Notes on Ahmed S.  (2000) 'Who Knows?  Knowing Strangers and Strangeness', Australian Feminist Studies 15 (31): 49-68.

The category of stranger implies a combination of knowing and unknowing, and is thus the object of knowledge [of their strangeness] rather than produced by no knowledge.  This illustrates that knowledge always involves some community, since strangers are recognized as being already out of place, an object of knowledge only when they enter ‘home’.  Anthropology works with this conception as well, of strangers which have to be made into familiar forms of strangeness.  There is still a boundary problem, a more academic kind, around a field of knowledge [in this case anthropology].  Strangers are permitted to enter the field, but only as a figure.  This whole notion of strangeness is going to be more profitable to feminist methodology than the concept of the other: the crucial question changing from ‘who speaks' to 'who knows'

The context is an issue in Australian anthropology, the 'Bell debate', but Ahmed is insisting that she's not speaking in any way for or as an Australian aboriginal woman, although she claims a 'solidarity [with them] which comes in part from lived experiences of gendered forms of racism'(50).  [She is a 'mixed race Asian Australian woman who now resides in the UK'].  The Bell debate arose after publication of the study of Australian aboriginal women by Bell and Nelson, the latter being an Australian aboriginal woman herself.  This debate arose in the early 1990s, but still has relevance for when white feminists discuss the issue of land title, for example.  It also illustrates the benefits of considering strangeness not otherness, which in turn means an examination of how ethnography produces knowledge.

The usual description of how ethnography works is to refer to translations between languages and perceptions 'moving strangeness from one system of meaning to another without altering its coherence' (51).  This nearly always involves some notion that we recognize in 'the primitive' some predecessor of our own understandings.  In practice, it involves swapping terms in order to make the foreign familiar, 'an act of violence' (51).  The analogy with translation also conceals the practice that the text of the strange has to be produced first [through writing practices, no doubt?].  This very production destroys the original material.  Anthropological texts are clearly written for other anthropologists, and here the strange is recreated.  The result is a hybrid text, including the 'not-quite- strange or not- quite- familial [SIC]' (52).

We can see this if we recognize that it is the ethnographer who is the stranger, and that they can be taught about themselves.  However, the ethnographer claims authority, implying that others are the strangers.  So the concept of strangeness is also central to the operation of the profession.  [Same with teachers, and all professionals doing face work?] It is a superior epistemology used to deny the ontology of the strange (53).

Does feminist methodology challenge these assumptions?  The issues can be explored by thinking of post colonial feminism with its interest in who is speaking exactly, including the idea of possible positions from which to speak [shades of Deleuze on anthropological documentary --see Smith's Intro].  Spivak has asked whether subalterns can speak at all.  This has led us to the positions where some white feminists have claimed to speak for the subaltern and so have contributed to their silencing.  Asking the question 'who knows' adds an epistemic dimension.  Just as Spivak insists that being able to speak is related to the issues of ‘work, production and exchange' (54) so is being able to know—how does dominant speech and knowledge know the other in the first place?

The study by Bell [whjite female]and Nelson [indigenous female]  focused on the rape of indigenous Australian women by indigenous men.  It was written to advance the claim that everyone must speak about rape, but this raises the issue about who ‘everyone’ is, and whether the authors are entitled to speak on their behalf.  Bell was accused of using Nelson, and of creating divisions among the indigenous population, and it got very heated.

Nelson was credited as a co-author and not an informant [also seen as sinister by the critics].  This supports current 'postmodern' views that authorship should be shared, and texts polyvocal.  However, does this overcome relations of power and domination?  The position of Nelson shows the ambiguities—has she really spoken as an equal, in a scholarly journal following the usual conventions?  To credit Nelson as a sufficiently important informant could also raise problems, since this is normal in anthropology anyway and a power relation again, disguising the actual process of constructing ethnographic texts.  Bell seems to have believed that she can write as an individual in a way that simply overcomes power relations [just like autoethnography].  Power relations are concealed beneath this ‘fantasy’ of togetherness (56) and polyvocality.  These challenges extend to feminist ethnography as well.

It is also a question of knowledge.  Bell was able to defend herself by saying that the real issues concerned the rape of women, not theoretical debates about voice.  Bell talks about womanly friendship with Nelson as the basis for the collaboration, but there is still a suspicion that this is not mere friendship, but one subordinated to the requirements of ethnographic work.  This is often implied in other feminist ethnography as well.  It also implies that friendship between women is powerful enough to overcome racial differences between them [class differences too?]—would feminists argue that friendship between men and women can overcome sexism?  In practice, Bells' whiteness empowers her to offer friendship, while Nelson's blackness makes it difficult for her to speak, and these assumptions of normalization are still there, even if explicit racism is not. Private friendship is seen as powerful enough to overcome institutional relations.  In fact, those institutional relations are always there and provide a context for friendships.  Bell is naive, or in denial, to insist that a mere desire to speak to each other produced the collaboration.  Bell herself has claimed ethnographic authority for participation, in the form of experience in fieldwork: the encounter between her and Nelson was structured just like a classic anthropological encounter in the field (59).

Bell's earlier work is also revealing.  It included some autobiographical elements which led to a denial of any particular objectivity and an admission of confusion.  However, writing in the first person does not challenge ethnographic authority sufficiently.  Bell’s earlier book follows a classic narrative of confusion turning into knowledge, and this depends on encountering others [as in male heroics in travel writing see Beezer].  The personal confusion it is now a recognizable anthropological genre and narrative, and it often appears in the first chapter of texts  Access to the field becomes an heroic struggle with benefits for the self.  It is also naive, because Bell was already informed by anthropological literature not just her encounters with native women.  The resources for translation are unavoidable, and the effects and processes must be discussed, as above.  We find the same ambiguous status of stranger—strange enough to be of interest, but not so strange that they can't be grasped by anthropology.  Success in constructing the narrative redounds to the credit of the researcher.  [And there is a hint of the point that apparently direct quotations support this authority and credit.  It is better done in Clough really].  Bell situates herself as the learner, with the aboriginal women as teachers, but she still narrates her experiences to the reader through her own knowledge.  The retelling implies that the aboriginal women would have authorized her understandings, and this is emphasized if they are given the status of co-authors.

What the anthropologist learns involves her becoming like an indigenous child, learning customs and conventions, for example, but she can never be just like a child but has already has a lot of knowledge.  Imitating others also preserves their difference, but this is blurred again.  The researcher is permitted to 'speak of “the indigenous women themselves", for them, and as them at the same time' (62).  Is the researcher really a hybrid, or is this another technique, almost becoming the other in order to access them?  Indigenous women are not allowed to become hybrid [Clifford says that Margaret Mead deliberately avoided partially westernised Samoan women].  The skilled techniques cover the relations of power about who is allowed to speak.  Is this inevitable?

An alternative is suggested by Powdermaker, who suggests that anthropologist must maintain a deliberate double relation, as both friend and stranger, avoiding becoming native [old hat]:  the ethnographer comes to realise that it is impossible [just another example of a different technique producing different knowledge effects?].  The failure to go native is informative itself, and points to what anthropologists cannot know.  This raises the problem of the knowing stranger.

Actual techniques appear to be listening out for things that don't fit [Becker, years ago], bits that don't fit the ethnographic texts.  These bits tend to be excluded as 'bad', or even inauthentic, arising from people who have not learned or cooperated  (63).  We should welcome these voices, see them as a gift, the basis of a dialogue with white feminism.  [Shame, pretty damp squib really].

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