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The Taste of Ethnographic Things

The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology

Paul Stoller
Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The Taste of Ethnographic Things
    Book Description:

    Anthropologists who have lost their senses write ethnographies that are often disconnected from the worlds they seek to portray. For most anthropologists, Stoller contends, tasteless theories are more important than the savory sauces of ethnographic life. That they have lost the smells, sounds, and tastes of the places they study is unfortunate for them, for their subjects, and for the discipline itself. The Taste of Ethnographic Things describes how, through long-term participation in the lives of the Songhay of Niger, Stoller eventually came to his senses. Taken together, the separate chapters speak to two important and integrated issues. The first is methodological-all the chapters demonstrate the rewards of long-term study of a culture. The second issue is how he became truer to the Songhay through increased sensual awareness.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0314-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction: A Return to the Senses
    (pp. 3-12)

    In the summer of 1969 I went to the Republic of Niger for the first time. As a recently recruited English teacher, I spent my first two weeks there as a guest of the government. They housed me in a spacious villa and provided me a government chef who had been trained in Paris. My plush air-conditioned quarters protected me from the heat, mosquitoes, and dust of summer in Niger.

    This luxurious arrangement initially diverted me from the sensual realities of urban Niger: naked children defecating into the ditches which carried the city’s sewage; clouds of aromatic smoke rising from...

  6. PART I Tastes in Anthropology

    • 1 The Taste of Ethnographic Things
      (pp. 15-34)

      Like other peoples in Sahelian West Africa, the Songhay take great pride in their hospitality. “A guest is God in your house,” goes the Songhay adage, and so when strangers are accepted as guests in most Songhay compounds they receive the best of what their hosts can afford to offer. The host displaces his own kin from one of his houses and gives it to the guest. He removes the mattress from his bed and gives it to the guest. And then he orders the kinswoman who prepares the family meals to make her best sauces for the guest.


  7. PART II Visions in the Field

    • 2 Eye, Mind, and Word in Anthropology
      (pp. 37-55)

      To know nature is to know the texture of inner space, for, as Merleau-Ponty wrote, “quality, light, color, and depth which are there before us are there only because they awaken an echo in our body and because the body welcomes them.”¹

      Cézanne and his admirer Merleau-Ponty were heretics. They dared to challenge the Aristotelian premise that nature is on the outside. How can we know if we cannot see, touch, or smell the phenomenon? How can we know if we cannot test experimentally that which we observe? How can we know if we do not have a theoretical orientation...

    • 3 “Gazing” at the Space of Songhay Politics
      (pp. 56-68)

      If anthropologists take a sensual turn they will position themselves to let the other’s world penetrate their being. This repositioning, as I argued in Chapters 1 and 2, would transform the fundamental relationship among our writers, texts and readers. In most ethnographic texts, anthropologists are the authors. The texts they produce are the products of their disciplinary socialization. In more sensualized ethnographies the scenes described (people, interviews, ritual) become authors, the anthropologist becoming the intermediary between the author and an audience. These texts are then the products of socialization in two worlds. Socialization in two worlds implies a decrease of...

    • 4 Signs in the Social Order: Riding a Songhay Bush Taxi
      (pp. 69-83)

      When a Western visitor to Songhay country rides a bush taxi, he or she is suddenly thrown into a social universe in which many of the advantages of being a “prestigious” European are rudely pushed aside. No matter a person’s status in the pecking order of Songhay society, riding a bush taxi in Songhay is a rude initiation both to the uncomfortable conditions of public travel in the Republic of Niger and to the “hardness” of Songhay social interaction.

      I took my first bush taxi ride in the fall of 1969, when I had been in the Republic of Niger...

    • 5 Son of Rouch: Songhay Visions of the Other
      (pp. 84-98)

      Imagine an anthropological discourse in which the others classify their anthropologists in the same way that we classify them. Such a movement would be a step toward the decolonization of anthropological texts; it would also help infuse our writing with a desperately needed sense of humor. “Savages,” after all, enjoy savaging their ethnographers.

      In earlier pages I have written about how the Eurocentric gaze affected the perception and analysis of my Songhay field experiences. In this chapter I argue that “their” classifications of “us” are revelatory, for they situate ethnographic research in a broader, more epistemologically and politically sensitive context....

  8. PART III Sounds in Cultural Experience

    • 6 Sound in Songhay Possession
      (pp. 101-112)

      One afternoon in 1970 in Tillaberi, the haunting cries of the monochord violin drew me over a dune to witness my first ceremony of Songhay spirit possession. The possession dance was held in the compound of Adamu Jenitongo, who would later become the master my apprenticeship in Songhay sorcery. The sounds of these instruments so impressed me that I continued to attend possession ceremonies in 1971. Upon my return to Niger 1976 I again listened for the “cries” of the violin and the “clacks” of the gourd drum. In 1977 I began to learn about the sounds of spirit poetry...

    • 7 Sound in Songhay Sorcery
      (pp. 113-122)

      It was in the village of Mehanna in the Republic of Niger that I learned my first lesson in Songhay hearing. I had been studying with Djibo Mounmouni, a village sorko, a healer who uses words as well as magical powders to heal people who are suffering from illness precipitated by natural and supernatural agents. For four days we attended to a man of some 35 years of age who was suffering from an illness that to me had no discernible diagnosis. The patient had been to the local Islamic healer, to the local health unit, to the regional health...

  9. PART IV The Senses in Anthropology

    • 8 The Reconstruction of Ethnography
      (pp. 125-141)

      My first month of fieldwork among the Songhay of Niger in 1976–77 was a total failure. Having previously lived among the Songhay, and having learned to speak Songhay, I had few problems adjusting to life in a rural village. Still, I did not know many people of the village of Mehanna. Following the wisdom of the literature on fieldwork, I decided to conduct a survey to get to know my neighbors. Soon after I settled in a small mudbrick house, I designed a questionnaire that would generate, or so I thought, some demographic data. But I did not want...

    • 9 Detours
      (pp. 142-156)

      In language and life, human beings are meanderers; we continually take detours. Artists, philosophers and ethnographers often take sideroads which lead them into dimensions of time-space that stray far from the main highway. But too many of us describe those sideroads as if they were still the main highway. The result is a “straight” discourse—sometimes analogic, sometimes digital—suggesting that we have taken highways that lead us directly to our theoretical destinations, suggesting that we “know the place for the first time.”

      This straight discourse permeates the social sciences. We use it to write research proposals. Imagine a proposal...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 157-166)
  11. References Cited
    (pp. 167-177)
  12. Films Cited
    (pp. 178-178)
  13. Index
    (pp. 179-182)