Wednesday, December 14, 2011

That's the way it looks from here

I was awake this morning at 6 a.m. to hear Morning Edition and see whether Irwin Gratz and Lou McNally would be more specific regarding the north/south and midcoast/downeast boundaries. I heard no evidence that Lou McNally had been told of my concerns; the boundary between north and south was as vague as ever. Irwin Gratz used a different terminology--"the far north" and "the south." This seemed an improvement; "the far north" would begin around, say, Millinocket. But when Lou McNally signed off on his forecast, he did so as he usually does: "And that's the way it looks from here." Somehow I'd forgotten that yesterday when I was writing about his subject position, as the post-structuralists would say. It is a telling phrase in more ways than one.

I had particularly liked this way he signed off, because it suggested a degree of modesty--he wasn't claiming absolute authority for his forecast, just saying that this was how it looked to him from where he stood at the time, implying that it might be different from another standpoint. Beyond modesty, it was also the way we ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and cultural anthropologists were going about stating our own viewpoints when we described and represented other people making music or engaged in whatever social activities we were interpreting at the time. It used to be that those in our profession claimed full, not limited, authority--to take another example from the news, Walter Cronkite's famous signoff, "And that's the way it is." Compare that with "And that's the way it looks from here." Cronkite's newscasts ceased when he resigned, and it was also at about that time that a revolution was taking place among those of us who did fieldwork research and wrote ethnographies. We realized we were not reporters discovering objective reality but authors engaged in constructing (with the help of those we were observing and speaking with) the reality that we represented. Our limited viewpoints could claim only limited authority, and Lou McNally's phrase summed it up nicely: "And that's the way it looks from here."

From where was Lou McNally looking when he gave the weather forecasts for the state of Maine on Morning Edition, then? As I wrote in my last post, I'd thought he was looking at the computer in the Maine Public Radio studio in Portland, poking his head out the window from time to time to do a reality check. Then I'd heard rumors he'd gone out of state and was giving the forecasts remotely. When I finally checked into it, I heard directly from a source at Maine Public Radio that he was broadcasting from Florida, where he was teaching. His signoff phrase got me looking further into it: where in Florida? Disneyland? Almost; it turns out that he is now teaching meteorology at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, Florida. That is where "here" is when he signs off: the way the weather in Maine looks from Daytona Beach, Florida.

And this raises all kinds of interesting questions. No doubt he is looking at computer charts there at his Aeronautical University, and they are probably the same charts he would get if he were in the state of Maine--maybe even better. And so in that sense it doesn't matter if he is "here" or "there." And yet, when he pokes his head out the window he sees, what? Daytona Beach. Perhaps it is springtime when the high school and especially the college students make their pilgrimages to Daytona Beach--would the youth partying on the sandy beaches and in town affect his moods? Does "partly cloudy" in Maine turn into "partly sunny" in Florida because of the difference in climate? 

I'm only half joking. One way of thinking about science is that it is independent of one's position; the laws of gravity are the same in Singapore and they are in London. This way of thinking results in claims of absolute authority. We know that the mathematical equations describing the pull of gravity are the same everywhere in the visible world. But the kind of science, or humanistic social science that I do, the kind that calls for an authority limited by one's subject position, results in "And that's the way it looks from here." Yet, this signoff is no longer appropriate for Lou McNally. By his presence in Florida, he is claiming the kind of scientific authority that contends it doesn't matter whether you look from Portland, Maine or Daytona Beach, Florida--the most accurate weather forecast for the state of Maine will be the same no matter where one stands. And indeed, the Maine Public Radio source said as much: the station had not noticed that his forecasts from Florida were any less accurate than those made by in-state forecasters. 

I will finish up by recalling an incident that was related to me by a doctoral candidate at Brown some twenty years ago, Franziska von Rosen, who was my dissertation advisee and was working with what we call in the US Native Americans but those who in Canada (where Franziska was doing her fieldwork) are called First Nations Peoples. If I recall correctly, Franziska had been present at a gathering of tribal elders representing several Canadian tribes, where they were discussing something important. It was not clear that they would agree. There was some concern about this among them. How would they reach consensus? Each wise elder in turn gave his or her opinion. And, characteristically, each would begin by saying, "This is the way it looks to me from here," and then they would explain what "here" was--who they were, whom they represented, where they were all rooted, and what experience brought them to that view. Franziska said that the others in the group approved of this way of speaking. If instead the elders had said, "This is the way it is," no one would have believed them. And so by claiming limited authority the tribal elders were granted a great deal of authority, whereas if they had claimed to know, the others would have granted them no authority at all.

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