What Is an Interruption? An Interview with Lisa Stevenson

 

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[:es]Sander Holsgens

This post builds on the research article “Looking Away” by Lisa Stevenson, which was published in the February 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Sander Hölsgens: “Looking Away” (Stevenson 2020) opens and ends with a narrative description of a portrait of a woman named Kautaq Joseph. What is it about images that draw us nearer to or distance us from the people we encounter?

Lisa Stevenson: In my writing and thinking I have been mostly interested in describing the potential of images (broadly conceived), as entities that can “express without formulating” (Foucault 1993, 36), can communicate contradiction without resolving it, and can hold us in their sway with the force of an unresolvable presence. There is, of course, a wealth of important thinking about the way images can wound, can seek to impose normative conceptions of selves, of communities, of worlds. John Berger (1982, 128) helps us to think about the difference between a photograph that “instigates ideas” and a photograph that closes down thinking. Essentially Berger is interested in the resonances, or chain of associations, a photograph has with the world it is part of. A photograph that is easily dismissed, generating no further ideas, allows for only a very limited chain of associations. Tina M. Campt (2017) writes about the way photographs taken for the purposes of the state (e.g., passport photos) emit frequencies that run counter to those very purposes, in some sense setting off an alternate chain of associations. However, being an attentive ethnographer has usually meant resisting the temptation of being “caught” by images, has meant formulating the power of images in the negative: in terms of their deceit and irrationality. Anthropology in an unparanoid mode might pay more attention to moments of possibility, of creativity, and of the openings some images allow in the darkness in the present moment. This might mean being vulnerable to forces that cannot, at least for the time being, be fully named. I think, for example, of Toni Morrison writing from a child’s perspective in The Bluest Eye (2007 [1970]) in a passage where she is describing the protagonist’s mother talking to her friends:

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre. (Morrison 2007, 15)

Aren’t we, as anthropologists, often like those nine- and ten-year-old girls, listening for truth in timbre? And isn’t our writing often a way of sharing such singular moments, when we sense the truth in timbre, or hope in a photograph, or even the sadness of a disappearing present? It’s not about knowing ahead of time what kind of images will hold me, or generate ideas, but it’s about describing that experience as best as I can. Communication as a kind of contagion.

SH: In the piece, you gesture towards “an un-stately, unseemly, un-fixative, way of looking” (Stevenson 2020, 7), as a critical response to the colonial gaze. How are hesitation, contradiction, and uncertainty important to an anthropological mode of looking (and remembering)? And what kinds of work or practices does it provoke?

LS: I take this question as asking, “what is an interruption—and also, what interrupts?” In a life, a story, a sentence, an interruption disrupts the forward pulse, the straining toward an ending, toward satisfaction, closure, belief, dénouement. An interruption can take the form of a moment of disorientation, of terror, of boredom, of uncertainty, a holding back. Or a sentence can have something in it, a structural lurching, that throws you back.1 In a way of seeing, an interruption prevents one from moving on, from believing that one has seen all there is to see, has arrested the thing itself, has understood fully what is there. The interruption draws you back into the image, to live with it, rather than to dispose of it. It’s that simple.

Seguir leyendo: Society for Cultural Anthropology

Imagen:Oscar Keys

[:ca]Sander Holsgens

This post builds on the research article “Looking Away” by Lisa Stevenson, which was published in the February 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Sander Hölsgens: “Looking Away” (Stevenson 2020) opens and ends with a narrative description of a portrait of a woman named Kautaq Joseph. What is it about images that draw us nearer to or distance us from the people we encounter?

Lisa Stevenson: In my writing and thinking I have been mostly interested in describing the potential of images (broadly conceived), as entities that can “express without formulating” (Foucault 1993, 36), can communicate contradiction without resolving it, and can hold us in their sway with the force of an unresolvable presence. There is, of course, a wealth of important thinking about the way images can wound, can seek to impose normative conceptions of selves, of communities, of worlds. John Berger (1982, 128) helps us to think about the difference between a photograph that “instigates ideas” and a photograph that closes down thinking. Essentially Berger is interested in the resonances, or chain of associations, a photograph has with the world it is part of. A photograph that is easily dismissed, generating no further ideas, allows for only a very limited chain of associations. Tina M. Campt (2017) writes about the way photographs taken for the purposes of the state (e.g., passport photos) emit frequencies that run counter to those very purposes, in some sense setting off an alternate chain of associations. However, being an attentive ethnographer has usually meant resisting the temptation of being “caught” by images, has meant formulating the power of images in the negative: in terms of their deceit and irrationality. Anthropology in an unparanoid mode might pay more attention to moments of possibility, of creativity, and of the openings some images allow in the darkness in the present moment. This might mean being vulnerable to forces that cannot, at least for the time being, be fully named. I think, for example, of Toni Morrison writing from a child’s perspective in The Bluest Eye (2007 [1970]) in a passage where she is describing the protagonist’s mother talking to her friends:

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre. (Morrison 2007, 15)

Aren’t we, as anthropologists, often like those nine- and ten-year-old girls, listening for truth in timbre? And isn’t our writing often a way of sharing such singular moments, when we sense the truth in timbre, or hope in a photograph, or even the sadness of a disappearing present? It’s not about knowing ahead of time what kind of images will hold me, or generate ideas, but it’s about describing that experience as best as I can. Communication as a kind of contagion.

SH: In the piece, you gesture towards “an un-stately, unseemly, un-fixative, way of looking” (Stevenson 2020, 7), as a critical response to the colonial gaze. How are hesitation, contradiction, and uncertainty important to an anthropological mode of looking (and remembering)? And what kinds of work or practices does it provoke?

LS: I take this question as asking, “what is an interruption—and also, what interrupts?” In a life, a story, a sentence, an interruption disrupts the forward pulse, the straining toward an ending, toward satisfaction, closure, belief, dénouement. An interruption can take the form of a moment of disorientation, of terror, of boredom, of uncertainty, a holding back. Or a sentence can have something in it, a structural lurching, that throws you back.1 In a way of seeing, an interruption prevents one from moving on, from believing that one has seen all there is to see, has arrested the thing itself, has understood fully what is there. The interruption draws you back into the image, to live with it, rather than to dispose of it. It’s that simple.

Seguir leyendo: Society for Cultural Anthropology

Imagen:Oscar Keys[:]

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