Rethinking the Ethics of Ethnographic Writing

I feel introspective about my dissertation today. After spending an eventful weekend with my cousin Sophia and her boyfriend Victor, a stream of dissertation-related ideas rushed into my head. Foregrounded in my consciousness is the chapter breakdown. Where do I fit these disparate ideas into the larger chapter outline? Where do the case studies related to the taqwacore phenomenon fit? In the chapter on transnational social networks or on racial melancholia? Or does the taqwacore narrative as a whole work better as a chapter of its own? The mathematical part of my brain began calculating the placement of data relative to the amount of space and information accumulated.

Quickly I became self-conscious of the puzzle-like aspects of this exercise. Is dissertation writing like a solving a puzzle? I began to second-guess the ethics of this endeavor. Ethnographic writing runs the risk of reducing people into “data” as examples or evidence to extend/challenge academic theories. It may be too late to question the social relevance of academic writing. But here’s what I’m thinking: how can I represent the experiences of the musicians involved in my study while avoiding the pitfall of objectifying them? How can I best position their stories relative to useful and socially engaged theories? What can I do to empower the musicians through academic writing?

Academic writing is a mediation of the field experience. Earlier today, a Google Alert directed me to read a review of the first album released by my improv trio Pinko Communoids. The reviewer Jack The Ripper of Heathen Harvest not only wrote incomprehensible prose. In particular, word choice such as “disgust” and “alien” came as a surprise. Pinkos’ aesthetics have never been intended to induce alienation or harshness. We sometimes even distance ourselves from the label of “noise” because of our discomfort with the aggression or violence implied in the genre. Surely, Jack The Ripper “understood” or mis-contextualized our sounds. This is tenable considering that Heathen Harvest as a site is devoted to promoting “post-industrial” music. The genre dissonance between our alleged position in “electro-acoustic improvisation” and post-industrial music could illuminate Jack The Ripper’s “misreading” of our tracks.

One lesson I gleaned today is to consider the position of the performer as discursively vulnerable. Cultural makers are often subject to critical and journalistic interpretations and misinterpretations. [Some people would even argue that a cultural performance in itself is a reinterpretation. No doubt.] The professional impulse to specialize often positions music scholars as music listeners and commentators. Many music scholars simply don’t have time to perform after setting off of the tenure clock. With that said, I have decided to continue my role as a musician (as opposed to be a music listener per se) not only to satisfy my inner desire to express my ideas and state of being. Embodying the role of the performer is a humbling process. It disciplines me to think and write with empathy.

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This entry was posted originally on August 16, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

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