I swear I saw this: A review by Hannah Wadle

Michael Taussig (2011). I swear I saw this. Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London.

Reviewed by Hannah C. Wadle.

Close your eyes. Now remember one striking scene of your fieldwork that has been following you ever since you witnessed it. One that was both traumatic in its realness of the moment and that then guided you, like a shamanic voice, through the maze of understanding the complexity of your field work setting. Could this be, by any chance, a scene that you also drew in your notebook, because after you had witnessed it, you needed to make sure it had really happened to you? Space for your imagining or re-drawing your fieldwork scene: 

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This is more or less what happened to Michael Taussig in August 2006. At the time he was based in Medellin, a city ruled by “the stupendous normality of the abnormal in daily lives” (p.135): he observes jugglers on the middle of the highway, feels the lurking revenge of the guerilla, and discovers people who live around highway tunnels, because “it is warm there”. As Taussig passes through such a tunnel on a cab ride his eyes catch a glimpse of these people, more precisely of the following scene: a woman sews a man into a white nylon bag used for potatoes in the countryside. While this scene stays with him until he has arrived at his destination, he doesn’t quite trust his eyes in what they saw. Thus, upon arrival, he takes out his notebook and externalises the scene from his memory, as he witnessed it, by making a water color drawing. To affirm to himself or any reader of the notebook that it was really what he had seen, he adds a subtitle to the drawing: “I swear I saw this”. Later Taussig refers to his act of subtitling as “conjuring the spirits of modernity” (p. 78).

Starting with Taussig’s experiences of witnessing and drawing that very nylon bag scene in Medellin, “I swear I saw this” is a mediation on ethnographic fieldwork, notebook keeping, and the mystique of anthropological knowledge creation. It is an Anthropologist’s manifesto for subjectivity, intuition, chance, the inexplicable, and openness to different modes of perception. Taussig’s Medellin experience serves as a metaphor for any fieldwork scene, in which the ethnographer witnesses the absurd and incredible and tries to deal with it through drawing and writing.

Taussig himself receives the scenes he captures in his ethnographic drawings as gifts of fate, given to him for the art of ethnographic storytelling: to him, they are talismans, enchanted fragments to the puzzle of understanding life and human living. As he finds that they cannot, in the first instance, be expressed in words, he draws them in a state of disbelief, and by drawing he declares himself a witness to their occurrence. Rather than choosing to look away in disbelief from the uncomfortable evidences of such moments of human (urban) surreal like the nylon bag incident, fate chooses him to trust his senses and look again, accepting the trauma that the image in front of him may cause. And then he proceeds to the corporeal act of drawing, of etching the moment into his body, he calls it an act of sympathetic magic. Taussig encourages young anthropologists who are open to this kind of “fate” that occurs in fieldwork – to look openly into the world, and watch out for visual messages that it sends them. Therein lies the chance to find the “dry tinder” (p. 118) of scenes and images, from which the anthropologist’s complex story can be ignited. Such drawings are the opposite of visual symbols, because they are anchored in time and they arrest time. It is not hard to guess that Taussig is no defender of fieldwork plans (they may be necessary pretexts for the time one is waiting for fate) and instead is a believer in the magic of chance during fieldwork.

The act of ethnographic drawing becomes then a sacral affair to Taussig. The drawings in his notebook are precious to him, as he explains in chapter 2 “(t)hese drawings surpass the realism of the fieldworker’s notebook, that drive to get it all down in writing just as it was, that relentless drive that makes you feel sick at the very words you write down seem to erase the reality you are writing about. This can be miraculously checked, however, and even overturned, by a drawing – (…) because drawings have the capacity to head off in an altogether other direction.(p. 13) Drawings can be aids to the anthropologist for stepping out of their frantic routine of documentation which befalls them as ethnographic fieldworkers in possession of diaries and notebooks. They remind the ethnographer of the real task of fieldwork, which is the discovery and mutual exchange of stories, of “relearning the labour of cosmologies all over again” (p.51), and not the gathering of “data” and the finding of “informants”. Drawings, Taussig writes, remind us that a “fact is, you may say” not more than “a modern story” (p.146). They are different not only from writing, but likewise from photographs.  Taussig argues that rather than getting in between people, drawings connect them, and they go much deeper than photographs. He asks whether we couldn’t see drawings in fieldnotes as (…) pauses, the occasional moments of still life where the writing hesitates between documentation and meditation? (p. 52).

Such images that are sent from fate, he finds, are not far from hallucinations, and hallucinations have for a long time inspired drawings and filled the pages of ethnographic notebooks, such as Taussig’s own, and of artists’ notebooks and scrap books, most prominently those of the William Bourroughs and Brion Gysin. In contrast to diaries, the authors of which seem more constrained in their effort to provide some narrative and to put life into a literary format, notebooks are the perfect hosts for hallucinations invoked by yagé or hashish or by the dazzling experiences of one’s own nervous system or by the swirling everyday. Quoting Burroughs and Gysin, that “nothing is real, and everything is permitted” (p.42), Taussig writes that “fiction and reality are irrecognizable” (p. 43). Drawn images as those with the power to make the invisible visible become helpers in the “hallucinogenic division of labour” (p. 101) and are, like the assistant is to the shaman, assistants to the anthropologist in vocalizing their vision and completing it.

We follow Taussig to his other field sites in Columbia, where he re-encounters shamans and phantom boats and re-experiences the hallucination through yagé, and re-visit with him the spirits of his intellectual and artistic ancestors Walter Benjamin, Laura Bohannon, Joan Didion, and others, who he enters a vivid conversation with. Taussig’s train of thoughts and associations takes him further to look behind the façades of anthropological notebooks and the field diaries.

Who do we write and draw for as we maintain notebooks? The essay suggests that the notebook may serve Anthropologists as a sacred space for self-testimony. In a subject like Anthropology that operates free-handedly with no other tool than the human prism of mutual strangeness, what is testified in a notebook, and particularly through drawings and affirmative statements like “I swear I saw this”, is the authenticity of one’s own encounters, experiences and sensations, many of which might transcend the realm of the normal, visible, and measurable. This notebook testimony entails the spirit of a promise that the anthropologist Taussig makes to the world in return for the images that he has received as a fieldworker: the promise of remembering, understanding, vocalizing and sharing them.

Taussig suggests that notebooks capture something invisible and very personal, a short cut to a bundle of thoughts that nobody apart from the author can access. His own, clumsy drawing of the woman sewing a man into a nylon bag is one example for this:

What is released by this drawing is not catharsis but a spewing forth of the negative sacred with swarms of spirits of the river and the forest, from where these displaced peasants have been driven. And now we have new spirits, those of the freeways and dark tunnels and bridges and thousands of people massacred by the paramilitaries at the behest of the rich bodies in mass graves or dumped in rivers like the Cauca and the Magdalena that have become freeways where people sew themselves into a bag by the mouth of a tunnel because its warm in there. You bet its warm in there. Nothing exudes warmth like the fermenting compost of earth and sky, mortals and divinities inhabiting the wavering shafts of light in the exhaust-filled tunnel. As spirits are wont, they take on all manner of manifestation such as that woman (if she is a woman) sewing that man into that nylon bag (.) Drawing draws it out, all this. (p. 131)

Therefore notebooks, Taussig believes, are rarely used by Anthropologists as encyclopedic sources for one’s academic writing. Instead, a filled notebook turns into a sort of fetish, a sorcerer’s box, the presence of which is far more important to its owner than the practical use of its contents, for they have already fulfilled their purpose by being selected as part of the box. This is, why many notebook keepers, as Taussig notes so nonchalantly, never even dare opening their notebooks when they are writing up their work.

Whoever may be intimidated by chance, spirits, or subjectivism is advised to start the essay from the afterthoughts, where Taussig explains the nature of this book. He wants it to “mirror the staggered realism of a notebook, jumping from one apparently unrelated incident to the next like a butterfly from flower to flower,(p. 142) and thus the essay mimics the associative structure of a notebook. This makes the reading experience both challenging and exciting at the same time – and it demands a fair amount of trust from the reader that the author will return his ship safely to the shore at the end of the reading journey. Readers who are interested in the role that drawing can play in ethnographic fieldwork, in the anthropologist’s sorcerer’s box, and as a path to producing alternative anthropological knowledge, will do well in taking the journey this book offers. Those among us who have the privilege to teach practical courses on ethnography and ethnographic drawing, may even consider introducing a “Taussig-method” as part of our methodological toolbox. In fact, as an experiment any anthropologist can try out the following ethnographic, artistic, and spiritual exercise that I designed after reading the book. Feedback on your experience is highly appreciated.

How to become a receptive and responsible witness of “I swear I saw this moments”

  • Accept the presence of fate in your life and open your eyes to the gifts chance makes you every day. Make a promise: I accept my responsibility of sharing the understanding that I gain through receiving these gifts.
  • Over a week or two, gain increased attentiveness to “I swear I saw this” – moments and make space for them in your everyday life. Draw attention to what goes on around you, probably have a good knowledge about your place, but now you need to take time to see and sense, to ask the occasional banal question when you see something, and be receptive to scenes from which you grow a complex story of the place. You will notice that “I swear I saw this”-moments will occur to you more often and you will get a sense for them.
  • Get a notebook and start drawing your “I swear I saw this”- moments as soon as you feel ready to do so. Don’t force yourself- remember the scene is a gift of chance, not a theft from fate. Use any drawing tools you feel comfortable and spontaneous with. Confirm your drawing with a sentence, a signature, a stamp, or the like in order make yourself an “official witness” of it. With time you will start gaining trust in the communication process between your eyes, your drawing, the notebook, and your ethnographic understanding.
  • Carry on with your activities until the first notebook is filled, then close the notebook. Now it is time to take responsibility for being a witness of these “I swear I saw this” moments. Start sharing the understanding that the images convey to you with the world. How you do that is your choice.
  • Congratulations, you have successfully initiated yourself to becoming a witness to “I swear I saw this”- moments.
  • Carry on with your practice. If you feel confident and relatively advanced, you may start seeking for “I swear I saw this moments” from other realms of perception: search for them in the invisible world surrounding you, in moments of hallucination, (day)dreaming, conversation, prayer etc..