At The Well Of A Worlds End
“I am a scientist I will leave the guessing games to you” (1)
1695: Towards A “Useful and Experimental Philosophy”
“The Isles here described are but little known or considered, not only by strangers, but even by those under the same government and climate. The modern itch after the knowledge of foreign places is so prevalent that the generality of mankind bestow little thought or time upon the place of their nativity. It is become customary in those of quality to travel young into foreign countries, whilst they are absolute strangers at home; and many of them are only loaded with superficial knowledge, as the bare names of famous libraries, stately edifices, fine statues, curious paintings, late fashions, new dishes, new tunes, new dances, painted beauties, and the like.” (2)
Ethnology has traditionally, (though by no means in its history exclusively) confined itself to recording the traditions of one particular class in Scotland, the peasant population. The subject can begin to be studied properly from the late 17th century when scientific methods of recording and observation were first tentatively deployed by a fluid group of antiquarians, naturalists, medical doctors, scientists and other interested members of the literate classes (some of the earliest records may be military in origin) . In terms of folk tales the archive springs into life in the 19th century when J.F. Campbell funded by his relative the duke of Argyle undertook a systematic study of the story-tellers of the Western Isles, using a network of collectors to accurately record the spoken word performers of this community. Before this period and particularly before the introduction of the printing press the written material at our disposal is almost certainly the very small tip of a a very large spoken iceberg. But with out accurate observation and recording this information borne and sustained by the breath is dead to us.
The subject cannot exist without this method of working. Information has to be carefully recorded, analysis is rooted in this archive and record keeping system built up from its beginnings in the late 17th century. Analysis is crafted on careful detailed observation, comparison and measurement. This form of evidence is of high value within institutions and a distinct terminology and language is built around these working methods. A subject grows. I do not however see this as the end of the subject.
Of Tailed Men
As a historian I am not just interested in looking at a subject from within itself, deal in a world of a text and its reception. To me these are not mutually exclusive subjects they are one. I take a particular interest in late 17th century Scottish Philosopher Lord Monboddo although that is perhaps not an accurate description, as what is particularly interesting is the often explosive and hostile reaction to his work from his contemporary audience and how perceptions of him build through time. In the 19th century dreamworld of giant sized men of science, one derogatory remark deployed was to dismiss a ‘Darwinist’ as historical parrot following the foolish beliefs of ‘Monboddoism’. The attempt to pin a giant sized monkey tale of ancient origin on a cultural image of science as a giant sized donkey of error was a popular pastime the media engaged in with glee (3). But the image also developed out of the understanding that questions surrounding the subject had developed before Darwin and perhaps out of sentimental pride on the part of a few romantic Scots who wanted to place one more stone on the cairn of Scottish knowledge. Science is a wider part of a bigger culture picture. It is not simply a method. It is a tangled cultural phenomena surrounded by a diverse collection of foundation legends that seek to demonstrate the imagined origins of the subject and weave and whisper across the cultural spectrum within the various social groups that define themselves within a culture through such narratives.
I find exploring and acknowledging a world beyond the methods deployed, particularly so with regard to Ethnology as a subject. Part of the processes of recording and collection involves building a relationship of trust with informants. My particular area of interest is with beliefs in the supernatural realm particularly the evil eye. People are mistrustful of opening up about such things,” I don’t know anything about that but if you want to know anything about tattie digging I’ll be pleased to tell you.” To gain information on the target subject you have to wait to be invited in and the real evidence comes when the tape machine is switched off when you are invited in and treated as a guest in these discussions, which are often conducted at an intimate family level. A tape recording of a question and answer session, is nothing in comparison to watching narrative unfolded in it’s context. Here is the art of the subject. What the archive cannot in all cases capture in this moment in time. To be allowed in to peoples lives in this way is dependent on trust and respect. These beliefs and the social events in which they are deployed, debated and discussed form an intimate and very personal part of peoples lives.
Self preservation is natural to every living creature; and thus we see the several animals of the sea and the land so careful of themselves as to observe nicely what is agreeable and what is hurtful to them; and accordingly they choose the one and reject the other. The husbandman and the fisher could expect but little success without observation in their several enjoyments (4)
What Happens When A Method Is Deployed On You’re Doorstep?
I think I can say without any dispute that the notion that the evil eye the belief that a person has foreknowledge of who will die soon amongst the member’s of a particular community is not one that holds up to scientific inquiry. My terminology is poor and perhaps this is not the best way to put it, but I think at times that with subjects such as this that the relationship between what we see as the origin, as the significant explanation for ongoing repetition is not what it seems. Its a linear, static and pleasing explanation that is subject to significant repetition when folk discuss the beliefs of others. Close observation of how these stories are told, the interaction and interjection of family members, the way inflection and voice is deployed to convince sections of the audience who may be moving away, the deployment of legendary proof as the tipping factor from skepticism to believer or very active agnostic, all build up and point to a picture of its uses within a culture that have nothing to do with the supernatural origin of the claim. In terms of belief a small number of people deploying these narratives in rural Scotland identify themselves with regard to religion as atheists. Identity is not always coherent and regular in how it manifests itself in cultural groups and can contain significant internal contradictions. This belief maintains group hierarchy and social position, in excluding members from the group (those believed to posses the evil eye) and limiting scope for social interaction it is useful in giving a community a strong sense of its own identity and is strong enough on occasion to sit somewhat uneasily with other forms of cultural identification.
“It’s I’ been” (It has always been done this way)
The traditional social structures of all of the latter cultural areas have been eclipsed in part or whole by contact with modern state systems, and the cultures themselves were dramatically transformed through relations with economic and social institutions (of modern state systems). (5)
Beliefs like the evil eye are a vital part of the way communities discuss, describe and negotiate a range of vital social and cultural activities. The range is fluid from the political or economic to the means by which groups negotiate an agreed sense of themselves. Communities express these concerns using a very specific form of language and ethnologists also discus these things in a very specific form of language. One thing that is often the case is that when small scale conservative rural communities hear an ethnological presentation using scientific observation and means of inquiry, it often provokes a less than pleasing response. It is viewed as non-sense and at times highly offensive nonsense.
“The angry consternation of their elders will not stop the youth of each culture from assuming characteristics from the others and then changing their cultures from within as they themselves assume leadership roles and act to make the external world consonant with their hybrid selves.
What then will happen when information flows over the geographic obstacles and cultural barriers that have divided human beings into thousands of isolated groups for most of history as a species?” (6)
Attempting to square this circle is somewhat vexing and difficult. Ethnology has since its inception struggled with the issue, as can be seen in the writing of both Martin Martin and J.F. Campbell as they attempt to find sense in their own Hybrid identity and the concern they show in regard to the increased interaction between the state, the different knowledge systems of the educated and the uneducated peasant classes, the majority class of the communities in which they came from. Some of the solutions or lines of inquiry they used are dead and may to modern scientists appear with a lack of historical context, nonsensical (Martin Martin’s faith in the second sight, J.F Campbell’s interest in the origin of tales, religion and race). But they deployed a method and the questions they struggled to answer are the same today as they were then.
I don’t think I can use the answer ‘ I would refer the irate speaker jumping up and down and going red in the face to the section in my paper labeled ‘method’ and try to walk away whistling, without acknowledging that my methods and the processes used are not unlike archeology and use a means of evidence gathering that are in themselves destructive. I don’t feel I can drive into a community using heavy machinery to dig a great big hole, grab the evidence and then walk away leaving a community to deal with a big empty void (which it will immediately fill). I am doing much more than simply deploying a method. I don”t see these questions as the responsibility of other people to clean up.
Certainly it seems to me a bit of a hallmark of a society that has proven itself inadequate in terms of giving people a sense of belonging and identification. (7)
Ethnology All Thought Dissolving
An ethnology cannot be viewed as simply a method of inquiry any more that it can be thought of as a branch of heritage preservation and nothing more or it has too much potential to become a somewhat contested, dysfunctional and divisive subject. It is also not just a question for academics it is one for a whole community. Not dealing with a method that is above question as it seeks to impose a sense of identity. When the state or its institutions has sought to use these methods in the past the results have been less than pleasant. This subject has a distinct history in Scotland and out of this environment and history has grown a distinctive subject and area of study and thought.
I deploy a very specific method, which I identify strongly with but I am still a contradiction, a repetition that learns but slowly and plots escape with difficulty and uncertainty. A creature and product of a particular environment and it’s cultures. A momentary inflection of it’s dreaming.
(1) Popular depiction of science, naturally exuberant Forensic Scientist responds to a detectives question in I.T.V Drama Series, Trial and Retribution, Aired Tuesday 26. Feb 2013.
(2) This new inward looking philosophy and method of scientifically observing the observers native environment is presented as a cure for the ills of a culture that the author views with the typical devolutionary social pessimism of his time. Martin Martin was a native of the Isles who trained as a Medical Doctor in Edinburgh and the Continent, the text also looks beyond the world of the isles to the relationship between a traditional culture and its relationship with the institutions of the early modern state. The book is an ambitious undertaking not just in its scope but in it’s discussion of second sight, the author hoped that a full scientific and philosophical investigation of the subject would reveal its workings to be measurable using scientific observation and would yield measurable data with regard to how such operations of mind and vision functioned. Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, Circa 1695, Edinburgh, 1994
(3)An uncharacteristic break from silence on the subject and a terse response to one example of much wider media phenomena written by Francis Darwin expressing his fathers opinion of the subject, Pleasing Appendages
(4) Introduction, Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, Circa 1695, Edinburgh, 1994
(5) Bettina Arnold & D Gibson Blair, Introduction: Beyond the Mists: Forging An Ethnological Approach to Celtic Studies, in, Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State; The Evolution of Complex Social Systems in Prehistoric Europe, Cambridge, 1996
(6) Bruce E. Wexler, Brain and Culture, see also, The Damage Is Done
(7) Jimmy Reid, see To Reality And Beyond A Being Out Of Time
I read post below after constructing this one, but it is rather nice, terse and to the point observation on the importance of space and time and position in performance. Rails, roads, radio, television have all been suggested as the way in which older forms of traditional narrative die. In the social disruption and fracture of modern life, as family groups move from hearth and home. Changes in rhythm from the small to the large. Movement from Island time to the tick tock of the urban clock.
The patterns shift but we still find and seek out spaces in which we can be ourselves or become other things.
When the spoken word no longer has a context, a space in which it can be told, it either forgets itself and ceases to be or alters form, the longer traditional tales of the story-teller required a continual context in which they could be told as this act of performance also keeps it in memory. They live on the breath in a state of perpetual motion. These places in time inspire movement from breath to breath, they make it possible for things to spring to mind, transform and blossom out in the fragile breeze blown world in which such things come to life for a brief moment and are seen and sensed by other beings. In this space anything is possible.
Bill Benzon, Long Distance By Train
One other retrospective note and reminder, if not in the foreground of this construction a background note, A farewell post from John Wilkins who’s blog I have read for years, this particular post is a bit like dining on a dish of ‘Chinese frog’ at my local Chinese restaurant, takes some translation for me and my slow moving brain. The Well of A Worlds end was chosen before Johns announcement to not engage in blogging but his thoughts and observations in this form of electronic media will be missed. I will be forced to buy his new book to get a fix! I found Evolving Thoughts rather unusual and attractive when I first read it for a specific reason. How did a philosopher get such a subtle grasp of ethnology and ethnography? It is a thread to his thought that bubbles and flows in the background and it is unusually observant and sophisticated. Magic or extensive years worth of reading through a range of subjects? Ethnological pathways and the manner in which it examines the transmission of ideas the movement within and around ideological systems is not confined to the purely text based approach of history. It is a means to deal with gaps and ruptures in such records and also adds a wider inflection to a history. The relationship between the two subjects is entangled.
John Wilkins,Knowing Things In Semantic Space.