An Ethnographic Inventory

How to do ethnography through (epistemic) love letters

Alberto Corsín Jiménez says “we fall” (2017). We fall in what? In anthropological traps, just like we fall in love. We are ‘companion experiments’, he says (quoting Battaglia in the same volume), and asks: “How do companion experiments fall in love? (…) We fall. We just fall. We get trapped and fall” (ibid: 294). The analogy between anthropology (or in my case, ethnography) and love is also what I attempted to explore through my experiment with ‘epistemic love letters’ in the first Colleex meeting (Lisbon, July 2017). I wondered if love could work as a vocabulary to talk about ethnographic relationships.

After working about prototypes, Alberto Corsín Jiménez turned his attention to traps more lately.His point is that anthropological traps, as he put it, “are good to fall in (love with)” (ibid: 295). But what is a trap? Alfred Gell’s classic interest in traps (1996) is well known: a trap is an automaton, an extension of the creator and simultaneously a (working) model of the creator and the victim: it anticipates and subverts the behaviour of the victim. In the use of Corsín Jiménez, a trap is an onto-dispositif, a concept invoked by Battaglia and Antunes Almeida (2014), that “allies with Law and Evelyn’s (2013) notion of devices that create their own heterogeneous arrangements for relating, with the difference that it is a sensibility-engendering rather than an analytic device.” The onto-dispositif, they say, “creates its own heterogeneous exchange protensions—prospecting for its own possible worlds (…)”.

Part of the interest in traps is that they are designed. So did I imagined what we could consider a sort of ‘infrastructure’ albeit basic and rudimentary, composed by a call, letter box for love letters, wire and clips and a poem of Fernando Pessoa (“All love letters are ridiculous”) and during the conference there was also a moment for the presentation of the idea. The call was meant to act as an invitation/provocationopening the possibility to think ethnography in analogy to love and explicitly asking the experimental ethnographers in the venue to write about their fieldwork relations as ‘epistemic love letters’ rather than papers. I provided a letter box with the inscription “love letters” only: having “epistemic love letters” would be too long as an inscription, and the intention (failed) was also to open the possibility that any people passing by in the garden could would feel curious and perhaps could leave love letters: the event was organized in the sui generis Jardim Botânico Tropical, a former ‘Colonial Garden’ that once worked as pedagogic show of the botanical diversity of the colonies and which is now a museum/botanical park open to the public. My intention was to exhibit the letters received, which would be hung with clips, and eventually see if they could be used to generate discussion about ethnographic issues that are related to the more personal and relational aspects of fieldwork.

I did what I planed, and I received four letters, but the first problem was that they were very different in form to the point that I didn’t know if they could work as ‘epistemic love letters’ or not: one of them was a photograph (and the author explained me later by e-mail what it referred to), and another one was an e-mail, so I guess this leaves only two letters-really-handwritten-letters (although they very interesting and creative in their own right, and certainly worth attention – seee transcriptions). The second problem was that the purpose of the exercise wasn’t clear and people interpreted it about love/sex issues in the field. This unpredictable effect of my rudimentary plan made me so embarrassed to the point of leaving me in an impasse about what to do next. I didn’t intend to do more than to open the idea as a provocation (a provocation is a sort of trap in a way) and leave it open and inconclusive, but in order do avoid the misinterpretation I should have invested more on the design of it: on the material, mechanic onto-potential aspects of my infrastructure, on its affordances and predicted effects: it would have been important to think more carefully in advance on what it was supposed to do, to care about its design: design as a way of drawing things together (Latour 2008: 7), depends on “modesty, care, precautions, skills, crafts, meanings, attention to details, careful conservations, redesign, artificiality, and ever shifting transitory fashions”. The box indicated ‘love letters’ and it was positioned in a strategic point of the conference venue. What was it meant for? Was it for love letters? Love letters in general, or ethnographic love letters? What a precarious and fragile infrastructure. “Interesting, but I wanted to ask you, why do you call it ‘epistemic?'”, was how one colleague expressed me her puzzlement. And to whom should they be addressed? For ‘informants’? For other anthropologists? For lovers in the field? I did not know. I ended up in an impasse.I only had a vague idea. I was left it in suspension. I was the one ended caught in the perils of trying to design an object – an infrastructure, a trap of some sort – without knowing how to. “It is hard work – at times playful, often treacherous, sometimes uncontrollable and overwhelming too – to trap a feeling”, says Alberto, who could be my epistemic-sentimental advisor. I ended up with very mixed feelings about this object and for that reason I didn’t invest as much as I should on it. But such exercise relates to an important debate in anthropology: how to do anthropology through design? It is a whole matter of pragmatics: to engage in the design of an object for ethnography is not only to be exposed to the perils of traps: the quest is to design them as onto-dispositifs, that is, devices that create its own heterogeneous arrangements for relating. What did I want my trap to put in relation in first place?


Battaglia, Debboraand Almeida, Rafael Antunes. 2014.”“Otherwise Anthropology” Otherwise: The View From Technology.” Dispatches, Cultural Anthropology website, February 24, 2014. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/493-otherwise-anthropology-otherwise-the-view-from-technology

Collins, Samuel, Dumit, Joseph, et al. 2017. Gaming anthropology: a sourcebook from #Anthropologycon. Booklet available at anthropologycon.org (accessed May 2018).

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. 2017. “We fall”. History and Anthropology, 28:3, 293-296.
Gell, Alfred. 1996. “Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps”: Journal of Material Culture, Vol 1, Issue 1: 15-38.

Latour, Bruno. 2008. “A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk)”. In Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto (editors) Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society – Falmouth, 3-6 September 2009, e-books, Universal Publishers, pp. 2-10.

Law, John, and Evelyn Ruppert. 2013. “The Social Life of Methods: Devices.” Journal of Cultural Economy 6, no. 3: 229–40.

Roberts, Peter. 2018. “Love, attention and teaching: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov”, Open Review of Educational Research, 5:1, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/23265507.2017.1404434

Sanjek, R. (Ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. New York: Cornel University.

Scheld, Suzanne. 2009: “Letter writing and learning in anthropology”. The Journal of Effective Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2009, 59-69.

About ‘Consultorio Elena Francis’: https://smoda.elpais.com/placeres/elena-francis-consejos-para-la-mujer-sumisa/


Published as part of the Colleex Open Formats, August 8, 2018