On seeing camels.

Mid-year (school year, that is), I always get discouraged. The fall semester is never as productive as I plan for, and the winter semester looms as a mountain of catch-up work and progress reports and general worry. Which is why I brought my work home with me over the holidays, and why I also can’t seem to get anything done. It just seems too big.

Tonight, whilst staring at my flicking cursor, I tried to think of things I like about my work. It wasn’t easy, partly because what I like about my work doesn’t fit into a nice little numbered list. But here’s my attempt to explain at least one.

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a friend. I’ve had dinner many times before in his home but for reasons I can’t recall, this time I ended up sitting at his table in a seat I’ve never sat at before. Because of this switch in seating, I found myself directly facing a large abstract painting that has hung on the same wall in my friend’s dining room since long before I ever knew him, and which I have gazed at innumerable times before from other vantage points.

Staring at this painting on this particular evening, however, I noticed for the first time that in the top right hand corner, behind what I had always thought of as an aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately meaningless combination of broad strokes of bright colours, was the outline of a camel.

For most people (i.e. the rest of the world who doesn’t eat dinner with my friend) this is probably not terribly exciting. Understand, though, that in that moment I was quite taken aback by the fact that for years I had eaten dinner under the watchful eyes of this camel without ever knowing he was there – a jolting moment that pushed me to utter something quite profound, along the lines of: “Whoa. There’s a camel in that painting.”

As we continued eating, I kept coming back to the painting, searching its corners from this new perspective. A few moments later, a woman with big hair and a long dress appeared from behind the colours. She took up the entire left side of the painting, and the bodice of her dress was painted with bright blue glitter. My reaction went from elation at my ability to “find” secret images, to disappointment in my observational skills: How had I never noticed the camel and his lady before?

I know it’s incredibly cliché (that scene in Dead Poets Society where the students climb up on Robin Williams’ desk to see things from a different point of view comes to mind), but the camel and the lady made me appreciate how important it is to constantly change one’s perspective. It was a reminder to not become too comfortable sitting in the same place.

This is why I love the main exercise of anthropology – fieldwork. Even though “the field” for many anthropologists no longer involves that same sense of exoticism that once seemed to define the discipline, it still inevitably involves intense moments of discomfort, of not knowing the proper ways to interact, of feeling like you’re completely outside some secret circle of knowledge that, no matter how many books you read before getting there, you have to try to make sense of on your own.

Some people are happy just seeing colours. Sometimes I am. Sometimes, though, it’s worth the discomfort to see a camel.

One thought on “On seeing camels.

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