Thinking through feelings in the field

Davis, California

In January, I uploaded the first account of my fieldwork on this blog. In the five months that followed, seasons flew one into the other, a global pandemic occurred, racial protests erupted, and uncertain steps towards a new normalcy have tentatively been undertaken by California residents. For my research, originally centered on what makes American ʻcollege townsʼ distinctive urban spaces, this socio-political context allowed me to confirm my shifting focus and methodology. A lived-spaces-oriented approach had come to reveal its limits in terms of ethnographic relevance, and, furthermore, was now compromised by the implementation of socially-distant rules. As a consequence, I reasserted the shift to focusing on individuals, using the feminist cultural studies lenses of emotions and affect (Sedgwick, 2003 ; Love, 2007 ; Woodward, 2009 ; Berlant, 2011 ; Cvetkovich, 2012). 

In this paper, I’ll tackle the question of “how I felt in the field” as a starting point to convey a sense of the social atmosphere which I’m immersed in (Cvetkovich, 2012 : 5). A situational ethnographic analysis will be featured to inform my methodology. I do not aim to put forward a sharp argument at this early stage of my work. I would rather emphasize the increasingly important thematic of gender, while enlightening the possibilities of research opened up by three theoretical points : the diagnostic value of mobilizing feelings related to individual subjects ; the entwined reality of feelings ; the necessity of adopting an integrative mode of thinking to elaborate on the contemporary. 

 

First-Thursday-of-the-month concert at the Odd Fellows Hall, downtown Davis, 7 pm. 

This cultural event has gained recognition in Davis over the past ten years, featuring local country and rock musicians with an average audience of fifty. The “old funky town smell” mentioned by one of my research subjects materializes perfectly there. Tabling for the low-power community radio station, I could observe the very same boomers along with a group of older former UC Davis hippies who would always be the first to dance in front of the stage. Although I felt comfortable in the semidarkness created by the high wooden ceiling of the room, I was deeply aware of the concerns of one of the radio’s volunteers sitting next to me, Jim. He had mentioned many times that all of this could well disappear in the glimpse of an eye should the main organizer’s health fail, a distinct possibility given his age. There were not any young residents committed enough to take over. Yet this free event was one of Jim’s most fulfilling activities. 

Born in the South Bay, Jim spent most of his life in Albuquerque (New Mexico) before moving to Davis fifteen years ago. His brother was living here at the time ; his wife Diane wanted to be closer to her own family in Los Angeles but could not afford rent there — and liked the feeling of being surrounded by crop fields in Davis. Still working to pay his bills at 65, Jim had anchored himself in the town through involvement in the low-power community radio project.

Every time we sat down after his evening radio show, I could easily perceive the weight of memories on his mind. This sometimes created a disjuncture between his psyche and lived experience, as was the case during the concert at the Odd Fellows (Starobinski, 2012 : 125). One night, as we were spotting the moon through the window of the studio, Jim reminisced on a recent heart attack and evinced nostalgia for the New Mexico skies. He told me that all of his hobbies and even Davis itself did not matter to him anymore. The only thing he wanted from life was the assurance that he would be able to continue living in his house, sipping the cool recreational beverage of his choice without the threat of being evicted for bankruptcy. 

Those evenings at the Odd Fellows and the radio station conveyed a sense of uncertain and idling time, coexisting with the plenitude brought about by the moment of the shows. I experienced a sadness entwined with, and enhanced by what would be deemed a “good” feeling (Cvetkovich, 2012) : the pleasure of listening to music in company. Such a psychic experience in relation to a radio volunteer during utterly ordinary moments could be called melancholia. I choose this term because, as in Baudelaire’s poems which portray the figures of the sphinx and the pyramide, it occurred to me that Jim’s future project (protentio in phenomenological parlance) did not have tangible prospects and became a void (Starobinski, 2012 : 125). His excess of memories regularly manifested, overflowing in every conversation we had. Even right after the concert, the present was transformed into relics of an already bulky past. The vital possibilities that fulfilling moments encompass were stuck and frozen in time. They only added up to his doubt towards the here/now of his life situation. This doubt encapsulated the consciousness of having moved away from cherished things when moving to Davis ; the awareness of his precarious economic and health conditions ; the acknowledgement of the harsh reality of living in the United States while maintaining the ability to dream of otherwise possibilities in his enfleshed and vulnerable self (“what if I had stayed in New Mexico?”)1. Hoon Song uses the concept of threshold to emphasize the collusions between positive and negative feelings, between conflicting temporalities, or incompatible aspirations, in relation to everyday experience. Threshold evokes “the profound doubt that was always there, always suspicious of the present, vaguely looking backward, and aimlessly accusing (2010 : 102).

Even before doing fieldwork in Davis, I was not fully convinced by my a priori methodological choices. I thought that public spaces as a focus through which to conduct participant observation were too obvious, not sophisticated enough. Once in town, the conviction got stronger, as I found these spaces lacked something that would make describing them interesting—a spirit, the kind of which I had experienced at the community radio station I had analyzed for my MA. Reading Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork eventually prompted me to elaborate on the gap between my own research object and the tone of Allaine Cerwonka’s fieldwork about a seemingly close research object in urban Melbourne. I started meeting people in Davis and could not relate to her sense of excitement. In various social situations, like that one evening at the Odd Fellows Hall, I felt there was something disturbing preventing me from experiencing the kind of light-heartedness I could read between Allaine Cerwonka’s lines. I had hit on what seems to be the underlying methodological thread leading to my research object. Instead of the explicit conflicts and oppositions I was looking for, my research object appeared through the lack of tensions, namely the feeling of melancholia in relation to individual subjects2). This is where Saidiya Hartman’s writings on beauty would come to inform my fieldwork (2019 : 21). Hungry for beauty following her work on slavery, she eventually encountered constraint and resignation in the lives she reimagined.

I do not intend either to psychoanalyze my research subjects, or to venture into their deep-seated inner struggles. The feeling of melancholia is not supposed to be theirs, nor truly mine : it is mine in relation to them in specific ethnographic moments. The moment at the Odd Fellows Hall seemed especially important to depict as it best conveys the reigning atmosphere of my fieldwork in Davis. The attention to the very feeling of melancholia is thus meant to be a diagnostic tool. Indeed, it is “in paying attention to things like tone, we can understand a historical moment that is not yet fully articulated in institutions as the dominant mode of existence” (Love, 2007 : 22). What are the broader implications of this feeling, as reflected in an American town ? 

One of the main findings is relative to gender issues. I met with a number of women ranging in age from 30 to 70 years old, who described themselves as either close to « working poor” or, for the most part, “high profile”. Many of them are former UCD students who followed their husbands back to town after years living away from Davis. Each time I spoke to them, they all seemed strikingly lonely to me, expressing the need to talk and emphasizing the courage it had taken to build their lives in this provincial suburban town. When looking back at their past experiences, they appeared to be struggling to give a new meaning to their lives. The melancholia that stood out from our encounters was even more pronounced in the busy, lively women of the city’s political and social scene. I first thought I overestimated this feeling, doubted the representativeness of my “sample” : did they allow me to venture a claim about white suburban women’s hopelessness ? And yet whenever I tried to dismiss both melancholia and the gender variable as too old-fashioned or uncertain, they popped up again on the faces of the people I met : a depressed mother at a group discussion organized by the Presbyterian Church ; a locally famous singer-writer who gave me a ride ; a self-proclaimed ‘modern mom’ who was the new editor of a local calendar. After almost seven months of acquaintance with me (the time it took me to become fully integrated into their homes and inner circles, also a period of a world pandemic and unsettling political events), the women I followed closely all confirmed their loneliness and the accumulating weight of both private and public burdens.

Following this line of thought, I now want to join Ann Cvetkovich in looking at feelings as “nodes of speculation to think about the contemporary” (2012 : 13). The atmosphere described in Davis seems to me to relate a pervasive white malaise or mal être that the aforementioned radio volunteer or encountered women would perfectly embody. In order to understand this malaise (I cannot find a more suitable term at this moment and still want to distinguish it from that ofwhite anxieties), one should adopt a non-dualistic way of thinking. One should frame their perspective with the term “besides” rather than “beneath” since “a number of elements may lie alongside one another” (2012 : 8). The underlying methodological assumption is to shift the focus towards the process of inquiry for ethnographic depth : “I have attempted to form what social scientists call snowball sampling but on a different scale, continually adding different sites and methods of inquiry to my project until these juxtapositions ceased to produce interesting challenges” (Cohen, 1998 : xvi). 

The malaise or mal être spotted through an acute attention to feelings in relation to individual subjects encompasses several elements : gendered struggles and ways of being that are manifested in doubts as far as the present was concerned ; the link between education and social status ; high profile whites’ construction of the self ; the conflicting and often gendered embodiments of privilege ; the juxtaposition of grim and bright sides of life in California (with the environment a case in point) ; being on the move ; one’s relationship to the space-time of more “central” places (like Berkeley) ; the ideal of the American family ; the political context ; the media scene ; the dominant trope of the economy.

In addition, the public marginalization of both provincial towns and white citizens only contributes to this malaise to the extent that it is an unspoken assumption not to question those people’s life conditions. They are not deemed of interest, as they are neither pictured in an extreme state of poverty, nor as part of the one percent. In essence, they are not perceived as particularly remarkable individuals. Hence the dearth of ethnographies on high profile whites, and of cities such as Davis, as researchers often favor metropolises like New York. Rural sociology is a notable exception in this regard (Salamon, 2003), although it is entangled with the same trope as community studies : presupposing an idealized, cohesive entity subject to negative social and urban transformations.

Juxtaposing these elements finally means inserting my own experiences outside of Davis as part of my fieldwork : a two month lockdown in Berkeley and an invitation to different Californian “intentional communities” (FitzGerald, 1987).

Davis becomes then interesting precisely because it strikes one as unworthy of comparison with major Californian coastal cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego). In this way, it is a matter of choice to describe the life conditions of the whites there, while questioning both the relevance of and collusions between analytical concepts such as “middleclassness”, “whiteness”, “privilege”, “provincial and suburban town”.

It is now apparent to me that a sole focus on lived public spaces and neighborhood gatherings is not suited for what is becoming my research object. I’ve found it more appropriate to follow around ten individuals at different life stages as closely as possible in their daily routines, sharing in their favorite activities, free time, and commuting time. As I listen to their concerns, memories and wishes, one must always bear in mind these subject’s relation to the otherwise and the outside of Davis.

Berkeley here is a useful point of comparison since Davis is constantly thought of in relation to the Bay Area where many residents work or study. Apart from these ten individuals’ marked differences in terms of age, gender, economic conditions, profession and, to a lesser extent, racialized experiences (eight are Caucasian, one is Asian, and one is Hispanic), all share noticeable reflexive abilities. In a previous paper, I intentionally deleted a sentence borrowed from Paul Rabinow’s Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, which acknowledged the widespread nature of the reflexive disposition even “among the shoppers at the Emeryville shopping center” (2008 : 90). If it goes without saying that reflexivity is a psychological ability shared regardless of class divisions, I considered the necessity of outlining this fact to be problematic. Why feel the need to emphasize the fact that an economically precarious radio volunteer can have insights as deep or as numerous as a UCD professor ? Wouldn’t this imply that these abilities are normally reserved for a privileged few in the academia ? Indeed Americans, both inside and outside of Davis, often make sense of my research subjects’ reflexivity by emphasizing the collegiate specificity of the town. But the truth is that many of the individuals I’ve chosen to follow have little to do with academe. 

As a consequence of reflecting on their non-uniqueness, I’ve been led to constantly wonder about what is ordinary or exceptional regarding their lives. For instance, one of my ethnographic subjects is a widow in her seventies, born in Genève and trustee of the UCD Department of Biology to which her late husband belonged. Of course, not everyone can be a trustee of UCD, and she appears quite unique too in her sense of humor, sharp curiosity and European manners. Nevertheless, through her life itinerary and daily routines, it seems that she can “reveal culturally significant group dynamics as much as she portrays the characteristics of a specific individual” (Omri, 2011 : 87). Indeed, she embodies the struggles, aspirations, mal-être, loneliness, and achievements of highly educated white women who experienced marriage, parenting, gender discrimination, and constant mobility, with the challenge of starting anew each time they move to a different location. 

Following individuals in their everyday lives also means accepting that my organization in the field varies widely from day to day—and going back on my earlier prevention against the study of public places. Wavering between trying following my interlocutors and establishing a home base at the radio station located within a publicly accessible media center, I’ve kept the space within the scope of my research. Attending the same shows week after week, celebrating birthdays and festivities, making myself available to discuss at length with boomers from across the social spectrum, including with the numerous retirees among them, many of them whites, who volunteer as DJs : all this appears to me now to be good vantage points from which to look at divergent ways of aging, and concurrent ways in which whiteness gives meaning to the crafting of possibilities for the self. 

This paper, a stepping stone towards the shaping of my research object, aimed to combine the theory of affects with a situational anthropological approach. In trying to depict ‘what it feels like’ to live in Davis, through an ethnographic analysis of feelings in an ordinary social situation in town, I hope to have conveyed the impalpable but pervasive malaise of high profile suburban whites. This malaise is now becoming the focal point of my research, having become even more prevalent in the last few months of political tensions. 

Bilbiography

Behar Ruth (1996), The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press. 

Berlant Lauren Gail (2011), Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Butler Judith. (1995), « Melancholy gender—refused identification. » Psychoanalytic Dialogues, vol.5, n°2, p. 165–180. 

Cerwonka Allaine and Malkki Liisa (2007), Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cohen Lawrence (1998), No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, The Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Cvetkovich Ann (2012), Depression: A Public Feelings Project. Durham: Duke University Press.

FitzGerald Frances (1987), Cities on a Hill. A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hartman Saidiya (2019), Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Heiman Rachel (2015), Driving after Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Oakland: University of California Press. 

Love Heather (2007), Feeling Backward. Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Martin Emily (2007), Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McTighe, Laura, and Megan Raschig. « Introduction: An Otherwise Anthropology. » Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, July 31 2019, online: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-an-otherwise-anthropology

Omri Elisha (2011), Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. Oakland: University of California Press. 

Ortner Sherry B (2005), New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of ’58. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rabinow Paul (2011), The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramírez-Ferrero Eric (2005), Troubled fields: Men, emotions, and the crisis in American farming. New York: Columbia University Press.

Salamon Sonya (2003), Our Town: Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sedgwick Eve Kosofsky (2003), Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Song Hoon (2010), Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized- America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Starobinski Jean (2012), L’encre de la mélancolie. Paris: Éditions du Seuil. 

Weiss Margot (2011), Techniques of pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Willerslev Rane and Suhr Christian (2018), « Is there a place for faith in anthropology? Religion, reason, and the ethnographer’s divine revelation », HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 8, n°1-2, p. 65-78.

Woodward Kathleen (2009), Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions. Durham: Duke University Press.


Par Marie Vidal (EHESS/MONDA/CENA)

  1. I use the term ‘otherwise possibilities’ in reference to queer studies which elaborates on ‘otherwise world building’ beyond the here and now, while emphasizing the necessity of adjusting the ethnographers’ forms of being in fieldsites. See : McTighe, Laura, and Megan Raschig. 2019. « Introduction: An Otherwise Anthropology. » Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, July 31. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-an-otherwise-anthropology []
  2. Following Ann Cvetkovich, I’d rather favor the term « feeling » over « affect » since it is « intentionnally imprecise, retaining the ambiguity between feelings as embodied sensations and feelings as psychic or cognitive experiences » (2012 : 4 []

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