A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture, truly:
Notes on image-making in anthropology and elsewhere
Published in Anthropology and Humanism, vol. 25, number 2
As a way of raising questions about coherence and about aspects of ethnographic practices, this essay moves between thoughts on a passage from Melville’s Moby-Dick, anthropology based on 1990s fieldwork in Russia, and descriptions of a couple of experiments in painting.
Near the beginning of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville has us enter the Spouter-Inn, where his narrator shares a bed with Queequeg and from which they ship on the Pequod. “You found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry,” Ishmael tells us;
On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose.
This painting is not just blackened, it is thoroughly besmoked. It is defaced every way. What remains is unevenly lit. Exaggeration. Overkill. Diligent study and a series of systematic visits? Careful inquiry of the neighbors? Isn’t this patently ridiculous? What’s being done? What sort of cards are these on the table? Reading literature can be very much like beginning ethnography; critical encounters with art can be fairly precise training for ethnography: noticing what elements and images appear in the work and then carefully following their play in different contexts.
The speaker implies that one might make some sense of the painting, and that he has made some sense of it, sense he is about to reveal. But instead he backtracks into describing how dark the picture really is and into a series of references to incomprehensibility, unaccountability, assorted obscurities and multiply compounded disorders that foil efforts at interpretation;
Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.
One might begin to wonder whether we are even trying to understand anything, but “at first you almost thought” implies that there has been error, and that that error will soon be righted “by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings” (just, by the way, as patently ridiculous as was pestering the neighbors for exegeses).
Finally, after all the mystification and contemplation, the most “especially” useful interpretive tool turns out to be “throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry.” Melville is, while speaking in the voice of a rabidly contemplative narrator, howling with laughter at him. Using light to see, we “at last come to the conclusion” that what at first we had “almost thought,” that the artist had tried to portray chaos bewitched, “might not be altogether unwarranted.” Double-crossed. A prank, logical sleight of hand. Not only is our hypothesis that the picture portrays chaos confirmed, we have not moved a step past where we began: we’re up inchoate creek, failing absurdly to make sense. What “most” puzzles and confounds us now is
a long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast.
“A sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity” “fairly freezes you to” the picture as more, extra, bonus, additional devices for establishing mystery, including negation, partiality, and implications of transcendence, are piled on and iambically summed up:
A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly,
enough to drive a nervous man distracted.
At this point “you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out” what “that marvellous painting” means, again dragged back to the initial impulse to chase down some meaning. As we have supposedly been doing nothing but this, the sudden oath seems less dramatic than something repeatedly uttered by a wind-up toy enthusiastically continuing to walk while butted up against a chair leg.
Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through. - It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. - It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. - It’s a blasted heath. - It’s a Hyperborean winter scene. - It’s the breaking-up of the ice-bound stream of Time.
This repeated display of inability to correctly formulate or grasp also manages to imply that the picture is all of these things at the same time, cumulative to the point of overloading the image.
But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst,
an unclear “something” of a nevertheless authoritative center. And when the narrator finally exclaims
stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?
it feels unlike the sudden illumination it pretends to be. It seems voluntaristic, jerry-built.
Melville’s Spouter-Inn, one of the book’s first rhetorical, ritual, tropic makings and remakings of the whale into everything and vice versa, draws on the power of mentioning utter completeness, enigma, paradox, unaccountability, incomprehension, unformedness and chaos, namelessness, unimaginability, primordial combat, deception, primal elements, breaking up of Time, and vagueness. It claims to be trying to feed all these powers to a fish. Poor fish.
I wrote my first paper about what I have been labeling coherence in the late 1980s for James Fernandez’s metaphor class (Pesmen 1991). I suggested that the prohibition against mixing metaphors relates to ways we judge people’s sanity and morality, structures’ and systems’ virtue, and pictures’ realism. Then I showed how these discourses are often conflated. Our descriptions are often shaped by normative expectations of the visual and the static.
Metaphors bring together not only two terms, but worlds or domains the terms imply. Specifically, I found, visualizable worlds, ones we can picture. By examining prohibitions against mixed metaphor and eclecticism, I was able to describe some of our habits and habitual ideals. Once a metaphor has been predicated, engaging in another image-union seems to adulterate the first world, diminishing its realism, that is, its ability to persuade us. After several such leaps, critics of mixed metaphor move from moral censure to motion sickness, alleging nauseating ontological and rhetorical shiftiness.
We satisfy our passion for a meaningful world, Nelson Goodman (1978) writes, variously at different times. As Jim Fernandez has noted (1987), we constantly shift tropes. One’s not enough. What’s more, we do not tend to include this opportunistic flexibility of ours in our picture of reality and meaning. Foucault (1970:xv) says that Borges' "Chinese encyclopedia’s" juxtaposed points of view make us aware of our thought's limitations. Mixed metaphor’s images similarly defy us to understand "where we stand," as Foucault calls it, the site on which propinquity of these things would be possible. But maybe we’re never standing like that anyway. Maybe where we’re standing, legs aren’t enough.
During my fieldwork in Siberia and in the book that grew out of that experience (Pesmen 2000) I examined, among other things, various notions and practices of “coherence.” I looked very carefully at cultural imagery that indexed and was involved in production and reproduction of a wide range of coherences and incoherences. This included imagery and practices of what were alleged to be Russian shortages of reality, nature, validity, form, and civilization. It included images and practices of Russian enigma, hybridity, paradox, unclarity, monstrousness, and chaos. In that book, I demonstrate how widespread predications and practices that imply great depth and scale rely on the classification and treatment of phenomena:
• as invisible or hidden by something opaque, as unclearly or as incompletely perceived or perceptible, or unattainable, often because they are allegedly either deeply, centrally “inside” something or very distant.
• hyperbolically: things are construed as complex, inexhaustible, vast, intense (especially emotionally), or otherwise infinite.
• as inexplicable: things defy clear understanding by virtue of being construed as internally contradictory, irrational, antirational, "not-of-this-world," carnivalized or dual.
These are all devices and elements, by the way, that Melville uses in The Spouter-Inn and throughout Moby-Dick. Sometimes, as I imply above, I am pretty sure that Melville was, perhaps at the same time as hopelessly pursuing this sort of transcendant mystery, laughing at or questioning its construction.
In 1990s Russia, when people discussed post-Soviet disorder, they often summed it up by saying: “Now that’s Russian soul.” If an “integrated,” “unbroken” individual is a Western ideal of a "person" with a grasp of "reality" (Barrett 1987), descriptions of Russian character and life invoke ill-formedness, schism, formlessness, insanity, disorientation. 18th and 19th century Russian nationalists formulated an inexpressible, unmannered, unpredictable, unmeasurable soul, one with no skeleton or not enough skeleton, in opposition to supposed European rational articulation, precision, predictability (see Williams 1970, Greenfeld 1992). In the 1990s, defects of Russian space, time, and logic were still being set up as flaws and then coopted as valuable assets.
Aspects of what Turner (1969) called liminality are, both in Russia and in, for example, the United States (Pesmen 2000), regularly coopted as soulful. Soul is in part a range of rhetorical and practical means by which “depth” is indexed. A "deep place" where contraries are felt to struggle is made, a place that seems what is called “alive” only as long as it’s unresolved or unclearly perceived. Internal conflict and sublime scale are felt to imply wholes that can't be trivialized by what Bakhtin (1984) calls monologic explanation.
Flawed Russian national coherence was proudly auto-exoticized as interesting, uncivilized, Eastern, wild-Western; as metaphorically African, Chukchi, Papuan or simian. “Uncivilized" could imply jerry-building new things out of bits of old ones. It could also refer to a perceived absence of division of labor, a truly structural flaw. People both craved “normal,” “civilized” order and redefined “normal” as against "civilization’s” alleged insincere, naive banality. If a troubled, varied career was offered as evidence of the scale of one person’s soul, Russian country and character were, like the Eurasian landscape, understood and inhabited as too vast to be virtuous, neat, refined, or stable. When someone called Russia or part of it “theater of the absurd” or “circus” or displayed appreciation of the aesthetic that Bakhtin (1984) said erases barriers between genres, systems, and styles, a voice that valued coherence was implied to be refuted.
There is a genre of succinct one-word Russian indications of “something very big,” “System,” for example, and “Russia,” and “soul.” It has long been claimed that, though Russian soul stands for great, meaningful essences, no one anywhere understands them. But without understanding, by referring or correctly responding to disorder, people agree that there is some “deep down” meaning. One mission of “soul,” if I may play on Fernandez’s (1986:11) mission of metaphor, is to reify, form, and idealize the inchoate, making it possible to value, visualize and represent. The extra twist being that the form “soul” gives is the form of exactly the inchoate, unformed and transcendent. Soul’s “depth” and the scope of Russia’s "chaos" are simultaneously critical and complicit. They seem to defy reckoning by exploiting and coopting ways in which people and groups fail to be wholes. The deep and incomprehensibly messed-up are sanctioned, authoritative inchoates that mold references to multiplicity into clear imagery of unclarity, that neatly point at a mess. This valuable irrationality and incoherence is often, of course, pretty much a mirror of rationality and coherence.
In his brilliant 1982 ethnography, which would be as innovative and inspiring if it came out today, James Fernandez describes in wonderful detail how Bwiti knowledgeable ones mix metaphors, "cross-referencing domains" into "spaces" where, "by condensation, extension, expansion, and performance of metaphoric predications," aspects of what is felt to be a broken cultural life seem to be reconciled. 1990s Russian time and space also felt fragmented, and I found similar movements toward weaving coherences there. In the face of this, individuals wove images of failure, incompletion, and communitas into identity, a fabric made dense by conflation of different definitions and contexts into the condensed unity of soul, system, Russia.
This portrays pictures of wholes at their best, integrations that in some ways help people feel better and help some things work better. But both Russian woven-together depictions and a lot of what those of us living in the United States, for example, can see and see as acceptible have an element of kitsch as Karsten Harries defines it. By offering persuasive, simplified images of individual and group coherence, these pictures are in somewhat bad faith. Melville’s wicked sense of humor as he grossly overloads the romantic symbol makes me suspect that he, too, at least at times, questioned that kind of meaning.
Standards of reality, community, validity, morality, truth, and beauty in the name of which pictures of individual souls and groups of people tend to be made are tied to traditions that portray them as entities defined by centers, extremely vast or complex or simple or whatever. I doubt both the morality of representations of group, national, and individual souls and the morality of agreeing to believe in their truth or existence.
We can certainly get something like a vast, inexhaustible, overcondensed whale of a whole or soul to exist, but it may not make us better observers, creators, or citizens. The creation of soul is continuous with how ethnicities and classes and so-called blood ties are constructed, politicized, set up against others, and even sometimes taken to the extreme of all that and made violent. Identities created by exaggeration, conflation, and generalization and felt to be authoritatively real are literally made to be manipulated.
I’ve also thought about coherence by painting. Painting helps me think about it because it helps question the possible value of one act of focusing on something. Although both writing anthropology and painting involve producing images, for me personally the task of realizing something using oil paint, in which one must interact with visual images, leaves less leeway for self-indulgence than does writing academic prose, which can be so ossified with cliche and jargon that all sorts of assumptions are automatically reproduced. By painting, I’ve been trying to think about what sorts of differences can acceptably share one picture-space without being conflated into some version of a traditionally coherent whole. I have also been exploring how pictures can include differences that result in a viewer of the picture getting something of value other than “a powerful image.”
Because highly unified compositions can be a certain kind of boring. If one is drawing from observation, for example, one looks, makes a mark, then looks again and makes another mark. Habits of integration and resonance and coherence may lead one to, at one or another point in the process, suppress differences between these visions, or fail to appreciate and develop more unaccustomed, specific relations between figures or between figures and background that might be suggested as a result of consecutive moments, glances, and gestures. One afternoon I took a battered-up old picture, cut it up, and masking-taped a piece of it onto a painting I was working on, paying no attention to how its colors, forms, or style “fit” with what I had already done. It would have looked awful had I approached it as a finished picture, but I could suspend that judgement because this crude collage offered something other than beauty; what was fantastic was how it was simply impossible to see. I looked and I couldn’t really see it. My definition of “something that can be seen (as something)” had run up against its culturally-influenced limitations. This offered me an opportunity to try to unpack and formulate what I habitually mean by “seeing.” For one thing, I could absolutely not take this picture in all at once. This tiny canvas was, to use an inferior metaphor of scale, “bigger” than any viewing moment.
Trying to make a more and more good, comprehensive, rich one thing ultimately just reduces more things. Even a really good explanation, model, or trope can only pertain well to so much. On the other hand, there’s always a next moment. As many as you want. Maybe each understanding or image or theory has its limit. This would challenge us to expand our tolerance for different kinds of interrelations between successive observations, impulses, pictures.
Some of the "size" of the human “soul” that makes it seem to defy reckoning, I argue (Pesmen 2000), exploits the fact that people and groups of people are fleeting moments, impulses, tropes, identities, approaches, and practices. The image of the “whole” gets much of its “vastness” by often violent and mistaken acts of rhetorical conflation of human multiplicity over time. In this sense, soul is what human flexibility and incoherence look like or become in interaction with a hegemonic model of the center, of depth. Soul reifies and idealizes unformed phenomena, making them possible to visualize and represent, giving them a clear form. The form it gives, however, is the form of the unclear, unformed, and transcendent. In critique and complicity soul searches for coherences and rebels against them, timeless Platonic wholes, complete with the futile project of capturing them.
I’ve been trying to take the collage experiment I described further. One technique is to cover all of a painting I’m working on with white paper except for a small area that I work on, only sometimes uncovering the rest of the picture, being shocked at the juxtaposition, and allowing respectful but limited negotiation between the parts. This feels kind. The masking of most of the biggest “whole” gives my overanxious structuring faculties free reign, but with “wholes” of minor relative size. Of course I know that the little structure I’m working on is part of a bigger picture, but there’s no rush to bring them together and beat sense into the whole. I wish I knew how to bring this spirit to ethnographic observation and depiction.
It does reinforce my sense of how wrong-headed the critical spirit in scholarship often is. It’s no big deal for a smart person to find a flaw in one part of someone else’s theory. It’s no great coup either. The critic just sets her or himself up in an impoverished, negative world in which one feels obliged to produce increasingly flaw-free texts. How much better to find what’s good and appreciate it. Works of theory or ethnography presented as argued or organic wholes are collaged from an anthropologist’s creative, analytical and observational episodes. One passage’s value is only undermined by another’s defect if we demand that the whole display logical validity. But if, when we smell a rat, see it floating in the breeze, and hear it rustling in the wind, we automatically try to nip it in the bud, when we come to balance the account, we’ll find we’ve been fishing in troubled waters and building on a sandy foundation. Neither logical formulas nor romantic, organic, or spatial unities are great tropes for pictures we can make with the material we’re fortunate enough to have.
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The Moby-Dick chapter on the whale’s whiteness is based on this device. One might argue that in “The Whiteness of the Whale” the snowballing tropic assimilation of everything to the whale is in dead earnest, but even there I would disagree.