Taken from the Introduction to “Composing Ethnography”, edited by Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P Bochner:
Carolyn: So when we say that ethnographers can’t stand above or outside language, we mean that the world as we “know” it cannot be separated from the language we use to explain, understand, or describe it.
Art: Sorry to say, but ethnographers are stuck with language. The positivist idea that applying rigorous scientific method could give us a place to stand apart, remove us from the intrusions of our own experience and subjectivity – that’s nonsense! We can’t extricate ourselves from language.
In many senses, Carolyn and Art are right. But in relation to David Redmon’s article I recently discussed on these pages, and which introduced and expanded on the subject of “documentary criminology”, as well as the idea he describes of using “feral” methods that deliberately avoid following established academic example – perhaps precisely for that very middle-fingering reason! – I am not sure it is any longer impossible to be an ethnographer outside the constraints of language.
True: when you use multiple-media methods – sounds, snatches of light, repetition, music, etc – you do still use a way of communicating. Some would argue this constitutes language, of course, and as soon as someone apart from the communicator understands it, language it becomes.
But what if the prime directive of this new breed of feral ethnography deliberately aims to create new unknown language every time it delivers its knowledge?
Then it would be possible to stand outside the critiques – correctly judged in their time – of philosophers and thinkers like Foucault: that is to say, that – as Art paraphrases previously – no object can exist “independent of our activity as language users […]”.
Maybe, then, through the effervescence of this new approach Redmon develops so fascinatingly – this “documentary criminology”, where raw senses and experiences are foregrounded even in our academic delivery – we can address the historical millstone that language once presupposed, by proposing now that we create new ones for each and every artefact of criminological academia to be “written” and “read” forthwith.
And in this way – for once, and maybe finally – allow ethnography to radically fulfil its ever-present, always fascinating potential: restricted to date only by its former dependence on language.