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Responding to the Twin Pandemics of COVID-19 and Racial Injustice

Arts and Humanities in a Time of Crisis

Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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Study as refusal

How does one study anthropological methods as refusal in this moment?

How does one study anthropological methods as refusal in this moment?

By Mythri Jegathesan

"Study is what you do with other people. It's talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice . . . The point of calling it "study" is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present."

- Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons


My opening lecture to Anthropological Methods this March featured this quotation from Moten and Harney's work on Black study, debt, governance, and politics. It structures the methods section of a powerful ethnography we are reading, Savannah Shange's Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness and Schooling in San Francisco (2019). It also captures what I love about teaching: the sensorium of a class before it begins.

This sensorium relates to Moten's "study." According to Moten, sometimes, we as teachers, take part in it after we walk into the classroom; other times, we stand back, listen and take it in. Sometimes it is about class—questions, confirmations, papers shuffling. Other times, it is unrelated: casual talk, trading phone numbers, students' bodies and eyes moving anywhere but straight or forward.

Over the years, I've learned to embrace the sensorium and more often than not, I've refused to break up its beauty, particularly in Methods. When it flows, my students and I travel down rabbit holes of "doing" anthropological fieldwork. We get lost in conversations about its stickiness; we rehearse ethical dilemmas, map out research designs and debate question types. We think carefully about our senses and what constitutes ethnographic "truths," and we look hard at our own privileges and locations. Our classes are noisy—we laugh loudly at barely legible fieldnote jottings, workshop interviews in pairs and scribble furiously to practice coding. We collectively sigh both relief and frustration in our acceptance that there is no single way to do anthropological research.

Study as refusalReading SCU’s Laura Ellingson’s Embodiment in Qualitative Research and her discussion of illustrating actants, we used this photograph of a Tamil tea estate worker’s toolbox that I took during fieldwork in Sri Lanka to think about how how our bodies interact with nonhuman objects during fieldwork.

But my first, pre-recorded lecture this quarter was a "call to order." Moten and Harney write, a call to order is an "instrument of governance . . . which presupposes that there is no actual, already existing organization happening, that there’s no study happening before I got there" (2013: 126). I knew the limitations of this call; but nevertheless, I felt compelled to issue it. I announced myself as the instructor. I stated our objectives. I identified clear outcomes. I silently grieved our sensorium and convinced myself there was no time for rabbit holes. Beyond Zoom fatigue, we would be caring for sick relatives, doing masked grocery runs, mourning the loss of elders, and struggling with economic uncertainty. 

But over the last six weeks, the noise, this study, has persisted and its intellectuality is, as Moten and Harney write, "incessant and irreversible."

In this study, we listen to one another about parents struggling to recover from this virus. We strategize about finding enough quiet to read in a two-bedroom apartment with six essential worker family members. We share stories of vulnerability "work"—parenting stubborn parents, experiencing racism and classism, losing already disrupted nights of sleep, having vivid dreams and new bodily pains. We break out in laughter in the Brady Brunch grid that has become our classroom when my question about interrogating silences in interviews is met with . . . a Week 6-silence that needs no interrogation. The cuts of our laughter, anxieties, and weariness are our time and our gathering. It is not governed productivity; it is definitely unplanned. But it is study—the uneven, uncomfortable talk, walk, work of it all.  

In Methods, I also ask my students the classic research design question: What is this research going to tell us that we don't already know? So here goes. I can't take back my Week Zero call to order. I can dwell in the noise now more than ever. In this moment of study, embracing dissonance and what it means for our students and ourselves might open up the possibility to learn something new.

I can reflect, as Moten describes, "how hard it is not to do that" (2013: 126). Being comfortable with order is what keeps up witnessed wrongs that continue to unevenly harm the most marginalized. My students and I know this and can sit with why it is so discomforting to refuse order. It feels messy, risky, and "speculative." But maybe that is okay.

I leave you with Dr. Moten's Trinity Church Wall Street sermon, "This is How We Fellowship" from the January 2020 celebration of Dr. King's life. He shares a story of what it means to gather and collect as communities—how, in times of need, we call and respond. These types of gathering and study led me to anthropology in the first place and I see it in my students' passion for its methods. And it is a type of work and presence worth preserving as we move forward.

 

Mythri Jegathesan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at SCU. Her research focuses on gender, labor, human rights and humanitarianism on and beyond Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. She is the author of Tea and Solidarity: Tamil Women and Work in Postwar Sri Lanka (2019).