Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 423-426
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In this fascinating contribution to the scholarship of the use and method of oral tradition, Jan Jansen rejects standard historicist reconstructions of the oral narrative (in this case of the Mande peoples), offering instead a critique of the didactic methodologies of griots themselves. For decades historians have plumbed the depths of griotism for its pre-colonial "data." As honored storytellers and conditioned performers, griots have long been considered by oral historians to be unfathomable sources of cultural knowledge. But Jansen argues that this historical zeal has resulted in the scholarly neglect of the diplomatic skills of griots and their transference of the subtle arts of diplomacy onto future generations of griots. With his many years of observation of jelikan (griot speech) upon which to draw, Jansen in this volume directs the attention of Africanists to the shaping of social relations via the cultivation of physical and metaphorical space. This original research has significant implications regionally for Mande studies, but more generally for any Africanist engaged in the collection of oral narratives.
Partly in response to Jean-Loup Amselle's interrogation of the "fixed relations between profession and status" (Amselle 1996:832), Jansen positions himself as a student of the status of nyamakalaw (West African traditional artisans) and the [End Page 423] skills used to "fabricate" this status. This attention to status permits a departure from studies focusing on "knowledge," as Jansen considers the implicit relationship between "knowledge" and "prestige" as productive of a confusion between prestige and status (Jansen 1996). In his own words, "I define status as 'the qualities ascribed to a certain structural position in society,' whereas prestige depends upon an individual's achievements" (3). And while "categories of individuals" if not "caste" may be interpreted as fixed or as "colonial constructions" (Conrad and Frank 1995:7), neither status nor rank are static. Status is relational, hierarchical and, if we accept Jansen's analysis, exceptionally dynamic. Following Goffman (1961, 1973) and the "interactionist school" of sociology—focusing not on the "talents" but on the "appearances" of a griot—Jansen argues for the "essentially" sociological process of oral tradition.
One of Jansen's anecdotes (21) gives the impression that he simply stumbled across the sociological process of griotism. The essence of griotism is not the apparent historicity of its form as many historians would have us believe. For Jansen, griot narratives are located exclusively in the present. The essence (if indeed anything can be essentially any one thing) lies in the nexus of social acts and forms, such as secrets, metaphors and the mediation of disputes. Thus the apprenticeship of griots is not learning, memorizing, and reciting, but rather correct behavior and speech, "issues that can be learned only by imitation" (23). Jansen invokes the phrase an bè kelen, "we are all one," to denote both hospitality to outsiders and a suppressive conformist identity within the collective. The purpose of the apprenticeship then, becomes proving oneself capable of mature reflection, good behavior and obedience within rigidly defined social hierarchies, for which one may be rewarded with a "commission," i.e. a diplomatic mission to settle a dispute elsewhere.
For griots to function effectively as diplomats requires that they develop an ontological appreciation of the meaning and inheritance of "secrets." This might otherwise be termed a knowledge-production-implementation cognizance of the information individual parties share or withhold in the process of arbitration. This in turn enables the griot-diplomat to "manage" the "meanings" of texts, and the delicacy with which it is done underscores the speaker's craftsmanship. Jansen phrases this as "[t]he appearance of having secrets accords more prestige than the telling of a good story" (32). Thus, he observes that he was omitted from the discussion of serious issues, and otherwise given the impression that there was nothing to talk about. I will...