“Verstehen”: I can’t explain…

     “Are you going to organize against the Peace Corps or just throw rocks at Bob? He will be back  in two years and you all will still be hanging around with me  reading books and looking for fieldwork funding,” said Professor of Anthropology James C. Faris to my UConn graduate seminar “Ideology and Social Structure” in spring 1984.  The eager undergraduate in the seminar, I was way over my head then and am still reaching: “why does he say subject and object all the time, is this freshman English again?” A memorable conversation with Faris resulted in setting aside completion of my semester paper— a paired critical reading of 51npt4tl4xl-_sx328_bo1204203200_June51i7o1-niil-_sx329_bo1204203200_ Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (1979) and Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980)— taking an “incomplete” and walking in commencement any way (for Mom). I went off to Tonga as a field ethnographer disguised as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I would come back in two years with a paper for Faris that strictly outlined the boundaries of a “practice.” One that was “ideological”— it did not feed anybody, clothe anybody, or house anybody— but was “appropriate” to the social relations. I learned the language and looked around.  Is that base or superstructure? An ISA?  Hegemonic? Or just plain functional?  Men sat in circles drinking kavatonga all night, women sat in circles laughing and pounding mulberry bark into tapa cloth all day (mostly laughing), and everyone fearing mehikitanga, their father’s eldest sister. Before long, the strange became familiar— I couldn’t write about it— I failed. “It is simple. I’m not an anthropologist. I don’t have the proper training for fieldwork.” I turned to my Taussig and Nash notes and from a tiny Pacific Iimagessland wrote a great paper critical of both the obscurantist (Taussig) and the materialist (Nash) takes on ritual propitiations by Bolivian tin miners. They never really 060bcdac81428ae72090e86b09d9547fsatisfied the Faris seminar’s first question: “what are the boundaries of the practice?” Canned beef stew instead of a sacrificial goat, Nash observed, during a Bolivian revolutionary moment in 1970s —“We are being paid by the hour not by weight this season! Put down the machete bring me a can opener!” one imagines the cry of labor victorious. Ok, not only am I not an anthropologist, but, maybe, neither are they! Is it even possible— this social science?

      The literary turn— Writing Culture (1986) and alas Women Writing Culture (1996)  — braced my re-entry to the USA: we are writers not scientists (usually)! You don’t have to go to Morocco,  you can stay home said Paul Rabinow— make the familiar the strange, 1375001-110criticize, and mind the gap between what is and what can be. How? The big smile and nurturing guidance from James Faris offered a route in his final words to a UConn undergraduate class- “Sure, take your major in Anthropology! And face it you’re all going to end up working in the Connecticut  insurance industry, but as more responsible insurance executives!”  Fred Inglis’s simplified genealogical mapping of critical theory in Hegel’s “principle of negation”  is jotted, partially, in my reading journal: We “seek to name what is wrong and how it might be put right, as well as what is good and how it might be loved.” These gentle translations, exhortations really, from Rabinow, Faris, Inglis,  of how to live, work, and study with critical rigor co-exist with the more difficult and the horrible. Consider WEB DuBois’s 1890s Atlanta “arrival narrative”— the eager recent Harvard graduate went south believing the “world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity. The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation.”  He quickly learned that a man named Sam Hose was lynched, and that “his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store…. I turned back… I began to turn aside from my work.”

     I have carried the “knuckles of Sam Hose” as a nugget of wisdom, that I presumed apocryphal, for several years.  Not the very real knuckles, but the authors pivot away from them with new eyes. Googled it just now— it’s told clearly in Dusk of Dawn (1940) . I have never read Black Recosam-hose-1nstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935), but have it on my shelf. Eric Foner read it for all of us. DuBois says the American Civil War was a “general strike,” I tell my students. Seems obvious to me. I have read Souls of Black Folk (1903), more than once, and teach about “double consciousness,” and the NAACP’s Birth of a Nation campaign.  I know the plot points of his long life from late 1860s Berkshires to Ghana, where he died in August 1963 during the March on Washington, Taylor Branch says.  That’s it.  He studied in Germany? I did not know this. Categorically uncanny is my, very last minute, happening upon and applying to this institute after so recently reading Appiah’s Lines of Descent: WEB DuBois and the Emergence of Identity (2014). Several of my  notes from those essays bring me back to Atlanta and the knuckles. Wilhelm Dilthey, we learn from Appiah, taught the young New Englander about “verstehen” at the University of Berlin. Contained in this German word is both a warning against the tempting seduction to “model the human on the natural” and a realization that matters historical arise requiring us to 51fzcpe2okl-_sx330_bo1204203200_ understand even while we are unable to explain. I’d like to join with Professor Appiah and the others to explore the content and context of Dubois’s German education, his “cosmopolitan nationalism,” and critically his life, work and influence back on American soil as  “race man” (Carby,2000) in every decade from the 14th amendment to the Civil Right Act of 1964.

     Historical time (Appiah), historical space (Harvey), historical imagination (Taussig), the historical archive (Stoler) — these  key interests of mine are linked — in theory, of course, and more practically in the lineup of talent for the Summer 2017 Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at the New School for Social Research. I hope I am invited, but if not, it is an honor to have been  considered and I have enjoyed thinking through and drafting this letter.

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