Stanton, G  (2000)  'The way of the body. Paul Stoller's search for sensuous ethnography', in European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 3 No 2: 259 - 77

This is a review of a recent book by Stoller (Sensuous Scholarship), and a chance to describe the main themes in Stoller's work  [see an example here]. Stoller has done much to reintroduce detailed ethnography into Cultural Studies, to supplement the more general writing about the problems of ethnography, which is driven by some theoretical agenda as well as the constant search for the new.

Stoller's scholarship is unusual. He avoids 'conventional academic presentation: his ethnographic style is experimental' (260). It offers a challenge to rational accounts. In particular, it reminds ethnographers that they have bodies and not just eyes. Even recent sociology of the body still tends to regard the body as a text (and Butler is cited here). What is required as a fully sensual scholarship, with 'the sensible' given its due as well as the analytic. It helps to understand societies which are not based on the text and Euro centric textual interpretations as well.

Stoller's own work on Mali and Niger and the  'embodied practices' of their sorcerers indicate the possibilities  (261). The sorcerers ingest history rather than study it, with all its sensual stimuli. Famous studies of witchcraft such as Levi Strauss's, or Evans-Pritchard's focused much more on underlying epistemologies and neglected this sensual dimension. Certainly, the notion of eating, and being eaten, by power seems dominant. Stoller himself experienced bodily paralysis, apparently as a result of a sorcerer's attack, which led him to ' think through his bodily initiation over the years' (262).

Songhay sorcerers want to impart knowledge of history and tradition in a way that will be useful to the next generation. There is no interest in findings that would correspond to the social sciences, but more of an interest in  'the poetics of the story... respect for the "old words"  for a sense that they have been humbled or consumed by their efforts to address history' (263). This is a stance that ethnographers should also adopt, Stoller thinks. Stanton sees this as a parallel to Barthes' views of authorship -- the sorcerer is also  '"owned"  by language' (263). Authorial voice still needs to be challenged in ethnography, but not in a disengaged intertextual way: instead, shared voices embedded in communities should be allowed ethnographic space. This is how ethnographers could return to the world.

Songhay sorcerers use sounds and smells in order to invoke spirit possession. The spirits invite participation from those present, including the anthropologist. In a particular example, the spirits are used to invoke early European colonisation, and therefore memories of that period. 'The body of the medium itself embodies colonial memories' (264). Spirit possession evokes memories and counter-memories which are not found anywhere else, in histories or epics, for example. Mimicry plays a major part  [and here the work of Benjamin on mimicry, and the films of Jean Rouch are also cited in support of the power of mimicry and representation].

These specific examples are used to make more general points about the importance of the sensuous, and how that must not be forgotten by text makers. As one example, Swedish reservations about modernization were expressed in a cult of  'gymnastics, vegetarianism, nudism, and new modes of sensuousness' (267), and there were political struggles to harness this cult to modern politics -- a form of 'dulling' or domesticating sensuousness (267). This is also a possible effect of [ethnographic?] cinema, according to Stoller. However, cultural memory in a sensuous form is less easily domesticated. Ethnographers must attempt to represent the sensuous, perhaps as this series of fragments  '"filled with smells, textures, sights, sounds, and tastes, all of which spark cultural memories"' (Stanton, 267, quoting Stoller.

In another example, Stoller examines West African traders transported to New York. This immediately raises questions about what 'the field' is these days, but it was also to demonstrate the '"sensuous circumstances" of the West African vendors' (268). The African market in New York developed in complex ways arising from 'political battles behind the scenes' involving Africans from different regions and local African-Americans. Amidst all this complexity, African traders are mostly interested in selling goods to make money, wherever those goods are made.  'The point is that in order to talk about contemporary urban hybridity we should emulate the epistemological suppleness of such traders' (269).

[I have omitted a very interesting section on film and the work of Rouch, who produced some rather avant garde and unconventional films about Mali as  '"ethno-fiction"' (269). The idea is to alienate the audience in order to make it think about itself and its racism. Perhaps the best-known one involves African ethnologists coming to Paris in order to study the French {Petit a petit}. Avant-garde film is seen to be far in advance of academic forms of representation of different cultures].

Stoller's work is controversial and has been seen as anti-rational and eclectic, but Stoller wants to reject conventional writing which dulls sensuousness --'Anthropologists, rather, should feel, should themselves be penetrated by the events of the field and be able to convey this to the reader... [seeking to give]... the reader a sense of other worlds' (271). Of course, this returns to a criticism of anthropology made by Cultural Studies, that it offers unmanageable detail  (and Willis is cited here). 'For a theory-driven discipline such as Cultural Studies, description and detail can suggest a lack of rigour, a failure of abstraction which approaches mere journalism, a simple accumulation of facts destined to drown in its own Sargasso Sea of verbosity' (271). Stoller pursues the strategy of managing the detail by openly offering  'fiction', attempting to see the world as a sorcerer does, locating himself in the  'global ethnoscape', attempting to break the bounds of textuality. Certainly, any cultural studies examination of African street traders in New York would be forced to return to their world in all its detail. At least Stoller has attempted to reveal the limits of  '"staid academicism"' (272), and stress the need for some academic humility in the face of the complexities of the world.

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