February 3rd, 2007
A couple nights ago I attended the reception for an exhibition currently showing at the Glass Curtain Gallery (Columbia College) in downtown Chicago. Curated by
anthropologist art historian Deborah Stokes and entitled “Africa.dot.Com: Drums to Digital,” it is billed as “an exhibition that visually and interactively explores the collision of modern culture and technology on cross-cultural communication.” The description continues —
Against the background of traditional African “talking” drums, dance and oral traditions, powering of the voice through electronic media has altered these long-established customs. New technology has strengthened and reinforced the assimilation of African expressive culture into vibrant new forms in America.
Unlike classical African art exhibitions, Africa.Dot.Com focuses on representing Africa as part of the modern world, with cultures that have navigated into new media alongside the global community. Since the 1960s, dramatic changes have taken place as a result of African independence, and access to new media, computers, digital technology and mobile phones is growing at a rapid rate. Anthropologists currently encounter all types of digital media in both urban and rural settings, and the charting of innovative, varied practices within a range of media has only just begun.
There were a couple things in this text that set off bells for me before even attending — in partic, the use of quotation marks around “talking” (b/c, y’know, it’s not as if the drums really talk or anything) and the use of the plural form of culture, which I tend to avoid myself due to the implication that there are various, stable, discrete cultures in this world rather than the kinds of interconnected, overlapping, porous, shifting fields of cultural practice that this exhibition actually, in spirit, seemed to want to emphasize. Even so, I recognize that we sometimes simplify our vocabularies in order to say something clearly or provocatively, so I wasn’t really too suspicious going in. Nonetheless, I did expect to encounter plenty of “ironic” examples of African uses of and riffs on technology — you know, ironic, because who would expect to find so many cellphones in Africa, never mind so many tricknological gizmos integrated into traditional art forms? To wit —
& what (post)modern African art exhibition would be complete without a bit of kitschy signage, especially if the irony is increased with references to American rappers and cities (and this city to boot!) —
& of course, rather than proto-cubist carvings of men and animals, etc., there were sculptures of cell phones —
I didn’t snap too many photos with my crappy cellphone camera, although it did occur to me that I was adding another level of irony to the preexisting layers by using a cellphone to take pictures of African cellphone art. In particular, tho, I regret that I didn’t take any pictures of the more “trad” objects on display — the kind of sculptures and drums one would expect, here placed at the entrance for contrast — so that I could better illustrate the attempt and yet, I’m afraid, the ultimate failure of the exhibition to transcend persistent, pernicious modes of representing African art.
Now, I realize I probably already sound rather snarky here (and trust me, the snark has yet to come), but don’t get me wrong — I recognize that this sort of exhibition is long overdue and perhaps even ::sigh:: still necessary. I can understand and appreciate the explicit, if simple/vague, desire to represent Africans as modern members of the “global community,” esp considering the ways that Africa (monolith a monolith) has been perennially figured in, as they say, the “Western imagination” (or, if you will, in ebog’s imagination, to take a specific case), as premodern, backwards, and primitive (or, for ebog, as “the most fucked up (and most heroic)” [and stinky?]).
It wasn’t until I started looking closer at the objects on display and their identifying information that I began to bristle a bit, wondering, especially since these pieces were all relatively recent (w/ cellphones as their subjects and such): who are the artists who assembled and sculpted and painted and threaded these wonderful things? Why did they choose to do what they did? What do such representations, such forms&contents, mean to them? (I’m guessing one or two might have something more interesting than “cross-cultural communication” as an answer.) It was at that moment, when I noticed that the artists appeared to be utterly anonymous (in contrast to, say, the curator and collectors), that I remembered a quotation which had leapt out at me last week while reading Tim Taylor’s “A Riddle Wrapped Inside a Mystery” (an essay I mentioned a couple posts back):
Anthropologist Sally Price was told by a French art dealer that “If the artist isn’t anonymous, the artist isn’t primitive.” (73)
This specious/useful formulation fresh in mind, I began to inspect more closely the info-cards accompanying the pieces on display. The cellphone sculpture above, for example, was glossed as —
Sorry about the blur — it’s there to make my own representation seem more authentic,
The card reads:
Carved wood, Tanzania
Warren Holstberg Collection,
Yep, all the information one could want. I suppose the artist must be named “Tanzania” — how cheeky! How modern!
And here, if we do a little google archaeology, we stumble onto yet another irony — actually, perhaps one of the only truly ironic dimensions of the exhibition, albeit one that the curator might rather remain implicit: the cellphone sculpture comes from the collection of — buh-dump-bump — a Motorola veep! (You can’t make this stuff up, folks. If I were writing anthropological fiction, as the Prices sometimes do, I would have a hard time passing up such a downright structural metaphor.)
Returning to the official description of the exhibition, and another line that made me skeptical, it is perhaps unsurprising (if disappointing), that the spotlight shines where it does here. The last line indicates, not to get too personal in my critique, a self-centeredness (and lack of self-consciousness) that requires the anonymity of one’s “subjects” in order to maintain one’s own centrality to the story (and the cachet, the privilege, the power, the opportunity, the free-to-move-ity): “Anthropologists currently encounter all types of digital media in both urban and rural settings, and the charting of innovative, varied practices within a range of media has only just begun.” [update (2/8): allow me to note, again (see first para), that the curator describes herself as an art historian, rather than an anthropologist, which essentially makes this last paragraph an off-base accusation — in this case; in plenty of others, however (like this blog?), what I describe here remains all too common a dynamic.]
Indeed. Better get crackin on them charts, keep the cameras pointed in the right direction & —
In this day&age, it is hard to believe that there’s no way to bring actual individual African voices — voices with names and faces and dreams and bank accounts — into an art gallery here in Chicago. And I don’t mean literally (necessarily). As the exhibit admirably shows, the technologies of communication and connectivity are already there to a great extent. (And surely a lil Motorola money could get us the rest of the way?)
As I was describing my problems with the exhibit to a colleague last night, he recounted one of John Blacking‘s last public statements which, to paraphrase a paraphrase, went something like this: Blacking, who wrote extensively on the music of South Africa, lamented at a meeting of ethnomusicologists that when he looked at the captions in his books and saw things like, “African girls singing a puberty rite” or “African man playing a transverse flute,” he thought about how such descriptions contrasted with representations of European music; can you imagine, he asked, a picture of Bach that read, “German man at keyboard instrument”?
Just so I don’t seem totally sardonic here, I should note an exhibit like this one, for all its problems, might still prove productive for all sorts of viewers, including European-Americans and African-Americans of many, many stripes (and there were plenty of stripes in attendance Thursday night). And yet, the persistence of this old model of anthropologists // collectors // anonymous subjects seems to betray any real traction. New wine, old bottles. This is the ultimate irony of the “Drums to Digital” exhibition: it utterly fails to challenge, despite its novel surfaces, the same ol’ ways of representing, of maintaining the status quo, of reinscribing the asymmetrical power relations between the rest and the “West” (i.e., in this case, the American academy and American anthropology, if we’re gonna name names, which — as I hope I’ve argued compellingly here — we probably should).
As much as we might want to celebrate African modernity and uses of technology and all of that good stuff, the mere movement of these images and objects outside Africa to metropolitan centers such as Chicago ain’t necessarily doing all that much in the way of “cross-cultural communication.” This is still very much a one-way street we’re traversing. The others are streets with no names. Not that I’m calling for better maps or charts — far from it — but how are we supposed to navigate this chasm, & continue the conversation, without better, realer connections?
Considering this (uncritical) celebration of the sheer circulation of Other things, as if their simple presence in our midst is enough to heal the world ®, I’m reminded of what Steve Feld has written about about a similarly celebratory stance (in this case, of the circulation of “world music,” which is to say, “non-Western” music). In an essay called “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Music’ and ‘World Beat’,” Feld contends that such celebrations “risk confusing the flow of musical contents and musical expansion with the flow of power relations” (263).
And so I’ll finish here by (trans)posing a question that has been very much on my mind all quarter and which this exhibit brought into focus in yet another way: might we level same critique that I marshal above w/r/t anonymous African artists at various, recent, half-decent attempts to broker the sounds of the Other, of the Global (“dirty“) South, to metropolitan audiences happy to consume the next real thing?
(I’m thinking of things like —
& it’s not just about tracklists [or lack thereof], it’s about track records [or].)
November 6th, 2006
As an example of how the work of Clifford Geertz might continue to inform our understanding of (the significance of) culture, consider the following passage from William Sewell’s Logics of History (Chicago 2005), itself a compelling interpretation of a series of texts. Bringing the methods and insights of the social sciences and the ‘histories’ to bear on each other, Sewell’s book is a persuasive exercise in reconfiguring social theory.
One of the more striking arguments in the text, at least for this reader, appears in a chapter on Geertz’s underappreciated relevance to history, especially the value of synchronic analysis, the “thick description” and exigesis of a particular historical moment. The passage in question, however, deals specifically with how culture relates to the brain — and thus how “systems of symbols,” as Sewell puts it, “provide a supplementary source of information that is not just a convenience to humans but a physiological necessity of our biological endowment” (186). Intriqued? Allow me to quote at length, and don’t give me that TLDR BS (note: the quotations in the quotation — twinks upon twinks? — are drawn from Geertz’s essay, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures):
Not only did culture and the large forebrain evolve together, but they remain organically linked today. “Man’s nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it positively demands that he do so if it is to function at all” (68). Culture, extrinsic information coded in symbols, is a condition of our viability as a species. This is true because the large and astoundingly complex human brain does not respond to stimuli by producing specific behavioral responses, but rather with highly general affects:
The lower an animal, the more it tends to respond to a “threatening” stimulus with an intrinsically connected series of performed activities which taken together comprise a comparatively stereotyped . . . “flight” or “fight” response. Man’s intrinsic response to such a stimulus tends to consist, however, of a diffuse, variably intense, “fear” or “rage” excitability accompanied by few, if any, automatically preset, well-defined behavioral sequences. Like a frightened animal, a frightened man may run, hide, bluster, dissemble, placate, or, desperate with panic, attack; but in his case the precise patterning of such overt acts is guided predominantly by cultural rather than genetic templates. (75)
The only way for humans to produce specific behavior appropriate to the challenges thrown up by their environment is to use the manifold cultural codes that their peculiar neural structure has made possible. Because humans’ genetically programmed responses are so generalized, they need the extrinsic information supplied by culture in order to accomplish the diverse tasks of life — whether those be responding to threats, constructing shelter, reproducing the species, seeking companionship, killing other species for food, or constructing political regulations. Humans proceed, and can only proceed, by gathering and manipulating information (including information about how to gather information) which is stored not in the physiological structure of the body but in the intersubjective space of human signifying practice and in the objects — books, map, clothing, tools, sacred goods, illustrations, the built environment — that give it material form.
Intellectually unviable without culture, humans would be emotionally unviable as well. Geertz remarks that “man is the most emotional, as well as the most rational animal” (80). He might have added the most emotional because the most rational. The emotional diffuseness or uncertainty of the human neural response to stimuli is the flip side of the existence of the complex neural apparatus that makes us capable of reasoning. The response to stimuli can be diffuse because our reasoning brain makes possible tremendous and adaptively useful flexibility in how we deal with a problem; it must be diffuse if we are to deal with a problem flexibly rather than in a stereotyped fashion. But this makes the human “a peculiarly high-strung animal,” subject to all sorts of emotional excitement but without in-built patterns to guide responses to the excitement (80). It is cultural patterns that provide the necessary control of emotionally upsetting stimuli. They give “specific, explicit, determinate form to the general, diffuse, ongoing flow of bodily sensation,” thereby “imposing upon the continual shifts in sentience to which we are inherently subject a recognizable, meaningful order, so that we may not only feel but know what we feel and act accordingly” (80).
This provision of specific form for diffuse and unsettling human emotion is, according to Geertz, precisely what religions are about. They provide us with conceptions and practices that enable us to live with the ever-present threat of chaos. In “Religion as a Cultural System,” Geertz specifies three sources of such threat: events or problems that seem beyond our powers of explanation, suffering that seems impossible to endure, and ethical paradoxes that seem impossible to resolve. What religious symbolism does is not to deny the existence of the uncanny, of suffering, or of evil, but to provide concepts that make them thinkable (such as divine mystery, imitation of Christ, or original sin) and ritual practices that give them an experiential reality (such as Eucharist, extreme unction, or penance). Religious doctrine, mirrored and experienced in ritual acts, does not, for example, spare us from suffering: it teaches us “how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable — something, as we say, sufferable” (104). In short, our neural organization necessitates as well as makes possible the shaping of both our cognitive and emotional lives by systems of symbols.
This account of the evolutionary origins and the biological necessity of human culture is a brilliant piece of materialist argumentation. It transcends the material/ideal dichotomy not by some verbal formula, but by a substantial, scientifically based account of the inescapable complementarity of “material” and “ideal” in the human condition. It enables us to recognize the simultaneous rootedness of culture (or “mind”) in bodily needs and its irreducibility to bodily needs. It enables us to pursue the autonomous logic of cultural systems without worrying that we are becoming “idealists” and therefore losing touch with the “real” world. If Geertz is right, as I firmly believe he is, semiotic systems are not unworldly or ghostly or imaginary; they are as integral to the life of our species as respiration, digestion, or reproduction. Materialists, this suggests, should stop worrying and love the symbol. (187-9, emphasis in original)
‘Amen’ to that?
November 1st, 2006
Clifford Geertz passed away this week. An innovative and influential anthropologist, Geertz’s clear, engaging prose advanced what he called “interpretive anthropology” in the early 70s — taking a semiotic or hermeneutic approach, reading/writing culture as text, thickly describing what he called, after Weber, “webs of signficance” and interpreting them in search of meaning.
It’s quite impossible to talk about L20C anthropology or ethnography (and for me, quite hard to conceptualize culture) without thinking of Geertz. His illuminating perspectives will be sorely missed, but we rest assured that we’ll be reading along with him for some time yet.
We just read Geertz’s “Thick Description” (1973) in class a couple weeks ago. In the essay, he advocates, among other things, “cutting the culture concept down to size, therefore actually insuring its continued importance” (4). Well before anthropology’s “crisis of representation” in the late 80s, Geertz noted that we may as well embrace our role as interpreters and give up on false notions about objective observation and representation, arguing that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to” (9). And yet, he was careful to warn that “Nothing will discredit a semiotic approach to culture more quickly than allowing it to drift into a combination of intuitionism and alchemy, no matter how elegantly the intuitions are expressed or how modern the alchemy is made to look” (30).
Some other gems from that essay, which you should certainly read for yourself:
“Culture is public because meaning is.”Âť (12)
“Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity.”Âť (14)
“The aim here is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics.”Âť (28)
“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete.”Âť (29)
i.e., it’s turtles all the way down — or as he relates it himself:
There is an Indian story — at least I heard it as an Indian story — about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”
ps — the natives over at Savage Minds recommend some resources for those who want to learn more, including a relatively recent “auto-obituary” by the man himself as well as the quite comprehensive HyperGeertz archive.
October 17th, 2006
Go go text-sharing blogs: Greg Scruggs offers up Paul Sneed’s’s doctoral thesis on funky Rio.
Kerim argues for an Open Source Anthro, asking “Can the Subaltern Google?”
While we’re at it, allow me to point you to an article I’ve got in a forthcoming “hip-hop issue” of Callaloo: “Giving Up Hip-hop’s Firstborn: A Quest for the Real after the Death of Sampling” (pdf). It’s a recent rivisitation of an ol’ master’s thesis spin-off (a revised chapter really — the other one’s on DJ Premier). Reading ?uestlove’s and the Roots’ musical and extramusical gestures as producing a poetics of the “real,” I examine the effects of copyright law on hip-hop production in the late 90s and the investment of sampled sounds with authenticity. High hip-hop theory (or high theory hip-hop [or hip-hop theory high]), if you’re into that sort of thing. I try to keep it grounded in sound and sentiment, though, knamean?
In addition to doing a close reading of ?uestlove’s “History of Sampling,” as published in Rap Pages, wherein the drummer slyly threads a consistent record of “trad” instrumental practice into and against the development of sample-based techniques, I attempt to explicate the musical poetics at work in the group’s invocations and reformations of hip-hop’s signpost features, focusing largely on Black Thought’s flow and ?uest’s drumming and timbral concerns.
Take, for example, the following (loose) transcription of Black Thought’s flow on the first verse of “Concerto of the Desperado” (listen along and see what you think — rhymes are in bold, with internal rhymes italicized):
If you want to check out my analysis, peep the paper (esp pp. 12-6). And go ask for Callaloo at your local library. And pick up a copy of Illadelph Halflife too for that matter.
And what of new kickass? A spam allegory, perhaps? Take it, Personal.
// &also //
Gastrosonic Tourism: See, Taste, and Hear Italy — and Binaurally, at that!! (Such surreal soundtracking: the first Roman Recording — skip down to Day One — picks up zooming taxis and a street band playing Piazzola.)
For more in the food’n’sound bloggin’ biz: see Soul Cocina (as prev mentioned here), GrubNoise, and FancyToast (though that’s just a food blog, written by a musician).