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personal narrative




This argument is the link—the injunction to perform paints a target on radical subjectivities – it also assumes there IS a public space hospitable to unspoken identities which is what we criticize – independent voter


Vila ‘5, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, 2005 [Pablo, "Border Ethnographies," Ethnography at the Border, Ed. Pablo Vila, p. xxviii-xxxiii]
At the same time, some of the problems related to the intertwining of the ethnographic account with the personal experience of the ethnographer do not escape the most important practitioners of the genre, because "to assert that one is a 'white middle-class woman' or a 'black gay man' or a 'working-class Latina' within one's study of Shakespeare or Santería is only interesting if one is able to draw deeper connections between one's personal experience and the subject under study" (Behar 1996, 13). Being in total agreement with the points being made by Marcus, Behar, and the like, I still consider these kinds of statements problematic regarding how power works in academia in particular and in the real world in general. As I pointed out, anytime I attempted the personal narrative route, I frequently had to abort my narratives because I constantly encountered things I couldn't say or didn't want to disclose about myself to make sense of the "affinities between the ethnographer and the subject of study," which Marcus claims are behind the "most interesting research proposals." In other words, being somehow keenly aware (the "keen" in Behar's account [1996, 13-14] is quite problematic as well) of what aspects of myself were the most important filters through which I perceived the world and, more particularly, the topic being studied, I still couldn't make those connections for basic reasons of personal and academic survival.
Therefore if on the one hand most of the contributors to this collection were surely motivated in their research by important personal reasons, some of us could not or did not want to reveal some of them because they were dangerous for our current career stages, personal lives, prestiges, immigration statuses, or a combination thereof. I can offer dozens of real or imagined "affinities" that, if disclosed, could be essential to understanding not only the motivation of particular research projects but also their most important substantive findings, methodological usages, epistemological presuppositions, and the like. But if they were revealed, they would probably have ruined the careers and lives of those involved. If we push the argument to its limits, we can more clearly see the problems involved in this kind of position. For instance, what about the "projection of these affinities from the realm of the more personal to the delineation of more generic social-cultural problems and issues," or the connection "intellectual and emotional, between the observer and the observed," for the full-time anthropologist, former member of a Central American guerrilla movement, who decides to do an ethnography on the Chiapas uprising? If a contributor to this collection were such a former guerrilla member, wouldn't this type of "affinity" or "connection" have "enlightened" our understanding of the Chiapas insurrection? Let's consider another fictitious possibility: what would have been the case if the research project were about drug use and commerce on the border; wouldn't the connection between the personal and the research topic done by the ethnographer who is also a recreational drug user help us to understand the subject much better? The same can be said about the sociologist who is an alcoholic and alcohol consumption on the border. Of course nobody involved in this collection is a former Central American guerrilla member, a drug user, or a current alcoholic, but at least a couple of us have what can be called "still or not-yet-legitimized weird/deviant/not-totally legal identities considering our career stages," and almost all of us have some identities that, for different reasons, we do not want to disclose or connect with our research agendas. Obviously the connections are there, and their disclosure would doubtless contribute to understanding our findings, but for the time being we are not able or willing to come out of the closet with them. If you agree with Behar's argument, as I do, that the "exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn't otherwise go to. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake" (1996, 14), you really suffer when you read the published research of people you know. Why is this so? Because you realize that if the ethnographers had made (but cannot for the reasons I am exposing here) the proper connections between their lives and their work, the research would have had many more layers than it already has. In other words, you know that such connections are essential for a full understanding of their work, but you also know that you have to keep those connections private. A couple of examples may suffice to illustrate my point. I was at pains reading the wonderful ethnography of a Peruvian colleague, who all the time had to use euphemisms (and sometimes plain lies), or erase the issue altogether from her ethnography, to avoid accounting for the process of adoption of her son from a poor Peruvian family because the legal papers for the boy had not yet arrived when she published her work. That is, her son was still living illegally in the United States, and the account of the adoption process, quite central to the understanding of some aspects of everyday life in the Andean villages of Peru, would have revealed that status, something my Peruvian friend could not afford. Or what about the various ethnographic accounts of female employment in the assembly plants in the Middle East done by young feminist scholars whom you know are lesbians but, because they are in the early stages of their academic careers (some of them in very conservative states and universities), cannot afford to display that identity in their work? Knowing their sexual orientation, you understand many things about their work better, and you can easily find the "affinities between the ethnographer and the subject of study" that Marcus claims are behind the "most interesting research proposals," but those affinities are not open to the public for basic issues of academic (and sometimes personal) survival. I can advance a dozen different examples in the same direction, showing how the postmodern claim we are discussing here and advanced by people such as Marcus, Behar, and the like comes from a particular subject position that, for obvious reasons of power, cannot see that others cannot follow its steps. In other words, they are performing the same "God trick" (Haraway 1988) they so fiercely criticize about the academic "other." Consequently Ruth Behar can claim without any problem that "since I have put myself in the ethnographic picture, readers feel they have come to know me. They have poured their own feelings into their construction of me and in that way come to identify with me, or at least their fictional image of who I am" (1996, 16), because the "disclosure about herself" is the one she performed in Translated Woman, in which, for instance, she relates her experience of getting tenure at Michigan with Esperanza's (the Mexican street peddler) story. In that account, her double persona as both Cuban and Jewish is important to her epistemological reflection about what kind of story she is telling about Esperanza. But what could have happened with my fictional Central American former guerrilla member, current drug user, or alcoholic turned anthropologist (or vice versa) disclosing that part of her or his multiple persona to allow readers to connect their own experiences? And if "when you write vulnerably, others respond vulnerably" (Behar 1996, 16), can we expect a string of confessions from other former guerrilla members currently living in the United States, drug users or alcoholics reading and being moved by my fictitious characters' book? That is the reason why I have claimed that we are dealing with something like "mainstream deviant subject positions" or "now allowed but previously deviant subject positions" from which it is permitted to make connections between personal lives and research projects versus "still not allowed subversive/deviant subject positions" from which it is not possible to do so .

. . yet? And this difference between subject positions is not fixed but is related to stages in the academic careers of those involved, in such a way that some "subversive/deviant subject positions" can become "mainstream" once the person moves from one stage to the other (the lesbian scholars in my account are a good example of this possibility: Janet Smith, assistant professor at Cincinnati State, cannot connect her personal life as Gloria Anzaldúa does). Simultaneously, some "deviant nonmainstream subject positions" can become mainstream or are allowed to come out of the closet when the people who occupy them get enough power in academia to request a voice (Steve Seidman, the renowned gay professor at SUNY–Albany, can connect his sexual orientation with his research in a way that John Smith, the still-free drug-using assistant professor at Wyoming State, cannot). This fact, of course, does not escape the advocates of the "subjective connection" perspective, but I still think that they do not fully understand the consequences of their proposals. Consider the case of Ruth Behar, who totally acknowledges the dangerous effects of publicly connecting some particular "still today deviant behaviors" with a research agenda. She quotes the work of Kay Redfield Jamison (1995, 7) in that regard: I have had many concerns about writing a book that so explicitly describes my own attacks of mania, depression, and psychosis, as well as my problems acknowledging the need for ongoing medication.... I have no idea what the long-term effects of discussing such issues so openly will be on my personal and professional life but, whatever the consequences, they are bound to be better than continuing to be silent. I am tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide. The problem that I think escapes both Behar and Jamison is that the latter can be "tired" of all those things precisely because she is "an established professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who co-authored a standard medical text on manic-depressive illness" (Behar 1996, 9). My point is that less-established scholars cannot have the luxury of being tired of the same things that compelled Jamison to reveal her own "deviancy." However, being aware of the other reasons why Jamison can disclose her "deviancy," that her illness has lately lost much of its "deviant" character (that is, moved from "still deviant" to "no-more or at least less-deviant behavior"), Behar still does not realize the implications of her analysis to those other ethnographers who still have some kind of "not yet out of shame deviant behavior": One of my colleagues, a medical anthropologist, tells me that the main reason Jamison is able to make herself so vulnerable at this moment in time is because of advances in the field of biochemistry, which have led to new understandings of the biochemical roots of depression, making it possible to control the illness through medical supervision and drugs. Science, in other words, has drained the shame out of depression. (Behar 1996, 11) Either because "science" or the struggles of the bearers of a particular subject position have "drained the shame out of" a particular illness, behavior, habit, or identity, the question remains the same: what are the possibilities of using the "existing affinities between the ethnographer and the subject of study" to improve a research design for ethnographers who "still" have "not yet authorized deviant subject positions"? For all these reasons, it sounds problematic when Ruth Behar claims that "vulnerability, in short, is here to stay. Critics can keep dismissing these trends as forms of 'solipsism,' but a lot of us are going to continue wearing our hearts on our sleeves" (1996, 32), because she can wear her Jewishness, Cubanness, family history, and the like on her sleeve, something other ethnographers, bearers of what I have called "not yet allowed subject positions," cannot do without putting in jeopardy either their careers or even their freedom and their lives. Therefore when she is talking about "vulnerability," she is talking about a narrow version of it, namely, the kind of vulnerability that the status quo allows to appear without major punishment, that is, the vulnerability of settled scholars who have mainstream subject positions (deviant or not) and can intertwine them with their ethnographies.


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