Talking about Ethnographic Sparks 2015

Field Trip Notes. April 7th, 2015. By Eliot Storer.

Spark. noun. of unknown origin.

  1. A trace of a specified quality or intense feeling
  2. A sense of liveliness and excitement

The Ethnography Studio took its first field trip April 7, 2015. Professor of Anthropology at The New School, Hugh Raffles, joined Rice’s studio participants of faculty, graduate students, and recent PhDs, for a morning visit to the Menil Collection’s new installation, entitled, The Infinity Machine, at Houston’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel. To complement to our installation visit, Raffles invited us to read a piece of fiction from German writer W.G. Sebald’s, The Emigrants, a collection of narratives about memory and trauma during World War II in Europe. We playfully titled the session, “How to find your ethnographic spark –a non-cultish conversation with Hugh Raffles”. With the installation and essay as our inspiration, we attempted to approximate our own ethnographic sparks, a difficult task given they are never quite readily available to us.

Created by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Infinity Machine is a large, revolving apparatus of mirrors hanging from the windowless chapel’s high ceilings. Light from strategically placed fixtures reflects on the rotating mirrors, endlessly folding, unfolding, and magnifying itself. Intensified by soundscape recordings of solar winds interacting with the ionosphere, the installation creates an environmental totality shifting between sensoral overload and a meditative calm.

Sitting down for coffee after the installation visit, we reflected on the installation and Sebald essay with Raffles. The conversation reintroduced the continued importance of fiction in ethnography. Participants agreed that, for whatever reason, we’ve tended to neglect reading fiction. Fiction reading always seemed too time demanding, I couldn’t extract quotes from it for my papers, and it made no explicit truth claims. But for Raffles, one of the most popular writers in anthropology today, fiction is his ethnographic spark. He engages with fiction not to explain theory, but rather pragmatically, to work with the genre’s technical dexterity and evocative abilities. For Raffles, with care and expertise, fiction’s powers can be transposed into ethnography.

Raffles explained Sebald’s characteristic and profound ability to shift subjects in a single sentence. His in-sentence shifts between temporalities, places, interpretation/description, etc., is not messy and unclear, but efficient and poetic. This technique often goes unnoticed by the reader (myself included), yet captures their attention nonetheless. The spark is elusive, and working with it requires practice.

Coincidentally, it seemed like our experience in The Infinity Machine’s folding light reflections could work as a metaphor for approximating one’s ethnographic spark. The light reflections (sparks) were always present to the individual, yet only with careful and attentive engagement could one “work with” the spark: to see it reflected in another way, to understand its tendencies, to acclimate our senses to its process.

Our relationship to an ethnographic spark may be involuntary, yet we can never simply possess it, put it in a box, or name it straightforwardly. The difficulty is in cultivating this contradictory relationship with care; being-with a spark and letting it do its work on us, while opening our academic practice and our technical capacities towards them. This, I would argue, is a central task of the Ethnography Studio.

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