In his famous essay “On Ethnographic Surrealism” James Clifford describes it as a research perspective shared by anthropologists and artists in Paris during the 1920s and ’30s.[1] The Ethnographic-Surrealist perspective focused on the marvelous and the poetic of the everyday instead of its rule- and norm-boundedness. It was characterized by a fascination for the exotic as well as by a playful view toward its own culture and operated with techniques of collage and montage through which disparate elements were artfully combined. While we acknowledge James Clifford’s argument that Ethnographic Surrealism is not a scientific program in the strict sense, we also look forward to a future, the emergence of a Surrealist practice of ethnography that acknowledges the scientific influences and dimensions of Surrealism often overlooked in traditional appraisals.

We are revisiting Ethnographic Surrealism to enlarge its temporal and geographical scope and to suggest a Surrealist-inspired research approach. Clifford reconstructed the Ethnographic Surrealism of the interwar period in France. We look at the afterlife of Ethnographic Surrealism after World War II in different countries. We are following the assumption that underneath the official history of cultural anthropology a subcutaneous stream of research can be delineated and will sketch the outlines of this alternative history of anthropology with regard to France, Great Britain, the United States of America, and Germany. Doing so means taking national particularities into account, but also being aware of transnational conjunctures and overarching thematic orientations, for example a shared attention to the dark and ghostly or to the profane and ephemeral. The questions concerning the “rogue tradition”[2] of Ethnographic Surrealism can be answered only speculatively and in sketches here, by highlighting remote traces and re-evaluating irritating moments in the history of the discipline. It is an untold story, which gains its force by emphasizing the exception rather than the historical consensus. This does not mean that the history of Ethnographic Surrealism is disconnected from the official history of science. On the contrary, as part of overarching cultural constellations and as a reaction to developments inside anthropology the Surrealist perspective appears cyclically, around 1950, when anthropology, folk culture, and avant-garde art again had a brief flirtatious liaison, during the counterculture wave around 1968, and in the context of the discussions on postmodernity and “writing culture” during the 1980s. Following the methodological lead of cultural historian Greil Marcus,[3] we are outlining a twentieth-century congeniality of Ethnographic Surrealism across different times and places.

Recently reappearing references in art and science indicate that we may witness again a renaissance of Ethnographic Surrealism today. Trendy slogans like “artistic research” express a vague hope that something of an earlier elective affinity between the artistic and anthropological avant-garde might have survived, but they are used mainly in a rather ahistorical manner. We want to fuel this hope by looking in the second part at Surrealist-inspired ethnographies dealing with affects, drugs, ghosts, and the city and by outlining the methodological consequences and epistemological potentials of this research perspective. By doing so we attempt to make Ethnographic Surrealism usable again. We want to provide concrete suggestions as to what experimental work at the borders of anthropology, art, and literature could look like. This critical intervention resists attempts to streamline academic research and to void ethnography of its curiosity, fascination, and poetry. It is particularly critical of an anthropology that is so reflexively enlightened that it cannot account for the enchantments of fieldwork anymore and which reacts to the popularity of ethnographic methods outside the discipline with mistrust and by closing its own doors.


1. Avant-Gardes of Ethnographic Surrealism

In selecting the countries in which we were looking for traces of Ethnographic Surrealism, we constrained our view to France, Great Britain, the US, and Germany – obviously a Western-centric selection, which is due to the history of Surrealism as countermovement to modernity inside Western modernity. We nevertheless plan to look at Ethnographic Surrealism outside the Western Hemisphere in the future, which will include a reassessment of authors like Brazil’s Darcy Ribeiro, to name just one example. This time, we start with a short visit to the birthplace of Ethnographic Surrealism in France. In Great Britain we then find a documentary-style Surrealism, which leads up to current discussions on the everyday. In the US, we encounter with Carlos Castaneda a counterculture version, with James Clifford a postmodern interpretation, and with Michael Taussig a postcolonial Surrealism. And finally, we are looking for some traces of Ethnographic Surrealism in our native Germany, where a rebellious group of left-wing anthropologists were shaking up anthropology in the 1970s.

France: The Birthplace of Ethnographic Surrealism

Ethnographic Surrealism was the offspring of a particular constellation in Paris of the 1920s and ’30s, marked by the affinity of the not-yet-established academic discipline of anthropology with the arts and the rise of Surrealism as a cultural movement during this period. With the journal Documents, the research diary Phantom Africa, and the Collège de Sociologie we are briefly revisiting some of the key moments of the development of a research approach, whose continuing fascination we deal with in this essay.

The journal Documents, founded by art-critic Carl Einstein and led by Georges Bataille, during its brief time span between 1929 and 1931, was one of the earliest prominent examples of Ethnographic Surrealism. The journal offered mainly those artists and writers a forum who had parted with André Breton after disputes inside the Surrealist movement during the 1920s, among them Michel Leiris, André Masson, and Juan Miró.[4] The original subtitle of the journal indicates its main reference points: “Archéologie, Beaux-Arts, Etnographie, variétés” (Archaeology, Fine Arts, Ethnography, Varieties). “Archéologie” was indicating a strong and detailed interest in the objects of material culture. “Beaux-Arts” meant mainly the contemporary art of the time, for example Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, and Pablo Picasso. “Etnographie” stood for the allure of the exotic, which was sought both in faraway places as well as in Parisian backyards. The designation “Variété,” which later fell away, represented a performative and playful approach. The journal stood for an evocative and sometimes macabre combination of disparate elements from high- and popular culture. Essays on ethnographic research found their places alongside photographs of apes dressed in women’s clothes, close-up views of human organs, and images of Brazilian puppet-heads or the frozen river Seine. The journal thus not only assembled the voices of Ethnographic Surrealism, it also put this approach into practice. After Documents ended in the 1930s, it was quickly followed by other rather short-lived Surrealist journals.

One of the protagonists of Documents, Michel Leiris, had already left France by then and embarked on a two-year ethnographic expedition – the soon-to-become famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti led by Marcel Griaule. After returning to Paris, Leiris published, in 1934, a critical travel and research diary called Phantom Africa,[5] which provoked a scandal and a fierce defense from within French anthropology. Current research by Vincent Debaene argues that the peculiar tendency of French anthropologists since the 1930s to publish a “second” literary book besides a “classic” ethnographic research report was not only to do with the close relationship between French literature and anthropology.[6] The turn to literature was also a reaction to positivist tendencies in French anthropology, which demarcated its borders with regard to art and writing by restraining itself strictly to scientific writing on social structure, religion, and folk customs of foreign people. But anthropologists still felt deeply moved and transformed by their research travels, and the poetic “second book” offered them a way to express these experiences, with Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1955 Tristes Tropiques being maybe the most prominent example.[7]

Michel Leiris was then again influential for the Collège de Sociologie led by George Bataille and Roger Caillois, which existed from 1937 until 1939, when German troops invaded Paris and dispersed the members of the original Surrealist movement.[8] The Collège de Sociologie added to the Surrealist movement in art and literature a more systematic social-science orientation. It was less playful than Documents, but offered an outline for a Surrealist-inspired academic research program. Leiris’ reflections on the “sacred in everyday life” in “Das Sakrale im Alltag” of 1938 was crucial for this project.[9] The “sacred,” here, stood for those moments, objects, and places of everyday life that carried a quasi-religious attraction. The “sacred in everyday life” meant those outbreaks of profane time that often go unnoticed – the allure of an object, the strange sound of a word, or the childish excitement on a racing track. Leiris thus limited the sacred neither to the sphere of the religious nor to faraway culture, but looked for its traces in French contemporary culture of the time. The intellectual interest in the extraordinary of the everyday was conceptualized later in different ways, among others by Roland Barthes with his reflections on the Punctum in 1980, and more recently by Brian Massumi in 2002 and Kathleen Stewart in 2007 with regard to “intensities” and “ordinary affects.”[10]

What happened to French Ethnographic Surrealism after the end of the Surrealist movement in art, film, and literature? Though it never again played a crucial role in the intellectual milieu comparable to its influence in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, it also never waned completely. Claude Lévi-Strauss met with the Surrealists during his exile in New York in the 1940s, in the 1970s anthropologists such as Roger Renand wrote for journals like La Civilisation surréaliste and Bulletin de liaison surréaliste, and in the 1980s and ’90s the idea of Ethnographic Surrealism fascinated French scholars in the humanities. French anthropologists never lost their disposition for literary and experimental approaches to ethnographic writing, which is why the United States’ “Writing Culture” debate did not provoke as much of a furor in France as it did in other places. A productive liaison between the avant-garde of art and anthropology can also be found with Jean Rouch in the domain of visual anthropology, to which we will turn later in this essay.

Great Britain: The Documentary Tradition

In a footnote, James Clifford points to British “Mass Observation” as “another possible example of “surrealist ethnography.”[11] This research project developed in England in the 1930s, where otherwise the Surrealist movement was rather weak. Initiated by the Surrealist painter and documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, he had organized just before this a big Surrealism exhibition in London together with André Breton and the poet and journalist Charles Madge, both of whom had proclaimed that the British know too little about their next-door neighbors. Mass Observation aimed at a comprehensive inventory of British popular culture, which was regarded as an exotic world. There were more than 500 associated lay-researchers, which is why it was called a “movement.” They applied a variety of methods, but characteristic was the strong focus on ethnography and the embrace of the subjectivity of the researcher, who was invited to follow spontaneous ideas and look for unexpected findings. According to the cultural historian Ben Highmore, the motive of Mass Observation was to counter the aloof qualities of French Surrealism with a “popular poetry.” Madge and Jennings understood Surrealism not as an art movement but as a “laboratory of studies”[12] focused on everyday life.

The British version of Ethnographic Surrealism showed another orientation compared to the French one. The cultural context was different, and according to George Melly rather unfavorable for the Surrealist movement: The British at the time lacked cafés, they mistrusted lofty ideas, group activities were rather short-lived, and Protestantism dominated over Catholicism – compared to the more playful Paris, then, London seemed rather “masculine.”[13] The anthropologists George Marcus and Michael Fischer point in a similar direction when they locate Surrealism in France and associate the Anglo-Saxon world of the time with a documentary tradition.[14] Or, to put it another way: while the French emphasized the “Sur-,” the British stuck more to the “-realism” of Surrealism.

In an advert published by Madge and Jennings in the journal New Statesman and Nation calling for participants, a range of topics were suggested that juxtaposed politics and the profane in a surreal manner:

Behaviour of people at war memorials. / Shouts and gestures of motorists. / The aspidistra cult. / Anthropology of football pools. / Bathroom behaviour. / Beards, armpits, eyebrows. / Anti-Semitism. / Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke. / Funerals and undertakers. / Female taboos about eating. / The private lives of midwives.[15]

The first and most famous book about Mass Observation went by the title May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937, by over two hundred observers and documented British everyday life as of the day of the king’s inauguration.[16] Parallel to the book, Jennings arranged diverse visual sequences in a poetic documentary film, which resembled Surrealist film-collages. The combination of extensive documentary material and artful montage was the specificity of this version of British Ethnographic Surrealism. Just as Breton had proclaimed in France, this form of Surrealism produced film-like images, which brought together faraway realities.[17]

The history of science has largely neglected the significance of the Mass Observation project and only recently begun to reassess its influence on British Society before and after 1945. For example, it is a little known fact that Charles Madge was later a professor of Sociology at the University of Birmingham at the same time as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was born. Some indeed see Mass Observation as a crucial precursor of British cultural studies as both focus passionately on everyday life.[18] Taking the work of CCCS-ethnographer Paul Willis as an example, this claim seems justified. His 1981 study on motorbikers realizes decades later Mass Observation’s call to make the “shouts and gestures of motorists” a relevant topic of research; and the title of his study – Profane Culture – brings to mind the valorization of the profane and of the products of mass culture in Surrealism.[19]> At the CCCS, Tom Jeffrey even published a paper on Mass Observation in 1978, in which he notes a “serious lacuna”: “it may be that I should have paid more attention to the importance of surrealism in the early years of M-O.”[20]

The same link has been revisited more recently in contemporary approaches to the everyday. Ben Highmore, who teaches at the University of Sussex where the Mass Observation Archive is housed, calls the movement a kind of Surrealist ethnography.[21] Other more modern projects and studies once again experimented with this approach: for example, London’s Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop combined performance and ethnography in the 1990s; and the popular study by Joe Moran Queuing for Beginners followed the sequences and rhythms of everyday life.[22] More recently, the well-known London based anthropologist Les Back took inspiration from Mass Observation for his Manifesto of “Live Methods.” The way in which one should listen carefully to popular poetry, blur the boundaries between academic work and life, and work “on the move,” draws from Mass-Observation ideas. Back even suggests a new kind of mass observation, which produces a “pluralization of observers,” with the help of digital technology.[23] What makes Mass Observation attractive is that it developed a research perspective on the poetry of the everyday, which combined the real with the surreal. It stands for an approach which embraces the complexities and contradictions of everyday life by wandering and living through it and by assembling the collected materials into collages and images.

United States of America: Varieties of Ethnographic Surrealism

It was in anthropology in the United States where Ethnographic Surrealism probably had its most influential revivals after World War II. As anthropology in the US is very diverse and multifaceted, important authors such as Ruth Behar, Allen Shelton, and Craig Campbell will not find a place in this brief overview. We limit ourselves instead to three iconic figures in US anthropology since the 1960s: Carlos Castaneda, James Clifford, and Michael Taussig.

Carlos Castaneda has most likely been the best-selling anthropologist of his time and at the same time, arguably, the most controversial and criticized one too. We constrain ourselves to his first and still most-famous book, The Teachings of Don Juan of 1968, which we read as a 1968-counterculture version of Ethnographic Surrealism.[24] Castaneda was, like the Surrealists he appreciated, aiming at another level of reality beyond Western rationalism. The Teachings of Don Juan reflects on his apprenticeship with an Indian shaman and his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs in the form of a diary. Yet this book is not only about magic and spirituality or dreams and ecstasy. It starts not in the “wilderness” but at a “profane” bus station. Anthropologists at the time valued Castaneda’s way of combining sensual anthropology with an anthropology of the senses as an innovative approach.[25] While his questioning of the modern way of life, by contrasting it with alternative realities, articulated a sensibility of the American countercultures of the 1960s and ’70s, that generation’s preoccupation with “Sex, Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll” had moved to the center of society since, with alternative tourism, ecstatic partying and shamanistic cults had been fully incorporated into Post-Fordist capitalism. Therefore, The Teachings of Don Juanbecame a New-Age commercial classic in the meantime, an enigmatic example of the “Psychedelic Sixties,” with an impact far beyond anthropology.[26] In anthropology itself, however, Castaneda lost most of his early credit with his subsequent publications and his self-staging as a macho and guru.[27][xxvii] Yet what is lost with the often-rightful critique of him is the recognition of the literary and evocative qualities of The Teachings of Don Juan and Castaneda’s focus on the senses, which valued drugs as a complex cultural practice worthy of ethnographic analysis.

Another theoretical version of Ethnographic Surrealism appeared in the early 1980s in the context of the debates on postmodernity. As James Clifford was responsible for coining the term “Ethnographic Surrealism” as it is currently used, the major credit for putting this approach back on the academic landscape should go to him. Yet as with every other postmortem adaptation of Surrealism, his historical reading of the French intellectual scene of the interwar period was also a motivated one – a “partial truth”[28] – as he himself might have said. The Surrealist motivation of playing around with disparate cultural elements fitted well with a postmodern affinity for fluctuating and hybrid signs. The Surrealist writings of early French anthropologists became inspirational for a US anthropology, which was starting to question traditional ways of ethnographic representation and beginning to experiment with literary and polyphonic approaches. What was absent from Clifford’s reading, however, was the revolutionary and anti-capitalist orientation of the Surrealist movement. His Ethnographic Surrealism was not only stripped of Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, but was also a very academic, script-centric, and US-focused one, which neglected a number of major works of Ethnographic Surrealism, like the films of Jean Rouch.

While Clifford moved on to other fields of inquiry and became one of the prominent voices of the “Writing Culture” debate in the 1980s,[29] Australian-born anthropologist Michael Taussig broached Ethnographic Surrealism once again. His recourse to Surrealism occurred in the mid-1980s after he had spent time in different Western universities but also some years in Colombia’s Amazonian forest, where he followed a shaman who introduced him to the world of Yagé rituals. Back at Sydney, Taussig struggled to find a way to convey these life-changing experiences in the jungle without falling into structural reductionism. It was his reading of Walter Benjamin and the French Surrealists that finally opened a door and guided him down the path of poetic anthropology, which he has followed ever since with impressive conviction and productivity. His research on Colombian shamanism developed into the now-classic Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man,[30] which was followed in the ensuing decades by a number of other studies. His ethnographic writing stands for radical subjectivism and evocative storytelling, which blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. Similar to French Surrealism’s birth out of the shocks of World War I, Taussig’s Surrealist Ethnography grew out of the massive (post-)colonial violence he encountered in Colombia, both in the archive and on the streets. It is a poetic, but also a bloody Ethnographic Surrealism Taussig developed, fueled theoretically by his idiosyncratic usage of concepts by Walter Benjamin, including “profane illumination” and “dialectical image,” and ideas by George Bataille, like his reflection on “wasting” and “the rotten sun.”

Taussig today is arguably the most influential representative of Ethnographic Surrealism; he inspired a younger generation of anthropologists but also has a reputation far beyond academia. His writings, as well as those of Castaneda, Clifford, and others, exemplify how Ethnographic Surrealism has repeatedly resurfaced in US anthropology: It is alive, but only so long as every new generation reinvents it and adapts it to new theoretical developments.

Germany: Influential Outsiders

In German anthropology, Ethnographic Surrealism has been rather weak. While anthropology and folklore studies were instrumental to Nazi ideology, anthropology in the meantime lost touch with the avant-gardes in art and science. After the lofty constructions of Aryan racial superiority fell to pieces, German anthropologists preferred to restrain themselves to seemingly innocent empiricism. What followed was a period of academic boredom and stagnation.[31]> However, German ethnology saw a transformation in the 1970s, when folklore studies changed to cultural studies and a group of rebellious outsiders – Fritz Kramer, Hans Peter Duerr, Hubert Fichte, and Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs – shook up anthropology. It was this young generation of left-wing anthropologists in 1968, which had focused their revolutionary hopes since the 1970s increasingly on foreign cultures, who became well-known intellectuals in Germany but struggled to find a place in academic anthropology. What united these very different characters with distinct working styles, what made their work provocative, was its Surrealist touch.

The complex mirroring effects between European and African cultures fascinated Fritz Kramer; for example, how in demonic possession rituals mimesis and trance was used to deal with and keep at bay the dangerous European other.[32] By following the different cultural processes of constructing the division between the dangerous “other” and “us,” he showed how exoticism was a two-way street that operated differently in both directions. Kramer was the central intellectual figure at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology in Berlin in the 1970s, which was labeled informally the “Kramer-Institut,” but he was regarded as too radical to ever get a professorship there. Only in the 1990s did he receive tenure at an art school in Hamburg. His friend Hans Peter Duerr was similarly emblematic, though in a louder and more aggressive way. His book Traumzeit (Dreamtime), dealing with alternative forms of thinking and living, inspired both by Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and by his own experiments with psychedelic drugs, was rejected as a doctoral thesis in anthropology but became a commercial bestseller with the high-ranking Suhrkamp publishing house instead.[33] Hubert Fichte was already a successful novelist when he embarked on expansive research on Afro American religions in the 1970s, but his subsequent books Xango and Petersilie failed to support his academic ambitions at the time.[34] Only posthumously were his empirical depth, his reflexive postcolonial approach avant la letter, and his impressive style of literary montage regarded as groundbreaking.[35] Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs contributed to opening up German anthropology by expanding its canon: In the 1980s, his Qumram publishing house offered a notable place for alternative anthropological approaches by combining literature, photography, and ethnography. He was the first to publish the writings of Victor Segalen and his favorite Michel Leiris in German, and wrote on Ethnopoetry and Ethnopsychoanalysis himself, among other subjects.[36] By doing so, he set subjective and literary approaches, and particularly French Surrealism, on the German intellectual agenda.

Kramer, Duerr, Fichte, and Heinrichs were major figures, but not the only affiliates of the Surrealist avant-garde in German anthropology. They were part of a loose group of intellectual bohemians, including also Johannes Fabian and Michael Oppitz, some of whom you can still meet when frequenting the cafés of West Berlin, where today they tend to enjoy their retirement. Though their outstanding personalities and publications had a major impact in the 1970s and ’80s, they struggled for acceptance by academia. Yet, by doing so, in the long-term they opened the doors for their students, many of whom by now have made careers in anthropology and contributed to making German ethnology more diverse and exciting. By focusing on magical combinations of disparate cultural artefacts, by trying to reach alternative stages of consciousness, by combining ethnography with literature, and by introducing the writings of French Ethnographic Surrealism to Germany, they all tended in different ways toward Surrealist approaches, but also changed and adapted Ethnographic Surrealism for their own research agendas. In living at the margins – being highly influential both within and outside anthropology but also being excluded and made into academic outsiders – they shared another common feature with many of the avant-gardes of Ethnographic Surrealism.


2. Fields and Methods: Outline of a Surrealist Ethnographic Style

After pointing to the different but also overarching national trajectories of Ethnographic Surrealism, now we look at selected fields of inquiry, in order to outline the epistemological potential of this approach. Ethnographic Surrealists have long been fascinated by the counterparts of Western rationality: the affects and drugs, trance and obsessions, dreams and ghosts, and the floating and the ephemeral nature of the city. Again, other topics could have been included or reevaluated with a Surrealist agenda in mind, like the subjects at the border between anthropology and art – performance anthropology, media anthropology, and ethnographic museums – or those at the center of Western modernity, like schools, hospitals, the military, and, of course, the university. Our selection serves to outline a Surrealist ethnographic research style, to grasp the point of view of Ethnographic Surrealism, to see what comes to the fore with such a perspective, and to show which instruments can be of use or could be developed for it.

Touching and Moving: Senses and Affects

Michel Leiris’ aforementioned reflections on the “sacred in everyday life” still point to a major preoccupation of Surrealist-inspired anthropologists. At the center of his approach lies the interest in the extraordinary of the ordinary. A preoccupation, which is currently at the focus of sense- and affect-studies, where it is empirically expanded and theoretically reconceptualized. Sensuous Anthropology criticizes the dominance of vision and asks for a “sensual revolution,”[37] much as the Surrealists have done before. Aiming to break with ocular-centrism, the intention is to bring new forms of feeling and subjectivity to the fore. In a similar vein, “affect” studies have grasped these as forces as something below or before social conventions and established categorizations. Affects are those things or moments in art or everyday life, which touch and/or move us even though we often do not have a language to describe them.[38] Affect-theory focuses on emergent and latent emotional formations and connected regimes of sensual perception, bodily movement, and atmospheric attunements.[39] The attempt to grasp affective and sensual moments without robbing them of their ambiguity or reducing them to fixed semantic forms often goes along with literary and subjective forms of writing and with Surrealist-inspired modes of introspection and montage. Michel Taussig’s methodical reflections and Kathleen Stewart’s ethnographic take on the sensual and affective quality of the ordinary show us how this can inspire ethnographic research.[40]

In his methodological reflections on drawings in field diaries, Taussig points to the epistemological potential of being both emotionally moved and psychologically disturbed when in the field.[41] When passing through a highway tunnel in Medellin, Columbia, he notices, in passing, a scene in which a woman lying in the tunnel is wrapping the man beside her in a kind of sleeping bag. “I swear, I saw this”: Taussig’s book title refers to the amazement of the ethnographer in the face of the banality of such ordinary and yet memorable scenes of everyday poverty. The researcher is not the master in the field, but captured by his observations. Taussig emphasizes the importance of such affective and sensual moments during research, their fleeting and fragmentary character, and recommends the use of diaries and drawings to incorporate them into the process of ethnographic knowledge production. A kind of self-chosen alienation helps one to be receptive to the extraordinary of the ordinary. If the absurd, strange, surprising, and banal moments are not overlooked, secretly put aside, or responded to with structural reductionism, we may gain insights to the surrealities of the “normal.” Taussig also rejects the strict separation between facts and fiction, as this border suggests that in contrast to the subjective world of the affected researcher there might be a “safe” sphere of facts, in which data exist in a quasi-raw condition. Consequently, Taussig has turned to arts and literature in recent years and understands ethnography itself as a kind of artistic endeavor.

Taussig’s poetic anthropology has been a major inspiration for Kathleen Stewart, an anthropologist whose ethnographic writings focus on the affective and sensual qualities of the everyday. Her most recent study Ordinary Affects is a radical experiment of ethnographic writing, a dense collage of observations of the emotional force of somehow outstandingly ordinary events and encounters. She uses Surrealist techniques of montage and collage to convey the rhythms, the emergent forms, and the underlying forces of everyday American class culture. Taking up Gilles Deleuze’s conception of “assemblages” and Brian Massumi’s reflection on “intensities” she understands affects as those electrifying but often barely noticed emotional textures of the everyday, whose poetry and density she attempts to convey by mixing intriguing observations of US class- and consumer-culture with personal and theoretical reflections. Even though the scenes she describes are loaded with political meaning, she avoids theoretical short-circuits with regard to scientific catchwords like “class society” or “neoliberalism.” Instead, she intends to preserve the ambivalent emotional terrain beneath the cloud of big explanations in its fragility and contradictoriness. She uses Surrealist techniques of montage and collage to evoke an image of the everyday as highly affectively charged, loaded with sensual qualities, touched by forces and movements, shocks and surprises.

Both Taussig’s and Stewart’s ethnographic take on the incommensurability of the everyday goes along with a critique of mainstream social-science approaches and their often rash categorization and solidification of fragmentary and disparate cultural elements. Emergent and fleeting forms do not always make up a coherent whole. There is often something akin to another level of reality beyond the smooth and profane surface of the ordinary. In a way, Taussig and Stewart follow Breton’s call in the first Manifesto of Surrealism not to reduce the unknown to the known and not to be captured by the images that offer themselves in a spontaneous and tyrannous fashion.[42]

The “Wild” – Shamans and Possession

The idea of trance and ecstasy and allusions to another dimension of reality, seen in reference both to “primitive” cultures as well as to psychoanalytic experiments at “home,” plays a crucial role in Surrealism. Antonin Artaud, for example, saw in Mexican ecstasy rituals a way to arrive at a deeper understanding of his own European identity, a means to access a “truth” which the people in Europe “have lost.”[43] Surrealist-inspired ethnographers are equally passionately attracted to the “wild” and the “other” of Western modernity: Drugs, shamanism, and possession have become leitmotifs of Ethnographic Surrealism. We could once again visit the work of Michael Taussig, Hans Peter Duerr, and the others already mentioned above in this regard, but instead, we limit ourselves to examples from the domain of ethnographic film. We do so in order to highlight the work of three extraordinary filmmakers obsessed with possession rituals – Maya Deren, Jean Rouch, and Michel Oppitz – but also to point out some of the methodological implications of their visual approaches. While Surrealist-inspired ethnographers have tended toward literary forms of writing, they have also been more inclined to break away from the limits of the written text and to experiment with film and photography, as well as with combinations of image and text.

The experimental filmmaker Maya Deren was a key figure in bringing European Surrealism into conversation with the postwar US avant-gardes in art and anthropology, notably with Gregory Bateson, who at that time had worked on the documentary short Trance and Dance in Bali, together with Margaret Mead.[44] Deren’s experimental short films replaced conventional narrative structure with a dream-like flow of images, intended to bring forward a deeper mythological or psychological truth. By taking a position critical of both Hollywood fiction and naturalist documentary, she opened the way for a Surrealist-inspired ethnographic film, and by considering filmic means such as camera and editing as a means of art making, she further assisted in breaking down the borders between artistic and documentary film. Around 1950, Deren embarked on a series of research trips on Voodoo rituals in Haiti. While she intended to make a film, she ended up writing an ethnography on voodoo- and possession rituals,[45] but also produced hours of unedited film footage. Having collaborated with dancers before, her fascination for the bodily movements of trance and dance went far beyond a controlled participant observation. To understand the cathartic effects of Voodoo, she went a step further and used the movements of her own dancing body as an instrument of research.

Like Deren, the French anthropologist filmmaker Jean Rouch was inspired by the Surrealist movement of his youth and remained in lively contact with the arts throughout his life; for example, collaborating with the theater of Jean Genet and Peter Brook. In the context of his films on possession rituals, he developed the concept of ciné-trance, according to which the filmmaker leaves his “normal self” during filming and gets into a condition of quasi-hypnosis, a process that resembles the Surrealist experiments of the 1920s such as automatic writing.[46] His most famous film on possession rituals, Les Maîtres Fous, depicts a ritual of the West African Hauka religious movement, which deals with colonialism by mimesis and forms of trance, whereby members become possessed by distinct elements of foreign colonial culture, like the train or the governor. In the 1990s, questions were being asked in the journal Visual Anthropology about whether Les Maîtres Fous was such a good example of Ethnographic Surrealism. In 1989, Jeanette de Bouzek located Rouch’s “ethnofiction” within the tradition by pointing to his use of montage techniques, while Martin Roberts, just a few years later, saw Rouch as representative of an apolitical-postmodern US version of Surrealism.[47] Though Roberts was misunderstanding Rouch by using a very restricted notion of the political and by failing to look at the diversity of his oeuvre, he nevertheless pointed to existing differences in the time- and place-specific anthropological adoption of Surrealism and thus to the contingency of recent US interpretations.

Michael Oppitz – who was a kind of outsider in the loose group of left-wing outsiders of German anthropology mentioned above, as he spent much of the 1970s and ’80s away in Nepal – devoted his four-hour long film on Himalayan shamanism to Maya Deren, as he saw them meeting at the same crossroads, just coming from different directions. In contrast to Deren, who ended up writing an artistically inspired ethnography, Oppitz made an ethnographic film with artistic qualities, having felt unable to grasp shamanic rituals with words alone. Oppitz opposes the separation between words and images in anthropology and his subsequent exhibitions and books are richly illustrated, especially his recent 1,240-page-long oeuvre on The Morphology of the Shaman Drum.[48] His landmark film of 1980, Shamans in the Blind Land, has been as influential in anthropology as it has been in art. Artists like Sigmar Polke and Joseph Beuys attended the thirty-five-hour raw-material screenings, with the latter commenting that the shamans have stolen from his work, and beat-poet William Burroughs borrowed the “old smoky” voice of the shaman for the narration of the English version of the film. “Blind” refers to those who can see with their eyes but lack the spiritual perspective of the shamans to see any deeper. The artistic quality of the film comes not with obvious visual experiments, but forms subtlety with the passing of time and with what Oppitz calls “the beauty of exactitude.”[49] Catching a specific mood, situation, or feeling with all its subtleties through intense research and the mastery of verbal and/or visual form can lend ethnographic work an aesthetic surplus, making ethnography not only better but also more beautiful.

Ghosts: The “Dark” Side of Surrealism

Maurice Nadeau, the first great historian of the Surrealist movement, correlated the Surrealist tendency for the dark and ghostly with the early war experiences of its protagonists.[50] André Breton worked in 1916 in the neuropsychiatric clinic of Saint-Dizier, where he treated soldiers traumatized by World War I.[51] Similarly, Louis Aragon was a medical student first before he met Breton in 1917. The Surrealists had their first contact with the uncanny and the unconscious during the war in an academic milieu strongly influenced by the psychiatric school of Jean-Marie Charcot and Pierre Janet. From Janet they took the emphasis of the importance of psychic automatisms, but distanced themselves from his therapeutic perspective. In addition, their relation to Freud was marked by attraction and distancing. The unconscious is at the center of much Surrealist work, but the Surrealists did not seek the cure, instead they propagated the non-distinction between reality and imagination. What fascinated them were psychic disruptions, which they took as dissociative means to gain access to historic and psychic underworlds. Through the deliberate production of non-conscious states of mind – for example through dream-séances, automatic writing, and chance encounters – a new form of art and knowledge was established, which suited both the shocks of war-torn capitalist society and the modern individual.

Following this line, contemporary art-historians like Hal Foster have emphasized the “dark” side of Surrealism, its traumatic and uncanny dimension. In his book Compulsive Beauty he takes the concept of the uncanny – the return of the repressed in another form – as a key to the understanding of Surrealism and as a central reference point for Surrealist aesthetic categories like the “marvelous” and “convulsive beauty.”[52] Since the 1990s, a revival of the uncanny can be observed,[53] connected to a growing interest in dreams, trauma, ghosts, animism, fetishism, and theoretically fueled by the writings of Freud, Adorno, and Derrida.[54] Parallel to this, Surrealism was positively reevaluated in the 1990s. The ghostly side of Ethnographic Surrealism is especially poignant in a number of ethnographies on East- and Southeast Asia, from these we have selected two particularly impressive ones: Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam and Grace Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, both of 2008.[55]

Kwon interprets the widespread belief in ghosts and the current forms of ancestor worship as a culturally specific form of coming to terms with the Vietnamese War and the violent deaths it caused. Ghosts are the “uncles and aunts” who died “in the streets” during the war and didn’t get a proper funeral. The trend of reburials in Vietnam since the 1990s and the numerous reports on ghost appearances are forms of dealing with death that are in contrast to the official heroic politics of memory. With reference to ethnographic and literary writing traditions, Kwon calls his approach “radical empirism” and “magic realism.”[56] The reader is carried away and may start to doubt the categorical separation between the dead and the living; as an example, we can take the traditional evening of the wandering ghosts, on which Kwon meets a “six-fingered village medium,”[57] in a dark cemetery:

Kwon: Do people in your world still argue and fight for a cause? Is there still an ‘Our side’ and ‘their side’ in your world, too?

Sharpshooter: No, my dear foreigner, dead people don’t fight. War is the business of the living. People in my world do not remember the intentions and the objectives of the war they fought while they were in your world.[58]

The Korean-American anthropologist Grace Cho also works on a specific war trauma – the role of the “yanggongju” women – naming the more than one million Korean women who worked as prostitutes for the US military during the Korean War in the 1950s. They were regarded with a mix of envy and contempt, as they embodied both the American Dream and the shame of national subjugation. More than 100,000 of these women married US soldiers, among them Cho’s mother. With the memory of prostitution repressed by her family, thus it passes from generation to generation in the ghostly form of a family trauma, something that haunts much of the Korean diaspora in the US to this day. Cho does not seek to offer an objective report on the Korean War, though she presents a lot of historical material. Instead, she is following the figure of the yanggongju, seeking the traumatic traces war has left in Korean cultural and familial memory. She approaches the nonlinear and eruptive experiences of trauma through the technique of collage, in which historical source material, court reports, dairies, and photographs are combined. Her guiding methodological question is the following: “Do alternative methods of sociological inquiry and experimental writing such as autoethnography, psychoanalysis, fiction, and performance bring us any closer to an affective understanding of the yanggongju that cannot be conveyed through traditional narratives?”[59]

In both approaches, the historical and sociological narratives do not explain away the uncanny, but the subjective approaches and poetic forms of language used do make war traumas both rationally and intuitively understandable. The literary passages of these ethnographies are neither simply real nor solely imagined; they are forms of mixing art and anthropology that bring something to the fore, which may otherwise have remained unspoken. Their uses of collage techniques may be seen as literary equivalents to the Surrealist techniques of “déambulation” and “dérive,” a kind of wandering in between reality and imagination.[60]

The Ephemeral – Surrealist Perspectives on the City

A famous passage from The Paris Peasant by Louis Aragon depicts him and a group of friends walking with a mix of boredom and love of adventure though the Parisian suburbs towards the Parc des Butte-Chaumont, known as the romantic fantasy of a royal garden.[61] While traversing the fringes of the metropolis they are in such a perceptive mood that they can feel the mystique of a railroad bridge, of empty streets, and of private homes closed to them. They stride back and forth across the park, study inscriptions of statues like hieroglyphs, ambush lovers, and give themselves the creeps at a ghostly bridge, which later became famous as a suicide bridge.

After World War II, the artist group Situationist International took “déambulation” further into a research method widely known as “dérive.” “Dérive” refers literally to the practice of walking as well as, metaphorically, to socially going astray. It explores the atmosphere of cities and the various qualities of neighborhoods in order to uncover the relationships between urban landscapes and individual psyche. It was a response to the Charte d’Athènes (Athens Charter), which promoted the functional city as a means to increase efficiency and improve usability, a document based on the studies of the Congrès internationale d’architecture moderne (CIAM) and written by Le Corbusier, which became highly influential in postwar city-planning. Contrary to the Charter, the Situationists were interested in the subjective perception of the built environment. Drawing on morphological models of the Chicago School of Sociology, they were convinced that underneath the surface another (sur-)reality lay, which turned out to be the “real city” named by the human geographer Steve Pile.[lxii] “In a dérive,” writes Guy Debord:

[O]ne or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.[lxiii]

Dérive” was a strategy to unravel the various, sometimes mystic, relationships that people have with their environment and to try to understand, rather than suppress, the hallucinations that accompany them.

This Surrealist practice of “déambulation” and the Situationist’s “dérive” have inspired the twentieth-century avant-gardes of urban research. While it led Claude Lefèbvre to the psychosocial aspects of wandering around, it was Michel de Certeau who developed the idea of “walking in the city,”[64] moving further in the direction of a subversive practice. For de Certeau, the ordinary practices of walking and storytelling remake the texture of the city. Walking is seen metaphorically as a form of language – the routes and traces followed telling us something both about the idiosyncratic preferences and the social forces imprinted on individual behavior. The French sociologist Raymond Ledrut sets out in a similar direction, when he points out that through walking we get the feeling of the lived spatial ensemble of topography, architecture, and the scène expressive.[65] Metaphors of circulation, pulsation, rhythm, and movement are setting the tone for this strand of French urban anthropology.[66] Colette Petonnet – the grande dame of this anthropologie urbaine – advocates “floating observation” as a method of urban research.[67] Walking through the city becomes an ethnographic method by which to get a hold of the ephemeral nature of the city. If the city is a floating ensemble, marked by the circulation of people, things, and technologies, the ethnographer must be mobile himself, he virtually has to abandon fixed positions.

In recent decades, attempts were made in German and US cultural anthropology to further develop the technique of wandering into an ethnographic research method. In German urban anthropology in the 1980s the technique of “Wahrnehmungsspaziergang” (perception walking) was gaining popularity. At the same time, Lucius Burckhardt invented “Promenadologie,” the science of studying society through walking.[68] The anthropologist Ina-Maria Greverus, one of the advocates of this approach, was inspired by theoretical and artistic developments in France as well as by Kevin Lynch’s thinking in the 1960 book The Image of the City.[69] Lynch proposed the “walk around the block” as a method to find out about the image of the city in the sense of subjectively lived structures.[70] According to Lynch, these walks make accessible a relevant but often overlooked dimension of reality: the individual perception of environment, movement in space, the influence of architecture, and the interconnection of room and biography. In the US, urban anthropologist Margarethe Kusenbach recently took up and elaborated upon this impulse.[71] Kusenbach has systematized the “go along” into the “street phenomenology,” which focuses attention on the interconnections of environmental perception, spatial practices, biographies, social architecture, and social realms. Seen as a mixture of participant observation and interviewing, this method aims at “capturing the stream of perceptions, emotions and interpretations that informants usually keep to themselves.”[72] The ethnographer, led by the informants with as little guidance as possible, finds room for surprises and divergences. What might be missing in this helpful attempt at systematization is a Surrealist sense of the rhythm, tone, mood, or atmosphere of a place. In order to grasp and write about these, the researcher needs not only tools but also some intuition, he must be not only a solid craftsman but also a bit of an inventive artist too.

Spatial practices are full of experiences and emotions – walking routines and traffic patterns, stories and rumors, fears and attachments, all are written into places and mark the deeper affective structure of the urban. Something that is hidden in the “imaginary of the city,”[73] which impregnates urban practices as well as social and economic structures of the city. Imaginations have settled into space, and going through space with a Surrealist perspective means walking through this emotional topography. “Déambulation,” therefore, is a style and a sensitivity rather than a ready-made tool or method; it is an experimental attempt at opening up the mysteries of the everyday.



The Surrealist style adapts smoothly to its subject matter without inflicting violence upon it, but it is also resolutely a storytelling tool, which is not so obvious. It is an approach which, paradoxically, is focused and fluid at the same time – fascinated with details, accurate in its depictions, courageous in its claims, but also amenable to confusions, ruptures, and surprising turns. This playful style at its worst moments can turn into pathetic exaltations and narcissism, but at its best can provide profane observations with an extraordinary, aesthetic dimension. The Surrealist approach, where often the sensual experience of fieldwork is the starting point of the writing, does not omit subjectivity but emphasizes it. The authors discussed here in different ways make this subjective impulse productive for their ethnographic work. Michael Sheringham defines the Surrealist style as follows: “Supple yet striking enough to adapt itself to the lyric movements of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the somersaults of conscious. Switches of mood, attention, focus and feeling that mark the everyday experience of those who frequent the big city and expose themselves to (its various stories).”[74]

To show the wide depth of focus, variety, and strength of Ethnographic Surrealism, we have presented a variety of approaches, both historical and contemporary, stemming from different national traditions of Ethnographic Surrealism and orientated at diverse fields of research. What connected them for us was an interest in the sensual, the irrational, the ghostly, and the ephemeral of the everyday. Borders between the ordinary and the extraordinary proved to be rather fluid and borderline experiences, not restricted to seemingly exotic places. More than that: the Surreal is found in the everyday, which means that the everyday always has a Surrealist dimension. Ethnographic Surrealism thus does not mean to make things stranger and more obscure than they already are, for the ordinary proves itself Surreal when looked at with a keen eye for ethnographic detail. Indeed, Surrealist-inspired approaches are more accurate about certain aspects of human experience than the traditional social or natural sciences are. Its avant-garde inspired means of representation, like collage and montage, might yet be the most effective form of anthropological critique after “Writing Culture,” as a kind of “post-criticism,”[75] replacing “realist” or “modern” forms of criticism based on narrow notions of truth and progress.

Capturing the Surrealist dimension of the everyday means leaving behind traditional forms of ethnographic authority and opening up to ethnographic methods of literature, art, and film. There can be no fixed method or authoritative guidebook for this, what is needed foremost is a renewed openness for a Surrealist perspective and its alternative styles of research. The word “style” might sound like something artificial, but every research strand has its own style, even for those who claim only to report facts and data. And every research project can profit from a Surrealist sensibility, though one could distinguish between “strong” versions of Ethnographic Surrealism like the ones presented here, and “weaker” versions, in which only certain aspects are looked at in this light. Whoever claims that Ethnographic Surrealism is unscientific, might check again to see what he or she has left behind along the way.