jello

a pile of pastel-colored tires in a grassy lot

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

my fieldwork is like jello. bear with me.

i am plagued.
with pressures. thoughts. ideas. inspiration. evidence. voices.
but i can’t organize any of it meaningfully.

it’s like a feeling of being trapped, or suspended, buried alive and unable to sprout.

or it’s like this.
i’m driving a truck. and as i carry out my fieldwork, i’m collecting jello. (i’m really collecting stories, and experiences, and information, and ideas, and insights, and pictures, and maps, and directions, and sights and smells and sounds and other things–‘data’ to be cold and clinical about it–but the metaphor works better with jello. whatever flavor you want.)

or maybe, to honor my ongoing botanical/gardening/agricultural metaphor, it’s more like tomatoes. yeah, something juicy, with a bit of squish. or even fertilizer. or compost! donna haraway writes about compost. self-identifying as a compostist (as opposed to a posthumanist), she notes that storytelling is “the seed bag for flourishing for compostists” (2016: 150). building on the work of anna tsing and others, haraway’s children of compost “insist that we need to write stories and live lives of flourishing and for abundance, especially in the teeth of rampaging destruction and impoverisation” (2016: 136). yes. compost seems right for fallow time. i like this idea of data/gatherings/cargo as compost.

compost must be turned over. and then it can turn into something new.

so i do some fieldwork, shovel some jello/tomatoes/fertilizer/compost into the bed of the truck.

this goes on for some months. the truck slowly fills with jello/tomatoes/fertilizer/compost.
and i’m driving along, probably a little too fast if i’m honest, and all of a sudden, something is in the road right in front of me, and i slam on the brakes.

the world stops for a moment, like in a dream.
and then all the jello/tomatoes/fertilizer/compost–a truckload, an abundant harvest, still animated by the momentum of our movement–comes flying forward into the cab of the truck, and hits me in the back of the head.

this reminds me of something sara ahmed wrote recently, drawing on audre lorde:
“i have been thinking about that: how sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to feel the true impact of something, to let our bodies experience that impact, the fury of an escalating injustice, a structure as well as an event; a history, an unfinished history.”*
“sometimes to sustain your commitments,” she says, “you stop what you are doing.” or you are stopped.

she continues, “in stopping, something comes out. we don’t always know what will come out when we stop to register the impact of something. registering impact can be a life-long project. perhaps collectives are assembled so we can share the work of registering the impact of what is ongoing; what is shattering.”

the truck is broken down. the world is broken down.

“i think sometimes you withdraw from a situation – driving a vehicle, being in the driver’s seat – to express your commitments. you close the door; stop the car because you need to get something out; you need to get yourself out.” (ahmed again). we need to get out of here, but all we can do is stay in. but all we can do is stay with the trouble.

this fieldwork thing isn’t fatal. but it is disorienting.
i’ll be scraping jello, tomatoes, fertilizer, compost, all of it, off my windshield for a while.

*thank you to julia tulke for pointing me to this brilliant piece of writing.

fallow time

pink painted flowers adorn an urban driveway

introducing fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

fallow period, n. a period in which a fieldworker does no fieldwork

this is an anxious time.
this is a scary time.
this is a time of disruption and exposure and grief.

the field has ruptured.

i didn’t really imagine i would be writing in any kind of serious way about this research project online yet, but with the in-person components of my fieldwork indefinitely suspended due to COVID-19, i am at once slowed down and thrust into modes of analysis and writing that at times feel premature. however, since i have been trying to work in the spirit of sharing and creating out of provisional and “unabashedly unfinished” (jackson 2013: 19) work, i’ve decided to carve out a little plot here for process and processing. i’m going to cultivate some starts, soft shoots of short-form writing, photoessay, and artistic intervention.

these modes of creation have various ends, one of which is to render visible forms of labor that have been canceled, postponed, or would otherwise have gone unremarked upon. another is to render the fruits of ongoing work accessible more quickly than i could via my ‘normal’ channels of academic writing (books and articles), some of which have been slowed or paused, because “to continue as usual right now would be untenable and unethical.”

i have been reading and re-reading an op-ed from the new york times by bonnie tsui from june 21, 2019. it’s called “you are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything,” and it is about fallow time. in agriculture, fallow ground is land that is plowed but left unseeded during the growing season. this happens when a field has been removed from crop rotation. “fallow time,” tsui argues, “is necessary to grow everything from actual crops to figurative ones, like books and children. to do the work, we need to rest, to read, to reconnect. it is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.”

when the virus bloomed and social isolation became the norm where i am and where i work, in my fieldsite, the researcher in me whispered “there is data here–go get it,” and i resisted. i am not interested in disaster ethnography. i will not pivot my whole project as a way to think about the spatial politics of pandemic. the questions i was interested in before the world changed are still interesting questions and they will remain so in the aftermath of the current disaster, which promises to be brutal and longlasting.* in the same ways that i am always trying to resist anthropology’s siren song of extraction, i am unwilling to be opportunistic in this moment. the reality is that i am here, on research leave but with research funds frozen “until further notice” and all in-person contact halted, with only one phd student and no undergraduates, no courses to move online, no children to homeschool–though i do have aging parents to check in on from thousands of miles away and relationships to maintain and a cat to care for–and so while many others have descended head-long into mission time, much of my existing work has dissolved into a receding horizon. but, in the moments when clouds of anxiety and despair have parted, this has opened up time to think. as tsui argues, “not everyone, of course, can leave the assembly line at will,” and i am immensely grateful for those currently weathering this unimaginable storm on the front lines. they are world-savers.

things happen when one slows down. last week my therapist asked me rhetorically “what grows in the quiet?” i’m curious about this too. fallow time is both a kind of rest and a kind of play. “i’m talking about an active refueling that can seem at odds with our fetishization of productivity,” tsui contends. writing in this space in this way allows me to play around with genre, form, subs(is)tance, visuals, methods, and process in new ways, within an arena in which i create the rules (and, importantly, set the schedule). “fallow time is part of the work cycle, not outside of it,” says tsui. it is a cultivation of “the white space for complex thinking and writing.” it is also a time to breathe, especially when that most basic of life-sustaining functions is threatened.

welcome to the fallow time of fertile ground. this is a multi-modal invitation for thinking, feeling, dreaming, grieving, existing, resting, and experimenting. it is an effort to collapse some social distance in a time of immense precarity.

please, take gentle care,
kate

* i am under no illusions that the project will be the same going forward. as deborah lupton recently argued, “we’re all COVID researchers now.”