on field blogs and field notes

Pictured (left): Le Rhône et la Presqu’Île, pris sous le Pont Lafayette. Lyon, France. (C. Lardy 2017)

Jotting field notes down in a notebook feels like writing. Putting pen to paper to recount a day’s worth of meetings, discoveries and conversations feels productive, and is productive, yet requires little thought. Much like a retroactive game of I Spy, my evening fieldnote write-up session demands rigour but, all in all, the effort lies in being strict with my memory and avoiding the temptation to either romanticise or render more logical the contents of the day. I rather feel like a videorecorder of sorts, dutifully unspooling the tape of what has already happened;  and at the same time I am the viewer, the fact-checker.

Productive, yet requires little thought. At most I signpost for future thought – that was interesting, and kind of reminds me of … check if also the case here? – and go to bed reassured that the day’s work is fulfilled.

At this rate I shall lose the habit of tying paragraphs together. Hence, the field blog.

One of the most important aspects of anthropological fieldwork is the deal brokered with interlocutors, whereby they decide upon the when and the how and the why of our use of their quotes, of our description of their own lives. If they signed up to be anonymously cited in my doctoral thesis, that suggests they are confortable being one voice out of many, considered within a wider, and complete, body of work. It does not, however, equate to volunteering for short-term, one-on-one online dissection.

Consequently, this blog will in no way discuss precise events occuring during my twelve months of fieldwork, nor will it mention the individuals I will interact with throughout. What form will it take? So far, I’m not sure. I will refer instead to one of those to think of later comments appearing in this week’s actual fieldnotes.

I am reading about Simone Weil, the French philosopher after whom is named the café where I spend most of my time. When I say reading ‘about’ Simone Weil, what I mean is that I have started working my way through a book of her collected writings, but have so far only reached the end of the Préface introducing her. Pascal David presents her pacifism, her take on the philosopher’s task, her commitment to on-the-ground contact with – if not full-on immersion within – the social and political contexts she wished to investigate.

“Simone Weil cherche à comprendre en se rendant compte par elle-même et en allant sur place, au contact du réel.” (David 2016:12-13)

David argues that Simone Weil wanted to understand, to diagnose, in a way that would be political, and philosophical, and real. Quoting Foucault, he suggests that her drive is “une attitude, un êthos, une vie philosophique” which leads to – indeed is necessary to – conducting “une ontologie critique de nous-mêmes” (Foucault 1984).

The terms employed rang a bell with this neophyte anthropologist. Predictably, this neophyte anthropologist had not read the original piece by Foucault, so I went in search of a fuller quote. Having skimmed a few pages of the relatively short text, I finally chanced upon the following:

“Je caractériserai donc l’êthos philosophique propre à l’ontologie critique de nous‑mêmes comme une épreuve historico‑pratique des limites que nous pouvons franchir, et donc comme travail de nous-mêmes sur nous‑mêmes en tant qu’êtres libres.” (Foucault 1984)

Quite frankly, I don’t understand a word of it.

I am still, however, abstractly attracted to the idea of an “ontologie critique de nous-mêmes”, so why not, for the moment, loosely base this blog upon the idea of critically assessing what is going on with “nous-mêmes”, that is, myself and the society I consider myself a part of? Tomorrow, I will return to Foucault, read the full text of Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?, and, quite likely, reassess.

Bibliography:

  • David, P. 2016. ‘Préface’. In Weil, S. Désarroi de notre temps, et autres fragments sur la guerre. Lyon: Edition Peuple Libre, pp.12-13.
  • Foucault, M. 1984. ‘Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?’. In Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 32‑50.
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