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The book is richly evocating


textual ethnography filled
with cultural poetics. Stewart
shifted from traditional
ethnography to a new
approach that takes a cue
from the tactile, imaginary,
nervous and contested modes
of critique of subject to
photographs. The story took
place in the Appalachian
defunct coal-mining and
hollows of West Virginia
which Dr. Stewart calls the
Other America due to the
history of capitalist
exploitation of natural
resources and how the locals
delivered their narrativization
of tragedies, encounters, and
life narratives using cultural
poetics. Stewart called the
storytelling as narrative space
as a space on the side of the
road of an Other America
either opening or reopening.

Kathleen Stewart, Professor of Anthropology


University of Texas at Austin
Kathleen Stewart received her doctoral degree in Anthropology,
University of Michigan in 1988. In 1989, she was hired as an
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and Center for
Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Ethnomusicology, University of
Texas, Austin. In 1980 she began two years doing field work on
poetics and politics in the Appalachian mountain in West Virginia
where she published her first book, A Space on the Side of the Road:
Cultural Poetics in an `Other' America (Princeton University Press,
1996). Dr. Stewart was awarded both the Chicago Folklore Prize and
the Victor Turner Award for best ethnography. She was the
chairperson of Department of Anthropology at University of Texas at
Austin from 2011-2013 and also served as a director at Americo
Parades Center for Cultural Studies. In 2007, she published another
book, Ordinary Affects, (Duke University Press) fieldwork which
was carried out in multiple locations encompassing; West Virginia,
Las Vegas, and Austin. Her effort focused on the force, or affects, of
encounters, desires, bodily states, dream worlds, and modes of
attention and distraction in the composition and suffering of a
present. Recently she taught a special topic course in Folklore, Public
Culture, and Cultural Studies: Affect (Spring 2015). Her research
interests are new materialism, infrastructural theory, postphenomenology, affect, ordinary life, the senses, and ethnographic
writing in American Studies. Interesting tidbit about this book:
Stewart used her field notes in the Appalachian for her dissertation
which progressed into a fifteen year journey leading to this book, A
Space on the Side of the Road. Can you imagine that?!
Research Questions of this Study
Dr. Stewart provided research questions for her ethnographic study:

1) How do you as an ethnographer visualize a place where the members of the community face
and deal with both a constant proliferation of expressive signs in all their density, texture, and
force and a constant naturalization of the world as it is? (p.20)
2) How does the community continue to dwell in a system long enough to track its moves and
cultural politics? (p.21)
3) How do we take this texted politics of desire. as an object through mimesis, narrative,
allegory and the insistence on ruin and remembrance and get caught up in discourses and signs?
Ethnographic/Theoretical Discourse
Stewart had to devise a new ethnographic writing that recognizes density, texture, and
materialism in the coal mining camps and hollows of Appalachia. Her theoretical framework
was drawn based on the works of major theorists, Barthes (semiotic meaning), Bakhtin (dialogue
of cultural production), Benjamin (where culture cannot be right), and Geertz (adopted from
Riley) (thick description) who guided her study and what things she observed, collected data and
the relationship she sought. To give you a better illustration on the work of Barthes, his
influence of structuralism has had profound impact on Stewarts analysis of narrative which will
be addressed later in this paper. She framed her understanding of herself and others, present and
past, space, universal and other. She used Cultural Poetics to support her data finding and
analysis. Cultural Poetics is an act of mediation of meaning in forms on how an Other world
could emerge from the local ways of talking and ways of doin people. Stewart adopted this
approach to inform her reader of what she found and gave us political interpretation of text. She
adopted Agees idea (mimesis) from his writing, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) about
the tenant farmers, or as they were called hillbillies, of the Depression in the South. This book
used both language and photographs which enabled the readers to understand that the tenant
farmers felt betrayed by those who occupied professional positions representing an "official"
America (Stewart, pp.22-23).
Stewart also utilized discourse-centered approaches to culture such as interpret the meaning of
form, like signs in social use. She mentioned that Performance Theory (mimetic) was used to
document the rhetorical and emergent of the culture in the coal-mining camps and hollows in the
Appalachia.
In sum, Stewart used both thematic and performative analysis. She was interested in structural
devices such as metaphors and some of the figurative language (e.g. allegory).
Methods/Discussion (key findings)
Stewart began her field work in 1980 and ended in 1982, but she returned for follow up with her
notes, recordings, memories, photographs, phone calls, letters and professional papers. For
discourse approaches, she used ethno-poetic notation to evoke and to mimic the effects of

performance by inserting bold lettering to emphasis, line breaks to indicate pause or gaps, sound
representation to evoke the differences between Appalachian dialect and Standard English. Also,
she used italics to reflect culturally marked local terms or have some cultural relevance in social
order, for examples, hollers (hollows), and of thangs (things). Culture is defined as a space of
imagination critique and desire produced in and through mediation. For example:
Well, theyre just like cats in heat, buddy, theyre crazy, theyre doin everything you can think
of and thats gettin started (p.46).
She had sought answers for the quality and feeling of the members of the Other that constitute
the local culture in the abandoned coal mining camps and hollows in West Virginia through
discourse with the members of an Other culture. Below is an example from a song:
I dont see whats wrong with our government
they wont protect my place to me
when Rockefeller gets all that big machinry
hes gonna turn it over to me
Im gonna take it to the lantic ocean
Im going dump it in the middle of the sea (p.127)
The above text Stewart observed and explained the context of this song as a performative
analysis by making an analogy to the machinations of the Wizard of Oz (p. 128). This is an
example of how she framed her understanding of the meaning of an Other epistemology.

Another example of how Stewart put together a collection of events was a fragmented series of
stories and images: I remember the dense texture of things- rusted metals and swollen woods
(p.72). She pointed that any cultural description not this represents or symbolizes, that but
rather, this is a (morally charged) story about that (Clifford , p.74).
Stewarts encounter with the VISTA worker interviewing one of the locals, Ellis whose house
and car were covered up in a mud slide, criticized strip mining which he remembers events:
Strip minin
Is the cheap way
Of the coal operator getting the coal,
Cuttin the whole top of the mountain off, (p.81)
The point of this observation is that the VISTA worker, clearly comes from a fixed, objective
real world interrupted Ellis during storytelling, and asking him to come out of his talk. She
confronted Ellis by asking him a question whether he had allowed the coal companies to do
damage his home and car.

MacIntyre and others who practiced using narrative approaches to social phenomena which
limits the concept of action of human beings: Human beings can be held to account for that of
which they are the authors; other being cannot (Czarniawska, , p.13). Ellis was attempting to
share his personal life history with the VISTA worker, but she would not tolerate how he
explained his social phenomena.
Additionally, this is another example of how Stewart explains that the thick description of Ellis
human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, in such a way
that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider. Another argument can be presented that the
VISTA worker is viewed as an outsider who cannot find their feet (or relate) with them
(Wittgenstein, in Geertz, p.13).

In Chapter 7, the accident discusses a tragedy that involves a fatal automobile accident. Stewart
explained the accident by using a series of fragmented pieces leading to the accident . Stewart
follows what it is called narrative mode of knowing by Bruner which means that she follows
events, and uses logcio-scientifc mode (Czarniawska, p.7). Also, the accident fits nicely into
Gabriels five features of this tragic story: 1) a protagonist; 2) a predicament: 3) attempt to
resolve the predicament 4) the outcome of attempts; 5) the reaction of protagonist (Czarniawska,
p.41).
In Chapter 8, The Place of Ideals provides the reader an idea of where the ideas and ideal can be
invented in the story. Ideals/ideas lie embedded in it as signs of the force, density, and texture of
cultural production itself (p.203).
Stewarts borrows Cultural Poetics, a methodological approach to analyze literary and adapts
Geertzs thick description which describes insignificant details present in any cultural practice.
Also, she relies heavily on field notes both substantive and focus on observation, interview,
conversation, and experience. For instance, in Chapter One, The Space of Culture, Stewart
begins with a description of the hollows found in defunct coal mining camps. Steward reminds
us to imagine how the place she described had become a migration space that caught people in
the repetition of drifting back and forth from the hills to the cities for work (p. 16)
How the capitalist industry abandoned the coal mining camps and created a space of lost and the
people had to re-membered and imagined things (p.17). She viewed the place as a nervous
system in which culture is a wild politicalized oscillation between one thing and another and the
very image of system itself slips out of the grasp of all those quick assumptions that associate
it with things like order, unity (ancient, timeless) tradition, coherence, and singularity.(p. 20)
Stewart framed Agees work on thing which he emphasizes that became a sign communicating
exploitation, injustice, disappointment, desire (p. 22). Next she discussed modernist theory to fix

a culture in place and time, to picture it in an overview, name it in a word, or reduce it to an


allegory of anthological theories.
Narratives in the Text
Stewart started the text with a description of a rumination of the now defunct coal-mining camps
by using this phrase, PICTURE HILLS so dense, so tightly packed in an overwhelming wildness
of green that they are cut only by these cramped, intimate hollers (p.13). She used the word
picture in the first chapter heavily and some in other chapters to give the reader background, and
context of the story. She was influenced by Geertz work on thick description before completing
her dissertation; clearly her writing technique has profoundly impacted the reader to start to
visualize the context of the book.
The local informants told stories which were not timely framed; Stewart craftily explained to the
readers that the members of this culture that they tend to describe a tragedy instead of using
chronological events. I dont believe all narratives given by the local informants were based on
transcripts. She admitted in the book that there were times that she ran into the informants by
accident and they told her stories without being recorded. She had to write these down in notes
afterwards. She treated all elements from the context of the story, locals, stories, and cultural
artifacts as symbols within a social code so she could record her observations while
simultaneously paying attention to the meanings of texts. These two techniques, participantobservation and interview-dialogue are the important tools used to create narratives in this book.
Narratives in the text inform the reader by telling a story whether it is real or not. Stewart used
cultural artifacts such as photographs, road signs, environment prints, and ruinations, to help the
reader understand that objects are readable texts. Stewart viewed them as material culture with
meanings and history that locals marked as special.
In the last chapter, Stewart argues that there is no solution to find the truth to back up her claims
but follows what her informants share with their talk: Truth claims emerge in the performative
spaces where signs (talk) and meanings (ideals/ideas) collide- the space on the side of the road
(p.211).

Book AS Narrative
Stewarts writing is more a recreation of the past and dealing with tragedies in the lives of the
people living in coal-mining camps and hollows so the reader can view as it really was rather
than to see it as a process. She repeated stories, used mimetic excess and metaphors of her time
in the Appalachian Mountains which represent a classic example of how she as a researcher
proved her findings to support her claims. The ending the story left the reader with the

impression that there is no answer but the reader can learn that we cannot discover the truth of
history. Critical Poetics argues that history can be seen as a kind of fiction. In other words, what
Stewart collected from her field notes is always partial and maybe partial of fabulation. Not all
texts are purely objective history. It aligns the beliefs and values of the culture where the
members of the Other share with the reader. I had to re-read the book several times and it does
take a lot of time and effort to understand the politics of the Other, interpret the dialogues, and
connect them together to understand the history of how new materialism changed the lives of
those who lived in the camps and hollows. In my opinion, I think Stewart did a remarkable job in
writing this difficult but yet a classic piece. I think she tried to limit with excessive
narrativization (Hayden White) by not giving the reader too much information about the context.
This is a classic example of what an ethnographer should do; her/his job is to record what she/he
observed, interacted, engaged in dialogue and collected artifacts in order to understand a unique
regional culture.

Strengths

Challenges

Stewarts writing is well crafted writing in


terms of ethno poetics; a radical movement to
cultural poetics and cultural real.

Stewarts use of language may be abstract and


difficult for general readers; it is heavily
academic writing. Her book may be
appropriate for academic study; but generally it
is difficult for readers who have no critical
pedagogical background.

Well-written genre of textual language and


American culture

Book is a classic; but is considered highly


academic writing appropriate for academic
studies.
Narratives in this book were difficult to
determine who told a story. Most stories were
told in a fragmented sense which left the reader
to wonder about the locals: Are they all like
that? We cannot be left with assumptions about
language culture.
Stewart obtained textual information by
accident without recording. Some obtained
information by appointments but faced several
challenges in the beginning of how the
informant began their opening of a story which
leaves the reader an impression whether a
voice is genuine.

Stewart was immersed in the community for


two years by living in a house and working

with locals helping them get benefits for their


black lung disease or other social work related
issues. She learned how to talk with the locals.
When she was in doubt of her findings, she
returned to the community to follow up with
her findings/analysis.
Stewart left the reader unanswered questions
about the location of these coal-mining areas
where she got narratives; at times, locations
were vague and unclear.
References
Cultural Poetics or New Historicism (n.d.) Retrieved from
http://www.westga.edu/~mmcfar/cultural_poetics.htm
Stewart, K. (1995). A Space by the Side of the Road. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Anthropology (n.d.) .Kathleen C. Stewart.
Retrieved
from https://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/anthropology/faculty/kcs