Blog Post

Sensualizing Rhetoric

"Most postmodern writers are shielded from the complicated negotiations of social

life in other-land, which means that they are usually absolved from assuming an

implicated--an embodied--responsibility for their words, images, and actions.

Many contemporary writers are therefore disengaged and disembodied."

Paul Stoller, Sensuous Scholarship


All weekend, I was irritated. Something I read last week, an article by the distinguished Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo, was stuck in my craw. As is often the case for me, I was bothered from the very start, that is, from the title of the short piece--"Should African Americans Care About the Civil War?" There would seem to be something presumptuous in the question, that is, that African Americans do not care about the historic conflict. Guelzo implied in the piece that he might have unofficially polled some blacks and found most, if not all, of them to be indifferent about the war's sesquicentennial. Putting the unscientific nature of his poll aside, I am rankled not so much by Guelzo's characterization of his observation as indifference but by what is in my opinion a confidence that allowed him to title the piece as he did and, then, to organize his argument--a counter to blacks not caring--around the idea that eventually, if not from the start, the war really was about slavery and freedom, which is exactly why, in his reasoning, blacks should care.

This blog post is not an attempt to refute Guelzo's claim about the war, to add to the body of writings on what the war was really about. In fact, I don't wish to write about the war at all. My focus is instead on rhetoric, scholarship, authorized voices, and why they sometimes--way too often--provide for me painful reading experiences.

  I would like to turn to anthropologist Paul Stoller, whose theories of "sensuous scholarship" hold for me the most promise for an alternative literacy, a new way of experiencing the world, of living with others in it, and of writing about the world and its peoples. Stoller has written several books to these ends (and, centrally, to ethnographic ends). He offers a critique of "western" rationalism, basing his commentary, on the one hand, on the idea that western thought remains largely Cartesian and highly visual. On the other hand, Stoller's field experience, deep immersion into the cultures of Songhay, provide the alternative: submission rather than mere observation. In Stoller's sensuous scholarship, the scholar submits his or her body to the context. Stoller writes that Songhay sorcerers and griots "do not consume sorcery, history, or knowledge; rather it is history, sorcery, and knowledge that consume [them]." Stoller is not speaking figuratively about consumption but literally; the embodied anthropologist-scholar gives her body to history; her body becomes a medium for what the universe wants to deliver.

One could certainly argue that the universe spoke last week through Guelzo's pen, that he submitted his mind, body, or perhaps both to what the universe had to say--that African Americans should care about the war and observe its 150th anniversary. Actually, I have implied the same in other posts. How then does Stoller's theory and practice provide a challenge to Guelzo's rhetoric and to other writing in this vein? How could American writers and intellectuals, for instance, practice embodied scholarship? While Stoller does not answer this exact question, he does suggest that this practice is appropriate in the West and that we might at least try to move toward it. If we are to do so, then American writers and intellectuals will have to become a part of the communities they write about; we have to become one with a community's rhythm, its sense of time, space, its ways of engaging the world physically and otherwise. Not to be trite, the embodied writer would feel others' pain and also joy as his own. Stoller does state that the embodied scholar can come up for air; he can analyze, he can try to write what he has felt, and he can still reason. Yet, he should do so through the body, accepting "its complexities, tastes, structures, and smells."

Guelzo's article, in which he judges contemporary African Americans for not caring about the anniversary of the Civil War, is not an example of embodied writing. In order for the author to achieve this alternative model, he would have to (1) identify American structures of caring and not caring. In other words, he would have to place his supposition that African Americans are indifferent about the war inside of a larger system of values in which other Americans also do not care, and, more importantly, to identify institutional practices and their languages that support caring or not caring. He would have to consider the types of access African Americans have to those institutions and their experiences within them (i.e., if blacks experience within them acceptance and reward for engaging history or acceptance and reward for not engaging history). Such questions only constitute the preliminary work. And (2), he would have to understand, describe, and perhaps feel how African Americans have responded to structures of caring and not caring. He might ask, for instance, what memory of history--of slavery, of Jim Crow, of lynchings, of sharecropping--survives in an American culture that has not encouraged remembering conflict, one that arguably has created an economy of distractions and welcomed African Americans to take part in it. It would be interesting to ask if American consumption (consumer habits) bears any resemblance to the kind of consumption Stoller speaks of. Stoller writes of history and memory as embodied. Not only does one remember through the body, but one is one with history. One's body belongs to it. Is this so for African Americans whose ancestors went through the nightmare of slavery, or has modern society provided buffers?

On the surface, on a Monday morning in 2011, it might seem fair enough to describe African American attitudes about the Sesquicentennial as indifferent. Never mind that doing so scapegoats blacks for the politics of a larger culture that might also be found not to care very much about this history. In Guelzo's case, the scholar perhaps finds what he is looking for since it can certainly be argued that beneath all appearances of our not caring are to be found physical experiences of history, underground, nearly unrecognizable ways of remembering that which the efficient economy does not allow one to speak, but one would have to look very deeply for those ways; one might have to submit his body and feel a very different sense of history. Perhaps then, even indifference might be seen as a intellectual-physically strategy of survival and a modern way of experiencing history.

However, Guelzo writes that blacks who are indifferent concerning the war are, simply put, "wrong." The single word creates a sensation as it also places blacks within a redrawn moral landscape; Guelzo offers a cartography rather than a geography. He warns: "Be worried when black skeptics and white Confederates start saying the same things." Warning heeded. But in what is a very short piece in scholarly terms Guelzo doesn't do any difficult work here. This article does not help us to understand how all of our voices, indeed, all of our experiences are attenuated in such thin landscapes. Guelzo's piece raises for me issues of thinking, writing, and power. Would that even the ethnographer could transcend these. Stoller's sensuous scholarship does appear to suggest something more respectful, but none of us--even the researcher who has given her body and who has learned through it--can separate herself fully from the economy and culture that enable her to write and to publish widely her thoughts.


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