On interpretation

“She has an uncanny ability to filter my ideas through her own and make me see what I am really doing.” –Jonathan (most recently). Discuss.

This is actually a comment I have gotten several times on student evaluations. It is also the reason people in other disciplines sometimes name me in acknowledgements on the basis of having had a conversation at LASA that brought an unfamiliar, yet relevant perspective to their material.

It occurs to me that I should be an analyst, because of this ability to function as a mirror that reflects peoples’ projects back at them in a cleaner draft. There was that student who wanted to run his paper for another class by me before running it by his actual professor. It was not that he was intimidated by that professor, it was that he wanted to run the paper by a third party not involved in the class and not expert enough in the material to have a strong view, yet expert enough in modern literature generally to understand his project. He got me to wear his glasses while we discussed his paper, so that I would look like myself but also like him “and make [him] feel [he] might be as intelligent as [I].”

(I have told this story before, and it is hilarious. I said: “If I wear your glasses, will we not be engaging in some strange fetishistic act, inappropriate for school?” He, 19, said with aplomb, “We are engaging in a fetishistic act, yes, but fetishes do work and we are doing nothing indecent, so we can carry on.”)

It is uncanny, my ability to return people to themselves, but not in the supernatural connotation of that word. The uncanny is what is strangely familiar, yet strangely foreign. Anyone can do what I do, because it is a simple question of standing at the right distance. As my student said, you have to be familiar enough with the topic to understand it and unfamiliar enough to let the person speak without interceding too much. You also have to be interested enough for your own reasons to engage, but when you engage you engage their project from the distance at which you stand. You let them see how it affects yours, as opposed to argue with theirs or try to pull theirs into your sphere.

This is in part a teaching technique but it is possible that not enough teachers have it. With respect to students, I think of it as modeling collaboration and collegiality. That shows it is not en el fondo a teaching technique but a collegial activity. You who have grown-up children and talk with them about their lives must surely take this familiar-yet-distanced position then. It is, however, difficult to find colleagues to discuss research in this way because most commonly, anyone interested enough in your work to pay attention to it also has a strong stake in it. They will identify or argue, enter your work in some way. They will be better interlocutors than people outside your field or subfield can be, but for that precise reason they cannot function as mirrors who reflect you as you would be.

Where did I get this skill?

1. Studying foreign languages. To acquire a language is to acquire a system; to do this you must listen to it. Many professors of literature are working in their own language or in the one foreign language they know well, and without realizing it they are bound to an identity; they do not easily desprenderse from this identity and system so as to listen to another. You, too, can do this, it is not a special talent, but you must listen.

2. Comparative Literature. This is rooted of course in the comparison of national literatures and is therefore not free from that model; nonetheless we who breathe this air are still acclimated to the idea of listening to other systems in a way and to a degree that many are not, I discern. You, too, can do this, it is not a special talent, but you must listen.

3. Latin American Studies. This is another cross-discipline which insists that you (a) acquire the tools of at least two disciplines and (b) acquire the ability to seriously appreciate the tools of others. (You, too, can do this, it is not a special talent, but you must listen.)

4. “Math brain.” I can do mathematics. You have to look at the design of things, be logical, and from where you are extrapolate to the dimensions you cannot yet see and which are imaginary or irrational in a technical (not juicily oniric) sense. (You, too, can do this, it is not a special talent, but you must listen.)

5. Raised to serve, as one was back then. This is not a good thing but it does give one skillz. Many people are in fact raised to listen, but most of these do not become professors.

I once participated in a symposium in Colombia, traveling from here with a Brazilian anthropologist who like me had never been there and para colmo did not know the language. There were a lot of transportation problems getting to our final destination and a great deal of interpretation took place. We were going to southern Colombia and it was during a hot period of the FARC and drug wars, so comprehension of events and phrases took skill and for me it was not a language problem.

I kept being right, though. “What is happening?” the Brazilian would say. “I am not sure,” I would say, “but look at what that person just did, I think it must be what is done here, we should do the same.” And it would work. He finally said: “Are you really not a trained anthropologist?” I said I was a student of foreign languages.

(You, too, can have all of these skills, but they come at a cost. They will make you permeable, and you will then have to learn to handle that. You must remain permeable and at the same time rock steady. The true philosopher engages with other minds while allowing them to remain other; only if you do this can you see.)




Filed under Theories, What Is A Scholar?

2 responses to “On interpretation

  1. Jonathan Mayhew

    Ah, so it isn’t me in particular! You have this effect on everyone. You are definitely in my acknowledgments already.

    Listening is the main skill in teaching, not lecturing. Even when talking to a small group the main skill is being attentive to the reactions of those listening. Are they sharing your level of engagement, or are they detached? Are they following you or are they lost? Are they impatient to speak themselves?

    The second main skill is giving comments on written work, which is another form of listening. I am much better at commenting on a paper that I have a smaller stake in, in terms of my own intellectual project.

  2. Z

    Not everyone, but there is a group or a series of people.

    Yes, it is funny about that smaller stake thing, but there it is.

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