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Fieldwork Notebooks / Feldforschungsnotizbücher

The author with schoolteacher
Alejandro Peña, noting down names

of plants, Puerto Tejada, Cauca,

Colombia, 1971

Der Autor mit dem Lehrer Alejandro

Peña beim Notieren von Pflanzen-
namen, Puerto Tejada, Cauca,
Kolumbien, 1971

Michael Taussig
Fieldwork Notebooks


Roland Barthes despaired of keeping a diary. Too boring. Too frustrating. The diary disease, he called it. But there was one point of interest, and that had to do with re-reading an entry several months or years later. This could provide pleasure due to the awakening of a memory not in what was written but in “the interstices of notation.” For instance, on re-reading the entry relating his having to wait for a bus one disappointing evening on the rue de Rivoli in Paris, he recalls the grayness—“but no use trying to describe it now, anyway, or I’ll lose it again instead of some other sensation, and so on, as if resurrection always occurred alongside the thing expressed: role of the Phantom, of the Shadow.”1 This is certainly intriguing, yet what is this Phantom, and what might it tell us about fieldwork notebooks?

In answering this question, I should note at the outset that not only anthropologists have fieldwork notebooks. One noted intellectual, Walter Benjamin, seems to have been lost without one. “At any rate,” writes Hannah Arendt, “nothing was more characteristic of him in the thirties than the very little notebooks with black covers which he always carried with him and in which he tirelessly entered in the form of quotations what daily living and reading netted him in the way of ‘pearls’ and ‘coral.’ ”2 The reference is to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The allusion to pearls and coral suggests that a notebook transforms the everyday into an underwater world in which things on the surface become transformed, rich, and strange. The notes in a notebook are what has been picked at and plundered from an underworld. They are of another order of reality altogether, and to all accounts the notes in Benjamin’s notebook form a wild miscellany. Arendt emphasizes the surreal impact of the juxtapositions of the entries. Next to a poem such as “Als der erste Schnee fiel” (As the First Snow Fell) was a report from Vienna dated summer 1939 saying that the local gas company “had stopped supplying gas to Jews. The gas consumption of the Jewish population involved a loss for the gas company, since the biggest consumers were the ones who did not pay their bills. The Jews used the gas especially for committing suicide.”3

Benjamin had long wanted to publish a book made out of nothing but quotations. This came to pass with the publication long after his death of what came to be called The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), all 954 pages, one of the few cases on record where a notebook—or a set of files of notes—has been published as such in its pristine state.4 (He referred to the only book published in his lifetime, One-Way Street, a collection of his aphoristic, surreal, observations, not as a book but as a notebook.)

Long before the posthumously published Arcades Project, in a charming essay entitled “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin set forth some remarkable ideas about collecting, which I take to be pertinent to his notebooks no less than to fieldwork notebooks because fieldwork notebooks are exactly that—collections.5 At one point, he characterized a “genuine” collection as a magic encyclopedia, on account of what he saw as its occult properties and divinatory propensities. Because the items in a collection gravitate into one’s hands by chance, a collection can be used as an instrument of divination, seeing that chance is the flip side of fate. For sure this is a wild idea, like you find with the private investigator Clem Snide trying to solve a case by sitting back, listening at random to sound recordings he made in the dead man’s empty villa in Greece a hundred feet from the beach. His recorder is “specially designed for cut-ins and overlays and you can switch from Record to Playback without stopping the machine.”6 He records the toilet flushing and the shower running, the blinds being raised, the rattle of dishes, the sound of the sea and the wind as he walks along the beach, as well as the disco music to which the dead man danced. He cuts in by reading sections from The Magus as well as with his “thinking out loud” about the case. Later he randomly chooses different sections of the recordings while watching Greek TV so that he listens only subconsciously. “I’ve cracked cases like this with nothing to go on, just by getting out and walking around at random,” he says.7

In other words, chance determines (what an odd phrase!) what goes into the collection, and chance determines how it is used. (Imagine a social science that not only admits to this principle but runs with it!)

Would you like to know how the story ends?

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