Beyond Ethnonyms: writing and unwriting anthropology

My recent publication on Chams Ethnonyms for the journal Moussons is finally online (links at the bottom of this page). The front story of this article is all about how labels are socially, culturally and historically heavily constructed and can therefore – and I guess should – always be deconstructed through an ethnographic process. But the backstage story is actually very different and yet very related. It is more about the writing process which is itself so embodied in the construction – or the deconstruction – of the anthropological object. As I was writing and re-writing this article – in parallel with its relevant field research – I was indeed giving shape to those ethnonyms as inscribed within a particular social, cultural and historical context. When this context started to move – and it was actually constantly on the move – the anthropological object assumed another shape. Or was it just me – ‘’the observer’’ – switching positions, changing formations, by looking at it and writing it differently took part to redefine its contours? The answer appears obvious to me now, and is nothing new to the discipline: indeed as anthropologists we create as soon as we observe, the moment we say, the moment we write. Yet, it wasn’t at all that evident at the time.

Late 2004 I went back to France for a couple of months to attend seminars and work on my master dissertation. By then, I thought I had already done quite a lot in terms of fieldwork among different groups of Chams in Cambodia, on whom my future dissertation would focus. There were many sounds cooking in Paris and Nanterre academic kitchens, and I was carefully absorbing them all. Among others, was this recurrent call for students to start to write articles as soon as possible. It was never too early to train yourself to become a writer, and absolutely necessary to accumulate publications for the final judgment day: applications to the CNRS (National Scientific Research Center) and associates. So I started to write. And a first article was born. It was badly written, a structural mess, argumentation was weak, but the core problematic was there. It was about identity and how ethnonyms can help us understand it. While the article was – in principle – accepted by my informal advisers and reviewers, it had to be completely reshaped in order to actually become an Article.

As soon as I came back to Cambodia, I was back to the field. More research. More notes. More ideas. And even more questions… Once in a while, I was reminded – with reason – that I had to publish. So once a while, I reworked on the article. But the more I did, the less it made sense. The ideas were neat now. Organized. Very settled. Well… At least on paper… What I was seeing, observing, living, was twisting everything upside down, one day one way, another day the other way. I take that back: it was not twisting, it was writhing! So I wrote, again. And again. I was luckily surrounded by friends and research fellows, who were generous enough of time and brain to help with the proofreading. (Let me take a minute to actually acknowledge them: Nasir Abdoul Carime, Nicolas Weber, Po Dharma, William Collins, Pierre Le Roux and last but not least Léo Mariani). And yet, every single version was just not it. I would love to claim – as fashion so often bends it – that I was a hopeless perfectionist. But that wasn’t it. Beside the fear of being published – and therefore exposed – it was more about the confrontation of the anthropological object, in constant reshaping, under my very eyes; and the anthropological creation of the object, which had to come in a very definite, limited, clear and well defined, self assuming shape as the Article. Just exactly two opposites.

Time went by. And soon enough – for other reasons – I was not part of academia anymore. I knew that still, I had to publish. With the best hopes, to show that I could still be part of research, and be fully recruited as such. In other words, back to the original motto: you have to be published to be not invisible. If not, it was just to finally give birth to the unborn, to release it, academia or none. I went through my hard drive: it looked like a deserted land. And there were many abandoned ramains on the way: ‘’2005 version’’, ‘’2006 version’’, ‘’2009 version’’, ‘’2010’’… And I didn’t want to open any of those tombs. Simply because what remained in those, was something that I was so out of touch with: the original words and questions were still there, paving the way, capturing the ideas. And I just couldn’t find another way around those. In order to say ‘’this is what I know, what I think now’’, I had to be able to say ‘’what I knew then, what I thought then, is not anymore’’. I had to undone what I still haven’t done. If only the article had been published in 2005, that would have been pretty bad… But the process would have been clearer, followed step by step. Another later publication could have been an update, therefore showing that nothing is set in stone. That not only anthropologists are always on the move: so are anthropological objects.

Obviously those lines are nothing new to anthropology and my fellow researchers. But back then, as a student, a little lost in those grand academia corridors, unease in those immaculate rooms of science making, I wish someone would have explained me that I could unwrite the written, that I could rethink what was thought once and not for all, and that that was anthropology in the making. In the end, I guess we’ll just have to do with this little hybrid, this article half way of a reflection, saying yes to say no, going right to go left. A written hybrid, assuming its unstability, unbalance, unsteadyness… Just as we, as anthropologists, should?

Phnom Penh, February 26, 2013, Emiko Stock.

Emiko Stock 2012 « Au-delà des ethnonymes. À propos de quelques exonymes et endonymes chez les musulmans du Cambodge », Moussons 20, Recherche en Sciences Humaines sur l’Asie du Sud Est, p 141-160. (~‘’Beyond Ethnonyms. Notes on some Exonyms and Endonyms Used among Muslims in Cambodia’’).

Integral article in FrenchAbstracts in French & English.

 

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