The Ethnography Studio Presents:
Refusing Poetic Restraint
The 2021 Ethnographic Salon
Katie: Amid hectic pandemic times, we didn’t post a reflection on the 2021 Salon right away. Fast forward to October 2022, when we got together with Konstantin Georgiev, one of the Salon 2021 organizers, to talk about the event and finally write a reflection. To inspire our conversation, we looked back within our google drive archive of event organization materials. After our discussion, Konstantin wrote the following.
Konstantin: When asked to talk about the 2021 Salon over a year and a half after it took place, I thought I wouldn’t be able to pull any meaningful memories out of the haze of the pandemic, with its combination of physical isolation and oversaturation of online stuff – classes, lectures, events. So I was quite surprised when I unearthed vivid memories from within the shared folders of internal documents, drafts for the call for papers, and participants’ entries.
One of the most interesting things was the long list of potential guest speakers that [other Salon 2021 organizers] Yesmar, Lupe, and I had drafted. We had considered almost twenty people as potential guests, we were excited about their enjoyable writing styles and the possibility of learning from them. It is funny to see that in the end we invited mostly people whom we had met before – whether at a colloquium at Rice, or when we did interviews for Andrea’s 2021 Slow Reading Seminar. I reckon we ended up making that choice because we wanted to deepen conversations that we had already started with these scholars. And maybe on a subconscious level, we were simply craving to see some familiar faces in the midst of the pandemic.
Katie: After the guest speakers were invited, the call for participants was circulated to the Rice community and nearby colleagues. Over the next couple months, student participants crafted submissions around the event’s theme, Refusing Poetic Restraint. These submissions took the form of written text, curated images, and poetry itself. The event itself then took place on May 14th over Zoom.
Andrea: The 2021 Salon explored the possibilities of poetic ethnographic engagements, both as a literary genre and as a quality of ethnographic work more broadly. Dr. Nomi Stone, Dr. Duana Fullwilley, and Dr. Maura Finkelstein shared some of their ongoing work, previous publications, and their vision of what poetics make possible as we come closer to the world. From technical discussions of syntax, to the power of poetic imagery, we had collective conversations, split into subgroups, shared tips and technically reviewed some of the poetic submissions. All of these happened through Zoom, in two blocks with a long two hour break in the middle. The plan, its implementation, and our reflection are all experiments with duration, with the draining experience of the screen, and with the nurturing power of collective creativity.
Student participants explored the poetic through first forays into writing poems, precise revisions of the place and musicality of a word, sound recordings of elephants, black and white images turned into colored ones, the poetic visuality of policy-flyers, and the disquieting significance of a used napkin.
Konstantin: [Thinking about the history of the Ethnographic Salon in the context of 2021] I enjoyed the Salons that were held in-person and involved a lot of casual talk over drinks and socializing over some communal labor, like setting up the space, hauling speakers to and from Valhalla [the graduate pub on campus], putting up screens, and running cables. The 2021 Salon, unfortunately, was mostly deprived of the casual social activities that would have otherwise surrounded it. Yet, as we were going through the documentary traces of the Salon, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of memories and snippets of conversations about voracious reading, craft, and even quotes from the texts of other participants. It was a good Salon, despite the different format.
Katie: Below are some of the student participants’ poetic submissions.
Quinn Georgic, Rice University
Myra Hird states in Animal Trans, “nonhuman animals have for some time been overburdened with the task of making sense of human social relations.” And yet, how do we arrive at imbuing particular animals with particular significations? In my research, I am conceptualizing the different ways conservation biologists and non-scientists engage with Savannah elephants in Botswana. This research aims to understand the interplay between the materiality and behavior of elephants and how they entangle with discourses of gender, race, and ability to produce the material-semiotic elephant.
In the above audio file, there are three minutes of an audio recording of three pachyderms (provided by the Youtube channel Elephantnews). How can we make sense of these radically different beings through sound? How might poetics allow for an oblique form of connection or understanding? Can we move away from a (human centered) linguistic form of poetics to experience these noises?
Yifan Wang, Rice University
This is a story that I have been resisting writing. I do not want it in my dissertation (at least not the main body); I do not want to interpret it, analyze it, or theorize it. But I want its presence in some way— I want a kind of presence that resists interpretation, analysis, or theorization. For a dissertation about eldercare in China, I don’t want it to be sentimental (can an ESL writer who Grammarly deems using “below average” amount of “unique words” or “rare words” write poetically is another question, but not an irrelevant question). So here it is, a photo of toilet paper strips that I replicated in her way.
I saw her doing this once shortly after she rebuked me. She rebuked me because I tried to stop her from picking up a used sheet of toilet paper from the trash bin. She used that sheet again, putting the toilet paper strip she brought with back into her pocket.
I was sitting on a stool outside one of the shared bathrooms in the dementia care wing, leaning on the door frame and peeking inside, as I was instructed to, in case she fell. And all I saw was her using a sheet of toilet paper that someone else had used and tossed.
Later on that day I saw her manicure her toilet paper collection. She split each sheet of two-ply toilet paper into four. She would first separate the two plies before tearing each into two strips. Then, with the four narrow strips of one-ply tissue, she would fold them, one by one, from the middle, and stack them on the shelf next to her night pot. She would bring exactly one slip every time she went to the bathroom.
I developed a whole speculative theory about it in my mind while I watched out for her. My theory was that her tightness was a byproduct of her decades of working in the logistic sector of a police department, through the years of famine and upheaval in socialist China: a brief (and sometimes not so brief) life history that she had told over and over again.
But I was simply wrong. T, the head caregiver of the floor, explained to me when I later reported the incident to her. It turns out that she was especially concerned about toilet paper because, when she was a child, there was a paper factory in town, polluting every single drop of water to produce white papers.
“Be sure you only give her one sheet of toilet paper if she asks for it,” T warned me, “because she gets insulted when you give her more.”
I did not tell T that I had made that mistake already. And I thought I was being generous.
Yesmar Oyarzun, Rice University
Freckles and Moles
I stage an impromptu encounter.
“Charles, do you have a mole right here?”
We all scan our arms. Elbows hang awkwardly above chests. Arms flex, fold, rotate.
“I have this one. It’s more of a freckle.”
What’s the difference between a freckle and a mole?
My partner points to a mole on his left arm that mirrors one I have on my right arm. I am invested in finding, between the four of us, at least the same mole in the same spot on two people… But, my partner announces, “These aren’t really the same. They’re mirror images.”
Are mirror images the same?
My skin is Black. Or rather, on the color wheel, my skin is brown. But nonetheless, my moles are black, even the one on the bottom, whiter side of my right foot under my second toe.
If my partner and I have the same mole, is it really the same if his is brown.
“That would be more of a birth defect.”
“Let me show you my birth defect. It’s right here.”
“Are you sure it’s a defect?”
“Well, maybe I meant more of a birthmark.”
How does a birthmark become a birth defect?
Charles exposes his chest. It is a benign exposure, yet the weight of over-intimacy hangs in the air, silently, but noted.
“He has these little red spots right here.”
“I think they are petechiae”
“Yeah, he has those too. On his arm. Look.”
“Yeah, I looked it up one time, I couldn’t tell if it was dangerous.”
“I guess I should get checked out more often anyway. You know, for skin cancer, like she said.”
How does a “spot” become a lesion?
How does a lesion become disease?
Konstantin Georgiev, Rice University
More than the sum of its parts
In 1962, French New Wave director Chris Marker made a remarkable film: La Jetée. It is a short science fiction film produced entirely with a still image camera, with the exception of one single shot in which a woman opens her eyes.
La Jetée is a remarkable feat of creativity in which still images are edited together and, with the help of sound design and a voice over narration, are turned into a cinematic masterpiece that even today is still often ranked among the top films ever made. It has been cited as a major stylistic influence by fillmmakers like Terry Gilliam and fiction writers as William Gibson.
La Jetée is what it is because its director had no money to hire a movie camera. Instead, he picked up a readily available still image camera and handed it to the cinematographer.
Figure 1: Still from La Jetée.
Decades earlier, in the dawn of the 20th century, the Russian chemist and photographer Prokudin Gorsky, ventured on an expedition, sponsored by the Tsar himself. In a private train, specially equipped with a car-darkroom, Prokudin-Gorsky wandered in the European and Asian domains of the Empire in order to create an accurate portrait of its landscapes, peoples, and architecture.
Of all the similar expeditions of the period, no other has been documented with clear and vivid like the ones Prokudin-Gorsky made.
His process was anything but simple. For each photograph, he exposed three different glass plates covered with photosensitive emulsion. Upon exposing the emulsion to light, Produkin-Gorsky would use a red, green, or blue filter and the resulting black-and-white images would have slight differences in the range of light-waves captured by the emulsion. When overlaid during projection, the three black-and-white images would produce a color photograph.
Figure 2: Demonstration of the trichrome principle on which Prokudin
Gorsky based his work. Source: Wikimedia
The photographs of Prokudin-Gorsky barely survived the turbulent time of the Russian revolution. The ones that were preserved, are celebrated for their precision.
On the fringes of the images, however, or on surfaces that move, like a river or a wind-struck tree, the difference between the three black-and-white shots manifests itself as flickers of color.
Figure 3: One of Prokudin-Gorsky’s 1910
photographs where movement, in this case of the
water, reveals the secrets behind the trichrome
Chris Marker’s film and Prokudin-Gorksy’s photographs achieve their goals by the organization of individual black-and-white stills and by the instrumentalization of the difference between the stills. This is obvious when we look at the fringes of one of the Gorsky’s images; but is by no means obvious when we let ourselves be taken by the film or the photographs.
As I am preparing to do patchwork ethnography1 in the ever shifting context of closed borders, fading acquaintances, and visas that might not permit me to stay for more than three months at a time, I look at the work of Marker and Prokudin-Gorsky and am wondering how to arrange the patches of data and experiences I am about to gather. What are the still black-and-white images, metaphorically speaking, that I need to produce, so that—when patched together—they will produce a clear work of intellectual expression. Alternatively, I am wondring, as fieldwork approaches, how can restraints in the field be preemptively harnessed, or is that something that only happens in writing?
1 Günel, Varma, and Watanbe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.”
Monika Jankowska, Rice University
Treating policy seriously?
Zhou Zhou, Rice University
With the sizzling sound of electricity, the voices of three hosts of a Chinese ghost story podcast filled my room. This podcast presented real-life supernatural encounters collected from the audience, and the one they were telling then was about an electronic scale. One of the hosts inhaled sharply and said: “Now there is one more device I’m too afraid to use.” She said that she never put on her headphones in spaces she felt “unstable”, fearing that they would pick up strange voices. The hosts also talked about disruptions they experienced when recording the podcasts, echoing with worldwide idea that mechanical devices could capture supernatural things undetectable by human senses. Those were “meta” moments particularly eerie for me: Was something also potentially creeping in when I was listening to this podcast? If ghosts were indeed present during the recording to cause disruption, was the sound of this podcast infectious?
Those thoughts create a world almost like the classical Japanese horror movie The Ring, where ghosts access the human world and spread through television, phone, and recording tapes. The technologies that connect us, that create the material basis for imagined communities are also the media through which haunting can spread.
For me, what ties ghosts with the question of poetic is that “ghosts” or “hauntings” are always multiple. There are ghosts one experience with horror and excitement. There are also ghosts of the history. The proliferation of ghosts in China is always related to history and to the state, either as criticisms or as patriotism. And there are the ghosts in academic analysis: Derrida’s spectres, Munoz’s unrealized potentialities in the past that disturb the present, etc. How do these “ghosts” relate, if they are not reducible to, and therefore not metaphors of, one another? What exists in the crevices and gaps among them? What is the poetic trope that can capture a relationship enacted by the intimacy of voice?
Megan Gette, UT Austin
Find a recent publication based on this work here.
It lands on a stem of milkweed.
The flutter is cataloged as data, to be googled later.
I scratch enough pen marks along the petal that it changes shape.
The only advice I have received about drawing is that one should “draw the relationships among things,” and not the thing.
What is the there there in a meticulous description of petals, wings, wind patterns?
Their undoing, or unworlding in the act of description.
That “certain ways of looking…can erase the intimacy and stability of those relations” (Romillanos 798).
Nabokov unclassified the Polyomattus blue butterfly, the Karner blue butterfly, by examining its genitalia.
His theory about their migration patterns proved to be true, but no one in the scientific community took it seriously in his time.
Quantum theory offers that a wave is a movement from equilibrium (undulation theory).
(How things come to rhythm).
Sounding is an event; memory is an action of this coherence.
A butterfly emerges through its atmospherics — a micro-thinking through the gestural, rather than a provisional context from which to read or situate it as an ethnographic subject.
The threshold of a thing’s expressivity has to do with these perceived exteriors, surfaces that scrub each other of subjectivity — narratives which are endlessly mutable in time.
(Letting go the emphasis on things, on entities, on particles, on objects, on species to think through forces, rhythms, heterogeneous temporalities—primacies of motion).
Unrhythming a thing as the wind picks up in unpredictable variation — undulations — minor events of weather, sneezing, and having to pee —
how “sometimes the movement of description obliterates the thing described” (Romillanos et al 806).
There is the question of what is an observable phenomena — writing in the present tense — whether at the center of everyone is an atmosphere of innocence waiting to be classified —
Similarly, what is an essay that is just a series of motions, edges or echoes of something – gestures-toward but never things that are?
Deciding what it is about when it isn’t “about anything.”
The non-subject Helene Cixous describes as central to both Monet and Clarice Lispector, “One does not paint water lilies. And the same way: no writing ideas. There is no subject. There are only mysteries. There are only questions…”
Is there a difference in the subtleties of shaking or trembling or vibrating as it disaggregates matter from its abstractions in shapes, or time?
These details are less important than the eerieness of their specificity when recalled.
Memory is less involuntary than “insensible,” where the sensory prompts both its dissimulation and the malleability of something like time.
Scrubbed of surface in the way that if the subject is unrecognizable, at least she is mobile, and mutable — soft like usnea florida, old man’s beard, a lichen that grows everywhere: first classified by Linneaus, now endangered.
[nb: this is an early draft of the writing portion of air, mirrorworld, a multimedia installation of sound and video to do with the “insensible” intimacies of the anthropocene (Yusoff 2015) in the Permian Basin, thinking through motion—the “unworlded” form of energy-as-fuel. This part responds to monarch butterfly conservation efforts in Texas, which prompt citizen scientists and ranchers to plant pollinator gardens, as well as tally monarch deaths on their windshields. One of the bigger threats to the butterfly migrations is traffic along I-35. Attending to heterogeneous temporalities destabilizes the singular human subject—”I”—to instead think through the rhythms of matter and mattering. ]