Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

A Peripat(h)etic Journey, By Ali Azhar (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”


My peripatetic journey is modeled along the lines of Laurence Sterne’s travel account of his fictional character, Yorick, who engages in sentimental interactions with people, animals and objects he encounters on his journey through France and Italy in the eighteenth century. (Sterne [1768] 2004) 

In an anthology on the ways anthropologists have used novels in their work, Cohen (2013) describes how fiction has been used as a medium both for the form that allows for a playful narrative style, as well as for its content. Early exponents of the form of fiction to represent ethnographic work were Ella Deloria, a Dakota Sioux writing about Native American culture, who wrote the novel “Waterlily”, and Zora Neale Hurston, who studying folklores and tales in African American communities in southern USA, transgressed the arbitrariness of boundaries such as subject/object, white/black and poor/elite through a highly experimental discursive style. (Cohen, 2013, 14)

Ray McDermott took a comparative approach, using novels to shed light on empirical affairs. He describes how novelists, freed from the ‘duplicitous commitment’ to describing things as they are, present portraits of potentially whole persons, sensitive to the demands of necessity and passions that govern their lives. (2010, 144) I take inspiration from three of his writings: 1) on fiction that represents people in tune with received circumstance, displaying passion and ingenuity in ‘tight’ conditions. He represents the power of the art form of the novel to encompass a political economy of the mind. (2010) 2) On comparing the work of Laurence Sterne with that of the anthropologist Charles Frake (2013). Nothing at first glance could be more different, he argues: Frake’s crisp analytical account and Sterne’s progressive-digressive-‘hey-go-mad’ ([1759] 1996, 1) narrative style. On a closer look, he finds them to be very similar. 3) He compares the work of Sterne with that of research on the encounter, interaction analysts and ethnomethodologists of the late 20th century. Sterne’s work, he argues is a display board for a temporal sense of context showing a world on the move; attuned to the way ‘people constitute environments for each other within interaction.’ (2016, p. 6) Together, these works open up the space to consider what is mutually interesting between fiction and ethnography. 

Much has been written on Tristram Shandy’s playfulness and ‘deconstruction’ of the autobiographical linear, temporal accounts premised on ‘cause and effect’ at the time he writes the novel. Written in 1759, I find it useful to juxtapose my account of the ‘present’, with the humorous conversation of Sterne’s father, Uncle Toby and other characters in one particular setting of rural England. 

I have taken liberty to experiment with the form of my ethnographic findings and discussion, for as Ricoeur argues, ‘speculation on time is an inconclusive rumination to which narrative activity alone can respond.’ (2010, 2) Sterne plays with the temporal structure of his novel, and in this work, I try to imitate his humorous style: ‘Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.’ (Sterne [1759] 1996, 72)  

As such, in this paper, I have chosen three sites: 1) Chance encounters on the streets of Toronto; 2) an analysis of a one-hour video of a seminar conversation and 3) Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy ([1759] 1996). 

Chance is a method Ranciere (1991) recommends for intellectual emancipation. He asks us to take something concrete; a novel, field notes or a transcript – and to relate everything one sees with it. My peripatetic journey here has been through Sterne’s novel, encounters on the street and in the seminar, as well as through the rich literature on time.

I have reported a number of events in my field notes: an interaction with a girl raising money for a children’s education charity; a meeting with an elementary lab school’s teachers on the progress of children in science classrooms; a talk with a lady rushed for time on the sidewalk; a fortuitous drop-in at a leftist political party presentation on identity politics; a march on climate action in downtown Toronto; an interview with the author of Black Writers Matter; a book store launch; and a conversation with a gentleman in a bar. 

Through considering historical texts in light of my fieldnotes and video recordings, I utilize the two conceptualizations in relation to time that Augustine worked on, and that Ricoeur further analyzed in his work on Time and the Narrative (2010) – the distentio animi (the distended soul) and the intentio. Distentio animi is burdened with the weight of history and memory while intentio is the act of making intentional particular aspects of the past as we intentionally anticipate the future through the fleeting passage of time. This act of intentionally making the past alive, and what that would mean for the future, is what the narrative I present aims for.

My ethnographic journey:

To work with them in the best manner he could, was what my father was, however, perpetually forced upon; – for he had a thousand little notions of the comical kind to defend – most of which notions, I verily believe, at first entered upon the footings of mere whims, and of a vive la Bagatelle; and as such he would make merry with them for a half-hour or so, and having sharpened his wit upon them, dismiss them till another day. (Sterne [1759] 1996, 36) 

Such a notion is not one we deal with in this paper here – for it has been lead to fester and grow in this muddy mud brain of ours for a while – that time is a confounding charm. What happens now has infinite depth and width – so much so that an eternity could be placed within; – but here we speak too much of measurement and a telos here is to argue and convince around this conundrum. 

– And to write upon it, the author read the great Husserl, and sniffed for the narrative of time in Ricoeur – spoke to Rabelais and French and colluded with time and chance to ‘show the temper of the world in this whole affair’ (Sterne [1759] 1996, 16) – if for no better reason than to straighten out that which is not so. To play around it, we will ignore the said word – but would still need some of which to pepper and salt our dish. We shall build here notions of events; a notion of the construction of reality in interaction; – and some of those categories which like an archbow do seem to strike back at our understandings – ‘melancholy dissyllable of sound.’ (Sterne [1759] 1996, 36)

But why mess with a well-oiled machine, which a-works as well as it wounds – you may ask – which reorganizes our sleeps and dreams – the occupations we attend to; and the bodily necessities of our poos and pees. – It is a modus operandi; – Well put to the pointilicious beat; and we shall attend to this question forthwith: – This research is to be the grandest, loudest and estimably accredited with a degree; – it will make the trees shake and the winds whee; – this periapt(h)etic philosophy – and all great thinkers, writes McDermott (2013), reorganize time – the subject we have here received. The writer himself looked at ‘learning’ (2015); – says he does love its pedigree; – but it is a problem these days; – he went a-looking to other categories it hangs out with, and in our empiricism, we shall look at the friends made by time.

I have just returned having made a list of words of my field notes from Toronto’s streets. To be sure, the words aren’t all that bad. But how could they be? The author has agreed to not desist in documenting all that is good and sweet; – to the nose, tongue, ear, eyes and that one doesn’t perceive. A list of words and categories has thus been provided to thee.
We are tempted to take these words and fly off with one of them: universalism – that all humanity is perhaps the same? – or made up of similar thoughts and opinions – it was a view a leftist-political speaker in a bookstore in Toronto ascribed to the left; – and radical particularism; – this thing is how it is and how it should be and will; – it was ascribed to the right. There is a thesis in these and I will not delve into them to find myself in a new pickle. The author did not stay in a particular site to confirm or disconfirm universalism; – rather he noted snippets of conversation from here, there and nowhere; – to get fairly at the flavor of our times; – these notes were for posterity; to be useful to our common heredity.

-And such is what we have left out in our quest for prosperity – argues Arendt (McCumber 2014) – an elitising distinction between vita active and vita contemplative; – she traced these back to the times of the ancient Greeks; where oikos or the domain of the household represented paternalising conformity; – a domain catering to the everyday and natural; – of the fleeting and ‘useless’ labor as opposed to liberating work that allows one to transcend thee; – a domain hierarchical and conformist by violent decree; – at such a dismal view of the lives of intimacy and family I take offence; – but stick with Arendt for what it might offer us and our facility; – here she opposes oikos with polis; – the domain of the political life enamored with possibility; – a realm one entered not for necessity but out of want; an arena that naturally encountered, worked through, and built upon diversity; – the time is now, writes Ranciere (1991), for equality.

– And pray, where have you found polis thus far on your ethnographic journey?; -On the streets in Toronto, methinks non-hesitantly; – in a bookstore launch of a boy Angry, Queer and Somali; – a work that seeks to undo the received categories that limit thee; – ‘twas empowering to listen to his story; – of his grandparents utility with Communism’s tools of the sickle and the hammer sought to upend the capitalist, imperialist West’s rape of the African continent over the past centuries; – of learning to be black in Toronto with female friends, whose pasta-pasta dance transgressed discourses of colonialism, multiculturalism, gender and formality; – his own writing an act of cartography; – against the verdant boundaries of parks that limit thee; – his book is an action against invisibility; – Pray what else found thee?

– This is for your box of trivialties; – a lady tentacularly making kin with the Chthulucene, (Haraway 2016); – on a bench she sat, while a squirrel on its hinds wouldn’t leave; – munching on bread while looking at me accusatorily; – ‘I started throwing bread’, said she, ‘and now it won’t parti.’

Section 2: On Progression and Digression

 “In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, – and at the same time” (Sterne [1759] 1996, 48)

And thus, I looked into the university; recorded a conversation amongst a seminar party; – and what did you find thus?- Why I looked for homologies; of structures in the novel of Tristram Shandy; of our own talk separated by centuries; – pray, why just the structures, when in both there were stories! Why structures there are in the way we organize each; – the turns at talk, gaze, gestures, construct our accountability; – holding us steadfast to what we accomplish peremptorily; – reveal a handful of the world to those who look and listen closely; – it is here one can observe in interaction accountability and reflexivity; – gets one to the in-play hierarchies; – well what structures were exposed to thee? – ha! how we move both through digression and progressively; – it’s what Sterne managed in his book and for Goldmann (1975), is the nature of a narrative’s temporality.

Figure 1: The structures of topical focus were similar in Tristram Shandy and our seminar conversation

But didn’t write Husserl, that the act of seeing has it’s own temporality; the content one views or hears, cannot be divorced from the structures of time per-se? Hear hear, I shall explain. With Locke’s thesis on the association of ideas, you’ll see; for as was written by Sterne, ‘that the idea of duration, and of its simple modes is got merely from the train and succession of our ideas, – and is the true scholastic pendulum.’ (Sterne [1759] 1996, 70); as good a take on the subjective nature of time as we have seen; but how behind the camera’s lens can one see, what goes on between the eyes, in the mind, so to speak, and didn’t Sterne write about this ironically – that if through Momus’ glass, thoughts and soul one could see; – we’d all gather our coins and pay window money? – (Sterne 1798, 23) Here we’ll write Locke’s thoughts on the connection of our mind, custom and body: 

Custom creates habits of thinking in the understanding, as well as of deciding in the will, and of movement of the body. The habitual movements at the most basic level seem to be movements of the animal spirits: once these are started up, they continue in the ways they have been used to; and when these have been trodden for long enough they are worn into smooth paths.’ (Locke 1959, 528)

And wasn’t thus that Arendt wrote of tradition amongst the Romans as authority; – attributing truth to the founders, to the Roman God Janus – ab ovo was their story; progress is not what proceeds from the present; but harkened within the past, lay truth that one proceeded through in history.;- hence education, for Arendt (Arendt 1958) is seen as the domain of the ancient; who have a closeness to eternity; but pray – what of change, of naissance, of action, is it not the domain of the polis; in action lies change; – but also, wrote she, it lay in violent decree; – through acts committed a la Robespierre and Machiavelli; – aah how dismally says thee; – did you not see change in your ethnographic journey?

Section 3: Emergence at the Climate Action March
Wherever there is action there is naissance – writes Arendt (1958); Wherever there is structure there is emergence – write Varenne and McDermott (1998); – “Hey hey, ho ho, climate change has got to go!’ – sang the children of Toronto; – the future is not the past – said the placards they held; – it was in the actions and words they spoke; – and followed I: a climate action group on the streets; -‘We object!’ said they – to the matrimony of the state settler and colonial with the pipeline – TMX and Canadian: 

Here comes the bride, dressed all in lies; – convincing Canadians we need oil to survive; – It’s for the economy, it’s for jobs and growth; – although we know, a Green New Deal would do both; – here comes the bride, two lines side by side; – more barrels per day to pollute far and wide; – on stolen land, with no consent, this wedding is doomed and so we object! (from a recording of the event)

– My, my, such passion! Right there we see is action; – and what does one make of it; – did they succumb to such aplomb? – does not an action beget a consequence?- what prevents change – even if in the most local circumstances it is arranged? – So timely is your question; – related it is thus, to the puzzle that embroils us; – forthwith we attend to it in the next section.

Section 4: The Puzzle

In our peripatetic journey, the streets have revealed a character both active and political; the seminar – part of a longer sequence where students were urged to interrogate temporal structures of the university – entailed the construction of a narrative both progressive and digressive; – of constructing science in the mode of Latour’s Actor Network Theory (1987); – marshaling Bordieu, Husserl, Heidegger, Mead and Co.; – an hour-long talk in the university we will take as representative of the vita contemplative.

Tristram Shandy, written by Sterne during the time of the Seven Nations War in Europe ignores the topic; – it is of a conversation between Tristram’s father and uncle, the uncle’s valet, a doctor and a parson; – in his deviant journey feeling obliged in ‘accounts to reconcile; anecdotes to pick up; inscriptions to make out; stories to weave in; traditions to sift; personages to call upon; panegyrics to past up at this door; pasquinades at that: – all which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from.’ (Sterne [1759] 1996, 26); – what else does he exclude? – His characters live as if in a world ‘utopic’ – economic considerations never tempering the conduct or portrayal of the personages he presents; – hardly a female character of note; – indeed, Tristram can be dismissive and condescending: – ‘My mother, who was sitting by, looked up, but she knew no more than her backside what my father meant, – but my uncle Mr. Toby Shandy, who had been often informed of the affair, – understood him very well.’ (Sterne [1759] 1996, 5) Virginia Woolf (1925) calls Sterne one of the foremost proponents of a novel’s silence; – a work of both irony and humor, his account is revealing in both what he includes and excludes; – he seems to be aware of this: – In Chapter 20 he plays a game with the reader: ‘-How could you, Madam, be so inattentive in reading the last chapter? I told you in it, That my mother was not a Papist.’; – and ‘I do insist upon it, that you immediately turn back,…, and read the whole chapter again.’; – the reader finds not a reference to his mother at all in the chapter; – he asks, ‘Then, Madam, be pleased to ponder well the last line but one of the chapter’; – the line reads: ‘-it must have been here-‘(Sterne 1996, 1:20) 

-And the seminar? – what is it silent about? – the theorists we marshall, from our common heredity of the university, are mostly male; – talk of all political affairs is circumvented; – Take, please, this example of a narration from our conversation: ‘I spoke to the author of “Black Writers Matter”; – the writer spoke of time cyclical and non-linear – indeed, of residual time – For I, said she, the notion of time most relevant is ancestral time: my ancestors weren’t allowed to write and so I take my words very seriously; – a writer needs to have ears for the memories of space; – the stories available to those willing to listen; of the 2000s and of the 1800s; – indeed of the 200’s; – we are here right now near the lakes, so people of the First Nations used to live here.’ The story was followed by an uncomfortable silence; – perhaps something like the one Tristram represented thus for Parson Yorick:

-To honor the silence with words, I shall include here a short poem on time of a poet from the Driftpile Cree Nation:

you want to capture the sense of a present that is not quite the present, a present that thickens in the underbelly of social reality. you stalk the prefix un-, hoping that it will let you see glitches, that it will unearth a hole in the ground, something of a gateway to a world you are spotting any-and everywhere, a world you are spotting nowhere…the un-is a woman like your kookum who rips open time.(Belcourt 2019, 51)

-and after the silence; – were there not words? – Hurried ones, indeed; – in the fleeting present, we are always anticipating the future, writes Husserl; – people in interaction are always preparing for contingencies, wrote McDermott (2016): this is but one class, said one of us, and we should keep these gems for the future; – another time, another place, another future; – only so much can fit into four thousand words.
It is not that we are not political actors, but something there is in the environments we interact in, something that is always already there, that governs our behavior.

-But the time, writes Ranciere (1991), for equality is right now; – and such is our puzzle: Why is the university like the oikos rather than the polis? Why is it thus, that even in a seminar where we are asked to ponder change is our capacity for politics so limited? Whither and whence is emergence?

-We are humble beings, and to begin to answer such, we will find recourse in theory, and conversations with seminar participants conducted after the fact.

Section 5: On culture as a rope and a temporalized event

-And described culture, Birdwhistell, as a rope; – it’s many fibers discontinuous; – in a relationship of figure and ground; – that which is visible made such by that which is absent; – the fibers though disjoint; – when twisted together form a thread, presenting an illusion real and continuous; – and this metaphor we utilize in our bid to emphasize why change is not detemporalised; (Varenne and McDermott, 1998) – ‘structure plays on change, and change plays on structure’ – writes McDermott (2016); – the rooms that we inhabit and the culture we produce and reproduce; – is that which tradition underlines as interactions precondition; – and we get a clue from this formulation to respond to our puzzle’s basic question: – why is the university more like the oikos than the polis?

I see, I see – you mean that in all our acts – there are invisible or visible cultural facts; – would you be so kind sir to make your argument a bit concrete?

-Why take one of my interactions on the streets; – of simple give-and-take of directions for a doctor’s appointment; – a gentleman is lost and can’t find 50 Finch West Street; – consider in such an interaction where is the tradition and what are the cultural facts? – When approached by the gentleman, I have in the commencement of this event based on tradition but two options: 1) I apologise and hurry on for a next event; – or 2) empathise and be prepared to help this gentleman in this forlorn state; – Now normally the author would follow option one; – for late, he’d be for some other function; but such an event is of a sequence larger that bears there; – I was you see on my periapt(h)etic journey; and was inclined to seek what nature and chance held out for me; – so took I, option 1, and sought I, to make contact sentimental; – his own condition too was of a broader sequence; – forgotten or didn’t own one he, a phone, to orient him towards 50 Finch West Street in that rainy season; – once committed, us both, to intiate this doctor finding event; – mediating it was my iphone; – itself an object of our age; – going through its own vicissitudes from California to China to that moment where it took center stage; – so many intersecting temporalities playing on that instant; – such a direction finding interaction took place in Yorick’s journey from France and Italy, got deviated he, in counting a woman’s pulse and buying gloves did he, while the lady told him where to get off the bridge and take his lefts and right; forgot at that instant did he, for admiring her beauty was his predilection; – played out differently, given no communication technologies of that age; – perhaps took a longer duration as ideas flew to and fro on the page; perhaps less precise with no tools but the arms, eyes, expressions, feet and language to aid; – but something there still is of the nature of this stage; – in consequence not much different: whether finding or not finding one’s way; – custom and tradition rules in both place; how could such an interaction have been any different? – many possibilities could have held their sway; – had I been a thief unkind; – could’ve taken advantage of his conundrum; – or perhaps dismissed him rudely might’ve been another unholy way; – and I blush as I write such options here, for inhumanity such deeds would betray; – of consequence yet, in this temporal event, here was the gentleman still unable to find his way; – and continued I, on my periapt(h)etic journey and in the here and now with words I narrate; – what took place on that fated day.

– So much, indeed, in a simple interaction; – Pray, was that one of your digressions; – or does it to our puzzle relate?

– Our purpose there was to show through a minimalist interaction; – of people two, figuring out a way; – to extrapolate notions of temporal structures – conversation we had conceived earlier as digressive and progressive ; – here we foregrounded notions of events; and showed how many sequences temporal play out in such an event; – of tradition, custom, technological bearing on consequences; – for if structure plays on change and change on structure; then useful, it is to highlight the retrospect and the prospect in the present implicated; – and we simplify it thus to the metaphor and illusion of the rope; where particular threads are foregrounded and others left a-yore; – yet overall the fibers display; – a rope continuous and real – displaying inertia to change; – and imagine yet, our example is of the streets; – not in a seminar conversation in a university; – it is within these structures temporal that one ought seek to enact change.

 – Hear, hear – let me then, explicate within a seminar the temporal structures in an interaction; – anticipation, there is, of the final project that is to be presented; – prior sequences of classroom experience; – of ways to act; – things that can or cannot be said; – of ways to identify an interaction as one related to a labeling one: whether one will be considered smart or not; – of ways to be evaluated consequential for memory institutional and paths to the career held at bay; – wonder then facts that are foregrounded; – wonder then, what is left out; – what is indeed, erased; – No wonder then, is a university interaction conformist and contemplative; – while the streets more like the polis. What wants then, for there to be on the streets, not widespread change?

Section 6: On Robert Frost’s poem, structure and change

-And here then, I’ll quote Varenne and McDermott (1998), on something there is that is resistant to change. I have in this work taken their central intuition of ‘the place of interaction and history as the product of interaction.’ (Varenne and McDermott 1998, 160) Further, their critiques of ethnography of education conducted:

 as if they were the only people in the world and without acknowledging that the language they speak was borrowed from generations before, that they are walking on lands invariably claimed by others, that their developing agreements must be legitimated with still others who only appear absent at the time of the meeting.’ (Varenne and McDermott 1998, 161) 

 It is perhaps, this in view, when a leftist political speaker at a bookstore in Toronto argued: ‘We are living in a state of the eternalized present.’ And again, what can we learn from a seminar conversation hour-long; – ‘a conversation of gestures’ (161), the historical particularity of all interactions. ‘All human action is susceptible to a cultural activity that transforms functional requirements and in the process externalizes itself. (Varenne and McDermott 1998, 175) 

– But what then, of individual agency? Aren’t people, always slightly off in what is expected of them in interactions? – It is, as if, people are always deconstructing or resisting their social reality: for in the words of Robert Frost’s poem (Frost, as cited in Varenne and McDermott 1998, 175), ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ It is this wall, or tradition, that precedes us, is what must constantly be taken into account. – And what then stops change or breaches of the wall? The neighbors notice, consequences, local and consequential are meted out. Like in the case of the group protesting the proverbial wedding of the TMX pipeline and the settler colonial state; they did something unexpected; even for their own plans; even for what would be expected in a climate action march; they breached a wall: they burnt the Canadian flag; and we live not in a world without walls; the police or representatives of the state peremptorily put an end to that demonstration.

-‘And when is there time to sift, to measure, to weigh, to total?’ (Olsen 2002, 298) If we think of the university as full of historical walls we build in interaction, then there are social groups whose subjectivities are ignored; – ‘to diagnose the historicity of our contemporary ways of being and acting is to enhance their contestability, to point to the need for new experiments in thought which can imagine new ways we can be and act.’ (Rose 1999, 59)

-And Arendt described education as preparation for a world beyond; for the not now; like Walter and Uncle Toby’s conversation, detemporalised in a non-political present. The author took these views to one of the participants in the conversation: “It is to hedge against the risks of falling out’ – said one of them. But I would argue, that young people have forever been the locus of action and change; to think of them merely as fulfillers of assignments in anticipation of accredited degrees is to take away their right to contention; to putting the world in action – for change. In his five lessons on intellectual emancipation, Ranciere argues that now is the time for equality. To take the spirit found on the streets in Toronto and giving it space in the lives of University interactants is what Arendt argues is birth and naissance. And I will end this paper with the first few lines of Tristram Shandy.

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended on what they were then doing; …Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly – I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. (Sterne [1759] 1996, 1)


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