This file is part of HyperGeertz©WorldCatalogue(HTM)

prepublication text, as published in: Amerikastudien/ American Studies (Heidelberg/GER: Winter), ISSN 0340-2827, vol.  63 (2018), no.  4, pp.  473 - 488.

included here as file in the HyperGeertz-texts with permission of David Howes

Boasian Soundings: An Interrupted History of the Senses (and Poetry) in Anthropology

David Howes with the late Clifford Geertz and Roseline Lambert

The anthropology of the senses or “sensory anthropology” is commonly seen as a subfield of anthropology that originated during the “sensory turn” of the 1990s. However, a certain fascination with the senses and matters of perception has actually been with the discipline since its inception in the latter half of the nineteenth century, if only interruptedly and with some dramatic shifts in focus. The measurement of the senses of the “savage races” was a major preoccupation of Paul Broca and the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, while the conduct of a wide array of psychophysical experiments, overseen by W.H.R. Rivers, was central to the mission of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait of 1898. Both Broca and Rivers were founders of the discipline of anthropology, in France and England respectively, as was Franz Boas in America. For his part, Boas, who held a Ph.D. in physics from Kiel, and had trained in psychophysics and physiology under Virchow in Berlin, went to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to conduct experiments on optical perception. He came back from this mission an ethnologist. Boas’ “conversion” was described (some say mythologized) by his student and close associate, Ruth Benedict, as follows: “it was the Arctic which gave Boas ‘once and for all’ the understanding that the seeing eye is ‘not a mere physical organ but a means of perception conditioned by the tradition in which its possessor has been reared’” (quoted in Stocking 1982: 145). This account of Boas’ Arctic epiphany is equally applicable to the ‘hearing ear’, as appears from a little article Boas wrote about auditory perception entitled “On Alternating Sounds,” published in American Anthropologist. The philosophy behind this piece set the Americanist tradition off on a rather different trajectory from its British and French counterparts. In place of the exclusive focus on the psychophysics of perception in the latter traditions, Boas and his students – namely, Benedict, as well as Margaret Mead and Edward Sapir became interested in the cultural logistics of perception; that is, the “cultural patterning” of sense experience. This had far-reaching consequences. Indeed, the great historian of anthropology, George Stocking, while questioning whether Boas actually underwent a conversion experience in the Canadian Arctic, nevertheless holds up the “Alternating Sounds” essay as containing the germ of the “cultural relativist” position (Stocking 1982: 159), for which the Boasians are so rightly famous.  

After first surveying the figuration of the senses and sense perception in the British and French anthropology of the late nineteenth century, this essay presents an appreciation of the profound epistemological rupture served up by Boas in “On Alternating Sounds.” It goes on to document just how attuned to their own and others’ senses Boas’ students  (let us call them the Boasians) were, even when studying culture “at a distance” that is, without the benefit of sensory immersion that comes with fieldwork (e.g. Mead and Métraux 1953). However, the preoccupation with “sensing patterns” that typified the work of the first generation of Boasians would be eclipsed by the idea of “reading cultures” in the 1970s, following the example set by Clifford Geertz in “Thick Description” and “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (Geertz 1973), and then by “writing culture” in the 1980s following the publication of Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford and Marcus 1986). In this way, the concern with sensation came to be overwritten by a focus on interpretation (Geertz) and on textualization (Clifford and Marcus 1986; see further Tyler 1986). Only in the 1990s would a concern with “sensing” be restored, albeit not on the same terms as earlier iterations.

I would emphasize that the following account of how anthropology gained, then lost and then recovered its senses is my own reading of the history of anthropology (for a proper historical account of the Americanist tradition see Darnell  2001 and the many works of Stocking). It is not one with which Clifford Geertz, for example, would concur. Or would he? We have the privilege of learning something of Geertz’s own views on this matter from a letter he wrote to me in 2006 (responding to one I wrote to him).  This letter is printed with the kind permission of Geertz’s widow and literary executor, Karen Blu (see Appendix I). It reveals that the sensual and the textual were more balanced in Geertz’ approach and writing than my analysis of his oeuvre would allow. The upshot of Geertz’s letter is that the onus for the abandonment of the senses within anthropology must be shifted onto the shoulders of the protagonists of the writing culture movement -- that is, Clifford, Marcus, and Tyler.

I would add that the latter triumvirate not only robbed anthropology of its senses, but also its poetry; that is, even though the term “poetics” figures in the subtitle of Writing Culture, it was a stunningly prosaic (un-poetic) conception of language or “text” that these scholars advanced for the most part (despite their talk of “evocation” and “polyvocality”). By contrast, the Boasians were all poets in addition to being anthropologists, as Philipp Schweighauser relates in his contribution to this volume, and his student A. Elisabeth Reichel has explored in depth.1 Not being a poet myself, and being acutely aware of this fact (unlike, say, Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman), I have invited a student of mine, Roseline Lambert, an accomplished poet and anthropologist in her own right, to write a rejoinder to this account (see Appendix II), so that it could offer a history not only of the senses, but also poetry, in anthropology

The Measurement of the Senses

In La mesure des sens, Nélia Dias (2006) trains our attention on the measurement and representation of the senses in the physical anthropological and medical discourse of late nineteenth century France.2 Focussing on the scientific debates of the Société d’anthropologie de Paris (SAP) during the period 1859-1890, Dias brings out how the longstanding Western construct of a hierarchy of the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – in that order) was mapped onto the emerging visual topography of the brain. The asymmetrical divisions so produced were in turn linked to other divisions along racial, gender and class lines. The bourgeois men of science who elaborated these divisions, and who prided themselves on the objectivity of their observations, consistently allied themselves with the “superior” division in each of the following polarities: left versus right hemisphere, frontal versus posterior (parietal, occipital, limbic) lobes, reason versus passion, intelligence versus sensation, objective versus subjective - and, within the realm of the senses: sight (and hearing) versus smell (and taste and touch). Those relegated to the “inferior” division in this comparative physiology of the senses – or, anatomy of the intellect – included: “primitives” and women, workers and idiots.

The idea that each of the sense organs has a specific localization in the brain, coupled with the notion of their differential contribution to the generation of “objective” knowledge, served as a physiological charter of first importance with regard to the governance of society by these same men of science. According to Broca and his peers, sensory discipline was essential to social discipline. The knowledge they produced in the form of tables of distribution of different physical traits (skin and eye color), sensory maladies (color-blindness, hearing loss) and sensual proclivities was used by the state to police and promote the “sensory hygiene” of the French populace. This knowledge also inspired scholars in other disciplines to propose physiological explanations of such topics as the hierarchy of the arts: according to the prevailing view, tattooing represented the “degree zero of art” followed in ascending evolutionary order by sculpture, dance, music and painting. Painting was deemed the “noblest” of the arts on account of its identification with the noblest and most intellectual of the senses – sight.

In the debates of the SAP, one crucial question concerned how the objectivity of the racial taxonomies, and all the speculations concerning the sensory capabilities of “the Other,” could be guaranteed if perception were indeed a physiological process and therefore potentially tainted with subjectivity (see Crary 1992; Schaffer 1994). The solution lay in exteriorizing the process of observation by subjecting it to diverse protocols designed to neutralize the “personal equation.” For example, SAP researchers stroved to determine “la bonne distance” from which to gauge the color of the iris (which was considered to be an essential marker of racial difference), and used Broca’s celebrated chromatic scale to record their judgments. They also invented and deployed a range of technologies, from the opthalmoscope to the esthesiometer, which could substitute for the observer’s own senses.

Other notable discussions in the Bulletin of the SAP include the many articles on the “evolution” of the color sense (in an effort to explain the paucity of color terms in many “primitive” vocabularies) and the plethora of studies on the one sensory defect the authors recognized in themselves - namely, myopia. (Myopia was something of an occupational hazard for the intellectual class, given their study habits, though by characterizing it as a “disease of civilization” it became a badge of honour.) Debate also swirled around the question of the  part played by heredity and environment respectively in the development of the senses. This discussion pitted the physiological determinism of Broca against the contextualism of the maverick Manouvrier, who was by far the most enlightened anthropologist of his day. Perhaps the most glaring tension in the discourse of the SAP had to do with the contradiction between the French anthropologists' insistence on the perfectability of the senses through education and the rigidity of their theories. The explanation for this aporia, according to Dias, is that these men were all devout republicans, and therefore dedicated to the idea of progress, even as they clung to notions of the inherent differences between races and intrinsic inferiority of the non-visual senses.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Anthropological Expediton to Torres Strait set out for the South Seas in 1898, led by the biologist, A.C. Haddon. Haddon had enlisted W.H.R. Rivers, a medical man who had also trained in laboratory physiology and psychology in Jenna and Heidelberg, to oversee the administration of an extensive battery of psychophysical tests designed to gauge the “sensory acuity” of the natives. These tests included: Zwaardemaker’s olfactometer, Politzer’s Hörmesser, an algometer, esthesiometer, color tests, etc.. There were some 25 tests in all. Rivers introduced the Islanders to the experiments as follows:

The natives were told that some people had said that the black man could see and hear, etc., better than the white man and that we had come to find out how clever they were, and that their performances would all be described in a big book so that everyone would read about them. This appealed to the vanity of the people and put them on their mettle (Rivers 1901: 3).

Cunningly, Rivers did not reveal the underlying hypothesis guiding the experiments, which was that sensory acuity varies inversely with intellectual ability. This “law” was based on the assumption that “if too much energy is expended on the sensory foundations, it is natural that the intellectual superstructure should suffer” (quoted in Schaffer 1994: 37) One wonders whether the test subjects would have been so keen to participate had they been informed of the experimenters’ conceit.

The results of the test were inconclusive, because many of the devices malfunctioned, some of the natives objected to having tubes stuck up their noses (not surprisingly), and because it was difficult to measure auditory acuity using the Hörmesser with the sound of the surf pounding in the background, etc.. This did not prevent William MacDougall, the most committed psychophysicist and racist of the group, from wielding his esthesiometer and determining that the cutaneous sensitivity of the Islanders was twice that of a comparison group of Scottish subjects (tested on his return to the UK). Other members of the expedition, Rivers and C.S. Myers especially, were more circumspect as regards the conclusions that could be drawn from the experiments, and also debated the part played by race or environment in the formation of the senses. They did not presume that “racial characteristics” could be pinpointed the way MacDougall did. In the final analysis, however, Rivers and Myers were no more culturally-attuned or reflexive in their approach than MacDougall. For example, they never bothered to inquire into indigenous theories of the sensorium, or indigenous sensory practices.

Boas’ Break with Psychophysics

 Meanwhile, Franz Boas, who had acquired expertise in physics, psychophysics and physiology in the course of his studies, left Germany for the Canadian Arctic in 1883 to conduct geographic research and explore certain questions having to do with the psychophysics of vision among the Inuit. Alongside that research, Boas became interested in language and he pursued this interest on his many subsequent trips to the Canadian Arctic and West Coast. One of his first professional publications was entitled “On Alternating Sounds” ([1888] 2018). In this short piece, Boas relates how he was struck one day by the discovery that he had recorded the sounds of certain Inuktitut words differently on different occasions.  This was, actually, not that uncommon a quandary among observers of “primitive” languages. The conventional explanation for such alternation was that “primitive” languages are intrinsically “vague” and “fluctuating” (just as the classificatory kinship terminologies of traditional societies were held to reflect a state of  “primitive promiscuity”). However, Boas broke with the evolutionist assumptions of his contemporaries. He determined that the mishearings of sounds in a foreign language were a consequence of the observer “apperceiving” them in light of the known sounds of his or her own language, and assimilating them to the latter. In this way, Boas shifted the focus of inquiry from the production of sounds to their reception, and underlined the importance of reflexivity in the pursuit of anthropological knowledge. He also took pains to point out that his thesis – namely, that “a new sensation is apperceived by means of similar sensations that form part of our knowledge”  (2018: 35) extends to other fields of sense besides audition, such as color perception and olfaction:

 It is well known that many languages lack a term for green. If we show an individual speaking such a language a series of green worsteds, he will call part of them yellow, another part blue, the limit of both divisions being doubtful. Certain colors he will classify today as yellow, tomorrow as blue. He apperceives green by means of yellow and blue. We apperceive odors in the same way, and classify new odors with those to which they are similar. (p. 35)

Boas’ reflections called into question the most elementary tenet of psychophysics: the construct of the “differential threshold” or “just noticeable difference.” His investigations exposed the extent to which the discrimination or classification of perceptual differences as of similarities is culturally contingent. In other words, physiological differences among observers are not the only factor responsible for variations in the registration of sense impressions. Rather, what could be called the “cultural equation” plays an equally salient, if not greater, role. The men of the SAP had no concept of this when they sought to control for what they called the “personal equation.” Their understanding of perception was purely physiological, which is to say un- or infracultural.  Not so Boas (see further Stocking 1982: 157-60; Schaffer 1994)

We discussed earlier what Ruth Benedict took to be the upshot of Boas’ Arctic sojourn – that is, the rupture with psychophysics and conversion to ethnology. The influence of Boas’s insight into the “cultural equation” in perception can otherwise be seen in the following quotation from the introduction to The Study of Culture at a Distance by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux. They write that people “not only hear and speak and communicate through words, but also use all their senses in ways that are equally systematic … to taste and smell and to pattern their capacities to taste and smell, so that the traditional cuisine of a people can be as distinctive and as organized as a language” (1953: 6). The implication of this, according to Mead and Métraux, was clear: “Just as linguistics requires a special ear,” so cultural analysis requires a special honing of all the senses.

Métraux elaborated on what this honing entailed  in a chapter entitled “Resonance in Imagery” (1953). There, she begins by asserting that the “images” (not just visual, but also aural, tactile, olfactory, etc.) through which a people perceive the world form “a coherent whole,” and to grasp this whole entails developing a “disciplined conscious awareness of the two system within which one is working” (1953: 360, emphasis in original). One of those “systems” would be the perceptual system or style of the culture studied, and the other the researcher’s personal perceptual style. Displaying the same sensory reflexivity as Boas, but across the senses instead of treating them severally, Métraux recorded: “ I myself can attend to and retain most precisely visual and kinaesthetic and tactile imagery, and I am likely to transpose imagery in other modalities into combinations of these” (1953: 361). She also canvassed other members of her and Mead’s New York circle, to find out how they went about doing anthropology.

 [One anthropologist] describes the process of assimilation [of another culture] as one in which he creates an ‘internal society’ with ‘multiple voices’ that carry on ‘multiple conversations’ in his own mind. Another … seems in some way to ingest the culture so that, in effect, her own body becomes a living model of the culture on which she is working as well as the culture of which she is herself a member, and she continually tests out relationships in terms of her own bodily integration. And another describes the process as one of ‘receiving and sending kinaesthetic sets, strengthened by auditory patterns – largely pitch, intonation and stress rather than words’ (1953: 361)

It is interesting to speculate on which one of these interlocutors might have been Ruth Benedict? which one Mead? which one Mead’s husband, Gregory Bateson? or was one of them Sapir? Unfortunately, we do not know. What we can conclude, though, is that “sensing patterns” was integral both to the definition of culture and to how the Boasians went about studying cultures, whence Benedict’s Patterns of Culture with its Apollonian/Pueblo Indian and Dionysian/Kwakiutl character types (or better sensibilities), Sapir’s “sound pattern” theory of phonemics (arrived at independently of de Saussure), Mead (and Bateson’s) theory of “kinaesthetic learning” (as opposed to verbal teaching), and so forth.

Priming one’s own senses to the extent these researchers did, and cultivating the capacity to be “of two sensoria” (one’s own and that of the culture studied), hardly seems like a very social scientific methodology; poetic perhaps, but not social scientific. But, of course, Benedict, Mead , Sapir were all poets, in addition to being anthropologists, though they tended to keep the two identities separate. Roseline Lambert explores the implications of this double life the Boasians lived further in her letter.

Reading/Writing/Sensing Cultures

Stimulating and as (apparently) culturally-attuned and reflexive as the approach of these first generation Boasians may have been, it was nevertheless marred by a pronounced tendency to psychologize other cultures – that is, to treat cultures as “personalities writ large.” This approach has since been discredited (see Bock 1999). Equally problematic was the incipient tendency to “linguify” cultural analysis – that is, to treat the culture or dress of a people as a linguistic analogue. This incipient tendency became full-blown in the ensuing decades.  For example, some anthropologists came to view cultures as “language games” (after Wittgenstein), or “discursive formations” (after Foucault), or as “structured like a language” (in accordance with Lévi-Strauss’ channeling of Saussurean structural linguistics). Especially pronounced was the tendency to view cultures “as texts”, as proposed by Clifford Geertz: “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (1973: 452). Geertz took his cue from an essay by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur entitled “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text” (1970). In the result, the concern with “sensing patterns”  mutated into one of “reading cultures”, as “interpretation” came to supplant “sensation” in the toolkit of anthropologists.

This substitution paved the way for a further mutation – or better, involution – from “reading  culture” to “writing culture” in the 1980s (e.g. Clifford and Marcus 1986), as “textualization” came to be seen as the hallmark of anthropological practice, overriding both sensation and interepretation.  What do ethnographers do?—They write, of course (as the very term ethno-graphy implies). This shift is nicely captured in the cover photograph of Writing Culture, where we see Stephen Tyler hunched over his notepad, scribbling away, while two of his informants sit idly in the background, gazing (distractedly) over his shoulders. This image is precisely the reverse of the image suggested by Geertz where, as will be recalled, it is the anthropologist who strains to read over his or her informants’ shoulders. This switch reflects 1) the further recession  of any concern with matters of perception, 2) the precession of a preoccupation with “authority” (or how to write), and 3) the redefinition of ethnography as a “process of textualization” (Tyler 1986: 137). It bears noting that Writing Culture appeared at the height of postmodernism in anthropology (and other disciplines). This was a time when the proposition that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” was taken seriously. Not surprisingly, therefore, the perceptual was eclipsed by the textual. In effect, “the model of the text” (Ricoeur) came to dominate not only the work of interpretation but the process of perception itself. The preoccupation with “authority” also triggered an obsessive concern with authorial style and precipitated what I have described elsewhere as “the flight from theory to style” (Howes 2003: 26).3

The anthropology of the senses – also known as sensory anthropology, or sensory ethnography – started to take shape in the early 1990s partly in reaction to the excesses of textualism in the anthropology of the 1980s but mainly due to an intense new focus on the life of the senses in society (not solely in the mind, the province of psychology) and growing recognition of the extraordinary multiplicity of human “ways of sensing”  (Howes 1991; Howes and Classen 2013). Sensory ethnography involves a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture – that is, the senses (and their extensions via diverse media) are treated as both object of study and means of inquiry.  Furthermore, sensory ethnography is committed to exposing the politics of perception, and therefore sharply critical of the physiological reductionism of the psychophysics of perception.

Constance Classen and I sought to articulate a framework for the practice of sensory ethnography in “Sounding Sensory Profiles,” the concluding chapter of The Varieties of Sensory Experience (Howes and Classen 1991; see further Robben and Slukka 2007). The term “sensory ethnography” has since come to cover a wide spectrum of research and communication practices. For example, it figures in the name of an ethnographic film lab at Harvard University directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, which is committed to expanding the frontiers of media anthropology. It appears in the title of a manual of fieldwork practice by Sarah Pink (2009), which advocates intensive use of audiovisual media but also acknowledges the usefulness of the unaided senses. It applies to Kathryn Geurts’ (2002) in-depth ethnographic study of the enculturation of the senses among the Anlo-Ewe of Ghana, and it is very much in evidence in the collection, edited by Denielle Elliott and Dara Culhane, entitled A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies (2017). The latter book contains chapters on “Sensing”, “Recording and Editing” (i.e. using film and audio recordings), “Walking” and “Performing” (i.e. staging one’s own and/or other cultures), as well as “Writing.”

As reflected in A Different Kind of Ethnography, the space and the attention devoted to writing has shrunk substantially since the onset of  “the sensory turn.” Whereas Writing Culture once occupied the whole of anthropology, and having an “experimental style” of writing was all important, the standards of ethnography have since shifted. “Authority” is no longer a central preoccupation. Good ethnography is increasingly seen as going beyond representation, beyond semiotics, and beyond “poetics” to engage with culturally-mediated sensory experiences and modes of expression (see Howes 2003; Howes and Classen 2013; and, especially Cox, Irving and Wright 2016), including poetry. Indeed, recent years have witnessed a florescence of new methodologies or tools involving poetry as a sensuous medium of knowledge and communication (Brady , such as anthropoesia (Rosaldo 2014),  autoethnographic, research and performance poetry (Denzin 2014; Faulkner 2018), interpretative poetry (Langer & Furman 2007), and poetic transcription (Richardson 1992). The  Society for Humanistic Anthropology even holds an annual poetry competition for anthropologists. Echoes of the Boasians.


Appendix I: Letter from Clifford Geertz

      Princeton, April 13, 2006

      Dear David Howes:

I thank you for sending me the examples of your work in law and "sensory anthropology."4 I found them very well done and indeed most challenging. As you might expect I remain unconverted--it does seem to be conversion  you  are looking  for--by  the "taking  leave  of our senses" piece and will try, very briefly, as a perhaps  somewhat  perverse  mode  of appreciation, to say why.

My cockfight piece (God help us, originally done as a kind of jeu d'esprit it seems to have been Platonized into an eternal object) was actually something of an attempt to capture (in words, admittedly; but to quote Apeneck Sweeney, "I gotta us[e] words when I talk to ya") the Mead- Metraux sort of total description, as section headings like "playing with fire," and "feathers, blood, crowds and money" might have alerted you. (I actually knew Margaret rather well; she once said to me pointedly, "there are two kinds of anthropologists, looking anthropologists [her] and talking anthropologists" [me]. I saw her notes on Bali: they were sheerly behavioral: "Njoman walks across the square and sits down, 15 seconds" etc. She did, as you say, have an enlarged sense of her own powers of observation; as sympathetic as I was and am, I couldn't see, even when alerted to look for it, a good deal of the "sensory" stuff--"awayness "  etc.-- on Bali.) Far from being verbal all the way down, I tried to connect the kinesthetic  movement of the cocks  to Balinese posture and to the sympathetic  (not empathetic,  so far  as I could  see)  movement  of the audience to that of the cocks as the noise and clamor of the betting took place.

But enough of that; I did indeed, and do still, treat the event as a text analogue. It seems to me that the desire to escape the prison house of language to describe others pure and direct is an illusion; whatever we know of "sensual relations" we know via language, not before, or outside, or after it, but in the midst of it. (You need to read Wittgenstein on "pain" to see the power of this.) My distance from Mead, Metraux (whom I just don't believe has the perceptions she claims, though one of the difficult things with that approach is that one doesn't know how to evaluate intuitions), Hall et. al. is from their intuitionism, not their concern with the senses, which I share--I dissent mainly as I say from the their claims to perceptive abilities of a high and special sort. I'm not clear from your piece where you stand on this central issue of the relation between speech and sensation--whether with James and me, "the track of the serpent is over everything,"5 or with Bergson and some sort of wordlessly flowing "feeling." As for the "flight" (I would say "advance") from theory to style, you might reflect that surely the greatest observer and reporter of "sensory relations" was our greatest stylist, Proust, full enough of words and sensations, clauses and feelings: he "textualized" Bergson! The danger of what you are proposing--and it is a danger, clear and present--is the sort of preening sentimentalism of Wikan or the hit-and-run ethnography of Barth. Going back before "the linguistic turn" is to go back to positivism and the myth of the given.

Enough, I don't want to sound combatative; just to indicate that were I (as I am not) to undertake a full counter argument the sort of directions it would take. I find both your pieces very well done indeed and more than fair, and I thank you both for sending them and for your kind words about my own work. Keep me on your list.

      Yours sincerely


Clifford Geertz


Appendix II: Letter from Roseline Lambert

     Montreal, 18 May 2018

     Dear David,

It is particularly pleasing for me to read the poems of the Boasians, as you call them. This enables me to situate my own work as a poet and anthropologist in a line of writers who allowed themselves to work with experimental forms of text. You raise the question of what made Benedict, Mead and Sapir so attuned to “sensing patterns” in their anthropological work, and how this relates to their other life as poets. I suggest that the reason for their unique sensibility has to do with poetry being a sensuous form of writing, a kind of artisanry, as I will explain.

Poetry transports us

The rare anthropologists who have tried to make poetry or “ethnopoetics” an object of study within anthropology have sought to define it as the spontaneous overflowing of powerful sentiments (Wordsworth in Leavitt 1997: 20) or as an intensification of language (Friedrich 1978: 4), and as a universal literary practice. John  Leavitt (1997) adds that poetry summons the transport of the senses, recalling how Baudelaire and Rimbaud would search for poetic illumination in the senses, and for the divine in poetry.

But even if poetry inspires and transports us, it is important to recognize that when one writes a poem, one executes a profoundly material gesture. One does not simply produce an abstract construction that takes shape in the mind and becomes a text in one stroke. There are many things implicated in this gesture: there is an object such as a notebook, there is the sound of  pencil on paper, there are many erasures to writing a verse, the displacement of words on a page: in brief, a materiality of the text, such as is given in the word "texture". The textures appear as layers, hues, volumes. Like a sculpture of words in wood. Here, I make use of a metaphor in which the material (wood) would be harder than paper in order to make you feel this material sensation of the resistance of writing. I want your senses to be alert to the hardness of the material in this exaggeration wood-paper. Do your senses remember the hardness of wood against your hand? There you have a concrete example of the power of poetry to evoke sensations.

Poetry opens our senses

Reading poetry summons an open ear, a gaze that lingers. It is difficult to access the meaning of a poem speedily. One must slow down reading it in order to plumb its depths. Such slow reading, as a rupture in our habitual “ways of sensing” (Howes and Classen 2013), immerses us in the sensorial dimensions of the text and engages our senses. Let us listen to how poetry calls upon our hearing, for example. Our reading of a poem must take in each of the words and the rhythms that line up or clash. And here, the rhythm is not that visual. One cannot see on paper all the sounds that the words contain. We know that languages are not always written phonetically. A syllable may not be pronounced the same way it is written. There is a sonic invisibility to language that poetry heeds. It is one of the mysteries of writing that we have to hear and cannot see. A poem allows us to be attentive to all of the sounds of words, visible and invisible. In reading the poems of the Boasians, I can sense their attention to their sensorial perceptions.

Poetry as artisanry

In 2016, thirty years after Writing Culture, a new gathering of anthropologists was convened in the same bungalow in Santa Fe where the collective writing of the original book took place. Crumpled Paper Boat (Pandian and McLean 2017) came out of this. It critiqued the earlier work for focusing exclusively on the rhetorical construction of anthropological texts, and ignoring their material construction. Pandian and Maclean (2017: 3) urge us to see writing as “a practice immanent to the world, rather than as a detached reflection upon the world and itself”” (as with Writing Culture). They think it is possible to “write more faithfully to life” providing one is willing to approach writing in a way “that acknowledges the deep intertwining of language and life, image and experience, thought and the world in which it finds a body” (Pandian and Maclean 2017: 5, 8). These words are spoken like a poet and Crumpled Paper Boat in fact contains concrete examples of poetry in addition to deriving its title from a poem.6

Poetry is a form of writing that continually invents and reinvents its forms. It is appropriate to consider it a form of artisanry, as manual labor even. John Leavitt, in his work in ethnopoetry, reminds us of the Greek etymology of the terms that occupy us: text, texere (weave); poetry, poesis (fashion, make); fiction, fingere (make with one’s fingers). In the Greek and Indian traditions, the work of the poet, a fundamentally artisanal form of labor, is designated by words such as carpentry and tailoring – that is, the material fashioning of wood and of fabric. Leavitt proposes that we view poetry as an action deeply anchored in the body. Poetry is manual labor.

Voila, when I write a poem, I take things in my hands, whether it be pencils, or a laptop, I write words on paper or type them on a keyboard. The words appear concretely, in black or in colour on the paper or screen, according to my wish. When I write a poem I am very conscious of the materiality of the words, because I am constantly arranging and rearranging them up to the point that I decide on the final form of the text. The root meaning of “text” referring to weaving resonates with my experience of constructing a poem. Writing is a form of weaving. Poetry is like carpentry, “a practice immanent to the world,” as Pandian and Maclean (2017: 5) say, “a material practice.” Perhaps this helps explain the Boasians’ intuitions, that in crafting words with their bodies and committing them to paper that maybe they would feel and understand the world better.

Roseline Lambert


1   We await the publication of Reichel’s Ph.D. thesis, entitled Sounding Primitives, Writing Anthropologists: The Poetry and Scholarship of Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict  with great anticipation: in the interim see Reichel 2015, and in press. Reichel’s work is distinguished by its close attention to the   sensuous dimensions of the Boasians’ modes of thought and expression. See also Handler, 1986, 1990, 20

2   This discussion of the work of the SAP is derived from my review of La mesure des sens (Dias 2006) in Current Anthropology 47(2)

3   This line of flight is reflected in a remark by Marcus and Cushman: “ethnographers [increasingly] read widely among new works for models, being interested as much, if not more, in styles of text construction  as in their cultural analysis [or theory], both of which are difficult to separate in any case” (quoted in Howes 2003: 23)

4   I sent Clifford Geertz the first two chapters of Sensual Relations (Howes 2003), entitled “Taking Leave of Our Senses” and “Coming to Our Senses” respectively.  Geertz asks where I stand on the issue of the relation between speech and sensation. I see them as entwined. This is given in the word “sense” itself (which refers to both sensation and signification, feeling and meaning [as in the “sense” of a word]). This takes us beyond positivism, not back to positivism -- as Geertz suggests. I suspect that Geertz’s remonstration stems from his logocentric understanding of meaning. This leads him to see speech and sensation as disttinct, whereas “meaning” and “sensing” are entwined  in the account offered here.

5   “The trail of the human serpent is over everything” is how this line from James actually goes.

6   By contrast: Steven Tyler (1986) says (in passing) that postmodern ethnography should aspire to the condition of poetry, and George Marcus analyzes a couple of Hispanic poems in his chapter, but these are the only two appearances poetry makes in Writing Culture.


This essay is a product of an ongoing program of research sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et Culture. I wish to thank the organizers of the workshop in Basel and editors of this special issue for the invitation to participate.


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