Talking in Silences

The art of anthropology is communication. If anthropology were to have a ‘goal’, it would surely be rendering legible the contours of that which, to an outsider, might seem strange or unfamiliar. In doing so, it also demonstrates to us how that which we take for granted is perhaps more unusual than we first think. This motivation is what certainly drives me to keep going in anthropology, and I think what inspired most of us here at The Familiar Strange to start this project. So much of this is through either written or verbal communication.

Traditionally, anthropologists wrote – books, papers, storyboards for films – and spoke – in lectures, at conferences, to students, and to the general public. Style has always been an added advantage – no doubt the most-read anthropologists are not only those who do good research, but who write well too. Clifford Geertz and his powerful prose spring to mind. Even today, as anthropology explores new and unconventional ways of presenting materials and data, the ‘word’ retains a particular power and primacy.

Beyond Language

Tied to this is the romantic vision of the ethnographer’s journey towards fluency in one or more language as part of their fieldwork. Learning the language of a field site, especially if spoken only by a small community, is often a point of pride, indicative that someone ‘really got to know’ their site, and ‘their’ people. Few would dispute the power of communicating to a wider audience the beliefs and values of a remote community. At the same time, a lot of this is still caught up in the romantic narrative of anthropology: anthropologists continuing to tell other anthropologists what anthropology is.

Once at the fringes, but increasingly pushing itself in the centre of the discipline, has been work such as visual anthropology that has brought to our attention not just the words that communities make, but their images, and what they communicate. In our recent podcast panel, Stephanie Betz spoke about this. Ethnographers have also entered into the realms of affect and embodiment, and how emotions are potentially shared without speaking – something that Julia wrote about in her last blog. What happens when our informants are non-verbal, and cannot give us the chance to comment on our work, to check the veracity of our ideas and the appropriate representation of their stories?

Humans and non-humans

Non-verbal communication between anthropologists and others has mostly been explored in the context of the recent interest in ‘human-animal’ relations. Non-humans don’t talk in ways that humans can understand, they can’t tell us their stories; but increasingly their relationships – at least with humans – are being interpreted by ethnographers. These theories have done much to dislocate the particularity of humanness, and try to put homo sapiens in their place as just another form of life on this planet. A lot of work in this field has positioned itself as critiquing the fuzzy boundaries between that which is human, and that which isn’t. But for me, there are some profound limitations to such an approach. To explore this, I want to go down a slightly personal road.

My cousin Elizabeth

One of the better things about moving to Canberra to take up my PhD research has been the possibility of spending more time with my extended family. Three of my cousins live here, and my aunt and uncle. I don’t get to see them all that regularly – after all, two of them are adults with children of their own, and I’m often busy with study (I like to tell myself). But I do try where possible to spend time with the cousin I’ll call Elizabeth. Elizabeth is my senior by more than a decade, and lives in a home with other women in Canberra’s suburbs. Unlike many of us, Elizabeth has a substantial disability.

A lot of work has been written about ability, disability, and how these lenses define the lives of people with varying levels of ability. Much of this has been about shaping how societies at large can be better equipped – physically and ethically – to help people with a disability become incorporated into those forms of life that those of us without a disability take for granted. Unlike a lot of people with significant disabilities, Elizabeth has a very active life. She’s lucky to have been born into a family who care not just about her health, but her social well-being. They’re committed to making sure she is actively involved in a social life, and society broadly.

Unlike other people, she can’t tell us about herself. She’s not like Stephen Hawking – no machinery can help communicate in words what she’s thinking.  She has to rely on the good will of others. Now, none of that means that she’s not able to communicate. She does. She smiles, makes eye contact, sometimes she’ll take my hand, and sometimes she’ll just ignore me. Our relationship can be fairly intimate. When I see her, Elizabeth is obliged to let me feed her, and through this I’ve come to know she has a bad habit of grinding her teeth. She loves to see people smile. I can tell she likes the company of good-looking people. Similarly, she makes it pretty clear when she’s not happy – she frowns, can tear up, makes noises, and makes it known that she absolutely hates babies. She likes things, to hold things and touch them, to tangle them up in her hands.

Beyond that, though, she’s never going to be able to tell me how her day was, and she’s never going to be able to articulate the experiences of being someone with a substantial disability.

Representing Elizabeth

The job of representing Elizabeth is always done by other people – my aunt, my cousin, her carers, me right now in this blog. None of this means I think we’re doing a bad job – I don’t. On the contrary, I think my cousin and my aunt especially have bent over backwards to make sure that Elizabeth gets the best – they’re doing a fantastic job. But Elizabeth exists in a realm that is not just about my relationship to her, or my cousins’ relationship to her. Elizabeth has an agency all of her own, albeit one that we might not be familiar with, and so to reduce her experience only to the ties of sociality that bind her to others is, I think, to miss a significant portion of the story. Above all, Elizabeth is human, a person, an individual, and recognising her innate humanity is, I think, critical to placing her in the story of us. Understanding Elizabeth’s unique perspective adds to our understanding of all the varieties of human experience.

So much of anthropology is about that which we hear and are told, so how do we go about communicating that which cannot be said? How do we tell Elizabeth’s story, that exists in the glimmers of a smile and a frown, and never a detailed exegesis? In my own way, this brief blog is, I think, my first experiment in trying to tell Elizabeth’s story. It’s not complete – we’re both in the process of working it out. Hopefully together we’ll get better. Thanks for hearing me ­- and therefore us ­- out.

                                                             [Image sourced at Wikimedia Commons]

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