Thanks to Juliet McMullin, who drew my attention to a fascinating article by Manuel João Ramos in the online, open edition of the journal Cadernos de Arte e Antropologica. The article is a fierce defence of the use of sketching as a part of ethnographic observational practice, and is accompanied by a gallery of comic-panel sketches. Why?
Ramos is an Associate Professor of Anthropology based at the Center for International Studies, at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE), with a curious and fascinating list of professional (and, I assume, ethnographic?) interests – travel literature, “NGO militancy” (I’m not even really sure what that might be), and road traffic victims and road safety.
His article – Stop the Academic World, I Wanna get off in the Quai de Branly: Of sketchbooks, museums and anthropology – uses some fascinating language with regard to the use of visual media in anthropology:
… un-genreing and re-genreing anthropological production may help free it from its boring academic format, shake up its stiff argumentation forms and sapped styles – all too reliant [o]n the game of referencing, quoting, paraphrasing and bowing.
Ramos argues that using visual media as an integral part of academic writing is a step towards this “re-genreing” of anthropological production. His language is the language of revolution – “shake up”, “boring”, “free it”. He champions the act of drawing anthropology as countering “the peculiar “game of writing” where the anthropologist imaginarily dissolves his/her self in the voice of orality in the very process of affirming his/her authorship of the text”.
I’ve been talking a lot recently about the value of introducing personal politics into archaeological writing through the use of visual media – most recently in a paper I gave at Comics Forum this year. I have long suspected that I am not the only person in the anthropological sciences thinking this way – and Ramos’ article proves me right. I have a feeling that there is a growing community within the anthropological sciences unhappy with traditional modes of publication, and interested in the way in which visual media offer powerful alternatives.
Ramos refers to his drawings as a “sketchbook”, but their combination of text and image, their use of visuality to create narrative, make them, in fact, a comic. And as I did in my article for Advances in Archaeological Practice, he’s arguing for their use as a stand-alone form of professional publication, not simply as a supplement to it.
The use of comics in science is not simply about reshaping scientific knowledge in a more accessible format for a public or non-specialist audience. The use of comics in science can – as Ramos and I have both argued – represent new ways of thinking about science in the first place. What Manuel Ramos and I (and others) are experimenting with represents a step towards a general “re-genreing” not just of science communication, but of science practice.