Melancholia and anthropology

by Holly High

Relationships forged during ethnographic fieldwork are often ambivalent, if only because of the tension between “being there” and departure. Following Freud's argument that ambivalence in relationships lies at the heart of melancholia, I argue that ethnographic ambivalence can result in disciplinary melancholia, as seen in calls for a more ethical anthropology and in the pleasure of these appeals. I reach this conclusion by continuing a narrative I began in this journal in 2009, in which I describe my “entanglement” in familial relationships in my field site in southern Laos. Here I focus on the central ambivalence of Lao familial relationships (between nurturance and abandonment), especially in terms of how it informs understandings of death, ghostly agency, and Buddhism. I contend that the central ambivalence of anthropology (between being there and departure) likewise informs disciplinary debates about the ethics of fieldwork, collective culpability, and moral positioning.