Anecdotal and Academic Knowledge

This paper challenges us to rethink the commonly held belief that the anecdote is in opposition to the academic. It is written in a style that is appropriate to its interrogation of dominant forms of academic writing. It proposes that the knowledge that may be gleaned from the metonymic of happenstance, rhyme, experience and anecdote, may add to our archive of meaning in interesting ways. And as anecdotes change how we write this meaning, they also affect knowledge-making and the nature of theory itself. ‘Affect’. A pun. Anecdote is as playful as theory is serious. Their combustion could shatter glass.

The paper is centred around three anecdotes about different occasions on which the author encountered a fox. The first two encounters entwined with reading, in one case a short story by Jackie Kay and in the other the species-meeting book by Donna Haraway. The third lent uncanny interpretations to a Zulu opera performance and was the catalyst for the paper. That opera stage, these books, those encounters, their different times and places, are connected by the happenstance of the author’s idiosyncratic experiences. They segue through her and ignite odd connections between life, play, fiction, politics and theory. They enable the weirdness of lapdogs and laptops to meet as a species in the world of Haraway, whose love of technology and of her dog, Cayenne, enable her to re-order the world and to challenge us to re-think our categories.

 

Keywords: anecdote – academic writing style –academic knowledge production – postcolonial vernacular theory

 

Anecdotal knowledge and academic knowledge are to each other as cheese is to chalk. The rhythm of the repeated ‘ch’ is possibly why the chalk and the cheese were chosen as enigmatic opposites, given that there is a metonymic connection between them embodied in the sound. Metonymy. The visceral link created by rhythm, by neighbourliness as sounds rather than meanings connect. This rhythmic affinity is so for all the apparent opposition between the dimensions of the academic and the anecdotal, both beginning with ‘a’ and spoken together fast being a tongue twister, much like Donna Haraway’s ‘queer kin group that finds lapdogs and laptops in the same commodious laps’ in her When Species Meet (2007), a book that will become important to these encounters with foxes, as will emerge. Lapdogs laptops lapdogs laptops lapdogs laptops. And if this sounds flippant, like a bit of nonsense, then put another way, the knowledge that may be gleaned from the metonymic of happenstance, rhyme, experience and anecdote, may add to our archive of meaning in interesting ways. And as anecdotes change how we write this meaning, they also affect knowledge-making and the nature of theory itself. ‘Affect’. A pun. Anecdote is as playful as theory is serious. Their combustion could shatter glass.

I have three anecdotes about different occasions on which I encountered a fox. The first two encounters entwined with reading, in one case a short story by Jackie Kay and in the other the species-meeting book by Donna Haraway. The third lent uncanny interpretations to a Zulu opera performance and was the catalyst for this paper. That opera stage, these books, those encounters, their different times and places, are connected by the happenstance of my idiosyncratic experiences. They segue through me and ignite odd connections between life, play, fiction, politics and theory. They enable the weirdness of lapdogs and laptops to meet as a species in the world of Haraway, whose love of technology and of her dog, Cayenne, enable her to re-order the world and to challenge us to re-think our categories.

                                                                      *

I saw a fox for the first time ever on one of my early morning walks soon after arriving from Cape Town to live in Salford, in the North West of England. We do not have foxes like this one in South Africa. There I was, very far from home, in the brown fields of one of Salford’s abandoned coal mines. This was a strange in-between place, neither city or country, now overgrown with vicious, also new to me, stinging nettles, beautiful trees, birdsong, wildflowers and the muck and debris of a nearby travellers’ encampment, including the shreds and wisps of used toilet paper. It perfectly captured my interregnum between cities, between middle and old age, being 58.

Then, as I rounded the corner, there it was. A fox. What a wonder to see a brand new-to-me live animal both known and more entirely unknown. I was as frightened and amazed as I think it was. For a peculiar, startled moment we locked eyes. It looked like a red furry dog from the front and like a bushy tailed cat from behind as it hot-footed itself around and made off. It left me with a burning bush feeling.

This was not a political anti-fox-hunting moment of admiration for the red, free fox with the intelligent eyes, because when I puzzled over why the encounter seemed so significant, this did not ring true. Like the struggle to interpret a powerful dream, where one knows what it was not about, until something clicks and fits, I puzzled and puzzled over the sense of the weighty significance of my flash of a meeting with the fox. Then I got it.

Some time ago, I had read a short story by Jackie Kay about a woman who gave birth to a fox baby, who she loved and nurtured, and who put her beyond the pale of human sociability. I had forgotten about this story, which is relevant to me at this moment of my life. This must seem like an anti-climax, given the burning bush comment, but it was not. It felt like a wondrous coincidence to see a fox for the first time ever, in post-industrial Salford of all places, at the time that I was contemplating my displacement from South Africa, my South African-ness as a white person and the lessons from diasporic writers like Jackie Kay, who has a home in Manchester. I had filed away the wonderful story and this Salford fox jolted my memory.

The story is called ‘My Daughter the Fox’ and is to be found in Jackie Kay’s collection, cleverly entitled Wish I Was Here (2006). How might one wish to be in the place that one already is? Unless the place that you are in is a strange one, a place in which you wished to belong. Jackie Kay may have been adopted by a wonderful Scottish couple and had a happy childhood, but her absent birth parents, and her blackness inherited from her Nigerian birth father, fill her with desires and quests for greater understanding of her make-up.

The Jamaican midwife lets out ‘a blood-curdling scream’ when the fox baby emerges.

I thought my baby was dead. But no, midwives don’t scream when babies are stillborn. They are serious, they whisper. They scream when foxes come out a woman’s cunt though, that’s for sure (86).

The story does not have the feel of an allegory. The fox baby comes across as real as the ‘worrying green colour’ of her ‘shit’. The mother is summarily expelled from the hospital at the dead of night, so that no-one would see her or her aberrant baby, surely echoing the sense that Jackie has that she is a dangerous secret that her birth parents have concealed from their later, legitimate families. She dreams of being the same as her baby.

In my dream I dreamt of being a fox myself, of the two of us running through the forest, our red bushy tails flickering through the dark trees, our noses sniffing rain in the autumn air (83).

The mother is isolated, with no one to share her pride in her beautiful baby fox.

How could anybody not see Anya’s beauty? She had lovely dark red fur, thick and vivid, alive. She was white under her throat. At the end of her long bushy tail she had a perfect white tail-tip. … From the minute I gave birth to my daughter the fox, I could see that no other baby could be more beautiful. I hoped my mother would see her the same way (88–9).

Vain hope. Granny recoils in horror at the furry creature. Climbing outside of Jackie’s mesmerising tale, I can’t altogether blame her. It must have been a shock. But in terms of the logic of the story, we see Granny’s terror as intolerance. By contrast, the mother of the fox is able to accept her baby for what or who she is and to love her as the daughter that she is. However, she realises that Anya, the fox baby, ‘had more in common with a coyote or a grey wolf or a wild dog than she had with me’. The name – Anya - could be Russian, the English Anne, or an Igbo name meaning ‘eye’.

This mixed species baby, born at midnight like Rushdie’s magical midnight children, kills a rabbit, which fills her mother with pride. This fox baby with a human mother, living in Tottenham, London, is not viable. They cannot survive in their crossover world; Anya’s fox-kind come to claim her and howl outside their flat and the story ends sadly.

I stood looking at the back door for some minutes. I pulled the top bolt and then the bottom one. I opened the door and I let her out into the night (96).

Jackie Kay’s writing flows in and out of questions of belonging, of the nature of her claim to an African heritage: given that she was born and grew up in Scotland; given her Nigerian father and his/her kin, who never claimed or knew her until she went walking and dancing along the red dust road of their home. Jackie is the fox; she is the mother of the fox; the babe’s father, in being a slippery male, who hardly figures in the story, except that he is ‘foxy’, is also a fox. It is not clear what it means to be human. This tragi-comic story is full of the pain and loss that accompanies prejudice. The fox appeared to me in the borderlands between industrial Salford and its brown fields which signify its economic decline; in the borderlands between my past in Cape Town and my present in Salford; between my being an African and a European; between my middle and old age. This fox enabled me to imagine anecdotal theory, to read the story of contact zones, privilege and loss with bright red eyes.

                                                                      *

When the occurrence, the anecdote, is included in theorising, the theory becomes tramelled, anchored. And the anecdote expands beyond the idiosyncrasy of the individual teller. While Jane Gallop’s book, Anecdotal Theory (2002), takes theory and anecdote ‘as diametric opposites’ (2), she bases her writing on the possibility of reconciling them: ‘Anecdotal theory would cut through these oppositions in order to produce theory with a better sense of humor, theorizing which honors the uncanny detail of lived experience’ (2). The word ‘honour’ is beautiful. Theory can not only incorporate the stories of everyday lives, but through these stories cultivate a respect for these lives. Respectful theory. It is true that these stories become melded into the analysis and abstraction necessary for applying them to other times, places and individuals. But to honour lives as they metamorphose into theory is worthy. Another suggestive word is ‘uncanny’ – the uncanniness of lived lives. Uncanny lives, full of coincidences, hauntings and idiosyncrasies, which survive in anecdotal theory. How to make generalisable meaning out of messy, unpredictable, anecdotal life stories? Finally in her capacious short definition, Gallop holds out the possibility of theory with a sense of humour. Funny theory? Theory which entertains, is wry, takes itself a little less seriously. Is this possible?

Theory has a considerable will to power; it wants to comprehend all it surveys. Theory tends to defend against what threatens that sense of mastery. Theory likes to set up an ideal realm where it need encounter no obstacle to the expansion of its understanding. By bracketing the incidents and situations in which it finds itself, theory can feel the exhilarating power to think untrammeled by feeling, life, and context. …While the impetus for theorizing is often the need to think through a life occurrence, the occurrence is generally not included as part of the theorizing (Gallop 2002: 15).

And so some of Gallop’s chapters ‘attempt explicitly to ground their theory in stories from my life’ (14). For example in one chapter, entitled ‘Knot a Love Story’, she tells of her sexual obsession with a young male student, an obsession which impacts on her theory of pedagogy. Her insistence on the visceral frisson of sexuality that lifts teaching and learning into a dimension of excitement and pleasure is shocking to read because so out of place in an academic context, and yet it also rings true.

… desire arose as part and parcel of a scene of pedagogy. The eros was not a deviation, a distraction, an addition, an aside; it arose in the center of what was a purely pedagogical exchange, as pure as any such can be’ (106–7).

The shockingness is the point. Conventionally, she would have erased the attraction and only talked the pedagogy talk. This would be an entirely different story. In the process of writing this story into theory, however, her tone becomes uncertain.  Story and theory re-emerge as combatants.

One more opposed set of terms before I close, this one, in the actuality of writing this essay, the most troubling: theory and story. What I wanted to do in this essay was tell this story; to justify that, I felt it must do a lot of theoretical work. Throughout this writing I have feared that there is too much story, at the same time as I found myself continually falling back into story, adding more stories in the latter part which is supposed to be theory. If story is not subordinate to theory, then I have fallen short of duty, given in to my own (exhibitionist) gratification (110–111).

She is right to be concerned. If it is all story, it is not academic. The challenge that she set us is how to break that binary and thicken both stories and theory with the richness of their embrace.  Anecdotal theory ideally cuts through such oppositions. There could indeed be tiresome self-indulgence, were Gallop’s story simply to be about resisting sex with her attractive young male student. Why would it be interesting to us the readers to know that she invested the sexual chemistry into being a better teacher? What is interesting is her conclusion that, without the frisson of bodily investment, pedagogy is as boring and one-dimensional a topic as the ‘p’ word itself. This need not always take the form of sexual attraction to one’s students. But teaching and learning involve relationships, include juggling of power and friendship, emotion and intellectual work. The affect brings about effects, the knowledge outcomes.

The stories of how and when these intersect with how and why we learn and teach are usually excluded. Gallop is correct to ‘not like writing with a teacherly voice’ and it is appropriate that in order to publish her ‘Knot a Love Story’, ‘to be included in this professional journal this writing ought to turn life to lesson for more general application (for the benefit of others), to subordinate story to theory’. (111). ‘Subordinate’, however, is the wrong word, one that does not do justice to her anecdotal theory. Story and theory meld in anecdotal theory and become as one, without subordination of one to the other. This is the ideal.

Gallop ends her story with another pun. This may ‘knot’ be a love story, but:

the real moral knot, the question that tears me is not about falling in love but about falling into story, not whether or not this is a love story, but whether or not this is a story (111).

The verb and noun dance around ‘tears’ as in rips and as in weeping. Gallop fears that in turning her story into an academic chapter she has betrayed it. And yet, she herself proposes that writing anecdotal theory, which is framed by the lives and dilemmas of individuals, lays open the possibility of new knowledge. It enables ‘The Chance for Something to Happen’, which is the title of her concluding chapter.

I have wanted to seize the fallout of event; that is the point of anecdotal theory. I hope the anecdotal can wedge open my own theoretically predictable discourse. Above all, through the anecdotal, I want to leave open the chance for something to happen (157).

This is theory alive with promise and passion. To write with the openness that could enable something to happen is a challenge taken up by Donna Haraway, who tells anecdotes about her relationship with her dog, Cayenne.

Critters are what this chapter is about. Never purely themselves, things are compound; they are made up of combinations of other things coordinated to magnify power, to make something happen to engage the world, to risk fleshly acts of interpretation (Haraway, location 4078–4083).

Donna Haraway’s critters are a bit like Jackie Kay’s fox baby, a mixture of crossed parts, human, animal and machine. So on to her critters and to my second sighting of a fox.

                                                                      *

I was on my way to a coffee shop in the shopping complex at Salford Quays to read Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. You drive into the car park and up three spiral floors to reach the level of the shops. Speeding ahead of me, up the spiral, was a baby fox. Given Haraway on my mind, and her passion for cross species encounters, this mis-placed fox in a car park appeared hallucinatory with echoes of the burning bush and Jackie Kay. The bright furry creature was terrified and trapped. Huffing and puffing behind it were two red faced security guards. As far as I could make out they were armed with no more than clipboards. They cut tragi-comic figures, with their unfitness, the futility of their chase and their urgent murmurings through devices linked to some command control. Had they asked me whether I had seen the speeding fox, I would have denied it. The fugitive fox in the car park made me sad. Unlike the ending of a short story, I have no idea what happened to it.

I wondered how it had landed up in that place so hostile to its natural well-being. Haraway’s contrast between topos and tropos - topos is the world in its proper place, an orderly site of anticipated outcomes. The disorder of tropos, out of place, in the wrong context, is a ‘swerving and so making meaning new’ (location 4036). My reading of Haraway became profoundly filtered through the eyes of the young fox in flight through spirals of motor cars. Furthermore, the coincidence of the fox at the moment of Haraway’s book, reminded me that we were taught that neither serious fiction writers, nor academics, allowed coincidence into their chain of weighty consideration. They certainly did not centre their writing on anecdotes about their pets. Haraway is taking a risk.

Donna Haraway, who has chosen now to dare writing … about her dogs, about the creation of a relation that matters between her and the dog Cayenne with whom she practices agility sports. I am convinced that we need other kinds of narratives, narratives that populate our worlds and imaginations in a different way. When writing about Cayenne and about what she has learnt with her, Haraway is exposing herself to her colleagues’ derision, and knowingly so (Stengers 2011: 371).

Haraway is an out of place, a tropos academic. She variously describes herself as a biologist (kindle location 158); ‘a science studies scholar and look-alike anthropologist’ (location 1691); ‘a scholar in the humanities and social sciences’ (location 3667). And a wolf.

This wolf found at the edge of the forest and raised by scientists figures who I find myself to be in the world—that is, an organism shaped by a post-World War II biology that is saturated with information sciences and technologies, a biologist schooled in those discourses, and a practitioner of the humanities and ethnographic social sciences. (location 310–311).

This feral academic has a sensual, illicit attachment to her dog: ‘we have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse’ (location 347); ‘we make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love’ (location 348); ‘almost eight years ago, I found myself in unexpected and out-of-bounds love with a hot red dog I named Cayenne’ (location 4880). In an interview with Jeffrey J. Williams (2009) she says, ‘I think part of what makes [When Species Meet] feel so personal is that little soft porn piece between Cayenne and me right in the very first chapter, the little oral intercourse piece’ (159).

This hot relationship between herself and Cayenne enables Haraway to make anecdotal theory about the desirability of species meeting and cross breeding; it enables her to engage in forbidden love and to re-order the world in new categories. She makes connections unimaginable either within the bounds of conventional academic writing or in the strict lore of heterosexuality; she strings together lists of unlikely companions, whose connections are ignited by way of her life stories, her family (her father is the baseball writer on crutches below), her friends, her interests and all the critters she engages with, and cross-breeds with, along the way:

And so in the chapters to follow, readers will meet cloned dogs, databased tigers, a baseball writer on crutches, a health and genetics activist in Fresno, wolves and dogs in Syria and the French Alps, Chicken Little and Bush legs in Moldavia, tsetse flies and guinea pigs in a Zimbabwean lab in a young adult novel, feral cats, whales wearing cameras, felons and pooches in training in prison, and a talented dog and middle-aged woman playing a sport together in California. All of these are figures, and all are mundanely here, on this earth, now, asking who ‘we’ will become when species meet (location 184–5).

Another word for anecdotal theory could be vernacular theory, what Haraway calls ‘doing theory more in the vernacular. More deliberately idiomatic’ (158). Vernacular theory. Down to earth theory that is grounded in stories, in experiences. Theory grounded not in the exemplary case study, but in the particular stories told by unique individuals.

Training together, a particular woman and a particular dog, not Man and Animal in the abstract, is a historically located, multispecies, subject-shaping encounter in a contact zone fraught with power, knowledge and technique, moral questions—and the chance for joint, cross-species invention that is simultaneously work and play (location 3350–3352). …
Indeed, I remembered tardily, seven years before Cayenne was born I already knew that about contact zones from colonial and postcolonial studies in my political and academic life. In Imperial Eyes, Mary Pratt coined the term (location 3541).

I do wonder at the appropriateness of placing Cayenne and herself in the colonial contact zone, the colonial with all its violence and inflicted suffering and dispossession. This is what has exposed Haraway to ridicule at best and accusations of political offensiveness at worst. She will say that the anecdotes of her and her dog swirl into the world of connections between the species and make them into critters, amalgamated beings that are the hope of the world.

When Species Meet strives to build attachment sites and tie sticky knots to bind intra-acting critters, including people, together in the kinds of response and regard that change the subject—and the object (location 4648).

Vernacular theory is made from these everyday stories ‘becoming worldly as a process of nurturing attachment sites and sticky knots that emerge from the mundane and the ordinary’ (location 4801). Becoming worldly is becoming free of blinkers and barriers. Sticky, velcro stories attach other everyday life stories and in this way anecdotal or vernacular theory builds up. The point at which stories connect, thicken and become meaningful beyond themselves is a space which she terms an ‘attachment site’. Attachment puns on joining and loving. Jackie Kay’s fox, my fox, Haraway’s wolf and her dog Cayenne, all our stories entangle, attach and become fond. And out of the crucible arises fresh ways of conceptualising our limitless imaginations, our humanity and our unequal power in the world.

I think, insofar as I am anything, it’s a storyteller. I tell theory stories a lot, and I take them very seriously. I’m extremely interested in the way stories loop through each other and the way attachment sites get built (Williams 2009: 146).

To make her vernacular theory, Haraway does not only tell stories, but she speaks the languages of science and of postcolonialism. Haraway puts herself and Cayenne into the tropos of the contact zone: ‘it is the human-dog entanglement that rules my thinking about contact zones and fertile unruly edges in this chapter’ (location 3585). This is theory indeed, but theory of a different origin and substance: ‘I think I do theory, but I don’t do a recognizable genre of theory’ (Williams 2009: 151). Vernacular or anecdotal theory as a different genre of theory: ‘I think the more recent stuff is, if anything, the most developed theory I’ve ever done. But it is written very differently (151). It is written with ‘several voices and idioms’ (159). Her book includes multiple sites and styles and stories, including her email correspondence with some friends, which did not work for me (or for her – ‘I think the indulgent parts of that book are probably the little chapter of emails’ (159). But to experiment as boldly as she does is to err. Inevitably.

                                                                      *

Months later, I saw a fox for the third time. This time in the middle of London. I was returning to the hotel after a performance at Sadler Wells of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a Zulu opera, with dancers from the Royal Ballet and the Rambert Company. I was walking with a little difficulty as I had bumped into a short pole that I had not seen on the way to the performance and banged my knee, the relevance of which will emerge.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo made music history and political controversy during Apartheid. Paul Simon broke the cultural boycott in travelling to South Africa and recruiting the cappella vocal group into his Graceland album. They contravened the ANC strategy of resistance by seizing the opportunity. Here was a sticky, tricky site. Paul Simon’s music and words, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s soaring, syncopated vocals. The art combusted the evil separations of the system. The collaboration also broke struggle discipline put in place to fight that same system. Messy, opaque politics, strange fusions and sublime music.

Their story is fascinating. Joseph Shabalala founded the group in the 1960s; Ladysmith is a town in KwaZulu-Natal, three hours’ drive west of Durban and three hours east of Johannesburg, a midway place. Ladysmith on the London stage. Black, not for race, but for strong oxen and mambazo the Zulu for a chopping axe to beat all rivals in the choral choir competitions. Shabalala shape shifted from farm boy to factory worker to superstar. The group became famous for their rendering of music in the old Zulu way, as mediated by migrant workers on the mines, who sang of home and preserved traditions even as they metamorphosed them. This was exactly the sound that Paul Simon was seeking to fuse with his brand of American folk. London and Ladysmith and Shabalala. La La La. Too fabulous for words.

If there is an animal here, it is an ox and not a fox. Ox, fox, another rhythmic, metonymic chance connection. I bring the fox into the mix, with my stories. There are many critters in the Zulu British ballet opera performance. It is set in the city and these birds and fish creatures are hybrids of human and animal, the natural world, the spirit zone and the urban landscape. They have occupied the city and made it theirs. The city could be London or Durban. Even a car park in Salford. The show is replete with crossovers of every kind – between classical ballet and Zulu choral music, the miners’ gumboot thumping dance and many critters in a choreography of stickiness. There were dancers from South Africa and Britain – white, black and all the shades between. The audience was as mixed as the performers.

The lens through which I analyse The Ladysmith Black Mambazo performance has been forged by the anecdotal, vernacular theory of Donna Haraway and Jane Gallop and the stories of Jackie Kay and heightened by my own story of migrations from Cape Town to Salford from where I have easy access to the cosmopolitanism of London.

Afterwards, there was the fox. Perhaps it was Anya, was Jackie, haunting the streets, still searching for the kinds of fusions and tolerances in a sadly rift world of prejudice. The fox scurried past and, like me, bumped into a similar short pole before it disappeared. Truly this happened. It was uncanny.

The Igbo of Nigeria believe that we all have a spirit double, which constitutes our core, our soul perhaps. It connects us to the other dimensions of life and death; it grounds us. I think that the critter fox is my chi, my Igbo echo in the spirit world. The chalk to my cheese; the anecdote to my theory.

 

Works cited: 

 

Gallop, J 2002 Anecdotal Theory, Durham NC: Duke University Press

Haraway, D 2007 When Species Meet (Posthumanities), Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press

Kay, J 2006 Wish I Was Here, London: Picador

Stengers, I 2011 'Wondering About Materialism', in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re.press, 368-80 

Williams J J 2009 'Science Stories: An Interview with Donna J. Haraway', The Minesota Review 73-74: 133-63