Another interesting Savage Minds’ essay on writing is Ieva Jusionyte‘s meditation on fieldwork, in the context of her work on borders.
This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.
I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.
But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting.
Because of this, I write anywhere and everywhere, whenever I have a minute to jot down my thoughts and observations. I scribble names, places and dates in my pocket notebook, in a handwriting that has become illegible, especially when the entries are made while riding in the back of a fire engine or on a 4×4 truck plowing through the dirt roads to where the fence between the U.S. and Mexico is nothing more than a Normandy barrier and four-strand barbed wire. I type abbreviated notes on my cell phone during stops at gas stations along the I-19 connecting Tucson with Nogales, and whenever pulling out my phone to quickly enter some text seems more polite – and less intrusive – than opening my notebook. When I am driving and I can’t pull over to jot down a thought that I want to keep, I record voice memos; I have done so passing through Border Patrol checkpoints on Arivaca Road and on Sasabe Highway, back when I used to count the times I was stopped and to document what the agents were saying.
As I’m starting to write fiction again, Savage Minds’ guest essay by teacher and anthropologist Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor is inspiring. What she writes about the interactions of different languages, about the power of the ethnographic gaze, gives me hope.
Acquiring Spanish as a second language led me to poetry, and becoming a better poet helped me become a better bilingual. I had been a good high school and college student of Spanish and had studied abroad in Spain and Mexico. After college, I wanted a way to give kindness back to the many Spanish speakers who tolerated and nurtured my emerging bilingualism. As a Spanish major with coursework in theatre and creative writing, it made sense to become an elementary school teacher. I was quickly overwhelmed. I struggled to teach third grade math, science, and California history in my new classroom in South Central Los Angeles.
This was 1992. Rodney King. Race riots.
Each school window had iron grating on the outside. On the inside, we decorated with window paint and crepe paper, a beautiful carpet displaying the map of the world. My students were all considered “LEP,” limited English proficient.. The institutional structure gave me, their inexperienced “bilingual teacher,” a few short months to teach Spanish literacy with the explicit caveat that English monolingualism was the true goal. To be successful in public K-12 education, my students had to forego Spanish proficiency. Meanwhile, I was learning more and more Spanish than ever before. The same bilingualism which was so privileged and nurtured in my college education was shut down for young, immigrant youth,; this didn’t seem right. As a hard-working teacher, I felt I had no time or energy left to contemplate this irony. I turned to poetry, and, then, to graduate school.
My first graduate school teachers were anthropologists of education at UC Santa Cruz. Dr. Greta Gibson and Dr. Cindy Pease-Alvarez taught me how to take field notes, to understand sociocultural theories of learning, to immerse myself in classroom life and interview bilingual parents and children. I was engaged by what I learned in educational research, but I yearned for methods and texts that were less planned and more playful, evocative of surprise and feeling. I read poets on the side: Martín Espada, Dorianne Laux, Chitra Divakaruni, Wislawa Symborska, June Jordan. I was moved by the ways in which these poets wrote about human experience across race, social class, language and culture. I wanted educational anthropology to stir as their words did, to reconsider bilingual policies and practices that seemed cruel and ineffective.
During one of my many summer indulgences in poetry, away from dry social science prose, I attended the Squaw Valley Writers conference. As I searched for my nametag, I saw Renato Rosaldo’s name a few rows away on the table. The “Renato Rosaldo,” author of Culture and Truth (1989)? Could it be that a prominent anthropologist was also an emergent poet? Indeed it was. Renato encouraged me to read other “antropoetas” as he referred to them: Ruth Behar, Dell Hymes, Kirin Narayan, and others. There was a small tribe of poetic anthropologists and they convened in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. The word “humanism” became a new “homeroom,” a place to put my bookbag down and represent poetic evocations of ethnographic learning.
I had a quest, to place myself among a community of artful social scientists and socially evocative artists. I learned to use ethnographic strategies to understand forms of bilingual education and I could sift theory with fieldnotes and interview data and find the images, the music, the performance of bilingualism in everyday life. If I gave myself permission and I studied craft in both poetry and anthropology, then I might contribute to the creative and humanistic renderings that have continued to inspire my teaching and learning. I have written a great many terrible poems. I have also written many bland academic words in prose. I feel lucky that part of my job has the goal to improve the quality of my writing so that it might evoke greater understanding and action.
A chat with a friend about an east-end Toronto diner where we ate last week, where a young couple complained to the waitress that their seemingly perfectly adequate Eggs Benedict were not up to their particular standards and talked about writing negative reviews in Yelp, brought to my mind Céline Dion’s “Un garçon pas comme les autres (Ziggy)”.
This song comes from Dion’s 1991 album Dion chante Plamondon, a collection of songs written by renowned Québécois lyricist Luc Plamondon. “Ziggy”, drawn from the 1970s rock musical Starmania, tells the story of a young woman hopelessly in love with her gay friend by that name.
Ziggy, il s’appelle Ziggy
C’est mon seul ami
Dans sa tête y’a que d’la musique
Il vend des disques dans une boutique
On dirait qu’il vit
Dans une autre galaxie
Tous les soirs, il m’emmène danser
Dans des endroits très très gais
Où il a des tas d’amis
Oui, je sais, il aime les garçons
Je devrais me faire une raison
Essayer de l’oublier… mais
Ziggy, his name’s Ziggy
He’s my only friend.
His head’s full of music.
He sells albums in a store.
One might say that he lives
In another galaxy.
Every night, he takes me dancing
To places that are quite gay
Where he has a lot of friends.
Yes, I know, he likes gay
I should come to terms
Try to forget him … But.
(The translation’s mine.)
It’s worth noting that when I, bilingual teen, encountered that song and that video on MuchMusic for the first time, that was probably among the earlier instances of specifically queer content I came across. I’d go so far as to describe it as positive: Narrator Dion does not condemn Ziggy for being gay, for being incompatible with her. Ziggy just sounds like a nice guy who’s impossible for her. That’s not nothing, not nothing at all, in the early and mid 1990s.
I actually do like Dion chante Plamondon and its songs. What they say about Dion’s French-language songs being better than her English-language hits, perhaps because she has a better sense for phrasing and lyrics in her native language than in her second one, perhaps because she draws on particular Francophone musical traditions that have no easy counterparts in English, is correct. She’s a sensitive interpreter of well-written songs throughout that album, using her voice to great effect. The album, and this song, demonstrate why she’s a star.
What made me think of this song in connection to that diner is Toronto cultural criticCarl Wilson‘s writings on Céline. In 2007, he wrote a book for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on critics’ reactions to key albums, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. That book, which got quite a lot of attention both in 2007 (see New York and The New Yorker) and in 2014 (see Pitchfork and Vice) when it was re-released in the expanded version Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, took one might call almost an anthropological approach to the Céline phenomenon. Why are specific forms, specific artists, seen as inauthentic and subjected to often scathing criticism? What are the reasons for doing it? Is it fair to do so? What do we lose by dismissing these? The New Yorker in 2007 phrased Wilson’s argument nicely.
An appreciation of pop music, meanwhile, trades specifically in matters of coolness. Pop is social—a common idiom, readily accessible, relatable, and debatable. It is about crowds and groups, us and them. Pop is also, for many people, deeply personal: it is the realm in which many of us make and discuss our first artistic choices as young people, and those personal stakes often extend into adulthood. Wilson recalls his own formative experiences listening to music—punk, songs from the margins, what he calls “maverick art”—and cannot fathom how some other young person could reap similar emotional rewards from Céline’s slick, middle class, packaged soundtrack of hope. “It’s a fault endemic, I think, to us antireligionists who have turned for transcendent experience to art, and so we react to what our reflexes tell us is bad art as if it were a kind of blasphemy,” he writes.
To these secular priests of art, Céline fans seem to have failed to make a coherent, or even a conscious, aesthetic choice. Instead they listen to her music for imprecise emotional reasons, or else passively opt for the merely popular, what is readily available. But, not surprisingly, Wilson finds that fans of Céline don’t see themselves as dupes or apologists or stooges. Wilson speaks to a young male fan who tells him that, during a period of depression, Céline’s “My Heart Will Go On” helped “draw me out of the darkness and into the light.” The very sentimentality of this phrase does not render it meaningless to the person who actually feels it. If this fan says that Céline saved his life, who is Wilson, or any one of us, to argue? Another fan attempts to explain her attachment: “Even if it’s not cool, even if it borders on the ridiculous in a lot of ways, and you can’t imagine why people would ever cry to a Céline Dion song, I think we should probably have more respect for people’s lack of guile…. I think it’s good to have things that you can’t explain.”
Different forms, different artists, relate to different conventions. Arbitrarily deciding that any of these conventions are irrelevant or don’t matter, especially on their own terms, is a problem. If nothing else, by doing so you can manage to miss out on fun stuff. I liked the cheesecake and coffee I ate at that diner. Perhaps that place deserves a positive Yelp review.
blogTO compares the contours of the Toronto Harbour in 1919 and now, and notes the huge amount of infill.
Centauri Dreams notes a three-dimensional study of GJ 1214b.
D-Brief describes how the primordial dense atmosphere of Mars was eroded by the solar wind.
The Dragon’s Gaze notes a SETI check of KIC 8462852 gives no results.
The Dragon’s Tales reports on Russia’s Syrian war.
The Everyday Sociology Blog examines perceptions of racial inequality in the United States.
Geocurrents maps the eaters of the sago palm, in Southeast Asia.
Lawyers, Guns and Money notes the myth of California as a land forever being lost.
Marginal Revolution considers the Amazon bookstore.
The Planetary Society Blog provides updates on various ESA missions.
The Russian Demographics Blog notes an article on foreign fighters in the Ukrainian war who returned home.
Savage Minds shares an article by an anthropologist explaining why he signed onto the Israel boycott.
Torontoist and blogTO note John Tory’s request that the TTC consider opening earlier on Sundays.
Window on Eurasia notes the perils facing the Russian elite, wonders about the fate of Crimean Tatars, and speculates about the formation of a broad alliance in central and eastern Europe aimed against Russia.
Anthropologist Ben Joffe has an interesting post at Savage Minds about Tibetan singing bowls. Positioned to a largely Western audience as meditation aids, Joffe argues that these are not traditional Tibetan cultural elements. It may well be that enterprising merchants repurposed traditional eating bowls. (That this works nonetheless is a minor joy for the bowls’ users.)
[T]he claim that metallic bowls have been used by Tibetan Buddhist monastics for centuries as musical instruments and ritual tools would seem to be widely accepted and generally known. To be sure, metal bowls and strikers of all shapes and sizes grace Tibetan refugee stalls, curio shops and New Age boutiques the world over. Here in McLeod Ganj, India, the Tibetan capital-in-exile, you can’t swing a prayer wheel without hitting a singing bowl for sale. A significant industry exists around the power of the bowls, and singing bowl sound healing masters today provide treatments, offer workshops, record CDs, and conduct live performances in countries all over the world. The association of resonant bowls with spirituality, and with Tibetan and/or Buddhist spirituality in particular, would seem to be firmly established.
As it turns out though, singing bowls’ supposed antiquity and Tibetan-ness is rather contentious. Academic consensus is that the ‘Tibetan’ singing bowl is a thoroughly modern and Western invention, and that singing bowls are really not Tibetan at all. Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate this (to return to my earlier Dad joke) is by noting that while there is indeed a Tibetan term for both standing and hand-held prayer wheels (maNi ‘khor lo/lag ‘khor) no specific term for ‘singing bowl’ exists in Tibetan. Standing or ‘resting’ bells – unsuspended bells that face upwards and which lack an interior clapper – exist throughout Buddhist Asia and have often served as temple gongs and as devices for marking the break between sessions in ritual or meditative activities (the Tibetan ritual bell or dril bu, a fixture of tantric Buddhist rites, often serves a similiar function). Tibetans have made various kinds of bowls (phor pa) for centuries, which they have used for storage, eating and drinking, and as containers for offerings on altars. Tibetans also make use of a number of traditional musical instruments for both religious and recreational purposes, and in both monastic and non-monastic ritual contexts the chanting of prayers and mantras is accompanied by the chiming, clashing, blasting, and beating of a vast array of specially-designed ritual instruments. Yet, as historian of Tibet Tsering Shakya has confirmed in no uncertain terms, there remains no credible historical evidence for Tibetans ever having used ‘resonating’ metallic bowls in any way that resembles how they are employed by self-avowed sound and ‘vibrational’ healers today.
So where does the idea of singing bowls’ Tibetan-ness come from then? Singing bowls don’t even get a mention in either Donald Lopez or Peter Bishop’s classic treatments of Tibet in the Western imagination. The bowls do however appear in Martin Brauen’s comprehensive survey of Western fantasies about Tibet, ‘Dreamworld Tibet/Western Illusions’ (2004). In contrast to the meticulous detail with which Brauen traces the origins of a host of other fantastical things connected to Tibet though, his comments on singing bowls are surprisingly brief and vague[.]