In Praise of Question Marks: Reflections on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Jennifer RigganThe sixth post on critical methodologies and narrative, by Jennifer Riggan. Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University, where she began teaching in 2007.  She holds a Ph.D. from the Education, Culture and Society program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received training in political and educational anthropology and African Studies. Her ethnographic research addresses a variety of issues including nationalism, citizenship, state formation, militarism, development, and education. She has published on the changing relationship between citizenship and nationalism and on the de-coupling of the nation and the state. She is currently working on a project entitled The Teacher State: Militarization and the Reeducation of the Nation in Eritrea which explores the role of teachers in state-making in the east African nation of EritreaThis research has been funded by a Fulbright research fellowship, a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship and a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Riggan earned a B.A. in English from Trinity College in 1992 and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995 to 1997.


Alienation

I show up at the workshop on October 26th, not quite sure what to expect. I have gone through the ritual preparations for a conference. I have crafted a carefully cultivated appearance—professional, but not formal attire. Light makeup, hair blown dry, hopefully neat but not overly coifed. Glancing around the room, I’d say many of us have made the same preparations. This is a conference. We all know how to perform ourselves for this venue. The ritual is familiar to us. Notebooks at the ready. Cups of coffee in our grips. A firm handshake of greeting when we meet someone. A socially acceptable hug or kiss if we know someone well. Small talk about our institutions, our research, our teaching. Occasionally our children make a brief appearance in the conversation. When we sit down to introduce ourselves, my voice emerges from my mouth, confident and assertive. I hear myself speak and I don’t recognise the sound, even less the tone. How certain this person sounds, I think, I could be convinced by this person.

For me, the ritual is essential to make me believe in the performance. After all, I have no idea why I’m here and I assume, as usual, that some mistake was made when they invited me. Do they really know who I am? The preparatory rituals, the carefully calibrated appearance, the performance of being academic acts as a talisman against someone pointing the finger at you and crying, “imposter!” I say it to myself all the time. But in an odd form of ritual alchemy, I become what I perform. I fake it until I make it and then I actually believe in this ‘I’ that I barely recognized a moment before. I have become the performance. But when I get lost in my performance, where have I actually gone?

Question Marks

We are here to talk about stories. Some of us tell stories. Some of us make arguments about stories. Stories, like academic rituals, are performances. Are they any less alienating than the ritualization of self? The most honest of us raise questions about stories or tell stories that ask questions. Himadeep Muppidi’s poignant and simple assertion, “empire tells amazing stories,” has stayed with me since that day like a song whose words you can’t get out of your head. We are all penetrated by the empire’s stories. They make us cry and fill us with pride or righteous indignation. They have answers. But how do we tell stories that perform less and question more? This is hard to do in a world, and a profession, that prefers periods or exclamation points to question marks. Our language limits us. What is the point of a question without an answer? What do we become in the absence of our performances of certainty?

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