Session 1.4.6: PANEL: Retrospective Sensibilities and Future Orientations to Paul Stoller's Sensuous Scholarship I

15:30, Thursday 6 May 2021 (1 hour 30 minutes)
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Organizer: Laurian Bowles (Davidson College, USA)

This session brings together contributing authors in the forthcoming special issue of The Senses and Society, “The Ethnographic Palimpsest: Excursions in Paul Stoller’s Sensory Poetics.” At the time of publication, Stoller’s Taste of Ethnographic Things (1989) and Sensory Scholarship (1997) were part of a constellation of critical investigations of how ethnography can best represent human life, with particular attention to divergent research subjectivities and anthropology’s colonial genealogy. In response to efforts to decolonize Western scholarship and in conversation with feminist, queer, and literary scholars, the body emerged as an important site for understanding social and material relations of power, not just in the field but also within ethnography. In this panel, we commemorate the thirty-year legacy of Paul Stoller’s scholarship and also expand sensory horizons about the relationships between affect and consciousness, memory, and time. Panelists are particularly attentive to the way experiences become situated by what we excise in writing for academic audiences, the intimacies of daily life, and how we carry those knowledges into the present. In this session, contributing authors reflect on the ways ethnographic legitimacy and voice influence the legibility of embodied experience as well as the ways in which sensuous relationships co-create possible futures.

Beth Uzwiak and Laurian Bowles, Ethnologica & Davidson College

This jointly presented paper presents a series of letters the authors exchanged while conducting ethnographic research in Belize and Ghana. The letters reveal an affinity between feminist ethnographic praxis and a politically attuned epistemology of the senses, what the authors call a sensory feminist orientation to scholarship. Drawing on Paul Stoller’s criticism of the sensory hierarchies of western knowledge-building, the authors reevaluate their epistolary exchange as a methodological provocation. As stories, the letters detail what the authors orient themselves toward in the field, as well as embodied moments of disorientation: danger, violence and estrangement. Untidy and raw, they offer readers an opportunity to “listen to sense” (Boswell 2017) and, in the process, consider the consequences when ethnographers are encouraged to excise certain field encounters from scholarship.

Conerly Casey, Eco-Intimacy and Spirit Exorcism in the Nigerian Sahel, Rochester Institute of Technology, USA

A fervent politics of the senses sparked off in northern Nigeria, when, in 1995, more than 600 Muslim secondary school girls became possessed by spirits, with the new sign of “dancing like they do in Indian film.” Spirit possession in this Bollywood form spread across northern states, co-evolving with a meningitis epidemic as it swept through the desert to kill thousands. This talk traces emergent eco-intimacies and the resonant politics of the senses as Bori and Qur’anic scholar-healers linked these events, via assertions of ontological power, in the sensory geographic and affective-material movements of humans, spirits and pathogens. Sensory enticements to spirits, healers suggested, erode bodily boundaries. Being possessed by a spirit, though, was not merely a symptomatic rendering of human experience. Spirits also initiated contact. What emerged were competing ecological discourses about sensoria, intimacy and illness, underpinned by the diversity with which spirits and humans used and viewed sensory experiences, and by new assemblages of bodies, spirits, media and microbes. This talk demonstrates the importance of sensoria in “one health” ecologically sensitive approaches to mass possessions, epidemics and pandemics.

Shivani Kapoor, The Violence of Odors: Sensory Politics of Caste in a Leather Tannery, O P Jindal Global University, India

Leather is a sensuous object marked by complex affects of desire and disgust. In India, this disgust is amplified due to the association of leather with caste. This paper examines the leather tannery as a space produced through the sensuous discourse of caste violence, which functions by marking leather working bodies with odors, that in turn perpetuate affectual and material possibilities of humiliation and discrimination. The paper examines this intangible and sensual character of caste violence by closely following sensory markers of caste which form the field on which phenomena such as caste play out and through which they can be understood. The paper also reflects on the ways in which the sensory politics of caste frames the interactions between the field and the body of the researcher – both of which are determined by the norms of caste.

Muhammad Kavesh, Feathered Clashes: A Critique of Cockfighting conceived as a “Cultural Text”, Australian National University, Australia

In this talk, I develop on an interconnection between multi-sensory and multi-species anthropology to explore how care and cruelty, attachment and detachment, and intimacy and indifference coexist through activities like cockfighting. Developing on my ethnographic material from rural Pakistan, I suggest that those who fight their rooster to gain masculine status do not always consider the bird as a passive object of entertainment. I argue that in order to understand different modalities of human-rooster relationship, our analysis should go beyond the visual spectacle and engage with non-Western interpretations of the practice. Such a sensory analysis, I contend, can help critique and refigure interpretation of cockfighting as a “cultural text.”

Rochester Institute of Technology
Davidson College
O.P. Jindal Global University
Assistant Professor
University of Toronto
Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Pennsylvania

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