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Space and Body Modification: Rebecca Popenoe’s Feeding Desire

August 3, 2012 by Fan

     (For summary and sample, view the book on Google Books here)


      Spatiality is the central concept in Popenoe’s ethnographic interpretations of Azawagh female-fattening practices, which I will refer to in the local term lebluh in the following passages. It allows her a systematic approach in the interpretation of the phenomenon. The limits of her understanding of this concept might serve as a departure point for further contemplation and theorization. 
      In the beginning of Chapter 7, The Exterior Spaces of Social Life, Popenoe observes that spatial organization is an important element connecting Azawagh individual to social life:

 “Lines … run from horizon through tent to body and outwards again … keeping the concerns of the most immediate bodily activity … aligned with the forces and order of the wider world” (Popenoe 2004:154).

It is salient in all aspects of Azawagh life, from east-facing burials to the direction of bed at home. It is also assumedly an element starkly different from her Western experiences: “People … asked me frequently in which direction America was … [but] I was never asked what my country looked like or how far away it was.” (ibid).
      She further generalizes the Western-native differences in spatial conception: “ Coming from a world where space is largely imagined in terms of grids and graphs, it took me some time to realize that space was … ordered … like a circle, with radii running out in all directions from the center.” (ibid)
       Popenoe then focuses on the gender opposition this spatial conception is associated with: “women constantly gravitate to and occupy the center, while men gravitate constantly outwards towards the wilder world” (ibid). The importance of this observation is crucial to entire book’s argument. It contrasts a “fattening” female body which is situated –in fact sits – at the center of domestic space with a lean male body which is moving outwards to engage economic activities such as herding and trade.
       In a single stroke, Popenoe puts her core puzzle of female body and Azawagh’s cosmological system (in its geometric representation), economic system and kinship system in one picture. While all those aspects are deliberated in details in separate chapters, this chapter on spatiality unifies the entire book into one system. In that sense, it is the central section of the book, just as spatiality is the central concept to understand Popenoe’s overall argument.
      Whether Popenoe herself is aware of the centrality of space to her argument is debatable. Her casual manner of writing suggests that she might have unwittingly demoted the topic of spatial organization to just one chapter among others, as if those other aspects of Azawagh life have equal weights with regard to her analysis: “The point I make here about the relationship between how space is inhabited and how the social world is experiences are not new.” (Popenoe 2004:159) The anthropologists quoted in her endnotes to this sentence are a loose bunch , from new Afrianist Réne Devisch to old-hand Comaroffs to the classic Michel Griaule (Popenoe 2004:205). However, Pierre Bourdieu is quoted in the main text: “the appropriation by the world of a body thus enabled to appropriate the world” (Popenoe 2004:155).
       Bourdieu, in fact, is Popenoe’s theoretical departure point. The above quote from his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) expresses in a highly concise way his philosophical animism that attempts to capture the dialectical relationships between the self and the world, subjectivity and objectivity, practice/agency and structure. Popenoe finds it necessary to rephrase Bourdieu’s text: “In other words, by being socialized in spaces … individuals absorb deep knowledge about the cultural categories …” (ibid). But Popenoe’s reinterpretation actually makes Bourdieu’s words more obscure. A simpler and more powerful rendition can be made as such: “Body is the microcosm of universe.”
       Bourdieu is known to have based his whole system of philosophy on Claude Levi-Strauss’ structuralism (Miller 2005:45) which is itself an extension of the Durkheim school of sociology (Miller 2005:60). Indeed, a quick review of the history of the French school reveals deep concerns about the connection between physical body and spatiality which is key to Popenoe’s argument.
       An earlier example appears in Robert Hertz’s monograph The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity (1909). In the monograph, Hertz, a student of Emile Durkheim, tries to establish the religious origin of a physiological phenomenon: the universal predilection for right hand – a project not unlike Popenoe’s. In the study, Hertz says:

“… in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside” (Hertz 2009:96)

Here Hertz associates the right with center/inside (and the sacred) and the left with periphery/outside (and the profane). In a separate quote, Hertz makes the gender connection to this classification of body and space:

 “How could man’s body, the microcosm, escape the law [of religious opposition of the sacred and the profane] which governs everything? Society and the whole universe have a side that is sacred, noble, and precious, and another which is profane and common: a male side, strong and active, and another, female, weak and passive; or, in two words, a right side and a left side?” (Hertz 2009:35, my emphasis).

Compare Popenoe’s project with Hertz’s, we see revealing similarities and contrasts as seen in the following table:






gender position

physical attributes


religiosity of the center


right hand dominance

concentric circle


male in the center






concentric circle


female in the center




      Let me first explain Hertz’s male-centric gender position which is only apparent if we associate the two quotes above with each other: in the first quote, he points out that the center of a community space is sacred (“where gods shine”); in the second quote, he associates this sacredness with male and his activeness, hence the male-center connection. This connection, in fact, becomes the central tool of analysis for Claude Levi-Strauss and his structuralism. Levi-Strauss uses extensive ethnographic examples to show that in a closed circular spatial arrangement of native villages, the central space is always exclusively male and public (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163).
      Clearly, while both describe space in its circular form, Hertz and Popenoe have different gender conceptions: for Hertz, men are in the center; for Popenoe, women are in the center. For Hertz, the center is associated god’s grace. For Popenoe, the center is associated with domesticity. How do we account for the differences?
       One important omission of Popenoe’s ethnography is a detailed comparison of the female fattening customs of Azawagh people with their neighbours, many of whom have similar traditions. While Popenoe attempts to explain the phenomenon in terms of the totality of Azawagh way of life, she fails to pinpoint its uniqueness – comparative methods are inevitable if this uniqueness is to be established.
        If I’m allowed to take over her project, with my knowledge of the French school of anthropology (with which Popenoe doesn’t demonstrate her familiarity either in the main text or in her endnotes and bibliography), I will utilize the aforementioned Popenoe-Hertz discrepancy and make such hypothesis: the nomadic way life shifts the sacred center to the remote Mecca. The entirety of the desert environment and tents in it, as opposed to Popenoe’s female-domestic-center proposal, belongs to the periphery to Mecca which is where the ultimate sacred and public space is. This requires a major reinterpretations of her ethnographic data which is beyond the scope of this short review.
      Popenoe’s lack of comparison is part of her shortcomings of particularist approach. As the Hertz text reveals, the circular arrangement is universal – they are not only prevalent in the desert but also prevalent in Europe throughout history. Popenoe’s assumption that the Western space is in grid form is based on her modern urban living experiences, which account for many other problems in the book. Nevertheless, she provides readers with interesting materials and departure points for further critique and contemplation, as this very review demonstrates.






Hertz, R.

  2009 [1909]. The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. New York:Paradigm Publishers.


Levi-Strauss, Claude

 1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


Miller, Daniel

  2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller, Duke University Press. 2005.pp. 1-50.


Popenoe, Rebecca

  2004. Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People. New York: Routledge.

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