Precis for Elenore Bowen and Don Seeman

“It is an error to assume that to know is to understand, and that to understand is to like.” (Bowen 291).


The main text we read for today’s class, Return to Laughter by anthropologist Laura Bohannan, operating under the pseudonym Elenore Smith Bowen, challenges us in three distinct ways. The first is at the level of genre, the second is at the level of method, and the third is at the level of discipline.



The immediate questions that arise from reading a novel alongside ethnographic texts are about facticity and how the strategies of authentication change across genre. A novel does not claim authenticity by pretending to facticity. If Crime and Punishment conveys something of the angst and terror present when living an intellectual life of pure rebellion against order, or if Harry Potter conveys something of the dynamics of courage, fear, friendship, and frailty that drive aspects of adolescence, they manage this without being in any way factually true. The events they recount did not occur.

We have spoken a good bit over the course of our semester together about the deep embodiment of experience, the perhaps irreducible system of place, person, and world that are involved in a particular person’s experiences. It would be possible, thinking perhaps through Birgit Meyer, to suggest that experiences themselves can’t be generalized, that they only exist in mediated forms that do not descend from a prior idealized form. Meyer herself might not suggest this, but the logic of mediation—when it fails to answer whether mediation mediates an original, what that original might be, and whether the mediation reduces the original—lends itself to this kind of thinking. We are only able to understand mediated forms of experience, fear that emerges from complex and specific cultural forms. There is probably no ur-experience of something like love, or fear, or suffering. And even if there is, we have no way to access it, trapped as we are within systems of cultural forms and the irreducibility of particular, mediated experiences. This is a postmodern maneuver that many anthropologists navigated into—fragmentation, partiality, and our unaccountable ability to understand. In this context, even Michael Jackson’s beautiful but ultimately mild claims that we can understand others primarily in those rare moments when our cultural context breaks apart might seem to many anthropologists to be too radical or philosophical.

What does it mean, then, that we can understand something of a kind of fear or love from a novel that recounts events that never occurred? There is no particular, mediated experience of fear or love or heroism that is being communicated—the experience of the characters doesn’t factually exist. But we feel it. Is it merely an illusion, such that we are tricked into feeling a particular and mediated sense of joy, loss, etc. by the author’s ability to use language to fake us out and make us believe that things actually happened that did not? A kind of trick we play on ourselves? If so, how is it possible that the self can deceive the self? How can it know and not know what is true at once?

I am more inclined to the perspective Bowen (I’ll use the pseudonym for the precis) outlines in Return to Laughter. Stories are able to convey certain dimensions of experience because we can look at them and, as Kako’s blind brother responds to the pantomime of a blind man searching for honey, laugh and say, “‘That is the way it is…Indeed it is so. What can one do?’” (Bowen 294). But that “is the way it is” not because the events factually occurred, but rather because a generalized experience is evoked. While I don’t have complete answers, I think I have tipped my hand enough in class for it to be clear that I think this gestures at the possibility that there is, in fact, something of ur-experiences. Or at least, there is some mechanism by which we can relate to general qualities of experiences even amidst particularized circumstances, allowing the particular process of understanding to derive from the general. I understand that you are afraid because I know what it is to fear.

The novel as genre gives a fascinating look into the relationships between facticity, evocation, and understanding. What emerges next is to ask how, exactly, ethnography ought to position itself within these relationships.



            Particularly in the early part of the book, the method of Bowen’s project is clear and familiar in its messiness and foreignness. The anthropologist implants herself in a community, and then tries to discover the categories by which the community regulates itself. She slowly begins to decode the forms of cultural communication. The word far can refer not only to physical distance but also time and social distance (Bowen 52). We’re introduced to a classical set of ethnographic descriptors like little wife, age mate, witchcraft, etc. But things change slightly when Bowen realizes that being a mother is not determined purely by kinship, but also by ways of being in relation to another (Bowen 126-7). This revelation marks a turn whereby Bowen begins to consider these conceptual categories not as simple pieces in a jigsaw puzzle of her own scientific inquiry, but as compasses that are used to navigate social realities.

When scandal emerges around the infidelity of a woman named Ticha, this experiential dimension comes to the fore. After a discussion of how infidelity is experienced differently but emerging from a familiar set of concerns—“the old passionate resentment of anything that threatens any possession” (Bowen 137)—Bowen recognizes the error of her method to that point. She had been anticipating that “people would differ only in externals of dress and custom, that their basic reactions to the same basic situation would be the same” (Bowen 144). She admits that she had been thinking of all of the characters of her encounter as not so far removed from common European archetypes. And in recognizing their real differences, she finds “the points beyond which I could not go” (Bowen 145).

By focusing only on differences of custom situated in structural concern, she had missed the ways in which those structures were navigational devices that oriented them to experience the world in a different way than she did. But this difference did not prevent any understanding. Here, in fact, her ability to understand emerges directly from her recognition of the limits of their mutual understanding.

This issue arises most pointedly in cases of moral dilemma. When smallpox threatens her village and a local man, Saar, is infected and returns to seek shelter and food, she claims strongly that she believes she had a moral obligation to aid him, one that those she was with did not share (Bowen 272-3). Because of the values of the locals, she retreated from her felt moral obligation in what she described as cowardice. This is one of the key insights into method that emerge from the book—the boundaries of understanding, which can help to create understanding itself, are often found at points of moral dilemma.



This point about moral dilemma and understanding is one of the subjects of Don Seeman’s article on ritual, “useless suffering” and the Warsaw Ghetto. In much the way that I suggest moral dilemmas can highlight limits on the simple business of our interpersonal understandings, Seeman proposes that radical suffering outlines the limits of meaning-making as an anthropological project (Seeman 467). As Bowen’s account turns to the dark business of smallpox, paranoia, and violence in the later pages of the novel, this claim is demonstrated. This was not the death of a single person, “Not the death of Amara. That was grief, and sanity” (Bowen 279). The terror of smallpox represented terror that defied categorization or structuring. Bowen goes one step further, suggesting, “We have no vocabulary left for terror” (Bowen 280). This is a bigger statement than it sounds. A vocabulary is a set of correspondent meanings, a semantic field in which things mean something in relation to one another. We are left with the conclusion, from Seeman and Bowen, that we have no vocabulary for terror because terror—of the kind experienced in Bowen’s smallpox outbreak—defies semantic relationships. Terror and suffering are phenomenological experiences that disrupt the horizontal field of discretely intelligible, categorical concepts.

And yet, we know something of terror and suffering. If

1) all understanding is really situated in the decoding of cultural meanings or the translation of mediated experiential forms, and

2) suffering and terror both defy the ability to create meaning and nicely order experience,

then the only way to understand the suffering of the Warsaw Ghetto should be to have been there. And to some degree, that is certainly true—it is probably impossible to fully understand its facticity without presence. But there are reasons why the accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto haunt us—they evoke something that we understand. We know, if not just how Rabbi Shapira suffered, at least what it means to suffer. And these experiences that can be evoked, experiences that defy meaning-making, seem to operate as the means by which we may recognize the presence of the kind of ur-experience that allows understanding in the first place.

So finally a few disciplinary concerns arise from this exploration:

  1. If understanding occurs in part by means of encounter with phemomena that break systems of meaning, and can be evoked in ways that do not require facticity, what is the point of ethnography? Why don’t we all just write poetry (other than the fact that we lack the skill)? What is added by facticity?
  2. In answering the above, when do we reach a point where the real subject of our ethnographic work is ourselves? If the text can be fictitious, experience is (in this formulation) necessarily factual—it actually occurred. Bowen is clear that the main theme of her novel is “the sea change in oneself that comes from immersion in another and savage culture.” Do we need facticity merely so that we can form ourselves as more complete moral subjects? It is worth remembering that by the end of Bowen’s story, the only character who grows or learns is herself.