EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet
Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012
Sonic beings? The ontologies of musical agency
Date and Start Time 11 Jul, 2012 at 11:30
This panel brings together ethnographic accounts of "human" and "nonhuman" interactions in sonic constructions such as music. The aim is to compare different ontologies of the sound realm, and see whether it can host particular forms of agency, which are not encountered otherwise.
Anthropologists know well that music is an efficient ingredient in various kinds of interactions. It has been described as an enhancer of emotions, of specific forms of consciousness, of social and personal identities. Its presence is also mandatory in many rituals around the world. Social sciences usually assume that this efficiency is merely a transformation of human agencies. In this view, music is just another way for humans to relate, ultimately, to each other. However, practitioners and audiences often have different accounts.
Their musical experiences seem populated by "human" but also "nonhuman" entities: gods, spirits, animals, and a range of other sonic characters whose ontological status is uncertain, but which seem, at times, to have an agency of their own. In this view, music is not just a human business but an environment which allows interactions between different layers of reality and different kinds of beings.
What are the ontologies of sound underlying these interactions? Are there, for example, social agents which can only be encountered in sound? Can music host relations which would be impossible otherwise? General frameworks have been proposed to rethink agency beyond divides such as "nature-culture" or "human-nonhuman" (Gell, Latour, Descola, Viveiros de Castro). Can these paradigms account for musical interactions?
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.
Sonic beings? Introduction
The panel convenors evoke some intersections between empirical data gathered through their own fieldworks (in Amerindian and respectively European societies), and recent anthropological theories of ontology and agency.
Among many societies, on different continents, musical or formalised speech performances build up specific sonic constructs. The latter often retain or receive forms of agency which set them clearly apart from daily sounds and from "normal" speech. These processes may come into play when "art" music is being listened to in an intense way, as well as when non-human beings are contacted, and/or performed in a ritual. Sometimes, sound is the only 'voice' of such non-humans. To which extent can sonic manifestations be regarded as existential for these beings? The panel convenors will present some questions, intersecting recent anthropological theories with empirical data gathered through their own fieldworks (in Amerindian and respectively European societies).
Sonic strategies of trans-specific communication within Pemón multiverse (Gran Sabana/Venezuela)
The focus is on sound interaction between humans and non-humans within Pemón multiverse. The multiverse will therefore be considered as well as the process of transformation of new appropriated agencies such as„Christian spirits“. All examples serve to discuss Amerindian perspectivism.
The lecture refers to trans-specific communication within Pemón multiverse. The Pemón Amerindian Carib language group consists of the Arekuná, Kamarakoto and Taurepán people located on the borders between Venezuela, Guayana, and Brazil.
Trans-specific communication between humans through non-humans (animal/plants/spirits) is mostly characterized through sound interactions such as singing, chanting, dancing/sound production with dance skirts, use of musical instruments and so on. Firstly the different areas of the Pemón multiverse will be introduced as well as all kinds of sound production to attract specific agents. Therefor examples of the performance of the magic formulas tarén will be used, as well as some examples of marik (shaman songs, esp. for interaction with plant spirits) and parishara (hunter songs).
Secondly the transformation of ontologies will be shown. The example of the areruya ritual demonstrates strategies for contacting a new agency ("God" and his "Christian spirits/messengers") with known sound structures and its relativation through emotion management guided by the ritual leader, ipukenak.
The results will be contextualized in the discussions about animism and perspectivism.
Especially for the concept of Pemón perspectivism (applied from Viveiros de Castro) can be noticed that the difference of "seeing the worlds" is connected through the similarity of "hearing them".
Becoming porous: the orchestration of subjectivity in Urarina shamanic song
This paper offers an analysis of the interactions between shamans and spirits established in improvised ritual songs performed by the Amazonian Urarina. The apparently dialogical and intersubjective character of the songs is interpreted in terms of ontological resonance.
This paper offers an analysis of a genre of improvised ritual songs performed by the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia, known as coaairi baauno. Comprising a densely textured mosaic of visual imagery together with formulaic expressions that emphasise the displacement of intentionality from the site of utterance, these are performed during shamanic ceremonies for a variety of aims, ranging from healing the ill, to replenishing the supply of game animals in the forest, to postponing the imminent apocalypse. Particular attention is paid to the complex interactions established and expressed in the songs between the shaman and the spirit 'Mother' or 'Owner' of the psychotropic plant he has recently consumed. Although the songs appear dialogical in nature, alternately enunciated from these two distinct perspectives - one human, the other non-human - I argue that this does not necessarily amount to an oscillation of subject positions, as some have suggested. Drawing on Peter Sloterdijk's phenomenology of co-presence, I propose that intimate but asymmetrical relationships such as these are better characterised as a form of ontological resonance, which facilitates the establishment of a higher or more 'dual' form of subjectivity than that pertaining to everyday experience. The argument finds corroboration from other domains of Urarina praxis, ranging from pet-keeping to infant care.
Healing and playing with non-human entities through Andean musical instruments
I will examine the relationships with non-human entities through the ethnography of the vernacular uses and conceptions related to two indigenous musical instruments of the Quechua people of the Northern Peruvian Andes.
In this paper, I will propose an example of two different types of relationships an Amerindian ethnic group of the Andes hold with non-human entities that inhabit their cosmological world and imagined environment. Through recent fieldwork and ongoing ethnography about the vernacular uses and native conceptions related to songs and musical instruments (an aerophone and an idiophone), I try to detect different approaches to non-human agents dealing with different purposes. While the idiophone (a maraca used during healing rituals to accompany songs) is used to contact the "spirits" that inhabit hills or lakes in order to help curing a patient's illness; the melody played with the aerophone (a particularly morphological traverse flute played only by women) is said to be heard from the mountain spirits. The region in which fieldwork has been conducted is the territory of the Quechua people of the Northern Peruvian Andes usually called "Cañaris" (the highlands and foothills of the province of Ferreñafe, department of Lambayeque).
Ichi on Jo´butsu: seeking the Buddha through a single tone
This paper examines the ontological status of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) within the contemporary shakuhachi community in Japan and overseas. While uncertainty and disquiet are part of the learning process, sonic practices connect players to each other and to an imagined past.
The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute made from bamboo. The shakuhachi became popular in Japan during the 13th century when it was associated with a Buddhist sect called Fuke. Replacing sutra chanting with sui zen (blowing zen), the sect went on to attract samurai who joined the itinerant preachers and became known as komuso (priests of emptiness). Wearing large baskets over their heads to symbolise their detachment from the world, the aim of the komuso was to obtain enlightenment through a single tone, ichi on jo´butsu. While the komouso have all but disappeared, what remains is an ensemble of traditional pieces called honkyoku. Recently, the shakuhachi has gone through a renaissance period with individuals learning and teaching honkyoku pieces around the globe. But what remains of the original concepts and how has this been reinvented in the contemporary era? This paper seeks to examine the ontological status of honkyoku pieces within the contemporary shakuhachi community both in Japan and overseas, drawing on fieldwork at lessons and international/national gatherings. Uncertainty and disquiet are at the heart of many novices experiences, given the contradiction between the sparse sonic qualities of honkyoku with the very difficult techniques required to play the instrument. Blowing Zen, however, places students and teachers in various relationships; to each other, to a broader community and to a body of knowledge that connects them to the past. It is this relationship that enables a specific form of agency, that is both individualistic and reproductive.
Healing powers of Koranic recitation: roqya revival in the context of modernity
Quranic recitation for healing purposes (roqya) has experienced a recent revival in both Muslim countries and Europe, through Koranic healers or Koranic reproduction in new audio formats. The case allows us to observe the effect of the voice and recited text over the bodies of the possessed and the geniuses who own them.
The roqya is a technique of Koranic recitation that some Muslims use for healing purposes and the resolution of distress attributed to various causes (evil eye, magic, or the action of genius or jnun).
This technique dates back to the times of Prophet Muhammad, but we can say that there is a revival of the same from the 1980's both in Muslim countries and among Muslims living in Europe. From my fieldwork on these rituals in Barcelona and northern Morocco, I will present some key aspects of the mechanisms that allow the human voice exert effect on the bodies of the sick and possessed.
In the ritual, healers and patients enter into communication with non-humans, in particular, with the jnun, which react to various techniques focusing on the senses (hearing, smell, touch). The novelty of recent years is that new music playback media (CDs, mp3, etc.) are also being used by Muslims to reproduce Koranic recitation, and apply it for healing purposes. Even the fqih-s may attend several cases at once using recorded roqya, or perform transnational exorcisms with a mobile phone.
On the one hand, we assist to the extension of roqya through the mass consume culture, but on the other, exorcisms are still in the hands of specialists who require an encounter with the patient to adapt the recitation to each specific situation.
'We help them to become humans': the meaning of sound and music among Krishna devotees
This paper will explore the complex meaning of music in the discourse and practice of Krishna devotees in Estonia. The paper will argue that Krishna devotees create forms of agency through music, which constitute specific forms of interactions between different realities and beings.
"Do you have any relationship with trees?" "No, we don't....or actually we do...but only through music." What happens if human sound touches those who are not yet or not anymore humans? What happens if human sound itself is no longer human? This paper will address the layered meaning of sound and music in the discourse and practise of Krishna devotees in Estonia.
In Hare Krishna discourse, the philosophy of reincarnation and the concept of the universe as layered into different realms of consciousness, questions the clear division between human/nonhuman worlds. I will explore how music hosts certain forms of agency to influence the interaction between these various realms and different kind of beings. I also explore how Krishna devotees can be seen as 'acoustic designers' that articulate a particular form of agency, which connects to a higher than mortal plane yet touches those who are still to become humans.
Through this discussion I will show that music can be seen as a medium or environment in which certain forms of agencies cause particular forms of interactions. As a result, I will highlight the dynamic nature of music, overturning the static, spatialised world which creates the subject-object divide and separates humans from the non-human world.
Sounding the invisible: a musical pantheon in Bastar, India.
This paper will first compare the natures and roles of music and alcohol in the specific context of ritual possession in Bastar and then show that the musical interpretation of the pantheon is the ultimate way to evaluate and to interpret the uncertain states of possession and drunkenness.
In Bastar (Middle India), ritual music allows -owing to well chosen aesthetic features- to diffuse sonic beings into space and time and to fill the environment with their energy and varying nature in order to invade, influence and transform some of its surrounding elements. In this paper, music will be compared with alcohol in a ritual context and presented as an ontological substance materializing the invisible world, as a transformative agent in a universe made of fluid and contagious elements organised in porous categories.
Like the pantheon it serves, music takes shape and is experienced in the very moment of the ritual which is made of continuous interactions between the musicians and the mediums possessed by deities: acting and reacting to the "play of the gods", the musicians play different tunes which presentify the numerous deities as sonic forms. The musical structure is all but fixed, on the contrary very flexible. The truthfulness of possession is never completely certain, constantly commented and discussed by the audience.
In spite of a law social status, by choosing all along the ritual the tunes and the way to play them, the leading musician play a main part in the musically-expressed-judgment of who is Who: who is really possessed by a god or who is only a pretender or actually a drunkard intoxicated by any ancestor. Indeed to interpret the musical repertoire means first to interpret the nature of possession (which sometimes includes drunkenness) in order to be able to interpret the pantheon.
The sound of satan: ambivalences of Heavy Metal in the highlands of Madagascar
Taking “satanic” practices and imaginations among Malagasy Heavy Metal fans and musicians as an ethnographic point of departure, the paper will argue that the anthropological study of popular music needs to be linked to “musical agency”, e.g. to aesthetic considerations, in order even to make social sense of certain forms of popular music.
Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar, hosts a considerable Heavy Metal scene. As elsewhere, evocations of Satan and satanic imageries form integral parts within practices surrounding Malagasy Heavy Metal. In a thoroughly Christian context such as Madagascar, however, in which the power of God is nothing to be questioned, "running with the devil" is an ambivalent practice.
In my paper, I want to look at the way in which Heavy Metal's Satanic imaginary is dealt with and reflected upon by musicians and fans in the highlands of Madagascar. Here, I will argue, relating to Satan does not follow the wish to make a religious statement, nor does Satan represent a symbolic device that is used for social or political self-positioning. Rather, the sound of Heavy Metal itself is conceived as being "satanic" in nature and thus forcing its listeners to somehow relate to the devil. How these relations become manifest, e.g. how the aesthetic experiences and their allegorical conceptualizations are translated into actual life and put into religious, social or political practice thereby remains to be asked.
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.