Beyond the Logos of Method, Settling In

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I have established that Being and Knowing are multi-sensory (see previous two blog entries) and proposed that Knowing comes by way of Being-in-the-world. Another way of saying this is that “knowledge is embodied”: we know the world very literally through our experience of living in it. One practical implication of this is obvious: it is to be “on-site”; in my case, it is to be in China. Happily, it is exactly what Ethnography involves.

The insight that Knowing comes by way of Being urges us to consider the latter more holistically: what does our experience of being-in-the world really involve? Implicit here is the recommendation that we take greater notice of the many ways we apprehend the world: through our sense of sight, hearing, feel, smell, taste, as well as via our intuitions and perceptions.

And to complicate things still further, we should note that there is “human experience of the world” on the one hand, and there is also “the world” itself on the other. This distinction is important, for it draws the line between epistemology (what we know) and ontology (what is). It is an important distinction to maintain if we are to prevent ourselves from solipsistically reducing the world to simply what we experience and know about it, which is symptomatic of both idealist and empiricist traditions in Western philosophy. Accordingly, so as not to fall victim to an unwarranted (idealist or empiricist) reductionism, there seems to be good reason to think that the world is “greater than” our experiences or our concepts of it. This orientation naturally gives precedence to Ontology over Epistemology. Hence, against the Cartesian and Kantian belief that the world is just what I think, perceive, or experience it to be – what Sokowlowski (2000: 12) calls the “egocentric predicament”, my approach seeks to underscore the primacy of Ontology. This privileges Being over Knowing and takes heed of the advice to “return to the things themselves”. The inspiration I draw from phenomenology should be apparent.

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Having hopefully provided some clarification of my philosophical/methodological premises. I would like now to draw out their practical implications. How does the multi-sensory nature of knowing inform our ethnographic work? Similarly, how does phenomenological insight help our research in the field? How, indeed, does one move from epistemology to “the things themselves”?

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For a response one may begin by looking at the assortment of photos here and in my previous post. These photos were taken in Shekou and Baishizhou, two locations in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen. These photos would correctly be regarded as visual representations of Shenzhen and Chinese life. But in depicting contrasts, notably, between the avante-garde glass-and-steel structures against the dense and weary-looking nongminfang (literally: farmer dwellings) of Nanshan’s urban villages (chengzhencun), we get to see different, antipodal sides of Shenzhen. Let us not forget to mention the mounds of mud and debris strewn across the Shenzhen landscape (also depicted here), for they aptly represent to us still another profile: the Shenzhen landscape in a state of transition and transformation, an ostensibly transient condition of being between the “avante-garde” and the “undeveloped”. Hence, just as “things” present themselves to us in a manifold of appearances, so too, does Shenzhen: and we see the “Nanshan” landscape being constituted by multiple faces (phases?).

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Phenomenology’s potential contribution to ethnographic work becomes evident here. Because it emphasises the innate, multi-sidedness of things, the phenomenological attitude instils in the ethnographer a certain vigilance in guarding against understandings based on mere first appearances: as somebody once said, if reality and appearance coincide, there would be no need for science. Indeed, things are never just what they seem, and it is apt that phenomenology should remind us to probe beyond what we see.

And, so, it is unsurprising that Shenzhen should appear to us in the form of its urban villages, its construction sites, its ultra-modern shopping malls and exclusive condominiums, and more – as our photos attest. We encounter/see all these profiles of the Shenzhen urban landscape as we make our way through it. At the same time, corresponding to which of these sites we find ourselves, we are variously struck by the following impressions: sheer human vivacity, mundane life-in-progress, noise, dust, the clanging of steel, polished marble and glass, air-conditioning, and the sanitised, serene, and pseudo-exquisiteness of aspiring middle-class urbanity. As already noted, these impressions are not formed merely from what we see or hear; they also emerge from our perception of mood, rhythm, and pace of the life and things that we see, hear and smell. Indeed as we wander through Shenzhen, we are presented with a kaleidoscope of images and impressions testifying to the rich texture and different hues of Shenzhen and Chinese life.

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We are beginning to make inroads here. I have begun to grasp some of the superficial features of Shenzhen (note: my references have only been to the physical landscape). As is fitting of ethnographic work, I am beginning to Know of Shenzhen and China by Being there, inserting myself into the life there that is unfolding. In the process, I am treated to a variety of sights, sounds, smells and the respective impressions they evoke. Without doubt, the overriding impression is that of Shenzhen on the move, in transition, in the process of transformation. But whence, and whereto? The ethnographer’s task – my task – in Shenzhen is clear: it is not just to reveal these seemingly disparate and apparently different profiles and moments of Shenzhen life, but to probe deeper and  to explain how they might relate to one another. One could begin by asking: Why do these profiles of Shenzhen exist? Why do they take their current form? I anticipate that stories about what makes the Chinese “good life”  are buried somewhere beneath this melange, waiting to be unearthed.

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