Beyond the Either-Or: An Interview with Patrick Eisenlohr

The February 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Suggestions of Movement: Voice and Sonic Atmospheres in Mauritian Muslim Devotional Practices,” by Patrick Eisenlohr, who heads the research group on Society and Culture in Modern India at the University of Göttingen. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Sander Hölsgens conducted with Eisenlohr about the atmospheric implications of the human voice.

Sander Hölsgens: What brought you to Mauritius, and how did you familiarize yourself with Muslim devotional practices?

Patrick Eisenlohr: Mauritius is a most fascinating society in which conflicting political projects that center on the nexus of language and religion intersect in a highly diverse Creole setting without a precolonial population. What I became interested in was the longstanding process of “religionization” among Mauritians of Indian background, who taken together constitute the great majority of the population but who are strongly divided by class and caste as well as religious and ethnic affiliations. I first became interested in the devotional practices among Mauritian Muslims that I describe in the article during my doctoral research on the cultivation of Indian ancestral languages in Mauritius.

Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, I encountered these practices as one of the ways in which Urdu remains of some importance in Mauritius. Early on, Urdu teachers and scholars helped me to become familiar with the na‘t genre, and from 2003 to 2011 I attended numerous devotional gatherings at which the genre was recited. I also became interested in the history of the genre as one among the many points of sectarian contention among Mauritian Muslims, as among Muslims in South Asia. This helped me to understand the practice and the debates around the genre as one of the ways in which Mauritian Muslims argued about Islamic traditions.

SH: Your article opens with magnificent ethnographic details, wonderful poetry, and a gentle acquaintance with the tacit and rhythmic qualities of the human voice. The voice, here, conveys a myriad of moods and atmospheres, and you seem to position the physical body as its fleshy soundboard: rather than being quintessential indications of subjectivity, you suggest that the vocal and the spoken are crucial to one’s felt location in space. Could you explain in more detail why and on what basis you decided to move away from a discussion of voice as emblematic of agency and intentionality, in favor of a more phenomenological study into vocal sound? Were there specific events that directed you toward this interest in embodiment and bodily experiences?

PE: This move away from taking the voice as an emblem of agency and intentionality has been going on for a while, not just in anthropology, linguistic and sociocultural, but also in other disciplines. During my fieldwork in Mauritius, several of my interlocutors repeatedly pushed my attention away not only from expressions of intentionality in vocal performance, but also from the discursive aspects of the performance that I was at first primarily interested in, given my background in linguistic anthropology. They started discussions about appropriate vocal sound, while avoiding the category of music in the context of this genre of devotional poetry.

My interlocutors told me that the qualities of vocal sound in their devotional practices were very important. They said that such qualities were difficult to put in words, but I heard several of them use similar metaphors. Their descriptions of vocal sound as enacting sensations of spatial movement later led me in the direction of neo-phenomenological approaches to atmospheres and the felt-body. At its core, this kind of phenomenology takes atmospheres as enacting suggestions of movement on people who are within their range.

SH: Theoretically, you position your work as a phenomenology of atmospheres, rather than a study into the affectivities of the human voice. Within your article, there’s a persuasive section titled “Against Affect,” in which you suggest that affect theory has thus far led to a “categorical distinction between the sonic and signification.” Instead, you build upon Gernot Böhme and Hermann Schmitz’s understanding of atmospheres, for whom atmospheres exist in time and permeate a variety of spaces. An analytic of atmospheres, you write, “overcomes the dualism of materiality and signification.” What lies beyond such a dualism, and how is this related to the notion of the felt-body? Moreover, are there any other noteworthy advantages and limitations to considering atmospheres and the felt-body as the principal loci of ethnographic research?

PE: Sonic atmospheres and the suggestions of movement they enact are highly meaningful. Such suggestions can thus also be understood as signs, above all through their iconicity and indexicality. That means that their meaningfulness, their quality of being signs, resides in their material unfolding and does not depend on a mental imposition of signification after a brief temporal “delay,” as Brian Massumi’s influential take on affect would have it. This is why the workings of atmospheres need to be distinguished from such an understanding of affect. And this is important because, at least in certain parts of sound studies, the power of the sonic has been too quickly identified with affect in the tradition of Gilles Deleuze as interpreted by Massumi. There are certainly other genealogies of affect derived from psychology and neuroscience, as in the work of Silvan Tomkins, where affect is contiguous with language, emotions, and signification. But I think such a concept of affect then becomes too broad to have much explicatory force, at least for cultural analysis.

That approach also places less emphasis on what I think is most compelling in Massumi’s Deleuzian understanding of affect. This is the foregrounding of energetic forces that move between and through bodies, which affect shares with atmospheres and which has invited all of these comparisons and identifications with the sonic. Both affect and atmospheres traverse and connect bodies. Another important distinction between atmospheres and Deleuzian affect is that, at least in Massumi’s interpretation, affect operates at a sub- or nonconscious level, while atmospheres often make themselves felt in states somewhere in between fully focused attention and the semiconscious, like the feeling of being in darkness or warmth. This is where the notion of the felt-body comes in, as it operates precisely in that range where consciousness is not an either-or question.

An analytic of atmospheres enables the ethnographer to do justice to all of those consequential aspects of social and political life that many describe under the rubric of affect, without having to rely on a theory of prehistorical and precultural forces to which no situated ethnography would likely have access. According to the terms of that theory, anything emerging in intersubjective ethnographic encounters would already have ceased to be affect, having been subject to sociocultural qualification. In contrast, atmospheres combine a recognition of the reality and importance of interpersonal energetic forces and a stress on sociocultural mediation. They thus overcome the dualism between Deleuzian affect and history.

SH: Beyond your ethnography, you think with and work through sound recordings, so as to consider a variety of sonic movements, reverbs, and rhythms. The spectrograms and waveforms you include offer additional visual insight. Could you describe the process of studying such sonic details through recordings, and how this research method complements your more discursive analysis of atmospheres? Also, how do you strike a balance between allowing the visual representations of sonic atmospheres to speak for themselves and analyzing them discursively?

PE: As you suggest, I intend the spectrograms and waveforms I have included in the article to provide a mode of access to the sonic other than through discourse. Paying attention to the formal properties of the sonic avoids the immediate reduction of sound to discourse—at least to some extent—and enables us to grasp the workings of sonic movements in a different way. As scientific representations, they certainly also have limits. In particular, their representation of sonic movements as three-dimensional does not fully capture what Schmitz calls suggestions of movement in nondimensional felt space. The latter are central to atmospheres; from a phenomenological perspective, they are upstream to any conceptualization of sonic movements as three-dimensional.

The conclusion I derive from this is that discursive and formal scientific approaches to sound complement each other; neither is inherently superior to the other. One cannot do an ethnography of sound without describing what one’s interlocutors have to say about, in this case, the voice in the kind of devotional performances I analyze. However, entirely reducing sound to discourse is tantamount to not taking sound seriously as an independent modality of knowledge. Yet, as I said, the spectrograms and waveforms do not fully capture felt suggestions of movement from a phenomenological perspective. The lesson I draw from all of this is that one needs to work with several approaches to the sonic simultaneously.

SH: We’ve talked about the phenomenological framework that you have adopted, but I wonder whether scholarship in ethnomusicology like that of Kofi Agawu, Maud Karpeles, or Ida Halpern has informed your work as well. More generally, in what ways does your phenomenological point of departure coincide with or differ from the approaches of ethnomusicology and sound studies?

PE: My encounter with the analytic of atmospheres was the result of my return to a German academic environment some five years ago. This new phenomenology of atmospheres comes out of of more recent German philosophy, and I learned about it through the work of my wife, Birgit Abels, who is a musicologist. Beyond music studies, the paradigm of atmospheres had earlier made its way into geography and architecture, while anthropological engagement with the phenomenology of atmospheres is still in its beginnings. In Anglophone ethnomusicology the notion of atmosphere has barely been taken up so far, and in the one instance I am aware of it is too easily assimilated to the already established paradigm of Massumian affect. That said, I see work in North American ethnomusicology that draws on a Peircean framework, such as that of Thomas Turino and Kofi Agawu, as very much compatible with phenomenological approaches to atmospheres.

SH: Finally, what other research projects are you currently working on, and are you planning to continue studying the human voice through mixed-media praxis?

PE: Besides a longstanding interest in the intersections of language, media practices, and temporality that I continue to pursue through my research in Mauritius and Mumbai, I am currently thinking about how my research on sonic atmospheres in religious settings can inform a broader anthropological approach to atmospheres. While this certainly implies going beyond the sonic, the study of the human voice is going to remain central to my work.