:

With The Town (2010), directed by Ben Affleck, we get yet another insight into the crime world, this time focused on Charlestown, which, as the film tells us at the beginning, is the centre of bank and armoured car robbery not just in the United States, but in the world:

One blue-collar Boston neighbourhood has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere in the world.

Here’s a description of the film, once again from its IMDB page:

The Charlestown neighborhood of Boston is renowned for churning out a high number of armed robbers, generation after generation. These robbers never leave their Charlestown life on their own volition, the neighborhood where there is an unwritten code to protect that lifestyle. Such robbers include friends Doug MacRay, James Coughlin, Albert ‘Gloansy’ Magloan and Desmond Elden. Doug and James in particular treat each other like family, as the Coughlins have realistically been as such to Doug since Doug’s mother ran off and Doug’s father, Stephen MacRay, was sent to prison. James’ single mother sister, the drugged out Krista Coughlin, and Doug have a casual sexual relationship. The foursome carry out a mostly successful bank robbery, but due to circumstances take the bank manager, Claire Keesey, hostage for a short period before releasing her physically unharmed. They find out that Claire lives in Charlestown, so they want to ensure that she did not see anything that could incriminate them if they were to ever run into her. As such, Doug begins a personal relationship with her to find out what she knows and what she’s told the police and the FBI, who have taken charge of the investigation. He learns that she has kept some information from the authorities for her own protection but information that could identify James in particular. But Doug slowly falls for her, as she does for him. Ultimately, Doug dreams about leaving his Charlestown life to be with Claire anywhere but there. But Doug has to try and keep his true identity from her, and keep the fact that he is seeing her from his colleagues. But leaving is not as easy as he would like as he and the gang are tasked with a big job by a local gangster named Fergie whether Doug likes it or not. And Adam Frawley, the FBI’s lead investigator, comes into evidence that links the foursome to the bank robbery and a subsequent armored car heist, so is on their tail for evidence that will send them away dead or alive.   

Here’s the trailer:

Lastly, Good Will Hunting, which won two Academy Awards in 1998 for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), presents a dichotomous look at the differences between the distinct world of higher education and the working class.  With this representation, not only do we get an insight into these differences, we also discover how an individual raised in one context struggles to accommodate his identity when he is placed within the other.

Here’s a description:

A janitor at MIT, Will Hunting has a gift for math and chemistry that can take him light-years beyond his blue-collar roots, but he doesn’t realize his potential and can’t even imagine leaving his childhood Boston South End neighborhood, his construction job, or his best friend. To complicate matters, several strangers enter the equation: a brilliant math professor who discovers, even envies, Will’s gifts, an empathetic shrink who identifies with Will’s blue-collar roots, and a beautiful, gifted pre-med student who shows him, for the first time in his life, the possibility of love.

Here’s the trailer:


So how do these three films play into my assumptions about Boston?

As I argued in a previous post, fictional representations, particularly in film form, can be useful data, as long as we use that data in a responsible way.  That is, we need to accept that as ‘fiction,’ these representations are the product of artifice, which also means they were designed with a specific goal in mind.  Given the three examples above, we might thus assume that the goal intended was to provide the viewer a glimpse into the class differences within Boston, that tend to shift toward organised crime.  

While this might be a valid conclusion for anyone who views these films, it’s not necessarily the case for those who actually walk the streets of the neighbourhoods represented.  Which is what has happened so far in my case.

During my week here, I’ve witnessed no crime, nor have I found myself within the context of any of these films.  However, I might also responsibly accept that my experiences have been isolated to the specific time I’ve been here, as well as to the locations within which I’ve chosen to spend that time.  Additionally, I might equally add that the reason I’ve not not witnessed the sort of events depicted in these films is because I’ve not actively looked for them.

My conclusion, then, is perhaps best made via the following thesis:

Our depictions of culture, either fictional or ethnographic, are isolated representations that, though we may emphatically defend as authentic, are unique to our own perceptions, and thus can never truly be so.  That is, even when we try to ensure that our representations honour our subjects with as much authenticity as possible, we can never truly grasp the reality of a place and its people because, no matter how hard we try, our representations are, by their inherent nature, the products of artifice.

We should keep this in mind.

After all, I came to Boston expecting The Departed, The Town, Good Will HuntingThe Boondock Saints, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River.  What I got was something entirely different: my own perspective.

It’s sort of like how before I came to Edinburgh, I expected Trainspotting, only to have found my assumptions both pleasantly challenged, as well as validated.

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A Day in the (Fictional) Life

The following is the ethnographic translation of the below field notes that you asked for, taken during one of my days of observation here in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.  It is presented here as requested, incomplete, but I do hope that you find the details as riveting and nuanced as I do.  I also sincerely hope that my conclusions will be enough to justify further monetary support.

rule 1rule 2 rule 3


08:02 AM

I was applauded this morning whilst crossing the street by a group of women dressed in ornate pink and red costumes.  One was wearing a tiara, and I presumed she was the leader and/or of some lesser-ranked royal class.  I was embarrassed to have been a part of their group, and slightly disappointed that I might have too closely become a participant.  When I reached the opposite side of the street, I moved past the women and hid myself behind a tree so as to better view their actions without too destructively intervening.  As I did this, the lower ranked of the two smiled at me with what I can only presume was either a gesture of greeting, or dominance.

The two women were then greeted themeselves by an individual dressed in a dark green coat, long in the sleeves, and that reached down below her knees.  I thought this choice of garment was odd as it was neither raining, nor cloudy.  I have periodically found myself considering the oddity that is the dress habits of these natives, as they tend to adorn themselves in often drab woollen accoutrements based on an assumption (either via lived experience or prophetic divination) about what type of weather might actually occur, rather than for what is actually occurring.

The green woman handed the leader of the pink and red women a paper cup filled with a yellow-tinted libation.

This exchange, as well as the ceremony that followed, is worth noting in detail:

The crowned woman drank first.  She sipped lightly at the libation, then handed the cup to her subordinate, who equally sipped lightly.  They both seemed to have found the contents pleasing as they happily thanked the green woman.  Then, they each drank again in turn.  The crowned woman made an intriguing gesture, tipping the cup toward the green woman, who nodded her head forward in response.  The red and pink women then continued walking, sharing the cup back and forth until it was empty.  I followed, cautiously.  At this point, the subordinate woman crushed the cup in her left (dominant, it seemed) hand and dropped it against the wall of a merchant shop that specialised in a local delicacy the natives affectionately refer to as ‘chippy.’  (It is an acquired taste).  The two women then began to move quicker, laughing to one another.  When I examined the cup I noted the contents to be sweet and slightly chemical, like alcohol.  I tried in earnest not to disturb the cup, as I did not wish to interrupt, and thus become a part of, the ritual.  

Given the age of the two women, the colour of their garments, and their body shapes, I believe an educated hypothesis about this ritual might conclude that this was a type of fertility act.  In fact, from previous observations, I am confident in the assumption that these women were performing a liminal transformation, akin to a removal of oneself into the wilderness, only to return an acknowledged member of the tribe.  As I myself returned to my original position this hypothesis became even more valid as a large group of similarly dressed red and pink women appeared on the opposite end of the street.  I noted in my journal that the green woman excitedly began preparing more libations from a glass bottle with the label scratched off and a box of what looked to be some kind of juice.  As there is indeed much more that I could describe of the interactions and dialogues that occurred once this group of women crossed the street, I will leave here further confident in my impression that I inadvertently discovered a festival devoted entirely to a fertility act.

More on this to follow.


13:45

A few notes on the customs that I have witnessed in my time here.  I have broken these into ‘rules,’ because, as you know, it feels easier for me to delineate the imponderabilia of these people in particular categories.

Rule 1: There is always a hill.

Edinburgh is a city of hills.  There is always a hill.  Even when one climbs to the apex of one of the ritually sacred hills (I have counted at least four thus far), there still seems to be a hill to further climb.  I have noted that a number of the visitors who come here to explore the mysterious culture of the Scotspeople take to wearing clothing suitable to such a geographical landscape.  I have counted an immeasurable amount of hiking boots and trousers and jackets to match.  They seem to have all invested in large brim, thin, flopping hats.  I even once saw a man using two walking canes.  Such is the terrain of this environment.

The locals, of course, seem not dissuaded by the hills here.  Even to the point of stubbornness.  I have taken to using many of the transport options available to the native and visitor alike to make my way through the city, but the natives insist on walking.

Interesting point to support this: in the last few years, the tribal elders gathered and financed the construction and instalment of a tram system.  The natives have not taken to using it, to the point of insistence, and even protest at times.  Perhaps this is due, as I have decided, to the fact that it only leads in a single direction, and thus seems rather pointless.  Either way, their familiarity with the hills of this city seems ingrained within their genes.  It is indeed an intriguing aspect to their cultural identity.

Rule 2: Someone is always behind you.

I walk quite often here, making useful observations of the natives and their interactions with each other and the visitors alike.  However, I have found myself, repeatedly, and without fail, being followed.  This does not, of course, mean that I am actually being followed, but that there is always someone walking behind me.

I’ve found this to be such a frequent occurrence that I have named it the ‘Edinburgh phenomenon.’  I will look more into this through the remainder of my research here.

Rule 3: The heaters are always on.

It is no secret that the weather here can be a bit rain-soaked and blustery.  The natives have a number of terms for these weather patterns, ‘dreach’ and ‘haar’ being the most often ones that I have heard thus far.  The latter is a name given to a low and choking fog that rolls in and blankets everything in sight.  The former is difficult to translate.  One of my informants tried to roughly define it as: “the weather is terrible and cold and it is raining, I think I’ll have a lie in today.”

Given this type of weather, the natives tend to always have their heaters on.  They likewise will usually be adorned in woollen garments.  This makes it difficult for an outsider such as myself to acclimate to the sweating.  Even on days when the sun is out and it is warm, without fail, the heaters will be on.  While I have tried to guard myself from too subjectively being influenced by this, it has proven to be the hardest part of my observations.

I am always sweating.


22:00

This evening I took a bus to one of the city’s secular sanctuaries.  It is called ‘Usher Hall,’ but I believe the natives pronounce it ‘Oosher Heel.’  I’m not entirely certain, and will look into this more.

On the bus I noticed two oddities.

  1. An elderly woman was obsessively engaged in picking out the blue embroidery from a white towel.  She was using a pair of scissors and cutting it loose, then depositing the blue thread on the floor of the bus.  On closer inspection, I believe it was a hotel towel.
  2. An elderly man came onto the bus, muttering to himself in a native dialect that is difficult to make out, even with my extensive language study.  I’ve been told it’s what is called ‘Leither,’ but have yet to source from where this originates.  He remained standing during the entire bus ride, busying himself by the buses entrance.  I moved seats to better observe him and found that he was removing the discarded bus tickets from out of a red plastic bucket, flattening them in his hands, and then eating them one by one.

At Oosher Heel I sat amongst a few of my informants who had invited me to hear a reading from a fellow American, a humorist named David Sedaris.  They were quite fond of him, and I took this as a compliment based on their views of my own culture.  Overall I felt this experience definitely bonded me with them, and I look forward to the cultural observations I will achieve via this friendship.

During the reading a remarkable realisation came to me that I will transcribe in full:

At one point David Sedaris was telling a story about how he likes to pick up trash in the village in which he lives in England (apparently he is conducting his own research).  His deeds were so welcomed by the natives in his area that he was invited to the Queen’s Palace for lunch.  While the story he told was quite humorous, and while I do not intend to bastardise it here, what stood out to me was the reaction of a number of the natives in the audience.  When Sedaris said ‘the Queen,’ people booed in a critical tone.  I had been warned that these natives were no fans of the Queen of England, but I was not expecting them to be so vocal about it.  It then occurred to me that they were doing more than just booing, they were being supportive of their own queen, whom I had likely observed earlier this morning, the one in the tiara.  This realisation has altered my perception of this morning’s fertility ritual.  I will thusly be re-focusing my research on locating this queen, and will alert you further on my successes. 


Best from the field,

–E.G. Quillen

PS: please ensure the grant proposal goes through, I am indeed sure that I have stumbled upon an essential aspect of this culture and fully intend to further explicate its meaning.

We’re All Novelists.

Last week I was sitting in the bar at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, enjoying a glass of wine, when my drinking companion pointed out that she suddenly felt special.  On every table in the bar was a small glass vase, inside of which was a yellow gerber daisy.  The vase on our table had two.

It was a relatively warm day, and since spring tends to come later than usual in Edinburgh, these little flowers were a nice touch.

The bar itself was fairly crowded for a weekday afternoon.  The King and I, starring Yul Brenner, was playing on the television.  The sound was turned off.

I commented to my companion that on certain occasions, like this one, I like to imagine the world (everything) as part of some great novel.  In moments like these it almost feels like you can see the crossover between fact and fiction, as if the world suddenly seems to have been quite specifically designed, ‘put together’ for metaphorical effect.  On the table behind us, against the wall, two men were engaged in a heated conversation.  It wasn’t an argument taking place between them, but rather one they were sharing about something else.  They were both sitting forward, arms resting on knees, their language peppered with indignant terminology.  “It’s not fair,” said one.  “It’s criminal,” said the other.

Their conversation carried on like this for a while, until their raised voices began to melt into the background.  However, something interesting about them stood out to me, something that prompted my seeing our surroundings through the novelist’s eye.  Everything about the scene within which they were acting appeared to compliment their shared mood.  Their body language was rigid and combative, the language in their discourse was atonally violent.  They seemed to be heating the room, and I got the sense when looking at them as if they were somehow marginalised to the back corner, isolated in their misery by their own choosing.  They looked like characters, constructed for a purpose, like representatives of discomfort or despair or hardship.  They were almost cliche, like action figures of a novelist’s tableau.

On their table, the yellow gerber daisy was wilted and dead.


This week I submitted my doctoral Thesis.

Roughly 90,000 words of four year’s research.  After I submitted the copies necessary to the School of Divinity, I passed around my own copy at the bar.  At dinner that night, it sat on the table at a spare place setting, like an empty plate waiting to be bussed away.  This felt like another one of those occasions where my life felt like a novel, and it reminded me about how I found myself writing about fiction.

At some point in the early stages of my PhD I suddenly decided I wanted to do something with fiction.  As I had come to Edinburgh to study Atheism, combining these two interests seemed like a fun idea, that made no real sense.  It took a few years to figure it out.

Originally, I had come to do an ethnographic study of the Humanist Society of Scotland, but soon my interest in this subject waned as I began to plot out how I might turn that into a Thesis.  As well, because Atheism is such a new topic of interest in the world of academia, I found that there wasn’t much of a foundational base in the ‘anthropology of Atheism’ on which to build my own.  Defining the term was bad enough, but defining how we might study individuals who use ‘Atheist terminology’ in a broad and abstract manner is even worse.  So, instead of following what some might consider the ‘academic route,’ I turned toward fiction.

On so many occasions over the years I’ve found myself either taking or tutoring courses that use a novel as a source for the subject being taught.  I once took an American history class where every text was a novel.  We read Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to discuss the political and civic alterations taking place at the turn of the century; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to discuss the Great Depression; Yate’s Revolutionary Road to discuss the lost sense of identity discovered by many during the mid to late 1950s; and O’Brien’s The Things they Carried to discuss the harsh realities of the war in Vietnam.  Here in Edinburgh, we’ve had some great success with our course on Religious and Ethical Debates in Contemporary Fiction, which I have written about a bit already.

Not only did I want to use fiction in this same way, I wanted to elucidate a deeper meaning about why we might use the novel in this capacity, as well as how that might be accomplished.

I took as my focus the use of a novel (two, actually) as an ethnographic text.  This required a number of establishing details, which I separated into three ‘pillars:’ a discussion on how ethnographic texts are constructed, and the literary focus adopted into that methodology in the 1980s via the sorts of theoretical arguments started by Clifford and writing cultureMarcus’ Writing Culture; a discussion about how novels are critiqued within the context of specialised fields in Literary Theory; and the manner with which we approach concepts, especially when they are attached to religious identity construction, within the context of an anthropological analysis.  By marrying the first two into a methodological approach, that is then theoretically supported by the third pillar’s focus on the concept ‘Atheism,’ I created a means with which we might read a novel ‘ethnographically.’  I called this ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’  I’ll likely write much more about this, and how it is done, in future posts.

While my use of Ethnographic Criticism seemed rather successful in regard to using fiction as an ‘ethnographic source’ of British Atheist identity (though any certainty about that must wait until after the Viva), there arose in the process a rather precarious defect.  This has to deal with the role of the author in the construction of an ethnographic text, and how our acknowledging that role shapes the way in which we read his or her ethnography.

For example, if an ethnography is written in an omniscient voice, adopting the strict objectivity we find in classic texts like Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the culture argonautswe read there is presented in a manner quite different from an ethnography written from a reflexive first-person perspective, such as we find in the ‘ethnographic novels’ of Michael Jackson, Timothy Knab, and Richard and Sally Price.  In the latter this is greatly determined by what Geertz (Works and Lives, 1988, 8-9) refers to as the ‘signature of the author,’ or ‘author-function,’ which he borrows from Foucault.  Recognising the enigma variationsauthor’s role in writing the text, and thus in also recognising that the text has been ‘authored,’ means that our perception of the culture within the text is dictated by our acknowledgement that it is an artifice, designed and structured by an intermediary.  Thus, when it comes to reading a novel ‘as ethnography,’ our perception of the culture being represented is equally dictated by our acknowledging the author’s role in writing the text in the first place.  Where we might simply look at how the author (let’s say Ian McEwan) designed his novel (let’s say Enduring Love) with an intention based enduring loveon his own discourse, context, and opinions, this is much less simplistic when we consider the ‘author’s signature’ in a novel written from a first-person perspective (such as in Enduring Love).

In other words, where reading a novel as ethnography would require our acceptance and comprehension of McEwan’s role in shaping it from his imagination, when written from a first-person perspective, that novel ceases being written by McEwan at all.  That is, it becomes something more akin to the first-person ethnographic novels cited above.  In this way, it is no longer a novel.  It becomes an ‘auto-ethnography,’ a text written by an individual within the context being depicted, who is writing about his or her own culture.  Thus, McEwan ceases to exist.  The text we are reading is now a text written by an individual who might now be perceived as ‘actually’ existing.  Which also means that the novel equally transmutes out of the realm of ‘fiction.’  This has repercussions on a number of levels.

If the novel ceases being a novel, then Ethnographic Criticism isn’t actually reading a novel ‘ethnographically.’  Likewise, if McEwan ceases being the novelist who created the text, then the lead character narrating his or her story is now suddenly ‘real.’  Brought together, these two issues determine even larger ones concerning how we perceive texts (like ethnographies) as representing fiction, non-fiction, or something somewhere in between.  In this way, we might actually start to believe, because a ‘text’ in each and every instance is something both made-from (designed via research and data) and made-up (invented from one’s imagination), that everything is fiction.

This is, in essence, part of the focus of my Thesis.  Again, I’ll discuss more of this later.


Next week two friends of ours will be defending their Theses.

Some time ago, one of them shared this Tumblr page with me, with this particular post:

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 18.59.55http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/post/85825733964/when-you-write-a-secret-novel-while-youre

I love the idea of a ‘secret novel,’ as if writing fiction is something we’re just not meant to do.  We’re academics.  We write facts, not fiction.  Our work is empirical and objective.  It isn’t just ‘made-up.’

I find myself disagreeing with this now.  Four years of reading and writing and thinking about the thin pragmatic line we maintain between fiction and non-fiction has brought me to a somewhat vague conclusion.  Everything, I’d argue, is fiction.  This doesn’t mean that everything is the product of imagination, solely made-up and invented with no connection to what is ‘real,’ but it also doesn’t mean that imagination is entirely left out of it.  When we sit down to write a wholly objective text, we are still imagining how it will take shape.  It’s still designed.  It is still an artifice, no matter how empirical we are about its creation.

A thesis is no different.

A thesis is, just as much as McEwan’s Enduring Love, a novel.  We’re all novelists, merely by the fact that we are writers.  Our novels are a particular genre.  So, the idea of a secret novel is not that secretive at all.

Here’s an example.  A good friend of mine (Jonathan Tuckett) just successfully defended his thesis and passed his viva.  His focus was on phenomenology, and the text he produced was very ‘academic.’  Yet, it was designed to tell a particular story.  On one level it told the story of his research, defending his argument, a narrative driven by a plot that came to a particular conclusion.  On another, it told the story of his research, of his efforts in proving his knowledge and expertise on the subject.

Whilst he was writing this novel, farholthe was writing another (and likely others, he’s quite the wordsmith).  That second novel was published recently.  It is the first of a saga, titled: The Mystery of Farholt.  You can read more about this, and his other ‘fictions’ here: https://johnstonewilson.wordpress.com

I use him as an example because his writing works well for my argument.  Both of the texts produced by Jonathan are novels, designed and created by an individual employing the art of writing to tell a particular story.

As well, the fact that each represent a plotted narrative designed for a particular purpose furthers my argument that everything is fiction.  How we determine the meaning of that term in relation to the ‘fiction’ of Jonathan’s thesis and The Mystery of Farholt, is merely a difference of genre distinction.  Therefore, I will conclude here by once again arguing that, because we are writers, and because what we are writing is fictitious in its being written, we are all novelists.  There’s nothing really secretive about that.  In fact, when you look around, there’s usually good evidence for the idea that not only is everything fiction, but that we are all of us living within novels of our own devising.

Based on ‘Real Life’

In mid July of this year, we, as a collective human society, will have one more book to read by the novelist Harper Lee.  Written before her famous To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchmen is a ‘sequel’ to the former, set twenty years later.  While the publication of this book has brought with it a renewed interest in her writing, it has also inspired a bit of scepticism about the legality, even morality, in publishing it (considered problematic given Lee’s presumed health issues).  Within the former category, a recent article in the New York Times caught my attention, particularly in how the author, Laura Tavares, makes use of To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that elevates it above the restrictions of mere aesthetic media.


As a contribution to the New York Times’ “The Learning Network Blog,” under the category of ‘Text to Text,’ a cross-textual discussion that links similar textual entities via shared interests, Tavare’s article associates Chapter 15 in Lee’s novel with an article on the recent Equal Justice Initiative’s report on Lynching in America: “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names.”

Her intention, as described at the beginning, is to elucidate for instructors (who might be reading the article for the sake of using it in their classrooms) how such a novel might ‘speak’ to ‘real life:’

To encourage students to make these important connections, we’ve chosen to pair an excerpt from Chapter 15 of the novel with The Times’s article on the Equal Justice Initiative report, “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names,” with the goal of helping students more deeply understand “Mockingbird,” the world of the novel, and our own world.


Here’s a ready example.  In his “The Author as Anthropologist: Some West Indian Lessons about the Relevance of Fiction for Anthropology,” in Eduardo P. Archetti’s Exploring the Written: Anthropology and the Multiplicity of Writing, Thomas Hylland Eriksen distinguishes between two ways in which the novel might function ‘as an ethnography:’

First, novels may serve as ethnographic sources and may to this effect rank with informant’s statements. At this level, the author—whether he is a Mittelholzer or a Naipaul—more or less unwittingly reveals aspects of his society. As Bakhtin and many others have reminded us, the author is a prisoner of his own time. The author, known through the novel, is here seen as an aspect of the production of society. 

[…]

Second, novels may be read as ethnographic descriptions; that is, the formation conveyed may be taken more or less at its face value, as a kind of ethnographic documentation. (191)

In this way, he continues, the novel and the ethnography are ‘relevant’ to each other, but they are not the same thing.  To further delineate his meaning here, he states:

[Novels] cannot be used as plain ethnography since they do not profess to represent the truth and because their relationship to social reality is ultimately uncertain. Besides, if they are to be exploited as ethnographic sources (and not as evidence), the reader must be familiar with the society at the outset of the reading. They cannot, therefore, replace the ethnographic footwork either. It therefore seems a paradox that some of the best anthropological writings extant on Trinidad are works of fiction (cf. Melhuus, infra, for a Mexican parallel). In order to asses their validity, a reader must have first-hand experience of the society. (190)

However, and though his distinction here between the ‘source’ and the ‘description’ is a useful one in determining the differences between the way fiction might ‘function’ in a way exclusive of its existence as an aesthetic piece of entertainment, I would argue that he is incorrect in his strict separation between the ethnography and the novel.  This is especially the case with his opening remarks about the ‘simple distinction’ between the two forms of writing:

Fictional accounts, then, present persons and events which have been invented by the writer. Anthropological texts try to present a few aspects of social reality as accurately as possible, taking account of the limitations entailed by fieldwork, ‘cultural translation’ (or, if one prefers, cultural reduction) and attempts at linguistic representations of society.  Lies and deliberate misrepresentations are banished from anthropological scholarship, which should additionally—unlike fictional writing—try to present empirical material systematically and comprehensively and distinguish between description and analysis so that the reader may draw his or her own theoretical conclusions. (168-169)

I would further argue that he is quite mistaken here, particularly concerning the difference between ‘fictional’ and ‘anthropological’ accounts.  Both are artifice, meaning both are designed and dictated by choice.  Likewise, both are the result of a textual process, a ‘storytelling’ wherein the author has tried to re-create a discourse in a way that represents his or her subject in a manner ‘true’ to his or her interpretation.  In fact, I would agree in many ways with Clifford (1986) that ethnography is, in fact, a type of ‘fiction:’

To call ethnographies fictions may raise empiricist hackles. But the word as commonly used in recent textual theory has lost its connotation of falsehood, of something merely opposed to truth. It suggests the partiality of cultural and historical truths, the ways they are systematic and exclusive. Ethnographic writings can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned,’ the principal burden of the word’s Latin root, fingere. But it is important to preserve the meaning not merely of making, but also of making up, of inventing things not actually real [emphasis in original]. (Clifford, “Introduction,” Writing Culture, 1986, 6)

Beyond mere etymological determination, I think Clifford is correct here mainly because I think any and all textual representations are ‘fictional’ by their inherent ‘artificial nature.’  Eriksen can argue all he wants that fiction represents ‘lies’ or ‘deliberate misrepresentations,’ but I would again contend that this is equally a problem for the ethnographer for no other reason than the fact that he or she is, as Malinowski stated, ‘creating’ or ‘describing’ his or her subjects.  As intermediaries between subject and reader, the ethnographer is just as much an author of ‘fiction’ as the novelist inventing his or her own subjects.


Which brings me back to Tavares and Eriksen.  In my opinion, the former’s use of Lee’s novel and the latter’s differentiation between the novel as a source or description of ethnographic ‘truth’ share the same DNA.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to state that they are both siblings of the parentage between Ethnography (texts designed to present a cultural or historical representation of a certain people, time, and place) and the novel (a text designed to present a fictional creation of an author intent on representing a particular individual or individuals in the certain time and place).

However, this also brings forth an issue that I believe is perfectly exemplified by the image I used for this weeks ‘feature image:’

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 18.19.10

While I am quite willing to blatantly claim that all textual representations are fiction by means of their ‘artifice-ness,’ this of course brings us into a discourse where, like the notion of ‘everything is fiction,’ we get somewhat distracted by what might be ‘based on real life’ and what might be a story assumed by some as the same.  This is not equal, however, to a declaration that the story of Noah, which might be defined as both, either, or neither a myth and truth, is definitively one of these things.  Rather, my point of having it here, and the point of this post in general, is a reminder that when we declare ‘everything’ as fiction because of the role that artifice plays in the creation and presentation of interpreted ‘things,’ a movie about Noah and a movie about William Wallace are equally ‘based on real life.’  In other words, the distinction between what is ‘fact’ (quantitative data about lynchings in the US) and what is ‘fictional’ (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) might blur into a perception where they become equal representations of some type of ‘truth.’

I, for one, am ok with this.

A Feeling of Ownership

Though perhaps not as many as others I know, I have presented at a good number of conferences.  One thing that I have learned throughout the process is the utility in using these experiences to better shape my research narrative.

Like a story in itself, the thing that we research often becomes something told and retold on so many occasions that it transforms into a part of our personal discourse.  That is, our research topic transmutes into something that describes us, and vice versa.  It becomes a part of our identity.  This is, partly, why my twitter handle is twitter.com/AtheismGuy.  Moreover, at the early stage, when we are focused so myopically on the PhD Thesis, this is ever more prevalent as we begin to try and describe (and in the process come to realise) what it is that we are actually researching in the first place.  This is perhaps best reflected by a friendly exchange that recently took place between myself and two other individuals who are studying Atheism/Non-Religion.

The three of us met at a cafe in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of shaping together a roundtable discussion for our Atheism in Debate course here at New College, which we each tutor on.  I wrote briefly about the course in a  previous post.  The locus of the idea came from Liam Fraser, who’s research on Atheism and Fundamentalism argues “that these apparently irreconcilable movements share a common intellectual structure, and derive from a common theological and philosophical source.”  Very interesting stuff.  The other in our group was Christopher Cotter, who I’ve mentioned previously, and who’s research at Lancaster University on the discourses that underly the social constructions of notions about Non-Religion and the ‘secular’ is definitely worth a read.

While Chris and I have known each other for a few years now, this was our first introduction to Liam, so our conversation, as so often happens when three individuals who study similar things meet for the first time, was focused as well on what Liam so aptly called our ‘elevator pitch.’  I’ve heard this phrased a number of different ways, perhaps the most popular of which is the ‘three-minute thesis,’ which is also the name of a world-wide competition that began in Australia.  In essence, the ‘three-minute thesis’ is as the title suggests, or as the website states: the reduction of an 80,000 word thesis into a three minute presentation.  It isn’t really that easy, despite the ease with which some are able to do it.  See, for example, this last year’s winner Megan Rossi:

   

Regrettably, I have never really tried to reduce my thesis in this manner.  So when Liam asked for my ‘elevator pitch’ he, perhaps begrudgingly, received a fairly long and detailed account of how I intend to change the academic world with my substantial and original ideas.  As I was detailing all of this to him (and Chris, who got to hear it all over again) I began to consider how this pitch not only describes what it is that I’ve done these last four years, but me as well.

This thought returned recently as I sat down to write up another conference presentation, which I will expand on a bit more later this month.  In the process, I came to realise that there exists an odd feeling of ownership to these subjects, a bizarre association with ‘Atheism’ and my name, or the way I feel as if I have some sort of hold on the notion of Atheism and fiction and Ian McEwan’s novels, the latter of which always seems to surface when I meet someone who’s read one of his books and we carry on in a special conversation only we understand.  It’s like having an exclusionary knowledge about a subject, being ‘in the know,’ or privileged in some odd way.

Whenever I find myself thinking this way I am reminded of a line Malinowski noted in his diary during his observations in New Guinea for Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa].  I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts.  Photos.  Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.[1]

Though he never, as far as we might assume, intended to publish these personal thoughts, and though their publication made way for the Writing Culture debate that would follow in the next two to three decades, I would argue that Malinowski’s own feeling of ownership is not all that surprising.  In fact, because he saw himself as the translator of Trobriand culture for the Western World, his sense that he ‘owned’ it is as equally reflective of his idea that this would be his subject.  He would introduce it to the world.  He would translate their ‘imponderabilia,’ the nuanced and specific day-to-day that only one who has lived amongst his subject might be able to understand.  He would create them.

Beyond the conversation we might have about how an observer’s textual representation (or even interpretation) might in any way equal anything akin to ‘creating a culture’ (which will come up eventually, I assure you), this might better explain what i mean by a ‘feeling of ownership.’  When we undertake these sorts of research projects, we not only immerse ourselves fully into the subject, the subject begins to infect us as well.  There becomes a blurring of sorts, a consolidation of subject and object.  This might explain why, on occasion, and especially depending on the subject of one’s research, we often get confused with what we do.  This appears infrequently in religious studies.  On a number of occasions I have been asked by friends and family if my intention is to become a ‘minister,’ or if I ‘actually believe’ what it is I study.  Likewise, this might explain the jealousy we feel when we discover someone who studies what we study, but with (horrifically) a different perspective.

While this sort of thinking resurfaces from time to time, it is not something that I would argue is entirely an inaccurate assumption.  We are our subjects, because our subjects shape our research narrative.  They play an integral role in not only shaping the story we intend to tell, but the story of that story as well.  In this way, when we reduce our research into an ‘elevator pitch’ in order to easily describe it, we are likewise finding a way to describe ourselves.  Of course, and again, I do not have an elevator pitch.  Rather, I have a blog.  This is my elevator pitch.  However, the elevator is very slow, and this building has a whole lot of stories.

So, as I once again cobble together a presentation on Atheism, Atheist Narrative, Fiction as Ethnography, Atheism in McEwan’s Fiction, and Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism, I am once again reminded that, for no other reason than the obsession it takes to fully baptise oneself in a subject, when I give this presentation I will be the one who owns it.  I will be the one to describe and create it.  Of course, that does not mean that it is entirely mine.  This is just a story I tell myself, a feeling of ownership I pretend exists, to keep me from feeling like what I have to say means something beyond the boundaries of my own thoughts.

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Norbert Guterman, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 140.