Robert R. Desjarlais

BA, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. MA, PhD, University of California-Los Angeles. Special interests in the cultural construction of experience, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, death and mourning, and the political economy of illness and healing; ethnographic fieldwork in the Nepal Himalayas, with the residents of a homeless shelter in Boston, and among competitive chess players; author of Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas; Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless; Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths Among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists; and Counter-play: an Anthropologist at the Chessboard. Recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a Howard fellowship. NIMH postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School. SLC, 1994–

Current undergraduate courses

Ethnographic Research and Writing

Year

Javanese shadow theatre, Bedouin love poems, and American ordinary affects are but a few of the cultural realities that anthropologists have effectively studied and written about. This is no easy task, given the substantial difficulties involved in understanding and portraying the concerns, activities, and logic of lives other than one’s own. Despite these challenges, ethnographic research is generally considered to be one of the best ways to form a nuanced and contextually rich understanding of a particular social world. To gain an informed sense of the methods, challenges, and benefits of just such an approach, students in this course will try their hands at ethnographic research and writing. In the fall semester, each student will be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the spring, she or he will craft a fully realized piece of ethnographic writing that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Along the way, and with the help of anthropological writings that are either exceptional or experimental in nature, we will collectively think through some of the most important features of ethnographic projects, such as interviewing others, the use of fieldnotes, the interlacing of theory and data, the role of dialogue and the author’s voice in ethnographic prose, and the ethical and political responsibilities that come with any attempt to understand and portray the lives of others.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Hauntologies: Specters of the Subject Cultural Formations

Spring

"The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. As his interlocutor Bernard Stiegler phrases the main idea behind this statement, “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts." With the advent of the Internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida's observations have proven to be prophetic such that they call for a new field of study, one that requires less an ontology of the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida's punning term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the recurrent. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the present is haunted by a condition of spectrality. Topics to be covered include: ghosts and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, digital interfaces, visual and acoustic images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, Internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and thus craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.

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The Anthropology of Images

Fall

A few cartoons lead to cataclysmic events in Europe. A man’s statement that he “can’t breathe” ricochets across North America. A photograph printed in a newspaper moves a solitary reader. A snapshot posted on the Internet leads to dreams of fanciful places. Memories of a past year haunt us like ghosts. What each of these occurrences has in common is that they all entail the force of images in our lives, be these images visual or acoustic in nature, made by hand or machine, circulated by word of mouth, or simply imagined. In this seminar, we will consider the role that images play in the lives of people in various settings throughout the world. In delving into terrains at once actual and virtual, we will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world create, use, circulate, and perceive images and how such efforts tie into ideas and practices of sensory perception, time, memory, affect, imagination, sociality, history, politics, and personal and collective imaginings. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the fundamental human need for images, the complicated politics and ethics of images, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between the actual and the imagined, and the circulation of digital images in an age of globalization. Readings will include a number of writings in anthropology, art history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and critical theory. Images will be drawn from photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, videos, graffiti, religion, rituals, tattoos, inscriptions, novels, poems, road signs, advertisements, dreams, fantasies, phantasms, and any number of fabulations in the worlds in which we live and imagine.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Anthropology and Photography

Spring

Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential glint of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of distinct cultural settings. We will be engaged in two main efforts: an anthropologically informed inquiry into the phenomenon of photography and photographic endeavors that might be called “photoethnography.” In terms of an anthropology of photography, we will develop an understanding of how peoples throughout the world use, relate to, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. As for photoethnography, we will consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography, the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs, pacings of time and memory, the intricate play between text and image and between interpretation and invocation, and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include: Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica. We will also view a number of ethnographic films which mine questions of photographic representation, including Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours, Judith and David MacDougall’s Photo Wallas, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass.

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First-Year Studies: Anthropology and Photography

FYS

Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing little spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential dimensions of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of settings. We will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world use, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. We will also consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Each student in the course will engage with these issues through practical research, writing, and photographic endeavors. Each student will also be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world—such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn—in which a combination of words and images serves in the portrayal of that world. She or he will then craft a fully realized “photoethnography” that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography, the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between text and image, and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Robert Frank’s The Americans. We will also view a number of ethnographic films that explore questions of photographic representation.

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The Anthropology of Life Itself

Spring

“Life is ecstasy,” wrote Emerson. This course will explore the intrigues and problematics of such a statement. What is life? What is a life? How do human beings value the gist of life (or not) in particular situations? In this course, we will consider these fundamental questions through the prism of anthropological inquiry. By delving into what life means for people in distinct cultural settings, how they perceive and engage with it and live it amongst others, we will be able get a better handle on the many social, biological, historical, and political dimensions of constructs of life—and death. In particular, we will read a number of recent ethnographic and philosophical writings that take measure of the subject. We will consider bare life in zones of social abandonment in Brazil, ideas of well-being and existential dissatisfaction in Sierra Leone, the survival techniques of heroin addicts in San Francisco, the pull of suicide among Inuit youths, violence and memory in India, and generative fashioning in the Nepal Himalayas. Along the way, we will give thought to some key writings by important theorists of life, such as Benedict de Spinoza, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Gilles Deleuze. In so doing, the course will offer students an intensive introduction to the field of sociocultural anthropology.

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Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology

Year

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand and convey to others the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of interviewing, participant observation, and ethnographic writing.

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Understanding Experience: Phenonenological Approaches

Spring

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand, and convey to others, the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of interviewing, participant observation, and ethnographic writing. Intermediate.

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Workshop in Photoethnographies

Fall

“My pictures are not escapes from reality,” writes documentary photographer Bruce Davidson, “but a contemplation of reality, so that I can experience life in a deeper way.” In this course, we will similarly engage in sustained contemplations of particular social and cultural realities so as to understand better the lives of others. We will engage in this work through combinations of image and text in an effort to think through the methods and possibilities inherent in a photoethnographic approach to anthropological research, in which certain ways of life are portrayed primarily through photographic means. To gain an informed sense of the methods, challenges, and benefits of just such an approach, students in this course will try their hands at photoethnographic research and composition. Each student will be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world—such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn—in which photographs play a leading role in the portrayal of that world. She or he will then craft a fully realized photoethnography that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Along the way, and with the help of photobooks and anthropological writings that are either exceptional or experimental in nature, we will collectively think through some of the most important features of photoethnographic projects such as photographing and conversing with others, the use of fieldnotes and related materials, the interlacing of theory and data, the play of words and images in a photoethnography, and the ethnical and political responsibilities that come with any attempt to understand and portray the lives of others, especially through photographic means. Texts to be considered include those authored by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Walker Evans and James Agee, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Ed van der Elskin, Nan Goldin, Susan Lipper, Marc Asnin, and Philipe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg. 

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