The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 2: Filling / Feeling the Gaps?

An intro first? Here. | Day 1: There.

A weird thing happened this morning as I opened the second notebook (a certain ‘’Cahier Cham Vc. Juillet 2006. Les Déplacements’’). 30 pages in, the notebook goes… blank. Nothing. Pages and pages of giddy grid paper. Fears from the loss of the fetish, abyssal confrontation with the never-to-be-scientific proof – and self. Exhilarated relief from the liberation of the moment zero, and then somewhere in between, filling the gaps or not… I will go for the overused cliché: that is still the question…

Chapter I: In which panic takes over the loss of the fetish.

The tea is still smoking hot, and my bagel only half down in the stomach: that says it all, something is terribly wrong. I stop right on spot… Could it be??? Noooo??? What???? But???? Yes. 200 pages of a notebook, and only the first 30 of them scribbled of due field notes. What happened? Just when I was starting to get in the mood, reminiscing the interviews in Kep, the words of Jveas, the damned soaked landscapes of Kampot (yeah I know… Romantic, historical and all… Well, I am a cat, I don’t enjoy history bits and romantic bites when all wet…), the omnipresence of almighty tombs, the absence of the same tombs, disappeared, gone, evaporated from history… I was all on board. And then, suddenly, nothing. And for a moment, I was empty of any explanation. And very soon filled with complete panic. I remembered that notebook: at that time I was going all around and all a lot. Visiting different places, meeting a lot of people, collecting contrasting stories, filling my eyes with it all… And then, just like that, everything was gone? Have I had committed the absolute no-no: the loss of field notes? Honestly, I can’t really blame anyone for it… I was stolen of a Salman Rushdie’ novel once, and settled for the hope of a thieve with great literary taste, but it’s probably after his own hope of an smart phone in my bag that he was after… So the robbery option, probably not. Anthropologist’s introspections? Not really that much a valuable on Phnom Penh market – uh… any market I guess. I just did it all by myself: forgetful, unpayingattentionite, in the moon permanent resident… I was going to be the anthropologist who lost just months of fieldwork traces. So much for an epitaph.

The Missing Notes. Full blankal.

The Missing Notes. Full blankal.

But let’s take a breath, and look back at that intense moment for a minute: the panic. Because the pages were blank, I was done early and could calm down with some readings, notably Benjamin’s ‘’Unpacking My Library’’[1] and Taussig’s ‘’I Swear I Saw This’’[2]. I thought of the fetishization of the notebooks. How Benjamin feels ‘’love’’, ‘’enchantment’’, ‘’magic’’, ‘’thrill’’, for each book he collects. How Barthes imagines Phantoms in the diaries[3]. How Taussig sees fieldbooks as the extension of anthropologists’ very own selves: just like an arm or… a heart. And did my heart beat then: when this bold move half way across the world got me that daggering response from the airline: ‘’No, you can not carry on 8 kilos of notebooks in the cabin’’, ‘’But Sir, they are my field notebooks!’’, ‘’What? I don’t… Listen, all there is to it, is that: those 8 kilos have to get into the baggage hold’’. Three endless days of traveling… Are my notebooks ok? I hope they haven’t lost the luggage… How many name tags did I put on again? Would they throw a suitcase under something liquid… Oh no… What if we auto-ignite??? Oh my if we do auto-ignite the notebooks are so gone… A fetish: for there is something of a spirit in that notebook. In every single one of them. Our absolute fear of loosing them may be the fear that this Phantom resting in the pages of the diary, this specter standing in the study, this spirit looking over our shoulder is also a protective, reassuring one. In the isolation of the writing, who doesn’t want to imagine a little Neak Ta caring in the middle of the night when all have gone? The loss of the haunting specter of the writing: how freeing that could be. How spooky… Not the specter itself, no. The loss of the specter. So we fetishize the notebooks, like nothing will ever replace them.

But then again there is something more here. For what is there to lose, really, in the loss of a notebook, or a whole lot of pages of a notebook? More than paper that’s for sure. For the anthropologist: maybe authority. For it is – so we are told, so we are trained, so we are consecrated – in the forges of the field that anthropologists are born, in the fire of the fieldwork that they are made, in the burning notebooks that they are molded. The casting of the anthropologist comes from the sharpness of the proof. Losing the notebook is loosing the field. Losing the field (‘’the village’’) is losing authority in the field (anthropology). And the fear of losing any authority comes back haunting. But those proofs are themselves quite spectral: how many notebooks have come out of the closet? How many diaries have gone public (without putting the discipline into a total loss of – Malinowski-we-so-trusted-you-what-have-you-done – confidence and then again… authority)? The authority of the fieldwork, embodied by and in the notebooks, transcends the notebook itself. The object itself is reminiscent of something of symbolic efficacy… No one needs to show the actual notebook. No one ever does. Knowing that the fieldwork has been done, conducted, achieved, and that the field notebook was kept along, as a pro, thoroughly… that’s really all we need to claim one’s authoritative anthropology.

And come to think of it that’s not anthro specific. The proof, full frontal, sometime can be just a little too much. We’d rather leave an expert handling it, with care, you know with those expert hands we don’t have. This neighbor of mine: to me he is the greatest expert of tarantulas I know. Then again I know nothing about tarantulas, but not the point. It suffices to me to hear his tarantulas’ stories to be convinced that, indeed, he is quite the expert. I don’t need him to show me actual proof: the breeding room in the back… It did happen though. Once. I felt quite uncomfortable. Ok, MOST people don’t really look forward a personal encounter with a full size hairy living proof of tarantula expertise. But that’s not it. I think there is more. I felt uncomfortable crossing the threshold of the (tarantula) expertise. I wouldn’t want to get the secrets of the recipe of my favorite restaurant: I just want the taste of it. Enough with the caramelized spiders: back to a pure anthropological case study.

A few years ago, a friend of mine contributed to an exhibition on Georges Condominas ethnographic work in Vietnam at the Quai Branly Museum. Condominas was a tall, grand and charismatic man, that I only met briefly a couple of times (I was a small, shy, little girl… go figure…). He was also seen as the tall, grand and charismatic father of French anthropology of continental Southeast Asia and of the notion of ‘’espace social’’. I remember how much I looked up at my friend with sparkles in the eyes: he was getting up close to the great ‘’Condo’’: the giant, the stories, the collections, the pictures… the notebooks. I remember how my eyes fall down on my feet also: it was so disconcerting. Like being in a room with an almighty specter… even if at the time Condo was still very much alive that doesn’t make a specter less invasive, powerful and scary if you ask me… I wouldn’t want to get that intimate with the grand ethnographer. I didn’t want to cross the threshold, to violate the space, even if just like thousands of other visitors, I was invited in it. In order to continue to believe in the spirit of the fetish, you can’t really actually see the spirit, can you?

Told me so… Research is all about sharing… But somehow there is something very private to those notebooks, those fetishes. Again the object: even if you are reading a whole week of public opening of my very own preccciiioussss, sorry I meant notebooks, on this blog, the object remains intact: the spirit still lying down on those pages, quietly smoking the lines… Pairs do not fetish the anthropologist’s notebooks, but their ideas. It is not of the conclusions taken out of the notebooks that – cooked in the notebooks but served on a separate china – the anthropologist’ authority will be (de)served: and yet, the notebook remains – to its very owner and maker – a fetish: do not disturb the spirit.

Chapter II: In which the blank pages loosen up.

So let me think this through a minute: if the authority comes from the fact of the field notebook, not the object itself, no panic right? That’s true, why panic?! All blank pages? Can anyone dream better? Start all over. A clean slate (and you don’t even need Bruce Wayne’s thumb print to get it!). Total freedom! My brain for sole survivor! My memory as the only research assistant! Ok, no wait: am I… scared? Well… Ok maybe a little. Can I actually trust my memory? Yesterday, I read in my 2005 notebook that I was still using ‘’Auntie of R.’’ to refer to my integrated mom (not adoptive… never found any relevance to the world in the ‘’anthropological fieldwork context’’. Integrated, because that’s what happened: she integrated me into her family, her world, her life, I integrated her into my family, my world, my life). Now of course it is all blurry: it seems to me that the whole family and I got reciprocally integrated pretty fast, very soon, quite early on. Way before that notebook happened. But is this me recreating a long durée history, and I wasn’t calling them this or that then; or is it writing-me-self who – again in search of an authoritative voice – decided to go for the ‘’terms of appellation’’ (for the integrated mom is indeed the auntie of R., that’s a fact, that’s proven).

Can the anthropologist trust the memories more than the notebooks? I would now try to ask the reversed question: can the anthropologist trust the notebooks more than the memories? For in the end, I believe we do remember the essential. I read two notebooks today and yesterday: there were little things in there I was surprised of. A thorough symbolic deciphering of an obscure ritual detail (I am happy I did that: I don’t have to do it anymore. I can just go back to the notebook and untangle the whole skein), comment on a particular individual (don’t be so judgmental young lady!), a long detailed life story bringing up the whole Cham history back to its senses (full of gaps and holes that I will never have answers to: try a decade in & out of the field when you work with 80 years old…). All those elements are good finds: but I knew more or less that I would see something of the like in the notebooks lines. That was part of the plan. And overall, there were no big surprises, grand discoveries, fundamental core shaking revelations: it was all there. Just as I knew it would be.

This morning’ blank pages opened some relief in me. Also the relief that, yes, indeed, this is one less notebook to treat… Laziness is so under-rated! I started to think of some readings to go with the notebooks, to accompany them, to make sense – somehow – of this whole thing. The blank pages made me think of Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas’ ‘’Remembered Village’’[4]: an ethnography written 30 years ‘’after the fact’’ and introduced by this ‘’acknowledgement’’:

‘’Had not all the copies of my processed notes been burnt in the fire on 24 April 1970 at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, I would not have thought of writing a book based entirely on my memory of my field-experience. I wish therefore to acknowledge the part played by the arsonists in the birth of the book’’. (Srinivas 1976: un-numbered starting page)

M. N. Srinivas waited for years to write his ethnography: all his notebooks seated on shelves, all his writing lying on his desk. Maybe he was like any of us: not only scared of the writing but terrified of the re-reading. The reading of the notes that is. What if it doesn’t work? What if it’s all wrong? What if I got it all wrong? Hold on: what if the notes are ok, can do, but I have no clue of what to make of them? Srinivas was probably afraid of another blank page: the one starting your ethnography, the one that comes right before you get recognized as an anthropologist, the one that comes right after you recognize your notes. Maybe the civil rights movement that led to the tragic burning of a lifetime work somehow freed M. N. Srinivas. Maybe that’s what enabled him to re-member the village. And that’s all-right. If you don’t have notes… What if you have to actually do re-member the notes themselves?

Chapter III: Step Across This Line

I know… Right when I was finally ready to kind of give it up, sort of embrace the blank page, almost give into the remembered ethnography… Right then, I found the missing notes. Kind of wish I didn’t though… They were in that little shoe box ‘’Miscellaneous Notes To Be Ordered’’. A little folder. What the???? Scribbles. My own writing. Absolutely unreadable. Scattered mini note pads leaves. Torn apart. Phone numbers. But no names. Names now. Unsituated names. Quotes. No references. Interview pages. Pages missing. The un-transferred notes. You know, the ones that we are told to transfer every evening ‘’after the field’’, the ones we are trained to transcribe every evening, the ones that can be consecrated only once they have been de-jungle-ized, civilized by the culture of the notebook. The ones I didn’t touch. Never. The ones I left on the side thinking : hell, I do deserve a rest today, don’t I? The ones I didn’t get anywhere close to, because integrated sister got on the way corrupting my so-in-focus-professional-anthropologist mind by a ‘’Joining or not? Desert at the market, hurry, night is coming’’. The notes that finally made it back to the city, to the professional anthropologist desk and-I-will-get-on-it-right-away: but then in the city there was just too much: news and the un-new, jobs, daily, life, love, death, departures, stuffs. The notes that even made it to the grand-pa retreat home in the middle of nowhere-France. They didn’t make it to the notebooks though, because I was stuck (us)in(g) the stillness of the countryside to mode produce grants proposals, publications’ race, CVs update, jobs’ search, and… Grand-Pa’s food. I plaid guilty. I just took too long to transfer the notes, and before it was long I just plainly forgot about their existence. Now what am I supposed to do? Take a sabbatical and finally transfer them, full time? Well that would go way beyond the re-membered village… That would be the re-created village. I can’t read half of those. I can’t even put a time and a place on some. When I finally get to decrypt them, I do remember: the things I remember before reading them. They confirm my souvenirs… But at this point, do I even need – or want – them to do so? I guess at the very least that’s a lesson for future fieldworks. Nope, the lesson is not: do your homework every evening. I know that lesson… That’s the lesson every one of us tries to hammer in before turning on the hacked cable, the pirate DVD set, or the very legal Netflix: tonight I will only watch two episodes of my favorite shows. Only two. Not more. I swear. Of course. Has that ever worked out for you? Same here. A quote now, from Lawrence Cohen’s ‘’No Aging in India’’[5]:

‘’These are not his exact words; as a social anthropologist, my practice was to write down the details of remembered conversations such as this one each evening before retiring’’. (10)

That’s it. I am doomed. I failed. I’ll never come back from that fall. Nobody ever comes back: has anyone ever heard an accomplished anthropologist missing a line? A notebook line that is? Oh but that’s not the line I want to re-member. ‘’As a social anthropologist, my practice was to write down the details of remembered conversations such as this one each evening before retiring’’. No, I know that already, I don’t want the reminder. I do want the other line though, the one between the lines of the conversation with a man, on a boat, saying something that is translated in the ethnography, borne across the river the boat is wandering, borne across the strange(r’s) languages, borne across the written cultures: the words of the man borne across. ‘’These are not his exact words’’: that’s the line I want to re-member. That’s the line that should be blue-printed in the notebooks. For it is never the-exact-words. Even if it is. The quotes are not helping. They are just merely a warning: ‘’I swear I [heard] this’’ to go back to Taussig. This is a proof from my notebook. From my recording memory. There are moments in time from which I can remember every single word and pause. Sentences, narratives, silences. Yet I can’t use the quotes: those moments are not in my notebooks. I can only re-member them now. To re-member them just exactly, the exact words, the exact lines, I would need the moment to be worded, to be re-aligned. The moment the line came out – or across in fact. How it came across. Between what other lines. Between what pauses and silences. Maybe that’s where ethnography should actually happen: between the lines. In the diaries’ ‘’interstices of notation’’ as Barthes puts it. Between the lines. Maybe our role as anthropologists is to step across those lines: the lines of categories in need to cross borders, the lines of concepts in need to cross fronts, the lines of areas in need to cross frontiers, the lines of ideas in need to cross limits. Step across this line… The empty grid lines of the notebooks, the filled up scribbled lines of the notes[6].

Ithaca, April 1, 2014, Emiko Stock.

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[1] Benjamin W. 2007 [1968] ‘’Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting’’, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York, Schocken Books. I am grateful to Erik Davis who, with his usual telepathic sense of timing and à propos, incidentally referred to this piece I completely overlooked.

[2] Taussig M. 2011 ‘’I Swear I Saw This. Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own’’, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

[3] I don’t have the original copy of Barthes at this moment and will refer to him through Taussig 2011.

[4] Srinivas M. N. 1976 ‘’The Remembered Village’’, Berkeley, Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies, UC Berkeley.

[5] Cohen L. 1998 ‘’No Aging in India. Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family and Other Modern Things’’, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press.

[6] Though I am implicitly referring here to Salman’s Rushdie 2002 ‘’Step Across this Line’’, a collection non fictional essays, I am barely touching upon the title, not referring to any specific essay in the book, or to the network of ideas and thoughts aligning them. While I find tremendous inspiration in Rushdie’ novels’ lines, I am not always on the same boat, on the same river, in the same flow with the essays. Yet, I am fetishizing his title here, borne across a completely different genre and field…

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2 thoughts on “The Notebooks’ Diaries Day 2: Filling / Feeling the Gaps?

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

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

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