The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 1: Ordering the Disorder.

An intro first? Here.

Finally opened… The first notebook even read cover to cover… Well, what a trip… In time, in space and in my former me-self’s own expectations / hopes / interpretations of what ethnography should have been. There is so much in the 228 pages I read today, so much stuff all around, in all kinds of directions, that I am not even sure where to start. But an interesting thing though: what I see in those lines is my constant search, at the time, for order. There was a thing going around, like a virus, probably contagious: that a good ethnography would require an index, categories, color codes, key words… And sometimes, I think that it is probably right: given the amount of ‘stuffs’ that I had collected, ordering that mess in time could only have only been productive. But I didn’t. I did try to put a system together, that I don’t have the codes for it anymore. And the system doesn’t do much if it stays just that: a system. You need to apply it systematically, as in a batch, in order for it to work, to make sense. I didn’t get to that. So now I have a system and no translation. So, today, I am going to attempt one. To gather the pieces, and try deciphering it.

Ordering the Disorder. Entitling Discontinuity.

Ordering the Disorder. Entitling Discontinuity.

The Titles: Following the Discontinuity

The notebooks come with names: labels on their heads, just like if they were wearing caps. They are like a family: their names are more or less similar, but in the end they are distinguished by an additional particle. They all belong to the family of the ‘’Cahier Cham’’ (‘’Cham Notebook’’). Then they come with a number and by doing so, they do remind us of grand Cambodian families. You know with the kids responding to numbered-nicknames: ‘’Hey Number-2, you sure that’s the dress you want to wear?’’, ‘’Number-4, go wash your hands!’’ and the inevitable : ‘’This is Number-1: he goes to university (just like you) he speaks English (just like you), he is a good catch (still waiting for the just-like-you…). You are single I believe?’’. So my notebooks too follow each other as sequential siblings: 5a, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6c… Hold on: what happened to 1-4? Older siblings missing from the attendance list? That’s too much a reminder of the repetitive sadness of my numerous kinship charts: all elders gone. Not because they were that old, but because wars do tend to cut off kinship charts of their beginnings. It seems like there was a war in my notebooks’ case. And I may have been the one leading it… The notebooks excavated here are ‘’the core ones’’. The ones I wrote during my doctorat field. In other words, the other notebooks, the 1 to 4 ones belong to the ‘’pre-dissertation’’ life. When time came to grab my notebooks from the shelves and leave, I didn’t take the ‘’pre-dissertation’’ ones. Like I was embarrassed by those illegitimate kids… I left them there, thinking they didn’t matter. And they probably don’t if I can’t really remember what’s in there, or why I should need them. And it’s not only those ‘’pre-dissertation’’ infants that have been sided, it’s also the ‘’post’’ ones. I can’t say the ‘’post-dissertation’’ for there was no dissertation in the end. But them too, have remained on the shelf: because they have no date, no order… They were too messy to matter. Again this zeal to do the right thing, the right way.

And other discontinuities are popping up: where is 5b? Has it taken a holiday that I don’t know about?! Well 5b – I presume from memory – must also be somewhere on a Phnom Penh shelf. I was doing fieldwork on the side of the fieldwork at the time: I had been hired as a consultant to do some study, somehow related to what I was doing for my dissertation, but not completely. I wanted my notebooks to show continuity (right….). I didn’t want the questions, the issues, the results, the data of the consultancy to end up in the middle of a dissertation notebook, in the middle of a dissertation fieldwork I was doing at the same time. So separate notebook 5b, stay in your room.

Then there is the simple absence of name for one of them. Given the dates, I realized that this was yet another attempt not to discontinue continuity. Let’s back up a little: for my planned dissertation I had a ‘’main field site’’, which was itself multi-sited because instead of standing still in one village, I was going around a couple of neighboring villages. I was spending my time between them, having a corner of a room, of a house, of a mat in each of them. That was the ‘’field home’’ let’s say. In short mainly Chrok Romirt but also O’Russei and Prei Pi, all in the Sala Lekh Pram ‘town’ neighborhood, Kompong Chhnang Province. And Udong hill, of course, I couldn’t live there, I had lived there for my master – notably – this was yet another ‘’field home’’. For this, for my ‘normal fieldwork’, for the daily, I had one notebook, or a series of them. But some time I would leave the place to go around the country, trying out stories I had been told and research elements I found, just as new clothes one feels so eager to wear. I would go around, and around, you name it: Kompong Cham and its different corners essentials to Cham history; Stung Treng, Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri because no good story can make without a cowboy one; the borderlands of Banteay Meanchey, Takeo, Prey Veng. The wetlands with the pouring rains for days – every-single-time-damn-it – in Kampot, Kep and Kompong Som. The testing of other centralities of Battambang and Pursat… It was exhausting… It was exhilarating! For a while I got to do just that – being on a motorbike searching for things in the weirdest places around – for a living. Trust me it doesn’t get any better than this. Needless to say that I am looking forward to open the ‘’displacements’’ notebooks (yes, that’s how those are subtitled). And the silent one, the un-titled one is one of them. I kept separate notebooks for those out-of-the-field fields not only to keep it neat, but to make sure I could keep up with the rhythm of my notes (sneak peek: didn’t work out). That’s how the silent notebook never got a name. Running from one place to another, one notebook to another, I didn’t even take the time to entitle it.

Now I am still left to wonder about the double sequences: why going from 5 to 6? Why calling notebooks with sub-names like 5a, 5b, and not going directly to 6, 7, 8? Because both series start in fall (5 = September 2005; 6 = November 2006), I think it could have been a plan to differentiate years in the doctorat program: notebooks 5 would have been my first year in the field, notebooks 6 the second… I know… I am not even sure myself… This quest to order my world which I am sure must have made some sense at the time is now nothing but foreign language…

Ordering the Disorder: categorizing, color mode.

Ordering the Disorder: categorizing, color mode.

What’s with the Colors???

We are back on categories… And my grand hopes from the past to classify according to them. Very quickly it became clear that I was accumulating way too much to be treated at once, and that, if I wasn’t doing it step by step, the ordering of the notebooks will be a daunting task in the future (well… at least now we know for sure that part is true!). My plan was to follow my professor’ suggestion of putting together an index at the end of each notebook. Simple enough if you do it on the spot, regularly, as it was also suggested. Well, that’s not what happened… The pile was growing and I needed a tool to trim it down before I could refine it up. I took some post-it bookmarks and started to categorize according to what I thought was important at the time:

Orange – Myths & Legends (and later on, from the pages marked: rituals).
At the time my main focus. Because I needed an entry to the field, something to look for, something to study. I had heard of legends and myths that I would later on get back to during informal conversations, or collect into a more formal ‘’oral history’’ setting. The thing is, I also did a lot of work on rituals that were intimately linked to those myths and legends (that I would now prefer to call segments of historicity), so I color-coded the rituals in the same color. Of course before you know it, every single page had an orange post-it, for most of my notebooks were made just of that: rituals, myths and legends. So much for efficiency…

Red – Contacts & Biographies.
What is nice about doing fieldwork every single day, all day long, is that you meet plenty of new people. While once in a while it doesn’t work out that well, and the two characters are like cats and dogs, most of the time a genuine relationship starts, sometime to grow into long lasting friendships. Nice. Ok, that’s the cover track… What isn’t told here is how much effort you have to put in remembering not only people faces, not only their names and situations, but also their stories. That’s perfectly fine if you have a brain. Not so if you are a grad student trying to manage life… in four languages daily… If you are going to ask three times in a row – out of politeness of course – if your new friend has kids when her daughter introduced you to begin with, that’s not going to work out. Believe me, experience talking here. On that, I was never able to keep up. My excuse would be that Chams have a very limited number of personal – monosyllabic – names. After your 12th ‘’Uncle Math’’ you just want to give up. My other excuse is that we don’t even use personal names that much: just as in the Khmer context, I have known people for years whom I don’t know how to call but ‘’Auntie’’ or ‘’Grand-Pa’’. So much for the mnemonic… In the notebooks I started to pay more attention to individuals on paper, highlighting their names and phone numbers, a contact they would give me, a character in a story, another individual I knew who was referred to, in order to connect the dots. The whole big plan I remember was to start a directory so that I wouldn’t get completely lost. Yes I know, it does sound freaky, impersonal and big-brother of me… But apparently I couldn’t rely on my heart and my brain as much as I thought I could… Anyway the directory stopped as soon as it started: because then again, after you enter the 12th ‘’Uncle Math’’, you just feel like a farce pretending you can – with neat keywords and shortcuts – define one Uncle Math from another. So I went back to brain and heart. Went back to total memory losses. So, sorry if I don’t remember who you are. But somehow, it may actually be a more personal form of connection…

Blue – Places.
It came out of a similar idea as the contacts directory but for locations. Regularly, in discussions I would be referred to corners of the country I didn’t know and wanted to check, or did know very well, but needed a reminder to check a particular point. It could be anything: ‘’Oh if you go to that province, stop by that village where my sister lives’’, or ‘’This is where it all happened, two centuries ago. You can go there and find the traces’’. Or ‘’I have as much super-powers as that saint. The one buried there’’. That’s probably the most useful category I had, and should have kept up with it. It is out of those connections, those networked sites apparently (and apparently only) isolated, that I was able to make a sense of Cham historiography in the present. It is in those traces that I actually completely reformulated my research at some point and until now. So, blue, places: a keeper.

Green – Cham Vocabulary.
I have many great excuses for being so lame at Cham after so long. Lucky you, I will not impose them here. I thought it would get easier if I had pointers to vocabulary lost in the pages. It didn’t work out marvels, but then again it wasn’t a ‘’Let’s learn Cham in 10s’’ project. In the end it is still helpful on the long term. I can have quicker access to a discussion around a word, or better as it is often the case, many discussions in contradiction over a term. That, I believe, can be useful for example when writing a paper, with a need to contextualize a word or an idea. Otherwise, no, I didn’t get any better at Cham.

Concluding The Notebooks’ Dairies – Day 1.

The little me-self who started those notebooks was obsessed with order in a quest to do things right, to be a good student, a good researcher, a good anthropologist. It didn’t work out because it was too ambitious. I am thankful to some extent that this system didn’t work out: I find a lot of materials in those notebooks that are all scattered around, unconnected, irrelevant. And it is exactly where I believe, in the margins of the ethnography, that the most productive ethnographies can be made. It means something that former me-self couldn’t achieve the categorization, the ordering: it means that those categories were not the ones to work with, that the stories told, the lives observed couldn’t fit in boxes. It’s no coincidence that, in the end, the categories of myth / legend / ritual melted into one. The question now is whether to leave this uncategorized mud as it is or start fresh with new tags? Which ones in this case? For what I am picking up on today has nothing to do with yesterday, for what I am interested in right now may very well change in a few months or years. Do we need to order the mess of our ethnographies in order to produce them? Or is it more likely that the comfort of ordering our own disorder will enable an authoritative voice on the field that we have processed, de-naturized? Like an idealized images of conquerors clearing the jungle to finally bring long awaited civilization? I am reminiscent of Michael Taussig[1] and the ‘’controlling figure’’ of the anthropologist ‘’ordering meaning into the disorder’’ (390). And I do recognize a lot of me-self in that ‘’deeply cherished love of creating order from disorder’’ (389) hammered in the structuralism’ forges, coming out of those notebooks. I am also tempted to think of a Yael Naim’ song : ‘’Far Far’’ and her beautiful sentence ‘’How can you stay outside? There is a beautiful mess inside’’. Maybe the quest for order is a way for us to somehow remain outside of the field, outside of the ethnography, outside the notebooks. This ‘’distance’’ that has been long tattooed on the ankle of the discipline. Maybe this is what I was trying to do with the name-tags, the different notebooks, the color codes and the post-it. Maybe it was what was needed at a time, for a time. Maybe now I can go back inside: inside this ethnography, inside those notebooks, and just do with the mess, just enjoy the beauty in it. Indeed ‘’there is a beautiful mess inside’’.

[1]Michael Taussig 1987 ‘’Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man’’, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Ithaca, March 31, 2014, Emiko Stock.

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7 thoughts on “The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 1: Ordering the Disorder.

  1. “ORDERING DISORDER” has been a constant human thought (and struggle) since the beginning; Thus the latin motto “ORDO AB CHAO” which refers to the origin of the universe : There could not exist the world we know but for the previous existence of some kind of chaos. Which means disorder seems to be some kind of necessity to all sorts of spiritual or human activities.

  2. Pingback: The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 2: Filling / Feeling the Gaps? | ChamAttic

  3. Pingback: The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 3: When all we need is Love & Memory | ChamAttic

  4. Pingback: The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 4: Closing notes | ChamAttic

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