wonder and poetry


Is there a place for wonder in academia? I’m trying to think about Pels’ discussion of wonder—”the feeling of being in the presence of the extraordinary, out-of-place, or radically different” (103)—not as an impetus for understanding, but as a feeling entirely sufficient in itself. Wonder as an appreciation for “the singular instance or anomalous ‘fact'” (109) seems to go directly against an academic inclination to situate, historicize, problematize, put into conversation with, unpack, explode, etc. Does fostering a sense of wonder—wonder maintained as wonder, not wonder explained away—suggest other ways in which academics might participate in the present? Can the spirit of an “art of describing” (109) suggest any methodological moves?

Mateusz re: Soo-Young
Attention to things taken on their own terms certainly promises a different mode of engagement with the present, and not only for academics. I too was taken with Pels’ discussion of wonder, which reminded me of the day when a whale arrived in my city. I was maybe five years old and the whale—a taxidermic body with an overpowering stench—was said to be coming to Poland from what was then Czechoslovakia, notably a region of Europe that used to be and still remains landlocked. A kind of mobile cabinet of one curiosity, it was exhibited inside the truck that brought it. You would walk inside the whale and marvel. It inhabited very different worlds at the same time. It was simultaneously the whale of the BBC documentaries on the ocean narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which we would watch at home, and the whale of the biblical story of Jonas I would hear at the church (“Jonas is swallowed up by a great fish: he prayeth with confidence in God; and the fish casteth him out on the dry land”). The scene at the same time had a tonality of a circus freak show (there might have been cotton candy) and a scientific feel of a natural history museum (there might have been Linnean classification). According to the wonderful Chinese Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge of which Borges writes in The Analytical Language of John Wilkins the whale would fall simultaneously into animal category 2 (“embalmed ones”), category 6 (“fabulous ones”), category 8 (“those included in the present classification”), category 14 (“those that from a long way off look like flies”), and most importantly category 12 (“others”).

Pels’ discussion of the fetish attends to the ways in which it disrupts the modern practices of sorting, classification and clarification. It suggests a mode of thinking where things are not either-or but both-and. It is a mode which would allow the thing to collapse conflicting temporalities and conflicting epistemologies. More importantly it is an “art of describing,” which rejects coherence: in this way it is different from a lot of anthropological descriptions—thick or not—which seek to arrive at coherent “webs of signification”. The other way to go about it is perhaps think of ethnography as collecting the world, rather than understanding or even describing it in terms of meaning. Such collecting would pick up that which has been discarded in the proceses of coming up with coherent “meanings.” “Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse,” wrote Benjamin of Baudelaire. Is there a place for poetry (or ragpicking) in academia?

Soo-Young re: Mateusz re: Soo-Young
Maybe this five year old in a Czechoslovakian whale helps us toward the sort of practice of naive ethnography called for by Henare et al. Reading Henare et al., I was asking how, still, the ethnographer selects. Now I’m more inclined to ask how to take seriously a practice of not selecting. The inventory as ethnography seems less far-fetched when framed as a particular intervention, that is, into a particular process of refuse production. But to what extent is deliberate framing a mode of the selecting I want to imagine moving away from?

On collapsing (one intellectual operation verb I forgot in my original posting!): collapsing categories becomes more threatening the more there’s an attachment to the categories over the things placed into them. What becomes confused when categories collapse is not the world itself, but particular conceptual apparatuses. And perhaps this move of dismantling epistemological mediations can be one way in which we begin to take note of the things of the world, and to do so in a way that isn’t entirely encompassed by a lingering category of “the real.”

both re: both
Wonder and poetry. But what if we redirect the question? Is there a place for interpretation in academia?

“In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world, To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ It is to turn the world into this world. (‘This world’! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” -Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation


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