Susan Lepselter on Her Prize-Winning Book

Susan Lepselter won the 2017 Gregory Bateson Book Prize for her book, The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity and UFOs (2016).  In announcing the prize, Karen Strassler describes the book in the following terms:

In this exquisitely crafted ethnography, Susan Lepselter explores how the uncanny saturates the everyday among believers in UFOs in the American West. Rather than objects of elite disdain or sideshow curiosities, Lepselter’s interlocutors emerge as poets and theorists whose reflections on odd coincidences and eerie happenings offer a ‘strange mirror’ on the experiences of late empire and late capitalism. Lepselter’s subjects rely on elaborate conspiracy theories and casual hunches to inhabit a landscape haunted by violent colonial conquest and the presence of a vast, ‘secret’ military base. Deeply invested in an American mythology of freedom, they palpate the edges of the felt, the seen, and the known as they go about their daily lives convinced of the presence of pervasive but out-of-sight, alien powers—technology, the market, the state, the extraterrestrial.

Interview with Ilana Gershon

Where were you when you found out you had won the Bateson prize (I of course want to know which device)?

I was on a street corner in New York on a hot day, waiting for a bus that was running very late. I was using the MTA transit location app to pretend I had some control over its arrival time. Since my iphone was out and I was just standing there, I checked my email. Suddenly that moment’s mood changed quite a bit.

The Resonance of Unseen Things received this prize in part because you are such an evocative writer. I wonder if you could describe some of the techniques you have developed to begin writing, to start crafting the first draft.

I love this question; I think it should be a more explicit conversation, and it’s something I do talk about with my graduate students and colleagues. Here are a few of my rotating techniques, in no particular order: (1) I read fiction for a while; I choose something that has an intensity to it, to get a rhythm and a voice of my own going in response. There are a few books that always seem to light the fuse, (2) I brainstorm like crazy. I get as much as possible out on paper (well, on the screen), and then I print it out and go through the brainstorm, looking for themes, for ways to structure things, (3) I pretend that what I’m writing is really a letter to someone specific, another anthropologist with whom I feel an intellectual bond. I imagine she’s in conversation with me and I need to get my ideas across to her in an intellectually personal way. This way, I am thinking always of the addressee, and it makes writing feel much more dialogic, much less solitary and vague. It’s probably like the trick that actors sometimes use, of directing their monologue to someone specific in the audience. Someday I’d like to do an actual epistolary writing experiment with another person.

What do you consciously try to avoid doing when writing, but seem to keep catching yourself doing?

This has changed over the years, but I’ll tell you the greatest challenge now. There are many moments of tension when writing, of course, blank moments when you don’t know exactly what your next sentence or idea will be. You have to be willing to dwell in that spell of discomfort, to ride the wave. But it’s really way too easy, these days, to click yourself out of that blank moment before it can develop—a natural impulse to avoid the discomfort of the blank space. The email, the news headline, the whatever—it provides a momentary respite, but of course it is worse than the actual few moments of distraction, because it’s a complete disruption of one’s flow. So when I notice that’s happening, I try to turn off my internet.

The other major hindrance is the habit of prematurely editing myself, cutting my ideas down before I’ve gotten to the point where that’s useful. I try to be encouraging to the baby text, even though I’m tempted to tell it how badly it’s behaving.

What is a favorite editing technique to teach others interested in producing creative ethnography?

Read your work out loud. Get rid of anything that sounds like excess when you actually hear it.

What book is on your bookshelf that people might be surprised to learn that you own?

An oversized volume of something called The Royal Book of Ballet. It’s been hanging around since I was a kid and, evidently, has somehow moved with me throughout my life. The willies from Giselle were always weirdly inspiring, and the now-torn cover—a lush illustration from Swan Lake—is, I suppose, a kind of alien encounter.

Susan Lepselter is an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University.

Please send your comments, contributions, news, and announcements to SLA contributing editors Summerson Carr ([email protected]), Ilana Gershon ([email protected]), and Amelia Tseng ([email protected]).

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana,  and Susan Lepselter. 2018. “Susan Lepselter on Her Prize-Winning Book.” Anthropology News website, January 19, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.736

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