Published in Italian in Il Polo (October 1999, 139-141), University of Fermo
special issue on the work of Jean Malaurie
The Ethnographic Voice
by Bruce Jackson
Ethnography is the most personal of the social sciences. Unlike sociology and psychology with their beloved and dominating statistical chi-squares, ethnography always displays its human and specific point of view. Ethnographers use cameras and sound recorders in their work, but their primary instrument of documentation is themselves: the human being looking and listening and reporting. It is perhaps the only one of the social sciences in which you never descend into the passive voice. Ethnographers don't write, "It is thought....it was done...." They write: "I saw....I thought...."
That is why, if you are to understand ethnography, you have to appreciate not just what the ethnographer saw but how he or she saw it. You can't make sense of ethnography unless you know something about the person giving it to you. Where we learn that is in their work, in the words and images they offer us.
I think about such things every time I have cause to read again all or part of Jean Malaurie's magisterial Les derniers rois de Thule. The book is almost organic. It has tripled in size since its first edition. Looking at the various editions is like having known someone as boy, young man, mature friend. It is rich in detail about the natural and human environments, about the technologies humans use to deal with the environment, about the effects on the polar world of political issues imported from outside. It is equally rich in Malaurie's responses to the things he sees and hears and experiences.
The book is polyphonic: Malaurie's voice, certainly, but also the voices of the myth- and story-tellers. There are maps, drawings by Inuit, drawings by Malaurie, photographs, transcriptions. You learn of Greenland through Malaurie's words and at the same time feel you're seeing some of what was there for him to see.
That sense of vision was for me so powerful that last year, when Malaurie and I spent time doing research in and around Nome, I frequently found myself looking at things or events two ways at once. I'd interpret what was going on in terms of what I'd learned in my 35 years doing ethnographic work, and I'd also interpret it through what I thought was the sensibility that informs Les derniers rois de Thule. I often tell my students that one of the things our greatest artists do is teach us how to see: we see their pictures and their vision forever thereafter informs our own. The Depression years in America look, in the American imagination exactly like the photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Can any of us look at San Marco without Canaletto's perspective organizing our lines of sight? Malaurie's work teaches us to see just as they do.
Years ago I asked Malaurie how he could have gone from his first studies in the Sahara to what became his life work in the Arctic. He looked at me in mild surprise: "They're the same," he said. I said that was absurd: one was fire, the other ice. He shrugged it away: temperature was minor. More important was that they were semi-arid places of extremes, places where small differences in conditions could have massive ecological consequences.
Near the beginning of Les derniers rois de Thule, Malaurie describes his first visit to Greenland and the great care local officials took to keep out European venereal diseases. Near the end, he describes American troops at the Thule airbase machine-gunning fox, the replacement of the ancient barter economy with cash and welfare, and the impact of alcohol and pollution.
I think of the young Malaurie, studying the physical landscape of the Sahara, looking the same way at the physical landscape of the Arctic, moving into the human landscape and exploring there, and then moving into involvement and activism. In Paris he taught students how to be anthropologists; in St. Petersburg he's now helping polar students learn how to occupy positions of political power and authority. If he was ever the disinterested scientist he's surely not one now. He's earned the right to be an activist, a participant.
I said earlier that good ethnography involves voice and that part of the work is finding the right voice in which to tell the story. Malaurie realized that this process created a community of its own: social scientists who have sought to tell the world about the lives of people who would otherwise remain unknown to them. He created Terre Humaine, now eighty volumes of thoughtful and engaged writing and photographs. In creating Terre Humaine, Malaurie was driven by the idea that there is a coherent way of looking at, describing, and coming to understand the human community. How to describe that way, that coherence? It is Terre Humaine itself. The great vision of Terre Humaine is that understanding is always a collaborative venture between those who are seen and those who are seeing, between those who speak and those who write, between those who write and those who read.
Fermo is the site of the first comprehensive university in Italy. It is the home of Italy's Polar Museum, part of the work of which is the study and preservation of one of the world's oldest surviving cultures. I think it is especially appropriate that Fermo should chose to honor Jean Malaurie.