Issue Number Zero: Prototyping Prototyping

Para-sites: a Proto-Prototyping Culture of Method?

[this text discusses the “Para-Sites” project of the Center for Ethnography and it’s first event, on death penalty mitigation (see exhibit Y) — ed.]

Classic anthropological ethnography, especially in its development in the apprentice project/dissertation form, was designed to  provide answers, or at least  data, for questions that  anthropology had for it. Nowadays, anthropology itself does  not pose these  questions. Other domains of discussion and analysis do—some academic or  interdisciplinary in the conventional sense; others not—and thus it  is  a contemporary burden of projects of anthropological research—and especially apprentice ones—to identify these question-asking  domains—also, domains of reception for  particular projects of research — as part of learning the techniques of research itself. 

So, particular policy or development program arenas with many players—NGOs, governments, international organizations, indigenous and social movements –define the terms of anthropological research more powerfully than does any discipline-derived paradigm or center of debate.  The very parties who are  the  primary audiences of such research are also its subjects.  Thus ethnography in its most classic inclination to make  ‘subjects’ of all of  its interlocutors must develop the methodological practice today  of making colleagues, fellow experts, frames of analytic discourse ethnographic subjects themselves in  designing the  multi-sited terrains of its research projects.  Much ethnography shifts today from the study of culture or cultures to the study of  knowledge-making processes, broadly conceived and diversely located, and  in which its own expertise participates.

In this development, the function of the  research project is not simply descriptive-analytic, to provide a contribution to an archive or debate that has been constructed  by the discipline—it hasn’t.  At best, contemporary anthropology provides  a license and an authority to  engage, not a reception itself.  Ethnographic research out of anthropology thus becomes a mediation in some sense;it takes on agency. It is an experiment and a potential intervention that depends on the  response of its subjects for  any critical effect it might have.  It  sutures communities and contexts together in addressing those communities, in presenting its results in constructed contexts of collaboration as a key issue in the  increasingly broader design of research beyond mere fieldwork .

Indeed students are pursuing questions that fieldwork itself in its conventional Malinowskian aesthetics (intensive  participant observation in communities of usually subaltern subjects)  can’t answer. And it  is  in the process of apprentice research –in dissertation making—that  an anthropologist is most subject to these   aesthetics  and regulative ideals of research practice as they are  imposed, not  by rules of method, but by the  psychodynamics of  professional culture.  Here  the process  on its own is not at all stuck, but in transition.  What is missing is  an articulation of these changes.

At  present, as a halfway measure,  what prevails is  a renewed experimental ethos for the conduct of ethnographic research which makes  a virtue of  the  contingencies deep within its traditional aesthetics, and which works very well for the  exceptional talents   who  enter  anthropological careers  by embracing this experimental ethos. In producing standard work,however, the experimental ethos  serves  far less well—it produces more often rhetorically driven repetitive  versions of singular arguments and insights. A fuller account is  needed of  what kinds of questions contemporary ethnography answers, with and in relation to whom, what results it might be expected to produce  on the basis of what data.  This is where our discussions of prototyping cultures might help.