By Tony Page and Gareth Page

The cards below are referenced in the paper “Multimodal Ethnography in/of/as Postcards” (Gugganig and Schor 2020) and are a sample of those sent between two brothers, one a clinical scientist and the other a psychiatrist who also has a social science training. We are admirers of the English writer J. G. Ballard, and the postcards are written in an affectionate pastiche of his style and frequently include references to Ballardian tropes: drained swimming pools, Japanese airmen, the film star Elizabeth Taylor, and so on. We usually sign off as “Bollard.” We seem to remember that originally they were written to subvert the cliché of the holiday postcard but inevitably they have come to reflect our middle-class background: our preferred holiday destinations, our interests (e.g., current affairs, skiing/mountaineering, architecture, anthropology/STS, progressive rock), and of course our prejudices. We have been sending the cards to each other for over thirty years, though the seven selected were sent over the last decade. Most of the cards relate a story or stories prompted by an event that occurred, or might have occurred, during the stay away from home, but the stories themselves have a shifting relationship to objective reality. The same is true of the characters that appear in the stories. Though the title appears serious, as befits an academic journal, and the content often relates to nontrivial matters, it should be remembered that the cards were sent to amuse.

1. Image de Montagne

 

Virtually trapped in the village by the blizzard conditions, Bollard sought out the only independent coffee shop in Val d’Isère, Arctic Café, where Australian snowboarders and Swedish teens posted blogs from their Macbooks or Snapchatted their friends in Gothenburg. The village itself had changed almost beyond recognition in the fifteen years since his last stay though the central hub providing access to Solaise and Rocher de Bellevarde remained, albeit with updated facilities. Bollard was intrigued by the sociology of the resort which continued to attract large numbers of young Britons to both work and play; many of the shop assistants and hotel staff hailed from the UK, a vanguard colonising this corner of the Haute Savoie, a British foothold in a post-Brexit Europe for a privileged class. This alpine resort, with the boutique feel of a high-end retail destination finished off in timber and local stone contrasted with Tignes at the other end of the combined ski area. Both purpose-built, Val d’Isère had always attracted clientele of a certain status but Tignes, a brutalist statement in angular concrete represented a more inclusive, egalitarian and progressive outlook, making skiing accessible to a wider audience and helping to ditch the elitist tag. Bollard suspected that the EU referendum result was already having an effect on the tourism industry. The dramatic decline in sterling was an obvious indicator but his flight from Gatwick to Chambéry wasn’t full and the apartment he was sharing with the Historic Buildings Consultant was actually designed to accommodate at least six.

Bollard

2. Sydney

 

Bollard approached the Occupy Sydney protestors and proffered words of solidarity. Their presence in Martin Place had diminished over the last few months leaving behind a hard-core group of activists. Martin Place was surrounded by grandiose edifices: the former GPO building in neo-classical style now converted to high-end retail outlets including Gucci and Longines; former insurance and shipping company headquarters now taken over by Burberry or selling pearls and haute couture. Bollard reflected on the demise of these colonial-era ventures, rendered insignificant and replaced by rampant globalisation, a powerful force harnessing image and brand identity to convert the consumers into airport clones. It seemed that the spiritual bond between the indigenous people and their land, a bond stretching back the best part of 70 000 years and first threatened in the late 18th century, was once more under attack—from bankers, brokers, global markets and giant corporations. These vested interests were not only destroying a cultural heritage, they were fighting to maintain a status quo of riches for the privileged and ripping up the earth in search of mineral wealth to do so, selling dirty coal to the Chinese in the hope that they could catch a ride on the Tiger’s tail. However, Australia had not fully escaped the global economic crisis and around one-in-ten shops down every suburban high street was lying empty, gathering dust and junk mail. Later, as he wandered around the sterile architecture of the Westfield Centre in an attempt to avoid a downpour of biblical proportions, Bollard began to feel trapped by the endless reflections from the polished steel escalators and disturbed by the expressionless faces of the shoppers. He had become imprisoned by the new retail geometry. . .

Bollard

3. Tirol

 

The burned out restaurant between Penken and Rastkogel was owned by the same man whose restaurant in Frankenberg was destroyed by a landslide three days earlier. Was this simply Zillertal politics, the continuing feud between the three extended families that had carved up the valley between them, or was it a reaction to someone flouting the strict Tirolean planning laws, product of the innate Austrian conservatism that when suppressed for too long could end explosively? Bollard wondered if it was something even more sinister. Had the properties been destroyed for an insurance claim to stave off bankruptcy? There were no signs of the global economic downturn to be seen anywhere in the Tirol. On the contrary, expensive German-built cars cruised the streets of Mayrhofen and Zell, the Italian designer outfits were doing brisk trade, and all the restaurants were full. Bollard noticed that every menu was translated into Russian. Had the oligarchs moved to the Tirol to spend their billions? Perhaps they had been seduced by “investment engineering,” a shadowy financial construct that Bollard had first noticed two years ago, but now graced the bibs of young children in ski school. Was this some form of hedge fund that remained outside the regulatory framework proposed by the leaders of the G20? If so, the rewards and the pitfalls were both equally obvious.

Bollard

4. Klosters

 

The ethnographer sat at the very back of the main theatre in the conference centre. Here at the World Economic Forum “Working towards a better world future” ™ ® he’d listened to Christine Legarde’s anodyne keynote speech and sat through seminars where CEOs of major banks failed to apologise for the dismal creed of neo-liberal economics and for the consequences of their tunnel vision, focussed on maximising shareholder value and forgetting that it was not only the western bourgeoisie who had a stake in the world future. In round table discussions, senior politicians from G8 countries had been equally unrepentant of policies that deliberately deregulated globalised financial markets and allowed these bonus-fuelled pygmies to transform millions of lives for the worse. Disillusioned, the ethnographer went ski touring instead.

Bollard

5. Brighton 1

Field notes: MAGic 2015 conference[1] Date: 9–11 September 2015

Non-human actors: University of Sussex- spacious, rationalist (cf Royal Pavilion), modernist (gently so, cf concrete brutalism), Brighton and Hove transport system (regular buses, differential bus/ rail pricing (need to explain this).

Human actors: students on summer school (subject unclear); estate maintenance personnel; outsourced conference management staff (using university IT/video equipment—need to link with late capitalism); conference delegates: :♂ 2:1; age mid-20s–late 60s.

Tribal elders: baggy clothes, flat shoes (except ceremonial dress if delivering plenary address in main lecture theatre: skirt/blouse/heels). ♂ jeans/T-shirt/plaid shirt/linen shirt/crumpled sports jacket (even if delivering plenary address).

Bollard

6. Brighton 2

 

Field notes: MAGic 2015 conference

Dates 9–11 September 2015 + morning 12 September on way home

Younger tribespeople: more diverse. Some smart casual ( and ♂), some scruffy (?cultivated just-returned-from-field look.) NB Battered canvas sneakers →needs more analysis

Royal Pavilion—?intimations of postmodernity. Regency fantasy Nash/Jones/Crace—externally Indian, internally Chinese—but simulacra created by European craftspersons*

Relevance to medical anthropology—used as hospital for Indian soldiers during WWI (see display on 1st floor); no segregation by religion/caste between wards but some within wards; care given by female nurses initially (until they’d trained male orderlies to take over—nurses then withdrawn). Rationale: white females acting as nurses → undermine respect for white women back in India.

*non-rationalist. Check with expert eg DP

Bollard

7. Sicilia

On a terrace high above the Ionian Sea, Bollard watched the hotel guests diffracting the late spring colours of Sicily’s vivid purples, yellows and vermillion; and more subtle lilacs, pinks and cream. The oleander, hibiscus, caper, mimosa and bougainvillea spread across retaining walls, climbed up terracing and cascaded down over the sun loungers. Gradually the pale and sleeping north Europeans began to absorb and transmit all the frequencies of the visible spectrum, their recumbent forms shimmering as a new genus evolved in front of Bollard’s eyes—each organism, in Haraway’s sense, a cyborg micro-ecology of leaf and ligament, tendon and tendril; an interspecies symbiosis where capillaries ran through cambium, red cells flowed through phloem and florets sprouted from finger-ends. When these human-horticultural hybrids awoke, what then?

 

REFERENCES CITED

Gugganig, Mascha, and Sophie Schor. 2020. “Multimodal Ethnography in/of/as Postcards.” American Anthropologist 122 (3). https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13435.

 

NOTES

[1] MAGic conference (September 9–11, 2015), organized by the Medical Anthropology Network of EASA (European Association of Social Anthropologists) and the Medical Anthropology Committee of RAI (Royal Anthropology Institute).