Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Dark Night of the Ethnographer's Soul

I’ve something on my mind – something that has preoccupied me ever since starting my ethnography of the Cambridge squad. It is at once a great source of embarrassment and an intellectual challenge. Try as I might, I cannot remember a time when I dreamt as vividly as during my fieldwork. In contrast to most ordinary nights, these dreams were far from innocent. Oftentimes I’d wake up feeling parched, pooped, confused – haunted by the ghosts of last night’s dreams and wondering why they’d suddenly become so vivid, so menacing, so wounding? Who were these vengeful shadows from the netherworld floating in and out of my head, and why are they here? Was I not allowed some reprieve from the excessive introspection and worry that enveloped me like candyfloss since joining the squad? Like Philip Larkin’s mum and dad, the squad ‘fuck you up / They may not mean to but they do / They fill you with faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.’

How can it be that a healthy soul gives, in dreams, the strangest, the most incoherent, the most illogical manifestations, and afterwards, when awake, performs its function again in the most normal way? (Rignano, 1920)

These musings are a stab at untangling the clutter that are my thoughts. A handful of sociologists to date, including Loic Wacquant (author of Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer), have made inroads into formulating a carnal sociology – or an attempt to describe the subject’s world ‘by immersion’. This approach is, Wacquant argued, a radical departure from conventional ethnography. For it embraces the view that our subjects are first and foremost embodied, carnal beings of blood and flesh who relate to the world in passionate ways. This calls for a manner of research that recognizes and takes full epistemic advantage of the visceral nature of social life, such as Wacquant’s boxing gym or my rowing squad.

To the seasoned sociologist, my interpretation of Wacquant’s vision no doubt seems superficial – in which case I’d happily stand corrected. That said, it has very strong intuitive appeal. As a carnal sociology my recent work has serious drawbacks, the most relevant being that of me being unable to ‘partake’ of the training in the way Wacquant could – and did. After all, Boat Race preparation requires a level of skill and fitness that come only with many years of dedicated training and coaching. The best I could do was to participate with them in core exercises and, in lieu of their physical training, to row and train and compete with a less competent city based crew instead. It’s not perfect, but probably as good as it gets given the nature of the beast.

What interests me (coming to the point) is the extent to which a carnal sociology might usefully incorporate subconscious experience? After all, dreams were often regarded as truth-telling oracles in times past and, like it or not, we spend a significant portion of our lives unconscious. More relevantly, dreams may well serve as an important compliment to conscious reality. That, at least, was Jung’s view in seeing dreams as spontaneous self-portrayals, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious. (It is partly here that Jung deviates from Freud’s thesis on dreams as wish-fulfillment). Jung took dreams to be diagnostically valuable facts. Should we as ethnographers?

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who suggested that dreams do not suddenly cease to exist when unmasked for the delusions they are upon waking. Nor is the experience of everyday life snuffed out when descending into sleep. The two worlds are unmistakenly distinct and yet somehow related. This would seem particularly true in ethnography, where dreams might serve to highlight vital links between the observer and the observed. (This link may not be altogether different from that described in Damasio’s Descartes Error in linking emotion to reason, for instance, where emotion may increase the saliency of a premise and, in so doing, bias the conclusion in favour of this premise). But what precisely is this relationship? And how important is it in the research process?

It seems to progress we would need a couple of things: an ontology of dreams, and (possibly) a theory of behaviour as encased in dreams. Should dreams be treated as data, as bias or as analysis? Can they be considered data in the same way we consider interviews or first-hand observation data? If so, what are they data about? About the subject? About the observer? Or about the relationship between observer and subject?

Or are dreams best treated with contempt – as a source of bias – in colouring observations and analysis? Even in this case, it would seem important to recognize this (much like we confess to other potential sources of bias in reporting research).

Or are dreams active participants in analyzing data? To what extent do they help crystallize what we (think we) see?

None of this suggests that I believe dreams have special powers. In my particular case, the dreams were often of the anxiety kind (never pleasant), forcing me to think much more deeply about what it is to be a man in a men’s world, what masculinity entails, about the relationship between masculinity and affection, about the role of affection and humour as mediating the often awkward but inevitable tensions between cooperation and competition, trust and vigilance, narcissism and altruism, in pursuit of the sacred and the profane.

I have some thoughts on the above, but no firm answers. (Perhaps you do.) That said, intuitively I feel very strongly about the importance of acknowledging dreams in writing carnal sociologies – though I’m less clear on what this acknowledgement comprises.

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