Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
What are the conditions of narrative under authoritarian duress? What do we make of the affective presence of the would-be ethnographer in such contexts? In this talk, I think through the implications of my collaborative work with Tibetans in northern Amdo (Qinghai province) to tell, hear, see and record stories of the late tenth Panchen Lama (1938-1989), the controversial yet beloved Buddhist figure who returned to Amdo in the early 1980s after fourteen years of Maoist detention in a series of triumphant, recuperative tours of rural Tibetan regions. To this day, the absent presence of the tenth Panchen Lama looms large in those regions, where Tibetans lament the loss of his advocacy and voice amidst intensifying state-led development pressures. I take up Uradyn Bulag's critique to reject the positivist, textualist, and statist premises of "oral history" in favor of a linguistic anthropological approach to narrative as a multimodal and dialogic process of (dis)embodying selves and others in spaces and times. I ask, in the context of intensifying surveillance and central state-led censorship, can our Tibetan interlocutors' awkward silences and earnest affirmations, the un- or under-said of their stories about the tenth Panchen Lama, be taken as a politics of refusal that, in the telling, itself works to re-constitute his fugitive presence, and by proxy that of a Tibetan sociality and future currently being erased? In this, I consider Tibetans' refusal of oral history's linear textuality in light of other multimodal forms of narrative as constituting the Panchen Lama's stealthy afterlives.