Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque

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Since the 1980s, and the Writing Culture critique of ethnographic representation, the writing of ethnographic texts in anthropology has been distinguished by the perennial appearance of new works composed of tropes and stylistic strategies that reflect the diverse influences of the period of critique. These "messy" texts were, and are, valorized as experiments. This essay argues that as critique such ethnographies are not so much experimental as baroque, indicating perhaps a limit of the historic ethnographic form, and the need to push the spirit of experiment back toward the conditions of producing ethnography in fieldwork. This "refunctioning" of ethnography in its experimental spirit would recognize and address the present limit of the baroque to which the 1980s period of critique and after has led.

In the 1980s, I once termed the exemplary ethnographies that circulated influentially for their innovative or experimental qualities as messy texts (Marcus 1994). Calling them messy was an affectionate way to draw attention to their often-systematic strategies for writing against the key controlling conventions that established the social scientific authority of this genre. Such texts were self-conscious experiments in bringing out the experiential, interpretive, dialogical, and polyphonic process at work in any ethnography. There was an aura of "opening up," of excess about these works, a pleasure in taking advantage of the emerging license to write into ethnography the reflexive tales of fieldwork, which always had an important role to play in the professional oral culture of anthropology particularly by which method as aesthetic and professional identity had been inculcated from generation to generation.

Reading ethnographies as a way of learning what the signature method of anthropology is and what it should produce as a discursive result had long been of pedagogical importance. Ethnographies have served classically as the basis of thought experiments, providing materials to be "worked through," augmenting conceptual debates over description and crucially showing what fieldwork was to be about, what was expected of it in a discipline that has been remarkably silent in a formal way about method. After all, who else would read ethnographies with any care-no matter how appealing their romantic origins in travel?

Before the 1980s, there were classics and models of ethnography that circulated in such an exemplary, pedagogical way. After the 1980s, it was no longer the classics that circulated for their pedagogical influence, except perhaps symbolically, so much as the messy texts of experimental ethnography, calling attention to their critical, innovative aspects. In student culture, for example, one read Michael Taussig rather than, or at least more carefully than, Malinowski. And contra the older more stable system of pedagogy based on classics, for a time these experimental ethnographies circulated in an inflationary manner, turning over every year or so, emphasizing the first or second works of younger scholars, and very much defining of the marketplace of reputation on which secure careers were established. Indeed, the considerable demand for innovation and revival of ethnography determined the primary readership for such ethnographies. Significantly, this pattern of circulation and influence has continued to the present, set by the messy texts of the 80s, creating the crucial pedagogic models, fashions, markets, and perhaps most crucially the form of knowledge for ethnography. For example, in the past two years, Anna Tsing's Friction (2004), Saba Manhood's Politics of Piety (2004), Joseph Masco's The Nuclear Borderlands (2005), and Bill Maurer's Mutual Life, Limited, (2005) among others, seem to have circulated as exemplary ethnographies in this now established inflationary sphere of pedagogy and anticipatory reception for ethnography. Before and overlapping with them, for example, were Adriana Pertryna's Life Exposed (2002), Kim Fortune's Advocacy After Bhopal (2001), William Mazzarella's Shoveling Smoke (2003), and Joao Biehl's Vida (2004), among others. …