OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY: Review of Johannes Fabian’s Ethnography as Commentary, with 2 comments

Afterwards, thinking I had a great idea, I
encouraged Owen (not that he needed to be encouraged) to post his own
essay on the event, and then navigated over to Alexandre to do the
same…except that, as the event closed, Alexandre declared that his post
was already done. I found out why his head was down for the whole
event: he was Tweeting his notes straight to his blog from his iPhone,
a device that I saw for the first time as he held it, a tiny thing that
looks like it would make typing impossible. And yet, he was all done
(see his Twitter blog here).

what Alex doesn’t know is that I was telepathically uploading my post,
which is how it appears here at exactly 7:00pm, as the event ended.
Neither Twitter nor the iPhone have anything on my brain.)


Fabian’s talk seemed to be extremely relevant to very much that has
been discussed here and across anthropology blogs, and so I will devote
some time to laying out his presentation.  The talk ranged from open access and open source, to virtuality, to ethnographic writing, to the politics and ethics of ethnography, and even to the Human Terrain System.
For those who would like to have a very good idea of what Fabian said,
it essentially mirrored the first twenty pages, the Introduction, of
what he hinted may be his very last book: Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive.
Fabian is a professor emeritus at the Department of Cultural
Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, and so, officially retired.


“An American Anthropologist”

began by correcting his introduction to the audience, noting that he is
now retired, that he was fired from Northwestern University, and that
he considers himself an American anthropologist since he did his
studies in the U.S., worked in the U.S., and continues to spend
considerable time there.

Time and Place: Events and Documents

began by trying to sum up what “we” do as ethnographers. He outlined
his research in the Katanga, Congo, from 1972 to 1974, although he
first went in 1967 to do his PhD dissertation research. His PhD
dissertation was titled, “Language and Labour among Swahili-speaking
Mineworkers in Katanga,” and was funded by the National Endowment for
the Humanities. In his time in Congo, he worked in a zinc refining
plant, as well as a plant making “neo-African furniture.” In time he
became acquainted with actors and painters, after working with a
charismatic Catholic movement.

in the university obviates a sustained ethnographic focus, Fabian
stated. The best kind of research is a great research project, and no
grant. He did not elaborate, and he may not have been joking.

The project at the centre of his talk, and new/last book,
concerning his recording of a conversation with a “magician/healer”
over 30 years ago. Having been burglarized, Fabian decided to contract
the services of a “sorcerer” to protect his house. The ceremony that
involved warding off evil spirits and thus safeguarding it from
malicious intrusions is called “closing the house.” The conversation
that followed the “closing” ceremony remained as an audio tape for over
three decades, until it was finally transcribed, digitized, and
deposited in this virtual archive. This text, and Fabian’s reflection on the process of producing and commenting on it, is what led to the book shown above.

The Internet: Opening, Invigorating Ethnography

claim that our claims are based on a document of research, Fabian
explained, what we allude to as “empirical validity.” The process of
writing the ethnographic monograph has changed irreparably. We no
longer engage in merely “writing up,” but we instead spend more time
reflecting on, discussing, and laying open how events and experiences
become documents, he said. The key process of transformation occurs
from experiences to documents to writing.
Every “fact” that we write about is always “after the fact.” The
document presumes the absence of the fact to which it refers. These
ideas were presented by Fabian in a way that seemed disjointed to me,
and of course my own selective listening may have eliminated some key
transition words or phrases. (Otherwise, I heard him clearly enough,
seated at arm’s length to his right, just after Owen.)

The Internet may invigorate our commitment to ethnography, Fabian exclaimed. The Internet will make ethnographies accessible.

documents can be deposited in a virtual archive. “Virtual,” he noted,
can connote “not real.” However, Fabian argued, virtual, like virtue, is derived from virtus, and should instead connote effectiveness and strength. Indeed, he continued, in terms of their practicality, documents in a virtual archive are “more real,” more real in how they mediate between events and experience and their analysis.

book did not evolve from some theoretical master plan. Instead, Fabian
told us, he began by simply transcribing and then digitizing, and this
led to theoretical reflection afterwards.

Crossing Borders: Ethnography as Transgression

How did Fabian cross thee borders?

  1. when the ethnographer became a patient, a client — there was no method here, and no attempt to change roles
  2. by seeking the treatment of an herbalist (this struck me as identical to the first, so I may have missed something)
  3. when he leaves the confines of
    rational conduct, to become the client of a magician (again, it seemed
    like the same border as the first)

However, he said — and this is one of his key points — without self-consciousness, without duplicity, there could have been no document that emerged from this experience. There would have been no record of his crossing. It is through epistemological duplicity that document is produced.

The researcher must be duplicitous to be a researcher, Fabian argued, he must put on an act, as a researcher then friend then observer, etc. It is this duplicity that makes ethnography possible.

Fabian cautioned that he did not intend to appeal to moralists with
moral critiques of duplicity, but I did not think that made
epistemological duplicity any cleaner.

When he took notes after the “closing,” he crossed the border between patient and ethnographer.

Ethnography and Literary Form: The Question of Genre

said we must disrupt the convention of knowing what to do before
starting ethnographic research, and that we should probably stop
forcing graduate students to figure out what they will do and what they
will think, and how, before they even commence “fieldwork.” Fabian
calls this work he is doing as “closing house on late ethnography,”
as a take on the “closing house” ceremony but also as a way of
suggesting that he is closing shop, reaching for closure with this, his
last book.

Fabian also argued that it is not possible to keep the researcher out of the acts that require his presence. As a result, we should not keep ourselves out of own ethnographic writing.

Fabian asked whether it was too late to be writing ethnography. Especially since — and here he started to sound again like the Fabian that I thought Fabian was — ethnography has roots in an imperial gaze that defined the science of mankind conceived as natural history. We are today looking at the end of the ethnographic monograph, he concluded, even while ethnography is in full inflation with a host of other disciplines, with market researchers, and so forth. Any new debates, he argued, would have to be about genre, about how to present knowledge, the form of its representation.

Texts acquire a “new presence” in the virtual archive. Here Fabian entered his discussion about commentary as a genre of writing,
and not commentary as a brief gloss (for example, the way I did in my
last post). He is speaking of commentary as an ethnography that requires the copresence of a substantial text.
Commentary, Fabian continued, involves a practice of writing in a
community of writers and readers (he may have “discovered” blogging
here, except he told one questioner after the event that he does not read any of the anthropology blogs – well, that may be good news for me in the end).

Producing texts in a virtual archive, and the writing of commentary, frees ethnographic writing from the constraints of print, such as minimizing the original language to a few select quotes (and this is where I spotted his printed
text circulating the room, in contrast to the “other text” as I call
it, the one on his website linked to above). Such commentary, as
ethnographic writing, is no longer predicated on the absence of its object. It is not consumed by the devices of presentation. All of the details are available now, one is no longer forced to cater to the “spare me the details” crowd, he commented.

was not advocating for hyper-reflexivity mired in methodologism,
without ever getting to the point. Instead what he said first inspired
him were Talmudic texts, quotes from the original source on a page
surrounded by the commentaries of Talmudic scholars interpreting the
text, and reacting to one another’s reinterpretations. “Am I saying we should be Talmudic writers? I think one can be worse things.”

Commentary, Comments, Memoranda

proceeded to reflect on the peculiar status of a text that makes it an
“ethnographic” text. An ethnographic text, he thinks, is not literature. It is not fiction (I seriously beg to differ). It is not found. It does not come from nor contribute to a canon (I have no idea how he could say this), and it is not to be found in the archives
(except that the Human Resource Area Files did archive pieces of
ethnographic texts). I think that if we had detained Fabian on this
line of thinking, we would have discovered that the emperor has no

presence of the text signals the absence of the event it documents. (It
was not clear why Fabian felt the need to state the obvious here.) The text is present, the event is past.

comments making up the commentary, Fabian explained, can be thought of
as memoranda. Memoranda are things to be remembered, and memory is
crucial to ethnography. (I was not dozing off at any point of his
discussion, and these thoughts, simple and straightforward as they are,
were put to us as if he would go somewhere with them, only to drop them
as soon as he spoke them.)

Texts never come alone, Fabian instructed us, they come with con-texts.
At this very point, I confess, I began to hear Fabian’s discussion in a
jumbled manner: he seemed to jump quickly from speaking of text-centred
approaches, to the problem of “empirical overkill,” to the “culture as
text” movement leading to the production of fewer texts (I have no idea
what he means), to intrepretivist tendencies accompanied by “less stuff
to be interpreted.” (Once again, it’s as if he had stopped reading at
some time in the early 1980s.)

We are free to do what we want with text, Fabian declared. He also noted that each time we must rethink theory and method as we undertake to produce a new text.

Fabian’s text-centredness, he told us, seemed to be a logical consequence of his linguistic approach.

lie between communication between actors and the representation of
their communication. Fabian’s next point, not well connected to this
last one, or any other one for that matter, was that the materiality of
archives grows, changes, and consists of multiple parts. Once again,
and now I am ready to protest, I do not see any point in making such
simple points as if we had all missed the obvious.

Appropriation and Expropriation: The Ethics of Commentary

this stage in the presentation, a rapid turnaround occurred. This is
when I expected to hear the radical Fabian, the Fabian critical of
anthropology. Instead, I saw a conservative and defensive Fabian, at
first hiding behind an exterior that suggested otherwise, only to bare
all to the contrary.

Fabian began by saying that we must be conscious of the political and economic interests wielded by our countries in the countries in which we study.

But then he stated we should have no code of ethics, just like there is no code of ethics for mathematics,
in what I thought was an absolutely awful analogy that I thought we had
heard for the last time sometime around 1880. Fabian then made a
comment in passing, raising his eyebrows, about “all the ethics discussions at the AAA meetings each year” as if these bothered him.

Anthropology is an intellectual endeavour, Fabian asserted, not a profession (and once again I wonder how one could make such an obviously false assertion). Fabian argued that human subjects review and “cultural property” will make ethnography impossible. Indeed, he may have a point, but it may be a point worth defending, not attacking.

We cannot derive our legitimacy from a code of ethics,
Fabian exclaimed, and when I say exclaimed I mean he was firm, not
loud, not agitated. In fact the whole event, with everyone included,
was very light, friendly, and calm.

With archived texts, Fabian continued, one is free to quote, copy and comment.

What about anonymity for informants? Fabian complained that we often fail to distinguish between damaging and critical statements,
and there was no way he could not be critical in the face of an
informant, or an interlocutor as he sometimes preferred to call them. We cannot be neutral in communication. Ethnographers and interlocutors are both agents, so why is just one being named?

Should interlocutors be listed as coauthors? Yes, to acknowledge them…but no, not to be burdened with the responsibility of authorship.

Did Fabian consult Kahenga, his interlocutor in the recorded conversation that he archived online? No. He could not reach him.

in Fabian’s commentary, is often understood in terms of ethics and
politics, but in his view it is more about epistemology and history.
Does the ethnographer “appropriate” knowledge? Well, he said, if by
“appropriate” you stick to the meaning of the word, which means to make
one’s own, then yes, and what is so bad about making that knowledge
one’s own? How can it be appropriated anyway? Knowledge is not property, he argued. Property is equivocal. Property consists of things. Only objects can be property.

for expropriation, Fabian has an even worse bone of contention.
Expropriation means to take something away, so how does the
ethnographer in gaining knowledge “take it away” from his interlocutors?

Fabian then entered a short discussion about compensating one’s interlocutors. He asserted, quite firmly: “I will not and have never provided remuneration for conversation.” Clearly, he would turn green with my document here.

Questions and Answers from the Audience

will not use the names of the questioners because for all I know they
may have any number of reasons for not having their presence documented
in an online source, for this date and time. This can be an
intellectual endeavour, and still respect the welfare of one’s fellows,
a lesson that Fabian seems to dismiss.

The lines in bold print are the questions, each time followed by Johannes Fabian’s answers.

Who is your audience?

Other ethnographers.

Review Boards often ask us WHEN we will destroy all our documents, and
how we plan to do so. You archived a document from 30 years ago, and
now perpetuate its existence. How would you handle the requirements
from a review board?

Just fill in what they want, and then give a damn. No really, I said it here: Fill it in and forget it.

showed the virtues of the text in the virtual archive, openly
accessible, and then you proceeded to publish a different text in
print. Why? What distinguishes the two texts?

are different media. The book is what brought everything together.
Producing the virtual archive text led to the book. And the original
text, and all of the footnotes you see online, came together as the
book. In fact, I could not have brought it all together if I were not
writing a book.


then someone next to me, out of the blue, asked an incredible question.
I asked the one about open access above, and the one asked by a PhD
student next to me seemed to arise as if someone had read my thoughts,
and I was amazed, and very disappointed by the answer.

do you think about how anthropologists are being used by  the military
and intelligence, what do you think about the Human Terrain System and
its use of anthropologists?

(Fabian looked down, and his face become red, dark, with thought, and an awfully long pause and deep silence ensued.)

COMMENT. No really, I have no comment. Others, like [David] Price have
spoken about these things. Many have had much to say. I mean, we all
know, what made anthropology possible. Anthropology could not be if it
had not gathered information for the state. You know, statistics, the
word comes from “statistas,” agents of the state. So all these
knowledge forms come from serving power. They could not be without it.
Anthropology was always used. So I say: NO COMMENT.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.