Edgar Allen Poe argued, against the scientists of his day, that fiction was a higher calling than factual reporting or analysis. After all God makes things up! I have long been interested in teaching anthropology through reading fiction. In truth my deep passion is for fiction (movies, novels and plays), but if we want to know what the peoples incorporated into world society by western imperialism have to say in a durable form, few of them were ever anthropologists and many more have made a contribution to literature. So how can students be taught to read this literature for anthropological insight? I have in mind Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude or Rushdie's Midnight's Children. I don't think much is to be gained from seeing these works as an ethnographic guide to the times and places they depict. But any good work of fiction (and quite a few ethnographies, autobiographies like Gandhi's, histories, political tracts such as Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth etc) create a convincing world of their own. In making up a world, novels or movies help us to imagine how we might make a better world. This is obviously one of the main aims of utopian or cacotopian SF, such as Ursula Le Guin's. So how might an anthropologist investigate the construction of such fictional worlds (which are not so far from what Evans-Pritchard achieved in The Nuer)? I developed a method through my teaching which I will be happy to expand upon later. But first I wondered if any of you are interested in taking up this question.

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Great clarifying comments, Keith.
The reason why I've never read Tristes Tropiques is not because I have an L-S allergy; actually, I love his writing, but TT is in the in-tray, as it were, of books (lots of them) I've been meaning to read, but haven't got round to yet - you know how it is...

I also absolutely agree that 'being there' isn't enough, one has to plug the ethnography into larger issues; or, after saturation, comes relation.

(An aside, but I've suspected for some time that Herr's Dispatches was one of the (no doubt, many) influences on Taussig's sorcerous style of writing, a suspicion partially confirmed by his references to Herr in a recent essay, 'The language of flowers'.)
I don't think much is to be gained from seeing these works as an ethnographic guide to the times and places they depict.

Philip pointed to the reader's saturation in a way of being.

There is a certain slippage here, though, in so far as maybe we are construing Tristes Tropiques, Argonauts and travel writing and Moby Dick and Dostoyevsky all as 'fiction' (or perhaps all as realism?), in which case where is the point of comparison or distinction?

Another version of realism is that realism plays with the truth in order to get at the facts and romanticism plays with the facts in order to get at the truth. There was a tv programme about Bruce Chatwin here. Various Welsh Patagonians read from his book; they were all impressed by how accurately he had observed the people he met; pinned them to a board as it were - a typical realist.

Academic ethnography is in many ways very limited in genre terms: there is little room for Pynchonesque playing with the facts in order to get at the truth, for example, because of how anthropology set itself up as a fact-seeking enterprise to begin with. At the same time ethnography is supposed to remove itself from heightened specificity which is precisely what realism does well. But, then again, it is the limits that define any art form. Probably more than in most social scientific subjects (where double blind testing is the benchmark), there is a recognition in anthropology that fact and truth are not necessarily coincident.

Nonetheless, novelists also work in the flow of ideas and here is the point of commonality. There is for instance a direct line from German expressionism to the historical interpretivism of Oswald Spengler - to the 'marvelous realism' of Alejo Carpentier in Cuba - to the magical realism of Garcia Marquez in Colombia - and then back to the historical interpretivism of Benitez Rojo in Cuba. There is an interplay within the field of ideas with the fiction writers responding to the modes of factual interpretation and the historians or social scientists responding to the possibilities of vision opened by the novelists. Why is it that Borges is so frequently quoted by social scientists and particularly by anthropologists? Ethnography has a big stake in the formal adventuring of the novelists precisely because it works in the outer edge of what it is possible to know about other people.

So maybe the usefulness of reading the (great) novel or autobiography or the like is less in the content, than in the possibilities for re-envisioning reality that are opened by its narrative form, the techniques of storytelling.
This is a wonderful post, Huon, that takes the discussion to a whole other level, opening up more precise lines of argument than mine. I just want to clarify first what may have been blurred in my last comment. I consider Argonauts to be ethnography with some of the properties of fiction in its writing, but also a vehicle for an anthropological vision of considerable scope. It is realist in Williams' sense. Tristes Tropiques is not ethnography, realist or fiction in any straightforward sense, but a personal memoir that points to a great anthropological project, also fine writing and a great read. Moby Dick is not ethnography, but a work of fiction that contains realist writing enough to saturate the reader's being in a way of life; it is also, pace James, a monumental symbolic commentary on industrial civilization and nature (the white whale).

This hodge-podge drew mainly on Philip's examples with the aim of suggesting that there is more to ethnography and to realist fiction or journalism than evoking a way of life, in order to make my standard point that ethnography and anthropology have become somewhat estranged of late. I agree that studying the story-telling of fiction writers might be one way of making the connection again. We complain that the adoption of ethnography by nurses and geographers is a travesty, but have forgotten why the anthropological version is superior. That was how this thread started out. But I am eager to see what others make of the leads you have now provided.

Huon Wardle said:
There is a certain slippage here, though, in so far as maybe we are construing Tristes Tropiques, Argonauts and travel writing and Moby Dick and Dostoyevsky all as 'fiction' (or perhaps all as realism?), in which case where is the point of comparison or distinction?
Keith said: I consider Argonauts to be ethnography with some of the properties of fiction in its writing, but also a vehicle for an anthropological vision of considerable scope.

I’m not sure if this has anything to do with what’s taken place in the discussion, but something prompted me to recall from what Keith said when my professor asked us to criticize Argonauts in view of other ethnographies and anthropological approaches, how excited I was learning from Firth that Malinowski said he would be Conrad, as of the Conrad of anthropology perhaps because he was focusing his fieldwork on the Trobriand natives, as supposed to Frazer whom he said to be the Rider Haggard of anthropology, possibly in relation to Frazer’s survey. Being an admirer of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, my excitement turned south when I began to explore the implication of his statement.

It was only later when I read his heteroglot Diary and other critics that I saw its allegation to what ethnographic authority meant. Without going to the details, the point is that ethnographers have been expected to present the constructed culture in thick description based on their fieldworks and the Diary shows how the rich imagination offered by fictions is a valuable extra hand perhaps in partially understanding the process of constructing it. My experience with Argonauts and Darkness and others taught me never to take fiction lightly considering it as a strategy in reflecting on the connection between the construction of the ethnographer’s self and that of culture in writing or the ethnographer’s process of self-criticizing if not self-fashioning her ethnographic writing.

It is through such constructions that I relate to what Keith said on "I believe that my anthropological project has always been to figure out how to make two worlds into one," recalling what Williams said in other context how the world’s human arrangements as distinct culture asserts that things hold together-separately, that it was the anthropologist(s) or readers of ethnography who could understand why the culture they presented might or might not or perhaps could never represent the so called ‘fact’ or ... . What you said about moving "from the actual to the possible" is precisely what it is all about and somehow reminded me of Abu-Lughod’s experience with being ‘halfie,’ her standpoint in feminism and Middle East anthropology, her Western readers, and the Ghinawas, little songs in couplet, of the Bedouin women.

Consequently, considering what students of anthropology can learn from fictions, what Philip said about "reason feeling this wasn’t properly ‘anthropological,’" (the hesitation(?) appears to be truly proper for this discussion and I take it to a different context) is also an important reminder how students have often been haunted by their professors’ question on what is ‘proper’ in anthropology and not questions related for instance to what Marcus argued as the dialogic in which explanation is foregrounded in the ethnography and the frame of analysis arises from voices party to the dialog. Such dialogism in ethnography and the great fictions like Macbeth, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, or History of the Night or film such as Inception and writing style have somehow had some kind of connection, depending on the purposes. Perhaps as Bruner and others elaborated, it is because anthropological experiences or productions are our stories about their stories.
Okay, let me make sure I understand...

Fiction is very useful for us to "practice" observing and examining new worlds, things, anatomy, languages... and learn how to apply them with ethnography. In addition to that, we also learn how to write an ethnography to better detail the culture in question. Did I get that right?

Does "Anthropology of Fiction" also involve... studying fiction for the purposes of anthropology/ethnography? If so, how does that help besides giving us insight into the writer's, and possibly his/her society's, ideals.
Keith wrote:

“But by the end, most of them were exercising their own judgment and not relying on Evans-Pritchard as God's truth.

Is this a dead end or do you think it is worth pursuing here?”

Most emphatically, I’ll say that the approach you have described is not a dead end. For one thing, breaking down the facile equation of fiction to non-truth is a valuable intellectual exercise in its own right. To my mind, it helps us be more savvy consumers of the ideologies that we are confronted with every day.

Also, I’ve long been of a mind that ethnographic accounting involves (and should involve) many elements that are more common to fiction. I’m not claiming that we should just make up whatever we want and stick it in our works as ethnographically valid. However, there’s a whole spectrum of connotative or emotive tools that get used in fiction that could help to drive compelling ethnographic writing. What we write about, in my mind, tends to be greatly compelling in and of itself. Why not use the whole spectrum of literary tools developed in order to get our points across?

Maybe this is free association, but elsewhere, Keith has argued for being clear on which “side” you are on, then working toward that end. Keith’s admonishment is great advice, to my mind. It seems to me that the conscious use of a greater array of literary tools in ethnographic writing won’t obviate our works as becoming non-truth, but will rather better equip us to fight the good fight, as it were.

As well, my training tells me that scientific knowledge is not so much a matter of discovery, so much a project of creation in its own right. I believe this creative aspect to the generation of scientific knowledge is as germane to, say, particle wave physics as it is to anthropology. The (admittedly inchoate) semiotician in me says that hypotheses, methods, theories and theorems are not inevitabilities waiting to be stumbled upon, but rather the product of culturally-situated, creative persons. I believe that even mathematics is testament to the power of human creativity, culturally generated and situated as it always is. In the sense of idea+logos, science is profoundly ideological, which makes it at least cousin to fiction.

Owen wrote:

“i was touching on an idea that the imagination is not infinite, and that you can't just pull "anything" out of your hat. That for it to make sense, and to communicate it, it will have to be based on some form of real experience.”

I’ve got this idea that I call cultural saliency. Perhaps I’ve mentioned the concept elsewhere on OAC, but it seems relevant here. What it means is that there must be something about a story that connects to a reader’s fund of cultural knowledge in order to be sensible, thus compelling. From a methodological point of view from anthropology, maybe a basic task would be to develop a sense of the culturally salient elements of a story, and why they are so.

Perhaps this idea is an echo of Victoria’s comment that:

“In my opinion all written communication is fair game for anthropology if we are interested in gaining insight. That includes those authors we consider to be pop culture or genre cash {trash} machines. These offerings and their sometimes disheartening popularity tell us something important about humanity's beliefs & values at large in a given time frame.”

Or, Keith’s comment on Raymond Williams:

“I have always liked Raymond Williams' definition of realism as a genre: it must reveal a class to the general audience that has hitherto been unknown; it must be contemporary; and it should make a break with the sacred myths that sustain unequal society.”

I suppose that my response here is to point to the blurred line between “real experience” and the ideologies that both direct those experiences and formulate what is salient culturally. In the end, those ideologies form a bridge between real life and literature. Otherwise, they might not be interesting enough to pay them any attention.

Regarding Kalman Applebaum’s comments, I’d suggest reading Dan Simmons’ Illium and Olympos when you get a chance. This duology is great: a mind-bending mish-mash of the Iliad, Shakespear, Proust, and other literary sources, all wrapped up in a unique post apocalyptic setting. There’s even a reference to the Austrian-born roboticist and innovator of IA, Hans Moravic. Cool stuff.

Phillip wrote:

“Talk about saturation - somehow it seemed like sea-water had got into his prose.”

Ever read Cormack McKarthy? I swear, The Corssing had to have been written on sepia-colored paper...
I saw a BBC news report, on the internet, only a few days ago that a university in England (Durhum sp?) is going to offer a course analysing the world of Harry Potter. How and why certain characters do certain things in certain situations. While it centres around bullying, relationships, and citizenship, it is supposedly developed to analyse the entire Harry Potter world. It is supposed to help student teachers analyse their own world and relate to students better.
Joel M. Wright said:
Owen wrote: “i was touching on an idea that the imagination is not infinite, and that you can't just pull "anything" out of your hat. That for it to make sense, and to communicate it, it will have to be based on some form of real experience.”
I’ve got this idea that I call cultural saliency. What it means is that there must be something about a story that connects to a reader’s fund of cultural knowledge in order to be sensible, thus compelling. From a methodological point of view from anthropology, maybe a basic task would be to develop a sense of the culturally salient elements of a story, and why they are so.

You brought up a lot of intresting points, Joel. But I would like to focus on this one, since I spent a good part of a Sunday walk along the Canal Saint Martin discussing the sources of imagination with a friend. The French word imaginaire has been absorbed into literary English of late and a lot of English-speakers don't like it. This is partly because what sounds like an adjective is used as a noun: 'the imaginary of X'. But mainly it is because of the empiricist notion that imagination must be derived from experience, whereas the French word implies free-floating ideas, even less anchored in social reality than ideology.

The way the French and their anglophone imitators use it comes from Spinoza, a philosopher who is popular these days probably because he drove Kant crazy. I like to recall the Scienzia Nuova of Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Neapolitan philosopher who was unknown in his lifetime and couldn't even get a university post, but was posthumously designated the inventer of the Enlightenment by Herder.

Vico pointed out that for the Romans the word memoria meant not just memory, but imagination also. The idea was that we can only recall images from our own experience and this is why the memory of children is so vivid. Adults learn to park their memories in places outside their minds and develop rational methods for retrieving them. They are made dull in the process. The poetry that makes a new civilization comes in its childhood. The formation of the Roman empire saw the emergence of a new word, fantasia, which suggested that poets, satirists and artists in general make things up from scratch, giving us new things to be entertained by. And so culture evolves beyond direct experience.

My friend and I agreed that, between empiricism and rationalism lies a continuum of sources of memory that combine experience and our ability to make things up. I write fiction, most of it a monstrous novel that I will be lucky to finish in ten years. It has only five main characters. Each of them is partly me, partly based on 2 or 3 people I know and partly, as the writing evolves, takes on an independent character of its own. The characters end up writing the novel through me! Many novelists attest to this feature of creative writing. So we see a continuum again from personal experience through observation to new characters with a life of their own.

This only deals with where a writer gets his or her memories from. You bring up the flip side, which is where does the reader's ability to connect with what is written come from? I have a feeling that this question could take us very far indeed. And it is a central one for anthropology.
This discussion is brimful of interest. Keith's canal-side dialogue on the imagination, and his recollection of Vico, in turn prompt me to recall that, in Vico's vocabulary, fantasia described the crucial faculty of the constitutive imagination, the exercise of which is the beginning point in the attempt to understand the (historical, factical) worlds of others. (I'm tempted to speculate on whether it was the fate of fantasia - this open notion - to be constrained and canalized into the narrow straits of verstehen, as practised by Dilthey, who was less interested in building bridges than in digging ditches between disciplines.)

But if anthropology is a kind of creative writing, engaging the imagination, then surely our imaginative engagements in creation must follow from, and absolutely allow for, the creativity of others (to paraphrase Roy Wagner). It's here, as Huon says in his wonderful post, that fiction offers a compelling form for 're-envisioning reality'.

Equally, I very much like Huon's suggestion that anthropology recognises that facts are not always identical to truth - not synonymous perhaps, but it fascinates me how they get folded together. William James - a philosopher possessed of great powers of creative evocation - I think it ran in the family - has a great line on this (from Pragmatism):

'the whole coil and ball of truth, as it rolls up, is the product of a double influence. Truths emerge from facts; but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth.'

And the evocative punch-line:

'The case is like a snowball's growth, due as it is to the distribution of the snow on the one hand, and to the successive pushes of the boys on the other, with these factors co-determining each other incessantly.'

The worlds we hope to understand are so many snowballs.

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