Session 3.1.4: PANEL: Retrospective Sensibilities and Future Orientations

PANEL: Retrospective Sensibilities and Future Orientations
9:30, Saturday 8 May 2021 (1 hour 30 minutes)
Break    11:00 AM to 11:30 AM (30 minutes)
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Organizer: Beth Uzwiak, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Discussant: Paul Stoller, West Chester University, USA

This session brings together contributing authors in the forthcoming special issue of 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 investigation 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.

Sonic Intimacies: Performative Erotics and African Feminisms

Sidra Lawrence, Bowling Green State University

In this essay I explore the sensuous dimensions of intimacies and erotics in ethnographic field research conducted among the Dagara in northwestern Ghana. I argue that sensuous perception reveals aspects of ethnographic research that are frequently rendered inaudible, especially performative modes of expression. I theorize a conception of the erotic that moves beyond sexual activity, desire, and identity. This expansion of the erotic continuum opens up space to explore intimacy as produced through embodied knowledges. Through sonic portraits, I demonstrate that sensuous perception is vital to understanding women’s shared intimacies and relationships. The indigenous materiality, ritual, and performative modes expressed in the portraits illuminate the myriad configurations of erotics as a source of power between women, even across identity categories. These everyday moments, the sonic intimacies that develop over time and in non-linear ways, they gesture to the performative, embodied, sensorial dimensions of ethnographic knowing, and they clarify gendered intimacies. These portraits suggest that the erotic is a manifestation of creative energy embedded in shared knowledge, history, and embodied expression such as dance, ritual, labor, and intimate gestures. By witnessing everyday sonic productions as transformative, we conceptually expand feminist praxis to be grounded in indigenous expressions, idioms, and ideologies.

Beyond a Surface Gaze: Inscribing the Sensory

Wendy Wilson Fall, Lafayette College

Niger is an intense sensory experience for anyone not born there. I often remember the smell of wood smoke, the smell of sand, the smell and feel of indigo-dyed cloth, and the feeling of intense, dry, heat. I associate Paul Stoller with these memories of dust, smoke, and the ever-present Djinn. In this paper I examine how representations of fieldwork realities can be in dialogue with the weight of the “ethnographer’s gaze,” where one “does not see with just his eyes, but with his heart.” In conversation with Achille Mbembe's discussion of the human responsibility to see beyond the surface of a face, I reflect on the way humanist gazes are presented in dialogue with what Mbembe calls “image ontology” to problematize regimes of visualization.

Epistolary Storytelling: A Feminist Sensory Orientation to Ethnography

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”, as Boswell puts it, and, in the process, consider the consequences when ethnographers are encouraged to excise certain field encounters from scholarship.

Lafayette College
Davidson College
West Chester University
University of Pennsylvania
Bowling Green State University

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