Research as, a Labour of love

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 04.08.2020

About the British anthropologist, Tim Ingold’s, work

Arterritory has just recently published Una Meistere’s extensive interview with British social anthropologist Tim Ingold (1948), and on the 6th of August, he will be the guest on RIBOCA2’s online series of talks and conversations to share his thoughts on the relationship between imagination and memory and the role of these phenomena in transforming the collective prejudices of youth and the elderly. So now, in the unenviable interval between these two states, which are saturated and exhaustive in themselves, it might be interesting to look at what Ingold's method of research is and how it can be engaging for all concerned.

Firstly, he, just like Tobias Rees, another hero I have met in the course of this series of talks, opposes the established protocols for "hard science" research, the narrow specialization of various disciplines, the mandatory distancing from research objects, their categorization, and an ethnographic approach to anthropology.

This position and the ideas and practices that have emerged as a result, have freed not only both scholars themselves but it has also greatly expanded their audience. Tim Ingold, a high-ranking academic, has long been the star of art forums rather than scientific conferences, and not because of the growing global demand for popular science, but because of the realization that contemporary artists are actually doing the same thing, as he is - anthropology.

In his opinion, in art it takes place in a much more “involved” way, which is much less detached from the reality of life than what is accepted in science.

“We are inclined nowadays to judge a work as art not by the accuracy of its depiction but by the novelty of its conception. Yet no practice of art could carry force that was not already grounded in careful and attentive observation of the lived world. Nor, conversely, could anthropological studies of the manifold ways along which life is lived be of any avail if not brought to bear upon speculative inquiries into what the possibilities of life might be. Thus, far from the one looking only forward and the other only back, contemporary art and anthropology have in common that they both observe and speculate. Their orientations are as much towards human futures as towards human pasts; these are futures, however, that are not conjured from thin air but forged in the crucible of collective lives. I contend that for both art and anthropology, the aim is – or at least should be – to join with these lives in the common task of fashioning a world fit for coming generations to inhabit.”[1]

When it comes to the needs of a scientist, an artist and basically every living thing, to be in dialogue with its surroundings and the rest of the world, I cannot fail to mention Ingold's polemic gesture in his popular book Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (2013).

One of the chapter titles in the book is The Sighted Watchmaker - a reference to perhaps the world's most famous popular science personality, the biologist Richard Dawkins, and engaging in a discussion with him about the "blind" mechanism of evolution and natural selection, to which, so it’s believed, all living beings on earth are passively subordinate.

No, it doesn’t seem that Ingold is therefore a creationist, but he certainly has objections to the passivity of the object in the face of natural forces, or indeed, the researcher, and to the ability of the observer or artist-creator to resist the influence of "subject" properties.

To show that scientific research, in both STEM and the humanities fields, is now practiced in as destructive a way as neoliberal capitalism, Ingold invites us to think about the concept of data, which is perhaps the most important word now in modern science. In Latin, "datum" means "given," while giving means gifting.

Gifting is never a one-way process. It includes an act of gratitude for receiving, and the mutual enrichment that this interaction brings. It immediately becomes apparent that this is not the case in modern science. For science, data is what is obtained; something valuable to be mined, to collect and use. For this resource to be useful to science, it needs to be dispassionately separated from the general flow of life, sieved and filtered to separate it from other substances with which it is inextricably linked in the world. Bits of useful information must be cut from the tightly meshed fabric of the world. In order to be usable, the data must be isolated and countable. Scientific objectivity doesn’t allow to have a feeling of debt for such interference and misappropriation. For Ingold, this seems highly unethical. He compares this to a conversation in which one party engages openly and generously, while the other uses it solely to gather information he/she needs. This can be clearly seen in the way the digital environment works, being now also the major driver of the global economy. The life that we are willing to share in this digital environment - both in good faith and forced to do so by the system’s rules - is becoming a big data mine. Life in it is a disposable resource. It is taken without giving anything in return. Ingold also sees this mode of exploitation in the humanities, who isolate their research objects from the world, placing them in a "context" - social, historical, political and so on. The object ceases to be "of itself", it’s caught up in interpretations and becomes inaccessible to those who "do not know the context" Ingold sees a counter-force to this scientific exploitation of data in the form of cognition and research that is practiced in contemporary art. Ingold uses the word "correspondence" to describe it. It’s the exchange of questions and answers between the artist and the theme or the physical material in his hands.

In this dialogue, both parties react and transform each other. In the book about the four “A”s, he cites a number of examples of how this correspondence takes place, or could take place, in anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. In these disciplines, the “raw material” to be researched or mastered tends to resist the intent of the researcher or artist, or, on the other hand, to give in, in unexpected ways.

In this process, both parties experience transformation. You could say that it transforms the lives of both, or creates the possibility of a different life for both. It’s not an act of conquest, but a labour of love.

“I believe we’re wrong to presume that observation stops at objectivity, for to observe, it’s not enough to merely look at things. We have to join with them, and to follow. As precisely as observation goes beyond objectivity, so it is that truth goes beyond the facts. This is the moment, in our observations, when the things with which we study begin to tell us how to observe. In allowing ourselves into their presence rather than holding them at arm’s length – in attending to them – we find that they are also guiding our attention. Attending to these ways, we also respond to them, as they respond to us. Research, then, becomes a practice of correspondence, and of care. It’s a labour of love, giving back what we owe to the world for our own existence as beings within it.”[2]

This acquisition of these kinds of observation and correspondence practices is critical for everyone, as it affects the decisions we make, both for our own private future and for everyone else we are involved with. He will apply this principle of constant interaction in his online lecture, explaining the phenomena of imagination and memory, which are never turned merely backwards and forwards.

Tim Ingold's lecture "The Young, The Old And The Generation Of Now" took place on August 8, 2020 as part of a series of online lectures and talks organized by RIBOCA2.

RIBOCA2 website

[1] From the article Art and Anthropology for a Sustainable World  in the 2019 Royal Institute of Anthropology Journal.
[2] Ibid.

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