Just clinging to the end of page 99 in my dissertation is a tentative question: “but should it really be that the presence of a model, even a very strict one, inhibits improvisation in the making process?” In this part of my dissertation I am in full swing unpacking the making process in a rather unique industrial space—a warehouse tucked into the Sonoma, California countryside that produces Tibetan Buddhist texts by the hundreds of thousands. On this and the surrounding pages I grapple with an anthropology of making that is deeply suspicious of the corresponsive capacities of machines and the stifling influence of models, both of which supposedly undermine the skill and creativity of the artisan. The making that takes place in the Sonoma bindery, however, is all at once thoroughly industrial and mechanized, governed by a strict, ritually dictated model, and enormously creative and skillful.
This particular thread about work, machines, making, and creativity is only one in my dissertation’s wider endeavor to follow the social and physical making of Tibetan sacred things across a community of Californian Nyingma Buddhists. In the months since I defended my work though, this question about making under strict parameters has lodged in my anthropological consciousness, spawning more about the nature of skill in labor, anthropology’s nostalgia for craft and its trappings, and perhaps the discipline’s broader nostalgic tendencies. These questions have taken hold of my work in a way I did not intend or expect.
What page 99 holds for me is a reminder that as authors we maintain only a measure of control over texts. The writing we deem finished may turn back toward us and accost us with the very questions we thought we were asking. This realization is not un-ironic for a dissertation about the social lives and agency of books. Page 99 of my dissertation may not encapsulate the whole especially well in terms of its arguments, but it does embody a reminder of the more central lesson my fieldwork held: that texts—even our own—have lives, power, and the chimeric ability to morph at every reading.
Amy Binning. 2019. Printing as Practice: Innovation and Imagination in the Making of Tibetan Buddhist sacred texts in California. Cambridge University, Phd.
Opening to page 99 of Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia, you’ll find my reflections on choosing apprenticeship as the ethnographic method that would fit my research questions exploring how craft labor was related to connections with forest landscapes in the mountain forests of West Virginia. While the page generally focuses on how I changed research topics to focus on the materials of craft as an entrance into the meaning of work and how I found makers (often locally famous and frequently interviewed) had ready-to-articulate ideas about their craft, one sentence stands out to speak to the whole of the dissertation.
I found that verbal learning about the craft processes and the craft in general occurred more often in tandem with my kinesthetic, material, and temporal experience that inspired discussion not broached in our interviews.
Ethnographic apprenticeship is the methodological rock upon which the rest of the work unfolds, as the bulk of my argument is made through the narratives of building instruments with three makers. Learning the craft enabled me to feel the affect of the work: the compulsion to make despite adverse and anxiety-inducing economic conditions, the joy and frustration of intersubjective relationships emerging between skilled crafter and wood materials as successful instruments or dashed hopes, and living in the contradiction of the major paradoxes of musical instrument making. Working alongside makers enabled me to see how they live in the contradictory processes of bringing life to an instrument through the death of a tree and relying on the capitalist regimes of timber and factory production that elide the livelihoods and material necessities of craft makers. Working together on material objects also revealed other categories that rendered the work meaningful. Through long hours spent together in the shop, topics emerged that were not discussed in interviews guided by my research questions. Relationship building through apprenticeship revealed that religion was the main driver of meaning in work in one case and transnational connections between people and forest landscapes in another. While the presence of the forest and relationship to the materials was central in both cases, it was other relationships that foregrounded the meaning of the work.
While these methods limited the scope of the dissertation, and made it difficult to speak to the extensive scale of instrument making in Appalachia, empirical discussion of the political economic context, and contrasting takes on the position of racialization and gendering, it did allow me to once explore the intricacies of the relationships between working humans and our environments, as well as position those uniquely human forms of relationship that enable us to make sense of the political, economic, and ecological webs we inhabit.
Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. 2019. Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia. University of Kentucky, Phd.