Tag Archives: fieldwork

Ethnographic Memories: the politics of fieldwork

by Maxime Polleri
PhD Candidate | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article explores the similarities between a memoir and an ethnographic work. A memoir stands as an historical account written from personal knowledge. It is a form of writing that should resonate deeply within the heart of the anthropologist, whose very own specificity is to be, first and foremost, an ethnographer. That is, anthropologists are individuals full of (hi)stories, contingence, and subjectivity, who nevertheless struggle to bring “objective” accounts of what had happened under their eyes during fieldwork. I use this short comparative act as a jumping board to examine the politics of knowledge in the history of anthropological inquiry since the Enlightenment. More precisely, this comparison represents an opportunity to look at what is silently invested in the practices of ethnographical writing. In a brief discussion, I highlight the political implications that surround issues of knowledge production, expert voices, and translation amidst the discourse and narrative of anthropologists.

Key words: memoirs, memories, ethnography, politics of knowledge, expertise, fieldwork

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


The whiteness of her face seemed to be a remnant of a forgotten lore. I was staring at the paperback version of Memoirs of a Geisha (1997). Its book cover portrayed a young and somewhat nubile geisha, a traditional female entertainer that had become a well-known icon of Japanese culture. For an unknown reason, the book had been misplaced in the Japanese studies section of my former university’s library. Going through its pages, I could not help but ponder as to why the book had been confused with scholarly works. Could “real” knowledge be gain from a memoir? After all, the book has been critically praised for its authenticity and portrayal of the Gion district, an area famous for its geisha. The more I contemplated this question, the more I was struck by the numerous ironies that this book contains. Memoirs of a Geisha, is actually a fictionalized account of the life of a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki. Yet, an American man who “embodies the life and voice of a Japanese woman” wrote the book (Allison 2001:395). While the memories of another had been “borrowed,” the memoir is nonetheless perceived as an historically accurate depiction of the world of geisha (see Allison 2001: 382). It had perhaps been misplaced for this very own reason. The almost ethnographic writing of the author, Arthur Golden, seems to have granted Memoirs of a Geisha “higher truth value and therefore authority,” where “fantasy collapses into ‘knowledge’” (Allison 2001:385).

After this small library mischief, the boundaries that define and separate a memoir from an ethnographic work appeared much more porous to my person. I began to wonder at what scope these two genres of literature overlap and weave together, simultaneously blurring the edge among facts, fictions, and storytelling. To what extent do memoirs concur with anthropological writing and what insights can be gained in doing such comparison? In this article, I therefore explore the similarities between a memoir and an ethnographic work. More precisely, I use this short comparative act as a jumping board to examine the politics of knowledge in the history of anthropological inquiry since the Enlightenment period. I later focus on three ethnographic cases that have successfully highlighted the silently invested political practices of ethnographic writing. In an ensuing discussion, I explore more thoroughly the political implications that surround issues of knowledge production, expert voices, and translation amidst the discourse of anthropologists.

In a nutshell, the politics of knowledge refers to the inseparability of knowledge and political activities (Rubio and Baert 2012). However, by the ‘politics of knowledge,’ I do not wish to emphasize how governmental structures, such as the judiciary institutions or the heads of the state, influence issues of knowledge-making and vice-versa. As Marilyn Strathern argues, “the notions of ‘the political’ and ‘political personhood’ are cultural obsessions of our own, which we should be wary, in their specificities, of projecting on to others.” (c.f. Rapport and Overing 2007:167). From this viewpoint, politics cannot be merely understood through discrete and fixed entities (Rubio and Baert 2012: 8). Rather than focusing on “politics” as a set of pre-given institutions and unified structures, my account embraces a much more porous conception of the word political. In such, I focus on the manifold processes of negotiation, translation, as well as the distribution of power affecting the relationship of humans in the production of an ethnographic paradigm. This approach enables me to see all knowledge projects as political, highlighting the fact that “researchers are never free from the values and interests of particular social locations.” (Kirksey 2009:157). Rubio and Baert (2012:2) have argued that knowledge is constitutive of the world in which we live in and therefore invariably political. It is the world of anthropologist and their specific politics upon knowledge that constitutes the subject of my interest.

On Porous Grounds

Thinking about memoirs and ethnographies, I now turn my gaze away from the Orient, toward the emerald green forests of Brazil, where a famous anthropologist first conducted his fieldwork. In his book Tristes Tropiques, I have always wondered why French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss started like this: “I hate travelling and explorers” (1973:17). Tristes Tropiques is a unique piece among Lévi-Strauss’ scholarship; it mixes travel memories, ethnographic works, and philosophical ponderings. First and foremost, it stands as an incredible account of his life and work as an ethnologist, but also as a human being. Lévi-Strauss’ voice, which I often find so effaced, distant, and apolitical, is amidst the yellowish pages of my copy of Tristes Tropiques limpid and clearly present. One can almost hear his distinctive pitch, typical of French intellectuals.

On one page the reader stumbles upon the author’s recollection of his youth in Brazil, on the next we find a detailed study of Nambikwara’s Amerindian populations. Tristes Tropiques is a strange book, an odd piece of ethnography, which oscillates between personal accounts and ethnographic details, where both of those pieces are, before and after all, memories. It is along these blurred edges or uncertain boundaries that we can find one of his most poignant works. Needless to say this book has always intrigued me, perhaps because I find it so hard to categorize amidst a given body of theoretical frameworks, such as French structuralism, a label that has often stuck with his later works. Tristes Tropiques is neither an ethnography per se, or a travel story lost in the faux-semblant that is exoticism, the last bastion of occidental men.[1] By its form, poetics, and texture it is closer to the memoir, because that is what constitutes most of the book: a (re)collection of memories, the memoir of an ethnographer who hated travelling and explorers.

In reading Tristes Tropiques one cannot help but think that ethnographic works and memoirs are perhaps not so distant forms of writing. While both genres are based on the work of retrospection and remembrance, some memories matter more than others. Some memories are deemed important enough to lay on paper, while others are discarded at the convenience of the writer, as are the people who are part of them. In the next parts, I explore in more details the relationship between memoirs and ethnographic works.

Memoirs and Ethnographies

A memoir stands as an historical account written from personal knowledge (see Conrad 1986; Gamble 1994). It is a form of writing that should resonate deeply within the heart of the anthropologist, whose very own specificity is primarily as an ethnographer. That is, an anthropologist is an individual full of (hi)stories, contingence, and subjectivity, who nevertheless struggles to bring an ‘objective’ account of what had happened under his or her eyes. More precisely, I use this comparison as an opportunity to look at what is silently invested in the practices of ethnographic writing. I wish to address more thoroughly the political role and consequences of ethnographic discourses and narratives. I approach the notion of the political, because I think that every memoir has an embedded political framework. Obviously, political memoirs could come to mind, but if one also embraces a more informal definition of the word “politics”—as highlighted before—then it is not hard to consider memoirs through a political lens. The memories that matter or not in a memoir; the ones that are deemed relevant are always negotiated. Therefore, one should think of memoirs as specific visions proposed to the readers. They are also the works of individuals who are important enough to be published and to subsequently be heard by an audience. They are the memories of individuals who have the authority to tell their story and, more importantly, to legitimize it. As Lisa Yoneyama (1995: 502) argues: “To possess and demonstrate one’s own memories is therefore inextricably tied to power and autonomy.” The process that underlies ethnographic writing is perhaps not so different.

Often preconceived notions of memoirs link them with works that are thought to be factual, true, and bias-free; for example, Diebel (2002) shows how political memoirs are even regarded as valuable resources in the teaching of diplomatic history, foreign policy, and international relations. Yet, a memoir remains a personal account, a story that is told by a single individual. In a sense, it can be considered as a subjective version of what someone consider objective. One could even go farther as to compare it to a form of storytelling. After all, that is what good memoirs primarily do—they catch the reader up in their emotional narratives (and not merely in the “facts” that constitute them) until the very last page of the book. As opposed to biographies, which often target the whole panorama of a human life, memoirs generally discuss the turning points in the lifetime of an individual, the touchstone matters of what constitutes an “interesting” life (see Conrad 1986: 149). Sometimes, whole sequences and events are skipped, considered irrelevant, while other memories are embellished and turned into an enjoyable, moving, and potentially inspiring story. As Stoller has mentioned, a memoir does “make readers feel like they are getting a ‘real’ story presented in accessible prose” (2007:182).

Yet, when one browses the counters of a bookstore where can memoirs be found? In the literature and fiction department? Try again. . . . In the romance category? Keep looking. . . . Perhaps in the mystery and thriller section? Another dead-end. Now, try your luck in the non-fiction corner and chances are that you will find something. While memoirs in their form, content, and texture obviously blur the edge between facts and stories, they are rarely sold under the label of fiction. One does not need to search long to see the basic dichotomy that emerges in the form of the memoir: to the bare core, I would argue that they straddle objectivity and subjectivity.

Anthropology since its disciplinary inception emerged from a similar dichotomous cradle, causing many to understand the nature of anthropological work in specific ways. The paradox of objectivity and subjectivity that is found within the form of the memoir can easily be transposed to the practices of ethnographic writing, providing a chance to explore the consequences of such a schism. Indeed, feelings, beliefs, political affiliations, and any other remnants of an ethnographer’s subjectivity have always been a part of anthropological inquiries—whether explicitly acknowledged or not. Yet, although not far from a memoirist, the ethnographer has never been defined as a writer of fiction. Individual assertions, based on the fieldwork memories that one deemed relevant, have neither been regarded as anecdotes, tales, or different perspectives. They were rather ethnographic facts, in the same ways that a memoir’s events are considered historical events.[2] Far from being a storyteller that conveys his or her viewpoint, the ethnographer was not understood to be a writer of fiction, but a writer of science. Like the memoirist, who is the storyteller and the object of the story, anthropology was the science (logos) where Man (anthropos) is both the producer of knowledge and the object of it. However, this position expresses a particular dilemma, similar to the one that is found among many memoirs, where the writer’s subjectivity ends up making much of the objective framework that surrounds this genre. Event more recent incarnations of anthropology exhibit a similar double-bind, where the ethnographer is “a creature that can know the world of which it is existentially a part only by taking leave of it” (Ingold 2013: 745). Initially to surpass such a problem and to become a respectable science, anthropology had to embrace a specific position, where scholars had to stand high and strong against assumptions, interpretations, and beliefs (see Latour 2003). A way to do so was to mimic the Enlightenment naturalists and their “pure” science (Descola 2001, 2011). Such a dualistic framework (social science against a natural one) culminated with the dichotomization of anthropology itself. As French anthropologist Philippe Descola argues, “a first split took place at the end of the nineteenth century […] to physical anthropology came the establishment of a unity beyond variations, while social anthropology was to expose variations on the background of an unlikely unity” (my translation 2011: 9-10). This rose to a crescendo with the nature-culture nexus, upon which an enormous body of work and knowledge has emerged. In this regard, and to go back to Lévi-Strauss, it is worth considering Alice Lamy’s (2008) insightful critique of the Elementary Structures of Kinship, written six years before Tristes Tropiques. As she argues:

The text of Lévi-Strauss fits in rupture and continuity with classical theories [such as Rousseau and Hobbes’ “state of nature”]. First of all, the argument of the author is devoid of any political purpose and is a matter of pure anthropological perspective. This perspective leads Lévi-Strauss to make a conceptual shift in his work: one passes from the distinction state of nature/state of society to the distinction state of nature/state of culture. (My translation, Lamy 2008:33-34)

Here, one should not crucify Lévi-Strauss as the father of all dualism in anthropology. Structuralism was never a dogma, but only a method that resorted to binary opposition, useful in some cases, but not in all. Furthermore, the distinction between nature and culture had no “acceptable historical significance” for Lévi-Strauss; it was only a “tool to think of Man as both a biological being and a social individual” (my translation Lamy 2008:34). The only point that I wish to put forward is that politics was not, for Lévi-Strauss, an issue of major importance in the production of ethnographic work, even if his works have ironically triggered in me an interest in the political implications that surround ethnographic writings. As Alice Lamy argued, “His ambition has always been to approach something like the universal laws of the human mind” (my translation 2008:30). It is not the shift per se toward another dichotomy that is interesting for this article, but rather the dismissal of political purpose in the production of an anthropological literature and writing form. It is sometimes on similar “apolitical” grounds that particular canonical forms of ethnography have been cemented and it is the repercussions of such “objective” frames of mind that I wish to highlight. In the next part, I explore the consequences of those apolitical grounds, by focusing on three case studies.

Glaciers, Beans, and Monkeys

In this section, I target three ethnographic cases that have successfully highlighted the silently invested political practices of ethnographic writing. I begin with the work of anthropologist Julie Cruikshank (2006), who has been interested in the link between local knowledge and colonial encounters, in an effort to address more thoroughly the political role and consequences of anthropological discourses. She first discusses the work of Briggs and Bauman, who argued that the legacy of anthropologist Franz Boas has “trained ethnographic fieldworkers to use the metaphorical incentive of the book as a ‘storage-box’ to elicit texts, a method that […] gave him [Boas] enormous power to regulate the production, circulation, and reception of those accounts” (Cruikshank 2006:59). As Cruikshank demonstrates, Briggs and Bauman argued that such text collections provided for Boas and cultural anthropology a “direct access to timeless cultural traditions—to ‘myth’ rather than to history” (2006:59). In the process of gathering and re-contextualizing those texts, Cruikshank (2006) contended that Boas has erased his own particular role, while subsequently diminishing the Natives’ place as potential narrators, especially by disregarding the context in which their narratives and stories took place. She argued: “He subsequently re-rooted them in a thoroughly modernist practice—preservation and protection—while continuing to burnish them as authentic replications of ‘the native point of view’” (2006:59). Interested in those modernist practices of preservation, and building on political ecology’s insights, Cruikshank subsequently demonstrates that particular notions used in our discourses about nature (such as the construction of “wilderness”[3]) are utterly ethnocentric against indigenous populations such as First Nations, since they thoroughly erase “their prior occupancy, proceeded apace” (2006:255). These formulations and modernist practices thereby “deny varieties of local knowledge their own histories” (Cruikshank 2006:257), especially by freezing them as a mere set of apolitical stories and memories, which are irrelevant to some of our problems like global warming. In those conditions, we can see that the expertise of knowledgeable people, such as First Nations, are often taken out of their “evocative contexts” to be merely “taped, transcribed, codified, and labelled” (Cruikshank 2006:256).

Anthropologist Kregg Hetherington (2013) offers a similar example by studying the introduction of soybean to Paraguay and their unintended consequences. In particular, he focused on the recurring statements of Campesino activists who argued that soybean kills—a discourse that the state quickly dismissed as simply irrational. The interesting point is that Hetherington initially, like the State officials of Paraguay, disregarded the narratives surrounding the so-called killer beans, re-establishing in the process the “priority of frames of reference” in understanding a given problem (2013:71-72). Hetherington first thought that these discourses were, “at best, a figure of speech not meant to be taken literally or, at worst, a mistaken reading of the situation caused by a restricted understanding of what was going on” (2013:71-72). However, he later realized that disregarding the “political importance and analytic potential of the beans” was also a dismissal of the lives of Campesino activists (2013:82). Indeed, doing so was to consider the rural activists’ analyses of the problems brought by the introduction of soybean as something irrelevant (2013).

For the third case, I wish to look at Primate Visions, written by science and technology studies (STS) scholar Donna Haraway (1990). In her book, the author was interested in the scientific practice of physical anthropology and primatology as a form of “story-telling practice in the sense of historically specific practices of interpretation and testimony” (1990:4). Rather than taking the primatologists’ body of knowledge as an apolitical dogma, she takes it up as a set of discourses narrated by expert storytellers. Wishing to challenge the constructions of these stories, she put forward the numerous political stakes (relating to gender, race, colonialism, and scientific objectivity) that are to be found in the production of knowledge surrounding primates’ taxonomy (1990:3) She argues that “primatology is about an Order, a taxonomic and therefore political order that works by the negotiation of boundaries achieved through ordering differences” (1990:10). Her work has revealed how science, monkeys, and expertise—among others—were themselves embodied in the politics of the early and mid-20th century. By looking at physical anthropology from the vantage point of discourse and narrative, Haraway was able to see epistemic systems as “stories,” which are culturally specific and charged with political implications. Such stories are being told by particular groups of experts who might intentionally (or unintentionally) be silencing the voices of others. This could be a charming metaphor for the anthropologists whose fieldwork often consists of “collecting” stories from informants while trying to understand specific knowledge forms by looking over the shoulder of the so-called “Other”.[4]

Discussion: The Politics of Fieldwork

The numerous examples brought by Cruikshank, Hetherington, and Haraway, demonstrate how ethnographic works that might at first seem factual, neutral, and objective, more than often hide unconscious political and subjective frames that enable particular forms of knowledge, while disregarding others. They define what counts as expertise, who has the right to speak, and who should (silently) listen. In many of those cases, the pursuit of knowledge involves, as Allison (2001:386) argues, a “process in which the subject of inquiry is, almost by definition, reduced to the status of an object. And, in the case of the study of other cultures, this aggression is exacerbated even further.” Since the crisis of representation, perhaps best exemplified by Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986), anthropologists have been more in tune with how univocal modern paradigms might be reinstating blatant dualisms that bring new forms of inequality, hierarchy, colonialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. All three previous authors are very attuned to what anthropologists and STS scholar Kim Fortun has called “discursive gaps” (2009). As she argued, “Discursive gaps are gaps in what discourses can say or even recognize. They are what people can’t get their heads and tongues around. They operate through disavowal and ignorance” (2009:9). The goal of being attuned to such gaps is something that echoes the aim of Haraway’s cyborg politics: a struggle that stands against “perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism” (1991:176)—in other words, a struggle against essentialist features and foundational categories.

What is also striking about the three case stories are the political implications that surround the very practice of ethnographic writing, as well as the place of the ethnographer. In the issues surrounding the creation of ethnographic work, it is important to be attuned to the role that anthropologists play, especially as “experts” who produce “first hand” accounts of given knowledge. Anthropology is indeed a science embedded in a rich history of colonialism, where the savage (sometimes noble) opposed the Victorian Englishman—a science where the expert, the ethnologist, relied not merely on its own memory but also on its anonymous and plural informants, the ghostwriter of their memoir. As philosopher Isabelle Stengers says:

The anthropologist produces, whether he wants it or not, a set relationship that is more often inherently asymmetrical: he reports to “us” a knowledge about other groups without putting to the foreground the relationship upon which his knowledge comes, or by simply being at the service of a science to produce. (2007:9)

Indeed, as Timothy Mitchell has argued, experts do not merely report social relations and knowledge forms; instead, they also work to format and produce them (2002:118). In that line of thought, anthropologists, who often speak more than one language,[5] need to be conscious of the political implications that their works of translation might imply. As historian Gyan Prakash explained, translation always implies a certain realignment of power, as well as a renegotiation of the unequal relationship between investigators and their subjects (1999:50). Going back to Memoirs of a Geisha, Allison (2001) has highlighted how the role of the outsider (in this case an American male writer) is crucial in shaping the story arch and its mass appeal to an English speaking audience, even though the memoir takes the form of a first person narrative told by the Geisha protagonist.[6]

While anthropologists have been warier of such difficulties, the problems are numerous and to be found on many levels. In that regard, anthropologist Arturo Escobar asks an interesting question: “How does one study and describe situations in which the objects or subjects are thoroughly constituted by the same knowledge practices of which the ethnographer herself is also a product?” (2008:294). Still, I think that political ecologist Paul Robbins has raised one of the most intelligible inquiries surrounding ethnographical issues. This question concerns how scholars, in search for the concepts used in political ecology, such as governmentality or marginalization, often discover them in the process of doing fieldwork (2004:151). Specifically, he argued: “The concepts pre-exist such discovery and so always seem to turn up! One key lesson is certainly that the reification of categories early in the research process may be limiting and unnecessarily constraining. Better political ecology requires care in this regard” (2004:151). While this warning was directed at political ecologists, any ethnographer can benefit from such an insight. Robbins was not looking to disregard the usefulness of our theories of knowledge; rather, he simply wished to emphasize the constraining aspects related to taken-for-granted notions.

Indeed, before going to the field, before writing a single line in its notebook, and even before meeting the people that they wishes to “study”, the anthropologist always knows what to look for. Yes, anthropologists might be lost in translation, they might not know where to look for it, who to learn it from, or when to gaze at it, but they always know what they are looking for, as they first and foremost track categories. Perhaps this is due to the predictive power of theory. Because, in many ways, that is what theory does: theory tells the ethnographer to locate what matters. In a sense, the horse is being put before the proverbial cart, as such teleology presupposes that we concretely know what matters for people that we have not even met, and who often do not share much of a modicum of economical luxury that a funded ethnographer has. Indeed, fieldworkers need to work “with a strict plan of investigation, which is what the granting agencies insist they manifest before they even go into the field” (Taussig 2011:48). Furthermore, by looking for specific problems, such as ecological degradation or political marginalization, the ethnographer is at risk of tracking such notions through Eurocentric values—an ethnocentric lens—and crystalizing those problems in given epistemological and ontological states. As Taussig notes: “Much of anthropology, certainly most that is funded, thus turns out to be telling other people’s stories without realizing that’s what you are doing, and telling them badly, very badly indeed – […] such stories are seen as mere steps toward the Greater Truth of the Abstraction” (2011:49).

In a related viewpoint, many scholars have successfully demonstrated that the “production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality” (Haraway 1991:181). With this mindset, anthropologists have asked how they are politically situated in writing about the so-called “Other” in their own ethnographic practices. As Stoller highlights, anthropologist have recently experimented with diverse ethnographic forms that “did not conform to the tried and true realist structure of theoretical introduction, presentation of data, and conclusion” (2007:180). By blurring the lines between memoirs, imagination, and story, anthropologists have been more attuned to the subtle subjectivity of the ethnographer, the “empowered person who controls the construction of the text […]” (Stoller 2007:180). Yet, one should also consider how apolitical and non-located forms of knowledge are embedded, not merely in our writing paradigm, but also in the academic practices of anthropology, unconsciously re-establishing powerful frames of domination. We could say that anthropologists need to be mindful of their own academic modes of production, to their methods of producing (his)tories. For example, what is the concrete use of a $150 hardcover ethnographic inquiry—perhaps unaffordable by the marginalized, vulnerable informants—whose commercial success is made possible by a network of high-grossing universities’ libraries, later to be read by a minority of academics? Significantly, this academic minority might not share much of the problems discussed in the books, nor be in a position of power great enough to contribute to potent changes. Furthermore, trendsetting theories, which define the practice, expertise, and future of anthropological work, irremediably emerge from occidental languages, mostly epitomized by the lingua franca that is English. The very work of peer-review also erases any trace of individuality. The name of the ethnographer is replaced by the apolitical and phantomatical ‘I’. Funding projects bring this to a next level; as Taussig argues: “Invariably the application begins not with ‘I wish to study…,’ but with ‘This project is aimed at…’ In one stroke anything subjective is not so much erased as it is disguised and distorted by this language” (2011:48).

In the Heart of Darkness

Kim Fortun has argued that scholars of anthropology are “always confronted with more to understand and more to address than is possible” (2001:350). As a young scholar focusing on the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Polleri 2015, 2016), I especially know that this is the case. Yet, this is not what scares me the most. After all, the numerous problems that surround the issue of nuclear contamination in the aftermath of this disaster cannot be captured in their entirety. Neither should they be, as this denies “the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective” (Haraway 1991:191), one of the best contributions that an ethnographer can make as to what regards a given problem. In the midst of doing fieldwork, what scares me the most is how and why I write. At night, when I try to recall the encounters that have constituted my working day in order to lay them on paper, I cannot help but to get that weird feeling, that “sinking feeling that the reality depicted receded, that the writing is actually pushing reality off the page” (Taussig 2011:16). As Taussig argues: “Perhaps it is an illusion. But then, illusions are real too” (2011:16).

As an anthropologist, I am interested in how diverse forms of knowledge and being interact, and to what extent different actors articulate them. In that line of thought, every scholar should be careful about the investment in an anthropological epistemological practice used to study other epistemological practices and forms; exploring the tensions of epistemologies as a frame of reference itself remains important. In other words, a reflection of anthropological knowledge production in understanding how one writes about people has started to haunt me. In this context, I have begun to ask: for whom do I write? And the answer is an egoistic one: me. As a young scholar, one cannot help but to produce a very specific form of expertise, reflective of a particular academic framing, and one that revolves around publications, conferences, and thesis writing. After all, this article has focused on the diverse processes of negotiation, translation, and power inequalities affecting the relationship of humans in the production of an ethnographic paradigm. While this is still a broader notion of ‘the political’ it still represents a cultural obsession of North American anthropologists. For this reason, I do construct knowledge in a very selective manner. One cannot help but to come full circle back to the memoir, which is also the indulgence of one’s feelings; a form of writing that is sometimes contended with an egoistic self-absorption, where one chooses the memories and people that matter.

On the other hand, a memoir is never a memoir without a public, and ethnographic writing also implies a set of relations, an ongoing politics between the ‘I’ and multiple forms of otherness that are imaginatively materialized on paper. As Taussig notes, “there is always a bigger ‘you’ than yourself, a ‘you’ of many readers looking over your shoulder” (2011:77). An ethnography is not an ethnography in “good and due form” without its body of experts that categorize it as so.

When I glance at my notebook, I begin to see two things. I see sanitized data, under the form of facts, evidence, and information, where the “imaginative logic of discovery” is quickly “followed by the harsh discipline of proof” (Taussig 2011:xi). Between the lines of my notebook, I see something else, memories that do not seem to “fit”, memories that matter—inevitably for some of my informants – but not for the requirements of my particular academic framing.[7] Taussig has argued that the notebook lies “at the outer reaches of language and order” (2011:118). Yet, as an ethnographer interested in Japanese culture, I still write in my notebook from left to right, never from up to down. Writing a memoir is an occupation devoid of any surprises, as the story irremediably revolves around the same protagonist. To some extent, ethnographers should be mindful of this insight. What anthropologists need are alternative forms of narrative that can, as Gosselin (2011: 142) argues, avoid any false representations of a given finality. These alternative narratives must effectively suppress politically dominant discourses, without themselves becoming a prevalent paradigm. Upon leaving Fukushima, I wonder if the memories associated with the pain of other people will be erased forever? In the loud rumble of the metallic beast, will I even be able to hear Mistah Kurtz murmuring: “The horror! The horror!”?

Works Cited

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Conrad, Margaret. 1986.“Ego and Autobiography: Three Political Memoirs.” Acadiensis 16(1):149-154.

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–—-. 2011. L’Écologie des Autres: L’Anthropologie et la Question de la Nature. Paris: Éditions Quae.

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–—-. 2009.“Biopolitics and the Informating of Environmentalism.” In Lively Capital. Kaushik Sunder Rajan, ed., 307-326. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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–—-. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2013.“Beans before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility, and Paraguayan Soy Boom.” Cultural Anthropology 28(1):65-85.

Ingold, Tim. 2013.“Dreaming of Dragons: On the Imagination of Real Life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(4):734-752.

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End Notes

[1]Memoirs of a Geisha is a book that makes use of exoticism. As Anne Allison argues: “The book is written in such a way that it fosters the impression of taking a trip to an exotic, distant land whose foreignness is ‘unmasked’ and whose ‘veil of secrecy’ lifted, allowing readers/travellers to enter into a ‘secret world of the geisha’” (2001:382).

[2]. Of course, such sayings hereby apply to a pre-WWII anthropology. The anthropologist positionality has been extensively questioned in the 80s. As Allison (2001:390) argues, anthropologists have become much more self reflective at unmasking their “own positionality and rhetorical strategies when studying (and representing) others.”

[3]. For example, William Cronon (1996) argues that wilderness should not merely be thought of as a mutually exclusive ontological realm, but also as a social and cultural construct.

[4]. Reading over the shoulder of the “Other” echoes the scholarship of Clifford Geertz, and his idea of reading cultural practices as “texts.” His work has also been seen as straddling the literary and the non-fictional.

[5]. Even monolingual anthropologists can be said to speak more than one ‘language’ if they are attuned, for example, to the vernacular forms of a language, to ‘scientific’ talk, or to the slangs of subcultures.

[6]. The real Geisha that inspired those events later sued Goldman for defamation and wrote her own memoirs in order to set the stakes right by telling the “true” story. Too often, in ethnographic accounts, as in memoirs, the memory of others can only achieve true value and authority in the actual hand of anthropologists or American novelists.

[7]. In that regard, Allison (2001:383) has asked us to reflect on the extent toward which a writer is responsible for the effect of his or her writing. This is made even more important when we consider that specific cultures and societies do get “known and seen through our representations” (383).


An islander’s notes: The man, the lover, the expat musician on the streets of Athens

by Jeremy Cooper
Undergraduate student | York University, Toronto, Canada

Download PDF: CH1(1).1-8.Cooper

Abstract: Lazarus is a Cuban street musician living in Athens, Greece. This article tracks both his life history and his encounter with the author who was researching busking in the city. It is a study at the confluence of art and anthropology, an exploration of ethno-biography as a mode of representation, and a reflection on ethnographic fieldwork.

Key words: ethno-biography, street music (busking), fieldwork


Much of what follows comes from several conversations Lazarus, a Cuban saxophone player, and I had. I was in Athens, a bustling and cramped metropolis, for a total of one month. Lazarus and I beca-me fast friends and played together on several occasions in the area of Athens around the Acropolis called the Plaka, a known tou-rist area, and the ideal place to find entertainers. We had little in the way of formal interviews and instead spoke as friends, although he was aware of my project and my plans as an Anthropology student conducting research in Athens. For this reason, as much as I would like to, I cannot quote him directly.

This being a study at the confluence of art and anthropology, it was very much influenced by an attention to affect. It follows both my encounter with Lazarus and his life-story, as he narrated it. I will not be making a concrete argument, except to say that music is a skill that many people (Lazarus in particular) have used to survive in the midst of a massive economic downturn in the Greek economy. Lazarus was saved by his saxophone.

Biography of Lazarus

He barely eats, He hardly sleeps
He stands all day and plays
Notes float along the street
He’s a lover in every kind of way

A handsome man, without a plan
From an island far away
With melody he does what he can
Always at work, always at play

Born in Cuba in 1968, he was the youngest of three children. He began walking at six months old, a child who just had to move. After a few months he was hospitalized because walking on soft bones had caused them to warp and he was unable to walk. For the next four years he saw only one room in a religious hospital, cared for by nuns and priests, he waited for his legs to work again. Upon leaving the facility, he found he was different than his peers. He had been around older people for most of his childhood and found it difficult to fit in with children his own age. Soon afterward, he didn’t specify how long, presumably a couple of years, he began playing with girls, sparking a lifelong passion for … well, passion and girls. He had male friends, but spent a great deal of time with girls his own age, and once he had grown more, girls who were sometimes much older. Growing up he loved Bob Marley, funk, and jazz, most of which was not to be found on the radio or in music stores anywhere in Cuba, where the only music played and on the radio was traditional and maybe some rock. He had many Bob Marley records and spent hours listening to them.

He went to “polytechnic” school and was the only one of his siblings to graduate, his sister had children and stopped going and his brother dropped out to work. According to him, he was the “prodigal son” and his mother was very proud. Early on it was clear he would go far, and so he has. A driven man, he then enrolled in military school at about 15 and spent a few months there before being shipped off to Angola. Cuba had supported the mpla (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) in Angola since its struggle for independence in 1974–75 and sent troops and other personnel to their aid, so he told me. At the age of sixteen, Lazarus convinced his superiors to let him go and fight. He spent 11 months in Angola, a touchy subject and one not easily or happily relived. After that time he was pulled out by the Cuban authorities and made a lieutenant at the military academy, after only a year or so of actual schooling and a year of brutal war. He was offered a career in the military, but refused and left. It was not his calling. Ever a lover, never a fighter.

Lazarus married a Cuban woman and had two children with her, to whom he continues to send money when he can from Athens. The marriage fell apart when he went to school for a few months to become a barber and opened his own barber shop. Through the barber shop he supported himself while attending music school in 1995, studying saxophone. Out of his class of 30 musicians, he was the only one to graduate. His life was busy and exciting through these years, running a small business, going to parties, studying, seeing friends, and traveling. He found that he had no time to play saxophone, though he studied the books and had a theoretical knowledge of music in general. When it came time for exams, he practiced feverishly, often until very late at night. He told me he used to hide in his closet, putting clothes under the door and in his sax to muffle the sound, and he played all through the night. When it came time to award the diplomas for the class of 1999, Lazarus explained that many of his classmates had dropped out, largely because they could not handle the pressure of the school although they still played beautifully. Lazarus was brought before the judges and when asked if he thought he deserved a diploma, he took a leap and told them he did because he knew the material and worked really hard and so on. Whether or not his speech was actually persuasive the judges awarded him—and only him—a diploma. The accreditation allowed him to teach music. In spite of this, after graduation he literally hung up his sax and instead concentrated on running his barber shop, that is until the future founder of Manana Reggae came in for a shave. Manana Reggae was, according to Lazarus, the first reggae band to be formed in Cuba.

Lazarus in Athens, Greece.
Lazarus in Athens, Greece. (photo courtesy: Jeremy Cooper)

This man, I never found out his name, asked Lazarus if the saxophone on the wall belonged to him. When Lazarus said yes, but that he didn’t play much, Bob told him he was starting the first reggae band to play in Cuba. To this point the music scene had been dominated by traditional and rock music. Lazarus, who grew up listening to reggae records, was intrigued. Yet, because he did not think he could spare the time and the offer didn’t seem very serious, he refused. After a time, Bob came back, saying he had a few members and they were jamming regularly, he again invited Lazarus to come and join; again he refused. He was nonetheless becoming more and more interested. After another couple of weeks, Bob came back and, finally, Lazarus decided to join them for a jam. From that point on, they were known as Manana Reggae, touring all over Cuba, becoming wildly popular as a local act. About the same time, another band approached Lazarus to play bass, this band was Frijoles Negro, a funk/hip hop band, also a novelty in Cuba at the time, and he accepted. The latter became quite famous in Cuba and, according to him, toured with the North American group, The Roots.

He was with these two bands for five years, touring all over Cuba. During which time he met a Greek woman who was vacationing there. Lazarus wooed her and they began to date. Over the next couple of years she returned to Cuba several times to visit him. Then, in 2004 with the Olympics coming to Athens, Lazarus decided to go and visit her in Athens, where she was staying for work. Once there, he had planned to stay for only a few weeks, but his girlfriend suggested they get married, largely as a way to get him papers so that he could visit her there and not have trouble. Trouble being problems with racist police, difficulty with visas etc. They married, and Lazarus stayed in Athens for longer than expected, however, after about four months (yes, months) they split and he was left on the streets in Greece for about a month. Meanwhile, his life in Cuba had dissolved, the bands were moving on, and the barber shop was in decline. Lazarus was stuck. Eventually he got himself back on his feet, but by that point had very little in Cuba to go back to. He has visited on occasion but essentially he has stayed in Greece, living mostly in Athens ever since 2004.

Lazarus in Cuba, performing with Toronto poet and singer D’bi Young.
Lazarus in Cuba, performing with Toronto poet and singer D’bi Young. (photo courtesy: Jeremy Cooper)

After he had begun to establish himself in Athens, using his saxophone as a way to make money to survive, Lazarus met a guitar player in his late 20s. He and Lazarus began jamming. However the young man had some substance abuse issues, and Lazarus said he would not be in his band until he cleaned himself up. Lazarus has never liked drugs and alcohol and, more importantly, did not have time to waste. Eventually though, the two of them started the funk rock band Fundracar. Lazarus, being an eternal fan of reggae, suggested they play a couple of reggae songs, so they added them to the “repetory”—to explain, Lazarus’ English was conversational but lacking in grammar, he would say he when talking of women or men and he said “repetory” instead of repertoire, something I found rather charming). Soon after, Sony took notice of them and offered them a large contract … as a reggae band. This was a huge opportunity, but unfortunately most of the band had to be replaced because they were rockers as opposed to Rastas. They got a drummer and bass player who were cousins from Kenya and began cutting an ep album. They released the ep and began touring, however, it soon became apparent that there were rifts in the band. Lazarus wanted to be writing good music and, again, did not want to waste time. The others were much younger and comfortable writing cliché songs, as in simple, lowest common denominator stuff; not in it for the music so much as the money … and spending most of their time in bottles and clouds. They were also not making any money because Sony had sunk so much into them that everything they made touring was going back to the company. Lazarus was not happy about this. Though he was close with the band, he was forced to leave because he simply could not support himself with the little wages he earned from the band, who to him, seemed to be drowning in indulgence and laziness. Lazarus returned to being a solo act, busking most of every day and playing in bars, restaurants, and clubs most nights. It is hard to earn a living as a musician anywhere in the world, and my friend is unsupported by family in a crumbling economy trying desperately to make ends meet. In years past, making money as a musician in the tourist areas of Athens was not impossible, but in the last years especially people have been working less (often laid-off), there is little money flowing, and the trouble with riots and unrest makes tourists nervous so there are fewer of them as well.

Over time he had five children with four different women and was expecting a sixth child with a fifth woman; in fact, as I write this sentence his new daughter has been born. He tries his damnedest to send them money when he can and to visit his far-flung family (as two live in Cuba, one in London, one in Latvia, and the rest in Athens). However with the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, it has been very hard for him to maintain these connections and fulfill these obligations with any sort of regularity. Luckily he has created support networks based around his various girlfriends and his many friends, but he lives hand to mouth. He plays all day long, sometimes forgetting to eat, and generally makes between 80 and 150 euro in a day … but that is pretty optimistic. In clubs he averages about 40 euro for a few hours of entertainment. He is doing better than some, and only he knows just how much he is struggling.

Our time together

When I met him, Lazarus was standing in his favorite spot in Plaka, just below the Acropolis under a large tree. I heard a saxophone floating on the breeze and went to investigate. At first I was planning simply to give him some money and take his picture, as I had been doing with most of the buskers I had seen. I had just come back from the music store, where I had purchased an acoustic guitar (I needed something to play for the time I was there) and upon seeing it, he immediately struck up a conversation, asking me to jam with him. I was thrilled, as earlier an interview had fallen through, and I was in the midst of wondering where my project was going. I sat down and began playing along as best I could. He was playing jazz (not my strong suit musically) so I was trying to contribute nice sounds, but he seemed to be really enjoying it, and I immediately noticed his energy. He is a musician who plays with heart, which is harder to find than one might think. We began talking and after a time went to get dinner. He took me to his favorite restaurant, in the “black town” as he called it, the dangerous and unruly area around Omonia Square where immigrants from much of the world conglomerate. As we went he told me that he much preferred playing on the street to playing in clubs and such because in establishments the managers will often try to jerk around the musicians and not pay them what they are owed (a practice not uncommon in Canada as well), but on the street he is his own master and decides when to play, when to stop, where and what to play, et cetera. He was a gentleman as well because, although I could see he didn’t have much, he paid for my dinner (which was tasty and cheap). As we were parting ways, he told me he was playing at Cafe Plaka in the Plaka neighborhood in a few days and that I should come and see him; we exchanged what contact information we could (I did not have a phone, so it was email) and went our separate ways.

Lazarus and the author after a day of swimming and spearfishing.
Lazarus and the author after a day of swimming and spearfishing. (photo courtesy: Jeremy Cooper)

That Friday, I went with a number of my classmates to see his show. I had told them about it and they were quite intrigued. Lazarus was happily surprised to see me. I had not emailed him so he thought I wouldn’t come. He told me that he played in this place once a week and that he would lend me his electric guitar so that the next week we might play together. I was very excited about this, I had been wondering how far I could connect with the music scene while I was in Greece, partly for fun and partly for research. His show was excellent; he and another Cuban man played Latin jazz and gave a dance lesson, making a point of dancing with every woman in the place. Lazarus and his friend were excellent dancers, and they made quite a spectacle whirling around the floor. A day or so later, I met him and he gave me his only electric guitar, showing me how trusting he could be. For all he knew I could have just left the country with it the next day, so I was rather surprised he chose to leave me with it. In any case, this only served to cement our friendship. Via Facebook, he sent me the songs that we would play that night, and I spent the next days practicing. When Friday rolled around again, we met at Cafe Plaka and practiced some more, before the show. My classmates all came to encourage me. It was interesting to see people’s reactions. In the Cafe was the only time and place I saw Greeks dancing with any gusto. In the club district of Gazi, no one dances to the music, they stand around and drink, and nowhere else did I see anyone dancing with abandon … apparently Latin jazz makes everyone’s hips move. Lazarus was paid 45 euro for the night.

The next night, we played at a bar that was near the Acropoli metro, I felt a lot more comfortable with our “repetory” and so the show went a lot better. Again my friends came to watch, and again we all danced halfway through. It was the first time Lazarus had ever played at this bar, so I was honored to be there for it. The way it worked was that he would play a set (about an hour and a half) and then I would join him for the second half, after which we would jam. If he needed to fill more time, I would let him finish on his own. He was paid 40 euro then. After that night, he lent me his amplifier so that I could practice better. There was another gig the next Friday. He was always very generous, I knew he was struggling financially (he was quick to say so) but he never let on to it in his actions or in his generosity and always insisted that he pay for my food and drink, though sometimes I simply wouldn’t let him. He talked always about the pressures of ‘Babylon’ making his life very difficult, he was referring to the crisis taking place, but more broadly to the financial systems that brought it about as such things are not present in Cuba. He often didn’t pay for transit because such things are free in Cuba, and he felt he shouldn’t have to pay. The use of Rasta terminology was simply part of his vocabulary, likely due to his upbringing in reggae in the Caribbean.

That week, he and I went to his favorite place to swim, about an hour out of Athens, and we spent the afternoon there, spearfishing and talking about life. It was a very nice afternoon and I learned a great deal about his life that day. The day after, I went to his garrida’s house (he used the word a lot referring to his pregnant girlfriend) and we spent the day jamming with bass and guitar, playing several of the songs I have written in order to play them at the gig that weekend. When it came time to play the last show, I met him near where we had played the previous Saturday, at a sports bar below a traveller’s hostel near the Acropolis Museum. It was a decent show, again the first time he had played there. He was constantly searching for new places to play, so it was a first for both of us. The environment was not as conducive to jazz music as the other places had been, it was loud and boisterous. Again my ‘cheering section’ came to support Lazarus and I which was nice, but the audience aside from them was scattered and fluctuating. We played the songs I wrote, which went over better than I was expecting and involved singing in English. When I had played on the streets for fun and research, people seemed to enjoy it, but generally the only ones who made and comment or acknowledgment were English speakers, evoking a kinship related to language.  Other buskers were not moved. Once, an American went well out of his way to come and give me some money because he liked the song I was playing, more importantly he could understand it, which I think was a comforting thing for him. In any case, I found language to be a unifier, which was good at the gig because there were primarily Americans and Australians in the audience so they understood my songs (though they had obviously never heard them before). This facilitated a better connection with the audience. This was a clear indication that tourism in Athens was not dead, many still come from all over the world, often young people, to explore the ancient city. I never found out how much Lazarus was paid that night, but I would guess around 50 euro.

The next day, I met Lazarus for the last time, and we spent a few hours busking at his favorite place, where we met, then I returned his guitar to him, and we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I left him some money in his guitar case, because I knew if I gave it to him he would not accept it: he has too much pride. It was bittersweet to say goodbye, it was very nice to have spent the time with him, and he gave me much knowledge and many stories, but it is a shame that I won’t see him again, at least in the foreseeable future.


Just like me, Lazarus is a moving, feeling being, as Brian Massumi (2002) would say. Nailing my concepts too neatly would have taken away some of the affective intensities and potentialities—the singularities—of our encounters I intended to transmit through this biography.

Lazarus has had a long and exciting life, and it has taken him to a rather difficult spot in Athens. He would love “a stable job” in a factory or a farm or anything, and to only play music for fun. This is close to impossible though, because of the current economic conditions and skyrocketing unemployment in Greece, so he is forced to exhaust himself with his melodies trying to earn enough to feed himself and send support to his various children. He would like to leave the country; however he does not have enough money to do so. He remains cheerful and optimistic nonetheless and really is luckier than many.  He is far from descending into addiction, and he has a skill that is really more of a passion with which he can make an acceptable living. He has an amazing spirit and a solid drive, but very little traction. The crisis is affecting everyone in Greece differently, but it is on everyone’s lips, and when his are not around his horn, or on a lady’s, they are lamenting his difficult situation, but always doing so with a smile on his face.

Massumi, Brian
2002 Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Publication Information
Volume 1, Number 1 (2014)
ISSN 2292-6739 (Online)