Reading as an ethnographic tactic

One of the things, totally unsurprising, about the social world where I’m working is that it’s full of texts. Even restricting ourselves to written texts, we find not only books but also articles, dissertations, textbooks, pamphlets, blog posts, media coverage, government proclamations, analyses of government proclamations, activist manifestos, online books, posters, banners, schedules, graffiti, email, text messages, announcements of the birth of professors’ children, warnings not to break the sociology department copy machine, security warnings, maps and directional signs, historical placards, captions attached to bombastic statues, conference programs, course descriptions, online discussion forums, advertisements printed on the outside of bookstore sales bags, activist pin-on buttons, government ID badges, and the like. I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list of the written genres I’ve encountered — and of course, most of these genres are themselves compound genres containing other genres within. It would be a project in itself just to diagram these genres and analyze their interrelations and metapragmatics.

With the onset of summer, I’m faced with the end of the academic year, the end of class meetings and conferences, the end of departmental meetings and protests, and hence the temporary loss of most of the usual opportunities for face-to-face ethnographic observation in the traditional sense. My field site is shutting down. But I’m trying to ask myself: what do I make of the fact that I still possess an wonderful, unmanageable number of printed pages, of written things, of texts, that I need to read? And that this reading is simultaneously a chance to do textual analysis but also, and this is what seems to deserve more attention, a form of participant-observation in the world in question. Academia is nothing if not a community of readers. What then are the tactical or theoretical implications of a summer spent reading in a project on academia?

It strikes me that my point of departure has to be this: that reading isn’t something I can approach as a form of background knowledge, as a source of pure context. Nor for that matter can reading be a form of pure textual decoding that serves only as an instrumentally necessary prelude to some type of textual analysis. Nor, for that matter, is this necessarily a matter of doing “ethnography of reading,” which is essentially a traditional ethnographic investigation of a given set of readers. Of course it’s important to examine local means of reading, interpretation and textual reception, as Jonathan Boyarin or Janice Radway or Charles Bazerman have done in various contexts from physics labs to Book of the Month Club editors. But still, what I’m interested in isn’t ethnography of reading but ethnography as reading. Sitting on a bench reading a book as a way of being-there in an academic world. Reading as a form of participation, not just of observation. After all, the locals are constantly trying to get me to partake in their common means of textual exchange, by constantly suggesting books for me to read. These book suggestions are of course themselves invaluable ethnographic data. But reading itself is a way of learning one’s way around a space, a way of retracing a set of thoughts or “problématiques,” a way of developing competences of comprehension and belonging for later use, a way of assimilating some of the aesthetic parameters of a social world, its characteristic framing devices, its cast of characters, its rhythm. There’s a reason why half of my conversations here revolve around who has read what: having read a text provides a source of social solidarity and a ground for further exchange.

On a more theoretical level, in conceptualizing reading as a means of participation in an academic world, I think we must make a real effort to resist the temptation, always common, to theorize a social world as, above all, a world of physically co-present human beings in real-time social interaction. Rather we have to think of academic texts as moments in a complexly mediated and disaggregated social world, one where perhaps you can learn more about someone by reading their book than by having an hour-long interview. Ursula K. Le Guin has beautifully asserted that authors are, always, already there in their texts: “We write stories about imaginary people in imaginary situations. Then we publish them (because they are, in their strange way, acts of communication—addressed to others). And then people read them and call up and say But who are you? tell us about yourself! And we say, But I have. It’s all there, in the book. All that matters.

I don’t know many true post-structuralists, but this blunt assertion of authorial presence should give them chest pains, if they happen to be reading this blog. Le Guin, incidentally, never claims that authors are the uniquely privileged interpreters of the texts they produce; but only that their texts, being the products of long labors of writing, provide evidence, acquaintance, knowledge of the author. This seems to me true, particularly for academic texts, which, with their thickets of formal citations and fairly clear displays of intellectual affiliation, are relatively useful guides to systems of professional relations. For example, there were certain sociologists who I already suspected to be quite politically different before I arrived in France, and who turn out, in fact, to be quite politically different. (A euphemism.)

In this sense, one can read social relations out of texts, can read intellectual trajectories and movements out of texts, can read stylistic maneuvers and claims of authority or importance out of texts. To be sure, reading alone produces a rather limited and partial experience of an academic world. But the academic world would be equally inaccessible, maybe even incomprehensible, without reading. Because, again, reading is a form of participation. And one could go farther: reading is one of the constitutive forces of academic worlds, a practice of social and intellectual (re)production, an act of worlding that yields a cosmos where there are landscapes of ideas and concepts, immaterial “schools of thought” and “intellectual trajectories,” clashes of ideology playing out at once in terms of pure theory and in terms of the job hiring process.

Now, to do ethnography through reading as a way of examining textually mediated academic worlds is not, I emphasize, to become the kind of idealist semiotician who believes that there’s nothing outside the text. Is not to believe that everything human is a text. Is not to argue that anthropology is just hermeneutics or that every percept or behavior is a “cultural text.” I oppose those theorists who hold views of this sort. But I also don’t think that academic reality is reducible to its more obviously sociological dynamics (to positions on a disciplinary field, to institutional hierarchy and competition, etc). That kind of sociology tends to elide or minimize the cultural and intellectual content of the world it dissects. A better way of thinking about academic life would perhaps begin neither from the institutional infrastructure nor from the purely intellectual dynamics, but rather from an analysis of the relations of intellectual production, a theoretical placeholder term that I hope to think through before long.

Will try to post more often. Coming up soon: photographic analysis of academic pride parades; preliminary readings of some recent French philosophical work on the university; perhaps notes on my somewhat problematic relationship to the French language…

2 thoughts on “Reading as an ethnographic tactic

  1. I am about to complete a double major in anthropology and cultural studies, and I always tended to think about anthropology/people and cultural studies/texts. What you propose is great because first it widens up the scope of ethnography and emphasises the contemporary interdisciplinary environment, but also actually becomes a way of imagining post-poststructuralist identity.

    Le Guin’s response doesn’t close out any post-structuralist epistemology. If we take a deconstructive line, in which narrative is always already fractured, and predicated on intertextuality, then the text truly does represent the author, who is also always a fractured entity, and, a subject of discourse.

    1. Hi Rob,

      Nice to hear from you. I can’t say I think of myself as having any really well-developed theory of selfhood, so I’m glad you think there’s one at work here, and a worthwhile one to boot. My first thought about what you say here is that I certainly agree that selves are fractured, but I also think that mental processes are predicated on a lot more than discourse or intertextuality. I think there are major limits to things like Althusserian theories about interpellation, Foucauldian theories about the production of subjects through discourses of sexuality and truth, and semiotic theories of the self as a linguistic construct (I guess the locus classicus for this would be Benveniste’s 1958 paper on ‘subjectivity in language’). These kinds of theories can tell us a lot about social processes of classification and recognition, and certainly a lot of one’s sense of self is culturally structured and discursively emergent, but I don’t really think that these ultimately sociocentric or discourse-centric theories are adequate as psychological theories of what happens in human minds. I don’t pretend to know much about this, but there seems to be lots of research in psychoanalysis and cognitive science and affect theory that would at the very least seem to describe much richer and more autonomous levels of psychic processes than one can access by a purely textual or sociological analysis.

      Actually this reminds me of a whole polemic I’ve been mulling over about the place of psychology in ethnographic research, so maybe I’ll stop here and just write a new post later today that will take this up in more detail… but anyway, your comment is much appreciated! I guess I just feel driven to quibble with theories that treat subjectivity as purely discursive.

      good luck with anthro and cultural studies, it sounds fun. eli

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