Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 81-96
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Fieldwork in the Field-World
Anthropological Perspectives from the Southern Cross
Pablo G. Wright
What is the current state of anthropological theory and practice in Argentina, and what are Argentine anthropology's relationships to current issues of contemporary social thought? My analysis of these questions, influenced by my own biography as an anthropologist teaching in a public university in Buenos Aires, links the particular and the general, leaving ambiguities and opaque zones of meaning.1 My graduate and postdoctoral training in the United States gave me a comparative, firsthand view of different academic worlds. In this regard, the three topics that guide my itinerary in this essay—displacement, space, and subject—provide a theoretical bridge connecting the issues addressed in the different sections. These topics are part of the heritage of the dynamic early Latin American critical social sciences that emerged during the sixties; they are also connected to the impact that developments in postructuralism, postcolonial critique, and postmodernism had on the intellectual task of our generation.
Displacement, space, and subject are related to how fieldwork and ethnography are carried out within the current world map, and to the spatial dimension's consequences in terms of a political economy of knowledge production. Since they are located in concrete places and academies, it is worth examining the nature of subjects-ethnographers in an anthropology increasingly influenced by the “post-” trends. My comments on these matters will lead me to summarize some of the main themes of current Argentine anthropology, which display not only the effects of the currents mentioned above, but also the conceptual and methodological creativity [End Page 81] produced out of the dialectics of anthropological research and teaching in this part of the world.
Migrant Sensibility and Constellations
This sketch of anthropological reflections is based on three kinds of fieldwork that I have carried out since the early 1990s; they not only have shaped my current views on academic matters but also, and maybe more important, have given me a healthy suspicion about the nature of reality, a caution that for me, as for many others, is a by-product of what Salman Rushdie (1985, 53) once wisely called “migrant sensibility.” Indeed, traveling and living in the Argentine Chaco region, in Pennsylvania, and in the city and province of Buenos Aires have helped shape my current appraisal of things. Bringing together Rushdie and Fredric Jameson (1990, 48), I could say that these displacements through the “axes of otherness” gave me a wider view of the dynamic and situated nature of what our common sense calls knowledge, practice, politics, and academia.
I can summarize the impact of each type of fieldwork on my migrant self with three anecdotes:
- When I arrived for my initial stay with the Toba in Formosa province, the first question my hosts asked me was if I was a “believer.” I gave a hesitating answer, “Well, y-yes, I'm . . . Catholic.” They replied, “Uh, so you do smoke and drink!!” In this context, being-Catholic and/or being-Evangelical, for that matter, had a historical and semantic weight completely unsuspected by me.2
- A similar ignorance showed up while I was living in Philadelphia, when I couldn't follow the rules of traffic “literally,” as was expected, or heed those strange posters warning citizens, “Do not X . . . . It's the Law!” I wondered what kind of legal contract linked U.S. citizens to laws and how a poster could have any coercive power!
- When I drive up to an intersection in Buenos Aires, I never cease to be astonished at how we manage to know who should go first, that is, what the (informal) rules of the game are. Indeed, contrary to what happens in Philadelphia, we tend to ignore the messages of traffic signals, “adapting” them to the development of each situation. This rebellion toward symbols could be related to the social and cultural history of citizenship in Argentina, and the [End Page 82] way in which we relate to laws that enforce...