The Vulnerable Observer

Sally Eckhoff reviews "The Vulnerable Observer Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart" by Ruth Behar.

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Whether anthropology is your thing or not, Ruth Behar has issues in mind that may be too provocative to pass up. Behar, a Cuban-born Jew who teaches at the University of Michigan, is a champion of a relatively new form of anthropology that seems to be driving the fuddy-duddies in academia nuts. Combine traditional fieldwork with a researcher’s personal experience, she asserts, and you come up with a mode of study that informs the intellect as it grips the emotions — without smashing the delicate subject(s) flat, the way conventional research often does. It takes an extremely clear-eyed and self-critical writer to get an enterprise like this off the ground, and Behar is one of the very few who can swing it.

“The Vulnerable Observer” is tough going at first, since its six essays are so arbitrarily arranged it seems as if the book was structured backwards. First Behar ponderously defends her case, then she submits her four examples of “vulnerable” anthropological writing, and finally, she gets around to explaining in plain English what critics’ objections to her methods have been. Getting into this book is like yanking a stubborn cork out of a bottle: Once the heavy work is done, the rewards are there for leisurely sampling.

In “Death and Memory,” which directly follows Behar’s ponderous intro, the wine is good indeed. This sprawling essay has Behar touching down in a Spanish village populated almost exclusively by old people. She gathers her elderly subjects’ perceptions of what death means even as she frets helplessly about her frail, lonely Cuban/Jewish grandfather back in Miami. Her own protective instincts aroused, Behar gets bold enough to make the prospect of death majestic and frightening. By the time she returns to Florida to sit shivah for her Zayde, you’ll probably be in tears.



Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t have the same intellectual or emotional wallop. The next four essays, one of which describes an automobile accident that landed the author in a body cast at age 9, are badly unbalanced by the hip lit-crit buzzwords that permeate this book. Like many academicians, Behar can’t put fingers to keyboard without yakking about “texts,” making occasional (and, luckily, half-hearted) references to “Otherness,” or starting paragraphs with “This essay is about …” — all post-structuralist devices that stop the imaginative process dead in its tracks. And, yes, Behar proves that anthropology can make you cry, but changing her delicate science from a self/other exploration into a self/self trip sometimes strains logic. Sheer solipsism won’t cure cultural anxiety, but the constant negotiation between the impulse to objectify and the impulse to embrace might relieve some of the ache.

Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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