4. Dialogical ethnography and storytelling


Whether ethnographers are novelists or story tellers it is difficult to say. What is clear though about them is that they find themselves to be constantly in contact with the dialogical element while attempting to step from the reality of culture into the reality of ethnography and vice versa. In so doing, ethnographers may resemble novelists and storytellers, and their audiences too. Yet, ethnographers do not just read stories to tell them anew; stories of culture turned into ethnographic stories, or stories of ethnography as cultural stories. The dialogics of culture encounters the dialogics of ethnography on a symbolic level of juxtaposition. It is in this emergent and transitory realm of dialogical encountering that culture and ethnography, in their various aspects and modalities, may coexist and interact with each other in diverse hybridical formations beyond the deterministic mediation of representation.


To account for the dialogics of culture in a dialogical manner, ethnographers should, at least, employ a dialectical, that is non-empiricist and non-positivist, orientation. I say “at least a dialectical orientation,” because the dialogical principle differs greatly from the dialectic one. Yet, despite their fundamental differences, they both express transformational modalities that run contrary to any static or deterministic rendering of a cultural reality. While dialectic constitutes a transformational modality in the natural science paradigm, the dialogic is its counterpart in the interpretive paradigm [7]. This means that the dialogical principle can be best demonstrated in regards with a multiplicity of interpretations. Since interpretations are made and remade continuously and are produced for and negotiated by various audiences, the use of the concept of performance, which implies both the realization and assessment of an interpretation, seems to be compatible with the interpretive process as such. Thus, the notions of “performance” and “dialogue” can be usefully employed together in an interpretative context. Ethnographers may identify performances of the dialogic in a culture, as well as dialogical modalities in the performance of a cultural process. Although cultural performances vary from every day activities to highly formalized ones, it is important to deal with both as juxtaposed realities. One such instance of cultural performance is the performance of music, especially dialogical singing. Few ethnographers have dealt with this subject in detail. As a form of cultural dialogics, dialogical singing is encountered in many societies of the eastern Mediterranean.


I shall focus on the dialogical performances of singing in two different insular societies of the Aegean Sea, in eastern Mediterranean: Olymbos on the island of Karpathos, and Plomari on the island of Lesbos. A major part of my academic work, both in terms of cultural experience and ethnographic writing, is associated with dialogical singing in particular and the principle of the dialogical in general, since the mid 1980s to the present. My purpose here is not to provide a thick description and a thorough analysis of the particular forms of dialogical singing from Karpathos and Lesbos. Instead, in order to present what I consider to be the main tenets of dialogical singing in these cultures, I shall narrate a story that serves the purpose of juxtaposing the mode of dialogical singing in culture with the dialogical modality in ethnography. Being aware that this story is mine and not theirs (the people of Kaprathos and Lesbos), even though the story concerns them, and that I am the one who narrates the story in written form, even though they themselves tell such stories of themselves, in their own particular ways, I have arranged the elements of the story in a narrative sequence whereby the grammatical tenses are made to comply with the process of narration. It is evident that every reality changes with time and that this statement applies also to the particular forms of dialogical singing discussed here. In using the ethnographic present to talk about dialogical singing in Karpathos and Lesbos, I do not imply that the cultures in question are static entities unaffected by the passage of time. They have changed a great deal and some of their dramatic changes have been discussed in the ethnographic literature [8]. Using the present tense in the story that follows has no “ethnographic” pretensions; it grows out of the need to tell a story based on actually lived experiences –various experiences, concerning cultures and ethnographies, as well as other things. The story consists of four distinct parts. In the first two parts, I discuss dialogical singing in Karpathos and Lesbos; in the third part, I examine the ideological manipulation of dialogical singing in a situation of “staged authenticity” [9]; finally, I explore the issue of the symbolic juxtaposition of cultural dialogics as dialogical singing with dialogical ethnography.  

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