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A poet in the field: the companionship of literature and anthropology

Among anthropology’s most enduring companions in thought – perhaps equal in measure to history or philosophy – literature continues to give shape to our work in numerous ways. The publication for the first time in English translation of Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme, one of the most important works of 20th century French literature, provides us the opportunity to critically revisit this relationship. A surrealist poet in the orbit of the painter André Masson, a veteran of Georges Bataile’s Documents, and an important critic of André Breton, Leiris was invited by Marcel Griaule to join the Mission Dakar-Djibouti in 1931 as secretary-archivist. It is this time with Griaule on a state-sponsored ethnographic and artefact-collecting expedition for the Université Paris and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, that constitutes the material of Phantom Africa. The monumental book unsettles our assumptions about the relationship between the poet, the fieldworker, the ethnologist and the archivist. But it also reminds us of the difficulties that haunt the assignment of qualities like the real, the imagined, the fantastic and the ordinary to experience. Leiris helps us to consider together regions of anthropological inquiry into, through or alongside literature, that often function at some remove from one another.

The 647 entries of Phantom Africa detail much more than the daily conditions, findings, and paradoxes of fieldwork. They contain dreams, fantasies, confessions, episodes of depression (for which he had been in psychoanalysis), isolated lines of poetry and scenes of the most mundane quality. Published alongside the diary text are also excerpts from letters written contemporaneously. Before he left, Leiris imagined the coming expedition as unsettling his “white mentality” that coloured the world around him in an “entirely phantasmagorical way.” His autobiography equates the experience with the jazz of his Parisian youth, an encounter with “Negroes, the manifestation and myth of black Edens which were to lead me to Africa, and beyond Africa, to ethnography.” But the further he tried to escape into ethnography, the more relentlessly literature nipped at his heels – a strange mirror of Laura Bohannon’s reading Hamlet while living among the Tiv. As his translator makes clear in a helpful forward, Leiris’s exhaustive documentation of everyday life takes Mauss’s dictate – to meticulously keep a travel journal noting accomplishments in a ready-made inventory, and in a manner, that “reproduce[es] native life, not…one’s impressions” – to a logical extreme, to the “exhaustive description of the real”, the contours of which are not readily distinguished from the realm of the imaginary. The text is fascinating because it stages an encounter rarely available to us between companions – a poet and an anthropologist – whose relationship is more complicated than is often acknowledged.

Vincent Debaene writes that Leiris’s text enacts a “bifurcation” of anthropology and literature. For Glissant, it reflects a writer not yet given to his scientific activity. Hollier likens the distance between the two shores to the path between Charybdis and Scylla. We know from Leiris’s notes that he intended the diary to stand in contradistinction to his ethnographic work, and even kept it away from Griaule. If it is, at times, searing in its critique of workman-like field research, of its bourgeois alienation from the possibility of communion, Leiris remains convinced, at least at this stage, of the colonial fantasy; that, to an extent, the mission’s moral imperative (its making possible an erosion of distance through encounter) justified its disturbing and brutal exploitation of locals. In many ways, one is the double of the other. So in the end, we might ask, what kind of companion is literature for anthropology?

Before I turn to Phantom Africa itself, and to my argument for its relevance to contemporary anthropology, let me first briefly describe what I understand to be three principle motifs under which the figure of literature arises in anthropological writing: as explicit object of ethnographic and ethnological attention; as companion of anthropologists, whose lives are enriched by particular works of literature; and in the writerly labour entailed by the production of anthropological knowledge as knowledge.

Literary Objects

Ethnographic fieldwork nearly everywhere in the world has encountered texts whose belonging, or not, to the “value-laden” and “historically-specific” category of literature has proven a challenge to anthropological thinking. Indeed, as Karin Barber (2007) has argued, anthropological research under the broader category of texts has been particularly well situated to trouble the assumption that “every culture has a category corresponding to ‘literature,’” or that literature itself manifests anything like an essential unity. Informed by scholarship in adjacent fields on the relationship between oral narrative and the technology of writing (Eric Havelock, Walter Ong and Milman Parry)  Jack Goody and others developed arguments about the consequences of literacy – not only for thought, but also for empire and the rise of civilisations. Fieldwork, especially in regions like West Africa with highly complex genres of epic poetry and oral narrative, drew on new approaches in classics, and emphasized the ingeniousness of what Alfred Lord called “performative composition” – though as Barber justly suggests, even anthropologists who recognized and were deeply appreciative of oral textual traditions, showed little concern with their production as texts. The rigidity of these distinctions, even when taken up in the name of anti-colonial projects, she writes, has often led to a characterization of orality by its “lack”. Literacy, on the other hand, had been understood either as contributing positively to the “evolution of rationality” or negatively as a “violent intrusion of modernity” – in either case, a characterization that may oversimplify the more heterogeneous nature of actual literary practices (Cody 2013).[1]

Meanwhile, Lévi-Strauss, at first convinced that his method could be demonstrated more simply through a reading of a single text (rather than across variations), quickly discovered that he had confused the literary work of singular expressions (for example, Sophocles’ Oedipus) for myth, and that the difference required a new conception of the domain of analysis. The acknowledgement of these fine distinctions made possible a series of advances not only in anthropology, but also in literary criticism, classics, and philology, in which a text became a domain whole unto itself. In this way, the title of Mary Douglas’ Leviticus as Literature several decades later was indicative of its then ground-breaking assertion: that we ought to read the Bible as a whole and not, as source criticism’s documentary hypothesis had it, as an arbitrary string of incongruent parts. For Pierre Bourdieu, literature had to be understood through distinctions in what counts as and for literature – a field of structural positions that crossed other organizing principle in various ways, and could be read not only in the person of the author, but in the aesthetic qualities of the work itself.

How then are we to think about literature without imposing a concept of literature, merely as an analytical tool? How to remain attentive to its reality, including for our own thinking, and yet without enacting what can only be called a certain kind of epistemic violence? That the concept of literature has in fact proliferated globally is, of course, part and parcel of a long colonial legacy and its attendant claims to universality and translatability. But rather than assume that literature abides bounded civilizational categories, or the borders of national traditions, ethnography has shown us how deeply entangled the concept and the texts themselves are in local, regional and global circuits. It remains an open question whether this situation necessitates an analytical framework that goes beyond its emergence from local soil. Adam Reed’s (2011) important work on fiction reading in England, for instance, has responded to this problem instructively by appeal to anthropological theories of art, rather than textuality. Following in the footsteps of Alfred Gell, Reed argues that anthropology might side-step problems associated with the differently constituted literary “worlds” and the Western ideological emphasis on semiosis, by foregrounding the different ways in which claims are made within a field about the attribution of agency (that is, premised on the function of the linguistic index).

In (post)colonial contexts, ethnographers have been attentive to how local literary practices are put to political and social use. Such a vantage has in turn complicated the easy way in which concepts or practices are understood as binaries: either belonging to the colonizer or to the colonized, to the Orientalist or their imagined Other, to those with power and those without. Consider, for example, J. Andrew Bush’s (2017) work on the ways poetry enables the maintenance of intimate relations in Iraqi Kurdistan; Setrag Manoukian’s (2014) account of the rise of Shiraz as the poetic capital of Iran; or Bernard Bate’s (2009) astounding analysis of centamil, beautiful Tamil, full of literary virtuosity, in contemporary political oratory. Khaled Furani’s (2013) marvellous ethnography of Palestinian literary transformations, particularly the shift from the measured meter of classical forms, to modern free verse and prose poetry that resist older disciplining rhythms, is another especially clear case. Working across their contemporary expressions, Furani carefully details how notions of poetic style shift in relation to modern forms of power. While classical poetry comes to be associated with an Arabic past rather than present, with the sounds of oration, the collectivity of audiences in public spaces and the desert, modern poetry is understood to embody liberal freedom, the private self, urbanity, and the visual apprehension of text. Through these re-orientations of the senses and new alignments of space, poetry enables a secularization not just of language, but as a ‘mode of existence’ (206), of society in general, and in so doing lays the groundwork for a new relationship between truth and power.

The Companionship of Literary  

Onward to the second motif: anthropology’s relationship with literature through what we might call its contemporaneity to us, as readers ourselves.  By contemporaneity, I mean to indicate how literature, even when produced in other historical or geographical contexts, is often an influential part of our lives, regularly coming to mind unbidden. Its presence is everywhere; in the novels Malinowski refers to in his diaries, in Lévi-Strauss’s triste reveries, or in Sidney Mintz’s fascination with Powell or Naipul. So when, and why, in the course of ethnographic work do literary texts appear to us, not from the field as normally conceived, but from within us?

Such experiences of companionship, in which a phrase, a scene, a character or even a whole work leaps to the forefront of our minds, are apparent in the words of a writer like Michael D. Jackson, for whom literature is a constant resource in life and in thought. It is “but one means,” among others, “of making life liveable,” one way in which we transfigure ourselves, in particular through the recognition that there are others out there alongside me; an acknowledgment that “I do not write, I am written.” (2012: 90, 93) Jackson recently remarked that the burning question of his life has always been how literature supplements everyday experience. (Ibid. 143) He does not take refuge in books – rather, they are an antidote to the deadening of life in the academy, and in the case of his own writing, fieldwork became its reservoir. Poetry, like religion, shows up in Jackson’s writing through its capacity to draw out a “metamorphosis of self,” pushing and pulling on his experiences in the field. In the course of his ethnographic work with refugees in Sierra Leone, for example, Jackson is thinking about the suffering that people bear, and their seemingly slight requirements for picking up their former lives in the wake of devastation. “In dire situations” he writes “we do not hope for much. We scarcely dream. Words fail us, conveying little of what we really feel. In these circumstances, it takes all our will simply to endure.” (147) And it happens that it is at that time in Freetown camps that Jackson is reading Sebald’s Austerlitz, to which he is able to return for its evocative image of suffering as ‘seeping into the earth’ just as it ‘seeps into us.’ When he thinks of people giving up on life, he is reminded of W.H. Auden (192); when he thinks of the human capacity to imagine new possibilities for the relationship between their inner capacities and their environment, it is Malcom Lowry’s poems that bubble up in him (188).

There is a fabulous and striking moment when Jackson (2011) returns to the site of his initial fieldwork, and draws “strange comfort” from Cervantes’ “apology” for Don Quixote’s lack of “erudition and doctrine,” the total absence of scholarly references, philosophical citations, even theological sources. Cervantes turns to a fictitious friend, who rehearses a litany of such “proper” allusions, in the course of which we are reminded of the great novelist’s absolute command of the canon. “Don Quixote is an eccentric figure,” Jackson tells us, “not simply because he is a living parody of the…tradition in which he has so ardently schooled himself, but because his errant career subverts that tradition. The world of books not only drives him mad but drives him out into the real world.” (187) Jackson confesses to his own feeling of being drawn to ethnography because it was the one discipline he’d encountered that challenged him to “cast [himself] adrift in the world, subject to its unsettling, surprising, and sometimes dangerous twists and turns”. “If my writing retains a picaresque element,” he continues, “resisting closure, it is because I can never bring myself to organize as a lineal argument the improvisatory and open-ended experiences of fieldwork, where one is typically embroiled in events over which one has minimal control.”

For Jackson, literature is a constant and cherished companion in life and work. It rushes to the surface in particular moments, connecting events from one part of life to another. Literature comes to mind, for example, for Veena Das, during her work (1999) on abductions and sexual violence against women during the 1947 Partition riots. In thinking about how concepts like purity and honour functioned in the constitution both of the nation and of kinship, Das is reminded of Krishna Sobti’s novel Mitro Marjani. She relays a powerful scene in which the protagonist Mitro responds to her mother-in-law’s joy at the news of her elder daughter-in-law’s pregnancy by questioning how the same act – in this case, impregnation – might be read as a religious deed or as a sin, depending on who implants the seed (her own son, or a stranger). In her more recent work among the urban poor, Das finds herself drawn into novels in order confront the “common sense” assumption that “we already have” ahead of time, “the conceptual repertoire for defining the moral.” It is the novels of J.M. Coetzee, in this instance, to which Das finds herself irresistibly drawn, for the challenge they offer to conventional pictures of the moral life. It is a point too that she makes herself in the course of reflecting on the writing of a commentary on Nayanika Mookherjee’s book on the alienated lives of women designated as birangonas, “war heroines,” by the post-war government in Bangladesh, redefining their rape by West Pakistani soldiers and collaborators as sacrifice for the nation. “By sheer happenstance,” Das writes,

in my early teens I had been quite interested in Hindi and Bangla literature (and continue to be so.) Though I had not read the 19th-century poetry and plays produced on the birangona within the national fervor of an anti-colonial movement, I had read and often recited the heroic poetry produced by women poets such as Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, and I was very attached to the figures of Rani Laxmi Bai and Begum Hazrat Mahal, who were the inspirations for the later emergence of the figure of the birangona. These memories surged, making me look again at the poems of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and leading me to formulate the idea that even though the figure of the birangona gets transformed from the heroic to the abject, there is a background in the kavya tradition that gives the figure affective force. (2017: 22)

If these two ethnographers each convey experiences in which literature arrives as if through its own power, those flashes can take very different forms. For neither, however, is it an analytic affair taken up at some distance from daily life. It is literature’s capacity not only to open up a way forward, but also – to use Jackson’s excellent turn of phrase – its capacity to subvert settled tradition without positing an erasure, that makes it such an invaluable companion in life generally, but also in anthropology. What I have been calling the motif of contemporaneity, moreover, provides us a bridge between the two others with which I am here interested – namely, through the appearance of literature “in the field” and in our own writing.

Writerly Work

Something very different, however, is at stake in the third configuration of the relationship between anthropology and literature, and which “reflects” on our work as writers in a way quite distinct. Common historiography of the turn to our own presumptive literariness often sets off from the period between the late 1970s and 1980s. This recognition of the “literary” quality of anthropological writing was emblazoned by figures like Clifford Geertz (1973) who called attention to our own involvement in symbolic exchange through interpretation – a position he later clarifies (1988) through the language of the ethnographic text’s “personal” nature; that is, of the author-ization of the text, the author’s signature and the discourse to which it is connected, the authority of having been “there” in the field, at this time, for that event.

If, however, culture was text and fieldwork an act of reading the forest of symbols, as Geertz earlier had it, the Writing Culture “moment” located the act of writing in the field itself. No longer, the contributors famously argued, could we abide the ideology of transparent representation. Rather, culture now had to be understood as “contested codes and representations,” the invention of which we took part in. The artificiality of cultural accounts also located ethnographic writing “beyond texts,” reaching to “contexts of power, resistance, institutional constraint and innovation,” and therefore “not literary in any traditional sense.” (Clifford 1986: 2) In the spirit of Herodotus, Montaigne and Virginia Wolf, the authors of Writing Culture imagined ethnographic work as “situated between systems of representation” – the literarity of anthropological writing thus struggled against the historically transient, power laden, and rigid categories of art, science, literature and history. They announced their own fictive quality of anthropological texts, their partiality. This project went hand-in-hand with contemporary attempts to decolonize Western and hegemonic authority applied to the determination of the real. Through the use of “divergent styles of writing,” one would explicate (or try to) the “specification of discourse” so as to disclose the relations of production inherent in the writing of culture. Cultural poesis was thereby dialogical, and made explicit the conditions of that exchange through techniques of writing. The authors themselves acknowledge that this approach excludes those for whom it is impossible to experiment in form (for example, those without tenure). Such a fetishisation of form had its corollaries in some wings of “post-structuralist” anthropology. Michael Taussig, to take a notable example, describes a “modernist” ethnographic text generated by the “collation of meanings and power” and “irregularly challenging the inviolability of the referent, constantly problematizing reality.” (1989: 18)

These efforts have been taken further by the generation that followed, and even further into the literary at some distance from literature. Stuart Mclean and Anand Pandian (2017) write of ecstatic, even reckless abandon, unconcerned with critical distance. They aim toward harnessing a “literary force”, a “metamorphosis of nature,” to becoming a cipher of becoming. To write in a literary vein, for Mclean and Pandian, is to be more faithful to life, and for many of the contributors to their recent volume on “literary anthropology,” to “convey” something of a world. While they take up Michael Jackson’s assertion that “it is the world…that calls the final shot,” it is the craftiness of the writer herself that occupies the imagination in their thought. It is the latter’s capacity to tap into a potential implicit in the world, they suggest, to try “to do justice…to complement…to reveal aspects of the real at the very limits of the perceptible” (19) but through an act of creation. The “genius” of this act is ascribed not to an author but to a diffuse feeling, even as it calls attention to the inscription of its artefactual nature. If many of the earlier idioms of the fictive have been carried forward, little remains of literature itself, as if it could survive apart, save an epigraph or two – the real of literature thus dissolved into ethnography, giving the author both more and less control and claim over their product. Would we not be well served, however, to more finely distinguish literature, with which we might, like Jackson, so intimately live, from this notion of the “literary”, that Mclean and Pandian hope to write by erasing mediation? One thinks perhaps of Kafka’s well-known formulation, “I have no literary interests, but rather consist in literature.”

To such experiments, and in light of Leiris’s work, I am tempted to ask a version of the question Stanley Cavell once asked of philosophy: can anthropology accept literary figures back in the hands of poetry? “Certainly not so long as it continues,” Cavell writes “to demand the banishment of poetry from its republic.” But can anthropology become literature and still know itself? I am not so convinced, as is Didier Fassin (2014), that the distinction between “real” and “true” lives is what distinguishes anthropology and literature. Fidelity to the real means recognizing that the real is itself always already shot through with the imaginary and with doubt. But neither am I anywhere as certain as others seem to be that we have so little left to learn from the constitutive differences in literature’s relationship to reality and our own. The intimacy between the two requires thoughtful reflection, and the answer need not be that we either fully absorb literature in ethnography or expunge it – in either case, leading to its eradication. Any more, at least, than the call for the poeticisation of science demands that everything take the mere form of a poem. And it is this point which brings me fully back to Leiris.

The Surrealism of Life Alongside 

To speak about Phantom Africa as a contemporary text, or one of this Century challenges us to resituate the motifs described above, and to attune ourselves to their multiple interpolations.

As some recent reviewers of the French text have noted, the mystification of Phantom Africa within Anglophone anthropology has much to do with its formalist reception as “surrealism” on the one hand, or Leiris’s tendentious (at best) relationship with colonialism on the other. The first of these claims can be traced to James Clifford’s “ethnographic surrealism” through some strands of recent literary anthropology. For Clifford, surrealism was a textual practice of giving form to unmediated juxtapositions of the familiar and the strange; that is, unsettling the real as soon as it became familiar. Collapsing the distinction between reality and a realism, Clifford describes a “strategy,” in which “the possibility of comparison exists in unmediated tension with sheer incongruity…repeatedly produced, and smoothed over, in the process of ethnographic comprehension.” (1988) The surrealism of Leiris’s youth was something else entirely. It abided no such dualisms, no privileged place between systems from which to criticize reality. If it attended to the making of texts, it did not make the moment of inscription into a universal sign of social life – rather, surrealism was to be a form of life taken up in the most mundane activities as much as in artistic practices, but without confusing one for the other. Its collages of images aimed at an underlying unity, at the whole of the world we shared, within which different relations might come into conflict (e.g. differing claims on the real or on the fantastic), but not contradictions posed at one level that could resolve into a unity at another level. It was neither avant-garde, nor post-structuralism avant la lettre, but instead a reaction to the forms of negation made explicit in Dadaism, which positioned the critique of bourgeois culture as if from a position radically outside. For the surrealists, the bourgeois mind was something to be turned inside out.

Michael Richardson (1993; see also Jamin 1982; 1989) has surveyed these objections with great clarity, and has suggested an interpretation that does much to give us a direction forward – to think of surrealism as “a scientific critique of art and, at the same time, an artistic critique of science…essentially, a poetics.” To return to the language of the movement’s early founders, the critical position lies alongside, neither wholly within art nor within science. It is this being alongside, moreover, which I have tried to think through the language of companionship. The poet and the ethnographer appear in Phantom Africa deeply entangled, but never simply the same. They share a world, and inspire in one another shifting intensities of allegiance and alienation, repugnance and excitement. Certainly, the ethnographer and the poet are not placed within ready-made systems, bounded and whole in themselves, but companionship is premised on the capacity for separation, as much as for affinity. While produced texts of literature and of ethnography, they are as much mutually informed as they are distinct. And that distinction exceeds their form of presentation.

What does companionship look like concretely, if it is not merely an assault on the normativity of the real? At the outset of his trip in 1931, Leiris writes a letter in which he describes looking over the ship’s bow to catch a promised glimpse of Tenerife peak. “When I do this, I know that I am not an actor in a play and the character of “voyager” is not merely a role for me, but the only character I can be in all sincerity.” He writes that he no longer feels ashamed, as he had felt about his former “literary character” in Paris. “I am having a better time with my present companions because making an abstraction naturally out of any goal that seems ‘scientific,’ our existence is more sincere.” It is not the scientific activity itself which is of interest to Leiris, but what it makes possible. Much happens alongside the labour that looks like data collection and recording. Endeavouring after ethnography lies in service of the critique of literature. By the same token, the discovery of a truer poetry leaves him somewhat disdainful of ethnography. He writes, on June 11,

I am still rather disappointed with regard to ethnographic activity; I am constantly sorry …never to be able to talk about more human topics. I would very much like to study children’s games…In short, in order to describe my state of mind, I have to tell you that something unexpected has happened; it is no longer ethnography that interests me, but the voyage itself and the displacement. I no longer have the least affection for any of my companions…I feel at once immensely sad and immensely happy, because it seems that I have come to touch the bottom of something…that I have become truer.

For its failings, fieldwork has lead Leiris to the bedrock of bourgeois scientific activity at which point his spade is turned. But this is not a moment in which a tension is resolved. Rather it has led him to a point at which there is nothing else to do but wait for experience to carry him along. In fleeting moments, shifting stakes are crystallized in new configurations, especially as the tensions between institutional research projects and life alongside it, become more difficult to sustain. In July, after a visit to the village Kandyaora, Leiris relays a dream, in which two very different stakes in the field are articulated by the subconscious: “one of my fears was realized…that I really am starting to go bald. It shows up with the appearance of a bare spot on the right side of my skull, just in front of the occiput; examined up close, it turns out to be sandy and pebbly, with a little hollow I can scratch with my index finger the way I would scrape away at some excavation site, and whose elongated shape reminds me of a sarcophagus…the other night, in his fevered state, Griaule dreamed that he had to bring lions back to the museum.” There is no threshold point, no between the world out there and the one in his skull, in the way that there is for Griaule, who travels to and from worlds, carrying artefacts that might prove ultimately too dangerous or costly. Ethnography begins to feel interrogative, Leiris complains – bureaucratic, matter of fact, even extractive. In a letter dated September 1932, he confesses,


I am still overwhelmed by it all, and in an almost complete state of isolation with respect to my companions, who can’t stop mocking me for the enthusiasm with which I have given myself over to this investigation. I must say that for me, in fact, it is no longer a matter of an “investigation” but a sort of “life”…all of this also makes me pessimistic in a general sense, too. I no longer think that there is much good in the world, and everything good I see, even in this business with the zar[2], is hardly more than a product of my imagination. The terrible thing about magic is that it doesn’t succeed…because that moment is the end of it all, and the point at which no one is obliged to say “no,” because it’s the point where deception begins and where the door to exploitation is opened…one comes quickly to the realization that no form of civilization, in itself, is worth more than any other.

Leiris never stands between; he is pulled along as life unfolds, entangled, full of fantasy, worry, attraction, dissolution. He never becomes his companion, though he is drawn into his promise, though he partakes of his fieldwork, is alternatively bored, enraged and excited. The textual works he ultimately produces are unified in their emerging from this surreal “sort of life” alongside one another. But they are also not exhaustive of that life.

Away, Ethnography: Or, How to Find Literature

In the same way, Phantom Africa has much to say about the form ethnographic attention to literature might take. How might our approach change if we thought of ethnographic engagement with literature as abiding alongside it, rather than either imposing it as a category qua corollary, or by appeal to local use in literary “worlds”? Throughout his diaries, there are moments of excitement at the discovery of poetry adjacent to the direct object of his research. For example, Leiris becomes fascinated by childhood, after an encounter with a bilakoro chief who explains initiations into a children’s religious society (ntoumou). Griaule asks the group’s interpreter Mamavoud Vad to sing circumcision songs he remembers as part of their researches, and which inspire Leiris to carry out a collaboration with Mamavoud Vad on the figure of the child. But here is Leiris on August 11, on the poetry of Mamavoud Vad:

He is…a sort of poet who is never tedious, and whose tendency to petty thievery…is completely forgotten…what gives me moral comfort…is that it is truly impossible to meet people this outlandish in the metropole. Imagine, for example, that you were living in the same situation as Grock in his traveling-clown act; that will give you an idea of the interactions with Baba Keyta, who has as much the air of a Negro as of an English ‘ministrel’ or of an old French vagabond with the head of a hairy coalman…people like this, while they are comical, are at the same time deeply moving, because they possess true candor; true fantasy – in sum, that poetry I’ve always sought.

Andrew Apter’s (2005) recent reinterpretation of the debates within Africanist literature surrounding the Griaule mission, and its pursuit of esoteric language and “deep knowledge” is helpful in illuminating the connection between Leiris’s ethnographic projects and literature. Apter reads Leiris’s notion of Dogon performativity as both indebted to Graiule’s parole claire and to a tacit indictment of his politics. In Dogon language, Leiris uncovered a system of context-dependent utterances that relied not on a complexity of grammatical rules or vocabulary (a fraction of that used in normal public language, Dogo so) for their variable functions, but on “broad and brief,” emplaced and indirect allusions. These features of sigi ritual language (which required initiation into the male elder Society of Masks, awa), in particular its reliance on improvised speech, situated multiple meanings, its use of body-oriented indexicals, made interpretation and translation of its texts, often cosmogonies, especially complex. Their paradigmatic vacuity (ibid.) meant that texts could never be reviewed with interlocutors, only produced anew. They relied, to put it another way, on a symbolic poetics. While the barrier to entry was considerable (not least because of its fiscal demands), initiation began in one sense with circumcision, and increased as one learned to “hear” the voice of Awa. Apter argues that Griaule continued to operate under the assumption that such performances were indicative of mythological Ur-texts, but that it was Leiris who recognized their inherent heterogeneity. That some performative texts appear in contradiction is in their nature.

We might read Leiris’s multiple invocations of “poetry” in the passages I have cited again. The poetry of Dogon performance could not have been read as such merely from the perspective of the European literary canon (or else we might slip into Griaule’s imposition of categories), nor from local usage of a corollary (especially given the esoteric nature of ritual speech). This is how Apter summarizes Leiris’s picture of sigi language

Located at the sides and margins of the social body, these “words” have a subversive and destabilizing force… the valence that sunders and takes apart in order to remake and recombine anew… In sociopolitical terms, such deep knowledge aligns with dominant sociopolitical cleavages, emphasizing the separation and division of power competition over the administrative unity of the political body as a whole, be it the household, ward, village or district. The secret of deep knowledge in these oppositional contexts is not found in a hidden doctrine for the privileged few, but in its paradigmatic negation of the status quo associated with the relevant political authority. (120)

Seen from this angle, Leiris’s attraction to poetry of this kind is no surprise. It is in part a reflection of the attitude he’d gone to the field in search of, but it is also legible to him as such only because of his position alongside. This too is why both Griaule and his critics are unable to recognize poetry for what it is – the concepts (of literature, and ethnography but also ritual) that give form to their experiences are not open to critique in the same way. They can abide only disagreements in terms, but not deeper structures.

The Reality of Colonialism

Throughout this essay, colonialism has shadowed the problem of anthropology’s relationship with literature. And one is indeed struck at times, reading Phantom Africa, by the forms of Leiris’s coloniality. Two sets of episodes are particularly disturbing: the Mission’s unabashed robbery of kono fetishes, Dogon statuettes, and Gondar church paintings, and Leiris’s lecherous obsession with a cult adept in Gondor named Emawayish, and his regret for having not slept with her despite his realization that he does not love her (see also Anderson 1998). In the case of the former, there are moments of seeming repentance – for example in early 1932, when Leiris becomes disgusted by colonialisms use of aid to “soften up” people so that they might pay taxes, or his repeated assertion that it is only arrogance that sets up some civilizations over others. He often laments Griaule’s extractive methods, and later in life suggested that his experiences with the Mission were transformative, giving birth to a new political consciousness – while confessing he was not yet rid of the old one at the time of writing Phantom Africa. The latter case, as Debaene and others have articulated, belies Leiris’ notion that a sexualized communion with the other exceeds any scientific knowledge. He writes in the summer of 1932, “I would rather have carnal knowledge of a ‘zarine’ than know her ins and outs scientifically. Abstract knowledge will never be anything for me but a last resort.”

We feel, perhaps, when reading Phantom Africa that we are being reminded of anthropology’s depraved, imperial roots – and we are eager to exorcise them from our contemporary practices. And indeed, so it is. But the book is also a reminder that anthropological knowledge’s implication in a logic of colonial enterprise, its embeddedness within structures of oppression, continues to haunt our work. Leiris offers us a way of thinking about fieldwork that goes beyond its uses for authorizing of our own creative projects, or as occupying a privileged position as universal interpreter from which to absorb other forms of knowledge. A commitment to companionship, to a picture of ethnography as residing alongside literature, among other things, might help to complicate our convictions, not about reality itself, but about the ways we make claims on it.


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  1. [1]Recently, anthropologists have also drawn on a philosophical conception of literature’s place in literate societies – as binding readers together and thereby “guarantee[ing] peace] – in order to understand, by analogy, the circulation of witchcraft accusations in places like East Java and Zandeland, where both attempt to name the unnameable (Siegel 2005).
  2. [2]This is a reference to the Gondor zar cult but layered with personal disaffections; Griaule had asked to film a re-enactment of a sacrifice to a zar called Abba Moras Worqie, since only Leiris had seen it, but Leiris became jealous that other Europeans would be able to watch one of the adepts, Emawayish, whom Leiris had been attracted to, perform the gourri rite. Leiris instead orchestrated a sacrifice to Rahielo, who was a zar known to possess Emawayish’s mother Malkam Ayyahou, who in turn, to his mind, was anyway “more prepared to make a spectacle of herself than her daughter.” (21 September, 1932)

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