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Durham University

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Publication details

Carrithers, M. (2008). From inchoate pronouns to proper nouns: a theory fragment with 9/11, Gertrude Stein, and an East German Ethnography. History and Anthropology 19(2): 161-186.

Author(s) from Durham


Despite the elaborate means human beings deploy to render the world predictable and transparent, we nevertheless continually confront situations which are uncertain and opaque. This is especially so in the modern world, in which supralocal institutions and information mediated from afar allow the actions of strangers beyond our face-to-face knowledge to affect us closely. One of the chief means we use to gain purchase in such situations is to document them, and documentary's main technique is to move the at-first-unknown persons into an understandable narrative: hence the idea that some unknown others ('inchoate pronouns') become understandable characters ('proper nouns'). This theory is elaborated through a journalistic documentation of the attack on the World Trade Center, a literary representation of the occupation of France during the Second World War, and an ethnographic depiction of current difficulties in East Germany.