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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Hey Keith,

I'd be interested in hearing about your own method!

My own method has not been so structured. Often I raise comments/questions about a book as I go along, just organically connecting points in my head chapter by chapter. There often are so many; philosophical, scientific, gender, culture...It ends up turning into an ecosystem of thoughts. I've always believed that the best way to view our world is through imagining another- something very alive about such creative processes, that perhaps more rigorous methods miss out on. At any rate, these are just my first thoughts. Looking forward to learning about your method!
Jeremy,

My own method is like yours. When I am reading a novel, watching a movie or play, it's like I have a split screen in my head with one part always asking how this thing was made. More 'How did s/he do that?' than anything systematic. But my students at Cambridge were worried about being examined on what they read. They had been taught to treat ethnographies as unchallengable truth, but novels were made up. Fiction was akin to false. So first I had to get them to rely on judgment, both for novels and ethnographies. But I also had to give them guidance on what to look for. I discouraged treating Things Fall Apart as a source for what Ibo society c. 1900 was really like, even though Achebe in subsequent critical writing claimed that was what he intended. Rather, I asked them to consider how the novelist built up a self-contained world that most readers found convincing. I can't remember exactly what I came up with, but it was something like this.

Where is this world? What time is it? How is tense constructed: past, present and future? How is the movement and direction of the story organized? What and whose is the narrative voice? How are personal speech and impersonal narrative related and in what proportion? Are they in the same or different voices? How do individuals connect with society in this world? How are gender, age and similar divisions constructed? What is nature in this world? What in particular makes you think this world is real or imaginary? How are the imagined and real related here? I don't know. It was a bit artificial and we always got to talk about it in a more disorganized way. 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?

In my view, the best introduction to creative writing in the real world is William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade (1978). He was a New York-based screen-writer who did Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man and a bunch of other movies. He said that there are only a dozen stories and if you don't give the audience one of them, they will kill you. But you have to make them believe they are seeing it for the first time! I guess that is a whole other story, but I couldn't resist throwing it in here.
Thanks for this, Adam. You have made it necessary to expand a truncated argument, as well as bringing up several new dimensions of your own.

In all my teaching, whether the history of theory or introductory anthropology, I think it is essential to give the students historical background to the texts they are being asked to read. I can make my positive method for assigning fiction more explicit by sticking with Achebe. He published Things Fall Apart in 1958, the year of Nigeria's independence, about an Igbo big man who is ruined by the events set in train by colonial conquest around 1900. Its sequel, No Longer at Ease, published a few years later, is about that man's grandson, an educated bureaucrat brought down by his love for a woman of slave descent. Students want to use TFA as an empirical guide to precolonial Igbo society and Achebe himself said later that one of his aims was to give Nigerians a link to their precolonial past. But to my mind, the relevant history for new readers was to understand the two books as a commentary on the present period of independence. Moreover, the structure of the novels owes a lot to the western tradition of the tragic hero, from Homer to Shakespeare.

So a lot depends on what the students' most urgent need for understanding is; but I asked them to look inside the world built up by the novel rather than outside to the historical reality it seems to depict. And this is because I want an active component in the educational process, to encourage the students to ask how they can use what they read to build up their own worlds. It has to be said that I have usually taught at top schools...

Adam Wiese said:
Keith,
I read Alan Moore's The Watchmen, and my fellow students were absolutely unable to understand that the story was a satire on the Cold War -- people didn't even know what the Cold War was, couldn't even tell a basic outline of what was going on much less come up with some sort of analysis of the history of that period. So I think in a lot of cases the history surrounding writing -fictional or not- is important to understand.
Hi Adam,

I don't think your last post is off topic at all. If fiction is about making things up, then the question of who makes them up, individuals, classes or some other collective, matters. The amount of time that students can devote to study, the intellectual training they bring to it and the degree to which they might think the were free to choose a future are all important variables. I would not want, however, to suggest that for poor or working class people, the only solutions that make sense are collective, not individual. To oppose the two is to reproduce bourgeois ideology by inverting it. A parent or teacher always has to engage with individuals and perhaps show them a better way of connecting to the society of which they are a part. This might be mediated by political action of a class or party-based kind. But it is still important to build educational or imaginative bridges between individuals and the world they live in. This means scaling up the self and scaling down the world so that a meaningful connection might be made between them. Fiction in the form of movies, novels and plays allows for this: the screen or paperback scales down history or the world to a manageable frame and each of us enters it on a less restricted imaginative basis than real life. We can share the experience with others, but that expereince is fundamentally an individual one, as is our personal memory built up over a life time. I don't say that this process will lead by itself to effective social change, but individuals who have been tought to think and imagine for themselves might be more effective participants in democratic politics.

Adam Wiese said:
Keith,
A professor of mine was complaining to me once of how his students never read the assignments and how he didn't know what to do about it. I told him to "restart the labor movement to fight for better wages and benefits for service workers so your students can afford to go to school while working only one job instead of three" (our state has the highest instance of people working 3 jobs in the U.S.). He gave me a strange look, then the ah-ha moment and he realized that intellectual culture, or lack of it was largely an issue of class.
Owen,

It is true that writers base characters on life to some extent. Any significant character must be based in part on the author since s/he has to make that person speak, then also on several people known to the author, plus something else that is truly made up. Most writers talk about how characters often take off in an independent way, so that in a sense they, not the author, decide what to do next. There is more to the imagination of fiction than memory of living people and events.

Owen Wiltshire said:
Fiction writers base their imaginary worlds on real people and events (or better yet, they weave existing "webs of significance" lol)... Otherwise it would be impossible for others to understand as it would be too imaginary!
Dear Keith & Colleagues;

I am very interested in this topic as I am studying BritLit this semester. We have just finished Beowulf - Ancrene Riwle in Norton's A. I find myself beginning to think like an anthropologist or at the very least a literary conservationist with regard to the reworking of Beowulf by the unknown monk/scribe into an evangelical tool. Would that we still had the original document for an objective comparison. I digress.

I find myself stripping away supernatural references upon first reading to get a feel for the "local culture", then I am off to research the general history, back to the text to ferret out the symbolism, ponder the supernatural & compose comments. Inevitably I am at cross-purposes with my younger classmates. Not "kings" as in the 21st century understanding, but tribal and clan chieftains. Not 'fairy-tales" or myths but legitimate oral histories translated into written word with drama, boast and hyperbole as mnemonic devices.

As I was writing this, I noticed this is the general process of author James Michener. He is a research hound. From his perspective, relocating to a region or country is an essential part of writing. He is one of my all-time favorite authors because he approaches fictional writing as both a learning and a teaching opportunity. I am not surprised I subconsciously copied his methodology. Few modern authors write this way today.

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.
I leave you with a question:
What is the qualitative difference between the work of Marie de France's Lanval and the work of a "romance novelist?", or for that matter, Lanval and the story of Joseph & Potipher's Wife in Genesis 39?
Hyperbolic romance or morality tale written to a specific cultural audience in terms they will easily assimilate?

Lanval,{passage 2 on the page}
Genesis 39: full text
Hi Keith

As a fiction writer with a bachelor of anthropology I can't help but marry the two. Seeing your comment above has given me hope, as it seems that there are others out there with similar ideas on the potential of anthro-fiction. The historical fiction genre is doing so well these days, so why not Anthropological Fiction?

Anyway, I'm about three months from finishing my novel. It's called 'The Glass Cage'. Not sure if it'll be published, but if not I'll self-publish and send you a copy.

Cheers
Matt
I recently had a marvelous experience using a scifi story in my economic anthropology class that I'd like to share. The story is called "Guest Law" written by John Wright. I found it in David Hartwell's Best SF Vol. 3. I think it's a stupendous story, and it seemed to me that Wright must have studied anthropology or classics (Greek civ) or both.

I gave it to the class to read in connection with material on reciprocity and the gift. In class, I screened the old film "The Feast" about two Yanomamo groups forming an alliance when one of them hosted a hostile neighbor in a feast and gift exchange occasion. Then I asked them to compare the two. There were numerous elements in common and this became a springboard for bringing out all manners of general principles, starting with Sahlins' reciprocity typology and kinship distance (from Stone Age Economics) and ending with Duran Bell's ideas about rightful and forceful claims, etc., in addition to all the familiar experiences it evoked for students.

I know these are crusty old materials ("oldies but goodies", I say) but it was really an excellent class and I think the students would all agree with that assessment. I can recommend the story, if nothing else. I've given stories as supplements to class readings before but have never incorporated one right into the course like that. There's another one I'm thinking of using later in the semester now, an Orwellian depiction of the future of advertising that appeared in the New Yorker about 3 years ago. Now I just have to find it in my vast stack of junk...
Hello Keith and all

I vaguely remember reading Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and later comparing it to Phillip’s A State of Independence a long time ago to understand the play of self-other in dealing with identity as doubled, hybrid, and unstable shaped by writers of Nigerian and West Indian origins, Western educated men reflecting on their colonized worlds. I’ve found such complexity expanded even further in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, only this time it was the so called colonized looking back to find themselves torn between the act of abrogating or appropriating changes. I see the presence of agbala, which means woman, and chi, related to free will and destiny, play along Okonkwo’s inner struggle to come to terms with the changing world.

Raising Achebe’s TFA reminded me of my recent fieldwork in the rural areas where I met several women migrant workers who returned back from their overseas jobs to bear or raise children in their villages (couldn’t help thinking of the blues in the North pacific and Atlantic) while their husbands were still abroad. Their stories hinted an irony of their struggles and survivals in experiencing two worlds. When I questioned them on how they dealt with poverty back home, one of them stared back at me and said: “Out there, I did everything I could to survive and I did survive. In here, the battle is different, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do what I did out there.” That woman who wore a colorful-loose muslim dress plus a headdress is well-known throughout her village for beating the crap out of other people, mostly men, when they tried to mess around with her.

We often heard stories about women migrant workers from the Third World working as domestic workers abroad who beat their employers or worst killed them for harassing them. But back home, while some of them continued doing what they believed, some others, perhaps like Obierika, or vice versa, … whatever … , ferociously commenting on Okonkwo as the greatest men in Umuofia, had to stand behind the culture that puts men first, leaving them only with bruises and scars or worst death. (There is a woman in Iran awaiting for her chi, to be stoned to death. http://www.aavaz.org)

Well, what I’ve been trying to share is that I always turned to fiction (whatever, novels, plays, including those outside literature genres like films, comics, paintings, music, nano technology, testudinata, …. ) to make sense of what I’ve been observing and put it perhaps as metaphors to better write ethnography, (cf Michel-Rolph Toruillot Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness) I even turned to those autobots, Transformer, the cube, and its famous quip at the end, “there’s more than meets the eye” in coming to grip with the issues of digital inclusion in my research. Does fiction have anything to do with my research or ethnography? Yea and nay, it does both.

I believe as anthropologists we should rely on many factors, from science to fiction, to come to terms with the culture we observe. For me, there’re no definite models or strategies yet of the role of fiction in anthropology or vice versa because what counts is those voices that talk back to us. Reminded as always by Geertz who said how he had a difficult time convincing his students not to think of themselves – “I had a hard time convincing students that they were going to North Africa to understand the North Africans, not to understand themselves!” or challenged by Ursula LeGuin’s saying how anthropologists and fiction writers were having the same dilemma of being subjective practitioners of objectivity, except that some of us have preferred subjectivity over objectivity as we couldn’t resist its dialogic freedom for the contesting views and the play of power.

Of course, there’s more than meets the eye to what I’ve tried to share here ….
What a wonderful post. As I have already indicated privately, the Groups are languishing at this time and I wish more members were paying attention than is likely. One way of being alerted is to follow this group and to do so people have to join it. But oac.collected is a good way of keeping up with the latest posts in the Groups.

You say there is more to your post than meets the eye, but even what does meet the eye is extraordinarily rich. In response I will offer two comments, one perennial for me, the other current.

I believe that my anthropological project has always been to figure out how to make two worlds into one. Initially this was how to find an identity while moving between my working class home in Manchester and a Cambridge college. It was only 15 years or so after my doctoral fieldwork in Ghana that I realised my research on migrants from the remote savannah to the slums of Accra was essentially about this dilemma. I should say that the migrants I lived with, like the women in your study, made less of a meal of the problem than I did.

I have a friend from Argentina whose mother was snatched by the authorities in front of his eyes and then "disappeared" when he was two years old. Today, when he is walking the streets of Paris, he often lapses into a daydream where he is attacked by a number of men and successfully beats them up or kills them. He has spent his whole life believing that one day "they" will come for him and he must be prepared.

This week I saw a movie, Christopher Nolan's Inception, the world's top grosser this summer. I don't claim that this film is perfect, but I do believe that it is a genre changer. It brings together various action film genres (spy, heist and similar movies) and video games with memory, dream and psychoanalysis in a way that changes the map of possibilities forever. I told my Argentinian friend to see it.

I still believe, ever more as I get older and freer from career pressures, that the anthropology of fiction is our most creative field. For, after all, don't we want to move from the actual to the possible in ways that are not chaotic?

MAI Saptenno said:
Hello Keith and all
I vaguely remember reading Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and later comparing it to Phillip’s A State of Independence a long time ago to understand the play of self-other in dealing with identity as doubled, hybrid, and unstable shaped by writers of Nigerian and West Indian origins, Western educated men reflecting on their colonized worlds. I’ve found such complexity expanded even further in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, only this time it was the so called colonized looking back to find themselves torn between the act of abrogating or appropriating changes. I see the presence of agbala, which means woman, and chi, related to free will and destiny, play along Okonkwo’s inner struggle to come to terms with the changing world. Raising Achebe’s TFA reminded me of my recent fieldwork in the rural areas where I met several women migrant workers who returned back from their overseas jobs to bear or raise children in their villages (couldn’t help thinking of the blues in the North pacific and Atlantic) while their husbands were still abroad. Their stories hinted an irony of their struggles and survivals in experiencing two worlds. When I questioned them on how they dealt with poverty back home, one of them stared back at me and said: “Out there, I did everything I could to survive and I did survive. In here, the battle is different, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do what I did out there.” That woman who wore a colorful-loose muslim dress plus a headdress is well-known throughout her village for beating the crap out of other people, mostly men, when they tried to mess around with her. We often heard stories about women migrant workers from the Third World working as domestic workers abroad who beat their employers or worst killed them for harassing them. But back home, while some of them continued doing what they believed, some others, perhaps like Obierika, or vice versa, … whatever … , ferociously commenting on Okonkwo as the greatest men in Umuofia, had to stand behind the culture that puts men first, leaving them only with bruises and scars or worst death. (There is a woman in Iran awaiting for her chi, to be stoned to death. http://www.aavaz.org)

Well, what I’ve been trying to share is that I always turned to fiction (whatever, novels, plays, including those outside literature genres like films, comics, paintings, music, nano technology, testudinata, …. ) to make sense of what I’ve been observing and put it perhaps as metaphors to better write ethnography, (cf Michel-Rolph Toruillot Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness) I even turned to those autobots, Transformer, the cube, and its famous quip at the end, “there’s more than meets the eye” in coming to grip with the issues of digital inclusion in my research. Does fiction have anything to do with my research or ethnography? Yea and nay, it does both.

I believe as anthropologists we should rely on many factors, from science to fiction, to come to terms with the culture we observe. For me, there’re no definite models or strategies yet of the role of fiction in anthropology or vice versa because what counts is those voices that talk back to us. Reminded as always by Geertz who said how he had a difficult time convincing his students not to think of themselves – “I had a hard time convincing students that they were going to North Africa to understand the North Africans, not to understand themselves!” or challenged by Ursula LeGuin’s saying how anthropologists and fiction writers were having the same dilemma of being subjective practitioners of objectivity, except that some of us have preferred subjectivity over objectivity as we couldn’t resist its dialogic freedom for the contesting views and the play of power.

Of course, there’s more than meets the eye to what I’ve tried to share here ….
This is a very stimulating discussion, and I'm not sure that my contribution is helpful, but it makes me recall a time, long ago, when I turned up to a creative writing class for anthropology PhD students at SOAS (in London). Since everyone was asked to bring a short passage from something (anything) that they liked, I came armed with a paragraph from Michael Herr's Dispatches, a slice of writing ostensibly about helicopters ('It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni, but it was only a stunt, technology...'), but at the last minute, for some reason feeling this wasn't properly 'anthropological', I ditched it in favour of a passage from Tristes Tropiques, all about cloud formations, which my ex-girlfriend especially liked. Actually, I hadn't read Tristes Tropiques (and still haven't - an embarrassing admission). But I find that I reach for Herr's Dispatches rather a lot when I want to write something. To be sure, his book isn't fiction, it's an account of his time as a journalist in Vietnam during the Vietnam war; but his book isn't strictly history either. The appeal of it, to me, is that his writing is absolutely saturated with the time and environment he was living in.

This, for me at least, is one of the major aims of anthropological writing - that it saturates itself in the thing that it is trying to understand. (It works in reverse too. I regret that I haven't read half as much fiction as I wish as had, but I did read Melville's Moby Dick this year, and it read like fiction as ethnography - the wealth of detail about the lives of whalers, etc. Talk about saturation - somehow it seemed like sea-water had got into his prose.)

In any case, fiction is hugely important to anthropology, I think, not only because, as Keith says, it enables the imagination of alternative worlds, but also, for that reason, as MAI Saptenno suggests, it helps us to write better ethnographies of those worlds.
A nice comment, Philip, with a lot to like and think about. You have raised the relationship between writing, fiction, ethnography and anthropology.

Tristes tropiques is a great read, if you can stand L-S's arrogant assumption that whatever passes between his ears is worth sharing with the world. His prejudices are huge, like the idea he took from his master Rousseau that humanity has been going downhill since the neolithic, so that Indian cities are the worst expression of what we can sink to; or that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam reveal a similar path of degeneration. On the other hand, his claim that geology, Marxism and psychoanalysis share a method that underlies his own structuralism is inspirational. His travels around Brazil did not get him to the level of ethnographic immersion in one place that is now considered to be essential, but equally he would never have bought the perspectival vision of Amazonian societies as isolated aboriginal communities that is commonplace today. He knew that the people he met there were successors to an urban civilization destroyed by the Spanish conquest and demographic collapse. It's all very subjective and sometimes bonkers, but a great read. And he wasn't wrong to imagine that his own mind was special, since it gave him the confidence to shoot for what became the greatest anthropological project of the 20th century. Tristes tropiques is a sort of memoir explaining how he came to embrace that project.

I agree with you that a good writer of fiction, ethnography or journalism usually succeeds only if his prose is saturated with the people and place of a particular situation. 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. This applies to a novel or film like Trainspotting, to Michael Herr's Dispatches and to Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

There is no question that Melville knew the whaling industry, the first truly global capitalist enterpise, inside out. He did it by travelling the world in its ships. If this is ethnography, then Moby Dick is a supreme example of it. But neither Moby Dick nor Argonauts, even less Tristes Tropiques, rest just on having been there. They are all great anthropology because they link ethnography to a larger whole. In Malinowski's case, it was to the idea of inter-island exchange as the world economy in microcosm and Homo economicus as a shabby successor to a heroic age the West had lost.. My mentor, CLR James, wrote a wonderful book about Moby Dick called Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953). Here he makes the claim that Melville's classic is a symbolic discourse about contemporary world society. I know you don't have to buy into this in order to enjoy the book. But I do think the writing draws inspiration from such larger visions. And ethnography in our day has become an end in itself, detached from that pursuit of the human whole which sustains anthropology or shoudl sustain it. From that perspective, I get my anthropological vision from Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Melville and yes, Levi-Strauss (Mythologiques as a work of fiction) more readily than from modern ethnography practised as an academic discipline.

Philip Swift said:
This is a very stimulating discussion, and I'm not sure that my contribution is helpful, but it makes me recall a time, long ago, when I turned up to a creative writing class for anthropology PhD students at SOAS (in London). Since everyone was asked to bring a short passage from something (anything) that they liked, I came armed with a paragraph from Michael Herr's Dispatches, a slice of writing ostensibly about helicopters ('It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni, but it was only a stunt, technology...'), but at the last minute, for some reason feeling this wasn't properly 'anthropological', I ditched it in favour of a passage from Tristes Tropiques, all about cloud formations, which my ex-girlfriend especially liked. Actually, I hadn't read Tristes Tropiques (and still haven't - an embarrassing admission). But I find that I reach for Herr's Dispatches rather a lot when I want to write something. To be sure, his book isn't fiction, it's an account of his time as a journalist in Vietnam during the Vietnam war; but his book isn't strictly history either. The appeal of it, to me, is that his writing is absolutely saturated with the time and environment he was living in.
This, for me at least, is one of the major aims of anthropological writing - that it saturates itself in the thing that it is trying to understand. (It works in reverse too. I regret that I haven't read half as much fiction as I wish as had, but I did read Melville's Moby Dick this year, and it read like fiction as ethnography - the wealth of detail about the lives of whalers, etc. Talk about saturation - somehow it seemed like sea-water had got into his prose.) In any case, fiction is hugely important to anthropology, I think, not only because, as Keith says, it enables the imagination of alternative worlds, but also, for that reason, as MAI Saptenno suggests, it helps us to write better ethnographies of those worlds.

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