Meghan Fidler's Reviews > Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community

Culture and the Senses by Kathryn Linn Geurts
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Feb 12, 12

bookshelves: the-world-in-theory, venerated-brains
Read in February, 2008

Approaching Human-ness:
Understanding our senses of self.

Kathryn Geurts, in her 2002 book Culture and the Senses, evaluates the relationship between cultural knowledge and the development of human senses through her work within Anlo-ewe speaking communities in Africa’s Ghana and Togo. Because the senses undergo a process of “naturalization,” they are an essential part of creating human communities.
“Self processes, including those of sensory attention and orientation, require effort or agency and intentionality, some kind of engagement with the process of life. The sensorium helps assure that notions of the person both differ culturally yet appear natural to those who hold them” (Geurts 238).

Like any process that has undergone naturalization, understanding the perception of senses through cultural practices, a process Geurts recognizes from Bourdieu’s “turning history into nature (6),”is a difficult task. By gathering sensory terms, witnessing births, rituals and exploring the Anlo-ewe cosmology, Geurts demonstrates tangible links between shared cultural practices, like the physical training of the body and the performance of traditions, to philosophical thought (15). Because different communities have different shared practices and traditions, there are differences in sensory perception from one human group to the next: and Guerts feels that this is part and parcel of humanities embedment within the natural world (250). More importantly, this phenomenon makes the natural world different for different groups of people, changing “how we know what we know” (38).
Anlo speakers understand sensations through one large category, the category of seselelame. Sensing is conceived of in two primary ways: through the relationship of the self to other people and the external world, and through internal sensations of an individual’s body (42, 66, 199). Anlo people do not, unlike the Euro-American division of mind and body (7, 245), find a strict division between internal sensations and external sensations. Nor do Anlo people find a division between the self and other selves in their community. The effects of this cultural ‘installation’ (85) inside a sensing body reach far beyond the individual or the cultural group itself; senses have the power to reach into the cosmos as well.
Let us start with two senses that are well known in the West: hearing and smelling. For Anlo speakers, smelling has two processes: one can ‘try’ to smell something, making the human an active agent of the experience. Smelling can also, however, be ‘hearing.’ Because scents can travel, without being seen, around a person’s body, enveloping them, scent acts much like sound does- invisibly traveling to the person’s body. Anlo people will smell something in the same way they hear something; there does not need to be an active human process involved (65). This emphasis on the material properties of things which cause sensation permeates the entire Anlo worldview.
For example, the religious practice of legba, or guardian objects, is linked to the ability of unseen things to effect human senses, and therefore the human body. Legba are erected around dangerous places, or thresholds. Thresholds occur between the home and the community, the community and the larger world, and, of course, between an individual and other individuals (187). These guardian objects take many shapes, but they resonate with an unseen ‘energy charge’ which is felt by Anlo people. Guerts notes that every individual who has learned to sense the world through Anlo body practices are subject to the unseen sensations produced by legba. A student, who was not aware of the legba placed his apartment by the mother of another student, could not study. The legba were guarding the woman’s son’s ability to do well in school, and so they effected the renter’s concentration (189). Even those who outwardly reject legba are affected by these unseen sensations. Janice, who did not believe in vodu shrines, became ill for months until she remembered that she had scorned a shrines request for a sacrificial goat (195). By providing these stories, Geurts suggests that the incorporation of body, sensing, and culture goes beyond the way Euro-Americans have conceptualized mind and body. In effect, just because your mind ‘does not see/know/believe,’ does not mean that your body will not sense, and be effected by, the unseen.
The case of the legba in the apartment also serves to highlight another way of being Anlo in the world. Here the desires of another person impact, through the senses, the well being of another. In essence, the morality of another’s actions will influence members of the entire community. Geurts refers to this as inter-subjectivity, and provides a number of examples representing the scale of self-community sensation. One on one, Anlo people recognize an individual’s internal character through their posture; straightness and balance while walking are elements that express positive morality (74). The meandering gate of a drunkard does not only epitomize his present internal state: it also represents the overall moral character of the individual. Whether the individual was first ataxic in work habits or in beverage is inconsequential- the process of the individual routinely embodying this movement will shape their internal character (81).
The immoral movements of an individual can also impact the entire community. If a person brings ‘dirty money,’ or money received through immoral means, to the community both the family and the community are at risk for disease and illness (133). Guerts finds examples of bodily training in ‘cleanliness’ from the moment the child is born. A mother’s intake of clay, as a heartburn remedy, will affect the level of ‘dirt’ coating a newborn infant. Newborn infants are rigourously washed to prevent this dirt from settling in and creating a permanent odor (96), and children are publically washed to embody a community which properly cares for its youth (91). Children {notice the non-gender applications, dear reader} are told to “balance” as they sit up as babies (12, 48), and they are encouraged to develop an explicitly ‘human’ balance by carrying headloads (103). Straightness in the body is gently ‘pulled’ into infant limbs, as traditional midwives and mothers embody morality while training the morality of their child’s body (96). In other words, to be Anlo is to have the body and its senses extended into both the social and environmental world. “Selves in West Africa are porous” (170).
Guerts’s ethnography of Alno people is evocative, but she does leave some very important things unattended. To me, it is very clear that Anlo people give agency to objects: they categorize smell and hearing according to the material properties of the sounds and odors. They also feel energy, which they perceive through their trained senses, from legba. And Anlo people understand that dirty money can call illness to them. What is unclear, however, is the author’s position on these objects. There are points where she seems to accept these agency-laden objects: after she notes her embodied reaction to the migration story (115), she also notes that she has feelings of ‘unease’ for days after she commits a hit-and-run of a legba (188). In her discussion of the cosmos she wavers around the possibility of a concrete agentive world beyond human sight and sensory measurement:
“Vodu and other spiritual practices are thus shown to operate as a kind of sensorium beyond the body (some would call this a virtual reality), while holding a clear relationship to the sensorium instantiated the body during child socialization. The external world is manipulated (though ritual and spiritual practices in vodu and dzosasa) to affect the internal world (the miliu-interior); and the inner world (psycho-emotional-sensory states, or what Anlo people refer to as seselelame) is manipulated to change circumstances in their external environment” (199-200).

Geurts’s reference to a ‘vitural reality,’ as well as her comments on ESP (7) is telling; it allows her to accept the world as created by culturally trained, “durably installed (85)” bodies. In other articles where Geurts explicitly examines the relationship of Anlo-objects to human senses, and she again focuses on the way the human body feels: the feeling of ‘proper’ sleep with one’s bones laid out straightly, without curves, requires the properties of an asatsa matt (Geurts 2006; 53)- but the asatsa matt is never described with the ability to push the body into this position [unlike the shove the legba gave her truck].
While not an explicit goal of this ethnography the ‘exclusion’ of objects is very important to note. The point of the book, which is triumphantly beautiful in its production, is to attribute the natural senses within
“…self processes, including those of sensory attention and orientation, require effort or agency and intentionality, some kind of engagement with the process of life. The sensorium helps assure that notions of the person both differ culturally yet appear natural to those who hold them” (283).

Objects, however, are very important in these processes. While the neglect objects may seem outside the scope of understanding human senses, Guerts’s link of the senses to larger cultural cosmologies makes this omission a very ominous problem.
In studies of western science, many researchers have described the attribution of agency only as human intentions as a basic premise for larger westernized way of knowing the world. This attribution of agency is deeply linked to the ways that scientific practice and the perception and production of ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ are interlocked (Pickering 1995). What many science study researchers have found, however, is that science is a product of the world, to use Pickering terms, “pushing back.” In fact, humans often have to re-negotiate both their intentions and their practices when the physical objects do not respond in predicted ways (Pickering 1995). What makes this especially important for this ethnography is the Euro-American link between human agency, truth, and the social power truth creates. When scientists are forced to deal with objects ‘acting up,’ they deal with a loss of power that goes beyond on their ability to control something in a lab: they lose their agency to equipment and objects and they lose the power to generate social truths in Euro-American culture (Barad 1998). While Geurts’s work is a step in a positive direction, one must wonder if she was able to embody Anlo-ways-in-the-world, for while she rejects one western epistemology, that of the senses, she recreates another: that of explicitly human agency and scientific truth, [which she may have set aside with her claim that she is creating ‘history,’ not ‘scientific facts (5)]. With her connection of the senses to Anlo cosmology, her neglect of agentive legba objects is not only powerful: it is dangerous.


Barad, Karen. (1998). "Agential Realism: Feminist Interventions in Understanding Scientific Practices." Ed. Mario Biagioli. In: The Science Studies Reader. NY, Routledge Press. Pp. 1-11.
Geurts, Kathryn Linn. (2002). Culture and the Senses: Bodily ways of knowing in an African Community. London, Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press.
Guerts, Kathryn Linn, and Adikah, Elivs Gershon. (2006). “Enduring and Endearing Feelings and the Transformation of material culture in west Africa.” IN: Edwards, Elizabeth., Gosden, Chris., Philips, Ruth B. Eds. Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture. Oxford, Berg Publishers. Pp. 35-60.
Pickering, Andrew. (1995). The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency & Science. Chicago, the university of Chicago Press.

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