Monday, February 27, 2006

Normal Science of a Sixth Sense

Methodological objectivism, a necessary moment in all reasearch, by the break with primary experience and the construction of objective relations which it accomplishes, demands its own supersession. In order to escape the realism of the structure, which hypostatizes systems of objective relations by converting them into totalities already constituted outside of individual history and group history, it is necessary to pass from the opus operatum to the modus operandi, from statistical regularity or algebraic structure to the principle of the production of this observed order, and to construct a theory of the mode of generation of practices, which is the precondition for establishing an experimental science of the dialectic of the internalization of externality and the internalization of internality, or, more simply, of incorporation and objectification 1

Kathryn Linn Geurts' Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community (University of California Press, 2002) makes an important empirical contribution to our understanding of the senses, and strengthens the case for what she calls "a paradigm of embodiment." The empirical contribution is essentially this: The Anlo-Ewe sensorium encompasses modes of sensation that do not neatly correspond with either Western scientific or folk models of the senses. Geurts lists the following nine components of the Anlo sensorium (pp. 46-47):

Guerts devotes the most attention to seselelame and slights nusese on the grounds that other scholars have already adequately explored Ewe aurality. Personally I feel that there's much more that could be said about aurality and its relation to agbagbaɖoɖo, and this alone would be a sufficient basis from which to critique received ideas about the senses. In any event, Guerts privileges seselelame, which she refers to as "a local theory of immediate bodily experience" that "culturally elaborates introceptive as well as extroceptive sensory fields" (p. 111). Guerts views this elaboration as essential to the constitution of Anlo personhood, which is in fact one of her primary interests.

Geurts situates her perspective within a paradigm of embodiment. She acknowledges a substantial debt to Pierre Bourdieu, but her reading of Bourdieu is strongly mediated by her reading of Thomas Csordas, as is her reading of Merleau-Ponty. Her approach to the problem of embodiment is roughly similar to that of a handful of other anthropologists working in the same vein. (There is a very interesting parallel with C. Nadia Seremetakis, whom Geurts alludes to but does not explore). Geurts' view of embodiment is thus further mediated by a set of common concerns, including American ethnography's normative cultural relativism, and an approach to symbolic meanings that owes much to Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner--Geurts reads Turner at one point through a secondary source, the philosopher Edward Casey, but I think Turner's influence, and the school of thought that developed around ideas he championed, is more pervasive and enduring than any handful of citations would indicate, and references to anthropologists like Richard Shweder2, to name just one, should be understood in the context of (subdisciplinary, interdisciplinary) elaborations of a previous generation's thinking about culture.

So, the question arises, is Guerts' work truly representative of a new paradigm of scientific inquiry, or is this business of embodiment an instance of old wine in new bottles? In fact it's quite both. In contributes to an incipient paradigm of embodiment at the same time it presents an elaboration of cultural anthropology. But the ambivalence is not nearly so strong, not nearly so confusing, as it might have appeared several decades ago, when Bourdieu's Outline of Theory of Practice was something many people were curious about, but was really just an outline of a theory of practice rather than a working theory or a methodological program.

In some quarters, in certain tones of voice, the phrase "normal science" will be taken as an insult. (In other quarters one hears sighs of relief.) I certainly don't mean it as an insult, and I probably don't mean to be condescending. However I am perturbed by Geurts' heavy reliance on secondary sources, which is partly an artefact of doing normal science, in which case a reader would be well served to allow for some lattitude, and partly, to my way of thinking, a flaw in her presentation of ideas. Summing up Western thought is a very different undertaking than summing up the latest research on proprioception, and while it may be too much to ask for an anthropologist to vigorously engage with Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Merleau-Ponty, it is perhaps not too much for a reader to ask that an author provide a reading of one or two of the thinkers she criticizes, if for no other reason, then as a token gesture of seriousness. Additionally, it's unfathomable to me that Geurts, given her theoretical interests, would read Gustav Fechner through a secondary source, and Franz Boas through a tertiary source--well, not unfathomable, but disappointing. Regardless, Culture and the Senses is a serious empirical contribution to the study of the senses, it flushes out an incipient paradigm of embodiment within anthropology, and Geurts is more than capable of turning a few big ideas on their head, so it's definitely worth reading as an exemplary, if imperfect, bit of normal science.

1 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 72, emphasis in original.

2 From Shweder's review of Geertz' Available Light:

Turning his attention to the disciplines, our author, pluralist/anti-essentialist/dissolver of dichotomies, invites us to abandon the idea that there is a "unity to science". But he does not stop there. Mr. Geertz is often pigeon-holed as a "humanist." In one of the more eye-opening sections of an already riveting book ("The Strange Entanglement: Charles Taylor and the Natural Sciences"; also "The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn: The Right Text At the Right Time"), he defies all classification by inviting us to swear off the addictive idea that the academy can be divided into "two cultures" (the natural sciences versus the humanities; the positivists vs. the interpretivists). Quoting the philosopher Richard Rorty he asks, "what method is common to paleontology and particle physics?""What relation to reality is shared by topology and entomology?" Such questions Mr. Geertz argues are hardly more useful than asking "is sociology closer to physics than to literary criticism?" or "is political science more hermeneutic than microbiology, chemistry more explanatory than psychology" (page 150).

All this is quite dazzling and refreshing. These are the days when the biologist E.O. Wilson is having widely publicized visions of a state of "consilience" in the disciplines and travels around the country marketing Enlightenment dreams about the unification or convergence of the natural and human sciences under the banner of biology. In astonishing contrast, when Clifford Geertz inspects the sciences and humanities he finds "polycentric collections" of different, semi-independent or incommensurate projects, "loose assemblages" of assumptions, vocabularies and research techniques. There are no tears in his eyes when he announces that unity is nowhere in sight. He is wary of imperial decrees and cautions us to beware of all forms of "destructive integrity" (intellectual and political).

This is what Mr. Geertz has to say about the fields of psychology and the cognitive neurosciences. "Paradigms, wholly new ways of going about things, come along not by the century, but by the decade, sometimes, it almost seems, by the month." "It takes either a preternaturally focused, dogmatical individual, who can shut out any ideas but his or her own, or a mercurial, hopelessly inquisitive one, who can keep dozens of them in play at once, to remain upright amidst this tumble of programs, promises and proclamations." (page 188). Amidst the tumble he gives his blessings to "cultural psychology", which is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry concerned with the role of meaning in producing and explaining psychological differences across human populations (the relevant essays are "Imbalancing Act: Jerome Bruner's Cultural Psychology" and "Culture, Mind, Brain/Brain, Mind, Culture"). While many cultural anthropologists remain stuck in a state of irrational "psycho-phobia", avoiding all research on the mental states of individuals, Clifford Geertz, the Viceroy of cultural analysis, calls for a semiotic study of the emotions. He recognizes that emotions are personal experiences and not merely words, ideologies or symbols. He writes, "however they may be characterized and however one comes to have them, feelings are felt" (page 212), which will be news to some anthropologists.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:15 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely. I've been at for coming on two and 3/4 years and I've read soem Geertz (and amny critiques of him), the crisis of representationin anthro (the general crisis in anthro... And I've yet to come across such a stunning, simple, clear reconceptualization as: re-examine the dichotomy. Of course, the alethic hermeneuticians sought to reformualte the ugly construction, but there they still were: the twin elephants slumping in the corner of the room. Let's think of how many conceptualizations we can come up with, shall we? Actually, not tonight. I'm tired. It's too late for paradigm shifts and new episteme.

February 28, 2006 7:17 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Not being a representative of Homo academicus myself, it's easy for me to think Geertz is probably very clever and definitely interesting.

Sweet dreams.

March 01, 2006 3:08 PM  

Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page