Loops of struggle
Struggle #1: Drawing and writing
LBoro, December 2020
The irony is that I always end up writing about why I started drawing. I started drawing to avoid writing. And here I am, once again, tangled up in words and explanations.
This is a struggle already, isn’t it? One of the many struggles of doing anthropology: how we write is how we (mis)represent others and ourselves. I wish I could write like Joan Didion, but that doesn’t seem a realistic goal for my life. Not just yet.
Not that drawing solves the struggle of (mis)representations, I am aware of that. Drawing in anthropology has an eerie aura: kinship diagrams and anxieties of categorisation, reminiscent of salvage ethnographies and orientalising representations of otherness. Fortunately, I am neither Paul Gauguin nor Paul Claudel.
I just draw. Sometimes I deliberately decide to misrepresent others. I just want to see how bold I can be and how far I can go.
No one takes drawings seriously, do they? I mean, even when we try hard to make drawing sound theoretically meaningful, we just end up being deadly auto-referential: despite endless methodological speculations on why drawing is good for ethnography, we just speak for and about ourselves. We, those who can draw.
Over and over again we return to how insightful drawing has proven for us, we the “gifted” ones. We are compelled, enticed and invited to make grand methodological arguments for ethnographic drawing out of very random personal experiences. To be honest, I hate that, though it is what I do all the time, too, and I also love it. Why can’t my drawing just stand there as they are, as they look?
Perhaps we are all supposed to comply with the ethnographic canon, and keep our little, dirty secrets and struggles in our secret diaries. A la Malinowski. He set the standard for what an ethnographic monograph must be like, but he also provided tools to disrupt that same standard: haven’t his diaries torn apart our illusions of fairness? Aren’t they the most relatable insights into the struggle of reconciling ourselves with a reality we don’t quite belong to? Aren’t they the most realistic account of the struggle of making and unmaking relationships?
A couple of hours ago, a dear friend of mine reminded me of the implicit paradox of anthropology: we struggle to create relationships, but, ultimately anthropology is about breaking and broken relationships, too.
I made these drawings. They are about relationships and the struggles of fieldwork. Let’s laugh with them. Grand speculations will come at another time. Or maybe never...
If I say public health, they say ‘e xerete, the refugee crisis’.
If I say li mortacci tua**, they say ‘e xerete, the refugee crisis’.
Whatever I say, they would only tell me ‘e xerete, the refugee crisis’.
*In Greek, xerete means ‘you know’ (second person plural)
** An invocation, in Roman dialect, to your interlocutor’s ancestors. Probably not really understandable outside Rome. Some things are better left untranslated.
Franco is not a typically Greek name. In fact, it is an Italian name. To make a long story very short, in 2011, supporters of the AS Roma football team started calling their new Dutch goalkeeper, Stekelenburg, ‘Franco’. They couldn’t pronounce his name, and Franco is a good name anyway. I named my Greek informant Franco to protect his anonymity.
On the day I made this drawing, on 2 October 2016, AS Roma beat Inter FC.
‘I don’t want solidarity; I want the revolution.’ I think I could agree with his general statement, but his overwhelming and pedagogical tone disturbed me. Conversations often turned into explanatory monologues.
Men explain, women listen. Men teach, women listen. Men talk, women listen. Men ask questions and also answer the questions they have asked; women listen, and nod.
Not that it helped. I had several crises of presence during my fieldwork. Some might call them crises of ethnographic authority – but as an anti-authoritarian, I’d rather stick to the existential side of it.
After 15 months of fieldwork I was just tired, incapable and unwilling to make sense of everything around and inside me. de Martino proposed a pathway out of a crisis of presence: reintegration. But I didn’t care about reintegration. I was alone and just wanted to leave Athens. I was a tarantata, a possessed, that the rebetiko, the Greek music of the outcasts, couldn’t heal anymore.
Letizia Bonanno is a social anthropologist currently teaching sociology of health at Loughborough University. Besides painkillers and gendered labour regimes of care, her research deals with biomedicine and statecraft processes in austerity Greece. Using only cheap black pens, she has been experimenting with drawings and illustrations for the past six years. She is a member of the OtherwiseMag collective.