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.

8 Replies to “Precis for Elenore Bowen and Don Seeman”

  1. Jackson, thank you for your precis and for your thoughtful reflection on this week’s readings. I think your theoretical approach is helpful as we contemplate the implications of these writings for our development in the field of anthropology/ethnography. I’m interested in discussing both of your questions. Especially, related to the first, how the genre of ethnographic writing relates to the genre of fiction in its typically storied form. Might we see ethnography and fiction as two points on a spectrum? After all, all writing is constructive and every constructed narrative may both touch fact and diverge from it-as highlighted by studies of memory. It seems to me that this realization, and the grounding of Bowen’s fiction in her own field work, ought to alert potential ethnographic writers of the limits their genre. As well, related to your second question, I wonder if the class might discuss self-awareness/self-knowledge as a cultivated capacity prior to entering the field? I appreciate that Bowen has acknowledge her own change vis-a-vis the storied retelling of her field work. I was also struck by her character’s sometimes volatile responses to those who worked for her and those she encountered, which has gotten me back to thinking about preparing to enter the field as an ethnographer. I’m thinking especially of professions such as chaplaincy, which require extensive reflective practice and counselling as a part of their training. While the role of the researcher is certainly different from that of a chaplain, the imperative to do no harm remains significant in any research involving human subjects.

  2. Jackson, excellent job! There is one thing I want to mention. You state, “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).

    The trouble I’m having here is that works of fiction tend to shift narratives in a greater manner than your normal ethnography. Yes every writer has his or her biases, but a work of fiction is hand crafted to fit that narrative.

  3. Jackson, thank you for one again providing a very thorough precis with thought provoking questions about facticty or what I would call integrity. Besides the story being fiction the question I have for you is, “can fiction still present truth?” I enjoyed reading this book because it depicts what goes on in our hearts and minds from first-world, Western countries. In many ways we are arrogant and we look down our noses when we embed ourselves in a third-world or second-world, or even a different first-world culture than ours. I appreciated all throughout the book that she thought people or situations were “stupid.” I agree with your conclusion that in the end, her character is the only one who grows. For some reason, I find that refreshing. Merry Christmas!!

  4. Jackson thank you for the great Precis. In relation to your comments on Genre, I would add that I think writing a novel allows her to get away with certain things that writing a scholarly ethnography would not have allowed. And I’m thinking specifically of certain instances in her chapters where she characterizes people as ugly or stupid. For instance she writes, ” Ikpoom, whose name and face I could easily remember because his eyes were so sad and he was so very ugly.” (15) Later she describes individuals as being stupid. While this is a novel, she is still talking about a real encounter with real people. I wonder if others in the class read that as Bowen doing harm to the “characters” in the story. Of course we also have to keep in mind that this published in 1954.
    Reflecting back on our class discussions throughout the semester, it seems to me that researchers go into fields attempting to do research on a certain phenomena or with certain assumptions, and then their encounters with the people help them realize the errors in the methods, which then changes their research and perception. And so I was not surprised that It is she who changes at the end.

  5. Jackson, thank you for applying a clear and compelling critical lens to our last set of readings. I think your starting point about genre is a logical one considering Don is having us read a novel to wrap up the semester. I agree that it challenges us to think about what the limits are when talking about religious experience or any human experiences through claims of facticity. The work of the ethnographer is often ultimately a book of stories, anecdotes and encounters that the writer often has to alter with pseudonyms and even change the facts in order to protect his or her interlocutors. One could argue that unlike fiction an ethnography is based on fact, but often novels are also based on that which could very well have taken place or even did in different circumstances. I think Return to Laughter presented a very good snapshot of a certain moment/movement in anthropology- of the Western scholar among the “natives”- that could offer us some of the same insight a non-fiction ethnography of the period, like Leinhart among the Dinka, could reveal.

    Some issues that I found interesting in the book were also the moral valence of the anthropologist’s actions such as providing medical treatment and keeping or revealing secrets; that language and culture are mutually dependent, as seen in the story about the dance and the ram; the process of learning what is taken for granted both practically- when constructing the outhouse- and culturally- for example, the issues of non-biological kinship. I also think the book offered us ways to think about the methodological perils of fieldwork due to the first person, reflexive account. For example, the author reflects on her relationship with the two main male figures, noting, “Kako and Yabo had used me; I had used them. But social utility of this sort need not exclude real liking” (92) Don has brought up before the fine line between informant and friend in fieldwork and how that can shift over time.

  6. Thank you for your precis, reflection, and questions. This opens a space to talk about novel/fiction, facticity, and ethnography. I was intrigued with the use of novel/fiction for ethnographic work and I think your question on facticity is critical in understanding this kind of genre as ethnographic writing. Even though she wrote a novel here, it is true that the author wrote it based on her encounter with with people that she actually has experienced. My question here how do we know that my novel and fiction is acceptable for ethnographic writing? What is the border between novel, fiction, and ethnography? What is the most critical element to remember for ethnographer if one want to use novel for one’s ethnographic writing?

  7. Thank you, Jackson, for your lucid and critical precis! Reading it helped me think deeper about the book. You raise some important questions about facticity, ethnographic writing, and the limits of a genre/style itself. Reading the book, I was reminded of the similar tussle of facts and fiction in History writing and philosophers of Historiography like Hyden White have rejected the idea that the ‘facts are out there’ which are then presented by historians with some’truth value’. White maintains that the process of narrativisation of History uses certain pre-exsiting tropes in order to define the ‘telos’ of what are then (re)constructed by ‘facts’. That said, it is true that Bowen suceeds in evoking emotions and her sense of self-realisation powerfully by using the genre of novel.
    In today’s class I would like to reflect on the possibilities and limits creative writing provides to anthropology in particualr and to Social Sciences at large.

  8. Thank you, Jackson. Your précis effectively parses the intentions of Bowen’s work that are, to me, obscured by the language of her time and her social location. Your first question highlights my concern with ethnography embedded in a novel. The questions for me since our first class have been “what is at stake” and “how does this help the group with which one is working”? I suppose these questions show my hand as a practical theologian concerned with pastoral care. Bowen’s work from beginning to end is concerned with her own growth, which is not wrong in itself. In fact, I agree with others we have read that immersion in a particular culture allows for one to connect with people in way that builds trust and gives credence to one’s commitments, that is, to the degree that one is willing to abandon any preconceived agendas. Suffice it to say, this brings into question, again, the purpose of ethnography in general and its affect on the people specifically. Bowen is clear on her accomplishment in Return to Laughter, but I don’t think she needed ethnography to do it.

    Also, thank you for making the link between Bowen’s and Dr. Seeman’s works. As one who resists meaning-making of suffering, Don’s article challenges me to hold my reservations, the possibility of ritual, as I will name, a way of containment, and ethically writing about and suffering with others, in tension with one another.

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