- “Engaging the Real is Not What it Used to Be”On Patti Lather’s Getting Lost on the Way to “a Less Comfortable Social Science”
Narrowly considered, Patti Lather’s new book, Getting Lost: Feminist Efforts toward a Double(d) Science, is a critique of ethnography.1 The reach of that critique, however, is extensive: in her words, it “challenges the social imaginary about research in the human sciences” (6). The challenge is both an ethical and practical one: how, once we recognize the salience of “getting lost” and the values of not knowing, could and should we continue to do research? Her response relies both on deconstructionist philosophy and on feminist methodologies and seems to me especially reliant on a shift toward a “problematic attitude” (14) about what counts as “data” and as reasons for doing research. These remarks offer an introduction to the book that inevitably foregrounds what I find most provocative in it. Yet I hope they both provide a sense of what Lather is working through and serve as a context and preface for the set of responses to the book that follow.
Getting Lost: Feminist Efforts toward a Double(d) Science consists of seven chapters, each ending with an “Interlude,” which is “designed to elaborate/complicate some aspect of the preceding chapter” (xi). We also have a preface and “Afterwords.” A “logic of mourning and haunting” (xiii) runs throughout: a sense of being haunted by a loss of presence; of uncertainty concerning the very location of subject matter; of discerning and finding, instead, possibilities for a “double(d) science” that is both complicit with and a critique of its methodology—which is to say, that both uses and persistently questions its concepts, purposes, and accomplishments. What develops in the course of the book seems to me much like the not-immediately-discernible path one travels in mourning the death of a beloved person or the loss of a cherished way of living. An “assured ontology” (6) has been shaken, yet an ontology that “circumvents foundations” (13) emerges within practice. In everyday [End Page 197] mourning, that means going on living. In mourning for lost certainties in one’s research life, what is proposed here is a postfoundationalist methodology, a way of researching that takes an empirical turn that is also an explicitly ethical turn. Thus the central question may well be: how and what does loss enable? A preliminary and necessarily vague response is this: retrospective discernment of a postfoundational ontology-in-construction; a practice of inquiry in which one is not in control, but in which one seeks to articulate, from “what will have been said,” a methodology for continuing inquiry (ix).
Chapter One specifies the need for this proposal by sketching the shifting social imaginary of research in general and methodology in particular. The key words at the extremes of the continuum might well be science-as-seeking-truth-about-nature in contrast to science-as-social-construction. Lather discerns, within “new ethnography” and “(post)ethnography” as exemplary of movement across this continuum, a possibility of situating “oneself as curious and unknowing” (9). “This is a methodology of ‘getting lost,’” she writes, “where we think against our own continued attachments to the philosophy of presence and consciousness that undergirds humanist theories of agency” (9). Through repetitive multiplication of perspectives—a determined focus on “how we come to think of things this way and what would be made possible if we were to think ethnography otherwise” (7)—Lather arrives at “the task: to situate the experience of impossibility as an enabling site for working through aporias” (16). The methodological goal, then, is a “praxis of stuck places” (15) that might enable us to “learn to live without absolute knowledge, within indeterminacy” (17).
The “Interlude” between the first and second chapters presents excerpts from a 2001 interview in South Africa. It offers glimpses into Lather’s thoughts on the contribution of feminist methodology to the “multi-sited effort to shift science” from an absolute to an “identity-based” methodology, and then further into “work under erasure,” in which we both use and trouble our concepts and methodology (25, 27).
Chapter Two situates...