Creating Meanings: Connecting the Webs of Truth with Ethnography is Anything but Ordinary

In their respective ethnographies, Kathleen Stewart & Stefan Helmreich both look beyond what at first glance appears to be ordinary, and in doing so, find that the ordinary is anything but.  They uncover multiple webs of connection between people, professions, situations and even microbes to discern that every person, thing, situation or interaction contains potential – the potential to connect itself to other people, things, situations or interactions, creating a chain reaction to resonate, affect and create meaning.

In her article, Situated Knowledges, Donna Haraway writes, “We don’t want a theory of innocent powers to represent the world, where language and bodies both fall into the bliss of organic symbiosis.  We also don’t want to theorize the world, much less act within it, in terms of Global Systems, but we do need an earth-wide network of connections, including the ability partially to translate knowledges among very different – and power-differentiated – communities.  We need the power of modern critical theories of how meanings and bodies get made, not in order to deny meanings and bodies, but in order to build meanings and bodies that have a chance for life.” (Haraway p.579 – 580)

One point that I feel Haraway is trying to make through this statement is that of the relational-ness of ethnography and how it needs to be acknowledged that everything on some level, has an effect on something else – that anthropology needs to acknowledge the creation of webs of knowledge that help build meanings in order to provide a more robust account. 

In each of their respective ethnographies, Kathleen Stewart (Ordinary Affects) and Stefan Helmreich (Alien Ocean), study two different groups of people – (Stewart, everyday Americans and Helmreich, a group of marine scientists).  Through their studies we come to see how so many things in life are connected.  How information and situations become meaningful to the groups of people they are studying and how these meanings generate wider resonance for a more robust account.  When I consider whether their theses and texts are grounded more in theoretic proposition or in the accounts from ethnographic encounters, I believe that while predominantly theoretical they are still a combination of both.  They develop theories about meanings from the groups they are studying; however this is based on their ethnographic encounters – and the impacts that things (be it people, scientific study or microbes) have on each other and the world around it.  Without solid ethnographic encounters, there would be nothing to theorize on, so I feel that one is contingent on the other. 

Stewart claims that, “Agency can be strange, twisted, caught up in things, passive, or exhausted.  Not the way we like to think about it…it’s caught up in things. Circuits, bodies, moves, connections…actions can have unintended and disastrous consequences; and that all agency is frustrated and unstable and attracted to the potential in things.” (Stewart p. 86)  That being said, both Stewart and Helmreich exhibit this type of agency.  Stewart is compelled by the interactions between people that create the potentiality for more interactions, thoughts, and or emotions, while Helmreich appears to be compelled by the potential of the unknown – life beneath the ocean surface, the potential for scientists to help the environment, cure disease or the possibility of genetic manipulation to create new life forms.  

They each show how when information is robustly presented, it contains the potential to create a web of experience – a chain reaction of bodies affecting bodies, knowledge sparking more knowledge – trajectories that then create meaning to different people in different ways, all the while, collectively weaving together to give a more robust, still,  account of that meaning.  As Stewart says, “Ordinary affect is…transpersonal or prepersonal – not about one person’s feelings becoming another’s but about bodies literally affecting one another and generating intensities: human bodies, discursive bodies, bodies of thought, bodies of water.” (Stewart p. 128)   So be it either a single event, such as a motorcycle accident that causes people to speak to each other who may have never spoken before – creating discussion of deer populations, helmet legalization or who is the best mechanic in town, to how the discovery of a tiny microbe has different potentials to different groups of scientists.  “To biotechnologists, they are workers to be employed and, perhaps, exploited.  To environmental microbiologists, they may be merely scenery…and to the defense establishment, [they] are enemies to be tracked, contained and killed…” (Helmreich p 14)  And to a wider audience, still, parallels can be drawn with colonialism and racism.  Every person, thing, situation or interaction contains potential – the potential to connect itself to other people, things, situations or interactions, creating a chain reaction to resonate, affect and create meaning.

Stewart and Helmreich are both looking at things the world may either take for granted or perceive as ‘ordinary’ (the everyday American or the ocean and those who study it) and look to unpack the deeper meanings to the groups being studied and then present this to readers for them to potentially discover their own meanings, interpretations, and opinions.  By way of their web of thick descriptions of human interactions and life beneath the ocean surface, we find that the ordinary is anything but ordinary.  For example, Stewart takes a simple vignette of a couple of ladies who enjoyed taking day trips and goes beyond the surface to reveal that, “it was certainly not small-town values or clean living they were after, but rather the way that the synesthetic web of fabulated sights and tastes made scenes and objects resonate.  It was if they could dwell in the ongoing vibrancy of the ordinary, leaving out the dullness and possible darkness.” (Stewart p. 21) While Helmreich says, “a milliliter of sea water, in a genetic sense, has more complexity than the human genome.” (Helmreich p. 53)

According to Gay y Blasco & Wardle, “All ethnographic writing is conversational or relational and yet it also revolves around individual, authoritative authorship.”  (Gay y Blasco & Wardle p.144). To further illustrate, the text also says that “anthropologists mean that these capacities or forms of agency cannot exist outside a framework of relationships”.  (Gay y Blasco & Wardle p. 58)  According to Helmreich, his “ethnography makes not a general claim, but a heuristic one, offering ethnographically inspired associations and the frame of the alien ocean as a means for asking questions and discovering methods for arriving at answers.” (Helmreich p. 25)  Similarly, through her vignettes of situations and human interactions, Stewart’s Ordinary Affects is not trying to uncover “truths that support a well-known picture of the world” but rather to create curiosity and speculation from the framework of already well-known pictures.  (Stewart p 1) 

Stewart and Helmreich both have their own individual authoritative authorship, showing a more ambiguated sense of agency in their works because their authorial agency is not openly displayed.  Their control is downplayed in the sense that when they participate in and observe particular situations the “knowledge they present is more self-evident” (Gay y Blasco & Wardle p. 143).  Some of their claims may be made through texts (ie. Helmreich quoting scientific publications); and they appear to present themselves more so as “conduits for knowledge, facilitators or mouthpieces” (p. Gay y Blasco & Wardle 143), the reader can ‘infer’ the author’s political stance on a topic, but there is still plenty for the reader to ponder and question on their own.  For example, Stewart doesn’t make any particular judgments about everyday Americans – she simply presents the situations and topics within situations (ie. racism or advanced capitalism) as richly as possible and lets the reader decide.  Similarly, Helmreich’s disdain of biologist J. Craig Venter is apparent, however not by him giving his direct opinion, but from quoting information and articles he found while doing his research. 

In terms of Clifford Geertz’s Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, Stewart and Helmreich have both managed to engage themselves with the groups they study while removing their own culturally bracketed nature.  They acknowledge what they, themselves, in their own life experiences bring to their studies and are able to translate their findings for their audiences using their own, culturally relevant points of reference.  For both Stewart and Helmreich situate themselves as participants in their studies – Stewart in the sense that she is an American studying Americans and is often part of the encounters she relates, and Helmreich as a social scientist studying marine scientists.  Helmreich immerses himself in the ‘culture’ of marine science by volunteering to work alongside them in order to learn and experience their particular world.  He then draws multiple parallels between their work and his – Social Anthropology.  This reflexivity, by functioning as participants in the groups they study and by having particular things in common with their groups of study, Stewart and Helmreich (in slightly different ways) create a tension of where they, in parts, become both the subject and object of their ethnographies – studying the studier in order to make it more relational – presenting their groups of study based on the similarities and differences to their own lives/experiences.  An illustration of this would be when Helmreich says, “Such microbiologists are like anthropologists asking for better field work, for a thicker description of a local culture – – a more precise understanding” (Helmreich p. 197). While in one vignette, Stewart questions racism when she writes about her experiences with black and white strangers while out in public as a white woman who is mother to a “brown baby”.   (Stewart p 107) 

Alternately, both Stewart and Helmreich’s use of relativism helps to illustrate to the reader the ‘connectedness of life’ theme that is inferred in each of their theses.  In the case of Stewart, her use of such words as ‘circuit’, ‘hardwired’, ‘scanning’, ‘live wire’ and ‘affect’ (just to name a few) can all be viewed from our own cultural context (high-tech) to give the impression of wires, connectedness and how electricity can create potential reaction – trajectories.  While Helmreich uses relativism through use of the word ‘alien’ to create a connectedness between humanity (he and the scientists) and the ocean microbes.  He subtly offers a turned-table view of humanity as being as alien to microbes as microbes are to humans when he says, “The links between the scale of human bodies and ecologies become baroque, spatially and temporally.  The bacteria that inhabit our bodies do not simply mirror the bacteria that inhabit the sea – as might brine in our blood.  This is not human nature reflecting ocean nature.  It is an entanglement of natures, an intimacy with the alien.” (Helmreich p. 284).  Presenting a view of humans as the real aliens to planet earth sparks the reader to think about why humans do what they do (colonialism, industrialism, etc…) and why our planet is now the way it is. 

I feel that Stewart and Helmreich’s use of relativism and acknowledgement of their reflexivity/bias lets their lives and experiences provide them with a framework or point of reference on which to draw comparisons and can enable them to discuss their observations through a combination of narratives “and ideas, experiences and relationships” (Gay y Blasco & Wardle p. 166) in relation to themselves, in relation to the variations in the people they study and how collectively, this all weaves together to create a more robust account, giving readers something to think about, question, and in turn potentially search for more answers – creating trajectories that work towards much bigger conversations (Gay y Blasco & Wardle p. 163)

By situating themselves in this way, I feel that it gives both ethnographers a little more freedom to present their own narratives on ethically, morally or politically sensitive topics. For example, Stewart doesn’t specifically articulate her personal opinions on any these topics, but in the vignettes she presents, which present scenes of racism, capitalism, road rage, addiction, homelessness, etc… the reader gets a clear picture of the fact that these things are very prevalent in the United States and are becoming just as much a part of the culture there as the symbol of the bald eagle and apple pie.  Her thick description implies that she has disdain for these things; however her opinion is implied through her description instead her personal comments on these subjects.  Similarly with Helmreich, one can tell that he has personal issues with the ethics of Venter’s potential manipulation of genetic materials to create new life forms, however, he too, does not strongly articulate this – however strongly implies it by referring to literature he has read and conversations he has had with others regarding the topic.   

Alien Ocean “…constitutes a contribution to symbolic anthropology, the study of what Geertz called ‘webs of significance’, the layered multiple networks of meaning carried by words, acts, conceptions, and other symbolic forms.” (Helmreich p. 28) In his Thick Description, it is apparent that Geertz is also interested in determining ‘meanings’ and he feels that culture is the meanings we make as human animals.  He takes “culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (Geertz I)  However he points out that while he feels anthropology to be predominantly theoretical, he feels that theory is not independent of method.  And methods such as “selecting informants, text transcription, journaling, etc…” (Geertz V) are all the things that come from ethnographic encounters.  And it is through the thick description derived from these methods that work together to create ‘meaning’.  He feels that “a good interpretation of anything…takes us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation” and when it does that, it gives meaning.  (Geertz V)

Both Stewart and Helmreich, through their ethnographic encounters have worked to consider the groups they studied as holistically as possible.  By acknowledging their bias, their own life experience, professions and places in the cultures they studied, they have created multiple webs of significance that connect bodies, encounters, theories, emotions, etc…  Even though different groups were studied, they showed how, at its basic level, culture exhibits many similarities.  Ordinary is not at all ordinary and like an onion, there is layer upon layer of complexity, and although conclusions can be drawn, there will always be more questions than answers.  For even when the same information is presented from one person, it will translate differently to different individuals and groups. I believe that any ethnography worth its salt will leave the reader questioning more, taking nothing for granted or at face value, and through reader’s own bodies and experiences, create new and additional meanings – and this is resonance.    All an ethnographer can do is do what Stewart and Helmreich did:  acknowledge that “complete objectivity is impossible” (Geertz VIII), acknowledge their own bias and what they themselves bring to their studies, submerse themselves to the best degree they can in the culture they are studying and provide as richly detailed and thorough an account as they possibly can, while at the same time, being clear about their authorship and situatedness to contribute to bigger conversations, creating more meanings and connections (webs of significance) in our world. 

 Notes:

Gay y Blasco, P & Wardle, H.  (2007). How to Read Ethnography.  New York:  Routledge.

Geertz, C.  (1973). Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, in: The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays.  New York: Basic Books, pp 3 – 30.

Haraway, D. (1988).  Situated Knowledges:  The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.  Feminist Studies, 14 (3), 575 – 599

Helmreich, S. (2009).  Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas.  California:   University of California PressStewart, K. (2007).  Ordinary Affects.  North Carolina: Duke University Press

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One thought on “Creating Meanings: Connecting the Webs of Truth with Ethnography is Anything but Ordinary

  1. Pingback: Creating Meanings: Connecting the Webs of Truth with Ethnography is Anything but Ordinary | High Heels & A Soapbox

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