From the book The Ethnography of Reading, edited by Jonathan Boyarin (Univ. of California Press, 1992) comes a chapter titled "Keep Listening: Ethnography and Reading" by Johannes Fabian. The opening is interesting, walking through arguments about literate vs. oral cultures that have, in short, set them apart and given literate cultures advantages. On p. 82, he makes an interesting argument. Writing, Fabian argues, has been dematerialized. We've paid for "theoretical progress" in our understanding of literacy and/in culture with "a dematerialization of the object of research." Though he doesn't explore it, I'm curious about the ways that literacy and writing can be thought of as material culture. If books/scrolls are cultural objects, then is the written page as well, not just its formalist properties, but also its content? It's simple to say yes, but then again content prompts immaterial interpretation faster than the blink of an eye.
Fabian then goes on to interrogate how the process of writing anthropology is endlessly complex, including the transcription process which we generally think of as fairly simple. He describes arguments with his informant-collaborator over how certain phrases should be written based on tapes. Some of this is now relatively old news in anthropology, but still interesting. My favorite part is when, on p. 92, Fabian insists that the "oral tradition" was a discovery made within a print culture, and amounts to no more than the absence of print. That's one way to put it, and though it's a familiar idea to look at how context informs what we think of as "discovery," this is still pretty interesting to consider. Walter Ong has other perspectives on this, and ones that lend themselves more readily to the digital age, but I like what Fabian is doing here, even the relatively simple assertion that "literacy is part of the phenomenon anthropology tries to comprehend." (p. 83)
It's not going to serve its original purpose, as a piece for the doctoral seminar 590HR--The History of Readers, the new class that Mak and I are teaching in spring--but it's still an interesting piece for future reference. The rest of the chapters in this volume are situated more in particular locations as ongoing anthropological and/or historical sites: ancient Israel, Anglo-Saxon England, Indonesia, Colombia, pre-modern Japan, etc. Elizabeth Long shows up too, with a piece on collective interpretation.
I promise, to readers and to myself, that young adult (fantasy) novels are coming back! I owe this blog (and myself) several long absorbing fantasy reads, coming soon. Thanksgiving week, if not before. It's October, which means Halloween stories next Saturday at Spurlock, and I'll be singing a spooky favorite that dates back to the 1500s in print and who knows how much earlier in the oral tradition. November is writing month, at least in my calendar... here's hoping for much article-related productivity!