Laying the foundations for a truly graphic anthropology – Tim Ingold introduces “Redrawing Anthropology”

Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movement, Line is in Ashgate’s Anthropological Studies of Creativity and Perception series. The volume is edited by Tim Ingold, and an extract from his introduction follows. You can read the complete introduction by following the link from the book’s page on our website.

From the introduction:

One summer’s day, a couple of years ago, my wife and I were on our way back from the northwest coast of Scotland, after a brief holiday, and stopped off at a well-known beauty spot not far from Inverness. A short walk through the woods led to the banks of a river, crossed by a bridge that offered a fine view of a spectacular waterfall. As we gazed at the fall, our attention rapt in its tumult, my wife suddenly caught sight of what looked like a silvery streak that shot upwards, in defiance of the plunging waters, only to disappear in an instant into the foam. I failed to notice it, but scarcely had time to regret my inattention before there was another. This time, eyes alerted, I caught sight of it. Moments later, there was another, and then another. It was truly mesmerising to watch, and the impression it left has remained with me ever since. We were, of course, watching salmon, making their way upriver towards their spawning grounds. I could have drawn what we saw [with a simple line].

‘Well, that’s not much’, I hear you say. ‘It’s just a line’. By the time you have finished reading this book, however, I hope you will agree that there is more to this line than everything else put together. To be sure, if you merely look at it, there is nothing much to see. You have rather to look with it: to relive the movement that, in turn, described the vault of my own observation as I watched the salmon leap the falls. In this line, movement, observation and description become one. And this unity, I contend, is nothing less than that of life itself.

The chapters that follow are driven by an ambition to restore anthropology to life, and by the conviction that drawing – understood in the widest sense as a linear movement that leaves an impression or trace of one kind or another – must be central to our attempts to do so. It was with this ambition, and this conviction, that a group of us got together at the University of Aberdeen, in June 2009, for a series of discussions under the theme of Redrawing Anthropology. The objectives of our discussions were four-fold.

The first was to establish an approach to creativity and perception capable of bringing together the movements of making, observing and describing. In this approach we do not first observe, and then go on to describe, a world that has already been made – that has already settled into final forms of which we can give a full and objective account. Rather, we join with things in the very processes of their formation and dissolution.

Our second objective, then, was to refocus the study of material culture from readymade objects onto the circulations of materials that these processes entail. This meant taking apart the conventional equation of creativity with innovation. For the creativity of life-processes lies in their capacity to bring forth, rather than in the novelty of the results compared with what had gone before, and is thus in no way compromised by practices that seek to copy pre-existing models.

Our third objective was to explore the generative dynamics of skilled practices that – in the very precision they seek – are bound to respond to moment-by-moment variations in the environmental conditions of their enactment. Regardless of whether the intention is to fashion something new or to copy past precedent, practitioners have to improvise.

Finally, we wanted to consider the potential of drawing, as a method and a technique much neglected in recent scholarship, to reconnect observation and description with the movements of improvisatory practice. This is to think of drawing not just as a means to illustrate an otherwise written text, but as an inscriptive practice in its own right, and of the lines of drawing as weaving the very text and texture of our work.

Our aim, in short, was to lay the foundations for a truly graphic anthropology. In the pursuit of these four objectives, we were bound by three injunctions. In a nutshell, they were to follow the materials, to learn the movements and to draw the lines.

By way of introduction, I shall set out the reasoning that lies behind each of these injunctions, how it departs from more orthodox approaches in social and cultural anthropology, archaeology, and studies of material and visual culture, and what it entails in terms of our practices and procedures of scholarship. At the same time, I shall introduce the subsequent contributions and show how they speak to one another.

More about Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movement, Line

More about the Anthropological Studies of Creativity and Perception series

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