Sometimes, leaving “the field” and returning can be incredibly productive. Sometimes it is because it gives you time to think and plan, while in a different mindset. Other times, it is because the return throws differences into stark relief with the life one leads in other places.
Both have been true for me in the last three days. After spending a month at University College London with my colleagues, I have a much better grasp on where this project is going, where my part fits in, and how it relates to the other eight fieldsites involved.
What is even more impressionable is the sense of aesthetics that I immediately notice upon returning to Northern Chile. And as someone who has always been fond of art, architecture, fashion, interior design, and other forms of visual expression I notice that my surroundings here actually affect the way I feel, present myself, and act in daily life. The nine of us on the project collectively wrote a blog on “Real methods in anthropology” wherein we describe the ways we are a bit like chameleons, and do certain things to more closely fit in as we live in our fieldsites. While this may appear as “inauthentic” to some people, we know that the self in everyday life is always a performance (see Goffman 1959), and that people are always a different version of themselves in different contexts. Yet, returning to Alto Hospicio has reminded me just how different this self is from the selves I perform in Chicago, Washington DC, La Paz, and London.
Being away has also helped me to pinpoint what it is about this place that makes me so different, and perhaps fortunately, I think what I’ve realized has quite extensive impacts for my research as well. Put simply, the aesthetics of Alto Hospicio are incredibly different from those in the other cities where I like to spend time.
At first glance, I think to myself ‘This place has no sense of aesthetics.’ Instagram photos present uninspired subjects in mundane settings without much attention to the filters or other enhancements available in the application. Facebook posts—both photos and text—appear to lack curation (as explained by Erin Taylor). One person’s clothing style is indistinguishable from the next (at least to my eyes). Houses each equally resemble lego blocks. And even the city’s parks and plazas do very little to offer natural refuges from city life.
But to say that there are no aesthetics here is obviously this is not true. Plenty of people tell me that they have personal styles and tastes. Houses are often painted bright colors on the outside and decorated with plenty of artificial flowers on the inside. The new municipal building in the city is architecturally pleasing. Cars are clearly modified with exterior lights, and decals. Clothing ranges from black tshirts displaying heavy metal band names to sunny beach attire. These are styles, not just reflections of function.
So the challenge is first, to find a way of describing this form of aesthetics without implicitly privileging the forms of aesthetics I have delighted in my whole life—those that are middle class, cosmopolitan, North Atlantic, etc. And second, to find what are the underlying currents that define these forms of aesthetics that are present in Northern Chile.
Goffman, Erving. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City: Doubleday.
Taylor, Erin. (2014) The Curation of the Self in the Age of the Internet. Paper presented at IUAES / JASCA Conference, Tokyo, Japan. Available at http://erinbtaylor.com/the-curation-of-the-self-in-the-age-of-the-internet/