Phenomenology in Anthropology: A Sense of Perspective

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This volume explores what phenomenology adds to the enterprise of anthropology, drawing on and contributing to a burgeoning field of social science research inspired by the phenomenological tradition in philosophy. Essays by leading scholars ground their discussions of theory and method in richly detailed ethnographic case studies. The contributors broaden the application of phenomenology in anthropology beyond the areas in which it has been most influential-studies of sensory perception, emotion, bodiliness, and intersubjectivity-into new areas of inquiry such as martial arts, sports, dance, music, and political discourse.

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1 Moods and Method: Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty on Emotion and Understanding

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Kalpana Ram

PHENOMENOLOGY CAN ASSIST anthropology in two specific ways. The first is in giving us a stronger way to frame objectivity as an aspiration for anthropological knowledge and for the social sciences more generally. The second is in allowing us to give emotions a methodologically central role in enhancing objectivity.

My claims for phenomenology in this essay are limited to the work of two key exponents of the philosophical method, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. There are specific reasons why these two philosophers recommend themselves out of the wide range of philosophers who can claim to represent phenomenological methods. Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty made innovations that are particularly compatible with the premises of the social sciences. They share with the social sciences a break with all variants of what one might describe as a methodological individualism, that is to say, methods which begin with the isolated individual. But unlike the social sciences, which tend to take this break for granted, both of these philosophers are engaged in an active debate with longstanding philosophical traditions. The fact that this was for them an active project itself affords us several advantages. Their language is vital, the models of sociality they propose are fresh, and in bearing witness to the difficulties of breaking with their intellectual predecessors, we gain insight into the sense in which Western philosophy forms a potent tradition. I have argued elsewhere at length that we in the social sciences continue to be shaped by such premises precisely to the extent that we remain either unaware of this tradition, or go along with current tendencies to treat the power of tradition itself far too lightly (Ram 2013).

 

2 Toward a Cultural Phenomenology of Body-World Relations

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Thomas J. Csordas

FOR YEARS IN my seminar on embodiment I have begun by juxtaposing the work of Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, and Foucault, based on the intuition that the work of these three thinkers taken together established the intellectual topology of embodiment as an “indeterminate methodological field defined by perceptual experience and mode of presence and engagement in the world” (Csordas 1994: 12). Writing against the grain of the occasional antipathy toward phenomenology articulated by both Bourdieu and Foucault, I suggest that taken together their work helps to outline the structure of this methodological field for cultural phenomenology by defining complementary aspects of the relation of our bodies to the world, specifically with respect to how they deal with the issue of agency (Csordas 2011). In brief, my argument is that the operative locus of agency is for Merleau-Ponty at the level of existence, for Bourdieu at the level of the habitus, and for Foucault at the level of power relations. The modality in which agency is exercised is for Merleau-Ponty intention, for Bourdieu practice, and for Foucault discourse. The vector of agency (for it has a directionality) is for Merleau-Ponty from our bodies to the world in the sense of projecting into and orienting to the world. For Bourdieu the vector is a double one, pointing in opposite and reciprocal directions between our bodies and the world that we inhabit and that inhabits us. For Foucault the vector is from the world toward our bodies in the sense of inscribing itself upon or incorporating itself into us (Figure 2.1). My interest is not to rehearse these well known concepts from each of the thinkers or to examine how these concepts are developed by each theorist, but to place them in relation to one another in order within a matrix that defines a methodological field.

 

3 Sacred Suffering: A Phenomenological Anthropological Perspective

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C. Jason Throop

IN ANTHROPOLOGY, THE sacred has long been viewed as a unique register of human existence that is at times intimately associated with human suffering in its various forms and manifestations. Often enfolded within such orientations to the potential sacredness of human suffering are associated moral experiences and ethical concerns. Whether understood in the context of painful rituals of initiation, in the light of pain-induced transformations in consciousness, in the context of particular salvational orientations to loss, illness, human finitude, and death, or in the tendency to view suffering as a means of sacrificing one’s own desires for the benefit of one’s ancestors, spirits, or deities, the link between suffering and the sacred has been well documented in anthropology and elsewhere (Geertz 1973; Glucklich 2001; Morninis 1985; Morris 1991; cf. Agamben 1998).1

Despite such extensive documentation it is still far from clear exactly how we should best understand the intimate relationship between suffering and the sacred.2 What is it exactly about suffering as a fact of human existence that can evoke orientations to the sacred? What could be considered sacred about human pain, loss, and hardship? And, perhaps, even more foundational questions: What is the sacred, what forms can it take, and to what extent do ideas of what the sacred entails shape or limit the phenomena (including experiences of suffering) to which it can be addressed? Allow me to begin by addressing this last question as a means to prepare the way for developing an explicitly phenomenological perspective on sacred suffering, which I will then ethnographically situate through a brief examination of some of the various imbrications of sacredness and the experience of suffering in Yap, a small island in the Western Pacific where I have conducted over nineteen months of ethnographic research on morality, suffering, and pain.

 

4 Being “Sita”: Physical Affects in the North Indian Dance of Kathak

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Monica Dalidowicz

THIS CHAPTER EXPLORES the centrality of both kinesthetics and emotion to dance performance, and uses phenomenology to address the challenges that arise in learning the art of storytelling in the north Indian dance form of kathak. Kathak storytelling is danced, not spoken; the story is narrated through the use of gesture, facial expression, and bodily movements. The kathaka’s performance has the intended goal of the evocation of rasa, a concept from Indian aesthetic theory most often translated as mood or aesthetic enjoyment. Limitations to learning arise for both Indian diasporic dancers and foreigners in their attempt to portray abhinaya, or expression, as they struggle to depict archetypal Indian characters and evoke the culturally specific emotional experience prescribed by rasa theory. While certain aspects of rasa theory are translatable, mastery over the inconspicuous aspects of the art form, such as facial expressions or bodily orientations, are difficult to achieve for new or foreign learners. What was typically absent in dancers’ kinesthetic and emotive performances? Most strikingly, many of the basic understandings, comportments, and gestures that form the background of quotidian experience in India were missing in the bodies of neophyte dancers in California with whom I worked. Basic bodily understandings, taken for granted by dancers in Kolkata, required more explicit pedagogical attention for those in the diasporic context. Many of the emotionally imbued gestures, dynamics of movement, postures, and spatial orientations required in the stylized aesthetic of kathak can still be found within cities in India, although one must be trained to look in the right places. Learning the emotionally rich art of storytelling in kathak brought students in the diaspora up against a certain limit, a missing “body of habit” that could not easily be emulated in the aesthetic sphere.

 

5 Beneath the Horizon: The Organic Body’s Role in Athletic Experience

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Greg Downey

CONDUCTING ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH on sports, one encounters individuals who almost seem to transcend the boundaries of human capacity. Arguably, one of the thrills of athletic spectatorship is to witness skills and physical abilities honed to such an exceptional degree that an athlete’s performance beggars normal imagination, at once humbling us and at the same time thrilling. For an anthropological discussion of phenomenology, these kinds of people—agents operating at a level of efficacy beyond what is normally possible—offer an opportunity to interrogate the variation of human experience.

Specifically, I conducted ethnographic research on and apprenticed in capoeira, an acrobatic Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, from 1992 on and off until 2005 (see especially Downey 2005). During this time, I was privileged to meet, interview, and even apprentice with a number of extraordinary practitioners, some of them legendary teachers and players in the globalized capoeira community. In particular, during fieldwork in Salvador, Brazil, from 1993 to 1995, I trained frequently under the watchful guidance of Valmir Damasceno, a charismatic contra-mestre, or drill leader, at the time with the Pelourinho Capoeira Angola Group. Valmir has since become widely recognized as a mestre, or “teacher,” the most prestigious title that can be attributed to a capoeira practitioner.

 

6 Unmeasured Music and Silence

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Ian Bedford

THIS ESSAY ORIGINATES in an effort to comprehend some aspects of music in Muslim countries. I recall my first exposure—a kind of ambush—to procedures in music new to me. Up until 1971 the nation of Pakistan precariously consisted of two wings, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh. In October 1970, heavy floods, a cyclone, and then a tsunami battered the East wing, with enormous loss of life. In December the country was still in mourning. There were (as ever in Pakistan) all kinds of distractions and preoccupations—with livelihood, governance, rumor. Campaigning was underway for the first-ever democratic elections, but in Lahore, West Pakistan, the community address system carried the strains of public lamentation for the dead.

I had heard Qu’ranic recitation before, but never for long or to sustained effect. The twists, runs, and interval displacements of the lofted male voice, shorn of measure, honeycombed with silences, spoke to me for the first time. I received them as unpredictable elements of a novel and sublimely moving genre of utterance. This genre of utterance was far from new to the Lahoris, who would drag me indoors away from the loudspeakers: “We have been listening to Qu’ran for weeks. This is noise to our ears. It is of benefit only to the mullahs.”

 

7 Experiencing Self-Abstraction: Studio Production and Vocal Consciousness

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Daniel Fisher

THIS CHAPTER DRAWS on fieldwork in an Aboriginal Australian urban radio station in order to explore some experiential aspects of vocal cultural production and the forms of mediatized self-abstraction it entails. I focus on the ways that technical features of media production and the institutional life of media in contemporary Indigenous Australia come together to make perception available for problematization in the studio. At 4AAA, a large, Indigenous-run country music station with a broad and at times national audience, young Indigenous media trainees take on the task of representing Aboriginal Australia to itself, and their experience of learning to perform this task provides this chapter with an ethnographic platform for considering two related lines of phenomenological questioning. First, what is the experience of becoming a medium of such collective and recursive self-abstraction? That is, what is at stake for young Aboriginal people who take on the mantle of Indigenous representation? And second, what is the relationship between media activism and processes of everyday social reification and reflexivity in a domain in which claims to Indigeneity are at once historically diverse and frequently contested? How might this relationship entail a kind of phenomenological bracketing of perception and expression for media producers themselves?

 

8 Being-in-the-Covenant: Reflections on the Crisis of Historicism in North Malaita, Solomon Islands

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Jaap Timmer

BIBLICAL PROPHECY MAKES a major contribution to discourses and practices of nation and destiny in Solomon Islands. After discussing its broader context, this article investigates the power of Old Testament prophecies through analysis of the 2010 Queen’s Birthday speech of Solomon Islands’ governor-general, Sir Frank Kabui, entitled “Our connection with the Throne of England” (Kabui 2010), given to an audience of national and international officials in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands. Kabui, a To’abaita speaker from North Malaita, focuses on a British-Israelite theory that claims that Jacob’s pillar stone is kept in Scotland because the kings and queens of Britain are the seed-royal to the House of David. I situate his thoughts in widespread To’abaita ideas about connections between the island of Malaita and Israel to highlight the way in which people read themselves into biblical narratives via the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10:1–32, seen as the canonical list of peoples. By detailing this particular attempt to situate Solomon Islands in the prophecies and history of the Old Testament, I draw attention to an important dimension of local historiography and the meaning of religion in that context.1

 

9 Seared with Reality: Phenomenology through Photography, in Nepal

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Robert Desjarlais

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food, and of excrement.

—James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject. . . .

—Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography”

THIS IS A STORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, of the ways in which light and color work in the world, of how certain images get about in people’s lives or linger in their memories.

While traveling in the Yolmo region of north central Nepal in the summer of 2011, visiting with families I have known for some time now, I grew fond of a small, blue stool. The family I was staying with kept this bench, a foot and a half or so tall, toward the back of their household, close to a washroom and a work table. The sides and four legs of the stool, cut of wood spliced from fallen trees in the surrounding forests, were painted a rich cyanic blue.1

 

10 Writing Affect, Love, and Desire into Ethnography

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L. L. Wynn

“The whole point about the sexual problem,” said Hammond, who was a tall thin fellow with a wife and two children, but much more closely connected with a typewriter, “is that there is no point to it. Strictly there is no problem. We don’t want to follow a man into the w.c. so why should we want to follow him into bed with a woman? . . . It’s all utterly senseless and pointless; a matter of misplaced curiosity.”

“Quite, Hammond, quite! But if someone starts making love to Julia, you begin to simmer; and if he goes on, you are soon at boiling point.” . . . Julia was Hammond’s wife.

“Why, exactly! So I should be if he began to urinate in a corner of my drawing-room. There’s a place for all these things.”

—D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

THE MATTER-OF-FACT IRRITATION that Hammond expresses toward talking about “the sexual problem” is an apt analogy for contemporary anthropology’s approach to love. Sex, of course, has figured in anthropology’s public image ever since the earliest years of the discipline, with Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), or Malinowski’s more explicit The Sexual Life of Savages (1929), replete with descriptions of exotic sexual positions. And in recent years, “desire” has become an increasingly popular catchphrase in anthropological writing (e.g., Rofel 2007). Yet for all the attention anthropologists pay to sex and desire, love was, until quite recently, curiously rare as a heuristic for anthropological analysis. For decades, when anthropologists addressed love at all, it was often relegated to the corners of their ethnographies as unimportant or embarrassing, like some sort of private, excretory product—particularly, as Kulick and Willson (1995) point out, when it concerned the love of the anthropologist. Alternatively, it has been treated as epiphenomena, the surface manifestation of deeper structural forces like political economy (e.g., Abu-Lughod 1990; Bourdieu 1977) or kinship (Levi-Strauss 1969). In the applied anthropology literature, it has often been subsumed under the rubric of sex and intimate relations of power and gender. This literature often reduces love and desire to a public health puzzle (as in the “How can we get people to use condoms so they don’t get HIV?” type of research: Hirsch et al. 2006; Smith 2006).

 

11 Senses of Magic: Anthropology, Art, and Christianity in the Vula’a Lifeworld

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Deborah Van Heekeren

Rather than apply to his work dichotomies more appropriate to those who sustain traditions than to those men, philosophers or painters, who initiate these traditions, [Cézanne] preferred to search for the true meaning of painting, which is continually to question tradition.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense

It is time to appreciate ethnographers who produce works of art that become powerful vehicles of theoretical exposition.

—Paul Stoller, The Taste of Ethnographic Things

I HAVE LONG ADMIRED Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writing on Paul Cézanne because it provides insight into the artist’s practice beyond the general conventions of art history. The philosopher saw the painter as a paradigm example of the essence of perception.1 As he writes, “Cézanne did not think he had to choose between feeling and thought, between order and chaos. He did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear; he wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization” (Merleau-Ponty 1964 [1945]: 13).

 

12 Neither Things in Themselves nor Things for Us Only: Anthropology, Phenomenology, and Poetry

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Christopher Houston

That September, walking on Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue with my six-year-old son, we noticed a shabby man sitting begging on the steps of an apartment.

Baba, look, he said wonderingly.

You saw, I replied. He has no feet. 15 million people, 15 millions stories, I added, stuck for a more comforting word.

The phrase became his catchcry whenever he noticed something remarkable: a man wearing sunglasses at night busking on a saxophone; a child in a floral dress selling small tissue boxes on the Metro steps; a cat leaping up a wall trying to catch a reflected beam of light.

15 million cats, 15 million stories, he said brilliantly.

FICTION IS A GENRE that tells the stories of characters whose lives are parasitic upon yet identical to none of those 15 million people. Unlike macro-social science with its illuminating focus on political economic structures that mediate personal history and condition social experience, potentially making the stories of 15 million people variations on a theme, fiction gives attentive value to the particular, the quixotic, and the perverse. Characters’ lives and experiences are different from each other yet interlocked in strange and fateful ways. Nevertheless, in fiction, too, authors work with a presumption of resemblance, even as it is shown not to exist between characters in the novel. The novelist relies on recognition of shared experience between the worlds of the readers and the worlds of the characters [that enables readers] to make the story live.

 

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