Photo by Photo by TJ Lemon, 2003. Young Zulu men Bhekiseni Ndlovu (partially obscured), Neli Mbongiseni Dladla, and Phumlani Zulu perform ngoma dance on Christmas day in their home village of esiPongweni, KwaZulu-Natal.

What would a sounded anthropology be?
Louise Meintjes et. al, “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology”

Reading Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics after Apartheid by Louise Meintjes (Duke University Press, 2017) I found myself between two desires: one to inhabit the text, to move in it, to sweat and spit and breathe the scene of ngoma dances. A second desire to abandon the text altogether; to abandon an attachment to this form.

How do you render dance in text? Or rather—can text be separated from the body, can a voice? Can things transform? And what happens in the transfer of knowledge from one form to another, if not all thought is words? Meintjes writes of “Saliva and dust. Writing about the body, I write about the voice . . . I hear the state of the body in the voice. Saliva wetting the sound . . . I notice the body as a voice” (x), noting that “Ngoma performance animates both a metonymic and a metaphoric relationship between voice and body, and between the individual body that senses ulaka and the collective body that transforms ulaka into action” (88). Here, a body can be experienced aesthetically as it is understood within a milieu that extends itself as a history in motion.

Meintjes is careful to describe this aesthetic through engaging the senses the dance animates. It is not a spectacle nor a genre—or some other ready cultural category. Rather, she argues, to hear the dance is to hear the embodied practice of its history. The violence of everyday life is “enunciated” by the dance (2). She invokes Steven Feld, “Being heard requires that a voice be materially instantiated. A material voice carries the past, including the contours of biography (Feld 1996b)” (15). The body’s exclusive gestures are inextricable from the material and temporal milieu it performs. Where this everyday violence enunciates its history, (“fighting is culture,” remarks one dancer [141]), media also represents such violence in redundant forms. Under conditions of “global neglect,” Meintjes writes, “what does it mean to speak with a dancing body? What does it mean to have a voice? Listen to my dance, Zabiwe says by cupping his ear as he begins his solo sequence. Can you hear what I’m saying?” (15). This industry depends on the ability to extract and circulate representations—to forcibly decontextualize the dance from the body.

In her comments as a committee member for the Bateson Book Prize, Susan Lepselter remarks that Meintjes’ work centers on anger (ulaka), what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) might call its “fragile point.” If anger can be chaos and if chaos can be choreographed, “Sometimes chaos is an immense black hole in which one endeavors to fix a fragile point as a center. Sometimes one organizes around that point a calm and stable ‘pace’ (rather than a form): the black hole has become a home” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 312–13). I wondered if the pace of Dust of the Zulu—a pace that shows struggles of form, of representation—reveals the violence the Zulu cathartically embody in their choreography, whether “politics bleeds through into performance” (126), or how the dance—its ulaka—might be represented otherwise.

Mientjes recorded the sounds of the dance and “later [turned] to video” (x). In Dust of the Zulu,“Just as names shift in feeling, form and function, my text shifts in register from the evocative to the explanatory, the terse to the detailed, and the mimetic to the analytic” (19). Reading the shifting aesthetic forms as attempts to get the sensorial “right,” or to orbit a fragile point, I felt like a child who has sat too long in the waiting room of her parents’ social rhythms—who will squirm and find a corner somewhere to play. I enjoyed the quality of squirming best when I could think beyond the text, to ask: what does it desire? To know the limitations of ethnographic writing, of rendering sense in words. I wondered where the author struggled to connect “saliva and dust” with the computer screen, the inert and silent form of a book on a shelf—if a book is just one way of making something known, a word just one possible shape for an idea. Pushing against the slipperiness of representation, Meintjes writes, “the body-voice is an expanded creative and material resource” (15). Ambivalence about what aesthetics does reveals the particular limitations of chosen media: to position the researcher as a vessel (or a medium)—politics breathes through a body toward a milieu whose circulation determines its conduct: a choreography.


Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.