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October 15, 2004

Autobiography of Dreams

I dislike terms and designations that connote and define my identity because they feel limiting to me. The reasons for this are varied but the simplest explanation I can offer is that I experience my identity as fluid and dynamic and altogether too large to be explained in simple terms. I reserve the right to complex personhood, for myself and for others who want it. Such freedom of self-definition is important to me both personally and politically. For example, the geographic designation in relation to my ethnic identity, �Middle Eastern� is itself an arbitrary one with an unpleasant Orientalist genealogy positing the West as the philosophical, rhetorical and actual starting point in any consideration of the world in parts or as a whole. Like wise �Arab-American� although efficient rhetorically, is haunted by this discourse. Nevertheless complex personhood is idiomatically unwieldy. My subject position in relation to these terms and designations must be thought into and unpacked since my interest lies in processes of cultural assimilation and the performed absences I read therein. By definition assimilation is a process of the varied differences unique to separate cultures being set aside (consciously and unconsciously) in favor of uniform cultural codes of behavior and ways of being. The globalizing uses of the terms �Middle Eastern� and �Arab-American� have political currency for projects on both the right and left. I want to situate my ethnography in relationship to (and explicitly against) uses of these terms, which allow for ethno-racist fantasies that make sameness out of vital differences. To complicate these terms and my relationship to them I�ve elected to use a slash (Arab/American) in place of the usual hyphen (Arab-American) because I want my language to allow as much as possible for the complex range of identities and identifications of my ethnographic subjects. And for myself in dynamic with them.

I find great inspiration for the intellectual labor of situating my subject position in Kirin Narayan�s essay �How Native is a �Native� Anthropologist?� Narayan�s concept of �multiplex identity� resonates with and elaborates my own feelings about representation and different forms of belonging. Narayan writes, �I invoke these threads of a culturally tangled identity to demonstrate that a person may have many strands of identification available�� This conception of identity as fluid and dynamic is important to how I wish to regard others (and myself) in this work. Narayan�s emphasis on the axes of identity is intended to complicate the implications of being a �native� or �insider� ethnographer. She writes, �Even as insiders or partial insiders, in some contexts we are drawn closer, in others we are thrust apart�, an argument that prefigures some of the features of my own potential ethnography.

My research subjects are Arab/Americans whose fluid identities are shaped in relationship to outside forces and events, 9/11, the first and current intifadas, the threat of violence from fellow-citizens and governmental surveillance, among them. Ethnically I am a member of this group although that affiliation is varied and complex. Unraveling the threads of this affiliation places a productive pressure on my inquiry and forms the first section of this essay.

A person whose family originated in Lebanon-as mine did-comes from a country whose historical relationship with the West is markedly different from that of say, Iran. That difference shrinks and expands in significant ways through the processes of immigration and assimilation to western culture. So time spent in the West, English proficiency and levels of cultural assimilation are all complicating factors in any potential ethnographer-subject relationship I might pursue. Further my fair skin places me in a particular relationship within the racial matrix of U.S. American life, shifting my experience into a separate category from those Arabs whose skins are dark, especially in this political moment. John Gwaltney�s essay �On Going Home Again�Some Reflections of a Native Anthropologist� offers some insight into white/ non-white interactions in doing ethnography within a US context. However, characterizing the ethnographer-subject relationship with the terms �settler� and �native��culturally loaded terms for �white� and �black��have less efficacy for those of us that do not fall neatly into those categories. And, in the case of Arab/Americans, whose shifting identities confound these polarities, the terms �settler� and �native� are particularly inappropriate. Gwaltney notes Francis Hsu�s assertion that white anthropologists have failed to consider views �other than those to which their cultural conditioning has lead them� and concludes that this practice has lead to the production of �non-knowledge� which represents a �profound dichotomy between settler and native conceptions of reality. This construction, with its competing views of reality, one black and one white, may have currency in some ethnographies but it oversimplifies my own.

For example, I am a Maronite Catholic, a religious minority in Lebanon, with its own tradition distinct from that of the Muslim majority. This religious identity is also a political one since the (relatively small) Catholic minority oppressed the Muslim majority socially and politically and, in 1982, in concert with the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Catholic militia undertook the slaughter of thousands of Muslim refugees at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in Beirut. Therefore a person with exactly the same ethnic derivation as my own but a different religious affiliation has a different potential relationship to my ethnographic investigation. Further, in my experience, Arab/Americans tend to be very conservative politically. My (radical) politics make me distinct from members of my own family (staunch Bush Republicans) and complicate my relationship with my potential subjects as well as my approach to ethnography itself.

Kirin Narayan writes, �(These) strands (of identity) may be tugged into the open or stuffed out of sight� highlighting the main feature of my project: the performance of absence through disappearances that are cultural or actual. This resonates with Jack Katz�s assertion in his essay �From How to Why� that there is a �double production in each social act, an expressed and a hidden part of experience.� Katz writes,

�There is always another side to situated presentations of the self, something hidden, something held back: a certain reticence; a temporal perspective that reaches back beyond the present and a motivation that anticipates possible futures; a shadowed foundation of resources that are useful only to the extent that they are left out of direct awareness in the background of the situation; a feeling or sensuality out of which conduct emerges into the social field.�

For Katz this texture of �shadow� signals the causal elements in ethnographic research. He writes, �The implication, which ethnographic inquiry is then advised to take up, is that subtle, shadowed forms of these themes may be detected in the more routine embodiment of behavior that constitutes the bulk of social life.� Katz is naming the poetic space of the live and offering it as a methodological cue toward the �whys� that haunt ethnographic research. He offers examples of such lived moments that are �situationally invisible��and therefore unquantifiable�that nevertheless create causal impact on ethnographic studies. Among these he lists witchcraft, shame and provocatively, love. These invisible motors of lived moments are like dreams, half-remembered but powerful vectors in the lives of ethnographic subjects.

Katz�s attention to the affective experience of the ethnographic subject is an attempt to erect the �scaffolding of a bridge from �how� to �why� through "luminous description". He writes,

�The path from describing how people do things to explaining why they so act must initially be sensed more than articulated, because ethnography eschews thoroughly pre-fixed designs for data gathering, such as are used for conducting experiments or surveys, in order to discover questions that are especially salient to its subjects.�

An emphasis on the presence of the body in spaces of representation is my response to the challenges and possibilities of description that bridges �how� and �why.� If, as Narayan asserts the identity of the ethnographer is �multiplex� then, I�d argue, so is that of the subject. This forms the first of my imaginings about my research-to-be, that axes of identity are multiplex and in dynamic relationship with one another. To borrow Rosemarie K. Bank�s phrase, this allows for a �bodying forth� into my work.
Katz writes, �Revelation occurs when the ethnographer appreciates the emotional meaning of phenomena that subjects experience without dramatic attentions but which summarize broadly relevant themes that structure their life worlds.� In other words, the affective experience of the subject has an impact on the body of the ethnographer. I welcome this phenomenological view and see its implications for my own ethnography. I imagine a whole body approach in which not only the compelling �moments of subjective transformation� of my ethnographic subjects are present but also my own. I am gesturing here toward a methodology that imagines ethnography as autobiography, in which the affective worlds of my potential subjects and myself co-exist in dynamic relationship

I am drawing here from David Graeber�s �Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology� in which he attempts to use ethnography as a �rough, incipient� model for revolutionary intellectual practice. In Graeber�s conception social theory might �refashion itself in the manner of direct democratic process", an ethic of anarchism. He writes,

�One obvious role for a radical intellectual is to�look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they (ethnographic subjects) are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities�as gifts.�

With this argument he is referencing Marcel Mauss� �Essay on the Gift� in which he asserted societies that do not employ money are gift-economies in which the distinctions between �interest and altruism, person and property, freedom and obligation� do not exist. Mauss proposed the notion of the gift as an alternative to the rationalist calculation of capitalist exchange. The significance of this construction for an anarchist intellectual project is its horizontality, an expression of the anarchist concern to � expose, subvert, and undermine structures of domination.� Mauss� assertions about the �gift� have been famously problematized by Derrida who graphed the exchange in terms of the circle, of gift and counter gift in his �Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money.� For Derrida the gift must break out of the circle and therefore nullify itself as a free exchange. These points are well taken in relationship with Graeber�s argument, whose model, despite his qualifications (�rough, incipient�) seems too basic, not taking into account the shifting identities of both ethnographer and subject that resist horizontality. Nevertheless, as a mechanism of imagining this rough model suggests to me a way to integrate my political concerns with the necessary work of description in my potential ethnography, an autobiography of dreams.

Posted by at October 15, 2004 6:26 PM