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Sensuous Scholarship

By Paul Stoller

Publication Year: 1997

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Contemporary Ethnography


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pp. vii-viii

The paths authors follow from the conception, the gestation, and finally the birth of their books are rarely, if ever, solitary ones. More than most authors, anthropologists depend on a wide variety of people and institutions to support their research and writing. This book would have never come to life without the support, encouragement, and critical insight of a wide variety of friends and colleagues in the Republic of Niger, France, and the United States...

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Prologue: The Scholar's Body

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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...

Part One: Embodied Practices

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Introduction: The Way of the Body

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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...

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1. The Sorcerer's Body

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pp. 4-23

In 1957 Claude Levi-Strauss published his influential essay, "The Sorcerer and His Magic." Levi-Strauss's essay built the foundation of a structuralist approach to the anthropological study of sorcery, healing, and religion. In a remarkable analysis LeviStrauss 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...

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2. The Griot's Tongue

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pp. 24-43

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...

Part Two: Body and Memory

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Introduction: The Texture of Memory

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pp. 46-46

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

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3. Embodying Colonial Memories

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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...

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4. "Conscious" Ain't Consciousness: Entering the Museum of Sensory Absence

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pp. 74-87

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...

Part Three: Embodied Representations

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Introduction: Embodying the Grammar

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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...

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5. Spaces, Places, and Fields: The Politics of West African Trading in New York City's Informal Economy

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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...

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6. Artaud, Rouch, and the Cinema of Cruelty

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pp. 119-133

Sensuous scholarship may well have begun in 1954 in the film theater of the Musee 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...

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Epilogue: Sensuous Ways of Knowing/Living

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pp. 135-137

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...


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pp. 139-148

Works Cited

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pp. 149-159

Films Cited

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pp. 160-162


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pp. 163-166

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203134
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812216158

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 1997

Series Title: Contemporary Ethnography
Series Editor Byline: Kirin Narayan, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 669679337
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sensuous Scholarship

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Ethnology -- Philosophy.
  • Songhai (African people) -- Social conditions.
  • Songhai (African people) -- Religion.
  • Songhai (African people) -- History.
  • Ethnology -- Methodology.
  • Sensuality.
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