neljapäev, juuli 31, 2014

“I cannot become obsolete from being important, because I never was important”

Interview with Dr P. Laviolette (Anthropology Professor, EHI, Tallinn Univ.)
Francisco Martínez

Patrick Laviolette still gets tense when turning on the voice recorder and avoids confessing the country where he was born. He speaks low and eludes my gaze. Including a few interruptions, our conversation lasts for two hours. Immediately afterwards, Patrick tells me that it have been different than what he expected. He seems to be unaware of controversies around him as a public figure. Some people would answer that Patrick is a humble person, not willing to impose himself over anybody and reluctant to get involve in power games (somehow like a pilgrim, a sign of intelligence). Others would argue that the reason is his naivety, irresponsibility or lack of strength though.
Over thousand anthropologists are coming to Tallinn these days to take part in the European biennale of social anthropology organised by the Estonian Institute of Humanities (; another extra reason to meet this intriguing bricoleur.

- Do you think it is a good idea that I make an interview with you?
I think it is a good idea. This is how we learn from each other.
- Once you told me that if

not an anthropologist, you would have liked to become a sport trainer...
Yes, it is true, I don't deny it. Or also, other than an academic, an 'artist' might have suited; I guess with either I would now be sitting in the street, begging for money (instead of virgin marys). I think these professions fit to my physique and my character. I'm hyperactive and if I get no physical exercise my brain 'falls' in different directions and I get funny.
- Do you consider yourself a man with good or bad luck?
I have many lacks. [laughs]
- You like to play, you like games...
I am more an opportunist than a strategist. I react to things. Of course, I do plans also, but I am not good at it. I am better in adjusting to, in adapting to. And perhaps you are asking about why do I like to play strange and risky games? I like these games because risk adds something that we cannot predict in advance. And it makes you believe that you control something which is uncontrollable, or not totally. When we succeed in it, this experience gives you a joie de vivre. But I am playing less and less.
- You mentioned plans and I think that many people would be interested in reading what is the vision that you have for the department of anthropology in Tallinn University.
I do not think that this is just my vision. I'm fitting into the vision of what has been the department from the beginning. Some of the people graduate, some of the people leave, and some others come back. I guess that the vision is to make the graduates and the people who initiated the department feel welcome. And the second bit is to make it bigger and more international. Also to have some coherence, since we cannot do everything, even if we might lose ties with archaeologists or biologists. Visual anthropology, sensual experiences and social issues might be at our core. Our vision depends also on the support we get and for us it is important to create stability.
- And in which way will the EASA conference that we're organising make the department stronger?
Well, in answering before the event occurs... perhaps the organising has raised some tensions, some rivalries. But also, this has brought people together. We have a common enemy, which is organisational chaos, and a common goal, which is to make things happen. For us, this is more than a conference. We are getting attention and good exposure, at a whole different level.
- Good anthropologists get naked in the field?
Yes. All anthropologists get naked in the field. The good ones get naked more often. Anthropology is a label, a disciplinary title that we give to people. The bad anthropologists are those who pretend to be so and they are not. But there might be good anthropologists who do not present themselves as such, or that have not studied anthropology. Bad anthropologists are also those who want to become famous, who do not help the field, students, younger colleagues to progress, because they are more interested in themselves and their small niche.
- You mentioned art. So I will ask you the question I had listed as the last... you have been interested in art for many years. And my question is, until what point our work, our research, is conditioned by the interests and profession of our partner?
[laughs] I was flirting with art before I began to flirt with a particular woman who is involved with art, if that's where you want to go with this. Of course, I became more interested in the anthropology of art as well as creative interdisciplinary projects, when I moved to New Zealand with an artist and worked in an art college. I was then teaching material culture and visual culture studies. But also my colleagues were artists, not only my partner. I learned a lot from that. Yet at the time I probably undervalued what I was getting out of it. In spite of being passionate about art, it frightens me a bit; I do not want to get too close to it, I do not want to understand it too much, because I do not want to become an art critic. Perhaps I prefer to live it vicariously through others.
The influence of the partner is a tricky question. Is the interest before the choosing, or the choosing before the interest. But anthropology is quite influenced by art, as any bourgeois activity.
- Your first book, which is based on your fieldwork in the Cornish peninsula, explores the combination of abstract ideas and sensual experiences. In the first chapter, you present that region as in/on the margin of modernity... who else is in that margin?
We are right now. We are sitting at some form of modernity, post-modernity, pre-modernity and post-capitalism. But margins of modernity sounds good, doens't it? It is poetic... that chapter is influenced by Victor Turner and his paper ‘The Centre Out There’, published in the journal History of Religions. And it is a paper about pilgrimage, a theoretical overview trying to understand liminality between centre and margins, trying to understand structure and anti-structure and core concepts such as community and status quo. Cornwall is certainly not London, Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Not even Plymouth, which might be a centre of a region. Perhaps like Estonia.
I cannot get away from Victor Turner. I think it is one of the reasons I became an anthropologist.
- I remember that you mentioned this paper to me when we were in Narva, and that city is a good example of a margin of modernity. But can we say the same about Tallinn?
It depends on what modernity you refer to. In Estonia, Tallinn is very central, where a lot of stuff happens.
- But Tallinn is also ‘a centre out there’...
But also Narva is a centre, particularly in historical matters, as a border region. And one of the things that make Estonia interesting is being a border country, connected to Russia and to the other Baltic countries. So yes, but the centre shifts depending on the question.
- You also told me that Michael Jackson inspired you to become an anthropologist, particularly his book ‘The Accidental Anthropologist’.
The memoirs [laughs]... I saw you were reading it recently. And what does not inspire you in that book? It is just brilliant. Already the title is inspiring. The man just writes superbly. And as a character, he takes all these boxes of the discussion about being an anthropologist, about being at the margin, being a poet, a philosopher and a field worker; someone who struggles to understand the world. But what strikes me the most is the way he can tell stories, his gift for writing and his gift for observation. And what he has done for the discipline of anthropology is fantastic, sometimes following a very lonely route.
- We have talked several times about the implications of living in an academic bubble and also about fulfilling academic responsibilities. But how would you describe the social responsibility of a researcher or a professor?
That bubble is a safe bubble. We do not want to become completely vulnerable but at the same time the bubble cannot become a fortress, because it turns into a prison. There should be a right distance.
It is a tough question. Universities are elitist institutions, but our responsibility is to try to make knowledge accessible, available. Here, in Estonia, I still see a lot of people around me with good will in this capacity, perhaps because of the recent history of the country.
- In one of your articles you say that ruins talk back. What do they say to you?
They say fix us, because we are falling apart [laughs]. They say play with us. Also they say a lot of dark things. I try not to listen to that. Otherwise we end up by talking to death.
- In your second book, you talk about the increasing passion for recreational risks. In late-modern societies, may we take this new passion for risks as symptomatic of something else?
We have talked about breakdowns, about people feeling overworked, so people end up risking in stuff that they would not have done otherwise. We are under more pressure, individually, but there are also institutional risks and natural risks, perhaps as never have been before. On the other hand, society is getting quicker... but people always took risks. Today’s reactions to risks are quicker too.
- Everything seems to be not just faster, but also extensively obsolete. Also Professor Laviolette meets the obsolete?
Yes, absolutely [laughs]. But I cannot become obsolete from being important, because I never was important [laughs]. I hope I do not become obsolete for the people I am supervising, at least before they finish their thesis. My work on risk, which I believe is exciting, becomes more and more mainstream. You've invited Bradley L. Garrett to endorse your book, and he is being doing that stuff in a more serious and rigorous way than I have.
My take on obsolescence is that I do not really believe in it, or I do not want to.
- Urban exploration and tourism. What is the difference?
Tourism is institutionalised and urban exploration is at the margins, exploring the limits. It can be done by your own. Also the set of practices, the rational, is different. Urban exploration is about people who want to see the world as explorers, wanting to know what is on the other side. Tourism is easy to reproduce, but the experience of exploring cannot be repeated, it is unique. Then explorers are individual and independent characters; you are now writing about it, presenting explorers as flâneurs and tricksters breaking and setting certain rules. In my mind, tourism is connected to social industries and institutions. It is difficult to be an accidental tourist. But some explorers might also be misanthropes who do not like people.
- Last question. How do you see authorship?
As you know, we try to acknowledge the author of certain ideas through quotes and references. But authorship also brings the question of open-access and on how people might live from their creation, which means copyrights. It is not a new debate, but the form of technology is new, and, perhaps, the form of obsolescence is also new.
- I see that you are getting tired, but I cannot avoid this question, because people are asking me about...
Ah, for how long is Patrick staying in Tallinn? [laughs]
- Yeah...
My contract is until 2017. So for sure until then. Techincally it's longer because I'm involved in a IUT project with Hannes Palang until 2018. So four years I guess. It is a tricky question yet it feels like I'm halfway through in Tallinn since I've been in Estonia for four years, officially. Not really counting the days I was here. [laughs]
- And what would you answer to the critics that say that the department of anthropology is always half empty?
That it is better to be half empty than two-thirds empty [laughs]; another tricky question...


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