The Quest of the Question

The Quest of the Question (Well, you asked)

                                    Greater glory in the sun,

                                    An evening chill upon the air,

                                    Bid imagination run

                                    Much on the Great Questioner;

                                    What He can question, what if questioned I

                                    Can with fitting confidence reply.

W.B. Yeats (1928)

            The ability to question is the residuum of faith. It is a uniquely human attribute, unknown to us in any other known creature. One presumes, upon asking a question of any variety, that there will at least be some sort of response. Even the proverbial ‘rhetorical’ question, favored by those who actually desire an absence of response, know that the queried has in fact already responded, and perhaps in kind. This is the element of faith in the question itself; that you will respond. And even if there are a variety of ways to characterize such responses as there may be, from answer to explanation, from retort to explication and so on, the essence of dialogue has been initiated. We are ‘throwing words across’ to one another, and more importantly, contributing, even in some minute manner, to the human conversation which is us.

            I have spent my life asking questions. I was fortunate to have no memorably authoritarian teachers nor suchlike mentors, no mockery the result of my childhood, no lasting censure the lot of my adolescence. The one downside to all of this encouragement was that youth, as a matter of course, does not always know how to frame a question, nor even to ask ‘the right’ questions, as long as that is taken in the sense of there being more perceptive means at our disposal than at first glance, and very much not in any narrow sense of what is ‘proper’. For questioning is an act radical to deportment of all kinds. In a life phase where the internalization of the generalized other is front and center most of the time, the ability to question must be honed almost in the shadows. Long live the mentor who can guide a young person through these spaces, at once so close to our beings and yet distant in their dreams.

            When I think of the over fifteen years of ethnographic fieldwork I accomplished, the hundreds of interviews both formal and informal, the sense that within each about another hundred actual queries may have been made – that’s ten thousand questions right there – I am struck with the forbearance shown by so many ‘informants’, as they used to be called in traditional methods courses. Now that said, it is the case that most people enjoy, or are at least willing, to talk about themselves, and who better to do so, we naturally imagine. Even so, the human scientist, pending his tenure, is ever edging closer to aspects of existence which most people take to be ‘personal’. And so the usual etiquette must be observed: ‘Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?’, which is, perhaps fittingly, already a personal query. Never have I had the response ‘You already have’, which the Mark Twain or Groucho Marx like wit would engender. But other, much more expected responses do abound: ‘Well, it would depend on what it is.’, or ‘Sure, but don’t expect me to answer it, or give you the answer you want’ (meaning that one’s answer might be incomplete or irrelevant), or, very commonly ‘Of course, fire away’ or the like. The response to this personal prequel depends very much upon the depth of one’s relationship, and this is so for both professional and private circumstance. The ungrammatical quality that typically characterizes the open response – ‘do you mind? Of course (I mind) – is brushed aside by both parties. Sometimes, pending class background, one receives a grammatically correct ‘not at all’, instead of an ‘of course’, but this too is trivial. When I taught methods for many years at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I called attention to the picayune minutiae of interview technique only because that was what was called for in training, as it were. In the field, much of this drops away, as it tends to do for all strictly academic professionalization, be it in teaching or researching. This is the first lesson of fieldwork, in a sense; that what you already know will only return to aid your quest after the intensive disillusion of you knowing anything at all has concluded. Sometimes, this process takes years.

            At the same time, I myself was trained in the generation after the classic if also ludicrous ethnographic pith helmet perception that all one needed was a pencil and a pad of paper and off you go! Yes, there’s always something to be said for adventure, and my sense of my student peers in graduate school was that the desire for excitement, one of the prime motivators for even engaging in fieldwork of any kind, was certainly present. But there is a line between having an adventure and ‘going native’, just as there is a corresponding line between asking an open-ended question in good faith and asking a leading question, the latter occupying a good deal of time in class, explaining to students how not to do so. In general, however, fieldwork produces discussion, dialogues, conversations, interlocutions, and never interrogations. Only the most incompetent researcher or journalist, police officer, doctor or other health care worker – and I have taught numerous of all of the above in my classes – distinguishes himself by his ineptly procedural questioning. Throwing words across is something primordial, and, as stated, makes human existence something distinct from any other known form of life. And while it might take a little bit of cajoling, or even some good-natured chicanery, to bring such a process out in the other, once this has been accomplished, the fieldworker always gets far more than she ever needed or indeed ever bargained for.

            But there are other kinds of questions than those professionals need ask. There are literary questions, historical questions, questions of conscience, questions about the nature of existence and the perhaps overdone ‘cosmic’ questions to boot. It would be bad form to simply move from one to another as if in the end they could be so distinctly descried and ahead of time as well, but what I can do is speak to them as if I were speaking to their source, thereby mimicking the ethnographic process but better realizing the De Profundis of its meaning. The literary question revolves round the idea that what is not real can simulate reality so closely that the reader feels like they are living another life. This is the same question that animates ‘immersive’ video game scripts, something I have come to as a writer quite recently. Literature is not living in the same way that art is not life, but the fact that we desire it to accomplish an ‘as if’ for us and time again, speaks in turn to how we perceive our own actual lives. Thus the literary question opens itself onto that existential, and that historical, and through both wider apertures repeats itself with some essential insistence. The question of the future of the world, and we in it, is very much the same question as that of the world’s history as it can be known. But at once we are made aware that we have only asked of this history a certain kind of question, and perhaps it is time to change tacks. Feminism, at its best, is a shining example of this kind of movement, and phenomenology bases its entire discursive presence upon this same perception.

            By far the most personally pressing type of question is that of conscience. Conscience is the ethical aspect of consciousness, a kind of interactive compass which, quite aside from marking out moral directions in their ideal cast, responds to the ways of said world and points ad hoc toward directions anew. Just so, for all the adventures a literary cast of heroes may have, ultimately the quest undertaken tests their respective consciences, far more than it does their combined skill sets or slowly evolving knowledge and experience. The lesson in the quest is thus a moral one, or, perhaps, an amoral one, but either way, it is not the world which is finally at stake but rather one’s conscience. Mostly unspoken, questions of conscience require self-reflection, meditation, and a kind of musement which departs from that aesthetic. This ‘silent dialogue’ within each of us as human beings participatory in the wider aspect of species-essence in language and language use, employs anxiety as a catalyst toward concernful being. But because that being must always be ‘in’ the world and at once in itself it must eschew the easier response of simply residing as an ‘in-itself’ – ‘its your world, I’m only living in it’ – and confront the much more challenging sense that I am in-dwelling as a Dasein in that world and thus also the world is of the closest-to-me without quite becoming a ‘mine ownmost’. If this is too turgid, think of it as a way of ferreting oneself into the puzzle of living in a world which is not our own, but to which we must cleave our desires and dreams alike. We do make the worlding of the world kindred to our thrown projects, just as we, as historical beings, write some small part of that world into its holistic history.

            Any question promotes a momentary Gestaltkreis. It asks  the other to focus her attention on it alone. It invites her into its solemn circle, and commits itself to hearing whatever response there may be. Because the question itself does not shy away from this indefinite finitude, my reply can indeed be uttered with a fitting confidence.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Pandemic of Emic

The Pandemic of Emic (and the pathetic of etic?)

            Kenneth L. Pike’s massive 1954 opus in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics takes one of its cues from Roman Jakobson’s useful distinction between phonetics and phonemics. The former is the linguist’s scientific rendition of a language in question, the latter’s how it is actually spoken by the native. Shortening these terms to ‘etic’ and ‘emic’, Pike coined a duet of discursive diminutives that, over the course of a half a century, became standard fare across the disciplines. No doubt such success was beyond his original expectations. What he never would have suspected, however, was that the emic, which by definition was to be understood as non-discursive, would haul itself into serious discourse and of its own accord. But this is precisely what we have witnessed, especially in the 21st century, as a multi-generational fashion for vaulting social, and even mere personal, experience into objectificity has overtaken epistemology itself. In short, the native’s point of view has come of scientific age.

            Though the emic was a necessity in and to any ethnography – sometimes communicated by the so-called ‘key informant’, which in many a classic anthropological study from the colonial period, turned out to be the pith helmet’s only informant, and just as often, an entire village desired to speak; in such cases, the anthropologist realized he had discovered rifts within even the smallest scale societies – it was never considered, nor was it ever to be considered, the final word on how things ‘really were’. It is well known that none of us, as children of specific cultural and historical periods, can see the entirety of the forest no matter how minutely we see a few of its trees. The immediate implication here is, of course, that we lack the big picture, and this expresses itself with morbid delicacy in our geopolitics. By 1961, Edmund Leach was one of the first in-house critics of this kind of ethnography, wherein the emic was given center stage. Not only was it titillating, even thrilling, to listen to the ‘’wild’ voices describe their world and how they lived in it – Malinowski’s 1929 ‘The Sexual Life of Savages’ was a best seller in the interwar period – these varied valedictions valorized the average reader, who could see herself living this or that way, if only she could escape the bonds of her own stale stoicism. If Woolf epitomized this theme in her novels, the female prisoner of both society and her own soul the leitmotif of early literary feminism, then it was the ethnographer who directly competed with the novelist in alluding to the European’s bad conscience following the Great War, and along far more than just lines of gender and sexuality.

            A rakish and reckless wit might exclaim, ‘If the ‘queerest’ of queer theorists, if the ‘blackest’ of black scholars, only knew!’ The emic, well before it was even given a useful epithet, had begun its lengthy ascent to discursive dominance as soon as the earliest of ethnographers began to listen to it. Perhaps the first ‘moment’ in this careening anti-epistemological career occurred by the mid-19th century, in a footnote to a Bureau of American Ethnology publication in which an extended narrative taken from one indigenous fellow is disputed by another, the second man being reported simply as ‘Two Crows denies this’. Does he indeed.

            This is the entire problem with any emic point of view: it lacks the ability to self-verify. The novelist well knows that veridicity and verity are two quite different things. That is perhaps the hallmark of good fiction; that it isn’t real but it comes across as being so. Whether or not Woolf herself confused the two is as maybe, but certainly many of her acolytes over the succeeding century have quite happily done so. If one enlightened thing can be said about the colonial ethnographers, none of them were deluded into imagining that what the native said about anything could be taken as the truth entire. And when I say, anything, I mean anything at all. It was only with the advent of the fourth generation of anthropological studies that we find the emic and the etic beginning to bleed into one another, and thus what was once ethnography beginning to read more like a novel. Experiential immersion was the goal of these experimental texts, and as brilliantly expository as they are, they are nonetheless not representations of scientific observation. Not quite emic, neither etic, narratives such as the superb ‘Nine Dayak Nights’ by Geddes or Radin’s ‘Primitive Man as Philosopher’ contain much beauty and perspective alike. But while these persons, however ‘primitive’, can certainly be poets, sorcerers, even journalists, they cannot be scientists, let alone philosophers. None of us can be either of these, without the extensive training and worldly outlook that all traditional cultures notoriously lack.

            While anthropology had belatedly heard the call of emic-based book sales, some anthropologists, and in the case of Jung, even one or two psychologists and mythologists, had heard the call of the emic itself. ‘Going native’ is surely a cliché, once again more entertaining in the hands of a novelist than ever in an ethnographer herself, but within that moment of regression-conversion, there is tacit another element of the emic’s discursive ascent. While we can leave it to Peter Gabriel and other modern musical sorcerers and poets to celebrate Jung and the like, we ourselves must press on with distinguishing fact and fancy. In doing so, we discover that the heedless headlong hurry to place emicity and its prenatal perch, along with its attendant rustic logic of the log, atop contemporary ivory pillars, is actually based on the resentment the dominant discourse feels for itself. For back-dropping the pandemic of the emic is the pathetic of the etic.

            If the world of the native is parochial, never moving beyond its own limited horizons, the worldcraft of the etic is absent of humanity-as-it-is. By the mid-1960s, this had become self-evident, and Geertz was one of the leading figures in the attempt to construct a ‘middle-range theory’ of humankind. Still far too discursive to satisfy the provincial palette of the emic ‘voice’, a scant decade later we would witness the beginning of today’s penchant for ‘social location’, the much-vaunted marque of apparent authenticity in the human sciences. If Geddes were a Chanel, Patricia Hill Collins might be a Diane von Furstenberg, who staunchly maintains that ‘we women are stronger than men’, and such-like. At once we are told that social location cannot by itself generate discourse, while at the same time, in every such study, this is precisely what occurs. The emic is no longer merely only a means to an etic, it itself has become the etic. What this means for human understanding is tantamount to the attestation that science does not exist, only the ‘voices’ of individuals, limited and inexperienced as they are.

            Overlaid upon such voices is the chorus of vox humana emanating from the locational theorist. In a very real sense, this is little different from any colonial ethnography; it is only ‘post’ colonial because some local is now the anthropologist and she doesn’t wear a pith helmet proper but some recognizably native gear that somehow vouchsafes against her own parochiality. The indigenous anthropologist writing about his own culture is certainly interesting and presents a perhaps more-validating manner of retelling the emic than having to go through the foreign ethnographer, part court reporter part parish priest part dime novelist as he may have been, but it is no less biased and no more authentic. We say this because authenticity is not autobiography, not even biography. And social location studies in fact read more like distended autohagiographies than anything else, mimicking many, if not most, contemporary novels. This is the key: that we have forsaken the scholarly and ethical work necessary to distance ourselves from our own dreary druthers. The result is a social science that looks like Subaltern Salvation Army tracts and novels that read like diarrhetic diaries.

            Pike, and especially his genius teacher, Edward Sapir, would have been appalled, no doubt. Even so, the fault lies somewhere near their feet, just as Sapir’s own teacher, Boas, the person who essentially invented cultural anthropology, opened the discursive door perhaps a hair too far in also inventing the concept of cultural relativism. As a student of hermeneutics, I would be last person to argue that there is but one truth in the world, or even but one world in truth. What I do suggest, however, and this in the face all the varied voices of such worlds, is that we must not lose sight of the very point of self-study; it is to reveal the self’s misrecognitions and misunderstandings of itself, and not to revel in its own limitations, neither revolt against the history of consciousness as an objectifying force, nor to revile the three millennia tradition of insight, groping and gradual, into the essence of what makes humanity our shared lot, gift and task alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.