Anthropology and fiction (part 1)

The reason why I became an anthropologist is that anthropology can include anything. Early in my studies, when I still aimed in an other direction, a professor told me that until her MPhil she had had a very broad field of interests, including reading French novels in their original language. But in order to reach her position, she had had to forsake much of that. Talking to her, made me realise that I wasn’t ready to give up on all my different interests in pursuing a career. So, if my future job wouldn’t spare me time to immerse myself in social and political issues, travel, film, literature and other things that interested me, I would have to take all that with me into my future job. And if I wasn’t a hundred percent sure when I started with anthropology, I certainly was after reading just a few pages of the introductory text Small places, Large issues. Anyway, the title says it all, doesn’t it?

But if anything can become anthropology, then, conversely, a lot of other things converges on being anthropology as well? In my opinion, yes. I’ve had the opportunity to go on a little reading spree of fiction lately. And to be honest, no one does anthropology as well as novelists do. When I started thinking about this, I thought I remembered someone with a little more disciplinary authority than me saying something similar. But I realised that what I had in mind was a somewhat silly article by Maurice Bloch asking why others are able to make core anthropological issues, like fundamental questions of human nature, into blockbuster books while anthropologists don’t. The article was silly for several reasons I’ll not go into here, but I find his original question intriguing. Maybe more anthropologist should go deeper into fundamental questions, and maybe many anthropologists (and many other academics) should write in a more accessible manner for a larger public. At the same time, I’m almost tempted to say; but who cares, as long as we’ve got – not popular evolutionary biologists like Bloch was pointing to, but – novelists!

Balzac’s Human Comedy is hard to beat when it comes to fiction with anthropological components. His interest is society as a whole in the decades after the French revolution, (but perhaps particularly the life of the new bourgeoisie, because he’s less interested in the poor and the working classes than for instance Dickens.) Leo Tolstoy is another one, and as far as I remember, a far better depicter of the depth of the individual characters than Balzac, whose protagonists are mere types illustrating their social position within society. Another personal favourite is Michel Houellebecq’s outrageous analysis of human relations following the social changes in the 1960s.

Several of the books I’ve read lately have a streak of good anthropological description and analysis; The White Tiger on today’s booming India by Aravind Adiga, What is the What, the life history of the Sudanese refugee, Deng, by Dave Eggers, or The curious incident of the dog in the night which shows, from the native’s point of view, so to speak, the life of a young boy with Asberger Syndrome, by Mark Haddon.

But what I really want to come to in this post, is the Norwegian literary phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgård. In a novel in six volumes, in the process of being published in the span of one year, he explores is own life in detail within a clearly literary framework. What gives it anthropological overtones in my opinion is very different from what makes my previous examples anthropology-like, but perhaps one can say that he writes more in the vein that Bloch is asking for. Socio-political and economical analysis, as well as any opinions on such issues, is blatantly absent in his oeuvre. Neither are there, until volume three at least, any real analysis of social relations. Conversely, what there is, in abundance, is the world seen from the perspective of the native, the author himself. And it is exactly this description in detail ad absurdum if not nauseum, that made me think of ethnography in the first place. He tries to describe his life in as much detail and with as much honesty as his human imagination is capable of. That provides the reader with much description which is liberatingly free of any obvious purpose. Usually in fiction, everything the writer has put down on paper is supposed to mean something and add up to the story to come. Many of the passages in Knaugsgård’s book seem to be description for its own sake, exactly what theory oriented anthropologists would call butterfly collecting (while in some cases their own work might fit so rigidly into a theoretical framework that all real human life is lost. The best example here is perhaps the highly acclaimed The Nuer (see earlier post).) I would instead call it “thick description” and in line with the recommendations of sound ethnographic procedure (see earlier post). Knausgård himself says that he’s on a quest for what it means to be human, no less, and I certainly see his point. In going into detail into his own life, aspect after aspect of – universal, I would guess – human existential struggle is revealed.

I was one of the many who refused to bother with this seemingly overrated and overexposed project in the beginning. Then, I discovered that the commentaries in the newspapers read completely different things into the work. The novel was clearly so polyvalent that it inspired readings that varied to the point of seeming completely contradictory. Art historians, feminists, political reactionaries, priests, fellow authors… all focused on different aspects of the book and gave it different interpretations. It made me start to see the whole project as a piece of Bourriaud’s relational art, where the work of art comes into being in the meeting with it’s readers and the interaction it engenders. It became even clearer to me when I brought volume 2 with me to hospital, and almost every person I got in contact with there, be it the surgeon himself, the physiotherapist, one of the cleaners, hospital orderlies and of course many of the nurses, had something to say about the book or the fuss it created.


A point not to forget when I acclaimed Knausgård’s quest, is that much of it is clearly very good literature. It’s no doubt that it is a piece of art, and the question is, what can other representations of society and human life stand up with in comparison with art? That question has popped up in various guises lately.

1 comment

Comment from: Sarah [Visitor]  

Interesting post - I’ve not read Knausgård but really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.
I’m so glad to have discovered your blog ! And I’ll sure to return.

21/02/10 @ 22:10

Form is loading...

« An Ariadne’s thread?The long and winding road of a research project »