Pre-made objects

I’ve been thinking lately about how, in ethnography, some objects of inquiry seem to come ready-made, almost pre-packaged, while others are so unclear, blurry, flou (in French), that it’s hard to decide how to examine them.

For example, since I finished my doctoral dissertation in 2014, I’ve published (or am in the middle of publishing) five papers about French university politics. But I’ve published nothing about French philosophers’ daily lives, even though something like half of my ethnographic fieldwork was about that topic.

The fact is that political activism comes to me, for the most part, pre-packaged. It divides itself up into little groups (or big groups) that usually have names and mission statements. It produces political events that have fairly clear forms, boundaries, starting and ending times. This is most obvious when you write about something like a single protest event (like my paper on the Ronde infinie des obstinés), but it’s true too for my paper about precarity politics, for instance, since precarious work is not just a social phenomenon, but a defined political cause.

In contrast, in spite of a considerable body of research on everyday life, I find it harder to write about. These spaces where people are bored. Where nothing happens. People chatting casually. Going to and fro. Eating sandwiches. Consuming, producing, exchanging. All the spaces of capitalist ordinariness — and universities are also spaces of capitalist ordinariness — are hard for me to write about ethnographically.

Now, one might object that ethnographic observers have a lot of latitude in how to construct their objects of inquiry. One isn’t given an object: one makes the object. As if everyone just had the power to make an object! But OK, it’s true: objects only become objects under inspection, subject to a conceptual grid that you bring with you as a perceiving subject. Objects aren’t accessible all by themselves, they are actively posited.

But without denying the role of conceptual activity in object construction, the fact is that the world already comes to us in a series of pre-given forms, which are never purely individual constructs. It’s not just ethnographers who create form by objectifying the world. “The locals” do that too, and their forms are often more durable, more institutionally viable, more solid, than ours. Natural processes create form too: the flow of wind or water erodes the rocks and soil and gives the landscape its form.

Of course it’s fair to say that anthropologists, collectively, have created some durable forms too. The very idea of “culture,” for instance. But I don’t think most of us are doing that when we do our own research. (Alas, much social research is not participatory action research — which at least supposedly leads to more durably institutionalized outcomes.) And as an individual, lone researcher, I don’t think my own research activity has created any very durable social forms.

So once you get past all the caveats, the interesting question becomes: how is one’s thinking, one’s research, affected by the fact that some parts of the world come to you pre-formed, as if pre-made for analysis, and others come to you messily, vaguely, or not at all?

Here we rejoin a standard topic of professional discussion, since lots of anthropologists have tried to find “new objects” the past twenty or thirty years. Kathleen Stewart suggested recently that precarity is a key condition of new forms:

“Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) cleared a field for an attention to emergent forms. A new object of analysis became legible, took on qualities, trajectories, aesthetics. Writing followed it, pulled into alignment with it, becoming tactile and compositional. Culture was reconceived as an assemblage of disparate and incommensurate things throwing themselves together in scenes, acts, encounters, performances, and situations. Writing became an attunement, a response, a vigilant protection of a worlding. Both writing and culture became potentially generative and capacious. A writing might skid over the surface of something throwing itself together or it might pause on a strand as it moved with other strands or fell out of sync, becoming an anomaly or a problem. Writing could be a way of thinking. What follows here is a brief composition of precarity. I take precarity to be one register of the singularity of emergent phenomena—their plurality, movement, imperfection, immanence, incommensurateness, the way that they accrete, accrue and wear out…”

But this raises a new question. Under what conditions are new objects possible? When can one perceive emergent phenomena and when are they illegible? (I have a very different view from Stewart about how to analyze precarity, but let’s leave that aside.) And why privilege emergent phenomena in the first place (aside from reasons of disciplinary strategy)?

Or rather: Isn’t the question of how to apprehend an “emergent object” secondary to the question of how the spectrum of possible objects already organizes us as researchers? The work of social form precedes us (as Stewart would no doubt agree), and for me, doing self-conscious social research involves trying to become conscious of all the unconscious forces that predetermine our work.