‘Stealing with the eyes’

The title of this post is the title of the latest book by my friend Will Buckingham (with the subtitle ‘Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia’). I started reading it one night this week, and finished it the following day on train journeys to and from Cambridge. Quite a surreal way/place to read it, it turns out. I left the train at a point at which Will was on death’s door having refused an injection, and worried all day about what would happen to him. So it was a relief to get back on the train (after a day of Gormley, Tutankamun and Louise Bourgeois) to find out what happened next.

It is an absolute joy to read. It made me laugh out loud, cry, wonder, want to know more, want to go off to new places… All the things that a gripping – but real – book should be. I love it. It describes Will’s encounters in the 1990s – with people, sculptures, witches, octopuses, histories, insects, ancestors, weather, travellers, anthropologists, illnesses and medicines – I suppose really with life and death – in the remote Indonesian Tanimbar islands. Which I had never even heard of before I started this book.

But above all, it describes a growing concern with the (colonial?) activity of the anthropologist. The title ‘stealing with the eyes’ is a phrase used by one of the people Will meets, sculptor Matias Fatruan, from a place called Ruma Salut on the island of Sera, to describe what he sees outsiders doing when they come to ask questions, take photos, record conversations. How can an outsider ever understand the ways and lives of others, not least when they are entwined with the place, with the ancestors?

Anthropologists are not immune to fantasies of the exotic, even if anthropology has a hard time owning up to that fact… I, too, am guilty. And recognising the fact does not diminish my guilt. Perhaps it augments it. (Buckingham 2018, p.177)

It has made me think hard about my own research in India and my ambitions to return. Perhaps the only way to travel and to explore, is to do exactly that – to see what happens with no agenda? I’m not sure. There’s always bound to be a ‘failure’ in any sort of anthropological endeavour. But there’s still an absolute desire in me to go back and do some more exploring, meeting people, going to new places. But I think this is not because I think we can ever fully understand anything – but because we absolutely can *never* understand it. Going to an unfamiliar place is a way to recognise this. That we cannot know. We can just encounter things and see what happens. (And now am I sounding greedy, pretentious, privileged and like all of those distasteful things about anthropology…?)

Anyway, I highly recommend a read of Will’s book. I might have to read it again now. And think about new adventures.

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