ARC: CONCEPT WORK
Other Rooms, other voices - Review of Demands of the Day

Other voices, other rooms

Todd Meyers [1]

 

A week after the publication of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, the noted (and sometimes derided) reviewer for The New York Times, Orville Prescott, commented on the author’s first novel [2].   Among other things he suggested that Capote had stepped away from the narrative clarity and “realism” that preoccupied his contemporaries (a preoccupation shared by Prescott), observing, “reality for Mr. Capote is not material and specific; it is emotional, poetic, symbolical, filled with sibilant whispering and enigmatic verbal mysteries.”  Despite what Prescott regarded as an irritating uncertainty to know what was going on in every passage (“just what is the meaning of some of Mr. Capote’s eloquent and reverberating prose?”), it was “impossible not to succumb to the potent magic of his writing.”  Prescott also wrote that, “in spite of its spectacular qualities,” Capote’s first novel wasn’t very good (a claim he would later come to regret), “because it is all mood, all beauty and sound and fury…” There was no story.  His characters were merely apparitions:

The characters are vivid enough, but they are grotesques revealed in a glare of light which illuminates surface peculiarities only, without conveying any lights or shades, any depth or substance.  […] There are no real people in these pulsating pages and nothing of real interest happens to them. It is almost as if this book were a trick, an illusion done with mirrors.

The problem Prescott had with the book was not at all its lack of realism (or even its curious narrativity); he was unprepared for the refusal of aestheticization that Capote’s “glare” produced when the author refracted light across the dark of his southern landscape––and what it revealed.  In truth what Prescott called “depth or substance” were neither; he simply wanted smooth contours where in Capote’s novel there was only a “jagged unfolding” (to use a phrase from Rabinow and Stavrianakis’ preface) that had little to do with establishing people and places within fixed scenarios.  Capote’s characters did not stand fully in sunlight.  Ideas––concepts––were set in motion in narrative form, and with this momentum took on forms unfamiliar.  But even in critique Prescott was forced to betray his own kinship with “storytelling” for an embrace of the instructive potential of Capote’s oblique design.  I see this embrace not unlike what we find in Georges Canguilhem’s essay on “Health,” wherein he uses Henri Michaux to scrutinize René Leriche’s famous formulation that “la santé, c’est la vie dans le silence des organs,” quoting Michaux:

Just as the body (its organs and its functions) has been mainly known and revealed not by the prowess of the strong, but by t he disorders of the sick, the weak, the infirm, and the wounded (health being silent, the sources of an immensely erroneous impression that everything goes along by itself), it is the disturbances of the spirit, its dysfunctions, that will be my teachers[3].  

This reversal in Canguilhem shares what we might call the coarse luster of fieldwork (of course we could call it other things) produced by its labor, and perhaps especially when there comes a point to reflect on that labor (and learn something from it).  Here we are not awash in refuted claims to truth (speaking it, knowing it) or the valorization of limits (weakness being another theme recognized by Prescott that connected Capote to the previous generation of writers from the South), but instead we are invited to remain uneasily in the light; to dwell alongside whatever apparitions appear, and to heed their instruction.

I find Demands of the Day to be a tremendously instructive book.   What’s probably already clear is that I find it difficult to approach head-on.  It is a book that illuminates anthropological practice and fieldwork where light often fades (or is even expressly eclipsed): the moment of exit.  It is a book about leaving the field, tracking that movement, writing about that movement as the stuff of “doing” anthropology, and (as old fashion as it sounds) making meaning or finding some truth in all of this effort and the ethics of doing so.  When Rabinow and Stavrianakis say that their objective is to provide “conceptual and narrative standards and forms that further inquiry might well take up,” [4]   I understand this to be at once encouragement to follow their movements as they tact back and forth between analysis and conceptualization about leave-taking, as well as an invitation to mobilize certain concepts, insights, and deliberations in ones own work, regardless what (if anything) constitutes “the field.”  As they reflect on their experiment at its close, which is already multiple in its forms (its collaborators, its contingencies, and the “interconnected projects and problems” to which they refer [5]), Rabinow and Stavrianakis allow the practical problems of doing work in the human sciences to stand.

There is a dual problem of production and reception that arises when anthropological writing takes on a self-critical mode, which is often falsely identified as a problem of “clarity” (as the Prescott example points to).  Here I want to be clear.  Rabinow and Stavrianakis write through a particular set of concepts (equipment, actual, present, contemporary) which, for their part, are the fruit of erudition and analytical persistence––and while these working concepts can absorb (or withstand) the particularities of other contexts/projects/interventions, they are very much the result of specific types of labor.  And yet as their work shows, the so-called problem of “clarity” faced by the anthropologist at the close of any fieldwork is to not produce (or reproduce) intelligibility but to wrestle with the disjointedness that is the character of human relations already (and to block the reduction of subject relations to clichés).  As much as I find the reception of Capote’s novel useful for thinking about the register upon which fieldwork and its reporting resides––especially during what is often called the “writing up” phase, which always has (though is often unacknowledged) a double movement towards and away from the (some) thing of fieldwork, to capture in some way its form through the cultivation of writing and thought [6]––there is always the danger stripping away the human from this human-thing without the chance of repair.  

I see the contribution of Demands of the Day, however, as less complicated than all of this.  Here I would simply like to adopt the imagery of “other rooms” and “other voices” in order to suggest that, while the language of concepts used by Rabinow and Stavrianakis is different from my own (and the spaces where I find myself working––clinics, living rooms, hospitals…––are not the same), there are nevertheless explicit commitments that we share.  I insist that the book offers broad instruction for anthropological practice, and not only in places that share a certain familienähnlichkeit.  If “my rooms” are not the same, then it is fair to ask about the nature of dwelling itself (surely not only in spatial terms), if, as Veena Das recently suggests, anthropology is indeed a dwelling science [7].  

I have just returned to work that I began in Baltimore in 2002.  My dis-ease at leaving the field has never left me, and now at the beginning of a return I find myself appealing to Rabinow and Stavrianakis’ reflections in order to exorcise the demons I thought I had left behind.  They use their equipment to exit the field, to take leave, to write, to make sense, to sort out, to textualize, and to comprehend [8].   And in the coming months, I will be borrowing this equipment (albeit in a different form) to return, knowing that I will take leave again.  They write that Demands of the Day is “not an ethnographic monograph nor a historical chronicle of people, places, and events” but “describes attempts to conceptualize and narrate the diverse forms that were apposite to different stages of our experiments.” [9]  I find myself between different moments in which their conceptualizations take hold––for me, the theatrical (affective), curatorial (to gather), and cinematographic (to track lines in the wider milieu) begin to blur together [10].  As I pause to write about time and symptom, about co-morbidity and the types of care that are mobilized to contend with illness in circumstances that are economically bleak, socially varied, and often individually desperate, I appreciate the adhesive quality of concepts in their writing––concepts that show how meaning clings to things, that help to test that meaning over time, and which make one aware of overwriting, overreaching, concealment, revelation, and discord––and which insist on remaining under the heading living (even when, to borrow words from another literary behemoth, “one must withdraw for a time from life in order to set down that picture.” [11] )  Rabinow and Stavrianakis offer equipment not sentiment.  They do a great service to scholars working in other domains of the human sciences (domains other than their own) by allowing anthropological writing and thought to appear through chiaroscuro (let me be clear again––there’s nothing intentionally obscuring here, but rather, as with others who work in the wide horizon of illness and human suffering, I see this move as countering the most unforgivable abuses when artificial light is crafted around suffering as an ethics made instrumental only for professional demonstration, which to my mind substitutes one obscenity for another).  I talk about subjects, about people doing and saying and struggling for meaning in things, all the while risking some philosophical antiquation from an abiding concern for forms of living, now, not at the point of conclusion but return.

 

 




[1]

Todd Meyers, Wayne State University, Department of Anthropology, 3054 FAB, 656 W. Kirby, Detroit, MI 48207   Email: toddemeyers@gmail.com

[2]

Orville Prescott.  “Book of the Times, Other Voice, Other Rooms (review)” The New York Times, January 21, 1948.

[3]

Georges Canguilhem.  Writings on Medicine, translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 44.

[4]

Paul Rabinow and Anthony Stavrianakis. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), vii.

[5]

Ibid. 3.

[6]

Ibid. 8.

[7]

Veena Das.  Affliction.  (New York: Fordham University Press, forthcoming).

[8]

Rabinow and Stavrianakis, 7.

[9]

Ibid. 4.

[10]

Ibid. 7.

[11]

The quote is from an interview with John Steinbeck conducted by George Plimpton published in The Paris Review, 1975 (Number 63).  It’s worth noting that elsewhere (in The Log of the Sea of Cortez) Steinbeck curiously talks about the “good” of “living in a perpetual state of leave-taking,” between embrace and longing.