To Steal With the Eyes

Just over a quarter of a century ago, whilst I was a student of Fine Arts, I fell in love with the strange charms of anthropology. After starting my degree, it turned out that I wasn’t a particularly good artist, so I took refuge in the university library instead. I used to walk the library waiting for books to leap out at me and surprise me. And in this way, in my second year at university I stumbled across the anthropology stacks. The first book I picked up was Political Systems of Highland Burma. I devoured it in one sitting. And then I hurried back to the same section of the library and checked out everything else I could. As I read about the Nuer and the Azande and the Mbuti and the Trobrianders, what struck me most was the breadth of the possibilities for human life and imagination, the sheer malleability of human existence. The things I took to be common sense (I had a relatively sheltered upbringing — coming from rural Norfolk, I was hardly cosmopolitan), the things that I believed were simply the way things were, seemed nothing of the sort. Kinship, marriage, ethics, law, religion, life, death, politics—almost everything seemed up for grabs. It was heady, intoxicating stuff. It seemed back then as if anthropology was an escape route, a back door by means of which I could slip the net of my own assumptions and beliefs.

So after I graduated back in 1994, I decided that I should become an anthropologist. And so I headed off to carry out fieldwork in the Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia. I managed to cobble together some small research grants to fund the trip, an invite from an Indonesian university to act as a research base, and a bunch of permission letters from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. I also taught myself what was, at the time, relatively rudimentary Indonesian. My plan was to spend time in Tanimbar, studying the work of sculptors: I had seen wood carvings from Tanimbar in museum collections in the Netherlands and the UK, and I was both fascinated and intrigued by them.

Stealing With the Eyes is about what happened next. It is about my encounter with three sculptors (Matias Fatruan, Abraham Amelwatin and Damianus Masele) and about the deepening unease with anthropology that led, eventually, to my giving up entirely.  I owe the title of the book to the sculptor Matias Fatruan, who was astute enough to level this accusation against me in the first few weeks in Tanimbar. “You have come,” he said, “to steal… Not with the hands, but with the eyes.”

I never quite recovered from Matias’s accusation. After returning from Indonesia, I took an MA in anthropology and then started a PhD, which fell to bits in a fug of sickness, ethical unease and fever some time in 1997. It was another five years before I recovered enough to return to academia for a second (successful this time!) shot at a PhD, this time in philosophy.

Stealing With the Eyes is more a memoir than an anthropology book. It is about anthropology and ethnography (“that curious brand of high-minded intrusiveness amongst peoples too polite, or too powerless, to tell you to go fuck yourself.”). It is about the power imbalances of fieldwork, about the sheer creative imagination of the sculptors I was lucky enough to get to know, about witchcraft, about sicknesses brought on by octopuses that live undetected in the stomach, about gift exchange, and about the debts that we owe to the ancestors.

The book is due out in May this year. I may write a bit more about it in the weeks leading up to the launch. But if you want to preorder the book, then there are some links to where you can get yourself a copy on my personal website. In the mean-time, as a sneak peek, here is a little gallery of some of the images taken from the book. Click on the images for more information.

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