Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Setting out to do research on the ways particular women positively compose themselves in southwest Madagascar, I lamented a shortcoming in my training as an anthropologist: I did not know how to not-know. Trained to seek out, extract, and produce knowledge, to ask questions, to collect data, to speak truth to power, or to listen to the wisdom of ‘others,’ I found myself struggling to learn from, participate with, or even speak politely to the people I worked and lived with. They withheld knowledge and information through dissimulation, redirection, silence, or flat lies. They rarely gave instructions, introductions, or explanations. They laughed at me or got angry with me when I took talk too seriously, not knowing how to ‘just talk.’ In this paper, I move away from ignorance, as state of being or consciousness, and towards not-knowing, as activity. In so doing, I focus on two aspects of not-knowing: how people performed not-knowing and how they learned and performed other activities through not-knowing. In both of these, not-knowing serves not as threat or negative but as generative and truthful. By focusing on doing not-knowing, on living it and learning through it, in this Malagasy context, I also discuss larger questions and challenges to techniques and technologies of knowledge production. As more and more anthropologists take up refusal, decolonizing, or unsettling, as theoretical and methodological responses to global and disciplinary power imbalances, this paper asks how can we not-know and still do anthropology?