There’s Not Much to Talk about When You’re Taking Pictures of Houses”: The Poetics of Vernacular Spaces

For those interested in my older work on material culture, I’ve finally scanned, OCRed, and uploaded my essay from _Southern Folklore_, entitled [“There’s Not Much to Talk about When You’re Taking Pictures of Houses”: The Poetics of Vernacular Spaces][sf]. It’s up on, right now, and I will probably make a duplicate copy available here when I get the chance to get all that straightened out.


The Pain of Ethnography

I occasionally field questions from my colleagues about what it is I do when I am “out in the field,” a question which is sometimes accompanied by something like a wave in the general direction of “out there.” I don’t really mind the question: it, and its presumptions, are really based on the fact that the paradigm within which I work sometimes contrasts sharply from the paradigm within which they work.

When I am engaged in ethnographic research, I am building my data from scratch. It does not exist as texts already in books, nor as texts readily collected. It exists only as a set of discrete experiences which I detail in field notes and in the accumulation of experiences into something like knowledge based on patterns and designs gleaned from those experiences. As most of my fieldworker colleagues know, accumulating experience is the key, and trying to do so while also teaching, and being a member of a functioning family, is tricky to say the least. The work proceeds slowly.

And so I am delighted when I have been in the field long enough that the individuals with whom I work, well, put me to work. That is, they assume that I am competent, and they ask me to do something, for example, swap hydraulic lines on a crawfish boat.

On Thursday afternoon, Gerard Olinger asked me to grab a pair of wrenches — he assumed I could find them but he also gave me the sizes, knowing that I would not know, nor be able to judge, what sizes were required — and swap a pair of hydraulic lines on a cylinder we had, together, moved. Asking me to do the work freed him up to do a few other things — he can do many things in the time it takes me to do one — and it also put me in a familiar spot: underneath the bench of a crawfish boat, a space I have spent some time previously in his shop. (Gerard has had me do some basic nuts and bold work before.)

Gerard’s son Paul had put the lines in, I believe, and Paul has a good fifty pounds and considerably more muscle on me. I had to really lean on the pair of wrenches to get the lines loose. When a fitting finally gave, it gave quickly and the back of my right thumb met the underside of the bench:

Ethnographic Injury # 213 (or thereabouts)

And that’s after three days of antibiotic cream and large, home-made dressings. The infection was worse than I thought: I figured the wound would have remained fairly sterile since in the moment it occurred a fairly large amount of hydraulic fluid came out of the newly-freed hose end. Apparently hydraulic oil is not sterile. (Note to self.)

Coppola on Short Fiction

In the middle of her interview with Coppola, Ariston Anderson asks him, “What is the one thing to keep in mind when making a film?” Coppola replies:

When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “Apocalypse,” it was morality.

It’s great advice for writing short stories, too. And perhaps essays. And sections of books. I am going to try it out as I revise the first few sections of the boat book, now that I think I know what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

I’d also like to try that advice in writing a short story: I should note that I was very inspired by my viewing of the Walker Percy film yesterday. What Percy did again and again was to observe life around him and try to capture it accurately. He didn’t reach for far away places and he didn’t reach into the past. The New Orleans of his novels was the New Orleans he knew.

In his wake I find I want to challenge myself to do much the same: to document as best I can the reality around me. Right now I am working on a book that’s about boats, but it’s also about the prairies, a place much mythified even by folklorists. (I just saw a film today that was about the country Mardi Gras, one day out of a year filled otherwise with trying to wrestle rice out of the ground.) After the countryside, it would be nice to turn to this small city in which I life, Lafayette, and capture it as it is, try to understand it as it is. It is much like other places, and it is also different from other places, but we can only those similarities and differences if we actually document them. Otherwise we are only working from a collection of so many personal anecdotes, which is poor stuff compared to a more organized study.

Critical Code Studies

Critical code studies is here, and I think it’s asking all the right questions:

Do Digital Humanities scholars need to know how to code? … While that question raises anxieties in many humanities scholars, it is not an overstatement to argue that computer source code presents a sign system, a discourse environment, that holds tremendous influence over our daily lives — and that for the humanities not to be able to address it, not to be able to use their methodologies to critique this cultural milieu, is the equivalent to unplugging from the Internet permanently or, as has been tweeted, to live in the Roman Empire without knowing how to speak Latin. While perhaps not every DH practitioner need code or know how to code, if we cannot collaborate with our colleagues in computer science to apply our methodologies to the study of source code (and hardware and software), we will be confined to cultural critique of the surface effects of a digital culture which functions within in a black box. (From the front page for HASTAC‘s new Critical Code Studies forum.)

As I continue to develop the analytical and narrative framework of the book I am writing on creativity in fabrication shops in south Louisiana — testing it against what I can actually write — I am also thinking about the next project. For a time now, I have been thinking that writing an ethnography of a coding project would be interesting. Unlike, Scott Rosenberg’s fine Dreaming in Code, however, I knew I wanted my book to include within its purview an actual discussion of the code involved. That is, I think coders have two kinds of conversations: those about code and those in code. So far, I think most documentation has focused only on the former without really revealing how the two discursive streams interact. While I dabbled in Ruby, particularly in Ruby on Rails, I was part of the Radiant CMS mailing list, and I thought I would work with them, but now I am not sure what my subject might be. I am, however, looking forward to this work.

Speaking of alternate domains of critical study, however, I would like to note that critical code studies joins critical legal studies, but there is still not, so far as I am aware, anything like critical business studies. I presented a paper or two on the subject at a few meetings of the American Folklore Society, and I remember having some interesting discussions with Michael Owen Jones about it. I have not pursued it, but I do wonder if others have or are interested in doing so. Certainly the business literature community produces plenty of material which begs for a closer examination. (I’m afraid the sheer glut of it was what overwhelmed my own thinking about it.)

Sketching Ethnography

When I teach a fieldwork class or work with students doing fieldwork, I like to take some time, when the moment of fieldwork photography comes up, to talk about shot composition. It’s not something most students are prepared to discuss, in part, because composition in photography seems to many to be the realm of the fine art or professional photographer. It doesn’t help that many people think of composition in purely two-dimensional terms and thus have some sense that they can fix a problematic image in processing.

But that’s confusing cropping with composition. And while cropping can do wonders sometimes it cannot get into a frame something that was needlessly left out and now can never be put back in — there are too many pieces of reality even for Photoshop masters.

A recent [iStockphoto]( article on [“The Sketch”]( got me thinking about better ways to communicate some of these ideas. I am particularly fond of the illustration the author offers.

His task is to compose an image that captures the idea of waiting, and while we can envy him his opportunity to work with a model and location that are pliant to his needs, we should also envy him his forethought. It’s my experience that too many folklorists, and and anthropologists and journalists, simply start snapping shots in the middle of an event without any real thought of what is happening and how best to represent it. Only then can you decide what are probably the best vantage points from which to take a photograph.

No doubt seasoned veterans like Henry Glassie, an amazing photographer in his own right, do much of this work quite subconsciously, but it’s not because he hasn’t thought about it quite consciously for years and years. I know because I have spent time talking to Glassie about his photographs and I have had him with me in the field and had him advise him on better angles, better frames, better lighting.

To move this discussion along, I plan to offer up a few photographs of my own that I have either composed in this way or I have not and wish I did. I hope others will join me in a critique of this part of the ethnographic process. I don’t think we lose anything by raising to the level of conscious practice and articulate discussion certain dimensions of our craft. If anything, we enjoy amazing content and it’s time we thought about the forms in which we present it or represent it more clearly. We now have more choices, in terms of communication, than any of us thought imaginable even ten short years ago.

Domain of Interest: “Cultural and Activity Research”

I have never heard of “cultural and activity research” until a CFP (call for papers) came across the Digital Humanities mailing list. But here’s a CFP for the [Nordic Conference on Activity Theory and the Forth Finnish Conference on Cultural and Activity Researc]( which describes itself as:

> The conference is dedicated to examining human creative activities. The conference theme is “Perspectives on social creativity, designing and activity”. We conceive of design as a field of knowledge and activity concerned with the creation of artifacts. Creative activities operate with diverse modes of knowing and representations. Creativity is a social quality that involves communication and community formation. Creative activities and design are needed when humans transform their circumstances by developing new technologies and institutions. Creation of the new relies on cultural mediation and historically accumulated resources. Activity theory and socio-cultural approaches offer fresh perspectives on these themes. The conference aims at bringing together diverse points of view and disciplinary orientations to discuss social creativity, design and activity.

It looks great, but the conference comes at the end of this academic year, which is also close to the end of the university’s fiscal year. And, as many know, there just isn’t that much money to begin with. Let along enough to help subsidize a flight to Helsinki and a $350 (200€) registration fee.

*Sigh.* It looks amazing.

Interview Tips

Collected below are a series of notes and/or prompts to asking better questions while doing documentary/ethnographic research. It assumes the interviewer has at least a notepad in hand as basic recording technology.

An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of the interview is to get the narrator to tell her story. Limit your own remarks to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide her along. It is not necessary to give her the details of your great-grandmother’s life growing up in Abbeville in order to get her to tell you about her grandfather’s trip to Texas. Just say, “I understand your grandfather went to Texas during the oil boom. What did he tell you about his time there?”

Ask questions that require more of an answer than “yes” or “no.” Start with “why,” “how,” “where,” “what kind of. . .” instead of “Was Henry Miller a good boss?” ask “What did the drilling crew say about Henry Miller?”

Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask a series of questions all at once. Probably the narrator will answer only the first or last one. You will catch this kind of questioning when you listen through the tape after the session, and you can avoid it the next time.

Ask brief questions. We all know the irrepressible speech-maker who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture, gets up and asks five- minute questions. It is unlikely that the narrator is so dull that it takes more than a sentence or two for her to understand the question.

Start with questions that are not controversial; save the delicate questions, if there are any, until you have become better acquainted. A good place to begin is with the narrator’s youth and background.

Don’t let periods of silence fluster you. Give your narrator a chance to think of what she wants to add before you hustle her along with the next question. Relax, write a few words on your notepad. The sure sign of a beginning interviewer is a tape where every brief pause signals the next question

Don’t worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be for posterity. A few fumbled questions will help put your narrator at ease as she realizes that you are not perfect and she need not worry if she isn’t either. It is not necessary to practice fumbling a few questions; most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.

Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let her go on, but jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask it later.

If your narrator does stray into subjects that are not pertinent (the most common problems are to follow some family member’s children or to get into a series of family medical problems), try to pull her back as quickly as possible. “Before we move on, I’d like to find out how the closing of the mine in 1935 affected your family’s finances. Do you remember that?”

It is often hard for a narrator to describe people. An easy way to begin is to ask her to describe the person’s appearance. From there, the narrator is more likely to move into character description.

Try to establish at every important point in the story where the narrator was or what her role was in this event, in order to indicate how much is eye-witness information and how much based on reports of others. “Where were you at the time of the mine disaster?” “Did you talk to any of the survivors later?” Work around these questions carefully, so that you will not appear to be doubting the accuracy of the narrator’s account.

Do not challenge accounts you think might be inaccurate. Instead, try to develop as much information as possible that can be used by later researchers in establishing what probably happened. Your narrator may be telling you quite accurately what she saw. As Walter Lord explained when describing his interviews with survivors of the Titanic, “Every lady I interviewed had left the sinking ship in the last lifeboat. As I later found out from studying the placement of the lifeboats, no group of lifeboats was in view of another and each lady probably was in the last lifeboat she could see leaving the ship.”

Try to avoid “off the record” information–the times when your narrator asks you to turn off the recorder while she tells you a good story. Ask her to let you record the whole things and promise that you will erase that portion if she asks you to after further consideration. You may have to erase it later, or she may not tell you the story at all, but once you allow “off the record” stories, she may continue with more and more, and you will end up with almost no recorded interview at all. “Off the record” information is only useful if you yourself are researching a subject and this is the only way you can get the information. It has no value if your purpose is to collect information for later use by other researchers.

Don’t switch the recorder off and on. It is much better to waste a little tape on irrelevant material than to call attention to the tape recorder by a constant on-off operation. Of course you can turn off the recorder if the telephone rings or if someone interrupts your session.

Interviews, for beginning interviewers, usually work out better if there is no one present except the narrator and the interviewer. Sometimes two or more narrators can be successfully recorded, but usually each one of them would have been better alone.

End the interview at a reasonable time. An hour and a half is probably the maximum. First, you must protect your narrator against over-fatigue; second, you will be tired even if she isn’t. Some narrators tell you very frankly if they are tired, or their spouses will. Otherwise, you must plead fatigue, another appointment, or no more tape.

Don’t use the interview to show off your knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do.