Louise Meintjes Awarded the 2018 Bateson Prize

The Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) is proud to award the tenth annual Gregory Bateson Prize to Louise Meintjes for her book Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics after Apartheid (Duke University Press).

Dust of the Zulu is a breathtaking representation of ethnographic knowledge and empathy directed not simply to a specific place, but at the meanings produced around that place as people’s literal and figural movements, both aspirational and born of necessity, become art. In this luminously rendered account illustrated with photographs by T. J. Lemon, Meintjes explores the intermingled, cocreative planes of politics, aesthetics, feeling, and history that comprise ngoma, a competitive dance and music scene that expresses Zulu masculinity in the wake of the ongoing injuries wrought by colonialism and apartheid. Here, as Meintjes shows across the text, masculinity becomes a performance of multifaceted identity, bound up with collective ideas about and experiences of many kinds of violence.

Meintjes’s book is itself an innovative performance of ethnographic writing; its kinetic, vibrant prose mirrors the high kicks and shattering moves of its subjects and concerns, often folding up densely and pleasurably before exploding into new ideas and tempos. Nonetheless, this strikingly original book is also a fine example of a long anthropological tradition of grounded, carefully interpreted ethnography; its challenges of more standard temporalities are filled with lovingly observed people, relationships, and intimate complexities. In her analyses, Meintjes moves elegantly between the sweeping contexts of South African and transnational political and labor histories and the finest-grained of ethnographic engagements with form, movement, sound, music and story. Meintjes’s ear is meticulous as she translates Zulu talk, ngoma lyrics, and cultural tropes, as well as seemingly inconsequential comments from the crowd. She does so in light of personal stories about specific people and their laboring and affective lives, as well as those nonverbal, embodied, affective levels of things that constitute a Zulu world, grounding her interpretations in both local metadiscourse and the tools of sound studies, music theory, and poetics.

Even timid readers will find themselves called into timbral qualities, harmonics, range, frequencies, and mouth placements. They will be carried into the soundscapes by which these occur through a variety of vehicles—a wind, a murmur or shout, an engine, a ululation breaking from the crowd—all of which contribute to the performance, all of which are transported into the ineffable meanings of the body in artful action. This may involve bursting health in competitive dance, or even sickness and decline. Across the book another layer of struggle emerges in relation to the AIDS epidemic, whose uncontrolled, invisible unboundedness is expressed through what Meintjes calls a “poetics of ambiguity.” Here, the primacy of stories aligns with unspoken bonds of community and experiences of violence—how it is lived, anticipated, and articulated in song and dance. Additionally, Meintjes illuminates the culturally elaborated, deeply nuanced articulation of masculine anger as a social, artful, and affective presence. Not since Renato Rosaldo’s work on the anger of Ilongot men has there been such a deeply explored ethnographic work on anger. Dust of the Zulu is as emotionally moving as it is intellectually compelling. And in its focus on embodiment, affect, and performance, this shimmering, beautiful ethnography seems a particularly fitting tribute to the legacy of Gregory Bateson.

The jury is also pleased to recognize David B. Edwards with an Honorable Mention for his book Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan (University of California Press).

Taking as his starting point an interplay of tribe, state, and Islam that has long supported Afghan engagements with foreign invaders, Edwards follows a series of alterations in what he dubs the “machinery” of sacrifice. The result is a mature, densely supported, and clearly argued examination of indeterminacy and moral ordering that offers an iconoclastic interpretation of the growth of global jihad and the rise of suicide bombing. By approaching martyrdom not simply as a decision made by an individual or a manifestation of a monolithic Islam, but rather as a motile sacrificial practice with a heterogeneous history whose varied expressions alter what sacrifice does, Edwards contests reductionist claims about religious fundamentalisms, individual pathologies, and the psychological coordinates of repurposing bodies as mobile bombs. He focuses instead on context and mediation, on the material forms taken not only by the semiotic vehicles spun off from ritual, but also the technologies that rework those rituals’ affective grounds and political implications. Here helicopter gunships, smuggled cassette tapes, and songs hidden on cellphone chips; earthen battlements that become homes to a generation of mujahidin; madrasas that serve both exiled children and Islamic parties; invasive military patrols that willfully penetrate domestic spaces; Facebook pages that reconstitute friendship and hierarchy; and high walls constructed to isolate and protect U.S. troops in violation of still salient conceptions of honorable exchange all conspire to constrict the ability of sacrifice to transform violence across communicative registers. All of this generates a new form of sacrifice in contemporary Afghanistan, whereby patterned exchanges extend and even amplify violence, rather than turning it toward alternative purposes and exchanges.  

Nonetheless, by means of his sensitive engagements with practices in Afghanistan, as well as his grounded yet creative extensions of the thought of Henri Hubert, Marcel Mauss, and René Girard, Edwards has offered the world a novel understanding of the emergence of suicide bombing in the context of so-called Islamic radicalization. In the process, he refuses a naive return to the unexamined power of the social, of cultural context, and of linear history or even genealogy, offering instead a sobering account of mediating forms that constrict the relations of force long at the heart of political culture in Afghanistan. Yet in so doing, he suggests how an engagement with the deep histories and poetics of rituals that people may think they have exhausted may someday do much more than reproduce a present violence.

The Gregory Bateson Book Prize is awarded by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association. Named after distinguished anthropologist, semiotician, cyberneticist, and photographer Gregory Bateson, the award​ reflects the SCA’s mandate to promote theoretically rich and ethnographically grounded research that engages the most current thinking across the arts and sciences. Welcoming a wide range of styles and argument, the Gregory Bateson Book Prize looks to single out work that is interdisciplinary, experimental, and innovative.

In selecting the winners for this year’s prize, the jury, John F. Collins (Queens College and Graduate Center, City University of New York; 2018 Bateson Prize Chair), Aimee Cox (Yale University), Susan Lepselter (Indiana University), and Sharad Chari (University of California, Berkeley) considered over one hundred books from more than thirty presses.