… with Lowe, Daniel (British Library, London):
Mimesis, Collaborative Encounter and the Ethnographic Sensibility: scenes from an impure discipline.
Caroline (anthropologist / Eddie) and Daniel (historian / Princess) present continuities between performance and performativity and the process-practice of plasticity as central aspects of anthropology’s distinctive contribution: participant-observation. The researcher’s body as tool in long-term ethnographic fieldwork produces ‘intimate strangers’ who are undone and remade, prodded into docility and embarrassment while working to smooth into everyday life in an unfamiliar local setting.
We want to affect you in the register of the ethnographic double-take, to experience the strangeness of the monstrously liminal, and to taste something of fieldwork’s vulnerability and embarrassment as the all-too plastic self explodes and is re-made according to unfamiliar demands. To these ends, the presentation is performance: not a ‘gone native’ other-appropriating form of minstrelsy but a careful tussle done in off-key drag.
Eddie defends the ‘classic method’: born under the sign of empire, rocked since the 1980s by self-doubt, shame, public censure and an imperative towards critical reflexivity. He speaks about fieldwork moments when we allow ourselves to be undone by our research practice and respondents, finding the slide from initial performance on into performativity and eventually into incorporation a helpful resource with potentially wider resonances for many spaces of self : other encounter. Princess gives the necessary slap on the wrists, informed and troubled as she is by postcolonial sensibilities and by dissent within public anthropology. She is wary of a representational politics of claiming to embody other experience; she questions the limits of plasticity. Eddie hears, but will not disown anthropology’s kinship with the mimetic practices of such colonial adventurings as T. E. Lawrence, accepting impurity and embracing surrendered intimate encounter. Princess reminds Eddie that the plastic performative can be fake, heroic-narcissistic and dangerous.
Caroline Osella is a social anthropologist at SOAS, University of London, with a regional specialization in Kerala, south India, and the Gulf states as historically entangled spaces of Arab: Indian encounter and as contemporary migration spaces for south Indians. Her publication themes include consumption, Islamic reformism, embodiment, migration, and masculinities.
Daniel Lowe is a researcher and translator working both in the India Office Records department of the British Library, London and as a freelance. He has degrees from Birkbeck College, University of London; University of Oxford; SOAS London and Université de Tunis El Manar. His expertise is in the languages and cultures of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Arabic language and Gulf history. He regularly blogs and appears on media, including BBC, on issues concerning Middle East and Islam.