What Others See: A Reply

I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything I felt less sure about.  I know there’s nothing new about drawing attention to the uncertainty that accompanies the act of committing thoughts and encounters to the page in the form of ethnography.  I’m sure vanity plays no small part in this.  But for me, the question of reception feels unavoidable in my time with Beverly.  How she received me, and I her––when and in what form––was never straightforward.  And even in the record of our time together, entries got scrambled.

Despite all that I still find uneasy about my relationship with Beverly, I feel like the book’s intervention is direct: writing about another’s experience of illness and disorder­­––a life colored by suffering and struggle and love and wholeness and change, in other words, a life––should be an elusive and uncanny endeavor. I worry about the impulse (mine, others) to domesticate the complicated and evolving realties of this thing called illness experience and medical anthropology’s preoccupation with capturing it. I don’t think we should ever age-out of this worry as a discipline. I am heartened to know that the book raises other questions as well (about doing ethnography, about the dimensions and limits of the encounter), and given the highly personal approach of the book, that it’s possible to set the author aside for a time.

What am I trying to say?  Readers do not need a second, more tedious account by the author of what he has already said.  Is it okay to remain a little lost in the imprint of ones work?  ––to lack the clairvoyance to envisage another’s interpretation?  ––or to settle for gratitude that a work resonates in some way, for someone, or that it comes into being at all? Right or wrong, for me that’s where things stand.

I’m grateful to Andrés Romero for pointing out the haptic dimensions of contact in the book. All I can say is that these moments of “tactile-memory” should not be underestimated. As Andrés says, they’re tenacious. I also love what Andrés says about the trap of assuming that contact holds some kind of guaranteed potential energy in full reserve: “That world, or that past as somehow untouched and pristine, is forever gone we are told.” Both of these insights share a sense of wordlessness––touch without speech, the past not made whole through its retelling. I feel that Anthony Stavrianakis recognizes this dilemma only too well in his beautiful and provocative commentary. His question, “Who would believe him?” is the question. No one would, surely, and yet. As Anthony illustrates in the beginning of his commentary, “All” and “her” are slide rules, tests applied, measuring and revealing through their repositioning.

I sense that Aidan Seale-Feldman and Elizabeth Wilson share a question, “what then?” What then fills a space that virtuous self-satisfaction might otherwise occupy? What then is wrangled and preserved by the negative? Aidan and Elizabeth make me hopeful that the project of anti-humanism hasn’t exhausted its utility or necessity. I find so much kinship in what Elizabeth describes in her recent work on Valerie Solanas, “struggling with similar quandaries of how to read hostility, destruction, and antagonism as psycho-political forces.” I was also moved by Margaux Fitoussi’sattention to the “errors, failures, and obsessions” of the book, and I take seriously the question she poses at the end of her commentary: “Might these sketches, with their half-shaded forms, speak to the elusiveness of a subject whose form slips out of our grasp in our attempts to retrace it?” In our attempt to draw a figure from memory, even with the benefit of ethnographic thumbnails, we might think we’re retracing lines when in fact we’re conjuring them, or better, giving form to our faulty memories now further clouded by a desire to realize the image.

I’m overjoyed by Maya Stovall’s intervention to invite her interlocutor, DeShawn Dumas, to respond to the book with her. I have admired Maya’s scholarly-artistic practice for a long time; her Liquor Store Theater (2020) is a testament to how relationships between people and place (Detroit) can be wholly reconfigured through movement and performance––and in her case, in the face of (a response to? a reckoning with?) a tendency toward sociological flattening.  Maya and DeShawn’s double voiced (“co-subject”) intervention raises so many questions: I don’t know if there is a salve for the “a long-term non-relationship,” but their unswerving approach to the intervention––“attempting to think through the concept of Beverly”––is to me an opening the demands grappling with the horrors of non-thought and the specter of wrongness. I hope the book does that.

Finally and especially, I am grateful to Eugene Raikhel for coming out of Somatosphere retirement to edit and introduce this book forum. His quiet, intense work on this site for well over a decade should be lauded at every opportunity for at least the next couple decades.

Last thought: For the past year or so I’ve been returning regularly to two books, A Primer for Cadavers (Fitzcarraldo, 2016) and Old Food (Fitzcarraldo, 2019), by the artist Ed Atkins. The books are dense and wordy; they are books that at once invite and repel readers, and I love the challenge of Atkins’s prose––audacious, radiant (Joyce-Artaud-Melville-Bataille) and crackpot. But what I love most are moments in Atkins’s writing when through his scrawl we find the bluntness of unsettled feelings after the loss of a father and a register for that grief that is totally undecided. These books are after all about cadavers and things that decay (of course the books are about so much more), but when these moments come, I ask, “Does he know he just let us in? ––to have a peek?” Or has this been the point all along, to write in circles around these slippages, to allow these moments to form a center, plain and revelatory? I doubt that things are so simple, but I’ve decided whatever we think our readers see, or whatever we think we show, we show more than we could know or intend, and that exposure makes something different possible.

Todd Meyers is Professor and Marjorie Bronfman Chair in Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University.  He is currently completing an ethnography on hate and madness in the aftermath of a murder in rural America.