Reading Descola – a doubtful pitstop…. (memo)

As I have promised (myself) in my second pocket research design, I am reading French Anthropologist Philippe Descola’s book “Beyond Nature and Culture”, while writing a ‘selective pocket summary’ here. And while reading: thinking… I am attacking Descola’s mammoth work from various angles at the time. I am reading it as a pdf, in English and French, in paper format, in French, and listening to the text via an app that reads pdfs with an artificial voice. This way, I am immersing myself in the work at different speeds, in different parts, at the same time. I am also reading comments by other scholars about the work, for instance this one: “Descola’s Beyond nature and culture, viewed from Central Brazil” (link). I am also listening to Descola’s current lectures at Collège de France titled “La composition des collectifs: Formes d’hybridation“.

From a global perspective, I begin to see a fundamental issue around the question of Descola’s Structuralism. Here, I will make a short pit stop, giving this issue a few thoughts before moving on. As you know, what I am doing here, is pocket research, and therefore I must assess the relation between time invested and possible outcome for my research. Descola’s book is immense, and I am having some doubts that my time is well spent, if its foundation is not solid. What I am trying to say is, that there seems to be an incongruity between on the one hand Descola’s ambition about wanting to understand each ethnic group from its own point of view, ie. its cosmology or ontology, while on the other, he wants to install a “structural framework”, that would allow us (… and who are ‘we’?), to “set up a typology of possible relationships to the world and others, be they human or nonhuman, and to examine their compatibilities and incompatibilities.” The problem is – as is always the case with universalisms – the question of centrality. Why would someone want to collect and centralise knowledge about the whereabouts of other people? This is what Descola does with his ambition of a ‘typology’ with its four different “ontological regimes” ― animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism. According to Descola he himself is a naturalist, as we are all, in the West. It would  be interesting to ask the question (as I believe Descola does somewhere in the book), how someone from one of the other ontological regimes would have conceived of a typology for the peoples of the world.

In any case, Descola’s endeavour makes me think about Max Weber and his ideal types. The idea is that we can’t access reality without categories. And reality is never really clean cut fitting into whichever category. It will always be a mix. This way, Descola’s argument would be (I am assuming), that real people will always live in some kind of mix, a hybrid between a combination of Descola’s ontological regimes.   So for instance a little bit of animism combined with 20% totemism, etc. So why would someone want to centralise information about people(s)? First of all, we have to remind ourselves about the early raison d’être of Anthropology, which was to provide colonizers with information about local indigenous groups, in order to provide the former with tools for controlling and subverting the latter. Of course, Descola is well aware of that (and he mentions it somewhere I think in the beginning of the text). On the other hand, collecting information about our surroundings, processing them, learning from them, is part of something essential to life (cf. my thoughts on Spinoza, communication and information in living systems). This is one reason why I have decided to keep on reading: My aim – as stated in my pocket research design 2 –  is to find out whether and how we Westerners might learn from “pre-modern forager societies” who adhere to “proto-ecological guidelines” to build a “bio-synergetic civilisation”. Another reason is part of my own personal intellectual history. Before taking my MA in Educational Anthropology, I was working – in a proto-academic fashion – on a model for what makes us a community

By continuing on the path traced out by Descola, I am being true to ‘my former  self’, trying to develop these earlier thoughts further, while of course submitting them to a sharp critical scrutiny.

In other words: I am going back to reading!! As to you, dear reader: Keep on pitching in with your ideas, comments and suggestions!

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Building sound collectives – a workshop concept

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upgesture

So, we want to work with sound as a means of building a culturally sustainable collective, and we want to do it in an open, intuitive, sufficiently challenging, though comfortable way. This workshop is designed for groups of adults and young adults. It is aiming at providing the group with tools and methods for building the collective through non-verbal means.

The workshop is intended to be a supplement to contexts where people are working with new ways of living, towards economical, ecological and social sustainability. This might be in connection with conferences, festivals, theme days in education, or seminars in organisations.

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Basic info
Name Building Sound Collectives
Duration 1 – 2 hours
Target group Young adults and adults
How many? 12 – 20
Where is it relevant? In organisations, in education, at festivals and events with a focus on sustainability
Location A larger room with free floor space. If outdoors, in a quiet, private place.
Equipment used Computer, audio interface 8 in 8 out. Four microphones. Four (homemade) instruments with (contact) mics. Four smartphones. Wifi. A “magic square” 3×3 meter on the floor marked with adhesive tape. A pair of loudspeakers.
Aims 1) to find the groups “common core gesture”; 2) to develop new gestural expressions from the core gesture 3) to find our way to imitate gesture through sound 4) to create a collective electroacoustic composition
Learning keywords Collaboration, non-verbal communication, other-centeredness, gestural and sound imitation, sharing ideas, improvisation, collective creativity.
The workings

Expressing ourselves in sound is one of our most efficient modalities to reach out to each other, and to try to understand each other’s worlds.  But there is no sound without movement. This is true on a fundamentally physical level. It is also true on what we could call a meta level. When we are  expressing emotional content, we are imitating physical movement with our voices.

Therefore, we want to start with gesture. We want to explore gesture as something that members of the group are already using as a means of expression in their everyday lives. And we want to experiment with ways of imitating our gestures through sound.

The workshop comprises six parts.

  1. Our first aim is to search for what I would call a common core gestural phrase
    • In pairs. A comes with a gesture. Any gesture. B imitates it and adds a variation. A imitates B’s variation and add another variation.
    • Each pair present one gestural phrase that they liked. The rest of the group imitates.
    • Now everyone moves around in space. Each participant performs the gestural phrase they have selected, and when seeing another participant he/she will try to merge to two gestures.
    • All gestural phrases will eventually merge into one.
    • This is group’s core gestural phrase
  2. Gesture jam.
    • In this part we will improvise in different ways with gesture based on the core gestural phrase. Imitating with other body parts; varying the size of the movements; making supplementary gestures, filling out the “blank spaces”.
    • This way, we develop a common new gestural grammar, and a living library of movements for the group.
  3. Sound on top. This is where we work with imitating gesture through sound
    • in pairs. A performs a gestural phrase from the ‘library’. B imitates with sound.
    • In the whole group, the pairs give samples of their work, showing a gestural phrase and the corresponding sound phrase.  The group imitates the sound phrase, with sound
  4. Sound from the bottom
    • The group records one sound from each of the four homemade instruments. This might be done in a break by some of the participants.
  5. Collective electroacoustic improvisation
    • The group is divided into three groups of four: a gesture group, a voice group, and a remote control group.
    • The gesture group will move around inside and out of the square, using gestures from the collectives’ library.
    • Each member of the sound group will imitate one of the gesture performers with their voices. Each of the four sound group members has a microphone, and their phrases form the previously recorded sounds from the homemade instruments, live.
    • Each of the four members of the remote control group use a smartphone to follow the movements in the magic square of one gesture person.
    • During this improvisation,  in the loudspeakers we will hear the sound of the four homemade instruments
      • formed by the voices of the sound group (intensity and pitch)
      • moving in soundspace according to the position (left – right, back – front) of the sound group members in the magic square
  6. The collective improvisation is recorded. After the collective impro, everyone listen to the recording.
    • New impros can be made. New experiments tried out. New sounds from the homemade instruments used.
    • For each new impro, people switch roles. Ideally, everyone tries all the different roles once.

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If there are enough people, a possible variation is to have a group of “musicians” adding new sounds from the homemade instruments, according to the movements of the gesture group.

See an example of a street performance using a similar approach, in Cali, Colombia, here.

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