Poor Ethnography/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

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Poor Ethnography/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue




Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s.156-162


Szpilka, Wiesław Kuba


Instytut Sztuki PAN




Licencja PIA











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Poor Ethnography


n 1981 “Polska Sztuka Ludowa” published answers
to a questionnaire posing the following question:
“Ethnography - Ethnology - Anthropology of
Culture - Folk Studies. What are they? What is the­
ir aim?”. 1 Apparently, the question concerning eth­
nography divided the respondents the least. Despite
great differences in perceiving the pursued discipline
almost all agreed with the image of ethnography pre­
sented by L. Stomma. An auxiliary science - ethno­
graphy - whose range corresponds to the first phases
on research: observation and description, fieldwork.
The characteristic type of ethnological research is a
monograph pertaining to a sufficiently limited group
so that the author is capable of amassing the majori­
ty of his information thanks to personal experience.
Ethnography also encompasses methods and techni­
ques referring to work on the spot, the classification
(...) and description of particular cultural phenomena
regardless whether the heart of the matter concerns
arms, tools, beliefs or institutions (Claude LéviStrauss). Ethnography thus encompasses works that
are often the easy victim of derision - studies that pro­
pose catalogues of farm tools, rural wells, beliefs about
plants, etc. and the range of their occurrence, mono­
graphs dealing with particular villages, etc. Naturally,
they would be deprived of all meaning if they were to
constitute an aim in itself (unfortunately, this does
take place). After all, their role entails collecting sour­
ces and the introduction of order within the latter for
the sake of ethnology. In this sense they can be useful
and valuable. A s can be seen, the differentiation of
ethnology and ethnography is not a question of ter­
minological jugglery. Its indispensability is delineated
by the regrettably rather unfamiliar motto formulated
by Jean-Thierry Maertens: Each ethnologist must be
also, at least partly, an ethnographer. After all, the
path from ethnography to ethnology remains long. 2
A quarter of a century ago ethnography did not pose
a challenge for the authors of New Polish Ethnology
and the respected representatives of its classical form.
It remained merely a first step, necessary but still ra­

ther simple and calling more for organisational than
intellectual effort. Questions, problems, and cognitive
difficulties were to come to the fore after this stage,
naturally for those capable of following the long path
towards ethnology. Reflection, interpretation, and
science worthy of a university level - all pertained not
so much to practicing ethnography, which took pla­
ce "somewhere”, as to the creation of ethnology and
anthropology taking place “’here”, in the very centre.
Exercises and professions, the path and the target this was the order of the relation. It would be difficult,
therefore, to become surprised that ethnography va­
nished from the names of scientific institutions. A n­
thropology and ethnology sounded more serious and
more respectable and, predominantly, they better re­
vealed the meaning of the network - the discovery of
the “truth” of culture and man. As is usually the case,
conciliation above all decisions - and the question of
ethnography became its unexpected and unconscious
cause - is more the effect of ignorance, lack of con­
centration, and absence of deeper reflection than an
obvious and well-devised assessment. When practi­
cing ethnography was regarded as an object of studies,
being there - as the phenomenon in question was in­
terpreted by Clifford Geertz, one of the most brilliant
commentators - revealed its entire complicated natu­
re. Suddenly, everything started to become distorted.
What is that mythical “terrain” in which research is to
be conducted? Why is it to be precisely that and not
the other, what are the criteria of selection, and what
should be the decisive premise? What about research
itself, the great task of collecting sources and putting
them into order? What methods of obtaining informa­
tion are most adequate, and when can we accept that
sources are so complete that we can start transforming
them? W hat sort of methods should be applied and
what sort of carriers can be used in view of the fact
that they all somehow deform reality? These are only
some of the more obvious questions. The heart of the
matter does not lie in the fact that there are no an­
swers. They do exist, but when everything has to be
justified then ethnography, an ancillary science and
the first step towards ethnology, begins to expand and
grows complicated. It becomes involved in interpreta­
tions and presents ambiguous material for further ana­
lysis, endowed with a great number of question marks.
Nonetheless, thanks to studies by C. Geertz we can
indicate several properties of ethnographic knowled­
ge, i.e. those that define it the strongest. 3 Probably the
most obvious is its local nature, the outcome of a close
connection of the presented image and fieldwork. N a­
turally, one cannot be everywhere and see everything.
The solution to this obvious observation was to assu­
me the form of a monograph: a single place, a single
institution or belief, nothing more and yet so much,
intensely and personally observed and experienced.

Wiesław Szpilka • POOR ETHNOGRAPHY

We attach importance to the idea of a monograph
not because this is the form in which real ethnography
was to realise itself. Belief in the existence of small,
isolated cultures that can be totally grasped has lain
in ruin for long. The fact that decryption calls for di­
stinction and is always made by someone continues to
exist and possesses obvious significance. Today, a mo­
nograph is not a holistic description of something, but
a detailed depiction of someone. Geertz coined the
term “ thick description”: Ethnography comes down
to thick description. What the ethnographer is in fact
faced with— except when (as, of course, he must do) - he is
pursuing the more automatized routines of data collection
- is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures many
of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another,
which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and
which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to
render. And this is true at the most down-to-earth, jungle
field work levels of his activity; interviewing informants,
observing rituals, eliciting kin terms, tracing property lines,
censuring households ... writing his journal. Doing ethno­
graphy is like trying to read (in the sense of "construct a
reading of”) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses,
incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious
commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs
of sound but in transient examples of shaped behaviour. 4
To present “something” in an ethnographic manner
designates not only providing diverse images, as colo­
urful and intense as possible, but also presenting it in
such a way so that it would disclose meanings. This is
the obverse and the reverse of identity, its two indi­
spensable sides. To see and seek meaning is the point
of departure for practice, which ends with a record of
sensible perception. In order to provide such testimo­
ny, to obtain local knowledge, the ethnographer sets
off, and, just as Jerzy S. Wasilewski, he “travels” or
like Andrzej Stasiuk, he “goes to Babadag”. He co­
mes across space, physically experiencing its concrete
nature. This fact restricts and closes, moderates the
cognitive impetus, but at the same time forces to beco­
me cautious, brings forth the importance of the detail,
and hones the senses that touch reality. On-the-spot
practice offering dense description - such is the path
that we follow.
We do not describe the entire World, but only
the selected particular world experienced by us. o u r
activity is limited by space, on the one hand, and by
invisible and omnipresent time, on the other hand.
The fact that our discipline has been always facing
the temporal problem is testified by its important cat­
egories - cold, archaic culture of the folk type. Within
the spaces of those cultures - natural for ethnograph­
ic activity - time was to signify so little that its im­
pact could be outright ignored. Images - the effects
of lengthy observation (months rather than years) could be regarded not as historical evidence but as a

description of the nature of those worlds. Today, such
a premise cannot be maintained. The contemporary
shape of the life of the protagonists of ethnographic
grand narratives from the first half of the twentieth
century has changed immensely. The Boro tribe, the
Nuer people, the Trobriand islanders, the inhabitants
of Białka, Jurgów, and Łapszanka, whom we visited at
the end of the previous century, all differ. The obvi­
ous character of this observation is the reason why it
is necessary to accept not only the fact that we were
there and wrote here but also that we were there and
then and are writing now. This act has its consequenc­
es. The ethnographic account becomes light because
time deprives it of its ultimate and categorical quali­
ties, while at the same time granting it universality.
After all, everything turns out to be particular, distinc­
tive, and in this sense exotic, since nothing can resist
the voracious passage of time. This outright audible
murmur of time renders ethnographic activity fever­
ish, immensely expands its domain, and prolongs its
duration infinitely. If the world has actually dimin­
ished and time has accelerated then we are facing a
magnificent challenge. In his essay: A la Recherche du
Present Perdu M. Kundera wrote: When we study, dis­
cuss, analyse a reality, we analyse it as it appears in our
mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past
tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the mo­
ment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment
is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative
of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting. We can
assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading
the entries one day, we will see that they cannot evoke a
single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination
is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what
has been forgotten.
The present - the concreteness of the present - as a phe­
nomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown
planet; so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor
reconstruct it through imagination. We die without
knowing what we have lived. 5 In the sketch: In Search
of Present Time he added:
By definition, what a narrator recounts is a thing that
has happened. But each little event, as it becomes the past,
loses its concrete nature and turns into an outline. Narra­
tion is recollection, therefore a summary, a simplification,
an abstraction. (...)
The nineteenth century began amid decades of explosive
events that, time and again and from top to bottom, trans­
figured the whole of Europe. Something essential in man’s
existence changed then and forever: History became every­
one’s experience; man began to understand that he was not
going to die in the same world he had been born into (...)
The shape of every little object —every chair, every skirt —
was stamped with its imminent disappearance (transforma­
tion). The age of descriptions began (Description: compas­
sion for the ephemeral; salvaging the perishable). 6


Wiesław Szpilka • POOR ETHNOGRAPHY

The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being
deals with the problem of the present upon the oc­
casion of his journey across the history of the novel.
It is not written by an ethnographer, albeit literary
problems affect him too. Just like the novelist he is
compelled, willing or not, to resolve the question of
presentation. Ethnographic knowledge is historical
since it is by way of necessity the outcome of recollec­
tion, evocation, the enlivening of memory; it is testi­
mony and a view from afar. Such distance in time and
space is not so much complicated as unavoidable. This
is the way things were there - says the ethnographer,
coming to terms with the historical and local nature
of his knowledge stemming from personal experience
and producing his own testimony.
By the very nature of things, ethnographic knowl­
edge is thus limited and fragmentary. Its features are
enhanced by the fact that it is the outcome of someone’s
cultivation, and that a concrete someone had derived
it from a certain place and time. The ethnographer is
distinctive not because he wishes to be original but
because he is a person, a unique summa of places, time,
language, tradition, family, and a multitude of other
factors that distinguish him. Ethnography should be
thus treated as the outcome of a meeting of individu­
alised qualities and life. The auteur character of this
knowledge, the fact that it always possesses its charac­
teristic style, confirms its incompleteness and non-sys­
tematic qualities. The title of a book by Dariusz Czaja:
Sygnatura i fragment. Narracje antropologiczne brilliantly
captures this quality and at the same time refers to yet
another publication: Works and Lives: The Anthropolo­
gist as Author by Clifford Geertz, demonstrating the
significance of the literary aspect of this activity. Writ­
ing, the process of tackling words, style, and conven­
tion, is not merely an enhancing supplement but an
important structural element of ethnographic praxis.
The force of ethnographic knowledge depends on the
quality of its transmission, on the class of the author
as a man of letters. After Geertz it is no longer possible
to treat the literary quality as a charge levelled against
ethnography. It cannot be non-literary, but remains
written well or not, a feature that cannot be evaded.
Local and historical qualities, fragmentariness and
literariness - each of those traits is connected with a
choice. If the latter is to be conscious (which is not
necessary, but certainly remains desirable) then it calls
for justification. Why the opera and not a highlander’s
costume, whence mass culture and not that of the
Eskimo? A totally fundamental explanation is onto­
logical. We deal with something due to its ontological
nature. This necessary condition is probably insuffi­
cient. Certain order can be discovered in extremely
non-homogeneous collections, i.e. ethnography. The
most frequently described spaces were worlds that to­
day are weak, vanishing, marginal, and insufficiently

appreciated. True, they could possess numerous repre­
sentations, such as the peasant or nineteenth-century
tribal cultures, but the centre that at the time gener­
ated the civilizational model perceived them as low,
archaic, and without a future. Interest in that, which
was weak and declining possessed different ideological
justifications, but this was a durable tendency: from
the strong to the weak, from the certain to that, which
calls for justification. To put it differently: the ethnog­
rapher seeks poverty and grows close to it. What is
the source of this curious predilection, this strange fas­
cination? Evolutionists mentioned the beginnings of
cultures, the first stages. This is where they wished to
perceive them. For the functional school, the structur­
alists and the semioticians, these were sui generis sam­
ples offering a better and easier view of mechanisms
ruling culture as a whole. Marginal qualities could be
also important for delineating a fuller mage of man,
for extracting that, which dominates and in reality is
concealed and not at all obvious. These justifications,
to a considerable extent possessing solely historical
value (which is not to say that they were devoid of
value), are certainly insufficient to explain the force
of the attraction of poor reality. It is by no means per­
manently ascribed to a certain place, time, or concrete
social or ethnic group. It becomes extracted only by
comparison and reference, and appears in a relation.
Strong and diverse existence refers to weak existence,
the certainty of memory - to shameful oblivion, while
obvious value - to doubtful quality, the group - to the
individual, and culture - to life.
The ethnographer seeking poverty sets off for the
Amazon or the cinema in his university town or other
peripheries of his world. He assumes according to the
wisdom of his discipline - and it is less important for
his work whether he does so consciously - that, which
Tadeusz Kantor, the great expert on poverty, once
The peripheries do not denote decline and submission.
In my private dictionary there exists the term: REALITY
OF TH E LOW EST RANK. A terrain reserved (illegally)
for Art. And thus for all supreme human values. Here, the
peripheries possess their high rank. Explosions of this myth,
manifested in the most unexpected places, do not act, for
all practical purposes, anywhere but in those peripheries.
To put it in the language of art and poetry —in the poor
courtyard, the pitiful corner, where we conceal our most
secret hopes, our imagination, our threatened humanity,
our personality. And probably only there we might become
redeemed. 7
Yet another depiction of the ethnographic prom­
ised land comes from the essay: The Assistants by Gior­
gio Agamben. The assistant of this Italian philosopher,
living a “damaged life” personifies that what is doomed
or, more exactly: It concerns the unending mass of what
becomes irrevocably lost [in the history of society and in


Wiesław Szpilka • POOR ETHNOGRAPHY

the history of individuals, far greater than that what
can be stored in the archives of memory]. Throughout
our lives, the measure of oblivion and ruin, the ontologi­
cal waste that we carry in ourselves far exceeds the small
mercy of our memories and our consciousness. But this
formless chaos of the forgotten that accompanies us like a
silent golem is neither inert nor inefficacious. On the con­
trary, it influences us just as much as our conscious memo­
ries, although in a different way. Forgetting has a force and
a way of operating that cannot be measured in the same
terms as that of conscious memory, nor can it be accumu­
lated like knowledge. Its persistence determines the status
of all knowledge and understanding. The exigency of the
lost does not entail being remembered and commemorated;
rather it entails remaining in us and with us is forgotten,
and in this way and only in this way, remaining unforget­
table. 8
In this approach towards a comprehension of the
force of the attraction of poor reality to which, as we
can see, not merely ethnographers succumbed, listen
to the great Marina Tsvetaeva describing the “belong­
ings of the poor”.9
Paupers’ things. A bast mat? That’s a phony
Thing. Like a plain plank of wood.
Paupers’ things - they’re all skin-and-bony,
Wholly - meatless, solely soul-food.
Where’d they come from? Seems - from a dis­
From long ago. Don’t strain your eyes!
Paupers’ things - have no pre-existence:
They are cut from people’s insides!
A shelf? Haphazard. A coat-hanger? Ditto.
Accidental too that ghost of a
Chair. Possessions? Dry twigs and hisses, All the woods on an October day!
Poverty’s fractioned furnishings!
All are - what? - a quarter, a third.
Clearly they long since interred these things.
Just to look at you makes me hurt!
It’s hard to take one’s sinful eyes off
You, as off ulcerous sores.
Viennese chair - where’s the Vienna Whose? When? It’s a thing to deplore!
The best things - here - would have slighted
Your house, right? Sorry! - your store­
Room. Here alone are such blighted
Things - things. Your brow arches ov­
er thus: ? - How else when seeing dull, widow’s
Rags? - Raise a brow! (In lieu of lorgnette A brow!) The eye’s no mean asker with those
Brows. A t times an eye’s an o-ject.
So dry at times is it and vacant An immense, gorgeous woman’s eye,
That - compare them - it seems a basin’s
Spirit, the soul - a tub of lye.
Same as with tub and sieve I’d own it

- To the tsar! on Judgment Day! Each one called here as a poet
o n himself has known that gaze!
Poverty’s modest utensils!
Each knife is personally known.
Like a creature, day commencing,
Partly here, wholly - you roam o u t the windows, bare or facing
Suburbs - you‘ve read the crime news?
How to gauge chasteness, grace in
A thing: as baggage it’s refused.
Since it’s wobbly and could pulverize
Right before one’s very eyes,
Since almost nothing that frail survives
Constant shifts...
She cries Since it’s not: a desk, but a spouse,
Or son. Not a, but our
Since nobody for hearts and souls
Gives out baggage checks.
Paupers’ things are drier and thinner:
Drier than snags, thinner than bast.
Paupers’ things are - put simply - spirits,
That is why they burn up so fast.
These texts, written in such different forms by au­
thors whose points of departure were dissimilar tra­
ditions and spiritual experiences, demonstrate the
beauty and goodness of premises for wandering across
the provinces of poverty. Firm ethnographic presence
is not based, therefore, on a convenient repetition of a
once made choice. Its spiritual sources and the ques­
tion whether they had been made consciously are al­
ready the themes of separate reflections. Even today,
when one follows a designated direction, they reveal
well-known drudgery. The described world disappears
and there is nothing that one may match with the
image in order to test its adequacy. Informers vanish
somewhere in non-being or, worse, change their con­
victions, views, and stories. That what has been seen,
heard, felt, touched, and experienced in other ways
has to be contained within a single whole. In the wake
of Malinowski’s Dziennik it is not, however, possible to
pretend that we simply had not been there. In other
words, we too should find ourselves within the presen­
tation. This forces us towards literature and renders
our scientific endeavours, already previously rather
poor, even more meagre.
A t the same time, this is by no means an individual
ailment, but the feature of an entire discipline. Eth­
nography is quite correctly situated along the margin
of the social sciences. He who deals with poverty fares
poorly. The ethnographic tent, compared with the
solid edifices of other sciences pertaining to the main

Wiesław Szpilka • POOR ETHNOGRAPHY

current of reality and based on the experiment and
quantitative methods, does not have an imposing ap­
pearance. On the other hand, it features astounding
adequacy both in relation to the constantly nomadic
character of ethnography - a science of the path and
on the move - and to the traits of the world examined
by it. There where the dominating features are disap­
pearance, change, fleeting memory, the bustle of daily
life, the detail and minutiae, poor endowment appears
to be the most suitable. Anthropological narration,
its basic instrument of work based on a catalogue of
concepts and categories devised in the course of its
history and applying comparison as the fundamental
manner of extracting meaning, will never possess such
force and expression as the one characteristic for the
grand texts of the interpreters of the poor world. The
ethnographer will not create Stalker or The Kolyma
Tales, Wielopole or Fado. His art, just like his science,
is distant from the centre and in this sense remains
marginal. Powerlessness, lack of lucidity, the absence
of contemporaneity, in a word: provincialism, come to
the fore also in this particular encounter. This would
appear to be a weakness if it were not for the quali­
ties closely connected with it. Such openness, blurred
form, and borderline qualities open up towards oth­
erness and render its presence obvious and constant.
The tendency towards making use of the experiences
of other sciences, permanent in ethnography, and in­
spirations borrowed from the world of art - all are sus­
tained by its provincialism.
Encircling ethnography, we continue coming
across specific poverty, paradoxically brimming with
potential and diverse meanings since burns so fast. The
ethnographer wishes to trust that the whole world hides
in every particle (Bruno Schulz) and as befits a zealous
believer he wants to confirm by means of his praxis the
revelation bestowed upon him. He thus multiplies im­
ages and adds postcards and successive fragments. The
storeroom containing these snatches displays consider­
able confusion: French monarchs and the song Polesia
Czar, Eskimos and the Maasai, smokers, mountain
climbers, those living in the jungle and in the streets
of great metropolises, chaotic treasures lacking order.
This is a collection of evidence and, at the same time,
testimony of heroic memory, ever renewed despite the
depressing knowledge that only a few of its products
will become animated in some sort of recollection.
What is the purpose of these poor riches?
In his lecture: The Inevitability of the Humanities10
the German philosopher Odo Marquard posed the
following thesis: The more modern the modern world
becomes, the more inevitable do the humanities become.11
Justifying this thought, Marquad indicated the erro­
neousness of the popular conviction: the humanities
based on narration are archaic and in the course of
a modernization of the world are ousted by modern

natural sciences based on an experiment and by hu­
manities using measurements. A closer look, however,
shows quite the opposite. Sciences founded on narra­
tion come into being as a response to the successes of
experimental sciences and the modernisation changes
initiated by them. The emergence of experimental sci­
ences is not the cause of the death but of the birth
of the humanities; in other words, the humanities
are not the victims of modernisation but its outcome
and thus are thoroughly modern. 12 After some time,
every sort of progress within the range of the former
will enforce a growing need for the latter. The more
the world becomes modernized the greater its need
for narrative sciences. Recurring opinions about their
crisis in modern reality should be treated not so much
as a crisis of capacity but as a crisis of surcharge. The
humanities are not dying off but - although they are
developing - they do not keep up with their modern
indispensability. 13
The necessity for those detailed narrations and the
growing need for them come from the fact that mod­
ernisation stimulated by the experimental sciences
produces losses in the environment while the humani­
ties compensate those losses. 14 Uniformisation, objectivisation, globalization - the effects of modernisation
- deprive man of his tradition, history, and specificity.
In order to successfully tackle them, to bear the bur­
dens and challenges of modernization, one needs nar­
rative sciences, which at least partly provide a chance
for regaining that, which is lost. They spin three types
of stories: those that produce sensitivity, preserve, and
orientate. First, they restore colour and intensity to
reality and level the modernization disenchantment of
the world. Second, they translate and justify the col­
lection, reconstruction, and storage of the remnants
of the past. No epoch has produced so much destruc­
tion as the modern one, and no epoch has preserved as
much as the modern one thanks to the development
of the ability to take an increasing part of the past
into the future. 15 A museum, a Skansen, a concert of
old music, a reconstruction of a mystery play - these
are the forms of such narration. Finally, they extract
from the homogeneous and magma-like presence the
components creating it and cast light upon them, thus
making it possible to discern their quality, meaning,
and wisdom. 16 Such narrations not only make it pos­
sible to better understand them and to endow their
existence with depth and intensity. Their easily and
universally accessible collection shows the ambiguity
of reality, the possibility of its various comprehensions
and experiencing. It becomes possible to draw forth
the premises of diverse choices. On the other hand,
it is impossible to justify any sort of categorical and
exclusive qualities with the assistance of such a collec­
tion. The inevitability of the humanities is also based
on the fact that they demonstrate and stress the value

Wiesław Szpilka • POOR ETHNOGRAPHY

of ambiguity and disclose the misery and poverty of
unambiguity and exclusiveness.
The Odo Marquand lecture discusses narrative
humanities, whose province is ethnography. The
meanings and future of its existence in the light of the
reflections pursued by the author of Apology of the Ac­
cidental appear to be lucid. A t the beginning of the
twenty first century, in a reality characterised as post­
modern, liquid, post-metaphysical, and ontologically
weak this discipline appears to be much more contem­
porary than prior to the breakthrough, which all sorts
of “post....” wish to put into thought.
All anthropo-- and ethnological projects intent on
extracting models, functions, mechanisms or struc­
tures of culture as such were important in conducting
a quest, but their ultimate outcome - a cultural com­
mon denominator, proved to be always a phenomenon
of a concrete culture and not some sort of a general
rule. They can, however, continue being fascinating
if we see in them principles organising strong anthro­
pological narrations, revealing not the mythical foun­
dation of culture but metaphysical premises making
it possible to present it in a given manner. A survey
conducted a quarter of century ago offers a good im­
age of various discourses, a debate that, however, does
not pertain to the idea of a strong narrative. Only
within its space do particular elements assume mean­
ing. Hence the domination of ethnology and the ser­
vile nature of ethnography, the significance of ideas
and the weakness of reality. If, however, as G. Vattimo
wrote in his essay: Hermeneutics and Anthropology: We
do not wish to continue transforming anthropology
into metaphysics - a description of the universal struc­
tures of the existence of man, anthropology conceived
as a scientific description of the constants of particular
cultures - profoundly determined by the metaphysi­
cal idea of science and, on a more concrete level, the
Occidentalisation of our planet, 17 then the situation
changes significantly. The otherness that takes place
does not consist of a critical overcoming of the past, its
rejection in the name of new premises or methods for
the sake of a better process of approaching the truth.
It should be connected with an awareness of the con­
testability and discursiveness of all foundations and,
at the same time, with their necessity. In his encoun­
ter with the ”others”, an event that opens up all sorts
of ethnologies, the ethnologist is a person who knows
how those phenomena had been created. Such knowl­
edge renders this encounter special and in many in­
stances becomes the basic reason for its existence. It
is, therefore, impossible to eliminate or even suspend
it. It is, however, feasible to indicate the weakness of
the conclusions that deprive them of their categorical
and ultimate nature. This weakness is the necessary
outcome of the historical quality of each meeting and
can be reduced only by metaphysical premises. The

discovery of their presence, restoring the nature of
anthropology, does not lessen the importance of its
accomplishments but turns them into a problem and
calls for reinterpretations. Actually, it enlivens them,
makes them contemporary, and revitalises them. The
history of the discipline seen from this perspective is
not a movement from childhood towards maturity,
but an amassment of the historical experiences of a
new phenomenon, not always unambiguous and open
towards new comprehension. Today, ethnology in the
above-presented meaning of the word is frail not only
because it embarked upon the effort of an exegesis of
its history. Otherness and the space of its references
also possess an equally weak character. G. Vattimo:
That which we can actually observe is a collection of
contemporary “derivatives” of the primitive, hybrid
forms, relics contaminated with modernity, margins of
the present which embrace both Third World societies and
the ghettoes of industrial societies. (...) We are dealing
not so much with a total organisation of the world ac­
cording to rigid technological schemes as with a “mine”
of preserved forms that together with an uneven divi­
sion of power and natural resources on a global scale
becomes the source of increasingly numerous margin
situations constituting the truth of primitive culture
in our world. (...) Anthropology is not an encounter
with radical difference or a scientific “putting into or­
der” of the phenomenon of mankind in the categories
of structures. In all likelihood, its form of the dialogue
is inclined towards the past and the ancient, but only
in such a way in which the arche may appear in an
epoch of fulfilled metaphysics: as that, which survived
and is marginal and contaminated. 18
If this characteristic of the contemporary existence
of the discipline is apt then the process of seeking and
disclosing truth in its space runs a course contrary to
the one described by L. Stomma in the memorable
questionnaire. Becoming acquainted with grand narra­
tives, the ability to apply them, and even their critical
analysis, in a word, the process of being an ethnologist
is a necessary stage but not an ultimate one. The en­
counter with the others, with strangers, is impossible
in the field of ethnology, which is always some sort of
an epistemology, with the ethnologist situated within
a point transcendental in relation to this event. In or­
der to experience this fundamental meeting one must
possess indispensable personal experience. Practising
ethnography, field research is nothing else than a quest
for such experience. It also cannot be reduced exclu­
sively to intellectual games, but remains a great physi­
cal exhaustion, the spiritual discomfort of a voyeur and
an intruder, the feeling of loneliness and unlikeness.
This must give rise to aggression and bad emotions.
Malinowski’s call: Exterminate the brutes is, after all, the
archetypical howl. Such experience somehow extracts
from previous existence and weakens it by depriving

Wiesław Szpilka • POOR ETHNOGRAPHY

it of natural and obvious qualities. The ethnographic
event starts with such a state, but in order for it to ac­
tually take place it is necessary to experience the posi­
tive nature, the insight, and to capture the principle,
which, true, would not make it possible to become
domesticated in alienness and in this manner to bear
it, but enables its comprehension or at the very least
explanation. While describing this event it becomes
mandatory to refer to F. Ankersmit and his presen­
tations of the historical experience.19 F. Ankersmit
needed this category in order to demonstrate that it
is possible to reach historical reality differently than
only via the intermediary text. The Dutch researcher
emphasised that this event possesses an aesthetic na­
ture and is some sort of an illumination producing ob­
vious knowledge. Similarly, in relation to an artwork
it severs the contextual network and from the surface
refers directly towards the essence. Within the clear­
ance produced by this rift there emerges an unknown
truth of being, not to be derived from historical wan­
dering across contexts. The practice of ethnography
has to be perceived as a search for an experience of
this nature. Such ethnographic experience is poor. It is
personal, individual, and different, which today means
insignificant. One has to toil and reduce oneself while
waiting for it, without any certainty that it truly took
place. The deserts towards which ethnographers set off
in search of illumination are not marked on any map
because the place where they are perceived depends on
a concrete ethnographisation of anthropology. Finally,
the pure flash that blinds us has to be expressed and
entrusted to language and narration. As in the poem
by Milosz - What once could smite, now smites no more.
Poor ethnography is itself a poor courtyard, a neglected
corner, a lowest ranking reality, a space where we sal­
vage our humanity. This is truly good poverty.

1 Etnografia - Etnologia - Antropologia kultury Ludoznawstwo. Czym są? Dokąd zmierzają? (Odpowiedzi
na ankietę), “Polska Sztuka Ludowa” 1981, no. 2, pp.
2 Etnografia... op. cit., p. 72.
3 I used the folllowing works: C. Geertz, Zastane światło,
Universitas, Kraków 2006; C. Geertz, Wiedza Lokalna,
Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków
2005; C. Geertz, Interpretacja kultury, Wydawnictwo
Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 2005; C. Geertz,
Dzieło i Zycie, Wydawnictwo KR, Warszawa 2000.
4 C. Geertz, Interpretacja kultur, op. cit., pp. 24-25.
5 M. Kundera, Zdradzone testamenty. Esej, PIW, Warszawa
2003, pp. 115-116.
6 M. Kundera, Zasłona, PIW, Warszawa 2005, pp. 19-21.
7 T Kantor, Wielopole-Wielopole, Teatr Cricot 2, Program
8 G. Agamben, Profanacje, PIW, Warszawa 2006, p. 48.
9 M. Cwietajewa, Poemat schodów, in: M. Cwietajewa, Być
chłopcem twoim jasnowłosym..., Miniatura, Kraków 2006,



pp. 179-181. Here: transl. by Diana Lewis Burgin, http://
O. Marquard, O nieodzowności nauk humanistycznych, in:
O. Marquard, Apologia przypadkowości, Warszawa 1994,
pp. 100-118.
O. Marquard, op. cit., p. 100.
O. Marquard, op. cit., p. 103.
O. Marquard, op. cit., p. 104.
O. Marquard, op. cit., p. 105.
O. Marquard, op. cit., p. 109.
O. Marquard, op. cit., pp. 108-110.
G. Vattimo, Koniec nowoczesności, Kraków 2006, p. 137
and 147.
G. Vattimo, op. cit., pp. 148-152.
F. Ankersmit, Narracja, reprezentacja, doświadczenie.
Studia z teorii historiografiii, Kraków 2004, pp. 223-403.


Szpilka, Wiesław Kuba, “Poor Ethnography/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 30 czerwca 2022, https://cyfrowaetnografia.pl/items/show/11451.

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