Somebody was watchin’; or, On Participant Observation and the Artistic Urge to Tell

Once out of high school, I never again took an English class, so dismayed was I by those classroom conversations that started with “What do you think the author meant by [insert image-thing apparently symbolic in nature that all along I had thought was just the thing]….” I felt at the time that such discussions sapped all pleasure from the reading. I was impatient then and hubristic.

Gee. How I’ve changed.

I went to college intending to be a biology major and spend my life observing animals of some sort. But what with one thing and another (such as the almost-failing grade in Bio 101) I ended up an observer of an animal, all right, the human animal.

As an anthropology major I learned of the anthropological art of “participant observation.” Indeed discovered that it was a skill I had been practicing all of my life. As the youngest-by-more-than-ten-years member of my family, most converations took place over my head, with me listening in and trying to make sense of it. As the child of a volatile father, moving quietly and keeping still and having one eye peeled for what might happen next was key to avoiding conflict. As a shy and introverted child, I naturally tried to blend in, avoid attention, even as I still wanted to be part of the group.

It was in part that tendency I had anyway of sitting and watching and taking note that had attracted me to animal behavior studies in the first place. And, as it has turned out, is the skill I use most as a writer of poetry. Thanks to my anthropology studies, I can understand what I’m up to as I sit in whatever milieu, observing, and trying to look like I belong there.

I was reminded of all this recently as I have been reading Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. The book is Busch’s extended meditation on the powers and prisons of invisibility. I’m not entirely sure what the takeaway is from this book as a whole, but each chapter provided an interesting set of thoughts ranging from the deliberate invisibility of some species’ adaptations to the imposed invisibility of homeless people on busy streets.

She talks in one chapter of Keats’s assertion that the poet specializes in being a chameleon: of becoming a planet, a creature, another person. Busch was moved to write the book, she says, by the vehemence with which society insists on flouting the self, branding the self, identifying the self as a political act. Maybe, she suggests, a little wallflowering isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe if we keep still, we can see more clearly.

But haven’t I written in this space that art is an attempt to communicate? To stand up from the group and say “Let me show you what I’m seeing.”

Which makes for an interesting tension sometimes  in the artist: the urge to merge, and the impulse to emerge and speak.

3 thoughts on “Somebody was watchin’; or, On Participant Observation and the Artistic Urge to Tell

  1. Love this post! I too had a volatile father, learned to read his mood like the morning paper, and took anthropology classes for my science requirements in college. It’s so interesting how a combination of character and experience make us who we are.

    Like

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