3. Language and Sensory Orientations
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chapter 3 Language and Sensory Orientations on the search for an indigenous term or category for “the senses” Among the many mOfialawo with whom I worked, there seemed to be little consensus about a precise cultural category that we could map into our domain of the five senses. In fact, at one point in the middle of my research, I seemed to have nearly as many configurations of sense-data as the number of people I had interviewed. I was fearful that I would never be able to make sense of the lexical chaos I seemed to have gathered or generated, so I made an appointment to meet with Mr. Adzomada.1 Most Anlo people considered Mr. Adzomada to be one of the foremost authorities on their history and cultural traditions, so I was counting on this interview to set things straight. Mr. Adzomada was in his eighties when my friend Elaine arranged for me to talk with him. She informed me that he relished oranges, so I purchased a dozen in the market before traveling to his house on the outskirts of Anloga. At the presentation of the aNutiwo (oranges), he inhaled the fragrance emanating from the bag and I figured we were off to a good start. When I asked him a question about the senses, however, he emphatically replied, “We don’t have that in our culture.” During this interview and subsequent conversations, no matter how many different ways I tried to broach the subject of sensibilia, no matter which language we spoke, and whether I used a translator or interviewed him by myself, Mr. Adzomada insisted 37 that Anlo-Ewe cultural traditions simply did not involve the cultivation of any kind of reified model of sensory systems that clearly spelled out a theory for how we know what we know. He would then move to instructing me in the themes and motifs about which he believed I needed to learn to understand Anlo history and culture. I was initially discouraged by Mr. Adzomada. Naturally this was somewhat depressing, the more so because the longer I reflected on his position that “we don’t have that in our culture” and the more I examined the assortment of pieces and chunks of sense-data that emerged from a wide array of interviews, conversations, and observed events, the more deeply I appreciated the sincerity and truth in what he said. On one hand, Anlo cultural traditions have probably never involved an articulated sensorium—an organized, delineated, almost reified or objecti fied account of the bodily modes of gathering information—and it seemed almost spurious, then, to write about “an indigenous Anlo sensorium .” On the other hand, they were clearly using their bodies to gather knowledge. Mr. Adzomada looked, listened, touched, tasted, and so forth. This is a classic anthropological problem. Anthropologists use the word emic to refer to the use of categories, distinctions, and concepts that are meaningful to people within a particular cultural tradition; by contrast, an etic perspective draws on categories, rules, and concepts derived from the outsider’s point of view (Geertz 1983:56–57). An outsider , however, is necessarily grounded in his or her own respective emic perspective, so etic perhaps more accurately depicts a point of view based on Western science. Since an etic perspective is implicitly Western and scientific, scholars might therefore argue that it is meaningless to the members of the culture to which the concepts are being applied.2 However , the real problem is not that dualistic, not really a question of which pole represents authenticity. Anthropology inhabits the interstitial spaces, and I maintain that authentic knowledge can be found both in the claims of my mOfialawo—that “we don’t have that in our culture”—and in my own position that there does indeed exist an Anlo cultural category that includes sensory experience. I decided that to proceed I should use John Lucy’s discussion of language variability as a model. In his work on linguistic relativity, Lucy explains , “A domain-centered approach begins with a certain domain of experienced reality and asks how various languages encode or construe it. Usually the analysis attempts to characterize the domain independently of language(s) and then determine how each language selects from 38 Language and Sensory Orientations and organizes the domain” (Lucy 1997:298). He has argued that studies approached in this way “essentially end up showing the distribution of the world’s languages relative...


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