“An Anthropologist Undone” by Camilla Gibb

Gibb, Camilla (2005). “An Anthropologist Undone”. Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (216-228). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

The concluding chapter of Auto-Ethnographies: the Anthropology of Academic Practices (2005) is a charged critique on the discipline and institution of anthropology. It is given through a raw reflexive narrative of an anthropologist’s unsettling and transformative field experience and the equally disorienting, disruptive departures back into and, finally, out from the academy. Camilla Gibb highlights her challenging experience negotiating self in the academic and ethnographic field. She works through her departures from one identity to another, the complications at their spaces of intersection, transformation, and tension in their simultaneous existence. Her work in the academy and field cultivated multiple identities which, on account of the expectations of the academy, thought together but acted apart. Gibb shows that fieldwork and the fieldworker back in the academy are cleansed of the human experience in favour of detached objectivity. The life of ethnography is tucked behind the academic identity, and this colour exists only between the lines of dry discourse. Gibb struggled with this fragmentation which destabilised her professional position, personal life, and belief in the academy. The voices of her ethnographic shadow-selves, the friend, lover, sister, mother, Ethiopian, abstinent Muslim, drew her from the academy into the inclusive world of fiction writing. There, she found, the humanness of her identities, and those of others, could find the expression denied in and by the process of anthropological discipline.

Gibb’s story begins in Oxford where she reflects on her departure from Harare, Ethiopia, with a longing gaze into the world of her vivid memory. She describes herself as emotionally fragile with past psychological instability amplified by the heartache of detachment from the field and the relationships she formed with people and practice. Her positions and relationships in the ethnographic processes were as complex and complicated as the henna designs on her hands. And after some time, much like the henna stains, it was impossible to distinguish where each wandering stain started and ended (216).  The experiences she longed for were the stories that found no place in the academic writing (222), those which defied ethical protocol and the ‘laws’ of minimal intervention in the anthropologists’ version of the Hippocratic oath. The completion of her “dry dispassionate” PhD thesis on the religious practices of the Harare in Ethiopia prompted her departure from the U.K., and symbolically from the life of the academic (225).

Gibb graduated and returned Canada, entering the field of the academic professional. But the departure was accompanied by her shadow-selves and their fantasies of fiction which did not fit in the “construct of the professional anthropologist” (223-224). She deliberated over the implications of beginning a Post-doctoral position and the freedom of leaving the academy. Ultimately she decided to take break in Ontario’s rural north to give life to the untold voices of her fieldwork.

After the completion of an unexpected book she re-enters the academic field, and the form of ‘academic identity’ is quickly brought into her perspective. The respectability and legitimacy of the academic is contingent on certain performance which, she was told critically by a  conservative superior, does not include moonlighting in short fiction. This gave voice to the values which expunge humanness and its counterpoint of alienation, things “critical to [anthropology’s] business”, from the ethnographic text (Gibb referencing Ato Quayson, 225). Shocked and angered by the potency of this reality, the negation of the reality of humanness, of the human behind the academic work and the human reality that creates anthropology, she departs the academy to pursue her fiction writing full time. Gibb found a domain where stories were not half told and where words did not tread tentatively under the scrutiny of politics of representation.

Through her many departures and re-entries Gibb, as Anthropologist and anthropologist, experienced the disorientation and longing that so characteristically accompanies culture shock. Her movements were both geographic, professional, and personal, and cultivating and transforming many voices which the academy could not accept or accommodate. Her ethnographic experience was not unlike others: confusing, unsettling, non-linear, and grounded in real human relationships; not a straightforward moralistic journey (Watson, in conversation). What differs with Gibb’s account is the frankness with which she shares this shadow-side of the discipline, the unspoken truths of anthropological work. Her raw reflection shows the anthropology only alluded to in the academy, the peripheral discussions in undergraduate methodology courses and years which are a superficial component of formal graduate education. The truth is, the realities of fieldwork are best understood through ‘initiation’ into the field (at home and away), and the academy does not have the language or framework to incorporate these experiences in full. They are also of partial interest, serving the ends of the production of scientific knowledge.

Gibb’s piece shows that the full phenomena of humanness to which anthropology claims expert knowledge is arguable beyond the expertise of the discipline. This phenomenon is theorized over, encounters with it are problematized  in discourse on ethics and methodology, but only murmurs of its felt texture, volatility, fragility, and potency exist in exchanges between field ‘initiates’. The uninitiated fantasize about the sense of their movements while rendering them to mechanics in proposals and ethics forms. The call to writing the fieldworker into the field came from a reflexivity of the anthropologist’s imprint on their places of work, but one which did not account for the field in the anthropologist. Neither does the academy accommodate this truth and conversations about them. Gibb’s work, as with the other chapters in this book, prompts us to problematize the limitations and deficits of Anthropology (institutional), and anthropology (of the field), which leaves us complicit, hopeless, or inspired to forge change. By walking through the story of Gibb’s professional academic career we also understand (dare I say feel) the reasons for her final departure into fiction, the realm of “truth telling” (225).

Gibb wanted to share vivid truths, an aspiration achieved only limitedly in academic Anthropology (224). The meticulous documentation of fieldworkers is truncated for the sake of unbiased objectivism. Yet it is shaped by the subjectivity of Western academic traditions, circling in red ink the adverbs and adjectives in our writing and encouraging a voice of implicit exclusion. Gibb wanted to “speak plainly of and speak of hearts” (225), a valid language that could easily speak beside classic theory. Though Quayson warns this may be dismissed as “dead-end self-indulgence and narcissism” (225), Stuart Hall instead argues for its place in anthropology. In “Culture, Identity, and Diaspora (1994) he addresses the humanness and subjective perspective of ethnography:

“[of] course, the ‘I’ who writes here must also be thought of as, itself, ‘enunciated’. We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context’, positioned… I have lived all my adult life in England, in the        shadow of the black diaspora – ‘in the belly of the beast’…I write against the background of a lifetime’s work in cultural studies…[It] is worth remembering that all discourse is ‘placed’, and the heart has its reasons” (392).

The ‘I’ Hall speaks of is the ‘I’ of every human in ethnographic experience and writing. Gibb was drawn to include a particular take on human ‘reasons’, the positions that anthropology seeks to know in totality yet cannot accommodate as a whole. The reasons of the heart that Gibb found of herself and others in the field are in the shadow of the letters of her academic prose, and this chapter speaks them in front of the anthropology’s capital A.

Though these perspectives neither  make their way into traditional anthropological discourse, nor is the institution formally prepared to discuss or accommodate their reality and impacts on the fieldworker, this book (Meneley and Young 2005) shows they have asserted a space in the academy’s text and conversation. Auto-ethnographic publications like these circulate critical truths and critique through the academic domain and carve a space for the multiple identities of the anthropologist to candidly speak, think, and act together.

Additional References:

Hall, Stuart
1994    Culture, Identity, and Diaspora. In Colonial Discourse & Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Williams, Patrick & Laura Chrisman, eds. Pp. 392-420. Columbia University.


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