Finding Answers in the (Field) Attempt

By Michaela Dwyer

I have struggled to start this post because it feels impossible to write a photograph.

Somewhere, sometime, it was once said—or at least written down—that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” When I worked on Recess as an undergrad, my fellow writers and editors volleyed this unsourced quotation back and forth repeatedly—or at least when we were feeling contemplative about our endeavors, our responsibilities as budding cultural critics. How do you write about music if, when you boil it down, it’s just two mediums rubbing against each other? How do you explain dance without moving your body? How can you know what it means to be another person without, by some magic empathy potion, transmogrifying into said other human being?

A few days ago I sat with the DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted students as they discussed a photography and writing assignment they’d done over the weekend. Since winter break they’ve been training themselves in the type of fieldwork around which their curriculum and experience this semester is built. In little over a week, the twelve students will split up and travel through mid-March to Nepal and Jordan, respectively, to conduct life-story interviews with refugees. These interviews are, of course, with people the students have never met before; they can take place for anywhere between two and eight hours; they aim to collect data about the qualitative experience of displacement. None of the students have previously visited either country. And, for many, this semester marks their entry-point into the political, cultural, medical and ethical issues experienced by refugees and displaced peoples worldwide. On day one of Field Ethics class, program director Suzanne Shanahan told the students they were, at Duke and in Durham, “already in the field.” This proclamation was met with serious faces and ambivalent giggles. I wrote in my notes, next to a sloppy Venn Diagram (“engagement” in one circle, “field research” in the other, and “ethics” in the overlapping space between): “WE ARE IN THE FIELD ALREADY.”

How to be in a field we already know so well? How to dance about architecture? How to talk about anything at all? Sometimes I experience an anxiety so debilitating that I can’t “start” in the first place. It’s the fear embedded in the prospect of doing things wrong, of not properly conveying the nuance and complexity that propel us to talk, document, relate in the first place. When setting off to do interviews with refugees, the ethical stakes amplify intensely. These are people whose livelihoods have been placed at the whim of political decisions beyond their control, who have been shuffled en masse and categorized and quantitatively researched but perhaps infrequently asked how they feel—physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally—when any of that happens.

I take a quick inventory of the number of people I can rely on to ask me how I feel on a regular basis, who can translate a facial expression to ameliorating conversation, or a movie suggestion, or an internet link to a painting that person thinks I’d like. I think about how my structures of comfort are quite complex and deep, and about how my memories of the spaces I’ve inhabited for the 22.5 years of my life thus far are accessible and re-inhabitable by a short car ride. I think about my basic freedom to advocate and assemble, in this country, for things I feel are right and wrong, and the possibility—which I must believe will always be a possibility— to push these feelings toward policy. I say all this not to render a contrived comparison of my life to that of a refugee, nor to superficially enumerate my privilege; the latter, especially, feels to me a project far too continuous and nuanced to try to put down in a pithy sentence on paper (or, the web). The former overwhelms me in its crudeness. I envision a Venn Diagram: me on one side, a Bhutanese refugee woman my age on the other. In the middle are our similarities, bullet-pointed and double-spaced. I shudder at the idea that this exercise could bear a hint of our essences or idiosyncrasies, a slice of something akin to the “truth” of each of us as human beings living in the world in 2014. And, of course, for whom do we bear this information? Data-collecting agencies? Governments demarcating cartographies that further restrict the movement of populations, communities, individuals?

But then, in class, we look at one photograph taken by one student in fulfillment of a field photography exercise investigating instances of “joy.” The photo is framed by a closed car window, and in the center of the image, a multi-colored moth perches on the side of a palm. A ray of sun hits it right on the wing and for a second everything is illuminated—the way the photographer sees emotions, the connection between animate and inanimate things. The class discusses. It seems important, they note, that this particular photographer and subject may not necessarily attach “joy” to a smiling human face. It seems plausible, they note, that this mini-exercise could resemble a way to attune to cultural differences “in the field.” We move to the next photo to compare (and contrast).

We are in the field always because we need to know where we come from in order to grow an analytic imagination. This is the imagination that allows us to understand that there are people besides ourselves in the world who are doing exactly the same—feeling things, remembering events and emotions, and documenting them according to their own metrics. How overwhelming to embark on this complexity, and how seemingly difficult to find the answers. But, if anything, the answer must be in the [field] attempt.

Dashing through the Cold and into 2014 at Kenan

By Michaela Dwyer

Dear readers: I write to you hunkered down in the basement Bear Den (West Duke 01E) in the midst of polar vortex 2014, on a day when local schools are delayed due to cold weather and college students sit stranded on tarmacs in hopes of soon being en route back to Durham. It’s a new year at Kenan and the Insider is doing the groundwork to help usher it in—groundwork looking a lot like shuffling about to refill mugs of tea and emailing folks across the campus and across the country as we work to secure the moving parts of Kenan’s spring programming.

Over the holidays, I visited family up north. As happens at family gatherings, I was asked a lot of questions about what I “do.” As you may have surmised from my past blog posts, I’m the type of person who is easily overwhelmed by questions like that, because “doing” means a lot of different things for me on a daily basis: I read an article on my phone, alternate between projects at work, read a few pages of a book, go to an art exhibit or a movie, eat dinner. (Through all of these activities is an emotional flux too various and thorough to describe here.) Then I’ll go to sleep pulling at the strings of the past 24 hours, convinced that they weave together somehow, and wake up lingering in a dream threaded from one moment of the day before. As I enter a new year I want to take comfort in the idea that as humans we just get all of this; that our daily lives are scrapped from and connected by a series of thoughts and activities. But this leaves out the work that needs to be done—the making sense of things, the pulling at the strings in the company of others, like a giant communal Cat’s Cradle.

And I appreciate both being with family and ringing in the New Year for a chance to renew this mode of being, of doing. The postgraduate fellowship is multi-part, and moving-part by design, and, yes, explaining that is sometimes hard. To my cousin’s chagrin, my job is not just “sitting around all day and thinking about ethics.” It’s more like “moving around all day and thinking and doing ethics in a large and diverse community.” In the spirit of the new year, I’ve selected and profiled a few different programs I’m especially excited about this spring at Kenan—all of which reflect the wonderfully busy and interdisciplinary nature of the Institute itself.

Midway over the years. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

Ethics Film Series: The South

Way back in August and September of 2013, Nathan and I began throwing around ideas for the Ethics Film Series. They stemmed largely from our personal interests and movies we’d seen recently or wanted to see: “toward an ethics of art!” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present!,” “family!” As N.C. natives, we’d both entertained the idea of the American South, but (and I speak for myself here) feared its potential specificity, a restrictiveness in programming films that treat a certain geographic region. And then we realized that this concern was exactly what we wanted to unpack in a series of public film events. What does it mean to bind a region to certain themes, to understand it according to (often-)dark historical events? What does it mean to praise a “New South” defined by glitzy restaurants and urban rejuvenation as much as—and especially in North Carolina—stark poverty and deep divisions of race, class, and cultural attitudes? We think these are questions worth asking, and especially in the company of our local community. Our series, free and open to the public, begins on Tuesday, January 21 with the 2007 documentary Moving Midway. Director and Triangle native Godfrey Cheshire will be on hand to discuss the film, which feels particularly relevant after Ani DiFranco’s recent plantation-based artist retreat fiasco.

DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted

In the spring of 2012, I was on the cusp of becoming a senior and in the midst of re-working summer plans, doubting my major, pondering adding a certificate program to my course of study, and wracking my brain day after day about what I wanted my life to look like post-Duke. In short: lots of thinking at the expense of doing. DukeImmerse, which began that same semester, was nowhere near my college “plan,” as it shoddily and ambivalently was, and two years out, I regret that. That spring, Kenan piloted one of Immerse’s first two programs. It was themed around issues of human displacement, and is now known as DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted. This year, the semester-long program will engage twelve students in four related courses around a central research question: how does displacement affect the well-being and the social identity of those displaced? Students will collaborate with local and international refugee communities, work both in and outside of the field in Durham and in Nepal and Jordan, thinking and doing via oral history and original interdisciplinary research. The experience is both intensive and experiential, analytical and personal, and demanding in different ways than a typical academic semester. I’ll get a glimpse of what DukeImmerse looks and feels like this spring, as I work with the twelve students in their Field Ethics class on documentary ethics and production.

Teju Cole. Photo courtesy of A Piece of Monologue.

Ethics Book Club, Teju Cole, and the Humanities in full force

This past fall, I helped begin Kenan’s first staff-wide Ethics Book Club. Our group—hopefully the first of many at the university—has actively sought out texts that explore lively and unique narratives and tell of life from very different and very particular voices. We started with John Green’s Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and have moved to Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers. On the horizon is Teju Cole’s novel Open City. Cole is Kenan’s 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer, giving a talk on April 24 titled “Here Comes Everybody: The Crisis of Equality in the Age of Social Media.” He is also a photographer, art historian, cultural and political critic, and notorious Tweeter. He’s a model of what it means to live and work widely in the 21st century, and what it means to grapple, as we all do, with media, globalization, and the ethics of how we as humans interact—and especially how those forces can cohere into art. I’m excited both to read Open City and to meet Cole. And I’m excited that Kenan continues to push these issues to the forefront of this university and community, helping to shape a multi-dimensional and innovative understanding of the humanities in our time.