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Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey - Third Entry

Thoughts of December 30, 2017

Glancing at Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, where he discusses Hobbes' philosophy, threw me back to an experience I had during my first field work in Zambia. I tell it as I thought it while sipping my first cup of coffee this morning.

Copleston points out that in the process of distinguishing philosophy from various other disciplines, Hobbes argues that "the study of the consequences from the passions of men yields ethics", which Hobbes classifies under the general heading of natural philosophy (p. 20).

Good, I thought, this sounds reasonable and remember immediately a happening in the field that has bothered me for decades. I fell in love. It was that simple. Furthermore, it was accompanied by a meeting of minds, and all this during the hard beginning when I experienced the field as desolate, strange, but also as peculiarly familiar. This inner unease filled me with fear so that I had to, as it were, force myself each morning to go out to do my work.

It is thus that Hobbes' notion that the passions of men have consequences, which yields ethics are important.

What we refer to as "falling in love" happened frequently to other anthropologists. It is rather natural that an anthropologist, in my case a woman, who fell in love with a man of the culture she studied, found that the happening had the consequence of opening that culture and its people up to her. By which I mean, that she now met people freely without the nagging fear that something untoward might happen or that fear might bias the research negatively. Above all, it became the point where research really took off. In other word, it had epistemological consequences, by which I mean, it informed the process of how I came to know what I know.

My first reaction to this happening for the 2018 edition was to leave it out. After all, it had upset many an anthropologist back in 1983 when I put out the first edition. Here is my chance to remove it from the book. But I could not! To have done so would have been dishonest.

My second reaction was to ask myself: but can I recommend it? The simple answer is, I cannot! I cannot even say let it happen. And I have no satisfactory answer to the contradiction between
bureaucratic ethics committees of universities who want to remove the person of the researcher from his research and the anthropologist in the field who, as it were, needs every facet of his person to survive and succeed. Nor do field workers live in office blocks but in mud huts where their very person becomes a vital tool, as noted, to the success of the whole field work enterprise. My temporary conclusion is that do not fall in love; but when it happens take the opening of mind to the people around you as a gift, knowing however, that you can not take the it back home.

Reason remains a priority. But if we are honest, we know that reason is but one resource. As any artist will tell you, we cannot omit the repertoire of emotions or passions that lift reason to its great height in the first place. One more point, all depends on distinguishing doing from happening.

Monday, December 18, 2017

My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey

My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey
Karla Poewe
Anthropology and Fieldwork (an excerpt)

By its very nature anthropology is a risky enterprise. The profession takes “a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and (says), ‘Now get on with it. Become (a professional anthropologist)’ ” (adapted from Lewis (2001: 72).

“Field work is field work,” wrote the anthropologist Harry Wolcott (1929–2012). It draws on both art and science thereby making “a contribution uniquely its own” (1995: 252). True, but why does anthropology, being a social science, need art?

An important part of the answer is that field work does not only raise the “how” question as in how do field workers experience their first encounter with different people in an unknown or unpredictable part of the world. It also raises the “why” question. Why do we go to the field in the first place, and why for such a long time risking alienation from our own society and, even more, the loss of friends and spouses back home? Why do we make heart-breaking decisions to leave those we love, when we know that we cannot calculate unexpected consequences down the road? Why do we expose ourselves to amalgamations of “sophisticated” with “primitive” worlds, of eating what we do not recognize as food at home, of coping with unexpected nightmares about distant pasts when we need the light of reason each morning? To recognize the turmoil suggested in these questions, and to understand the coping and overcoming it requires, field workers need resources they didn’t even know they had. They need philosophy, imagination, courage, resilience, creativity, indeed, their very person.

Lewis, C. S.
2001 (1961) A Grief Observed. New York: HarperCollins.
Wolcott, Harry F.
1995 The Art of Field Work. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.


Some of these questions surely apply to many people that work in the field sciences.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey

This coming year, 2018, will see the publication of my book: My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey, by Karla Poewe.

I start with this quotation from Beatrice Webb (1926):

Beneath the surface of our daily life, in the personal history of many of us, there runs a continuous controversy between an Ego that affirms and an Ego that denies…

Now, it so happens that the internal controversy which has been perpetually recurring in my own consciousness, from girlhood to old age, led me in early life to choose a particular vocation…  

This citation summarizes the lives of many of us. What applies to me especially is that something in my consciousness going back to my childhood, "led me in early life to choose a particular vocation." Since my preteens I grew up with one question. What in the name of heaven did adults do to make us, their children, grow up in rubble, camps, and generally a chaotic social environment? When I was a student at university, I initially thought that this question could be answered only by going to live and do research in a society that was whole. I wanted to start with a stark contrast to what I already knew. So I chose anthropology ... 

In this book I want to go back from the classroom

to my very first fieldwork in Africa.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

For Love of Men



For Love of Men

By Karla Poewe

I dislike hate of any kind. Currently, however, it is fashionable in some circles to hate “white” men. Arguments get us nowhere, so here I offer a little story from my “German Childhood” book that I would like to revise and elaborate.
It was in 1947 and I was ill as usual. We were refugees in the Soviet Zone but periodically, to improve my health, my mother sent for my aunt with whom I would then cross into the British zone somewhere in Berlin.
My grandmother, in German Oma, recognized that I had lost hope that my father, indeed, men (they were all white there and then), could be good. And she showed me something of value that came directly from my fear-riddled experience.

Chapter 10: Three Men

Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.
[John 12:37].

            When I was back with mother in the east, I lost weight. It worried her, so she sent for aunt Luzi to take me to Omi again. The west had more food, it was thought.

            I remember the day we set off. Mutti helped me into my favorite dress. It was white, and across the part that covered my chest she'd stitched myriads of flowers--red and orange ones, yellow and purple ones, and blue ones here and there. Along the hem were flowers too.

            We left, warmed by the spring sun. The sun, always the sun. I remember the warmth of the sun more than I remember the warmth of people; didn't even expect people to be warm.  Perhaps I simply had no strong feelings for them. It must be so, for I don't remember what I felt about my sister Gudi and mother remaining behind. Perhaps I was too weak to feel anything. All I remember is that aunt Luzi told me that they stayed to wait for Father.

            And all I remember about Father is that he was a memory – a thin, sliver-like memory.  He was a link to mother through the Red Cross. He must have been important, though. Why else would mother and Gudi wait for him? We all knew that the east was worse than the west. But wait for him they did, mother especially; she waited and waited for his return.

            I don't know what form of transportation we took except that the last stretch was by bus.  It stopped somewhere near the zone border not right at it. The atmosphere was filled with fear.  It's a feeling that doesn't ever go away, fear, I mean. I have images of those moments as if they were filmed in slow motion: aunt Luzi stepping out of the bus pulling me down into her arms and then onto my feet, grabbing the case, looking around, and then walking toward the barrier, solemn and scared. There were Russians in front of us. They lowered the barrier when we approached, looked at our papers, and told us to wait.

            Some meters away, next to a wooded area, we saw a crowd. Then we heard several shots, one after another. Russian soldiers were herding people together. There were men and women, even a fat one about to give birth. I remember her because I asked aunt Luzi about her stomach.

            “Where are they taking them,” I said. Aunt Luzi put a finger across her mouth. “Hush, child. Don't speak!”  And then she said, “To Siberia, I think.”  We watched them being marched off. There were sounds of stumbling and moaning and shots.

            The Russian soldier came over to look at our papers. He wasn't with us long when a commotion arose in the crowd. He was called away again, but before he left, he returned the papers to aunt Luzi. He sort of squeezed her hand when he returned them and I thought that he said something with his eyes. But his voice sounded gruff. “Wait,” he said brusquely, then turned to his comrades and walked off. We waited. Luzi held the precious papers. I knew all about their importance. Without them, we didn't exist. It was that simple. Luzi explained it to me. The papers in her hand were our life and she stood there holding it.
            We would have continued to wait, I think, had it not been for a German soldier. He sat on a stone, his shoulders slumped over. We didn’t notice him, at first, until he said, “What are you waiting for? You have your papers. For heaven’s sake, move on.” Luzi raised her shoulders. He must have understood her helplessness because he said, “if you walk fast you can catch the French bus.” When she still hesitated, he added, “Do you want to go to Siberia?” Then he got up, looked around as if to check whether anyone watched, and came over. He was silent, just walked with us until it was clear that Luzi knew where we were.

            Before he left, Luzi begged him to stay. He shook his head, gently waved us on, and then dropped his arm listlessly. There was such tiredness in him.

            “They took my papers,” he said simply and returned. Later, when I looked back, I saw him sitting on the stone again. A Russian soldier towered over him. He seemed to be scolding him, for he gesticulated wildly.

            I remember fearing that the Russian would shoot him. It was a very strong, clear fear. I must have asked aunt Luzi about it, because she said something about mercy, if they were merciful, and her big brown eyes burned and their fire wasn’t extinguished by her tears.

            She pulled me along. Ahead of us rose dust and soon we saw the bus arrive. It didn't slow down. Luzi noticed it and stepped right in front of it. I don't think she thought about it, just flailed her arms violently, there in the middle of the road, until the bus screeched to a halt. The door slammed open and we heard the conductor yell in French that the bus was full, but aunt Luzi pretended she didn't understand. Determined, she stumbled up the stairs and wailed “you must take us or we'll be killed.” And she begged and moaned and looked at him, her body promising everything. It must have done something, because he extended his hand and helped us in.

            And just then, I heard the shot. Luzi heard it too, for she looked at me. Just looked and looked. And in her eyes, I saw his death.

             Omi welcomed us. And soon she took me to the gypsies and to her alcoholic friend. We went to the farms and on visits to her sick men. And then, when I was restless, we walked up the church tower. There, where the wind blew freely and the landscape looked as if it had melted into the morning mist, I told her about the zone crossing and Martin Luther.

            “Child,” said Omi referring to the Martin Luther story, “perhaps you should have listened to the end, because, you see, if the man had told it in the right spirit, you would have learned that Martin Luther’s parents were wrong. They had no faith, you see, no trust in God or in their son.  Instead, they insisted on their own rules and Martin’s obedience to them. That is not what Jesus taught.”
            So, I asked Omi what Jesus did teach. And she told me that she could explain it by simply going over the events of the zone crossing. And that’s what she did.

            “Sometimes,” Omi said, "we are at the crossroads where we must choose. But sometimes when we are very scared and have lost hope, Jesus places us at a crossroads, and He chooses for us.”

            Omi explained that a crossroads is a place where one can go either this way or that. But in the language of Jesus, she told me, one path is good, the other bad. Usually we must choose for ourselves which path we want to follow. But occasionally when we are weak and helpless Jesus chooses for us, and He does so to renew our hope.

            “You see child,” she said, “you lost hope that a Father could be good. Isn't that what the Luther story meant to you? Of course, it did. So, Jesus put you at the crossroads and He placed there three men, all very different, and all three helped save you from a terrible fate.”

            I looked at Omi with great astonishment, the way I always did when she sent me on one of her mental journeys. Omi loved it when I looked at her wide-eyed. She said that it helped her fix her mind on things.

            “Well,” she said, “you arrived at the zone barrier. One path led to Siberia, the other to us, here. Jesus made sure that you knew the choice. And then He chose for you. You were too small and too frightened to choose for yourself. Even Luzi was too frightened to choose.” And Omi reminded me what each man did and explained each act systematically.

            Firstly, there was the Russian soldier. Had he kept your papers, it would have been over for you. But he didn’t. He gave the papers to Luzi. And while he spoke gruffly, Omi was satisfied that his act was an act of mercy. “Remember, child,” she said, “we were his worst enemy.”

            “Secondly,” Omi continued, “there was our own soldier.” And she reviewed how I had described him to her, only she made me see him so much more clearly. He was sad, she explained, and worse, defeated. He was probably quite numb and indifferent to his fate and everything around him. “So many of our men are like that since their return,” she said, “and yet, he overcame his indifference. He cared enough,” she said, putting a lot of emphasis on the word care, “to show you the way. And he did it, knowing the cost to him. His care took you a step further to safety.”

            And then she explained that the word care meant the same thing as love. It was an act of love, Omi thought.

            “Finally,” Omi said, “there was the French bus driver. He didn't care. Why should he?  He drove his bus and the bus was full. He said as much to you. He saw, he said what he saw, and he acted upon it. Very reasonable.” Sometimes, however, Omi explained, reason is not enough.  She believed that there were times when Jesus whispered to us. And His whisper is heard and it breaks the harsh wall of rationality and lets us feel again. And so it must have been with the Frenchman, she reasoned. He felt something, could put himself into our shoes, could see that helping us was more important than reason, and did it.

            “Do you see child,” Omi said hopefully, “when you think about it, it is like a miracle.  You doubted men, and Jesus sent three men. The Russian was merciful, our own soldier extended his love, the French bus driver was helpful--and this, despite hate, despite indifference and defeat, despite arrogance. That is what a miracle is, a wonderful break through.” And then she reminded me of the Martin Luther story. “Had any of these men obeyed the rules, you would have been on a different path. They didn't. They obeyed Jesus instead.”

            When we reached the bottom of the stairs again, Omi said, “And do you know what the real miracle is in all this?” I looked puzzled. “The real miracle,” said Omi, “is that it was not Martin’s father at all who beat him on that occasion. Nor was it a walnut that had been lost. It was Martin’s mother who beat him and over a tiny hazelnut.”

            And then Omi laughed heartily. “I see, child,” she said, “that this time I have really broken up unplowed ground.” And it was so, for Omi had opened a vast field of deception.