Shaken and/or Stirred

October 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

What’s missing from academe?  The soul.

Soul stirred with the masses.

Cornel West talked about “soul stirrers” some time ago on an episode of Mark Anthony Neal‘s Left of Black. He mentioned a need and general lack of popular music artists capable of truly moving, inspring people to the degree necessary to change lives and communities today. Yeah, we have Beyonce, but West also called her “the greatest star of the culture of superficial spectacle.”

Margaret Mead recognized photography’s role in distinguishing between knowing and believing.  Importantly, she did not praise the camera as an essential tool for ethnography. Mead believed that photography was a flawed tool for conducting social science. Artistic expression has become a more significant element in American Anthropology in the last decades, but an important question remains: How do intellectuals get beyond the limitations of theory and scientific method? How can we do work that evokes feeling?

Although art takes innumerable forms, music and visual arts are commonly the creative artifacts that rouse audiences to their feet–and to action. It would be a mistake to believe that this sort of artistic expression is void of the thoughtfulness clearly associated with scholarly writing. Still, I admit that I only occasionally read journal articles that I would consider inspiring, and it is difficult to imagine one stirring my soul.

On the other hand, expressive sounds, pigments, and movements regularly leave people with a feeling that they have to do something.  That something might include dance, song, marching, or even revolution.  Either way, once you’ve been shaken up, can you easily do nothing?

I spent the night of Oct. 23 soaking in some hip hop. I went home tired, but excited. I was sleepy, but in a rush to get the next day started.  A few simple words can do that, you know?  The energetic expression from the artists onstage and the roomful of participants (collective effervescence, if you care about crediting Durkheim) was powerful enough to send me searching the interwebs for another hit of that good hip hop music and a creative outlet.

Then I stopped to think. Why shouldn’t I expect a similar soul stirring performance from scholarly writers? Does rationality and scientific method have to quell the art of expression? I know that plenty of academics are artists. Are they living dual lives? What keeps poets from singing on the pages that win them tenure? But what if I want more than knowledge?  What if I want to believe?

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§ 2 Responses to Shaken and/or Stirred

  • missps says:

    I think your question is really interesting. Maybe it’s the momentum of a live performance, a transference of energy from the visual or vocal arts that happens more freely than with written word. There’s also something about the passion and intensity that visual/vocal outlets require for them to have legs in the world.

    • ethnolust says:

      Thanks for your comment. I think that performance is an important element, but I would say that giving a conference paper is performance also. It isn’t a performance where moving people emotionally is as important as conveying a logical argument though. With different goals, the forms of presentation are pretty far apart too. That’s not to say that elements of style are not present in this kind of work. The possibility is there though.

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