The pleasures of the ear: toward an Ethnography of listening.

Author:Bendix, Regina

Collection and research on expressive culture had its beginning in scholars' deep and often emotional and sensory attraction to folk song, narration and craft. Writing and print were the customary 19th-century media of learning and communicating knowledge, and the growing scholarly habit of screening out emotional vocabulary further impoverished our understanding of the sensory and sensual totality of experience. While students of culture have long begun to critically examine their fields' legacies, the more intimate, affective linkage between burgeoning scholars and their disciplinary subject has not been fully considered. It is this implicit attraction and its marginalization, if not disappearance from scholarly purview, that contributed to the equal marginalization of sensory experience, affect, and emotion from ethnographic work. To comprehend the marginal place of what I would like to term an "ethnography of listening" (as one example within a larger ethnography of sensory perception), this essay sketches the implications of the successive exclusion of sentimentality and sensuality from scholarship concerned with folklore, before turning to a discussion of why such marginalization is increasingly untenable and how ethnographers are beginning to recover sensuality and corporality as a vital part of understanding expressive culture.

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"A deeper appreciation of sound could ... make us consider in a new light the dynamic nature of sound, an open door to the comprehension of cultural sentiment" (Paul Stoller 1984:561).

"Instead of the genuine historical, and by us improved mistones in the songs as important as they might be I hear in my ears the beats and sounds of the great drum which ruled the cheerful and quiet waltzes in the dancing halls ... I cannot fight off the thought that such a song has its best history within itself and is most happy when another [person] with true compassion enfolds it in his soul and shapes it as he desires.... If every sensual reader, stirred in his innermost by one of these songs, seeks to clear away all that disturbs him and adds all [the song] inspires and excites in him then our efforts have reached their highest goal" (Achim von Arnim [1818] 1963:265).

"So there will soon be a need--perhaps there already is a need--for something that may seem a contradiction in terms: an ethnology of solitude" (Auge 1995:120).

In the introduction to Slave Songs of the United States, a slender collection published in 1867, William Francis Allen relates the extraordinariness of AfricanAmerican music. He points to its affective powers and laments the insufficiency of transcription:

The best that we can do, however, with paper and types, or even with voices, will convey but a faint shadow of the original. The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate; and the intonation and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper. And I despair of conveying any notion of the effect of a number singing together, especially in a complicated shout (Allen, Ware and Garrison [1867]1992:iv-v). But convey Allen and others nonetheless did, turning what they heard into texts and musical notation for others to study or perform. What was not in the notations was the "soul-turning" quality of spirituals that had stirred Allen so deeply. In this regard Allen and his cohort followed the pattern set by the German romantics who had been enthralled by the gamut of expressive culture. They, too, had set out to objectify in print the songs and tales that nourished their craving for sensual and emotional experience encapsulated in the German term Empfindsamkeit--a mostly untranslatable word connoting sensibility for both sentimentality and sensuality.

Volumes of song texts and tales, fragments of epic poetry, verses and riddles began to fill the shelves of bourgeois households--volumes that also represented the beginnings of the academic study of verbal arts and expressive culture more generally. The nineteenth century's unreflected preference for writing and print as media of learning and communicating knowledge almost automatically impoverished our understanding of the sensory and sensual totality of experience. Students of culture, in this case particularly folklorists, have long begun to critically examine this legacy, recognize the nationalist fallacy, and seek ways to disentangle the complex politics involved in collection, publication, appropriation and domination carried out in the name of liberation or celebration.

What has not been fully considered is the more intimate, affective linkage between burgeoning scholars and their disciplinary subject. It is this implicit attraction and its marginalization if not disappearance from scholarly purview that has contributed to the equal marginalization of sensory experience, affect, and emotion from ethnographic work. To comprehend the marginal place of what I would like to term an "ethnography of listening" (as one example within a larger ethnography of sensory perception), I will first sketch the implications of the successive exclusion of sentimentality and sensuality from scholarship concerned with folklore, before I turn to a discussion of why such marginalization is increasingly untenable and how ethnographers are beginning to "come to their senses" (Sklar 1994). Scholars in cultural disciplines have in recent years increasingly turned to address sensuality and corporeality. But it appears, for instance, that in the process of turning the body into a site of study, grasping it as a site of cultural agency is a more manageable task than understanding the body and our senses as instruments of cultural reception. The "reflexive turn" brought into ethnography through the writing culture movement has allowed for the (re) insertion of the researcher's affective state, but in its focus on the authorial self shies away from seeking to understand the role of the senses and affect within as well as outside of the researcher-and-researched dynamic.

Folklore has been defined as expressive culture and artistic communication, and it is arguably this implied aesthetic dimension that endows such "chunks of culture" (Berger 1995:11) most powerfully with affective potential. But to textualize expressive culture in preparation for scientific study eliminated from consideration all the levels of perception and associated experience that had enthralled scholars in the first place. By excluding the seemingly personal as irrelevant, scholars also excluded the vital role of expressive forms' and performances' sensual affect within and between the social groups they worked with. Anthropologists such as Lutz and White have observed a similar gap: "The past relegation of emotions to the sidelines of culture theory is an artifact of the view that they occupy the more natural and biological provinces of human experience, and hence are seen as relatively uniform, uninteresting, and inaccessible to the methods of cultural analysis" (1986:405). There were, early on, studies of phenomena such as homesickness, where scholars recognized that feelings of nostalgia were connected to sensory impressions and memories of the sound of language and song or the scent of foods. But the very term "homesickness" shows that the somatic aspects of the phenomenon were considered crucial, and homesickness found scholarly attention in medicine and psychiatry, but not in the study of expressive culture. The more recent inclusion of concerns with emotions' socialrelational, communicative and cultural dimensions in anthropology has focused disproportionately on non-Western, pre-industrialized, 'homogeneous' cultures, and it is only in ethnomusicology, where an engagement in lived reality of complex societies has begun to manifest itself. This paper hopes to participate in the development of a perspective on sensual experience and emotions in complex societies.

The gaps in comprehending expressive culture resulting from textualizing practices have been felt in recent years. A great deal of reflexive ethnographic work has been groping for a way to legitimately include the sensing self in scholarly work, with sound experience leading the way (M. Baumann 1990, 1993, 1997, 1999; Feld 1982; Stoller 1984, 1997). Preceding this reflexive turn, the ethnography of speaking broke through the confines of textual and etic understandings of expressive forms, clearly seeking a fuller, contextually located subject. By linking these two developments to the omission of sensual perception during the formative periods of the study of expressive culture, , I hope to contribute to a reconfiguration of the subject that takes into account the entirety of the communicative and affective process. Rudolf Schenda symbolically encapsulated this in his title Von Mund zu Ohr ("From Mouth To Ear" 1993). I will mostly concentrate on the aural experience that is indicated in it. One reason is that the ear is targeted prominently in current aesthetic experiments, such as the rapidly growing 'world music' with all its burgeoning sub genres which deserve cultural analysis (Feld 1995) in addition to some of the equally deserved cultural critique (Feld 1988, Erlmann 1999). A German philosopher speaks of "the intervention of the ear against the tyranny of the eye" (Dietmar Kamper, cited in Baumann 1990:133), and Yi-Fu Tuan proposes:

"Sound can arouse human emotion to a more intense level than can sight alone. 'Screaming' headlines in the morning newspaper catch our attention but have no grip on our heart. Pictures of disaster may elicit more of a response. But we will be thoroughly engaged by the sound of an ambulance siren or by cries of pain, rage, or despair" (1995:72). It should be understood, however, that the kind of holism aimed for goes beyond our sense of hearing, but points rather toward the need to empirically and epistemologically address the entire sensory...

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