Friday, December 5, 2008

Writing, Reading

Well I've been thinking a bunch about writing and reading, and how they relate to fieldwork and ethnography, lately. There are a couple reasons why.

First, I think it is right that anthropology is really writing. Lots of people go places, and live there for a while, but most don't write up their experiences into academic jargon. So this point of Geertz, Clifford, whoever else I think is quite good (though I don't really agree with a lot of their other points or what they think follows from this). Anthropologists have "problematized" this notion by trying to write discordant ethnographies or whatever, trying to get away from making an all-encompassing narrative. But actually I think it is right-to-write the cohesive narrative. I think anthropologists (like all writers) should be trying to think more about narrative and what kind of narratives are effective.

Second, over the last few months I was reading Homage to Catalonia (Orwell), The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), and the Cairo Trilogy (Mahfouz). These are good books but they struck me in a certain way to be nationalist... not necessarily in a negative sense but still. Anyway I'm not a literary scholar, this is just my feeling from reading these books. Further, my impression from talking to people in London (advantage of LSE is that you meet people from all over) is that many attach an importance to knowing and reading their own national literature. I don't think I really ever had this. So it got me to thinking about Canada and our strange breed of nationalism (for whoever was there, this includes the Canada Day celebration at the Maple Leaf Pub!). But browsing the book store one day, I decided, hey, maybe instead of just ignoring it I will actually look at the section labeled "Canadiana." That day I picked up a book on Canadian identity/nationalism, as well as another canadian fiction novel that I left in Canada. Anyway I finished it so I decided to acquaint myself with some Canadian fiction writers I could find here in Japan. I just finished an Atwood novel and now I am reading Robertson Davies. A few people have said to me that this is kind of funny/strange/whatever because I am now reading Canadian stuff while I am off in Japan... shouldn't I be reading Japanese stuff? I had the same debate in my mind at some bookstores here, while browsing through the "Japan-related" section of the English language books (which is usually a sizable chunk of the English books they have). But I decided actually I think it's more complex than that and by reading some Canadian lit I'm seeing myself, or the way we write "ourselves" as a nationalist narrative, vis-a-vis a similar Japanese self (or, really, narrated self--- by which I mean that I don't think there are essences of Japanese or Canadian or whatever, but still we try to make them, and one way is through a national literature). Okay, so all of this is really abstract and what does it have to do with anything?

Trying to keep myself occupied (the reading also comes in here, actually--- need something to do!), I've been visiting and hanging out in various places in Tokyo. Usually on the Yamanote line (a circle line that runs around the main of Tokyo), specifically in the area from Tokyo station up to Shinjuku. These areas just happen to be the most interesting to me, though I know that is snobbish as these are the publicized and famous spots. It includes Tokyo and Shimbashi (big skyscrapers and corporate headquarters), Shibuya and Harajuku (youth-centered areas), and Shinjuku (pretty much everything I guess). Anyway so I went to Ebisu, which is right around Shibuya. It's known to be a bit foreign/European feeling, many cafes, a good night spot area. I don't remember taking a look there before and anyway I wanted to go to this used English book store there (!!! was almost finished my Atwood novel). So I end up at this place called Yeibusu Garden Place. It's a newish development, not much like a garden at all. Department stores, pubs, restaurants, etc. But it does have a nice outdoor area (if more concrete/stone than "garden"), with an entrance lane flanked by potted trees leading into a main courtyard with benches surrounding a large chandelier displayed inside a glass enclosure. I read here for a while, watched some people with their dogs---this was the first I can remember seeing dogs this time in Japan. They were all small, well-groomed, short-leashed, and outfit-wearing. Very controlled. Anyways, after hanging there for a while, I went to my book store, had a coffee, came back. By this time it was dark, and all the Christmas lights were lit up. So there were many people walking around, especially couples, enjoying the evening. After milling around for a while, wondering whether I should go home and eventually deciding that it is best to try to observe something rather than sit on the couch, I tried my hardest to look around. So what is everyone doing? They are mostly taking pictures. Sometimes just with a cellphone, sometimes of their friend or companion (who are displaying the obligatory two-finger peace-sign hand gesture), sometimes with a full tripod setup. So I was thinking what is the attraction of taking pictures of everything all the time? Why is the main point of going somewhere in order to take a picture of it, which, at least for me and my complete non-knowledge of cameras, never looks as good as the real thing anyway? Everyone does this I know, though I would say that it is particularly prevalent in and among the Japanese (queue stereotype of Japanese tour group, all taking pictures of Subway and Pizza Hut). I had a few thoughts, but basically I decided to think on it and that most simple answers (to show their friends, to justify their expensive camera, to have something to do instead of just standing around) are just that---simplistic. Anyway so I left to go home, glad that I had at least observed and then thought about something that is vaguely about people's relation to technology.

Then on the train home, I was reading my book again, and I read this quote from Margaret Atwood's novel a Blind Assassin on p. 353: "The sun declines, the shadows of the curtains move across the bed. Voices on the street outside, unknown languages. I will always remember this, she tells herself. Then why am I thinking about memory? It's not then, it's now. It's not over". Which struck me. It was so coincidentally what I had been thinking about just an hour before.

So what's the conclusion? Well, really nothing. I'm writing down and analyzing everything, it only makes sense to write down and analyze the things you are writing down and reading. Reflexivity (or reflectivity... to drop the holier-than-thou, in-touch-with-my-sensitive-side baggage that goes with "reflexivity") is recursive afterall. That last part is for you Computer Science-y readers (if you exist...)

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