A section of ‘Radio documentary production as critical ethnography: the making of La Frontera’ (forthcoming)

Provocation by Colm McNaughton

The second and perhaps the most fecund yet confronting dynamic to address was my own ability to recognize, understand and creatively respond to ‘the epistemological violence’ (Kincheloe and McLaren 2005, 307) that invariably frames and informs my relationship as a journalist/researcher to the people of the Mexico/United States borderlands. When I invoke the notion of epistemological violence, what I am suggesting is that the key to entering and engaging in this world in order to produce knowledge about it, is a recognition that the relationship of the self and other (or that of the journalist and her sources or the researcher and the researched) is framed and informed by the layering and intersecting of various forms of imperial, capitalist and gendered power relations and the structural and inter-personal forms of violence these systems entail. In other words, how was I to engage with the complex and shifting power dynamics implicit within the relationship of self and other engaging in a journalistic enterprise on the edge of the hegemonic U.S. empire?

This line of inquiry and self-reflection invariably goes to the very heart, not only of journalistic/ethnographic practices, but also the very production of knowledge itself. I knew to be able to produce anything of substance and bearing I needed to engage in a reflexive and critical form of knowledge production. I was also aware that journalism as a field is grossly underdeveloped in its ability to comprehend let alone reflect on its practices, and for this reason I turned to an already cognisant ethnographic tradition. Anthropology, for all of its contradictions and crises, remains a powerful tradition for explaining the movement between worlds, and at its best, is able to reflect on the processes and pitfalls this sort of transition involves.

To be able to engage and develop a nuanced comprehension of the region and communicate these observations to an audience, I knew that I needed to engage in a reflexive form of knowledge production. The notion of reflexivity is a complex, subtle and slippery term with a broad range of associated meanings and practices (Foley 2002). I take reflexivity to mean that language and thought has the capacity to bend back on itself, in order to reflect on the socially constructed nature of the self and the other. Having been radicalised while studying at university in the late 1980s, I invariably came into contact and have been heavily influenced by the feminist critique of universalistic and objective forms of knowledge, which reveals how these perspectives are based on a fundamental and erroneous split between epistemology and politics. This observation is most powerfully articulated by African-American and Latina feminists such as bell hooks (1984), Gloria Anzaldúa (with Moraga 1984) and Angela Y. Davis (1981), who adroitly articulate the complex inter-relationship between dynamics of class, race and gender and how it impacts and distorts all aspects of social production and reproduction. They reminds us that the power relations of the observer as much as the observed needs to be scrutinized.

Ethnography that is reflexive by necessity also needs to be critical. In the vast ethnographic literature the researcher is usually referred to as a participant observer. Within this conjunction there is an inherent tension, wherein the participant implies an emotional involvement, while the observer suggests a level of detachment in order to be objective (Paul cited in Tedlock 1991, 69). Since the mid-1970s where it was recognized that up until that point anthropology had largely been ‘the handmaiden of colonialism’ (Asad, 1973), and that it needed to be read against itself, in order to reveal the often overlooked power dynamics that inform and frame the researcher/researched relationship. Now ethnography is much more about the observation of the participation, wherein ethnographers both experience and observe their own and others participation in the ethnographic encounter (Tedlock, 1991). This reflexive shift contributed to the emergence of a critical ethnography, which is not so much a distinct methodology but rather an emergent field within anthropology with a shared set of values in regards to social change and transformation and a deep suspicion of notions of objectivity and neutrality. Critical ethnography is concerned with interrogating how power relations frame, inform and distort knowledge and social re/production. Jim Thomas explains the link between critical dimension of ethnography thus:

The roots of critical thought spread from a long tradition of intellectual rebellion in which rigorous examination of ideas and discourse constituted political challenge. Social critique, by definition, is radical. It implies an evaluative judgment of meaning and method in research, policy and human activity. Critical theory implies freedom by recognizing that social existence, including our knowledge of it, is not simply composed of givens imposed on us by powerful and mysterious forces. The act of critique implies that by thinking about and acting upon the world, we are able to change both our subjective interpretations and our objective conditions (Thomas, 1993, 18).

One of the primary discussions that has emerged from the tradition of critical ethnography is that around how the body is a powerful epistemological site. To be an observer in the traditional anthropological sense necessarily privileges sight and the visual over the other senses. This perspective draws on the Newtonian / Comtean sense of objectivity as framed by the hard sciences, which separates the subject from the object, and in the process usually ignores the implicit power dynamics and history associated with this assumption. In a systematic attempt to philosophically ground and outline a critical ethnography, Phil Carspecken (1996) addresses the visual bias as articulated through the work of Edmund Husserl and Jacques Derrida, whose work informs many forms of ethnography. Through interrogating the relationship between power and truth claims and between power and thought as articulated by Husserl and Derrida, Carspecken argues that: ‘the certainty commonly associated with visual perception should not be the taken for granted assumption for epistemology’ (Carspecken, 1996, 15). He goes on to argue that rather than rely on perceptual metaphors as found in mainstream ethnographies, we need to emphasise more communicative experiences and structures and focus on the intersubjective, that is, to pay much more attention to listening and speaking and body language (Carspecken, 1996).

Reimaging ethnography as primarily about listening and speaking rather than observing, has numerous potent epistemological and political implications, as Jeffrey Juris suggests:

The tendency to position oneself at a distance and treat social life as an object to decode rather than entering the flow and rhythm of ongoing social interaction hinders our ability to understand social practice’ (Juris, 2008, 20).

Dwight Conquergood also champions the shift from the visual to the aural and makes the point:

Listening is an interiorizing experience, a gathering together, a drawing in, whereas observation sizes up exteriors. The communicative praxis of speaking and listening, conversation, demands co-presence even as it de-centers the categories of knower and known (Conquergood, 1991, 183).

Renato Resaldo goes one step further to propose that privileging sight in the enthnographic methodology not only entails separation and surveillance, but is the cornerstone of an imperialist anthropology wherein: ‘the eye of ethnography is connected to the I of imperialism’ (Rosaldo, 1989, 41).

The Creative Pursuit of Everchanging Actuality

In most cultures that have grown from the Enlightenment, there used to be agreement that reality is something solid and weighty, even if it is often obscured or disguised. Indeed the Enlightenment has this idea in its very name: there’s something out there, something like actuality or truth, but it tends to rest in darkness unless the clarifying practices of inquiry, remembrance, analysis and knowledge-synthesis shine light on it. The enlightened person had to reveal the states of existence, to show what really mattered.

Note these words: ‘matter’ and ‘state’. They carry with them the idea that the real world is dependably static at its true core. The real world is not flighty or airy. It is solid. Therefore any activity, such as documentary, which pledges allegiance to the real world, must treat this solid actuality as creatively as possible, so that the truths subtending the real world can be revealed afresh.

But is reality actually solid like this nowadays? Does the old nominalism still hold? What happens when reality is understood as negotiated and ever-altering, when CHANGE is the main quality of most peoples’ real experience? What does it mean when one of the most popular and influential books on realism from recent years — David Shields’ Reality Hunger — is all bites and flighty contentions, all skitter and cross-reference, unconcerned with deep fundaments, more concerned with associative sparks and shimmers of momentary insight? What if reality no longer has status, depth, solidity but rather has quickness and dynamics? What then, is documentary practice, when changefulness defines the world over time?

Professor Ross Gibson
Keynote Address