A couple of months ago, I went on a date. It was a good date but, sadly for me, my suitor was due to leave the country very soon after we first met, and there was no opportunity for a second rendezvous before he left.
He was (and still is unless he has perished, heroically, in the twenty-four hours or so since I last heard from him) part of a documentary team making a film about remote communities in the Peruvian Amazon. The title of the documentary they are making (they are still in Peru) has the word “uncontacted” in it.
At first, when he told me about this project, I was quite perturbed by the concept. Wot, you’re just gonna turn up with a camera crew on their doorstep and make a documentary about what ensues, I asked, with deep skepticism. Isn’t that super anthropologically incorrect?
He assured me that this was not the case. The film was not about contacting so-called “uncontacted” communities, it was about documenting the effects of these remote communities’ recent exposure to wider cultural influences. Still, I protested, surely the very act of making the documentary would itself constitute an instance of the very “contact” it sought to document, would it not? That is to say, would not the very act of observation change the nature of the findings observed? 
Anyway, I digress. The point is that my intrepid explorer and I, we had a lot in common. Because I have, you see, these past few months, been conducting my own anthropological investigation into remote communities. These communities do not live in the Amazon. No, they (shhh, don’t tell anyone, they’ll be besieged) live among us.
They call themselves “men.”
Just as my date’s documentary team journeyed to Peru with the aim of “connecting with the indigenous communities living along the border of the zone of contact,” so too have I, in the past several months, sought to connect with these local indigenous populations. Certainly, it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions; further research is necessary, to be sure. However, the results thus far have been fascinating if somewhat scattered due to the subject’s inherent elusiveness.
I’ve done my level best to employ best practices, remaining respectful of the mens’ cultural norms and traditions. Because the men occupy the border of the zone of contact, it’s absolutely crucial to respect their boundaries, or else they will, in all probability, bid a hasty retreat, often under cover of darkness.
What’s required is a “softly softly” approach. Allow them to determine how much contact they’re comfortable with. Maintain a significant distance at all times or else they will swiftly feel threatened and retreat altogether from the zone of contact.
Even if you adhere closely to these guidelines, there is no guarantee that you will be welcomed into the zone of contact. Indeed, quite frequently, you will be in the zone of contact, like, truly and unequivocally in the zone of contact only to awaken the next morning and discover that the zone has shifted while you were sleeping. You were in the zone of contact but you are now, in fact, in the zone of highly infrequent and sporadic contact or, more often than not, no contact whatsoever.
It’s crucial to be aware of one’s own cultural biases in interacting with the mens. Their language is variegated and nuanced despite upon first appearance seeming fairly limited in scope. These apparent limitations are in fact crucial to its spare beauty; simple temporal phrases like “next week” or “tomorrow night” that to the foreign observer appear quite specific in fact carry an extraordinarily wide range of meanings depending upon an almost infinite range of factors.
Likewise, the vocabulary associated with acts of assent, in particular, is vastly capacious in its range of meanings. For example, in response to an invitation to participate in a social gathering, the words “yeah” or “sure” might seem to indicate assent, but in fact evince a strong reluctance.
In addition to the richness of individual words and phrases, mens’ language patterns more generally are highly complex. While at first their communicative mode superficially resembles the regular back-and-forth cadence characteristic of conversation, upon further observation it becomes clear that this resemblance is illusory. By contrast with the values enshrined in conversation—interchange, reciprocity, mutual exchange, etc.—the mens’ communicative mode values ellipsis, irregularity, and asymmetry. While at first this arrhythmy can be disconcerting, one may, surely, eventually come to appreciate its spasmodic lurches between speechifying and silence.
While this arrhythmical aesthetic makes it challenging to identify patterns as such, one general tendency does seem clear, even at this preliminary stage of research: mens’ speech acts become progressively more minimal in direct correlation to the duration of their acquaintance with the participant-observer.
This practice of gradually decreasing both the length and frequency of utterances can be deeply dispiriting for the intrepid ethnologist. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that these are deeply fragile populations. Electronic communication, with its promise of untrammeled access to family, friends, and lovers, threatens to encroach upon the mens’ traditional way of life. It is only natural that they should be terse, laconic, and downright rude. The mens are very vulnerable right now. They are under a lot of strain. It’s not you, it’s them. I mean, it’s also you. You were probably too chatty. Like, way. Too. Chatty.
But, again, I digress.
A couple of final observations. Although I am loath to generalize from such a brief time in the field, I think I can say at this point with some confidence that the observations presented here apply to all men everywhere across time and space, with the exception of Eric. Eric aside, the findings presented here are trans-historic, trans-cultural truths. Moreover, the communication patterns observed here also—and this conclusion disproves my original hypothesis before I began my fieldwork—obtain regardless of the nature of the participant-observer’s relationship to the subject. That is to say, I originally speculated that these communications patterns might solely manifest in the context of courtship rituals. However, although the patterns are certainly especially pronounced in such a context, they may be observed in all manner of other social relationships.
There is a certain irony to the fact that of all the mens I have encountered this year, it is the man who is, literally, up the Amazon, a place where he went because of its remoteness and exclusion from modern communication networks, who has thus far been the most consistent communicator I’ve encountered this year.
What do we make of this, noble readers? Is it perhaps the case that men need to, literally, be up the Amazon in order to be motivated to communicate regularly with women?
I think that this really might be true.
As further evidence in support of this thesis, consider the following, a passage from the British naturalist Henry Walter Bates’s 1863 account of his expedition to the Amazon. Towards the end of the book, Bates reflects,
“I suffered most inconvenience from the difficulty of getting news from the civilised world down river, from the irregularity of receipt of letters, parcels of books and periodicals, and towards the latter part of my residence from ill health arising from bad and insufficient food. The want of intellectual society, and of the varied excitement of European life, was also felt most acutely, and this, instead of becoming deadened over time, increased until it became almost insupportable. I was obliged, at last, to come to the conclusion that the contemplation of Nature alone is not sufficient to fill the human heart and mind.” (Henry Walter Bates, from The Naturalist on the River Amazon, 1910)
You see?? He had to spend years in the Amazon before realizing, eventually, that communicating with people added to his quality of life.
If it is indeed the case that men must be up the Amazon in order to develop a basic understanding of Western modernity’s communication protocols, then how can we, as ethnographers in the field, use this intelligence to better understand and interact with this community? We can’t send them all to the Amazon. (Can we???) But even if we could, I don’t think this is necessary. I think, rather, that we might use various techniques to induce a sense of figurative up-the-Amazon-ness in local mens, thereby coaxing them into more sustained communications with those of us who remain committed to fieldwork in this area. What kind of techniques do I have in mind? I’ll end with three simple recommendations.
- Resist the temptation to send parcels of books or periodicals more than once every four months, or every two months at the most. If possible, send all items by steamer.
- The Peruvian Amazon has very high humidity. If at all possible, always engage men in a suitably humid environment. (Hot yoga classes are everywhere).
- During his voyage to the Amazon, Bates suffers an “ague,” the most specific symptom of which is “damped enthusiasm.” He successfully treats the ague with “a small phial of quinine.” Ergo, to treat the mens’ congenital listlessness and lack of enthusiasm, dose with gin and tonic at regular intervals.
BONUS technique: make the subject watch all the Carry On films. There isn’t actually a Carry On film called Carry on up the Amazon, but there totally should be. And most people who are not British and of a certain generation find them deeply estranging, which is just the effect you want to produce.
 If I did not harbor a strong suspicion that If HWMBP will read this, then I would proceed to draw a parallel here with quantum mechanics; but I know that that would piss him off royally for sound intellectual reasons, and so I will refrain from doing so.
3 thoughts on “Day 126: Up the Amazon”
This is wonderful. But how, *how* did you gome to be reading “the British naturalist Henry Walter Bates’s 1863 account of his expedition to the Amazon”? Bedtime reading?
Obviously, I am reading it so that I will be able to make intelligent conversation with the explorer, when and if he returns. For example, I have this conversational gambit in mind. “Tell me, is it still the case, while exploring the Amazon, that ‘a lazy cook or porter could not be had for less than three or four shillings a day, besides his board and what he could steal’?”
It’s brilliant. Come to Europe and watch it this summer, or failing that, it’s coming to you in LA next year – buy tickets now! xx