so, i was able to buy some cool toys with my materials budget for this summer (provided with the generous assistance of mipaliw land art and the hualien division of the taiwan forestry bureau). for a not so steep price, a friend in taichung manufactured a couple of hydrophones, basically piezo elements waterproofed to let you record underwater. because the organizers of this year’s mipaliw chose “undertow” as the theme, i thought, why not? let me record under water! the mics are pretty cool. but as i make my recordings, i keep wondering
it’s cool, but is it ethnographic?
as you probably know, ethnography is a weird word that refers both to research practices and to writing (or production).
the research practices include participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and careful self-reflexive attention to how one reacts and adapts to cultural difference. in 1996, james clifford posed the question of how ethnography resembles but differs from travel literature by calling it a practice of “deep hanging out.” anthropologists and other people who use the related set of practices we call ethnography have often scrambled to show how it is research if it doesn’t generally produce statistically reliable and replicable data (what lab scientists call “findings”). generally, this scramble has led to a kind of fetishization of data. the design firm that claims ethnography as one of its central techniques will often hoard video and audio recordings as if they are the holy grail. i have a related set of nightmares in which i have lost all of my fieldnotes. i wake up with a pronounced thumping in my chest. fortunately, i remember that edmund leach lost all of his fieldnotes yet still managed to write political systems of highland burma
i’ll return to that factoid later. as for writing, ethnography refers to the kinds of writing most sociocultural anthropologists do, detailed and, if well constructed, compelling descriptions and interpretations of everyday and not so everyday life in both far-flung and next door places (sometimes in both). if really well constructed, these writings also manage to pose questions about some aspect of the human condition. as “graphy” suggests the classic mode of ethnography was writing. yet “graphy” has since the beginning of ethnography included photography, film, and sound recording. recently, these other modes of ethnographic production have begun to emerge from writing’s long shadow. it’s not always expected that ethnography be a book or journal article when the production might fall within the design field, result in an exhibited artwork, reside on the internet, or play at a film festival
ethnography has become an increasingly multi-modal practice dispersed across and engaging with academic, art, and business domains. we might question the politics of this expansive network of ethnographic practices and worry that severed from its theoretical roots in anthropology ethnography becomes little more than a fad marketing tool. i am not so much interested in taking on that troubling question in this blog post–at least not head on. rather, i want us to think about what ethnographic practices are: what makes ethnography a particular kind of observation? because i work in sound studies / sound installation art, the way i will pose this question is to ask about how my recent project with the mipaliw arts festival troubles me
for my residency with mipaliw, i am working on an installation entitled “tapping currents.” based on nine months of participant observation and sound recording work in the cepo’ pangcah communities with misafangay, a group of people who can always be found in the early morning hours fishing with triangular nets. misafang, or the practice of using the triangular nets, sits unsteadily within the intersection of cash and subsistence economies. misafangay employ led headlamps and technical water gear but their work might still be considered traditional. life histories of misafangay often connect their practice with their return from long periods of study or labor away from home. it’s a good way to get breakfast and supplement income, but it also is a kind of collective labor on and with the ocean. some misafangay interpret this interaction with the ocean as a means to maintain traditional environmental knowledge, while others think of their time at dawn in the ocean as deeply spiritual. one of the misafangay has even begun a local environmental movement
in my work, i employ installation and sound art as means to depict misafang, relate some of the stories of misafangay, and to connect these stories to questions about environment, labor history, and mediation. as for mediation, i think of safang, the triangular net, as a media through which misafangay interact with and create knowledge about the ocean, their social relations (including those with non-humans such as fish and currents), and themselves. my participant observation has meant many stints working three am to dawn in the mouth of the siugulan river followed by breakfasts of tiny fish, chiles, garlic, and miciw. a brief nap separates this work from our day jobs
apart from this close interaction with misafangay, of course, i often use my mics, including my new hydrophones. my mics are themselves media with all of the problems associated with them. we often refer to one of these problems as “noise” in the technical sense, meaning a kind of sonic interference of the media that threatens to drown out the “signal”
i am interested in how we might (or might not) recognize the role of mediation in our interactions with others and ourselves. a cult of immediacy seems to parallel a cult of sincerity in our contemporary (i want to say western here…) societies. in other words, we seem to inflate the value of immediacy, as if we might have access to truth apart from the various media–language, culture, film, books, and bodies–that permit us some kind of contact with the world. somehow we think that immediacy offers reality; but in fact, immediacy is a lie proffered by media. what if we were, however, to employ hypermediation or other means to become more aware of how our knowledge is mediated? in my work, the model of this awareness is both the safang and an audio artifact of my recording with hydrophones, a kind of buzz created by the vibration of my mic cords and the various implements (mostly bamboo stakes, fishing wire, and hemp cord) i’ve used to keep them from being mistreated by the current. as it turns out, what we might call noise–the buzz from my fixing the mics in place–actually records both the strength of the current and the mediation of the fishing wire as it registers the current. i’m not sure the extent to which the safang does that; perhaps i find a trace of it in the ways that people talk about their nets and work on the ocean
i’m convinced, however, that most documentary sound art practice would be very annoyed with the audible evidence of the mic apparatus in the recording (even though a “clean” recording is actually such evidence, too!). and here is where i become troubled. my hydrophone mics are very cool. they have allowed me to hear the sound of currents, waves, and underwater features in a new way. in that sense, they have added to my knowledge of sound
but is my underwater recording ethnographic?
i don’t think so. in fact, i do not think that there is any responsible way to claim my use of hydrophones as ethnography. after all, while the misafangay do talk about the sound of their nets making contact with the water and the sounds of fish on the net, they have no vocabulary or interest in underwater sounds. they find the idea of my making the recordings novel and might want to listen but most of the sounds i record on the hydrophones fall outside their experience and the practice of misafang.
another way of putting this problem is that because the hydrophones record sounds outside of the sphere of our aural faculties and our intentions, they do not belong to our practices of composing a common world. moreover, there is no interpretive community–other than the community of experimental sound artists or perhaps marine biologists–to curate, befriend, and create networks of knowledge around hydrophone recordings.
now, i think that belonging to the community of sound artists is a good thing. but in my mind, good ethnography brings us closer to the worlds produced by other humans. it cannot too readily indulge an impulse to be clever or remain in the funhouse reflections of its own theoretical posturing. nor can it be content just to be cool
this is where i return to the question of fetishized data. floating around experimental / experiential ethnography these days is the idea that the cleanest recording made with devices much more sensitive than human senses will let us engage in what donna haraway has called the “god trick,” a kind of infinite, immediate vision that obviates the situated, situational, and mediated quality of knowledge as the product of practices of knowledge production. in the world of miniaturized recording devices, the god trick is more subtle than classic objectivism: today the siren’s call from data fetishes more likely follow a fish eye, cat’s eye vision, or fruit hanging in the garden of eden vision: more “being john malkovich” than “eye in the sky.” what these recording practices, often called “ethnography” by those who engage in them, share is a nearly complete lack of connection with cultural context. like my hydrophones, they record and record, never asking whether the fish perspective matters, how the cat perspective might be interpreted, or how the fruit perspective would be mediated. often, these perspectives are irrelevant to the people interacting with the non-humans in question or occupy a sense modality very different than those understood to be the relevant ones
for example, fish perspective is relevant to those who mipacing
(spearfish), tafokod (cast nets), or misafang. however, none of those who engage in these activities consider fish hearing. when i’ve asked about the buzz of fishing lines–much louder than one might expect–people shrug and say, “maybe fish are as greedy as people are.” fish sight is important, but part of a broader notion of how the ocean “opens a window” to see fish (and for fish to see people). this is why one always crouches and moves stealthily when tafokod. in other words, the question of fish sight only becomes ethnographic when we place it in a network of talk and action through which we strive to understand what fish sight means in our relationship to fish. gaining an ethnographic perspective on fish sight, then, requires more than clipping a gopro to a fin or making a killer underwater drone
and here is where i get to bring it back to leach. the myth about leach is that he wrote all of political systems in england after losing all of his fieldnotes in an unfortunately torpedoed shipping convoy. the real story is more complicated. it turns out that leach wrote a fairly careful analysis of his fieldnotes while in the field. although this writing was lost along with the notes, the work of writing provided a structure in which he could remember details of the field data (see sanjek, fieldnotes). rather than discounting fieldnotes entirely, then, the leach story points out that ethnography is a highly iterative practice (something we’ve known since malinowski) and that rather than decontextualized data masquerading as “immediate” and “truthful” ethnography is always about careful interpretation, whether in print or other modalities. that these interpretations situate the practices we study as cultural contexts–instances of human engagement with their particular frameworks of agency, meaning, and intention–is what makes ethnography a practice of research and production
so what will i do with the hydrophone recordings? i will probably use them, but they remain troubling