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Alkan Chipperfield's research notes

[ presented at ResGat200603 by alkan chipperfield ]

- i emphasise that what i have to say here is only a very small and basic portion of what could and maybe should be said. but i feel the need more time for reflection to be able to say more in a meaningful way. for instance, access to an english-language library would be a help, and the time to sit and read and organise my thoughts. so what follows will be short and undoubtedly unsatisfying to everyone here in one way or another.

- most of you must have been puzzled on occasion as to what i have been doing here: but i assure you that the most puzzled one has surely been myself

- i developed a dread of this question and tried to avoid getting into a discussion about it at all costs, but often of course it couldn't be avoided; in that case i would mumble something about “studying foam,” making “anthropological observations,” and so forth, and brace myself for the consequent and highly predictable response of “how… interesting.”

- i can't pretend that i've found this role i somehow got myself into particularly pleasant or easy, especially at the beginning. actually, the only really disagreeable thing for me in my entire time here has been this role of “anthropologist,” “ethnographer,” artificial and contrived as it undeniably is, but which i have nevertheless felt bound by duty to uphold, at least nominally.

- therefore my only pleasure in when it comes time to leave will be to officially take off this anthropologist's mask, bury it; yet in practice i don't think i ever fully believed in the reality of this mask; i don't think i could ever really wear it in ernest; like all roles and identities in the play of social life, it never seemed to me anything but a peculiar illusion.

- this perspective itself might be considered a very “anthropological” one. it leads me to say a few words about my basic attitude towards anthropology and this particular so-called “anthropological” project (perhaps for want of a better term).

- from the beginning there have been many jokes about this admittedly rather bizarre occupation i have taken up as a so-called ethnographic observer of foam. these jokes have generally revolved around the assumption that the members of foam are my “lab rats,” a peculiar “tribe” whose sole reason for existence as far as i am concerned is to provide me laboratory specimens for anthropological data acquisition.

- of course i encouraged these jokes whenever possible, and treated them entirely as jokes: especially since they presented a caricature of a kind of anthropology which is now quite distant in time, and which i have been at pains to further distance myself. and yet on some occasions it seemed that the jokes were possibly being taken more seriously than i thought they should.

- also, at times i have been asked, half-jokingly, if i had any “anthropological insights” to offer; if i was making any interesting “anthropological observations.”

- therefore sometimes i felt that i should have some kind of anthropological “black box,” a secret computer into which data was fed, out of which brilliant insights should emerge.

- needless to say i have no such computer; i have no special insights, no special observations to make: this is entirely contrary to how i would describe my position and orientation: not as an “observer” (with all the comical associations that come with the idea of “observing” human behaviour as one would observe a dissected insect under a microscope), but as a learner, a student, which i believe is a far more accurate way of describing what i've actually been doing here - nothing other than learning, sometimes about specific things and sometimes more generally, as an ongoing attempt to understand the human condition. - more pressingly, i have often been questioned about my methodology, and when i thought seriously about this i could not find a single adequate way i could answer honestly.

- from the start, i never wanted to approach this research project (or whatever it should be called) with a fixed, preconceived set of questions and methodologies; i always hoped, whether rightly or wrongly, that these things could and should be discovered, co-created in the setting in which i would be immersed; they should emerge and grow or wither and die as organically as possible.

- i wanted to take full advantage of the fluidity and indeterminacy built in to the notion of “doing fieldwork”; it was exactly this fluidity and indeterminacy that always excited me, and still does, in the idea of fieldwork. in this way i always wanted to view this fieldwork as an experiment - a better word would be test - on a number of levels.

- parenthetically, the term “experiment” might here connote the specific set of methodologies used in scientific research; methodologies which i felt i was unable or unwilling to use.

- i am among those who believe that the research principles and methodologies that may be perfectly appropriate in the “hard” sciences, where they have their origins, are very awkwardly placed in the so-called social sciences; and i don't believe anthropology can be considered a “science” if the term “science” is understood in a strict way in the context of modes of knowledge originating in the west.

- let me emphasise right now that this is my own view on anthropology! i think it is right for me, but i don't consider it superior in any way; many others will take their scientific credentials very seriously indeed; furthermore, they will most likely have well-developed methodological approaches in which they place great importance and faith.

- i must emphasise that by proposing my own extremely “soft” approach i am not trying to dismiss these other approaches; quite the contrary: with a rigorous methodology, a sharply focused set of research questions, and so forth, very interesting results can of course be achieved; i have often longed to find and take an interest in such an approach myself, if only to have something solid to say in reply to the inevitable questions.

- robert bresson's interview

- just for the record, i should mention that my interest in foam came long before i ever dreamed of connecting it to an anthropology project; and over a period of about a year i felt quite guilty spending so much time reading the libarynth when i should have been trying to discover a potential group to study for my phd.

- back then i was intent only on researching a new religious movement, preferably an apocalyptic suicide cult, since this would allow me to continue with the subject i first began in honours. in fact i think my phd is still officially entitled something like “apocalyptic and millennial belief in new religious movements,” simply because of the small but annoying bit of paperwork involved in changing the title of a phd project at the university i'm at.

- in any case, returning to the idea of this experience being a “test.”

- if anything, i see it as (among other things) a personal test; a test of anthropology and fieldwork in relation to an organisation like foam; a test of foam in relation to anthropology. for me, i don't want to ultimately judge these things according to success or failure. in the end, i am interested in experience itself, which can only ever be an inextricable mixture.

- however, if i am to think in terms of success and failure, i would say that this test has failed on many levels, but perhaps holds the seeds of something successful. i am not confident that, in terms of a phd and writing a thesis for example, i will have any success, but nor am i entirely despondent. ;)

- as i said above, from the outset, on a personal level, i liked very much the idea of fieldwork as open-ended, immersive, semi-structured research; i liked the idea of travelling to interesting places such as brussels and doing exciting things in those places like calibrating muscles

- and i am still excited by this concept of fieldwork, i still believe that it possesses great potential. but i cannot say that i have found it something at all easy or pleasant in practice. so many times i have longed for a more “legitimate” role, so that i could easily and simply that i'm a programmer, a designer, a luminous potato expert. this would perhaps have lessened the constant pressure - mostly self-imposed, at times externally imposed - to validate and disambiguate my role.

- in short, i don't think i'm cut out to be a fieldworker or an anthropologist. therefore, in a sense this personal test has resulted in failure, but on the other hand i cannot regret it, since at the same time something has been learned.

- as far as it has been a test of anthropology in the milieu of foam, and a test of the possibility of doing fieldwork in such a milieu: in one view this too could be seen as a failure. i can see many ways in which fieldwork such as i've described it is out of place, and even absurd, in such a milieu. the whole nonsense of “observing” human interaction and behaviour here, for example, was never my idea of fun.

- and yet, if we can just finally and fully get rid of this “observation” nonsense and shift to another point of view, one in which engagement and participation comes to the fore, what i have been doing makes slightly more sense.

- at this level what is most valuable and important is a degree of engagement in the daily practicalities of work and play, the serendipitous discussions, the possibility of shared experiences, a sense of growth and development in getting to know the people and the place, the taste and smell and colours of everyday life which would be impossible without being present on a more or less regular and long-term basis.

- i suggest that these qualities hold significance and value for a mode of “research,” a mode of “knowledge,” (if not a “science” in the strict sense); it is here that “anthropology” could be seen to merge with literature, storytelling, film making, some aspects of mixed reality events, and so forth, as modes of investigating humans and their cultures.

- to develop on this i can mention that one basic tenet of anthropology is that the personal is inevitably the cultural. in this view, much of what we might consider to be our deepest and most intimate orientations and attitudes towards life can be viewed in the terms of the acculturation we receive in family, in society, and in various economic and political conditions.

- conversely, by internalising this acculturation we reproduce such conditions through our generative dispositions, but also have the chance to transform them. a very important focus of anthropology is precisely this point of transformation between the individual and the wider social world: where a collective culture becomes transformed into an individual disposition, and where individual dispositions perpetuate or transform the collective culture. it could be said that this is exactly the focus of much literature and storytelling also.

- “reflexivity” is a term that has become quite important in the field of social and cultural studies, and for that reason i would like to offer translations of it in the other languages represented around the table. since this concept can serve to sum up a great deal in terms of anthropology in general and my own orientation, it would be good if everyone grasped at least this idea - you can forget the rest. reflexive -sangrąžinis -wederkerend

- in this context, reflexivity has a wide range of component meanings and connotations. at its most basic, in anthropology the idea of reflexivity is that by gaining understanding and knowledge of some other (a culture, a society, a group, a person) you will inevitably acquire knowledge and understanding of a self (yourself, your society, your group, your culture). it might be fair to say that most anthropologists would advocate this approach as superior to introspection and psychological analysis as a way of gaining understanding and knowledge about oneself and others.

- more elaborately, and here i explicitly refer to pierre bourdieu's work, a reflexive sociology seeks to transcend the impasses of both subjectivist and objectivist modes of knowledge by attempting to objectify the observing subject's subjective relationship to the object. it is not the place to go into this here, except to say that what this kind of means is an attempt to avoid 1) projecting your own way of looking at the world onto others and then seeing it as their way of looking at the world; and 2) viewing others in terms of an abstract underlying “structure” that you, as a superior observer, are in a privileged position to see. a reflexive anthropology seeks to go well beyond these polarities through a dialectical synthesis.

- suffice it to say that this reflexive anthropology thing might possibly serve as a good start for the next stage of my endeavours.

- furthermore, it might offer a good perspective to conceptualise what i mentioned before: that is, the transformation of microcosm into macrocosm and the transformation of the macrocosm into the microcosm.

- in sum, i would like to add that i have difficulty in seeing people as fixed entities in fixed roles. all of the preceding is also a way of understanding people in terms of a rigorous relativism: we occupy positions in the field of social life, but we are not reducible to those positions. the position is independent of the person and vice versa. i would in the end take this further than any social theory, however:

- antonioni quote: “We know that beneath the represented image there is another image more true to reality, and that beneath that one, still one more, and again a further image beneath that one, until you get to the true image of reality, absolute, mysterious, that no one shall ever see. Or perhaps, one will arrive at the decomposition of any image whatsoever, of any reality whatsoever.”

- so how would any of this actually look in relation to us, to you, to foam and its world? at the moment, i don't know. this is the next step i must take. that might be part two of this introductory course in alkan's version of anthropology.

- i have no plans for the future, other than to return to my monastic life in the hills, and get on with this next step.

- i cannot say anything by way of observations or advice to you that you won't already know. i can only admonish you to be true to your own vision.

- i would like to suggest that you make it your priority to always move towards something that could be called nectar, ambrosia, something dark and luminous and vast and rainbow-coloured, in whatever form. misery follows the more you stray from this.


research_report_alkan.txt · Last modified: 2011/04/02 05:59 by maja