From the Talking Uncertainity talk series.
The absence of elders’ caregivers appears as an elephant in the room throughout Kazubowski-Houston’s dramatic storytelling. How can we put things in perspective in terms of working with imaginative ethnography and elderly care in the context of the COVID-19 reality? Elders in many countries have been socially isolated and alone for a long time, so the “COVID reality” existed for many of us even before the pandemic started. In the context of the recent COVID outbreaks in long-term care facilities, we have been speculating the death of so many elders in Canada and around the world, and somehow this is considered normal. As an improvisatory ethnographic tool, imagination has often been romanticized in anthropology. Although it can be powerful, it can be equally disempowering and damaging to our interlocutors. The outcome of imaginative ethnography may not necessarily be what we had hoped for or anticipated, especially during these challenging times.
Is a shift in reflexivity possible in the short-term ethnographic work that has been recently gaining popularity in anthropology? Ethnography is not a toolkit, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to collaborative research methodology. Performance ethnography can just as easily constitute a “wolf anthropology,” where the scholar forces collaboration and pushes their own agenda. In fact, “performance” has become a trope for community engagement, where the neoliberal academy has usurped the language of social justice, only to recreate colonial power relations and extractivist research processes. We need to resist the urge towards imposing our own - potentially neocolonial - flavours of “equity” and “equality” with our interlocutors. Ethnography should always be context-specific and driven by the needs of the community. In fact, our interlocutors might sometimes be more interested in “a politics of invisibility” instead of recognition.
Dolleen Manning describes mnidoo as “the call for the future.” Similarly, in Hindu culture, one is always being toward Moksha (the ultimate union with the universal spirit) as one’s potential. How can we be attentive to - and care for - this call from the mnidoo self, while being in the (material) world? In the Anishnaabe value system, the individual is not afraid of death or of releasing their last breath. At the same time, there is a hierarchy, where infants and terminally ill people have greater access to mnidoo-knowing. As humans, are constantly aging, and this corporeal temporality seems rational and unquestionably correct. Yet when we look "below the water," there’s a refraction, and things are not exactly as they appear to us. This is the other aspect of the self and of all existence, which is infinite, and which happens "below the water." Mnidoo infinity, in this way, emerges as ambiguity, in fragments and shimmers. We are both finite and infinite; on the one hand, we are singular, discontinuous, and mortal, and on the other hand, we are continuous, immortal, and infinitely divisible. We can't always be in the mnidoo infinity because of the relationship between corporeal temporality and mnidoo consciousness. Although mnidoo is impossible to fully grasp, we can steer around it in our discussions, and that has tangible effects in our daily life.
How might participating in ethno-science fiction films create a space for activism, healing and speculating futures? In ethno-science fiction, uncertainty is put in dialogue with imagination. It is a liberatory space where you can projectively improvise and play out different versions of your everyday life. Ethno-science fiction brings personal imagination in dialogue with the predictions of scientists. It involves speculating different possible scenarios that help build future strategies. By creating alternative fictional worlds, science fiction can provide a critical distance between ourselves and the mundane world through the concept of “cognitive estrangement” (Friedman). This can be a kind of activism, in terms of an action towards positive change and healing. However, in this kind of filmmaking, a certain level of trust and willingness to play must exist between the collaborators, to ensure that the film does not end up being a totalitarian act by the filmmaker.
How can we complicate the notion of collaboration and more transparently discuss the ways in which we work alongside our communities? Collaboration has become a catch-all, utopian term that is used uncritically to describe our relationships with our interlocutors. Making ethnographic films is sometimes considered an intrusion by communities, and the power differential between filmmaker and interlocutor usually means that it takes time to develop a close relationship. As such, we should perhaps speak of negotiation instead of collaboration. While working with our interlocutors, we must reveal our often clashing narratives and make these processes transparent. It is these frictions that are usually the most generative.
How can we go beyond self-reflexivity in our research and deal with our inability to directly impact the living conditions of our interlocutors? Our interlocutors often request our assistance with daily tasks and have their own agendas regarding collaboration. But in many cases, they may not want us to intervene in any public way. Therefore, we must not enforce our agendas of “social justice” and “activism,” assuming that the project could transform their situation. Kazubowski-Houston explains how the layer of fiction in her work allows Romani women to share issues of concern in a carefully edited, curated, and anonymized way due to fear of community reprisal. Instead of always approaching activism as a social movement or a protest, we should consider the potential of such improvisatory practices and the subtle, slow ways in which activism plays out in everyday life.
How is the concept of mnidoo related to the Seven Generation Principle, which states that we must consider the impact of every action we take on the next seven generations? Western Enlightenment-inspired ontology (way of being and knowing the world) has established - and continues to advance - the logic and common sense of enslavement, colonial extraction of wealth, dispossession, genocide of indigenous peoples, subjugation of women, attempted eradication of disabled people, etc. In contrast, a mnidoo-infused world is one where we conceive of everything (including humans and beyond-humans) as alive, interconnected, and mattering. Although not a methodology in itself, mnidoo relationality can inform other methodologies. Living according to the mnidoo worldview would have a great impact on our world, such as our ethical considerations about property ownership, the distribution of wealth, care for children, the status of and care for the elderly, and the way disability is understood.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can methods that involve fiction or social fiction help communities to channel uncertainty and reimagine their futures? COVID-19 has starkly highlighted structural inequities and realities that have always existed. The reality we knew has disappeared overnight, and other realities have appeared. Therefore, in many ways, COVID-19 is about absence, and neoliberal academia has tried to fill this gap, through technology and other means - to try to resemble “the normal” - when in fact this is not possible. We need to construct knowledge in a kind of “twilight zone,” which lies somewhere in between the existing and the emergent, the possible and the impossible, the past and the future, and fiction and reality. Fiction helps us to tap into these spaces of absence, uncertainty, emergence by improvising these interiorities to the fore.
What does it mean to privilege textuality and the logic of the archive over embodied knowledge systems and oral repertoires? How do we sustain oral knowledge systems that are made to disappear? The western way of being and knowing is usually so deeply ingrained in people, that indigenous voices and knowledges cannot be attended to or heard. In contrast to a physical archive, Anishnaabe embodied knowledge can engage more powerfully with others through relational, dialogic ways and can slowly start to resist the dominant rational ideologies, thus eroding the normalized western logic. Although this might not change the world in a dramatic, instantaneous way, it does lead to small, radical shifts in every small moment and every interaction that takes place.
A collaborative, improvisational ethnography focussing on the intimate might give the impression that our interlocutors’ world is limited, whereas they are connected to the broader society, discourses and politics. How can we juggle such an element of scale? Performance can show us how people relate to each other in terms of power. By using different modalities of ethnography, we get a parallax effect that can help generate different “truths”. Despite being a politics of intimacy, we need to always situate such practices within the broader political moment. Kazubowski-Houston emphasizes in her talk that the intimate improvisational moments between her and her interlocutor took place within the context of mass migrations and a broader affective economy of long-term-care in Poland.
How do we practice and teach mnidoo-knowing in the face of dominant western ideologies? While western phenomenologists have considered knowledge as a material wealth that you acquire on your own, Anishnaabe people view knowledge as something you become with others. For Merleau Ponty, the rational self is disembodied - it floats above the world and surveys it as if it is not immersed in it. In this philosophy, he is extracting himself and trying to exist in the absolute present as the world emerges for him through his perception. As such, he is trying to stay in a knowing subject position that assumes that knowledge is detached from the body. In fact, mnidoo-knowing happens through a dialogue: between two or more individuals or between the corporeal (finitude) and the mnidoo (infinitude) self. As such, we all have access to this knowledge of mnidoo worlding. Yet, the dominant, rational western thought always undermines it and tells us that we should negate it and not pursue it. Attending to this layer of being (mnidoo) requires everyday resistance to western thought systems that deny the validity and existence of these other ways of communicating.
How does ethno-science fiction challenge our notion of temporality? Ethno-science fiction is a co-creative genre of ethnographic film where interlocutors express their imagined future through improvisation, applied theatre and other artistic practices. This genre disrupts the ethnocentric, linear progression of time. It shows that our understanding of the future reveals the contradictions of the present rather than a grasp of the past. We always tend to project ourselves into the future. However, talking back and forth between the present and the future self within ethno science fiction provides us with a certain agency where we are not a subject of time. This genre also allows us to try out different future scenarios, navigating the possible and impossible, especially as we face the rising threats of climate change.
How might ethno-science fiction reinforce and replicate dominant imaginaries and media ecologies? As seen in Sjoberg’s film “Call Me Back,” our collaborations often project scenarios that seem to replicate popular culture narratives of desire for fame, recognition, and commercial success. Although ethno-science fiction can provide a generative, healing space for speculating futures, it tends to act as a “sponge;” it absorbs and reflects all kinds of media and imaginary ecologies that we consume on a daily basis, such as telenovelas, surrealist films, realist films, documentaries, etc. Therefore, projective improvisations sometimes fail to produce alternative forms of imagination. By creating such future-oriented films, we risk releasing stories that reinforce narratives produced by the larger media ecology. We must be cognizant of the way that narratives, dominant or otherwise, emerge through our imaginative and performative work with our interlocutors.
What is mnidoo-worlding? Mnidoo-worlding is a dynamic and slippery concept. In western thought, there is a logic that things must always add up (for example: 1 + 1 = 2). In contrast, for the Anishnaabe, there is always an account of things not adding up - things are not exactly as they appear to us. There’s always a knowledge of a paradox or a mystery – that there are other ways of being, knowing and communicating that exist, and we cannot ever fully track them down. And that is the other aspect of all existence and consciousness, which is infinite: mnidoo infinity. Consider the example of Anishnaabe shallow water spearfishing: when you place a spear in the water, the image breaks as the water refracts. Spearfishing brings two ways of thinking into dialogue: the finite, human, embodied, subject-oriented, rational consciousness (above the water) and the mnidoo, infinite, spirit, other-than-human, intuition, mystery, potency (below the water). The water is an interface – what is below and above it does not constitute a dualism or division – they are enmeshed in each other. This other reality is constantly with the Anishnaabe.
In "Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness," Eli Claire discusses their tremoring hands and the stigmatization they experienced as a queer, disabled person with cerebral palsy, and how they and their lover reframe tremoring as desirous and pleasureful. In relation, how does mnidoo-worlding articulate an Anishinaabe "refiguring of the world" that does not create a division between disabled and abled-bodied individuals? Whereas in western culture, difference is often perceived as a deficit that is stigmatized and not desired, Anishnaabe culture looks upon difference as ability. Disabled people are revered and believed to understand the world in ways that others cannot possibly know.
What is the broader epistemological significance of feeling awkward for the anthropological project? Ethnography is always improvisational, and mistakes are bound to happen, but we must engage with - and write critically - about them. Performance ethnography is not collaborative by default, and collaboration between researchers and interlocutors “often involves negotiating different interests and conflicting agendas”. Anthropologists tend to monopolize reflexivity in their writing, which does little to shift problematic power dynamics. We need to move beyond our own positionality in our reflexive writing. Trailing awkwardness through ethnography and pursuing an “awkward anthropology” can shift the lens of reflexivity and unsettle power dynamics between researcher and interlocutor, thus leading to a different kind of collaborative anthropology.