Past Workshops

Captives and Castaways: Experiences and Metaphors of Cultural Enchantment and Social Capture


"Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

The writing of travel stories, memoirs of captivity and ethnographic accounts are all part of a voyager's "ritual of return," a way of re-inhabiting a place in the world that is acceptable to the social context to which the traveler returns.

One of the earliest and most enduring forms of travel writing - the captivity narrative - holds a special place in such literatures, and represents a form of ethnographic engagement that has come to define the core methodology of professional anthropology today. Equally the figure of the castaway, from Robinson Crusoe to Tom Hanks, has had special meanings for the emergence of western individualism and the construction of national "society."

This makes the topic of "captives and castaways" a particularly fertile site for interdisciplinary consideration, as has been shown by the way in which captivity tales are a source for history, literature, anthropology and area studies. The aim of this seminar will be to bring these various fields of critical inquiry into closer focus and thereby develop a strong interdisciplinary intellectual basis for study of various captivity texts and other related materials.

Whatever the meanings assigned to such captivities by the captive, the fact of captivity itself plays a crucial role in authenticating the veracity of such accounts. The fact of captivity can therefore be understood as a mode of continuous eye-witnessing and underpins the notion of observation as a mode of knowledge. For this reason the status of eye-witness accounts is also a matter of debate and the question as to what forms of knowledge can be built on such ways of knowing is no less problematic today than in the early modern period when such narratives first surface in the emergent European colonial world.

Contemporary uses of eye-witness knowledge are predicated on the idea that, even if objective knowledge is possible, the statements of eyewitnesses are a component of , not the form of, such knowledge. The way in which personal proclivities cut across an ideal of "objective" reporting have therefore been at the center of debates on ethnographic writing and representation for the last three decades. Thus it may asked what kinds of knowledge are possible, and for what purposes under these conditions? Knowledge seems to be an (initially) unsought by-product of the experience of captivity, rarely the purpose of these captives' and castaways' travels in the first place. However, a fascination with their exotic captives often takes hold, and "knowledge" through experience becomes a primary goal (or pretext) at the time of recounting the experience.

But is there a will to knowledge among these unwilling captives? In this way writing/recounting becomes part of the ritual of return and strategy of reentry. Moreover, not just return, but also an experience of power differential and/or power inversion of the captive, especially where an individual becomes enslaved within a normally subordinate society. This also prompts questions as to the different experiences of power and knowledge as recalled and narrated, and during the time of captivity.

Captivity, which might be equally understood as a physical detention or a subjective and intellectual fascination, is a crucial condition of possibility for ethnography, suggesting that as a literary form ethnography is co-extensive with the emergence of travel writing more generally. At the same time the epistemological status of ethnographic propositions, dependent on personal observation, are no longer uniformly considered by anthropologists to be "objective" in the manner of a social science, but rather "interpretative" in the manner of humanistic debate and discussion.

The notion of "captivity" validates observation as "participant" rather than "passing," for it implies a substantive engagement with the lives of others since it cannot simply be terminated at the whim of the observer. In other contexts then the castaway as cultural captive might either be turned to advantage, or could become the basis of a damaging challenge to colonial authority in a region. Being castaway can also be a source of social significance through a dangerous potential to remake the cultural order through the presentation and living instantiation of the exotic - and this is amply attested to through the literatures of travel and ethnography more generally.

Those in power might control the cultural meaning of exotic captivity as both a moral and physical condition but they could not control its meanings to those individuals who underwent such experiences. Fascination with the condition of the captive and castaway thus signals the uncertainty of existing categories of identity and territory and in this way such figures become an always potent social site for the remaking of cultural worlds.

Captivity, often now in the form of "kidnapping by terrorists," is still with us and there are striking resemblances between present and past experiences to be explored, with some urgency, as the political meaning of such acts is also linked to mutual histories in which conflicts and crossings between cultures are embedded in the historicity of colonial and political memory.

We aim to both utilize the excellent resources amongst faculty and students on the UW campus, as well as invited external speakers whose work addresses these key issues, to examine the cultural imaginary surrounding captives and castaways in both contemporary and historical periods, as well as across a range of cultural contexts, through a series of workshops and keynote seminars.

Workshops will provide forums for both faculty and students to discuss their own research and to collaborate on emergent topics for further study. Keynote seminars will be an opportunity to bring in established scholars on these questions and will include not just a keynote lecture but also an opportunity for in-depth discussion with speakers who will be asked to lead discussion following their talk.


Thursday, October 12: Screening of the film "Hans Staden"
5230 Social Science Building, 7:30 PM

Friday, October 13: Commentary on the film "Hans Staden"
Round table in 126 Memorial Library, 10:00a-12:00 PM
Prof. Luis Madureira will comment on the film "Hans Staden". Prof. Neil Whitehead and Prof. Jacques Lezra will give presentations from their own research.

Friday, October 13: "Cervantes at the Frontiers: Borderline Experiences in the Early Modern Mediterranean" Lecture
126 Memorial Library, 2:30 PM
Prof. María Antonia Garcés, Nave Visiting Scholar from Cornell University