The Cultural Organization of Intercorporeality
The Cultural Organization of Intercorporeality
Interaction, Emotion, and the Senses among the Wolof of Northwestern Senegal
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter addresses the question of the universality of specific forms of intercorporeality. This detailed microethnographic study of a Wolof village in Northwestern Senegal describes how different senses—eye-gaze, hearing, and touch—are used in embodied interaction and how, in turn, participation in cultural interaction patterns shapes people’s senses. These patterns are notably different than they are in those Western societies about whose micro-interactions which we have reliable information. The chapter first analyzes the cooperative pounding of millet by four women, then, in the second part, examines in detail social interactions in which other intercorporeal resources than gaze, notably acoustic feedback signals and touch, are used to secure intersubjectivity. The third part shows how the experience and expression of emotions as well as basic cultural concepts such as the “person” are shaped by the specific Wolof forms of intercorporeality as they are lived in concrete interactional situations.
In this chapter, I analyze some practices of embodied interaction among the Wolof of Northwestern Senegal, in which the senses as well as emotions are involved. In Senegal, intercorporeality in interaction is organized differently than in other regions of the world. In particular, the senses are employed differently than in those (Western) societies that have been more amply described by interaction researchers so far. For example, touch and auditory practices of communication are employed more densely while (mutual) gaze is less crucial for the organization of interaction.
These cultural differences are mirrored in (and intergenerationally due to) differences in socialization practices. In Wolof society, infants and toddlers are carried on the back of their caregivers, which enables them to monitor the activities going on in front of, and facing, their carrier person. When sitting, they are positioned on the lap of their caregivers, looking away from them towards third parties rather than establishing a dyad with them (cf. Rabain 1979 for a full description). These practices not only create what Ochs (1991) has called a “sociocentric” (instead of an “egocentric”) type of caregiver-child interaction but they also involve constant body contact and a familiarity with this form of sensorial engagement with other persons. This distinct ordering of the senses in tactile and rhythmic-auditory engagements is also present in children’s rhythmic games, dance, work, and other realms of social life.
(p.144) Socialization into intercorporeal practices creates a familiarity with the animated environment allowing for fluid practices in a rich environment inhabited by responsive bodies. Living bodies are responsive to one another in a variety of ways, including visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic practices. Some of the mimetic and complementary ways in which culture forms and is formed by these embodied practices have been described and illustrated in Bateson and Mead’s (1942) groundbreaking work in regard to Bali. For the human person, the bodies of their fellow human beings are thus—to use Heidegger’s term—“ready-to-hand” as an environment, just like in turn ego’s own body is “ready-to-hand” for them. Being mutually “ready-to-hand” they become able to create and sustain intercorporeality. Being culturally shaped, intercorporeality can be understood to being based on a specific cultural “genius loci” (Strecker 2000) that involves typical forms of “resonance” with not only the environment but also other persons.
In the subsequent sections I will explore some of the forms of intercorporeality as they are lived everyday in the social world of the Wolof of Northwestern Senegal. Many of these forms are deeply embodied and thus part of what Husserl (1970) has once called “operative intentionality”:1 they are hidden from self-reflection and (high-level) intersubjectivity for most of the time, because they are the condition of possibility (to use the Kantian expression) of self-reflection and intersubjectivity. Accordingly, operative intentionality is inherent in human nature and social life and the embodied practices manifesting it constitute form-producing resources for the conduct of social life.
Intercorporeality in Work: The Example of Millet Pounding
The first example stems from a video recording of a typical work scene in the countryside of Senegal. Women are jointly pounding millet with their pestles in a big mortar.
To crush the millet grains, they have to beat them with a considerable downward momentum. The mortar, however, is only big enough to accommodate one pestle-end at a time; the women must take turns and inject their pestle into the shaft without getting stuck and breaking their tools. Astoundingly, the women are able to perform six beats per second for several minutes of pounding which creates an interval of only circa 165 milliseconds between two beats. The pounding order is clockwise: in our example, the woman to the left is followed by the woman in the back, then the woman to the right and the woman in front.
To coordinate, one of the women shouts a (subsequently modulated) “hey” synchronously with every second pestle beat. The result is a predictable, musical rhythm,2 coupled with fluid movements that have dance-like features (that is, that (p.145) are visibly, and elegantly, oriented towards the other moving bodies as well as to the rhythm itself). The rhythm establishes an intercorporeal “sound space,” allowing for the anticipation of movements, and the coordination of movements constitutes a form of kinesthetic intercorporeality that is mediated by the methodical, distributed operation of tools and in which tools are experienced as extensions of the body. Resulting rhythmical figures include syncopation, off-beat, and back-beat, and create particular sound spaces. Also note the children who are carried on women’s backs: they are being socialized into a distinct type of interkinesthetic intercorporeality, thus incorporating tacit embodied knowledge that concerns rhythm and movement patterns and will be part of their action resources from now on.
Scholars such as Luria and Merleau-Ponty have employed the metaphor of “kinesthetic melody” to grasp phenomena in which “individual impulses are synthesized and combined into integral kinesthetic structures or kinetic melodies” (Luria 1973, 176 quoted in Stuart 2012, 171). In this case, the anticipation and “understanding” of actions and the attribution of intentions to others are “not a process of thinking on my part, but a synchronizing change of my own existence, a transformation of my being” (Merleau-Ponty 1958, 183–184 quoted in Stuart 2012, 176). The progress of these types of embodied activity is guided by (p.146) “kinesthetic expectations” (Stuart 2012, 174), i.e., anticipations or projections of movement as they result from experiences made in the past and are sedimented in embodied knowledge. Husserl (1991) had called the mental anticipation of future events “protentions,” and—if thought of in an embodied and kinesthetic way—this concept is akin to Stuart’s idea. Kinesthetic expectations can be confirmed, as they usually are, but they can also be dashed. For example, the usually expected prosody of our “living-streaming sense-making” is “jarred and fragmented when we leave the walkway, or the next walkway we anticipate to be moving is not, or the escalator stops unexpectedly” (Stuart 2012, 174). In interkinesthetic intercorporeality (i.e., when we mutually align and adjust our kinesthetic expectations in the course of interaction), “the reciprocity and community of … synchronized co-modulation with other living-streaming, feeling bodies, and things … constitutes full-bodied pre-linguistic sense-making relations” (Stuart 2012, 176).
For the creation of interkinesthetic intercorporeality, the intertwinement of auditory and kinetic perception is crucial so that the participants are able to anticipate the activities of others and posit their own actions in the right temporal slot. In other words, the senses play a central role for the creation of intercorporeality, as visible in the previous milling example that can be viewed as an example of the “generic” features of intercorporeality in social interaction. As I will discuss in the next section, however, these generic features, including the practical usage and semantic conntation of the senses, vary cross-culturally.
The Senses in Wolof Interaction
Generic features of social doings often escape our ethnographic attention, since they are often “seen, but unnoticed” (Garfinkel 1967, 36). A field note from my research in Northwestern Senegal in 2004, in which I describe an experience of sensory discrepancy, illustrates this:
Ouly and I are walking through Louga. It is around 8 p.m. Like so often, there is a power blackout, and it is pitch dark. Suddenly, Ouly softly says something. At first I don’t understand what she wants. Then I realize that she has reacted to the greeting and remark of a young man on the other side of the street whom I hadn’t perceived. Both talk for a moment while we continue walking down the street.
I hardly understood the young man even though I walked on the street side, while Ouly walked on the side of the houses, so that I was actually closer to him than she was. I also noticed that Ouly did not turn, not even her head, in the direction of the young man while talking to him. She continued to look to the ground in front of herself, and only her voice and speech addressed the young man on the other side of the road. (May 4, 2004)
(p.147) While Ouly instantly perceived the young man’s greeting to be addressed to her, I did not even hear it acoustically, maybe because I would have expected a visual signal that would have drawn my attention towards him. Ethnographers have often experienced that they use their senses differently from those whom they study, that they focus their eyes and perhaps see differently, that their senses are differently shaped and sharpened, be it by environmental affordances or by cultural norms. As early as 1901, Franz Boas drew attention to remarks made by many travelers, namely that the senses of the people they encountered throughout the world are “remarkably well trained,” and that their “power of perception (…) is excellent” (Boas 1901, 6).
If it is true that the human sensorium varies cross-culturally, then, of course, we must ask how far the senses can be sharpened or weakened through enculturation and to which degree and in which instances people universally share a number of founding sensory, corporeal, and intercorporeal experiences. Do we all live in the same sensory world and culturally form our experiences only afterwards? Or are our senses to such a measure “cultural” that we perceive and select information differently right from the start? In other words: How is the human body—in regard to the senses—open to be formed by culture?
The Senses in Ethnographic Perspective
Even though ethnographers such as Boas have noticed the culturally variable organization of the senses—the phenomena did not gain their attention at first. However, some philosophers, such as Kant and Hegel for example, have distinguished between the higher and the lower senses—the higher ones being sight and hearing, the lower ones taste, smell, and touch (cf. Synnott 1991). In newer times, others have blamed an overly visual centrism of Western culture that began with Plato’s cave metaphor and generates specific mental models for knowledge and experiential processes. In doing so, it systematically excludes other worldviews based on different perceptions of the world (cf. Foucault 1973; Rorty 1979; Tyler 1984; Bataille 1928; Lacan 1978; and Serres 1985).
Media theorists such as Walter Ong (1967) and Marshall McLuhan (1962) on the other hand have claimed that only these visual models of knowledge—including abstract writing systems—permit rational, abstract, lineal, and logical thinking: The eye perceives neutrally from an external point of view while the ear is not able to distance itself from the world it perceives and to generate an objective and objectifying perspective.
Sociologists mostly have asked how the senses are restructured by larger processes of technologically induced social change. Georg Simmel ( 1993) already described the “intensification of nervous life” in urban centers, and Arnold Gehlen (1961) blamed the media for producing a continuous “sensory overload” of modern persons.
(p.148) The generalizing, normative, and teleological character of this debate made it difficult for ethnographers to identify cultural differences in the usage and meaning of the senses in an unprepossessed manner. As Classen (1997, 405) notes, “contemporary anthropologists have compensated for the sensory racism of many of their predecessors by downplaying or ignoring the role of the “lower” senses in non-Western cultures and highlighting the importance of audiovisual imagery or of desensualized conceptual systems.” Therefore, only recently a real ethnography of the senses has emerged. An extraordinary shaping of the hearing sense, as evident in the field note above, has also been noticed in many other societies where anthropologists have done research, including the Suyá of the upper Xingú (Seeger 1981), the Kaluli of Papua-Neuguinea (Feld 1982) and the Songhay of the Western Niger (Stoller 1984). Mostly, however, these studies did not draw on data that would document the practice of employing the senses in interaction, but were rather based on interviews and participant observation with which explicit cultural norms and very general dispositions of whole culture towards one basic sense were identified.
A Microethnography of the Senses among the Wolof
However, some elements of the practical usage of the senses in US, European, and Japanese interactions were studied focusing on gaze and hearing, while studies on touch are still scarce—apart from some studies about very specific contexts such as medical interaction. In Western societies, gaze plays an important role for the formal coordination of interaction as it signals addressivity, recipiency, and attention. Co-participants are interactively included and excluded and the boundaries of a conversation are established by gaze. Goodwin has identified two rules co-participants orient to in interaction:
Rule 1: A speaker should obtain the gaze of his recipient during the course of a turn at talk. (Goodwin 1980, 275)
Rule 2: A recipient should be gazing at the speaker when the speaker is gazing at the hearer. (Goodwin 1980, 286)
If these rules are breached, conversational troubles arise and speakers will make restarts and pauses in order to gain back the attention and gaze of their hearers so that the conditions for the procedural production of intersubjectivity are set.
Thus gaze, in our societies, plays an important role in coordinating social activities and to establish a local conversational order to which co-participants actively orient when they coordinate their interactional activities.
(p.149) There is only one study that systematically compares the formal functions of gaze with non-Western societies. Some of them such as the Yélî Dnye of Papua New Guinea are quite similar to the ones as described of Western societies; others such as the Tenejapa Tzeltal of central Mexico fundamentally differ. In Yélî Dnye “participants seem to look at each other most of the time,” while in Tzeltal, “participants keep looking away from each other and do not turn to each other even during the production of the answers” (Rossano et al. 2009, 201). Instead, Tzeltal co-participants “tend to look down, toward their hands or legs or in the middle distance but not at a specific object or in a recognizable direction,” and the conversational tasks of signaling attention, recipiency, and addressing are fulfilled by vocal repetition. The gaze preferences correspond with seating patterns: “Yélî Dnye speakers of Rossel Island prefer to sit face-to-face within reach of each other, while Tzeltal speakers of Tenejapa prefer to sit side by side or at an angle.” The authors of this study therefore distinguish between “high-gaze cultures” including Italy, Yélî Dnye, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, and “low-gaze cultures” such as Tzeltal. While “high-gaze cultures” organize their conversational activities through gaze, “low-gaze cultures” do not. But how do they do so? This is the question of the subsequent section of this chapter.
The field note that I have quoted above would suggest categorizing the Wolof as a “low-gaze culture.” In order to reflect upon this I will analyze some video sequences from my fieldwork in Senegal in the next section. These recordings document conversations on the Wolof village square where Clan elders gather in the dry season after their prayer in the nearby mosque. These elders are peers so that there is practically no status difference between them and, accordingly, the conversational order is not pre-structured.
Gaze in Interactional Practice
In many Wolof conversations that I have analyzed (Meyer 2008, 2011), several speakers overlap at some points as the conversationalists frequently utter long audio signals ranging from simple vocal feedback signals that Schegloff (1982) has called “continuers” such as “uh-hum” or “right” to longer repetitive and affirmative signals that Goodwin (1986) has called “hearer assessments.” Wolof multiparty conversations are organized to great extent by these kinds of simple or lengthy repetitive vocal units (thus by the sense of hearing). The co-participants often react to several conversational threads that run simultaneously (cf. Meyer 2008), and this appears to require a sense of hearing that is partly geared toward recognizing different voices that contribute to a conversation, a hearing sense that is, in some respects, “more attuned to” and sensible to polyphone situations than ours. This entails that in being able to discern the (p.150) different voices the Wolof indeed probably possess a better hearing sense than we do.3 While constantly and unproblematically dealing with a lot of overlaps and simultaneous conversations on the village square, the conversationalists often completely refrain from establishing mutual eye contact. Co-participants, however, do perceive one another in their peripheral perceptual space.
The next example is part of a more extended conflict talk and shows how Wolof conversationalists sometimes even avoid eye contact. The conflict is about the content of the bags—a mixture of beans, millet, and rice—that lie in front of them. While Faati (FT) and Seex (SX) opt for selling them, Njaate (NT) and Gora (GR) want to donate them to the poor. Njaga (NJ) is undecided. The following transcript shows the situation: the left figure schematically shows the co-interactants from above, the dashed arrows indicating verbal address, the drawn through ones gaze. Gaze direction is also indicated in the lines between the Wolof transcript and the English translation. (p.151)
In this sequence Faati (FT) verbally criticizes Njaate (NT) and Gora (GR), but gazes at Seex (SX), who shares his opinion. Since Faati addresses Njaate and Gora, he ends at one point talking simultaneously with Seex while both look at each other (lines 04 and 05). Though in overlap, both talk through until completion, which is rather uncommon for Western conversational organization. At the end of his utterance, Faati eventually turns his gaze to Njaate who is one of the addressees of his talk (line 11).
This is but one example in which mutual gaze is avoided, since gaze is often understood as aggressive “staring.” Instead, the two persons who are like-minded gaze to one another as affiliates while they simultaneously talk to their opponents. This practice stands in direct contrast to the “Western” model of gaze organization and shows that among the Wolof, gaze does not adopt a formal function that coordinates speaker and hearer roles but a social function by which affiliation (or—as other examples that cannot be discussed here show—witnesshood) (p.152) is created and manifested. Thus to establish interpersonal coordination the co-participants act in an auditory space of sound while visual activities, especially the establishment of mutual gaze, is less relevant. Interactional intercorporeality among the Wolof therefore has a different sensorial gestalt than in Western cultures. This is also true for tactile practices, as we will see in the next example.
Participation and Touch
In Wolof interaction, aside from vocal signals, touch is equally used to coordinate interaction. For example, it is used to gain the attention of hearers and to select addressees for utterances. The next transcript represents part of an extended discussion between a Fulani and several Wolof men. It concerns the interethnic relations between the two groups. Maggat (MG) and Ba (BA) compete about the turn. (p.153)
As we can see, in lines 1, 4, and 6, Maggat tries to gain Ba’s attention while at the same time competing with him for the turn, since Ba is also in interaction with Jajji (JJ) who sits to the right of the still. Maggat constantly touches, shakes and releases Ba’s foot with the right hand while performing a kind of “blocking” gesture with his left and speaking in overlap with him (still 2). It is not uncommon to briefly or constantly touch one’s interlocutor in this way in Wolof culture.
The next example shows that touch can also be used for turn allocation. Guy (GY) and Jajji (JJ) equally participate in the discussion about interethnic relations between Fulani and Wolof.
In line 1, Jajji briefly nudges Guy who shortly after (line 4) starts to utter his only contribution to the whole recording. The seating order inhibits Jajji to allocate the turn to Guy through other semiotic resources than touch. Jajji’s laughing and Guy’s utterance both comment on Maggat, who sits to their left. But also note the constant body contact established through Jajji’s right foot being positioned in a way to continually touch Guy’s left haunch.
Thus in Wolof the formal role of gaze in conversation is partly substituted by vocal and tactile signals. This systematically produces a conversational situation that fundamentally differs from European conversational realities in several respects. For gaze is able to signal recipiency continuously while audio or tactile signals only affirm the attention and recipiency of the hearer in a punctuated way. Therefore in Wolof conversation the absence of gaze often blurs conversational roles. Some speakers might talk without anybody reacting to them, and overlaps are common and unproblematic. The same conversational ecology has been observed among Australian Aboriginal and central African communities (p.154) (Gardner and Mushin 2007; Mushin and Gardner 2009; and Kimura 2001, 2003). Thus we can see that the usage of the different senses in interaction concerns the fundamental level that Husserl has called “operative intentionality.” Since intercorporeality is equally constituted as a condition for the possibility of interaction, Wolof interactions differ from Western forms at this basis level: Wolof intercorporeality apparently adopts a rhythmic, vocal, and verbal as well as tactile and haptic rather than visual gestalt. This will become even clearer when we consider the following example in which a gesture is performed intercorporeally.
An Intercorporeal Gesture
The haptic inclination of Wolof intercorporeality also becomes apparent time and again in the performance of gesture. To draw the interlocutor’s attention to their gesture, aside from gazing on their own hands (Streeck 1993), Wolof conversationalists sometimes employ their co-bodies as an object or medium to perform their gestures. They thus apply tactile, haptic, even kinesthetic means on another’s body to jointly create meaning in interaction. The following transcript is another excerpt of the discussion about interethnic relations. Here Maggat (MG) tells a longer figurative narrative about social relations to make his point clear. The plot is as follows: “A wolof proverb says that, if you go to some place where two friends of yours live—one who has named his child after you and another one after whom you named your child—then don’t go to the one after whom you named your child, but to the one who has named his child after you, since he is the one who likes you. The one you like—you might like him, but maybe he doesn’t like you.” While telling this narrative, he performs an illustrative counting gesture, using Jajji’s (JJ) fingers as symbols for the different protagonists accompanied by verbal indexicals (“you,” “this one,” “that one,”).
The gesture is also used to gain and keep the addressee’s attention. In line 02, Maggat tries to break the dyad between Ba and Jajji established through their continual hand-holding (for a time of overall 40 seconds). He utters “ee” and grasps Jajji’s right leg with his left. Jajji reacts by uttering “aa” (line 03) but then Ba again starts to speak competing with Maggat’s ongoing turn in line 05. Maggat, still in overlap, reacts by again summoning Jajji (line 06) and this time grasping his right forearm with his left. JJ again reacts with “aaa,” and this time Maggat succeeds in securing Jajji’s attention by pulling his forearm toward him and starting the voicing of a proverb introducing it with the typical story initial formula “Wolof Njaay dafa wax ni” (a Wolof proverb says that). At the beginning of that, he still closely observes Jajji’s attention through gazing at him and at Jajji’s hand resting in his own (lines 08–09). After having assured Jajji’s attention (signaled by Jajji with auditory means in 11, 13, 15, and 17), his gaze is mostly directed to Jajji’s left and right in mid-distance until he comes (p.155) to his conclusion in 18. After that, the competition about Jajji’s attention between Maggat and Ba restarts (lines 21–23).
Thus, Maggat succeeds in involving Jajji through using his hand to perform an illustrating gesture that depicts with the fingers different protagonists who appear in the proverb.
There are only very few anthropologists who have described gestures that include bodily contact. Most prominent is Efron (1972), a student of Franz Boas, who, in his inventory of Jewish gestures in New York City, conceived of “grasping of wrist or of wearing apparel,” “shaking,” “poking,” and “pulling,” as “[e]nergetic modi of physical persuasion” (1972, 120 et seq.). A famous example is the Jewish “buttonholing” (Efron 1972, 132, 135): the act of fumbling with the jacket of the interlocutor as an expression of affection. As Efron and Foley (1937, 157) state, (p.156) these practices also create familiarity and manifest trust with the interlocutor. In some cases, they say (157), both participants become “clasped to each other’s arms or coat-lapels, with the resulting reversion to head motions as a form of gestural expression.” And in a form rarely observed that they call “gestural ‘promiscuity’ in conversation” the speaker “not only grasped the arm of the interlocutor, but actually gesticulated with it” (Efron and Foley 1937, 157 n. 1).
Thus, precisely as the concept of intercorporeality assumes, the interactional space of Wolof village square conversations also includes the bodies of the persons co-present as objects “ready-to-hand.”
What are the reasons for this culture-specific situation?
First of all, some cultural concepts might account for it. The concept of face in its anatomical sense in Wolof is kanam, which literally means “genital.” The face might thus be a far more intimate body part in Wolof society than in ours. An intimate encounter therefore in Wolof is called gise which means a “mutual glance.” On the other hand, the social face in the Goffmanian sense (1967) as reputation and public self-image is translated in Wolof as der which literally means “skin.” Thus the skin appears to be a more public body part that—at least at some places—might be touched for formal conversational reasons.
(p.158) A second reason might be found in the ecological situation of many Wolof conversations. Often they take place under conditions of darkness so that people would not be able to identify glances and gaze directions as easily, while hearing and touch remain unconstrained.
Thirdly, the sociospatial situation of Wolof villages might play a role. For one, the seating arrangement might inhibit gaze as exclusive tool for conversational organization as the conversationalists might be seated back to back or back to side and so on, which in turn facilitates tactility. Furthermore, gaze avoidance might also concede interactional privacy—that is, a certain degree of institutionalized “civil inattention” as Goffman (1963, 87–88) has called it. This seems to be particularly important in circumstances where there are only very restricted moments of privacy because of thin-walled and badly soundproofed straw huts, as it is the case in Wolof villages.
Fourthly, there are some cultural norms which regulate gaze avoidance in general (e.g., between in-law kin [a point that does not apply to the peer situation on the village square of the examples above]).
Intercorporeality and the (Non-)Expression of Emotion
The specific “operative intentionality” constituted through basic embodied orientations acquired through former intercorporeal experiences described above, which is effective among the conversationalists on the Wolof village square, is also consequential for a number of further cultural dimensions such as concepts of the person and emotion. I will now first address the implications they have for (the expression of) emotion, drawing on the example of shame. To introduce this topic, let me quote another field note:
A sudden turmoil in the court of my compound—loud and fast-paced talk—startles me, so that I decide to go there to look what happened. Several men and women have gathered around a chair in which a young woman is sitting like paralyzed. She “stares into space,” that is, her eyes set for “middle-distance.” Those who stand around her take her arms and hands and pull, several persons at each of them. Others push her shoulders from behind, while most of them simultaneously talk at her. But the young woman doesn’t budge an inch. Is she ill? Or is she fainting? I ask my friend Adama. Shouldn’t we call the ambulance? He explains to me that she feels ashamed because she committed an error and did not fulfill the expectations of her family. Slowly, however, she begins to move. She awakes from her numbness, rises with the help of the others and—still (p.159) without talking—slowly and with rigid limbs walks away with them. (May 3, 2006)
This experience—though not the only one of its kind—remained enigmatic to me at first. I simply was not able to adequately understand the behavior of the young women—and even less did I recognize it as expression of an emotion. I did not understand her behavior as an expression of shame, since my European expectations collided with her ways of behaving, notably, of looking. The young woman, in my perception, behaved strangely expressionlessly and impassively.
The questions resulting from this experience, to be more precise, were the following: Why is shame expressed so differently among the Wolof? Why is its expressed in precisely this form, impassively and expressionlessly (i.e., virtually in form of a non-expression)?
Emotions—Expressivity and Culture
Since 1965, when Charles Darwin’s study “The Expression of Emotions in Men and Animals” (1872) was rediscovered (and republished), emotions have again attracted scholarly attention as an important topic in the humanities. Darwin claimed that the human emotions and their respective expression must be inborn since the same type of emotional expression is found in all cultures across the globe and sometimes even in the animal kingdom. However, he also insisted that some emotions in humans are only possible at a certain age.
Researchers have subsequently dealt with the question of which features of emotions are inborn and which of them are acquired through socialization. Important topics of research were typical facial expressions or gestures related to specific emotions. Paul Ekman (1971, 1992), one of the pioneering researchers, detected six or seven basic emotions with typical, universally understandable, expressions (happiness/joy, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, sadness, and sometimes contempt). In other words, Ekman, like many other researchers, assumed that universally emotions are expressed while there is also a neutral, unemotional, and expressionless state of mind and, accordingly, of facial expression. Like other evolutionist (but also psychoanalytic) approaches to emotion, Ekman implicitly follows a folk theory of emotion that Solomon (1993) has called “hydraulic”: This folk theory grasps emotions as pressures in the body that thrive for expression and thus discharge and relief. This has changed slightly in subsequence with the “somatic marker hypothesis” of Damasio (1994) and “philosophical cognitivism” of Arnold (1960) and Scherer (e.g., 1982), but the interactional and situated dimensions of emotions and their display continued (p.160) to be underevaluated (but see Goodwin and Goodwin 2000, and Griffiths and Scarantino 2009).
Many researchers have insisted that whereas “basic emotions” quoted above do not involve self-consciousness, more “complex emotions” (like envy, pride, remorse, and shame) emerge much later in life, are less universal, and heavily dependent upon the social environment of the person who experiences it (Zahavi 2012). In particular, they are based on, and require, the human ability of what G. H. Mead (1934) has called “role taking,” i.e., the ability to see oneself from the perspective of the other—be it a concrete person or the social group as an abstract entity (what Mead has called the “generalized other”)—and to anticipate their judgment of oneself and one’s own behavior. These emotions are situated embodied activities, which communicate evaluations of the social situation to the self and the others.
Shame is often considered the most important and powerful of the self-conscious (or social) emotions, since it produces social conformity through the permanent evaluation of ego’s behavior in regard to social norms: when I continually feel exposed to the critical gaze of an (imagined or concrete) other, I anticipate situations in which my behavior would be negatively assessed and therefore try to present myself favorably and to avoid transgressing social norms.
The idea that the emotion of shame originates in the desire to evade the punishing gaze and angry reaction of the other when a violation of norms has occurred corresponds with the etymology of the word shame. It goes back to Indo-European *kam, meaning “to cover,” “to veil.” The prefixed s- adds a reflexive meaning—“to cover oneself.” This gives us an impression of the typical expression of shame in at least those societies in which Indo-European linguistic roots play a role. In Darwin’s words, shame entails that “in all parts of the world persons who feel shame for some moral delinquency, are apt to avert, bend down, or hide their faces” (1965, 348). Many depictions of shame in the arts and expressions of it in the media are in accordance with this semantic of hiding oneself from the social gaze.
However, cross-cultural research on emotion has demonstrated that emotions are no clear-cut entities that can be “translated” as “wholes” (e.g., Wierzbicka 1986, 1999). Rather, emotion concepts across cultures often overlap only in some of their components. For example, the emotion liget among the Ilongot of the Philippines (Rosaldo 1984) can be understood as a mixture of sadness and anger while the Japanese amae (Kumagai and Kumagai 1986) is virtually untranslatable—it is a felt freedom to do as one pleases without having to fear any consequences, associated with a kind of regressive self-dependence upon a model. Early research on shame, especially around the Mediterranean Sea, has revealed it as complement of honor, that is, as typical reaction to the loss of honor (Peristiany and Pitt-Rivers 1965). Later it was described as typical fear of public (p.161) judgment (e.g., on Java, where it typically serves the tie to the father [Keeler 1983]). In Papua New-Guinea, shame is associated with anger (Schieffelin 1983). While some groups see both concepts as inner and outer dimensions of the same emotion, others view it as static and dynamic dimensions. On Ifaluk, shame constitutes the appropriate answer of the subaltern to the legitimate anger of superiors in case of norm transgression, which in turn is answered by generous indulgency (Lutz 1988).
Thus while cultural differences in the semantics of emotion concepts are relatively well documented the expression of shame and other social and reflexive emotions is not yet sufficiently studied. This equally holds true for interactional aspects of emotion.
In Wolof society, two variants of shame can be distinguished. First, there is the concept rus which can be translated as embarrassment or shyness. It is a reaction to the “legitimate anger” of superiors in rank as, for example, when an elder blames a younger person for paying visits too unregularly. It is also expressed—in particular through the covering of one’s mouth—when one has said something wrong. In general, rus is not an emotion that emerges when someone has done something unforgiveable but rather that recreates or even deepens social bonds.
The second concept, gácce, instead means shame or disgrace. It is expressed when grave norm transgressions have happened and the wrongdoer is unsure about the continuing support of the community. Only gácce is expressed through expressionlessness and impassivity mentioned above.
Rus is usually interpreted as reaction to an unintentional mistake while gácce is viewed as the consequence of volitional wrongdoing (Becher 2003, 25).
Interaction Order and the Expression of Emotion
It is my view that the culture-specific expression of emotion corresponds with generally existing forms of interactional practice in a culture. Above I have shown that the organization of conversation among the Wolof differs from Western forms in terms of the usage of the senses such as gaze and touch. Co-participants employ audio signals or touch to demonstrate attention or to arrest attention. Since gaze is used less frequently and less expressively, to cover oneself visually from the other does not constitute a meaningful display of shame. Based on this difference in the usage of the senses we are able to say that among the Wolof the individual does not experience itself as the object of society’s critically monitoring eye. Instead society confronts the Wolof individual in the form of an instance that judges expressionlessness and impassivity as meaningful exceptions to usual behavior. This entails that shame become visible through its contrast with a standard of the expressive and active individual. In conversation analytic terminology, (p.162) the non-expression of shame can be understood as a “noticeable.” This notion refers to the fact that all human persons have expectations in regard to the normal course of social situations. Every deviation from these normal courses mobilizes their attention. A deviation can occur, e.g., through an unexpected utterance or nonverbal action. In our case of shame, it is generated through an uncommon degree of impassivity and expressionlessness of one co-participant, which entails in turn that the normal standard requires a minimum of communicative accessibility and activity. In the case of shame, this standard is “noticeably absent.”
Thus, among the Wolof, he expression of shame consists in the absence, or the loss, of a minimum of activity and communicativity that an individual normally embodies. The emotion only becomes visible by standing in contrast to the normality of the “vital person.” Vitality and vigor (in the sense of self-assertion and refractiveness) is a central quality in Wolof culture, called fit. Fit marks the autonomous, strong-minded individual who does not let themselves be undermined by peers in status (nawlé). While Irvine (1995, 260) rightfully characterizes fit as “a force residing in the liver that concerns vital energies and excitability and gives rise to emotions,” our example shows that precisely its suppression can equally be used as an expression of emotion.
On the other hand, only the temporary suspension of fit and the expression of shame based on it can restitute the socially desired qualities of respect and decency in relation to superiors—in Wolof, kersa—which were lost once the norm transgression occurred.
Fit and kersa, individual assertiveness and the respect of social conventions, thus have to be kept in balance. When individual vitality and strong-mindedness prevails, superiors answer it with “legitimate anger” (mere). When, on the other hand, shyness and embarrassment prevail (which is much more often the case), the shameful person is usually encouraged by superiors to be more self-assertive and alert (ñaax).
Intercorporeality and the Concept of the Person
Thus intercorporeal “operative intentionality” as it is present in Wolof culture not only affects forms of the expression of emotion, but also the concept of the socially respected person. The social space of the village square (pénc) is characterized by egalitarian, or peer, relationships between the elder men present. There is not much (if any) pre-established hierarchical difference between the co-participants, so that, particularly, prestige, self-assertion, honor, and associated moral values and emotional categories such as vitality, courage, strength of character, and self-esteem are expressed and negotiated. Goffman (1967) has constantly reminded us that, in situations of interaction, the parties who encounter one another are (p.163) no black boxes who trade unintelligible utterances (even in an orderly way), but social beings with determined face wants (for appreciation, affection, etc.). Moral concepts of the valuable social person are thus at stake in these encounters.
Shameful behavior of inferiors can be viewed as “social cosmetics” (M. Strathern quoted in A. Strathern 1975, 355 n. 11) used for the upholding of what the Wolof call “social beauty” (rafetaay). It is displayed so as to forestall the anger of superiors as a reaction to the transgression of social boundaries. In the social space of the village square, in contrast, as one of my interlocutors has put it, co-interactants attempt at “exalting themselves” (dangay yéegal sa bopp) and put their deeds and lives in a good light. Ly (1967, 53) has called this tendency “self-glorification.” In peer relationships, Ly (1967, 47–48, 53) emphasizes, the Wolof glorify themselves and thereby attempt to competitively outdo their peers (nawle).4 The very expression nawle alludes to this practice, as it is translated as “rival peer” (see Rabain 1979, 69). In their social practice, Ly (1967, 47) says, the Wolof orient to the common knowledge about what would be expected as appropriate behavior of someone who is their peer:
[W]hen they refer to the opinion of the peers, they do so in order to know that they have not done less. The real or assumed social peers are, in fact, those of whom they should in no case let themselves outdo in the realization of virtues and in the accomplishment of acts expected by those of rank. The Wolof (…) are always trying to ensure that they, at least, do the same as their peers, if not more, but never less. (…) The “social peers” are considered not to be of “better kin,” so that they have no reason to do less. Someone who is not of “better kin” is consequently “not more” (geun oul5 in Wolof; …) and should thus not do “more.” (…) In fact, in the spirit of the Wolof (…) doing less than someone who is socially “not more” would create a disequilibrium which changes the “balance of power” between him and oneself. One, in fact, breaks the relation of mutual respect that should exist between “peers” in favor of relations that one could call relations of disrespect, disrepute, and superiority-inferiority.
(Ly 1967, 47–48; my translation, original emphasis)
Among the nawle, there is thus a constant rivalry, particularly in regard to generosity (Rabain 1979, 64). Giving, as Rabain (1979, 69) explains, “is an equivalent to affirming one’s superiority to one’s rival. But this is only the surface of the exchange. (…) When I give, I do not only show that I am rich and generous, I also manifest my desire of not being superior to the other, I leave to him the doubtful pleasure of ownership.” Irvine (1974) has described the same mechanism in regard to the “giving” of (greeting) words. However, particularly among children, peer relations must also constantly be affirmed by “standing one’s ground” in (p.164) regard to relations of physical dominance. Tactile aggression between peers is encouraged while it is sanctioned when displayed from an older to a younger child (Rabain 1979, 115–116). Therefore, physical combats and fights between children of about the same age are common:
The confrontation between peers of age is a privileged mode by which the child affirms their place. Nobody should show themselves inferior to their peers. The child beaten or routed by a “peer” (or, more so, by a younger child) is brought back to the one who has hit them in order to resume fighting. Conversely, the child will be blamed for fighting with an older child. The exigency of equalization is complemented by the one of not triumphing over anybody.
(Rabain 1979, 109; my translation)
This leads to relations of solidarity between peers and their complementary opposition toward jointly suffered authorities (Rabain 1979, 160).
Thus, on the village square which is the space of the peers, the co-interactants are constantly worrying about holding their ground and asserting themselves in (semi-) public. Accordingly, prestige, honor, strength of character, vitality, and reputation are negotiated as the central values characterizing the Wolof person in this realm (also cf. Sylla 1978 and Samb 1998). As a result of the moral economy of the village square, speaking lengthy turns, setting topics, and being listened to, have become resources for social prestige. The fact of being in the focus of attention of the others is not only a matter of conversational organization, but also, literally and metaphorically, a “face”-matter (Goffman 1967). That engagement in conversation is part of the prestige of a social person appears to be true all the more since the household heads gathering on the Wolof village square do not only speak as individual persons, but as “extended individuals” (i.e., as representatives of their clans or lineages, as it is often the case in societies organized primarily in this way [cf., e.g., the essays in Richards and Kuper 1971 and Bloch 1975]).
To withdraw one’s turns and to be silent in this social space might be interpreted as shameful behavior that could be interpreted as display of the recognition of a social hierarchy toward those who speak. Rabain (1979) confirms these findings, saying that:
To be able to hold one’s tongue is to be able to keep one’s place, which is to respect the customary rules that define the social conditions of turn-taking [prise de parole] (who can say what to whom?). The conditions and the forms in which the child is allowed to address his speech to an adult are well-known: speaking with a moderate voice without looking the latter (p.165) in his eyes, waiting until the conversation is already on its way before taking the turn. (150; my translation)
Therefore, younger males often do in fact remain silent when being on the village square with elders (such as Guy in Transcript 4 who only speaks once when nudged by Jajji at his back). Conversely, remaining silent among peers might also be interpreted as lack of fit (“vitality”) and as a display of sorrow.
The Wolof self in polyphonic interaction on the pénc is thus a self that is constantly competing for prestige, strength of character, and individuality (by setting topics, speaking, and being listened to) under circumstances of constraints and sanctioning mechanisms of the group (overlapping, schisming). Thus a prestigious member of the group is one whom the people listen to, who remains unoverlapped by lengthy assessments or competitive turns that lead to schismings and polyphonic situations. On the other hand, the Wolof self is also created and expressed in those situations in which gaze is addressed at a witness instead of the addressee. Mauss (1985) has reminded us that the Latin word “conscience,” central for the development of occidental individualism, first meant “witness.” By this practice, as can be supposed, Wolof selves carry parts of their inner thoughts and motivations “on their sleeves”—that is, they selectively render public aspects of their selfhood. Thus by making a co-participant a witness of their thoughts and, in particular, of their subjective states and stances expressed in speech, they distribute their emotions, motivations, and cognitions, and create alliances with the like-minded. All these social activities are performed through the operative practices identified in this chapter: the temporal organization of conversational turn-taking, gaze, and touch. In their totality, these practices (or ethnomethods) produce specific Wolof gestalts of intercorporeality—intercorporeal gestalts that in turn enable the creation of public selves; persons and their prestige; emotions as well as social events such as moments of intimacy and understanding; lively conversations; earnest discussions; serious conflicts; and much more. In short, intercorporeal gestalts create culture.
Moreover, it can also be concluded, then, that the overlap (“turn-taking”) problem, which Schegloff (2006) sets as a “candidate universal,” appears to be less relevant in pénc conversations than other interaction problems. Among the relevant problems ranks, for example, the “gaze confrontation problem”: Gaze is avoided since it might produce or increase the confrontational character of an exchange. Another problem is the “prestige loss problem”: The prestige costs for losing the turn in these Wolof conversations seem to be higher than in Western conversations. Therefore co-interactants attempt at gaining the turn and keeping it as long as possible, and therefore turns are so much competed about.
Intercorporeality as an enabling “matrix” of communication (i.e., “operative intentionality” in Husserl’s terms) concerns various dimensions of sociality and culture, including turn-taking, the senses, emotion, and personhood. The present study shows, minimally, that cultural practices associate with intercorporeality as foundational dimension of sociality are not universal. Instead there appear to exist quite fundamental cultural differences in this regard. The cultural differences concern the neurophysiological shaping of perception and selection (without of course advocating a “great divide” between visually versus auditorily oriented cultures) as well as the usage of the senses as “semiotic resources” (Goodwin 2000) of interaction. In Wolof culture, for example, touch and hearing are favored over gaze. The different sensory practices have quite fundamental implications for principles of sociality and togetherness such as the expression of emotions and personal qualities, the making and unmaking of hierarchies and alliances, and the (proto-social) designing of interactional situations and the procedural achievement of intersubjectivity.
As I have shown in this chapter, in Wolof life, the intercorporeal practices of human beings living together, as they are foundational of social life, include practices and semantics of touch, and rhythmic forms of vocal hearer-feedback, of turn-taking, and overlap as well as aspects of gesture and gaze that are specific to them. In their totality they create the particular kind of social persona as member of a community of intercorporeal practices characteristic for Wolof culture. They also create a specific “genius loci” of the Wolof that—as a lived stream of ongoing practices in an engaged, and engaging, material environment—is the essence of culture.
As we have seen, emotions are not universally express in an active manner. In our case, they were passively communicated—through the absence of expression—thus questioning conceptions that assume a hydraulic model of emotions as inner pressures thriving for relief. While these theories put the biological individual in the center of their consideration, I opt—drawing on my findings—for the consideration of the emotional event as a form of embodied situated activity in the context of a social situation.
The present analysis was thus an attempt to systematically explain culture-specific practices of corporeality and intercorporeality in their inner coherence with cultural norms and concepts as well as with no less culture-specific interactional procedures. Thus, the present analysis is one example of the intricate way by which foundational forms of intercorporeality lie at the heart of culture.
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(1.) Merleau-Ponty (1958: xx) explains Husserl’s concept of “operative intentionality” as “that which produces the natural and antepredicative unity of the world and of our life, being apparent in our desires, our evaluations and in the landscape we see, more clearly than in objective knowledge.”
(2.) Let me remind you that, according to legend, Pythagoras discovered the foundations of musical harmony by listening to the sounds of four blacksmiths’ hammers, which produced consonance and dissonance when they were struck simultaneously (cf. Bencivelli 2011, 28–30).
(4.) This practice of glorifying oneself and one’s deeds is quite common in social settings where it is possible for ambitious individuals to acquire social prominence, prestige, and status through merit (and not through inheritance) (cf. Meyer 2009, 1155–1156).
(5.) In modern Wolof orthography: gënul.