In recent years, students have heard me wince when they talk about “lived experienced.” “Could there be ‘dead experiences’?” I quipped. But they persisted as they are well aware of the terms one must use to pass as a well-educated participant in current academic intellectual life.
Still, perhaps I am wrong in dismissing something that appeared late in my career. Maybe it is about the mystery that, after eating a banana (living the experience of pealing a banana, putting it in my mouth, chewing it, wondering whether it is under ripe or over ripe, etc.) I can talk about the eating (as I am doing now) but cannot actually tell anyone who has never eaten a banana what it tastes like. Try explaining the difference between blue and green to someone who is color blind, or the difference between velvet and silk (or the various types of silk) to someone who has never touched any of them.
During the “culture is text” Derrida moment in my anthropological career, I ranted against those who appeared to say that all is words, that there is no “center” behind the words, and so on. When eating the banana we are not eating the word even if the word is all we have to communicate with other human beings about the eating. There is something about the world that is not constructed (at least not by the experiencing human who had nothing to do with a construction).
All this is common sense (or should be) but it leaves anthropology with a perennial problem. If anthropology, as I would argue has something to do with exploring what it is like to be human among humans (and everything else) by actually living and reporting on humans (“participant observation”), then one has to wonder about the relationship between “life” and “reports on life.” One of the classical version of all this presents anthropology as concerned with “what life means to some people.” The most principled version of this might be Geertz’s. But he could not escape the dilemma so that he ended his career in something I sometimes teach as a form of depression about the very possibility of anthropology. As he put it in one of his later paper:
Are we, in describing symbol uses, describing perceptions, sentiments, outlooks, experiences? And in what sense? What do we claim when we claim that we understand the semiotic means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words or that we know minds? (1976:235)
These are rhetorical questions since Geertz was always really passionate about “mind,” “point of view,” “sentiment,” and indeed “experiences”—words that were common in the mid to late 20th century. These, I’d say is what is now summarized as “lived experiences.”
But the question remains: how are anthropologists to go from “lived experience” (ours or that of other people) to not only the final text of an ethnography but to the very conduct of the (participant) observation. What are anthropologists to look at if they are fully aware of the ineffability of the experience of life.
Say that you (me) are an anthropologist who has read about Branson, Missouri, and, on the occasion of a trip across the United States decides to stop there to find out what it’s all about. Given my personal (lived experience?) association of Branson with Dolly Parton, Dolly Parton Stampede” with a show I could attend, then I drove into the still empty parking lot of the building and started walking around, passing by garbage cans, utility hookups, stables, before approaching the main entrance those who paid to attend would use and which might be the first moment in their own lived experience of the event.and finding out that there was something called the “
As I walked the parking lot, I realized that I was doing what I have always done: start observing a setting from the “back” to the “front,” from what constructing participants (janitors, engineers, accountants) do to that participants in the intended audience (those who pay) will be shepherded to see, hear, and, in the case of the Stampede (which is organized as a dinner/spectacle) taste–as well as smell given the participation of horses. So, the night I attended, I estimated the size of the audience (a few hundreds filling the venue) and some demographic signs. Given Corona, I looked for masks (a few per hundreds unmasked), the number of phenotypically Black persons (even fewer). I marveled at the number of American flags (and at the absence of many other symbols all the more noticeable as a brief scene about people in the Plains before the European appeared particularly carefully written not to trigger any political response).
The anthropological question is: what can I say about the lived experience of anybody in the audience? What of the man on my left: no partner and two young daughters? What would the daughters remember? What of the retired couple on my right? Any phenomenologist would have to agree that each of these five people experienced something different—even though it was triggered at the moment by exactly the same performance. The phenomenologist might also note that the anthropologist’s “lived experience” of the event may be one of the more bizarre as I suspect very few people in the audience are writing analytic blogs of their experience (though there may have been writing in twits and Facebook posts).
My answer, of course, and it has remained constant through my half century of research, writing and teaching, is that I can say something about this performance (the flags, horses, bad jokes) and some of what make it possible (people who serve the food and take out the garbage). But I cannot say anything about what it is like, for anybody, to live that which others have built for one to experience. And I will never trust someone who tells me that they can tell me what they lived—even when they have lived it. I have never been worried about the answer I give to Geertz’s questions: knowing “words” (institutions, dependencies, affordances, etc.) is not only all we can do but is also essential.
Which is why I will not tell what was my own “lived experience” of Dolly Parton’s Stampede (though perhaps readers of this post will imagine it for me).
Bachelard, Gaston 1949 La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard.
Bachelard, Gaston  1964 The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.
Geertz, Clifford 1976 “‘From the native’s point of view’: On the nature of anthropological understanding.” in Meaning in anthropology. Edited by K. Basso and H. Selby. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 221-237.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice  1973 The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.