You dig? (some thoughts on participation)

In my next-to-last post, I ended up putting a certain amount of emphasis on the way blogging opens up a space for the writer to develop an individual voice — indeed, this is the reason the unique freedom of the personal blog actually matters. It is not (or not always) only the freedom to make an ass of oneself in public; it can also be the freedom to become who you really are.

Well, that’s the dream. In truth, not too many people actually use the medium that way. But I should have given you an example of someone who does. So check out Elizabeth Newton’s blog, musicalwork. Elizabeth (who used to be a master’s student at IU and is now finishing a Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC) wrote an outstanding interview/profile of me and my book Dig a couple of years ago. She’s always been a good writer, but if you scroll through her back pages you can see how the personal voice and POV she’s cultivated has matured and strengthened over the last few years. Most recently, she wrote a piece for The New Inquiry on digging — both digging in the sense of digging through the archives of jazz history and digging in the hipster, “can you dig it” sense of digging.

She quotes a line from my book: “Digging isn’t just liking, it’s about getting involved.” Getting involved means participation. Elizabeth is writing about the participation (or lack thereof) of women in jazz history, from which point of view getting involved means two things: belonging and doing.

You notice that you need both terms, belonging and doing, when you think of “participation” in contexts where one or the other is missing. In my own life, I think of the Canadian “Participaction” national fitness program (something like the President’s Challenge in the U.S.), which I dreaded every year when I was a kid. I was that lone fat kid lumbering slowly around the track after all the others had gone inside. I learned to loathe the word “participation,” which to me meant doing activities in a context to which I did not have the slightest sense of belonging. The forced and therefore hollow sense of this “participation” was somehow symbolized by the little pins that were given to the kids who couldn’t manage a chin-up.*

“Well, you tried.”

Conversely, it is possible to have belonging but not doing: you can belong to a society and not act. I have a neat story that illustrates that.

There’s a curious work of anthropology called In Sorcery’s Shadow, which is essentially an account of a Ph.D. dissertation gone wrong (or, depending on your point of view, gone surprisingly right). Its main author, Paul Stoller, did fieldwork in Niger from 1976 to 1984. His original ambition was to write about Songhay language and culture, but when a Songhay sorcerer saw some potential in him he became an actual, literal sorcerer’s apprentice. Everything went sideways, though, when Stoller was magically attacked by his enemies and had to flee Niger.

fucking crazy

is what you’re thinking

Those of you reading this while sitting comfortably at home, not being magically attacked, will think this sounds insane, but as I have said many times, explanation is not experience, and being magically attacked was Stoller’s actual experience. And it left him with a problem: how do you maintain the scholar’s customary stance of objectivity, and the traditional anthropologist’s Star-Trekish prime directive of non-involvement, when that ship has so clearly sailed and you find yourself with eight years’ fieldwork whose main outcome is a decidedly personal, subjective, and involved experience of magic? Stoller ended up writing something more like a creative-nonfiction memoir than a traditional ethnography, and according to my anthro friend Suzanne, this book caused a lot of people in the discipline to scratch their heads and ask the same question I did a couple of posts back: is this anything?

But leaving aside the interesting question of what kind of intellectual work In Sorcery’s Shadow represents, I want to focus on the story that Stoller tells in the first part of the book. At first, he wants to find out about the Songhay’s language attitudes and writes a survey to give to the people who live in the village where he’s settled. The people in the village tell him lies, and he can’t figure out where he went wrong. When he asks an Islamic cleric for advice, he is told,

“Monsieur Paul, you will never learn about us if you go into people’s compounds, ask personal questions, and write down the answers. Even if you were to remain here one year, or two years, and ask us questions in this manner, we would still lie to you.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“You must learn to sit with people, Monsieur Paul. You must learn to sit and listen. You must learn the meaning of the Songhay adage: One kills something thin in appearance only to discover that inside it is fat.” [In Sorcery’s Shadow, 11.]

But as he continues to enact the social-science protocol of the researcher who observes an alien society while adding nothing of himself to what is observed, he continues to meet with indifference. Worse than indifference: the local children start tormenting him.

Many of the little boys seemed to sense my despondency and attempted to take advantage of it. In Mehanna and other Songhay towns there are swarms of troublesome children, mostly between the ages of three and five, who roam at will the village paths. The behavior of these children no doubt inspired the Songhay maxim about children: “Children are animals. They eat anything, they say anything, and they do anything.” While these children had impressed me as being surly from the beginning of my time in Mehanna, I noticed now, five months after my arrival, an escalation in their beastly behavior. Some of the little buggers would sneak into my compound before dawn, creep up to my bed and pull my hair. Each time, I would claw my way out of the mosquito net, spring from my bed and scream at them. Then I would begin an oration in Songhay addressed to no one, decrying their uncivilized antics and cursing their negligent mothers. They would squeal in delight and then run away. I would not run after them. I suppose that my lack of aggressiveness encouraged them to continue to pester me. If only I could be like a Songhay warrior and catch one of them and slap some respect into him. But I did not dare, for I had already sensed the Songhay abhorrence of physical violence. The children continued to bait me, and I continued to restrain myself.

But one cool afternoon … I crossed an invisible social threshold. On that day a young child threw a good-sized rock which hit me in the shoulder. On impact I lost as sense of my cultural self. I ran after the little brat and grabbed him…. Possessed by rage, I abandoned my lifelong moral training and slapped him on the face so rapidly that I lost count of the number of times I hit him. I felt triumphant. When I let go of the child, who ran away screaming, I noticed a group of men gathering around me. Some were elders; others were thickly built young adults who at the time reminded me of the beefy tackles of professional football teams. As they surrounded me, they seemed to suck up the air from my space. I had trouble catching my breath. One of the football players grabbed my upper arm.

“We wondered,” he said, “how long it would take you to understand.”

“Understand what?”

“We wondered how long it would take you to understand how Songhay deal with children.”

The football player laughed. So did the others.

“You mean?”

“You white people are as slow-witted as donkeys. The children will not bother you again.”

The old cleric who had previously given me such good advice broke through this circle of humanity.

“Monsieur Paul, you have listened, which is good. But now you have acted and have become a person in this village.” [ISS, 16-17.]

“You have acted and have become a person in this village.” A sage expression, this. “A lot to unpack,” as we academics like to say. Stoller couldn’t ask his questions and get real answers because he had not joined the society in which he lived, and he could not join this society and still play the role of “neutral observer.” Neutral ain’t neutral. What he could not see — because he was trained not to see it — was the peculiar subject-position of modernity itself, of which the academic “neutral observer” is the ideal type. It’s the notion that we can observe things without changing them; that we can observe without acting; that we can act without interacting with one another, which is what it means to act within life itself. Until he acted (whatever we might think of the action), Stoller was in the society but not of it; to put it in my earlier terms, he had belonging but not doing. He was not participating.

Just as a fish doesn’t know that it’s wet, we are so used to this subject position that it takes an extraordinary, fish-out-of-water experience (such as Stoller’s) to snap us out of our complacency and see it at all. But consider: a teacher in a large lecture hall stands up at the front of her class and starts talking as if she is (as Stoller says) addressing no-one in particular, just the abstract category of “students.” The students sit there and listen and act as if they aren’t exactly there, either. Because they aren’t. They’re physically there, but their subject-position is also of that abstract entity, “the student.” That’s how they’re being addressed, and that’s the mode of social existence that that address calls into being.** Nothing a politician says to us on TV is addressed to us as individuals, but only to us as members of a “public” or an “electorate.” As consumers of entertainment, nothing is “for us,” only for the category we are presumed to represent. You belong to a certain social category, but an abstract one within which you do not really act. And action, doing, is exactly what the Songhay villagers wanted from anyone who would live among them.

Participation, then, means “joining in” and also something more besides. To return to the line that prompted this whole train of thought — digging isn’t just liking, it’s about getting involved — that “more besides” is feeling a lived connection with whatever is dug. Let’s say it’s a Thelonious Monk record. The music is not simply another consumable item to be liked or disliked. It’s something that acts on your life. And your action is impelled in return. It is for you in a peculiarly immediate way, even if you never met Thelonious Monk.***

*Even borderline-fit kids got gold, silver, and bronze patches, which they were supposed to sew on their jean jackets. Some did, as I recall. But did the Participaction organizers imagine that anyone would proudly wear their Participaction pins? God, I wish someone had discovered irony in Sudbury back in the 1970s. I like to imagine some precocious Wes Anderson-type kid wearing his collection of ignominious pins and freakin’ the normies. Unfortunately, I was not that kid.

**This is what Louis Althusser meant by “interpellation.”

***That’s the idea, anyway. As with all aesthetic ideas, it’s easy to remain outside the transaction between the artwork and its audience and treat the whole thing as an elaborate game of make-believe. Well, maybe it is. But then there’s a lot more make-believe to daily life that we usually suppose. This train of thought brings us back to the idea that digging can be a mode somewhat in-between the stark binary options of believing in or not believing in God, gods, and spirits. Recall that Ramsey Dukes answered the question “do you really believe in spirits” by saying “no, but I really dig them!” This is participation as well: the question of whether spirits “really” exist is, as I have said before, rather beside the point in magical practice: you work with a spirit, you act, and your action supplies the sense of a lived connection. As Dukes likes to say, who cares if it’s real so long as it works. Again, participation looks a bit like a child’s game of make-believe. But I say that not to denigrate participation-enabled behaviors — quite the opposite. I think little kids are onto something.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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1 Response to You dig? (some thoughts on participation)

  1. JDJPlocher says:

    Awesome stuff (as usual).

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