I Swear I Saw This

I Swear I Saw This

On the 27th of October 2009, I went to see eminent anthropologist Michael Taussig give a talk at Tate Britain entitled I Swear I Saw This.

Taussig introduced the theme of his talk as a study of the status of drawings in fieldwork notebooks. He began by showing a slide of a page from an old fieldwork notebook of his own, then proceeded to read a loose, associative account of the act of making the drawing, the thoughts that he had at the time and the thoughts and associations it has provoked since.

A few things that stuck in mind from his talk and which I noted down later:

At one point Taussig showed some sketches by a visual artist (I forget who). “I like to think my sketches fall in the same category as these,” he said, with modest humour. He had been discussing the human ability to form a subjective trace out of experience which, further than the anthropological ‘document’ of the experience, actively generates new experience for all those who encounter it. An ongoing process of creative encounter that anthropologists may well envy!

This envy is worth examining. Just what is it, we might ask, than makes an anthropological document such uninspiring material for this kind of ongoing creative encounter? But then is it not the explicit aspiration of anthropology, even within the mode of participant observation, to produce documents of culture which are objective, unbiased and, in this sense, immune from the vagaries of an ongoing dialogue?

Later on in the talk Taussig told a story about an experience he had had as a younger anthropologist. It felt like one he had told many times. It’s best if I tell it as a story too:

That evening the tribe would perform the ritual celebration of the dead for which, in anthropological circles, they were renowned. The young Michael Taussig was excited to witness this ritual – and it would form an important part of his fieldwork on the tribe.

He had his body decorated in the traditional manner and took his place around the fire with the other tribesfolk.

As the ritual began he concentrated hard, not wanting to miss any details.

One by one the tribe stood and invoked the spirits of their dead ancestors. They did this through the power of dance, performing the movement of the deceased in order to summon them.

(At this point Taussig interrupted his telling to explain that theirs was a culture of dance. At other celebrations the tribe inhabit the movement of certain creatures or spirits – and over the course of a lifetime each member of the tribe may come to be associated with several different ‘movement characters’.)

As the young Taussig’s turn to dance approached, he became increasingly anxious. As a mere visitor the tribe, unschooled in their dance culture, and a committed non-mover who (still) dislikes dancing even at weddings, young Taussig was concerned he would not be able to match the extravagant physical displays of the other performers. A certain amount of personal pride was at stake, but also a sense of his responsibility as an anthropologist. He didn’t want to jeopardise the authenticity of his fieldwork by not performing his part right.

In thinking like this, the mature Taussig now told us, he was making the mistake of thinking of his task as one of ‘pretence’ – as though participating in the ritual was simply a case of doing a dance which wouldn’t look out of place. How idiotic! he had realised. Doesn’t the meaning of the ritual itself provide me with all of the instruction I need? In order to play his part right he saw that all he needed to do was let go of his concern with being an anthropological observer and actually believe in what he was doing – to dance his ancestor into being.

What is so useful about Taussig’s story as an analogy for my project here is that it makes the participant half of the dual role of the participant-observer explicit. We talk about going to see a piece of theatre and it is all too easy to forget that when we watch a piece of theatre we are participating in the live unfolding of event. We hold to a notional distinction between ‘performers’ and ‘audience’, who though they share the same space and breath the same air, watch each other across an inseparable divide.

Taussig also shows us the impossible dichotomy of the participant-observer. On the one hand participation: total and active engagement which will inevitably shape the unfolding event; on the other observation, which aspires to the objectivity of a disembodied eye, leaving things exactly as they are in order to provide unbiased account. Are these not mutually exclusive states of being? It almost seems that the more often we use terms like ‘participant observer’ the easier it is to forget that the insoluble antagonism of these two roles. Participant observation is an ideal we can but strive to achieve. Taussig’s anthropologist can take us to the place where he realises he must jump – but no further.


More on Tussig:
Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Taussig
Cabinet Magazine Interview: http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/18/strauss.php
Biography and Bibliography at The European Graduate School: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/michael-taussig/biography/
Page at Colombia University: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/anthropology/fac-bios/taussig/faculty.html


About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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