Ok folks. So I’m back. After nearly a year of hiatus, I’ve decided to deal with my “issues” and relaunch the Wrong Side of The World.

Perhaps to start off I should give an apology for disappearing. I’ll be honest about it: I was having a nine month sulk. I think I got a little dispirited with the idea of blogs, a little over enamoured with the quick fix potential of facebook, a little over-anxious about being labelled an “anthropology blog”… in all, it was complicated. And rather petty at the same time.

I spent the last nine months concentrating on some other projects: doing some creative writing, taking up painting again, that kind of thing. But I realised I missed writing here and so have decided to give it another go. First, though, I want to take this opportunity to talk a little about some of the things that made me start writing this blog in the first place, the direction I hope to take it in the future, and some more general musings about academic and internet writing. Partly as an explanation for the sulk, but partly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts on what I want this blog to be in the future.

When I first started the Wrong Side of the World back in 2003, I was just about to start grad school, and very sad about leaving behind a wonderful community of friends in Cambridge. I wanted some way to keep in conversation with them, some way to keep a connection other than sending awful group emails. I envisaged the blog as a way of carrying on the kind of informal, friendly debates about life, love and politics that I knew I was going to miss.

Grad school can be, particularly at my university, an isolating experience that slowly tears your sense of humour and self confidence into a thousand tiny little pieces. Particularly here in the US, I find, people are wary of what they write or say in public, cautious about what they feel prepared or able to defend. In writing the blog I wanted a space in which I could speak more freely, throw some ideas around and talk shit without necessarily having to worry so much about whether I could back it up with the requisite collection of citations.

As the name of the blog suggests, I also needed a space to deal with some of the total cultural confusion that I encountered in moving to a new country. Talking about the bizarre situations I found myself in was perhaps also a way of dealing with the loneliness that comes when you’ve just moved somewhere new and don’t have any deep friendships yet.

But, of course, the internet is not really a cozy night in the pub, and conversations take on a life of their own when they are overheard by the whole world. My biggest worry was always about whether I was writing something too personal, or something that wasn’t respectful of a friend’s privacy. (Or, lets be honest, that I would tell a stupid story about someone and they would then find it and be pissed off…) What caused my extended time-off (aka “sulk”), however, was more to do with me re-evaluating my relationship to the idea of a blog tself.

My initial reasons for blogging were to look for a safe space to share ideas, a space away from the rigours of academic speech/writing. But blogs are not that really that space. There are some pretty terrible stereotypes of academia that many people (inside and outside) share. The image of a bunch of egotistical arseholes constantly getting into cat-fights over obscure remnants of triviality, waving their dicks about, ready to crush any sign of weakness. I don’t believe in this stereotype. Or at least, I think that such images are a very tiny portion of the bigger picture. Yes, we all have to learn how to play the game to get ahead – its not some utopian community of lofty, idealist thinkers striving for truth and knowledge. But in that respect its just like every other profession or community. And so yes, there are styles of speech one has to adhere to in academia, and these can be limiting if one has no other outlet to speak in. Such was the situation I found myself in when I started the blog: wanting another venue to talk more freely in. The problem is that the blogosphere is also not a utopian space of free expression and shared ideas either. Instead, it can resemble nothing more than the worst of the dick waving cat-fight stereotype of academia, without the minimum requirement of some intelligence or knowledge.

Not always of course. But it happens. (particularly when one dares talk about politics.) And when it does, it sours my lovely naive idea about nice open spaces to talk about ideas without worrying that someone will flame you.

Anyway, the last few years blogging and my time off thinking about blogging have taught me two things.

Firstly, that I have a very thin skin. In fact, this was something that one of my informants told me rather forcefully a few months ago, when I was trying my best to convince him that my thesis wasn’t going to be at all controversial. I am a classic middle-child I guess, desperate at all costs to avoid conflict*. I’ve got to deal with that head on.

Secondly, that its really not possible to keep my academic and my personal life separate any more. My mind has been colonised by anthropology as much as my life style has. In the same way that my day-to-day schedule is dictated by the open-ended nature of research and my ability to have a relationship is undermined by the propensity to spend several months a year doing fieldwork, I now can’t read a magazine, or go to a store, or meet someone at a party without anthropologizing the encounter. Its insidious. So the idea that I would somehow write about my life or my thoughts and have it not be anthropological is wishful thinking.

Which is why I was so uncomfortable with the idea of being an “anthropology blog”. Not because I have something against them: I am an avid reader of several, particularly the excellent group blog Savage Minds. But instead because I wanted that separation, that safe space. I’ve realised, however, that its not going to happen.

So… I’m going to embrace it. Here, you will hopefully see over the next few months, the new and improved Wrong Side of the World. It might not work. Then again it might.

I have a few aims.

I’m going to avoid as much as possible talking about my informants, or explicit aspects of my fieldwork. My reason for this is mostly to protect those relationships and the ethic obligations to privacy that are embedded in fieldwork. Besides, I’m going to be doing so much field note writing already I probably won’t want to be writing additional things about it.

I want to keep this as a space I can write informally in. My biggest challenge in my professional development has been learning how to reign in my over-colloquial writing style in my academic writing. Learning how to cut out the cute phrases, sarcastic asides, over-enthusiastic effervescence and unsubstantiated rants. Gradually I’m getting there, and think my academic writing is improving as a result. But I miss them sometimes. Expect the usual chaotic, incoherent ramblings here instead, plus some.

I probably won’t be able to stop myself from me!me!me! posts, so you’ll have to bear with me on that. Though as Jim put it, when I talked this over with him a little over the Christmas vacation, the personal is still political so there’s no reason to exclude it all. Besides, if I stopped telling long-winded stories about my own stupidity, that would be half my conversation gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about whether its possible to make cultural anthropology accessible and/or relevant to wider audiences. So there may be some experiments in that. Other people have done it better before me, and are doing it better now, but we’ll see what happens. Its a challenge.

I’m about to move to yet another side of the world, Chile, so I’ll be writing a lot about that. However, for the first time I’ve decided to let my parents know about my blog, which will probably add a whole other level to the self-censorship ;)

So. Here goes! Thanks for reading, feel free to hang around leaving comments, and lets see what happens!

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Its been a really chronic case of writer’s block.

The last few months of last year involved some intense and highly personalised writing – having to define my research project and shape it into a particular piece of writing. A month of fraught stuckness around late November turned into several weeks of utter paralysis. Usually my blog helps me get out of writer’s block – this time it got caught up in the consequences of a particularly bad case.

A few weeks back home in the UK studiously avoiding doing any work at all, and more importantly not feeling guilty about it, has helped a lot. The last week since the holidays ended has been refreshingly productive after so long feeling useless. I hope to be able to get some blogs out too, once the latest draft of this document is finished this week.

Writer’s block is a strange thing. Its not the words that are the problem, but the act of writing as a means of arranging thoughts. I imagine my thoughts to be like clouds of sticks, each one pointing in the wrong direction. I know they should all fit together, somehow, and that the structure they create will be a strong and sensible one. But each time I look at a handful of sticks and get them all to align, the others on my peripheral vision start to shift and spin in all directions again. I turn to them, and the ones under my fingers start to move out of shape. Ideas spin in all directions, as I dash backwards and forwards trying to solve first one problem then the next. Trying to grasp onto so many different thoughts at once and bring them all together is difficult, even when I know that in the finished arrangement, they theoretically all fit perfectly.

A book I read recently on overcoming problems with writing in the social sciences talked about the different rituals people create for themselves to be able to write. Like, having to clean the whole house first, or only being able to write the first draft in red felt tip pen, or having to be sitting at a particular desk in a library. Most people seem to find their rituals silly, in a rational sense, but still can’t live without them. Despite doing all my note taking and reading on my laptop, when I get really stuck in my ideas I have to start writing my notes in pencil on the back of scrap paper. I’ve no idea why, that’s just the way it is. Modern day superstitions.

Right now my desk is strewn with piles of pencil scribbled scrap paper, the ideas are finally beginning to align, and I feel some relief for the first time in almost two months. Hopefully these virtual pages will be back to their normal spluttering self soon, and I’ll be able to give Jim that long over due guest blog that has been on my guilt list for a while. What could be a more appropriate way to end a blog-drought than with a blog about not being able to write?