The Conference as Field

The Metcalf Report
D. Graham Burnett

In an effort to activate the research questions that motivated the 2015 “Writing Fieldwork” symposium at Princeton, the organizers put out a call for a gamesome theorist/artist/practitioner willing to make an expedition into the heart of academic discourse. The hope was that this enterprising individual would return from his or her fieldwork (a participatory ethnography of the conference itself) and offer back some discursive and/or visual-acoustic inscription — and analysis? — of the occasion. The ambition was to generate an eddy of scintillating auto-reflection at the heart of our collective inquiry. Here is the advertisement that was posted in the back pages of the daily papers and in all the other locations an academic freelance explorer might frequent.

Small pay. Great risk. Chances of return: uncertain. Prospects for heroic immortality: slight.

Few were the hearty souls who put themselves forward for the mission. But at long last, an intrepid volunteer was found: Theodore Metcalf, who distinguished himself as a student of Science and Technology Studies at MIT in the late 1990s, before going on to a successful career in the world of tech startups — only then to swerve back into the academy in the fields of psychology and neuroscience (all the while maintaining a nimble foothold in the downtown spaces of visual art and performance). What could be better?

And indeed, Ted cut a dashing figure across the two days of the conference, his GoPro suggestively pinned to his vulnerable breast, notebook in hand, pencil at the ready, and an open, friendly countenance that solicited (and found) points of contact, willing informants, and discrete prospects from which he might survey the proceedings.

The keen tingle of finding ourselves observed — one part anxiety to two parts narcissism — took time to abate, and in the weeks that followed the gathering collective expectancy swelled as we wondered what this fine mind would make of his close attendance on our fine minds and strange rituals.

But weeks became months. And the trickle of correspondence from our convalescing agent thinned to a perfect nothing. Yes, there had been promises (he was working on his notes, he was editing the films, he was revising his reports), but in reality we saw no tangible manifestations of what we assume must have been (may still be?) his exigent ruminations. At a certain point, then, we found ourselves reaching a fascinating inflection point: the writing of the fieldwork of the rapporteur/ethnographer of “Writing Fieldwork” appeared to have become, manifestly (non-manifestly?) the non-writing of fieldwork.

While we were initially frustrated by this development (had the unscrupulous anthropologist not taken a little piece of our souls with him in his GoPro and his notebook? were we to receive nothing in return for our gestures of hospitality, for our welcoming him into our midst, for our giving him of our bounty?), it soon became clear that this trickster-sage had indeed conveyed to us a reciprocating gift of exquisitely dialectical precision: into the thickness of our discourse about discourse, into the thicket of our inscriptions concerning inscriptions, Theodore Metcalf had let fall the silent tree of silence — and in the clamor of our increasingly pugnacious email solicitations (the shaming, the veiled threats, the curt requests that he return our fee) we had failed to hear.

The interpretation of signs is a demanding business; the interpretation of the absence of signs is by no means any easier. Which is to say, we have been left to ponder the broad import of the broad lacuna that now lies in our archive and aporetically taints both our original intentions and our ultimate ambitions. Are we to understand Metcalf’s deafening silence as an articulate (if tacit) commentary on the exigencies of the process by which “field notes” become “field reports?” If so, are we here dealing with an analysis that proceeds from a critico-philosophical position concerning the nature of language itself (narrowly Derridian? more loosely deconstructionist? classically cynical?), or is the issue more empirically historico-contextual (e.g., are we being asked to reflect upon the specific [if manifold and diverse] ways in which the spatial and temporal displacements of fieldwork in the modern period influence the discursive and conceptual displacement of inscription?)?

Perhaps, though, what we are meant to discern as we peer into this void is less a wordless and imageless commentary upon the paradoxes and contingencies of semiosis in relation to the production of knowledge, and more a fundamentally sociological observation concerning the labor (and labor relations) of field-“work.” After all, it has been argued persuasively again and again that both the linguistic and the epistemological turns that have characterized historical and anthropological studies of the field sciences in the last thirty years have tended to obscure — if not efface — essential questions of wage labor, class, and exploitation. In some sense, Metcalf may well have wanted us to reflect upon what it means to place “Writing Fieldwork” back in the context of getting and spending, where, as we know, some get paid and some do the paying. We are clearer on this now, and this clarity has opened many new questions for us.

Questions, questions, questions. So many. But it will perhaps suffice, by way of conclusion to this brief report on reportlessness, simply to state that we have yet to reach the bottom of the fascinating void with which we have been gifted on this important occasion.

Thanks for nothing, Ted.