Anthropology Reading Journal Series I

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
V. 10/3/2011: The Body in/and Anthropology

This week’s readings centered on the main theme of the body and it’s embodiment of culture.

Reading #1: Classen, Constance and David Howes. 1996. “Making Senes of Culture: Anthropology as a Sensual Experience.” Enthofoor 9(2):86-96.

Constance Classen and David Howe’s “Making Sense of Culture: Anthropology as a Sensual Experience” open their article with three vignettes that discussed multi-sensory experiences and their sensual significance. The first vignette explored the sense of smell in the Andean region of Northwestern Argentina; the second vignette explored the Navajo sand painting experience of physical and visual transference; and the final vignette discussed the Desana of the Colombian Amazon and their visual attributing of color to their way of understanding their physical world. The authors dedicated their article to exploring the senses in anthropology as a way of fully understanding culture. They write that the body is of cultural significance because it is both the basis of physical experience as well as a model in which experience is communicated. Using their first vignette as an example, Classen and Howes note that the sensory experience of a place can be learned through the olfactory senses. They discuss how the natives in the Andean region of Northwest Argentina were able to distinguish between the various herbal scents of plants and their inherent properties through “olfactory classification”.

The second vignette focused on tactile pictures or sand paintings of the Navajo that are created as a medium for transferring divine power to the ill person who comes for healing. It is a ritual performed by a shaman who paints sand around the ill person who is seated. Sprinkling different types of pigmented sand and creating a picture around the ill person allows the shaman to give physical form to the spirits he consults with. The Navajo believe that by performing this ritual and aligning the ill person in the center of this re-created cosmos, allows the sick person to become spiritually centered once again. This visual and physical experience becomes another avenue in which to explore the anthropology of embodied culture.

Finally, the author’s third vignette references the cosmic color use of the Colombian Amazon in which vibrant colors correlate to a symbolic system that “work together to create the cosmos and everything in them.” By exploring this visual sense of the Desana, anthropologists can realize how such a system dictates behavior in their culture. Color and the cosmos are engendered with moral significance and provide an understanding for the Desana in learning about their world. The authors conclude that by studying culture through a multi-sensory approach allows the anthropologist to benefit in a variety of ways.

Reading #2-#3:
Csordas, Thomas. 1990. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology”. In Ethos, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 5-47.

Csordas, Thomas. 1995. “Somatic Modes of Attention”. In Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 8, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 135-156.

In Csordas’s first reading on “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology”, we explore the theories of Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, specifically their concepts of pre-objective (Merleau-Ponty) and habitus (Bourdieu). Csordas relates Merleau-Ponty’s concept of pre-objective with the object being a “secondary product of reflective thinking”. Merleau-Ponty believed that perception begins in the stepping away from the object and allowing the body to be the first to perceive, therefore ‘embodied perception’ occurs prior to the object; or pre-objective.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus encompasses both the object and the body as one, dealing with a paradigm of embodiment that mitigates between “mind-body, sign-significance, existence-being”. (p.11) This leads to the breakdown between subject and object and arises from practice instead of perception alone.

Csordas attempts to collapse the troublesome dualities presented in Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu’s perspectives. Csordas believes that all people experience perspective of being in a body. He uses his case study of the ritual practice of Christian evangelists in North America to exemplify his views on the collapsing of dualities to show how “cultural objects (including selves) are constituted or objectified”, believing that embodiment has a paradigmatic scope.

In the second reading, “Somatic Modes of Attention”, Csordas reiterates Merleau-Ponty concept of pre-objective and recognizes that perception is embedded in the cultural world but does not mean that it is pre-cultural. He also reemphasizes Bourdieu’s habitus concept and joins both Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu’s ideas to suggest that “embodiment need not be restricted to the personal or dyadic micro-analysis customarily associated with phenomenology, but is relevant as well to social collectivities.” In essence, somatic modes of attention become ways in which to culturally elaborate one’s body among other bodies of presence. It is both attending to and with the body. These imply a multi-sensory way of exploration.

Altogether, Csordas explorations into understanding how the embodiment paradigm has changed over time has provided a new perspective that considers the body as both object and as embodying “lived experience”. Using examples of ritualistic healing in both his readings, he is able support his claim and illustrate the notion of somatic modes. Ultimately, what is revealed is the realization that another avenue in understanding culture is the inclusion of an embodiment and multi-sensory perspective.

Reading #4: Halliburton, Murphy. 2002 “Rethinking Anthropological Studies of the Body: Mana and Bodhamin Kerala.” American Anthropologist. 101(4): 1123-1134.

Hallibruton’s paper recounts a case study performed in Kerala, India, in which Halliburton and his team encounter phenomenology of the people in the community who express illness in terms of body, mind and soul. He begins by explaining how the analysis of the body simply as object started to change to that of “experience of being in the body”. This becomes a starting point in which one can investigate new cultures. With this in mind, Halliburton mentions Csordas, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu’s theories which helped to shape ideas on embodiment and illustrate his own fieldwork in Kerala.

Halliburton gives background to his study in Kerala by prefacing it with a discussion on previous theories by Westerners and how they thought non-Westerners perceived their own mind and body. He writes that it was commonly held that Westerners were seen to be living in terms of a more mentalistic bias (a seemingly colonial vestige perspective) whereas non-Westerners were grounded more in their bodies. With his case study in Kerala, Halliburton proves this to be incorrect. During his course of his study, he finds that the people in Kerala are very much concerned with the mind and the bodham (consciousness). He relates examples where he has interviewed several patients, who, while not provoked or led, kept reiterating how their illnesses were created from “thinking”, a result from the imbalance of their atman (soul).

Halliburton goes on to further narrate the interviews that took place in Keral in regards to patients in the psychiatry ward. What Halliburton successfully brings to light is the importance of learning the local phenomenology and it’s enabling of fully understanding the body as contextualized by ‘lived experience’. He believes that without the first understanding the local phenomenology, the context in which he understood the Kerala culture was lacking. He accepted that they did not think only in terms of the body.

Reading #5: Jackson, Michael. 1983. “Knowledge of the Body”. Man. 18:327-345.

Like Csordas and Halliburton, Jackson also references Merleaur-Ponty and Bourdieu’s concepts of pre-objective and habitus. His article, “Knowledge of the Body”, explores modes of being and the concept of culture in terms of the human experience. He opens his reading by writing what he finds to be the problems with the 1970’s concept of the body and embodiment.

Firstly, Jackson believes that there is a tendency to look at the body as secondary to voice, or “verbal praxis” and uses  the “being in the world” perspective to exemplify what Merleau-Ponty thought of in regards to the  somatic mind and its mediation of simultaneous occurrence in body and mind. It reiterates the belief that meaning shouldn’t be limited to a separate plain from where it is occurring; in this case the body. 

Secondly, Jackson argues about how the body is constantly reduced to a “medium of expression” in which “social patterns are projected onto it.” (p.329)

Thirdly, Jackson finds the final problem of the body lies in its dualistic view, where the body is either seen as something removed or disassociated from the subject or the body is seen as completely indigenous to the subject.  

It is during his study of initiation and imitation of the Kuranko peoples of Sierra Leone that Jackson realizes that human beings don’t necessarily commit actions that always have a meaning behind them. He learns that there is an importance in understanding the environment as well as the actions of a people. He then goes on to show us initiations and rites and how they are divided by gender. The body acts in terms of its relations to other forms of body use. These relations governed the body behaviors.   

He writes that Kuranko rites are disruptions of the habitus. This results in the role reversal that allows people to encompass roles that they would not normally enact on. Jackson goes on tot discuss several ways of transposition, writing that one initiation rites enable people to recreate social order discover personality through production. Furthermore, “pattern of the body use engender mental images and install moral qualities”, thereby enforcing ethical and moral ideas. These Kuranko initiations implies that the body is the basis for what the Kuranko say and do.

Finally, Jackson relates a story about lighting a fire as an example of how lived experience in the habitus can provide insight to how the Kuranko could afford both fuel and human energy. By employing bodily praxis, Jackson was able to see that the Kuranko had an intelligence in technique in lighting a fire. By physically participating in the same practice, Jackson was also able “to grasp the sense of the activity.” (p. 349)

Reading #6: Porcello et al. 2010. “The Reorganization of the Sensory World”. Annual Rev. Anthro.

The authors Porcelllo, Meintjes, Ochoa and Samuels have written an article to trace three genealogies regarding the senses as understood during the 1980’s. They highlight the importance of acknowledging the senses in order to add important insights to understanding culture. This perspective echoed previous theorists who believed an integrative approach as useful in discussing the senses in regards to body, media and technology.

In exploring the three genealogies, the authors write that each work comes out communication, phenomenology, and materiality and thus the sections are subsequently titled this way.

On the section of communication, the authors write about insights garnered by Ong and McLuhan noting how their discussions on media and agency opened the doors for the possibility of sensorium in a historical and social context. Much work has been explored in understanding sensorium in relation to being sources of cultural experience.

With phenomenology, the authors talked about Stoller’s work on ritual language on the Songhay of Niger. Stoller was also influenced by Merleau-Ponty’s perceptual knowledge concept and thus changed his study to focus less linguistically on the Songhay and more on the knowledge garnered through sensory experience.

In terms of materiality, the authors introduce the contributors towards anthropology of the senses, most notably the anthropologist Seremetakis. Seremetakis explores the concept of the sensorial with that of object or materiality. She writes that an object can contain “meta-sense” and exist as a sensory form and locate itself in the relationships between technology, perception, and the everyday.

The authors go on to explain in detail much of the on-going discourse to the rise and inclusion of a multi-sensory approach to anthropology. In the conclusion of their article, the authors rightly express how the traditional supremacy of the visual is now being questioned due to the challenges and explorations of new anthropological thought.





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