Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Sensuous Scholarship

Sensuous Scholarship

Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 184
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Sensuous Scholarship
    Book Description:

    Among the Songhay of Mali and Niger, who consider the stomach the seat of personality, learning is understood not in terms of mental activity but in bodily terms. Songhay bards study history by "eating the words of the ancestors," and sorcerers learn their art by ingesting particular substances, by testing their flesh with knives, by mastering pain and illness. In Sensuous Scholarship Paul Stoller challenges contemporary social theorists and cultural critics who-using the notion of embodiment to critique Eurocentric and phallocentric predispositions in scholarly thought-consider the body primarily as a text that can be read and analyzed. Stoller argues that this attitude is in itself Eurocentric and is particularly inappropriate for anthropologists, who often work in societies in which the notion of text, and textual interpretation, is foreign. Throughout Sensuous Scholarship Stoller argues for the importance of understanding the "sensuous epistemologies" of many non-Western societies so that we can better understand the societies themselves and what their epistemologies have to teach us about human experience in general.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0313-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PROLOGUE: The Scholar’s Body
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    The thought of being “the sweet, cold water and the jar that pours” pushed the din of the coffee shop’s early morning breakfast trade far into the background of my awareness. Immersed in mystical Sufi stories, I pondered mirrors and faces rather than omelettes and French toast, the real and the surreal rather than bagels and cream cheese.

    “You look lost, old man.”

    I looked up from my book and smiled at my old friend David. I had returned to New York in July 1993 to continue field studies of West African peddlers on the streets of Harlem. David, also...

  5. Part One: Embodied Practices

    • Introduction: The Way of the Body
      (pp. 3-3)

      In his monumental Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) Richard Rorty painstakingly deconstructed the logical edifice of Western epistemology, leaving in its wake the dust of a thousand rarefied conversations. In later writings Rorty, among others, espoused a new pragmatism that emphasized local truths, community cohesion and civil conversation. Rorty and others did not claim that epistemology did not exist, but rather that epistemologies formulated and reformulated themselves in the interactional instabilities of local community life—all in a myriad of conversations that would edify the public.¹

      Rorty’s work, of course, has considered the logical pitfalls of Western metaphysics,...

      (pp. 4-23)

      In 1957 Claude Lévi-Strauss published his influential essay, “The Sorcerer and His Magic.” Lévi-Strauss’s essay built the foundation of a structuralist approach to the anthropological study of sorcery, healing, and religion. In a remarkable analysis Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that sorcerous ideologies were based on sociological fictions reinforced by magical sleight of hand. In the end the power of the sorcerer, he argued, rested not in an intrinsic power, but in the symbolic power of his or her relationship in the cultural continuum of illness and health.¹ Lévi-Strauss’s argument is based on data gleaned not from his own fieldwork in Brazil but...

      (pp. 24-44)

      During my long apprenticeship to Adamu Jenitongo, almost all of our discussions took place under a lonely acacia in the center of his compound. One afternoon toward the end of his life, the old man asked me into his spirit hut. My heart leaped with expectation, for I knew that such an invitation—rarely if ever given—meant that the time had come for the master to impart important knowledge to me.

      “You have learned much over the years,” he insisted. I said nothing.

      “You have learned our words and about our plants.”

      “I have tried to listen,” I responded....

  6. Part Two: Body and Memory

    • Introduction: The Texture of Memory
      (pp. 47-47)

      In Part One we saw how sensuous localized epistemologies shape cultural practices among the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger. Songhay sorcerers eat power—in the form of what they call kusu—which can both empower and overpower their bodies. Songhay griots eat history and as a consequence are “owned” by the “old words” they have ingested. In Part Two, the chapters suggest that embodied processes—the construction and reconstruction of local epistemologies—spark cultural memories.

      To use the language of Paul Connerton, flesh both inscribes and incorporates cultural memory and history.¹ These memories may take the form of...

      (pp. 48-73)

      The acrid smell of burning resins wafts through Adamu Jenitongo’s compound, preparing it for the holle (spirits). It is late afternoon in Tillaberi, and the sounds of a Songhay spirit possession ceremony crackle through the dusty air: the high pitched “cries” of the monochord violin, the resonant clacks of bamboo drumsticks striking gourd drums, the melodious contours of the praise-singer’s “old words,” the patter of dancing feet on dune sand.

      It is a white hot day in June 1987, and the mix of sounds and smells brings the spirits to Adamu Jenitongo’s egg-shaped dunetop compound. Four mudbrick houses shimmer in...

    • 4 “CONSCIOUS” AIN’T CONSCIOUSNESS: Entering the Museum of Sensory Absence
      (pp. 74-88)

      In Chapter 3 I alluded to Gayl Jones’s novel Corregidora, a haunting tale about cultural memory and the “counter-memories” of four generations of Afro-Brazilian and African American women. Throughout the novel the protagonist’s great-grandmother talks repeatedly about “conscious” and how the memories of “conscious” are deeper than the “official” historical texts and records. “Conscious,” which Great Gram considers “evidence,” is sedimented in the bodies of the women, all of whom are haunted by the hulking presence of the Portuguese sailor Corregidora, who owned, abused, and abandoned them. Jones describes how these memories extend well beyond the protagonist’s great-grandmother. Indeed, the...

  7. Part Three: Embodied Representations

    • Introduction: Embodying the Grammar
      (pp. 91-92)

      It has long been a curious habit in the academy to divide the world into buyers and sellers. This absolutist tendency has created all sorts of cross-cutting distinctions that reinforce the illusion of a classically ordered universe. Realists distinguish themselves from idealists and vice versa. Hard scientists distinguish themselves from soft humanists and vice versa. And if someone, like Wittgenstein, reminds the realists and scientists that they are also idealists and humanists, is that enough to alter their grammar?

      Usually not, for academic grammars tend to be rather entrenched, so entrenched, in fact, that the goal of many scholars—scientists...

    • 5 SPACES, PLACES, AND FIELDS: The Politics of West African Trading in New York City’s Informal Economy
      (pp. 93-118)

      The “field” in anthropology is becoming a dizzying array of cross-cutting transnational spaces that take place in zones of multiple contestation. Consider the kaleidoscopic forces that converged in mid-October 1994, on New York City’s 125th Street, the cultural crossroads of Harlem. The 125th Street Vendors Association, a loosely organized “union” of some 500 African American vendors and West African traders from Senegal, Mali, Niger, and The Gambia, threaten to shut down 125th Street if Mayor Giuliani makes good on his campaign promise to disperse the African market from Harlem’s main thorough-fare. Although the “union” is supported by the Nation of...

      (pp. 119-134)

      Sensuous scholarship may well have begun in 1954 in the film theater of the Musée de l’Homme. A select audience of African and European intellectuals has been assembled to see a film screening. Marcel Griaule is there, as are Germaine Dieterlen, Paulin Vierya, Alioune Sar, and Luc de Reusch. Jean Rouch, a pioneer of ethnographic film and cinéma vérité, is in the projection booth. He beams onto the screen the initial frames of Les maîtres fous. Rouch begins to speak, but soon senses a rising tension in the theater. As the reel winds down, the uncompromising scenes of Les maîtres...

  8. EPILOGUE: Sensuous Ways of Knowing/Living
    (pp. 135-138)

    In a kingdom of long ago, there was a dervish from a very strict school who was one day strolling along a river bank. As he walked he pondered great problems of morality and scholarship. For years he had studied the word of the Prophet. Through study of Prophet’s sacred language, he reasoned, he would one day be blessed with Mohammed’s divine illumination and acquire the ultimate Truth.

    The dervish’s ruminations were interrupted by a piercing noise: some person was incanting a dervish prayer. What is this man doing? he wondered to himself. How can he be mispronouncing the syllables?...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 139-148)
    (pp. 149-160)
    (pp. 161-162)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 163-166)