Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On cannibalizing research

One of the harder aspects of my time living in La Patrona—and I say this solely as a person with peculiarities and eccentricities—has been a lack of space, both physical and psychical, for reading and writing. What I've heard from both American expatriates and from some richer Mexicans is that it's common, especially in more rural areas, to see reading and writing as useful skills but not as either social or socially beneficial activities in their own rights. Early in my stay, one woman described me as flojeava on my computer when I should have been waiting patiently—flojear meaning fooling around or wasting time.

I love reading, and I love writing. But I want to give the briefest of accounts as to this understanding of reading and writing before I go on.

Reading and writing are solitary activities, at least in long form works. You do them alone, and this is in large part because of the mechanisms of thought that writing affords: unlike a movie, when you read you can skim backwards and forwards, you can stop to think, you can cross out words on the page or write comments in the margin. (At least before the ebook you could.) Film and television stop not for minds but for the hands that turn off the projector or the set. Different technologies, different media, different benefits and drawbacks.

In my part of Mexico solitary activities are suspicious. The ways of showing that you are integrated socially, that you care about the welfare of other people, is to be out in public talking, hanging out, and working with others.1 Secondarily, because so many people have limited skills in reading and writing, to be overly concerned with text, especially dense text that's hard to parse orally and meant for expert level readers, is often exclusionary. Even more, simply because reading and writing are in many ways the province of the rich and powerful, to attend to them for hours more than one spends with one's neighbors can look like a specific form of the alliance of interests. Better to read aloud to your neighbors, to help them draft letters, to come up with plans together that you can write down.

Yet being an academic—or, more accurately in my case, an apprentice geographer—is that my entire output is words. Words, and words, and more words. All I “make,” so to speak, are thoughts grafted onto pieces of paper or, more commonly now, coded magnetically in a computer. There are different words, intersecting with other skills in various ways—for the more macro- or policy-minded, that tends to be forms of statistical analysis; for me, it tends more towards arguments and reasoning skills. And yet still: words.

My way of managing this, since I've been here doing ethnography, is to write only in notebooks, which reinforces the idea that I am “studying” rather than fooling around. In some ways it's more convenient—I can write down all the small actions that pop out at me, rather than waiting till the evening to see which ones I remember—but in others more trying, since I type much faster than I handwrite. In other ways it's been hard, as I write to help think through things, and for me to be forced to write differently—slower in one register; by hand in another; and I'm sure there are others—means to change how I think. For me the physical practice of writing is linked to the embodied practice of thinking. And always has been.

But there has been another challenge to writing as well. In doing ethnographic fieldwork, my goal is to capture what the people here are actually doing. The benefit of ethnography is that what people do is often vastly different from what they say they do—and not because people are dishonest or habitually lie to interviewers. An NGO came through a few weeks ago and did the simplest, most rudimentary of interviews, which at one point asked one of the women if they paid for vegetables. The woman being interviewed said that they didn't; in truth the Patronas probably paid for vegetables somewhere between a third and 40 percent of the time while I was there. Yet this can look like “not paying”; after all, more than half are just free.2

The challenge of writing about ethnographic fieldwork, for me, is that these little essays are incomplete works, works that I always mean to ground in the embodied experience of being-here. They are (meant to be) essays in the Montaigne-an sense, “trials” or “attempts.” But academia demands expertise, certainty, and even—this despite decades now of feminist criticisms and critiques—a sort of knowledge that is legitimated, disembodied, certain; yet at the same time arguable.

In such a position, it feels—here I am again—that to write based from my field notes is somehow to cannibalize my fieldwork. The parts of the work that will become papers later need more thought, more reading; but I don't fully know what those are. Yet the more spatial and temporal distance I put between me and my experiences, between me and this place, the less present are any of the aspects of being here.

Indeed, this little essay is exactly a response to that. Precisely what I am not writing about is the tensions of research; and because of this, I can address them in all of their embodied senses—I can write that not-writing sometimes makes me jittery and irritable—exactly because there is nowhere else for such thoughts to go. These thought are in some sense the offal of my work, the scraps to be made into sausage or soup stock; they are not the meat.

One last point. I started out by talking about how the literal and social space of La Patrona influences or exerts some level of control over how I write. The flip side of this is that academia is doing the exact same thing. I am conditioned, or self-conditioning, in terms of audience, tone, accessibility, and a whole host of practices of legitimation. I am legitimate on the blog because I write well and am in Mexico. I am legitimate in academia because I put together an acceptable literature review. Same-same.

Because writing is so important to me—writing or not-writing making me calmer or more irritable means that my emotional states are influenced by it—this is one of the many ways that academic life colonizes the non-academic life of professors, grad students, researchers and the like. It's not only that in my graduate student like I read less for pleasure—typically I have spent a whole day reading, from student essays to papers to academic books—but also that even what I am thinking about I don't want to write it.

In office jobs and other work I've done, free time was free for reading, writing, thinking. In academic life it's free for writing and thinking only in specific ways. I'm not complaining about the life—I'm essentially revenue-neutral as a graduate student—and furthermore I suspect that any number of professions, from architects to clothing designers to business executives have the same experience.3 It's that airplane-companion question of “what do you do?” where I answer only one thing, where when asking myself I expect only one thing, where profession is proxy for identity.

When I say then that I feel a lack of space for reading and writing in La Patrona, the real problem is not of how my affairs are conducted from outside, but from within. The issue is about learning to conduct myself, to comport myself, to self-regulate. My novel is still unfinished, in large part because of lack of time for it. As an (apprentice) academic I am already quite adept at managing myself in academic ways, in turning off thoughts for (say) my blog in order to save them for papers and conferences and presentations. In turning off other parts of my life—fiction writing, and many others—for the thing surrounding me and ahead of me.

I don't know that it's wrong to call academic writing fooling around. In fact, it might be right.


1 As the classic introvert—meaning not that I am shy or socially maladept, but that I prefer small groups over parties, and that large groups leave me needing space to recharge—I think this would have presented difficulties for me to grow up here.

2 I'll only add here that the employees of this NGO were, simply put, bad at their jobs. In a different situation I would, as a person with a lot of organizing experience, use them as a case study of what not to do, but I'm going to leave them anonymous here, since the project's politics are still being worked out.

3Steve Hely, in How I Became a Famous Novelist, makes up a fake business/self-help book called Caesar, C.E.O.: Business Secrets of the Ancient Romans, which is so dead-on that it almost sounds legitimate. Hopefully that sense fades with the recognition that Anglo-American business isn't a transcendental spirit of humanity, but a product of our time and place.

The point here is to suggest that reading Caesar C.E.O. isn't any different from me not-writing about La Patrona: it's the profession that colonizes the rest of one's life.