Sensuous Scholarship by Paul Stoller (1997, University of Pennsylvania Press) partly comes across as one of the many stories I hated when I started studying Anthropology. Curiously, stories about far away people in far away places doing nearly everything very differently from what I had known were difficult to read for me. For a long time, I didn’t quite see any sense in reading about shamanic rituals in Central African villages or time conceptions in the Brazilian Amazon. But as with good wine, good scholarship also has to mature, I assume. So I ended up enjoying stories about far away places and discovering similarities, or better even, different approaches to same problems that offer new perspectives on my own culture.
The intention behind Sensuous Scholarship is not first of all to engage the reader with far away places, but much more to advocate for a different, less text-based kind of scholarship. Now this is not to say that it is less of a scholarly work – the biggest deception for me was precisely this: it is just another averagely scientific text. Even in the central part of the book, where Stoller writes about the connections between body and memory and how the past becomes embodied memory, he stays well behind Michael Taussig’s eye-opening essay History as Sorcery (1984 [!]). What I had hoped for, was a little more sensuousness in language, too, that would support the idea that “the world, for the sensuous scholar, remains a wondrous place that stirs the imagination and sparks creativity” (p.136).
How did I come across the book?
Searching for methodological approaches to researching affect, it sounded like a catch. Plus, it had a section on memory and the body.
When and where did I read it?
Mid-january, two-day home-office session while trying to write a synopsis of my research project.
At some point – I was already giving up a little on the book, because I felt it didn’t move me in the way I had hoped for – this passage struck me as revealing:
Lying unconscious on the dune, Chefferi’s being is momentarily lost between the worlds, between the Red Sea and Tillaberi, between the colonial past and the postcolonial present, between his presence and that of his medium. So it is when Hauka spirits encounter themselves and others in the netherworld between possession and “conscious”.
Chefferi is neither “European” nor African; he is neither man nor woman, Christian nor Muslim. (p.72f)
And I came to think that maybe what I am searching in my readings about far away places – beside some theoretical insights for my own projects – are those moments of human encounter, in which difference disappears for just a brief moment, and through whatever means, (in this case, spirit possession,) and people connect with each other on a different level, on a level where it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you understand.