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‘reading the world’ Category

  1. Charming Snobs: a Weekly Reading of The Spectator

    August 26, 2012 by Fan

           The Spectator magazine’s chatty style is surely enjoyable: its essays are still “essay” in a more or less Montaigne sense, as opposed to “essay” as understood by contemporary university careerists. That probably explains the magazine’s charm despite its consistent conservatism and occasional racism.

          Common sense prevails in John Bradley’s observation of Arab Spring and human rights: the slogan chanted in Tahrir Square was ‘bread, dignity and social justice’, and the greatest of these demands was bread. But psychedelic truth matters as well: Andrew Brown reports LSD and MDMA’s coming back in medical labs when psychiatry is seeking “empathogen”. The post-scientific optimism in the immediate aftermath of WWII re-emerges.

          But London’s arts scene is still (rightfully) drenched in the sentiments of WWI. Will Self’s turn-of-the-century new novel Umbrella is described as a modernist masterpiece comparable to Ulysses. BBC produces a new series based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End with the help of Tom Stoppard, who as a playwright unsurprisingly but erroneously thinks “it is through words we become fully human”. Glyndebourne’s #RavelDoubleBill proves otherwise: it’s through musical and visual stimulations we become human.

          Grieg’s conspicuous Piano Concerto is at the same time praised and panned, as its curious performance by a certain “honky-tonk” Winfred Atwell from Trinidad, “the first black person to have a Number One hit in the UK single chart”. Taki, in enjoying Switzerland’s snow-white countryside, keeps his distance from its multicultural cities. Toby Young, meanwhile, celebrates British nationalism’s revival during the Olympics, especially when it is expressed by Mo Farah, a British subject from Somalia.



  2. Weekly Reading of the Economist: Unifying Contrasts

    August 22, 2012 by Fan

          Makoko, the 150-year-old fishing community and slums around Nigeria’s Lagos, is going to be reclaimed by a modernizing government. The Economist, while seemingly sympathetic to the fate of its residents, approves the government’s action. Similar thing occurs in the outskirts of French cities when roma’s tent cities are cleared by the socialist government. The magazine cynically observers that the leftists are quiet about human costs this time. Rio’s Olympic dreams are now officially undergoings. How well could they do? Some interesting cultural observations: the Brazilians are sloppy public workers but good at parties; they are good at team sports while sloppy in individual sports.

           In Paul Ryan, the Economist sees an individual with big ideas, detailed planning, consistency, common sense and “athleticism” (why does it matter any way?). In the Chinese Olympic nationalism and in contemporary drinking cultures across the Islamic world, the magazine detects both irrationality and rationality, or ambiguity between engagement and detachment. Individuals are not individuals but dividuals after all, which can also be seen in the fact that human body is a colony of contrasting microbes. The unification of  human contrasts, however, is beautifully manifested in late Bernard Lovell who played church organ in his local parish for 40 years when he was not studying physics. Sir Bernard believed in the ultimate superiority of metaphysics:

         “I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue”

  3. 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.

  4. Michel Leiris’ Manhood as Misread by Susan Sontag

    July 27, 2012 by Fan

           On June 12, 1961, a cool early summer day in Paris, a 28-year-old Susan Sontag jotted down in her diary a list of books she intended to buy:

    Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme
    George Bataille, L’érotisme
    Robert Michels, Sexual Ethics
    Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man
    Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity
    Brooks Adams, The Theory of Social Revolutions
    Jean Wahl, Défense et élargissement de la philosophie
    Le recours aux poètes : Claudel
    L’ouvrage posthume de Husserl : La Krisis
    R. Caillois, Art poétique

          The first entry, Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme was crossed out, presumably after she bought it on a later day. It’s not known if she bought or read other books. Nevertheless, this list presents a coherent intellectual milieu enwrapping Sontag (and Paris) at the moment. Robert Michel, who wrote about sexuality, is also the founding father of moderation theory that leads to Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. Thomas Torrance is a Protestant theologian paying attention to the relationship between science and theology. Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack tried to trace the essence of Christianity beyond the Roman world to the Greek world. Brooks Adams is a radical American critic of capitalism while Claudel is a conservative French poet with a penchant for ritual sacrifices. Wahl and Husserl are earlier existentialists from France and Germany respectively. George Bataille, Roger Caillois and Michael Leiris are all Surrealist artists associated with Marcel Mauss with different tendencies: Bataille focused on eroticism’s universal transcendence; Caillois, the founding father of gaming theory, tried to lead Surrealism out of narcissism to “play”, performance, and communal solidarity; Michel Leiris, the only full-time ethnographer in the group, experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.
           Most of those writers flourished between the two World Wars, or, between the tragic aftermath and the looming uncertainty. This was a time when the familiar suddenly looked strange. The expansion of the colonial empire with its bureaucratic machinery and the influx of immigrants, especially those from Africa, on the other hand, made the strange and the exotic familiar.
          Another expatriate American, Ernest Hemingway, captured a total Parisian excitement at this particular moment in his little book A Moveable Feast. Sontag’s book list, written down some 40 year later, appears to be more fragmented – or may I say, “postmodern”. Nonetheless, a set of related key words or phrases can be dug out: Christianity; antiquity; poetics; self and others; mythology, ritual and ethnography; existentialism; aesthetics; Surrealism; eroticism; social reform.
          If I, as an outsider, take ethnographic liberty to speculate on things that might appear to be random and unrelated for those from inside, the concerns of those authors and books as a whole can be delineated into five threads: (I) an intention to trace modern European life to antiquity via Christianity – this is the temporal and self-contained line of inquiry; (II) a desire to expand outside the West – this is a spatial line of inquiry going beyond the self-constraint to the territories of others; (III) an tension between scientific objectivity and aesthetic subjectivity; (IV) a dynamic process from intellectual endeavours to socio-political engagement, and vice versa; (V) the interplay between the individual self/personhood and the world/worldview.
          Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme is the only entry Sontag crossed out in her diary. From her review of the book published three years later in the New York Review of Books when its English translation (with the amusing title of Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility) first appeared in the US, she didn’t appear to have read other books on the list. In any case, she didn’t incorporate any of the five threads listed above into her analysis. Her reading is entirely rooted in her very own milieu, America in the 1960s. However, Sontag’s indifference to history is probably exactly what Leiris’s book is really about – it also explains why my assumed review of Michel Leiris’ book begins not with Leiris but Sontag.
          Let me outline (and sample) the actual contents of L’Age d’Homme, or as it will be called in the following pages, Manhood.
           Manhood is Leiris’ autobiography which he began to write in 1930 when he was 34. Quickly skimming through the book, a casual reader might well be puzzled and annoyed by torrents of trivial and banal details about Leiris’ rather uninteresting personhood and life.
          He opens the book by telling us about his unattractive appearances: average height, receding hair, big and protruding head that makes him look like a ram, small and hairy hands, legs disproportionally short, and hunched back. Sexually he is not abnormal – just cold and impotent and “not endowed”. He dislikes babies because “the diapers smeared with excrement”. Death intrigues him a lot more than life since his childhood. In fact, suicide fascinates him. The book is an inventory of his timidity, failures, boredom, lurid behaviours and physical injuries he suffered. But there are moments of absurd hilarity: when a 7-year-old Leiris accidentally cut himself, his panicking mother tripped herself in the living room and was unable to get up. His father was out-of-town and his bed-ridden uncle could do nothing but looking at the boy’s blood flowing on the floor while the boy himself was meditating with a certain coolness his own imminent death. There are also moments sacred profanity – or profane sacredness – such as when Leiris tells us that:

    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating”

          Back to Paris from ancient Greek ruins, he tried celibacy in an asexual arrangement of ménage à trois, experimenting existential boredom by wandering around Parisian streets purposelessly with two friends (or rather comrades). But he finally was intrigued by a young woman named Kay. After a three-year relationship, Leiris decides that Kay is emotionally fake (not unlike Swann’s wife Odette in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). More sexual misadventures, a fascination with the onset of Parisian black culture and Jazz music, and his psychoanalysts’ advice that he need to “get away from civilization” in order to cure his impotence, encourage him to join the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an  ethnographic mission to the heart of Africa under the leadership of Marcel Griaule from 1924 to 1929. Upon return, however, Leiris discovers that Africa and Paris are one and the same. The only way to escape trivial follies, he declares in the end of the book, is to subject himself either to dream or to ultimate emptiness – death.
          Leiris’ story is not told in chronological fashion. Rather than a linear narrative of a life story, Manhood is a set of montage or collage. For already offended readers who were expecting a good (and morally uplifting) story, this is like adding salt to injury: bad contents badly written. For people who are willing to take a second or a third look at the text, however, the organization of the autobiography could be viewed as an intention to elevate trivial profanities of individual experiences to the height of sacred mythology. In fact, Leiris’ disappointing personhood and life are classically embedded in a system of cultural references. Leris and his milieu hold a belief that, as James Clifford points out, “… beneath the dual veneer of the real [there is] the possibility of another more miraculous world based on radically different principles of classifications and orders”. It’s this underlying set of classification and orders that turns autobiography’s banal details – indeed autobiographic writing itself – into a ritual performance, a rite of passage.
           Leiris delineates the life-cycle themes in Prologue when he put his trivialities under headings such as “Old Age and Death”, “Supernature”, “Infinity”, “The Soul”, and “Subject and Object”. The following chapter is entitled “Tragic Themes” in which he relates Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Tales of Hoffman: he was able to connect, through his childhood memories, themes of Christian devotion (in Wagner’s case), pagan knowledge (in Goethe’s case) and vision and knowledge induced by intoxication (Hoffman’s tales are generated by binge drinking). The next chapter about Hellenic femininity manages to end with a section called “Brothels and Museums” – in other words, Leiris sees that the sacred and the profane are one and the same in pagan civilization (remember his seminal “offering” on Olympus?). But the subsequent chapters are entitled with Biblical heroines: Lucrece, Judith. However, the fascination with the sacred femininity is always accompanied by unfortunate incidents proving to Leiris that he is nothing but “the head of Holofernes’. He left for Africa, only to find the same gender antagonism.
          The biblical scale Leiris imposes on his trivial autobiography in this short book creates a certain ambiguity. This ambiguity is the entry point for future readers who intend to look beneath the surface. In fact, Leiris himself took advantage of this ambiguity to reframe the meaning of the book in 1940s. During that period, he was gradually more involved with Sartre’s political activism. In 1946, Leiris published what he considered to be the definite preface to the book, claiming the dark humours and “profound boredom” expressed in the book are actually not about Surrealist aesthetics but an inquiry into authenticity – the writing itself was a ritual performance of selfhood necessary in connecting the personal to political praxis. The book is thus a political statement renouncing Bataille’s aesthetic approach in favour of Sartre’s communalism. The autobiography, along with all its talk about suicide, is thus a ritual suicide of selfish selfhood.
          Those are not the impressions Susan Sontag got from the book: she considers it an exercise in anti-literature by clinically documenting the author’s mental aberration. Revealingly, she points out that the book’s English translation suddenly appears in the US in the early 1960s, the age of anti-hero. The book immediately became a bestseller despite the fact the unknown French author (even to the educated Americans) was not introduced in the translation. In the company of contemporary American writers such as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, the shamelessness is all Sontag could see in Leiris.
          My reading of Manhood is neither the same as Leiris’ early Surrealist nor late Sartre-influenced interpretations. I also find Sontag’s interpretation crude and uninspired. In any case, it’s sufficient to say here that I have respect for any of those interpretations.
           The book, as the Michel Leiris intended, is a recreation of mythology. Mythology, as Claude Levi-Strauss contended, functions on different levels and intends to evoke multitudes of reactions. The writing of the book – and by extension, the reading of the book – is a ritual performance of a mythological text. A particular individual at a particular moment in a particular place gets his or her particular meaning. To fully grasp the gravity of this very trivial text, one needs to go back all the way to the five threads mentioned early, and it requires a major treatment.


    Michel Leiris as an ethnographer of Dogon culture: