Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anthropology, Fieldwork and the Third Man

I watched Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949) again last week, and I was again reminded what a perfect parable the film is for the ethnographic encounter.  It begins with Holly Martins’ arrival in post-war Vienna.  He’s a dime-store novelist who’s been invited by his school friend, Harry Lime, for a visit—but Harry’s been run over by a car and killed.  And yet, Holly is suspicious, and begins to pursue leads that take him through the fractured landscape of postwar Vienna, through different zones controlled by Allied forces, and ultimately face-to-face with Harry Lime himself, a decidedly not-dead black market trader in doctored penicillin.  And all this to the crazy virtuosity of Anton Karas’s zither score.
View from the first level of the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy wikicommons
View from the first level of the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy wikicommons
Where’s the ethnography?  Certainly, there’s a resemblance in Holly’s awkward confusion to that of anthropologist entering the field—he’s perpetually flummoxed and frustrated, always asking  “What did he say?,” and running down shadowed streets shot at discombobulating camera angles.  And post-war Vienna is an eerie harbinger for today’s neoliberal order, a city of glitz and ruins divided into different “zones of exception,” each governed by different powers with their own understandings of law.
But it’s the idea of the third itself that I find most anthropological.  In a literal sense, the eponymous “third man” is Harry Lime—the man who was at the scene of the faked car accident and who holds the key to the mystery.  However, there are lots of “thirds” in this film, each offering a conflicting interpretive frame for Harry Lime’s life and purported death.  Is Harry Lime a ruthless black marketer?  Is he a devoted boyfriend?  A loyal companion?
Here’s where “The Third Man” looks like a noir-thriller version of Plato’s Parmenides, where the “Third Man” (in Aristotle’s interpretation), is the “ideal” form that starts off a chain of infinite regress in an endless search for ideal forms that cannot be subsumed back into the “class” of men.    Like Plato’s ideal form, the truth of Harry Lime seems to continuously recede from Holly, until the only choice (for Graham Greene, anyway) is to end the inquiry with gunshots.
There was a time when anthropology went the way of this philosophical chestnut, deferring the ultimate meaning of the ethnographic encounter and in the process marveling at the hall of mirrors it itself had constructed.   When we follow this logic, the Geertzian anthropologist reading over the shoulder of the native can never be the final interpretation of culture; there’s always someone reading over the anthropologist’s shoulder, and someone visible behind that shoulder (an institution, a theory, a context).
But there’s another “third” here, the third that lies outside of a closed dyad of these ideological constructions of anthropologist and field.  Following Michel Serres’s “Le troisième homme,” this third interrupts the stable and static meanings.  It is the noise that upsets and re-orders the hegemonic, that introduces not only new meanings, but new frames that cascade into new understandings.
Image courtesy Tsutoma Takasu
Image courtesy Tsutoma Takasu
Here, it’s the moment of interruption itself that is powerful—and generative of powerful truths.  When Holly sees Harry Lime briefly illuminated in the shadows, it completely re-orders his interpretation of events: from a murder mystery to a cover-up, from outrage over his friend’s death, to a confirmation of his friend’s nefarious deeds.   That “third man” jolts Holly Martins to an entirely different interpretative frame: what starts as a murder investigation becomes an indictment of war profiteering.
This is the kind of interruption we look for in anthropology: when first impressions are confounded and complicated.  The moment a “third” enters into a neat correspondence and turns it upside down.   To put it another way, only novice ethnographers believe that the truths they discover in the first phase of fieldwork will survive into their completed ethnography.  At first, we may resist the insistence of that outside noise: it is difficult to jettison assumptions we (or our dissertation committees) may hold dear.  But, eventually, we’re going to listen.
I always think about the strange figure of the taxi driver: a stock figure in contemporary ethnographies.  Fleeting, chance encounters with these oftentimes enigmatic, knowledgeable people signal a turning point in our understandings, a sign-post that guides ethnographers along a different path: anthropologists literally driven down the road not taken.
Another example: last month in Anthropology News, Jennifer Carroll wrote movingly of the “Ethnographic of the Unexpected” in Kyiv.  Walking past political activism in Independence Square every day meant that, after a while, she could not ignore the noise of protest, even if she was in Ukraine for an entirely different reason.  But eventually, she succumbs to that third; political protest ends up being her field site after all.
Of course, this is very different in other disciplines; I can hardy imagine a similar epiphany in the hard sciences.  While letting in what Serres calls the “prosopeia of noise” might be a defining characteristic of ethnography, physicists (for example) may agonize over where exactly to “cut” their data, to separate the disjecta of noise from the “real” data they can publish.  Doing otherwise would mean going back to the drawing board and beginning again.
And here’s where we’re like Holly—looking into the enigmatic shadows of a kaleidoscope modernity for a third that will challenge our understandings of events and re-frame them in ways we’ve not anticipated.  Not, however, in some infinite regress of unstable meaning, but as the moral necessity of engaging complex lives.
First published in Anthropology News.