Writing Culture Planning Seminar

Short Seminar

October 28–29, 2004

 What is the current state of anthropological writing? How can it be improved, and what can be done to make it accessible to a broader audience? Nine anthropologists, two editors, and a fiction writer sought answers to these questions at the “Writing Culture Planning Seminar” held on October 28 and 29, 2004. Robert Mirabal, SAR artist fellow, and Douglas Schwartz, SAR president emeritus, also attended sessions during this two-day event, which was chaired by Nancy Owen Lewis, director of academic programs at SAR, and Joanne Mulcahy, director of the Writing Culture Summer Institute at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

The setting was appropriate, for twenty years earlier James Clifford and George E. Marcus chaired an SAR seminar on “The Making of Ethnographic Texts,” which resulted in their groundbreaking volume Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986, University of California Press). Their goal was to introduce “a literary consciousness to ethnographic practice by showing various ways in which ethnographies can be read and written” (262).

October’s gathering acknowledged this important predecessor, but also explored specific practices that might inspire anthropologists to improve their writing. In discussing these issues, the group looked beyond traditional ethnographies and monographs to explore other aspects of writing: experimentation with literary genres, hybrid forms, new audiences and forms of publication, and revitalization of public ethnography. Lewis introduced the session by asking for ideas about how SAR might sponsor and support excellence in anthropological writing through its Advanced Seminar and Resident Scholar Programs as well as through the J. I. Staley Prize and SAR Press.

Edith Turner presented an overview of anthropological writing from the scientific influence of Darwinism through the postmodernists with “their mystical awe of the intellect and increasingly obscure analyses. There has been a growing sense,” she said, “that anthropological writing should be more comprehensible.” She pointed out that “some brilliant articles had come out on that topic, but unfortunately the articles themselves were written incomprehensibly. It is possible,” she informed the group, “that what has broken us loose has been anthropological fiction or near fiction, and understanding the power of the story.” To illustrate her point, she cited the work of seminar participants Kirin Narayan, Alma Gottlieb, Paul Stoller, and Barbara Tedlock.

In response, participants discussed their own anthropological work and their interest in fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, drama, and memoir. . Fiction writer Philip Graham called for ethnographers to document the world of imagination, for as he noted, “people spend 80% of their waking hours somewhere else: in memories of the past, anticipations of the future, even imaginary conversations with friends or family members who aren’t present. This needs to be recorded,” he said, “for it offers access to an internal reality that is often ignored.”

Alma Gottlieb recommended experimentation with new and even playful genres—perhaps offering ethnography through such common but academically invisible genres as cookbooks, repair manuals, or childcare guides (e.g., A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies, ed. Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, Cambridge University Press, 2000). Drawing from his own work on the ancestral Pueblo site of Arroyo Hondo, Douglas Schwartz discussed the archaeological novel as a way to more vividly portray the lives and culture of people in prehistoric societies.

Kirin Narayan explored some strategies that might generate suspense in ethnographies, such as pacing explanations to sharpen curiosity; drawing on narrative forms generated within the cultural settings; and emplotting theory. She recited stories from her fieldwork in India to illustrate her ideas.

Paul Stoller explored how literary genres can follow the belief systems of the cultural groups one studies. Among the Songhay of Niger, for example, understanding is always incomplete. As he was told, “to understand us, you have to grow old with us. Mind ripens with experience. The really important things are revealed when you’re an elder.” He told the group, “One of our greatest challenges,” he told the group, “ is to create texts that vividly connect readers to the wonders of social worlds.” According to him, Bbalancing ethnography with memoir is one way to achieve that goal, a. ccording to Stoller.

Dialogue was both medium and message as participants considered how to include the voices of the diverse peoples about whom anthropologists write. Dennis Tedlock pointed to a striking difference between the ethnographer’s discourse and that of the native. Ethnographers’ use of quotes often reinforce a preexisting point of view; natives, in contrast, produce traditional narratives, life stories, and ethnographic descriptions enriched by multiple internal voices and abundant direct quotations. He noted that while some recent ethnographic works include multiple voices, many do not. Tedlock argued for more translations of native discourse and for hybridized modes of theory that give a place to native thinking.

Musician and writer Robert Mirabal joined Tedlock in calling for collaboration with Native peoples. At his home in Taos Pueblo, Mirabal reported that by the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists had met a “closed door.” Mirabal asked how we might reopen that door and to further dialogues and exchanges.

Barbara Tedlock articulated the need for ethnographic work that engages the public, from theoretical inception to final written form. Drawing from both intellectual and family history, she discussed the public silencing of intellectuals during the McCarthy era and its eerie echo today.

The criteria for “good writing” engendered much discussion. Jane Kepp, editor of numerous anthropology books, offered practical suggestions on ways to write clearer, more interesting expository prose. “ ‘Omit needless words’ is one of my life mottos,” she told the group. Similarly, writer and editor David Noble argued for a “passionate commitment” to writing at the outset, suggesting that choice of genre and development of voice follow from such engagement.

Good writing, however, must also be viewed as culture-bound, gender-influenced, and historically shifting. Mirabal highlighted some of the complications arising from cultural differences, citing indigenous dictums against directness in speech and writing—the sine qua non of good writing for mainstream western publishers and editors. Departures from standard ethnographic prose raised issues for many participants. As Alma Gottlieb pointed out, the academy’s expectations and reactions are powerful. Gottlieb and Graham detailed both the derision and the praise that greeted them upon publication of their ethnographic memoir, Parallel Worlds: A Writer and Anthropologist Encounter Africa (University of Chicago Press, 1994). This launched a discussion of what the academy could do to promote good writing, including restructuring the reward and tenure system.

Opportunities for writing exist at every level of teaching, said Robert Whittemore, but banishing passive voice and finding new genres are insufficient to revolutionize the classroom. We need to dismantle “the moral capital of silence” in the classroom by helping students find their own voice. “I don’t want students to find a topic,” he said; “I want them to find a question that compels them through to written ethnographic form.” Instead of having students merely articulate pre-existing assumptions, Whittemore said he ustilizes free writing to help them discover what they know. He described this as the first step towards developing an “ethnographic sensibility.”

Graduate-level classes also need to address the history of anthropological writing. Barbara Tedlock pointed out that although anthropologists have long published ethnographic work with commercial presses and non-academic periodicals, they rarely discuss the intellectual and political importance of these forms of writing with their graduate students.

Discussion subsequently turned to other disciplines that face the dilemmas anthropologists confront in balancing the call to both art and science. Joanne Mulcahy detailed the creation of the Writing Culture Program at Lewis and Clark College as a vehicle for bringing writers of all persuasions together with ethnographers, each enriching the others’ worlds. Numerous programs emerged as possible models: the MIT Masters Program in Science Writing, the Creative Nonfiction Mentoring Program, Narrative Medicine at various medical schools, and low-residency MFA programs. However, as she pointed out, nurturing writing involves moving anthropologists beyond a single workshop to a sustained commitment to new forms of writing. Establishing writing groups could provide ongoing support as well as expanded venues for publishing.

The session concluded with a list of recommendations, which ranged from disciplinary support for creative and effective anthropological writing to the establishment of classes, workshops, and writing groups for anthropology students and faculty. Participants suggested new venues for publication, including a journal of Writing Culture and an annual anthology of the Best Ethnographic Writing. Additional book prizes with “good writing” as a major criteria would further encourage attention to writing. Several people suggested that SAR sponsor an advanced seminar on “Really Writing Culture.”

Following the “The Making of Ethnographic Texts” seminar, James Clifford stated that “writing has emerged as central to what anthropologist do both in the field and thereafter” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 2). Twenty years later, Robert Whittemore reminded the “Writing Culture” seminar that “writing is not an afterthought about where you’ve been, but a first thought.” This year’s participants hope to catalyze a new generation of anthropologists who take this notion seriously.

Nancy Owen Lewis, Chair Director of Academic Programs, School for Advanced Research Writing Culture and the School for Advanced Research: Past Contributions and Future Prospects
Joanne Mulcahy, Chair Director of the Writing Culture Summer Insitute, Northwest Writing Institute, Lewis and Clark College Survey and Critique of Writing Programs
Alma Gottlieb Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Champaign Dancing a Jig with Genre
Philip Graham Professor, Department of English, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Presentation of the Other
Jane Kepp Editor, Santa Fe, New Mexico Raising Standards for Academic Writing by Teaching Self-Editing
Kirin Narayan Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison Generating Narrative Tension
David Grant Noble Writer and photographer, Santa Fe, New Mexico The Project, Writer, and Readership
Paul Stoller Professor, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, West Chester University Weaving the World by Balancing Ethnography with Memoir
Barbara Tedlock Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Buffalo Teaching Writing in Anthropology
Dennis Tedlock James H. McNulty Professor, Department of English, State University of New York at Buffalo Voices in Ethnographic Writing
Edith Turner Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia Overview of Changes in the Writing of Anthropology
Rob Whittemore Professor, Department of Social Sciences, Western Connecticut State University The Use of Writing to Develop Ethnographic Sensibility

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