«1 Introduction Ivo Strecker & Markus Verne Wonder and astonishment lie at the heart of scholarship, as René Descartes noted in The Passions of the ...»
The “evocative genre of Sara Sikka ritual speech” involves complex forms of poiesis (pairing of word phrases, use of synonymy, antonymy, complementary opposition etc.) that Lewis found he could render reasonably well, but then he adds, “for the ethnographer, it is frequently the case that no amount of conversation with or interrogation of a speaker of ritual language can reliably elicit the meaning of a speech or its words. Meaning in ritual speech is always elusive; it is as if the meaning of the words is their articulation.” Lewis illustrates this with several examples of Sikka ritual practice and mythic narration, demonstrating empirically how difficult it can be to address the “meaningfulness of intransigent words.” The chapter closes with reflections on Credo ut intelligam—I believe so that I may know. Tyler once inscribed these words for Lewis in his copy of The Said and the Unsaid.
They are from St. Anselmus’s Proslogium and part of a longer sentence: “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand.” Lewis explains at length how fruitfully this chiasmus evokes thoughts about the complementary relationship between faith and reason, and implies that the chiasmus also asserts itself in the work of translation. In the end we are made to understand that the inscription is typical for Tyler’s teaching, which is based on the art of evocation, or—perhaps better—subtle modes of provocation.
Chapter XI, Ethnographic evocations and evocative ethnographies by Barbara Tedlock continues the chiastic mood with which the preceding chapter ends, but while Lewis ponders about the complementarity of faith and reason, Tedlock wonders about the relationship between world and text. The evocative elements of both the physical and social world—including the cultural Other—astound us, captivate our attention, and make us want to share our experience with others in speech, in writing and additional forms of communication. This is the first part of the chiasmus, “ethnographic evocations.” The second part follows in response to the first and asks how “evocative ethnographies” can be created that do not mute and destroy but give voice and life to the world as we, and others have experienced it. At the centre of the chiasmus lies a mental and emotional space in which the topic of discourse is negotiated: “the third space between self and other, interior and exterior, fact and fiction, thought and emotion, truth and illusion.” The author’s personal roots of this ontological concern comes out most clearly at the end of the essay where she recalls how as a child she spent time with her Ojibwe grandmother who explained to her that rocks are alive, “since she herself had seen rocks move and heard them speak. In time, she said, I also might hear and speak with rocks.” Western, scientific taxonomies would insist that there are categorical differences between rocks and plants, but grandmother Nokomis admonished her daughter, “not to choose one path over the other but instead to walk in balance along the edges of these worlds.” To find the right balance is all the more important, as it is part of a quest for global social and cultural justice. Backing up her first chiasmus with a second one, Tedlock argues, that under the imperial regime of natural science, anthropology has produced a hiatus between “reportable non-participatory observation and non-reportable total participation.” This is manifest in the history of ethnography, which has always discredited textual strategies that aimed at evocation and indirect communication of own and other people’s experience.
Looking back on this alienated and alienating past, we realize that, “When we agreed to such a split, we cultivated rapport not friendship, compassion not sympathy, respect not belief, understanding not solidarity, and admiration not love.” This is the critical perspective from which Tedlock has written her essay and from where it should be read. But she also offers a positive perspective, which she has derived from Stephen Tyler who has suggested that we use ethnography as “a meditative vehicle because we come to it neither as to a map of knowledge nor as a guide to action, nor even for entertainment. We come to it as the start of a different kind of journey.” Asking what such different anthropological journeys might entail, Tedlock introduces us to several “evocative ethnographies” as well as the life circumstances of their authors.
But before she comes to this, she plays out yet another chiasmus: “People today do not live in different worlds but live differently in the world.” This involves an often freefloating cultural identity of people, “cut loose from their moorings and meanings clash, creating dissociation, ending in a feeling of profound weirdness.” How does one respond to such changes ethnographically? Certainly not in plain style, for now is the time of an ethnography, “which features the author as the active part of the story,” and aims at “cultural co-participation, solidarity, and friendship.” Tedlock distinguishes several kinds of “evocative ethnographies.” (1) Ethnographic fiction as exemplified by the work of Adolf Bandelier, Paul Hazoumé, Oliver LaFarge, José María Arguedas and Zora Neale Hurston, which may lead readers “to find themselves in solidarity with forgotten, maligned, or misunderstood peoples”; (2) multigenre texts (Hurston); (3) autoethnography (Hurston); (4) literary creole, a style that incorporates vernacular expressions into a dominant, national language (Arguedas). The essay culminates in an appraisal of Amitav Ghosh, whose “evocative documentary work seeks to balance clarity (enargeia) with excitement leading to astonishment (ekplêxis). His powerfully evocative writing engenders experiences in which things absent are presented to the reader’s imagination with such vividness that they seem to stand right before their eyes.” Chapter XII, Reading public culture: Reason and excess in the newspaper, by Robert Hariman brings the book to a close by showing once again how astonishment and evocation are prone to arise when we are confronted with unexpected forms of collocation. As we have seen in preceding chapters, the media in which this happens may be visual, performative, or textual, and the collocations may be intentional or unintentional. The newspaper offers an amazing mix of texts where the banal and the sublime, the mad and the sane are placed side by side offering countless opportunities for cross-references, semantic associations, resonance and dissonance.
But how can he make sense of this “cacophony of discourses,” asks Hariman, of this “crazy-quilt compendium of violence, waste, cruelty, and loss” that constitute the news? His answer is to read the newspapers in an attitude of wonder reminiscent of the therapeutic use of ethnography suggested by Stephen Tyler: “Instead of a mere instrumentality that is valuable only for a day or as an archival document,” he says, “the newspaper as a source of astonishment and evocation can call for renewed appreciation of how society, culture, and more specific human capacities are strange things being continuously recreated.” Furthermore, as he studies the newspapers with an ethnographic eye, Hariman begins to see, “how a culture continually reforms, almost kaleidoscopically and yet for better or worse, in its daily concatenation of many shards of meaning.” Newspapers may thus be likened to the “evocative ethnographies” explicated by Barbara Tedlock in the preceding chapter, for both reveal a similar heterogeneity of culture, the “mad” collocation of “reason and excess.” Although the author does not make it explicit, his is yet another essay driven by an underlying chiasmus. The two parts are reason and excess, and it is at moments of their reversal that astonishment and the full power of evocation set in, i.e. at moments when the seemingly sane turns out to be mad, and the seemingly mad turns out to be sane. This is Tedlock’s “third space” of chiasmus (Chapter XI), which calls for a higher level of awareness and allows one to understand the paradox that “the odd, peculiar, outrageous, distorted, eccentric, and otherwise excessive character of the newspaper is as important to the constitution of modern public culture as is the commitment to public reason.” With this observation Hariman comes close to Tedlock’s Ojibwe grandmother who told her daughter to abandon all rigid scientific classifications (which, after all, are manmade) and listen to rocks as well as to people. Hariman advocates a similarly open attitude and argues that this may help us better understand the chiasmus of reason and excess that pervades not only the newspaper but inheres in all culture. “If analytical explanation requires the relentless discrimination of either-or distinctions,” he writes in one of his most pertinent passages, “then the attitude of wonder is necessary to recognize how social reality remains beholden to logics of both-and. Both reason and excess, both mad and tame, both beauty and horror. Good judgment requires no less: only by being able to marvel at the human world can one see exactly how it is both fallen and redeemed.” * These, then, are the chapters of the book, with the various themes and strands of reasoning that run through them. As a form of closure, we now return to the beginning of this introduction where we outlined Stephen Tyler’s thoughts about evocation. In conversation, Tyler has repeatedly drawn attention to the religious and magical roots of evocation, the ancient practice of calling forth, conjuring up or summoning spirits, believed to reside in particular places (shrines), objects (crystal balls), or substances (incense). Tyler also likens evocation to the age-old art of divination that uses figures such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche etc. to detect meaning in the constellation of stars, the sound of birds, the entrails of sacrificial animals. Evocation in art and anthropology may, thus, be likened to a calling forth and a mantic imagining of complex and deep lying meanings. But in as much as this comparison highlights the creative aspect of evocation, it also brings out how the use of this epistemological concept may open the floodgate to imagination and lead the mind to never ending flights of fancy.
Yet, if we acknowledge the incomplete, provisional, and inferential nature of discourse in art and anthropology, we are necessarily obliged to include evocation (and similar notions) in our conceptual repertoire. As we do this, we enter the dangerous hermeneutical waters that are bordered on one side by the Scylla of excessively figurative and therefore obscure style, and on the other side by the Charybdis of inappropriate and therefore destructive literalness. Tyler thought it especially important to guard against the latter when
“Literalness in all its forms is reprehensible, but it is most odious in conversation, for its effect is obstructionist and is usually so intended. There is a certain “looseness” about all of our conversational rules and our rules of social life generally, so that anyone who follows the rules literally, destroys the normative character of interaction and induces social paralysis.
To ask for mathematical exactitude in our everyday rules and use of rules is to ask for disaster, the very destruction of the form sought rather than its fulfilment.” (1978: 396) *** References Buxton, Richard. 2009. Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis.
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