From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Dust of the Zulu
Dear Dr. Meintjes,
I find myself caught by the resonance between Dust of the Zulu’s (Duke University Press, 2017) poetics and its ethnographic material. In this response, I’d like to dwell on the nature of this mimetic relation between text and subject, while considering how your approach might inform future ethnographic endeavours. I was compelled by your account in part because my own research has broached the entanglement of politics and artistic practice, and the relation of form and affect as it defines both political and artistic life. (Specifically, I’ve attended to how a politics of reconciliation is mediated through the set of evaluative frameworks that bear upon Indigenous artistic production in Canada.)
In the introductory chapter of Dust of the Zulu, you relate your text’s “registers of representation” to those that emerge in ngoma: “Just as [ngoma praise] 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). Characterizing the mimetic register, you explain that “imagistic bursts using short sentences and spare description” punctuate longer passages depicting “the flow and technique of improvisations” (19). If I’m reading you correctly, these short “bursts” are not only iconic of particular movements—“springing surprises, cutting, turning” (19)—but also iconic of the overall rhythm of ngoma performance insofar as they metrically organize the text into stretches of mounting tension and release. My intuition, however, is that there’s more to your text’s mimesis than this brief explanation suggests. In your attention to the form and feeling of ngoma, you identify a knot of principles that subtend the artistic practice and the sociohistorical context it mediates: isigqi or “a sense of power” born of the momentary, coordinated consolidation of forces (48), “control at the edge” (65), and strategic ambiguity (66). If I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest that these same principles color the form and feeling of your text just as they constitute the form and feeling of ngoma.
You first identify isigqi as a sense of power that consolidates in particular moments and which emerges from an orchestration of collaborative and competitive forces. In my reading, your text also performs a careful coordination of centrifugal and centripetal scenes—sometimes straying into loose strands of context, other times gathering into knots of intense ethnographic density. Inesigqi! The ramifying details of a scene—sonic, kinetic—include lyrics and interpretations that draw a broader social and historical background into the tightening gyre. Like the performance it describes, your text deftly twists an array of volatile forces into a concentrated hit. In chapter one, for instance, you conclude with an observation that the corralling of machismo into aesthetic form lends performance an “extraordinary intensity” (58). Then, noting that the “striking virtuosity [of performance] realizes its social potential” (58), you flag the broader, sociopolitical horizon of significance. Further heightening the stakes while widening the scope, you remark: “In the context of the particular political contingencies within which these men live . . . features of the struggle for responsibility and proper manhood can become embroiled in a destructive cycle that circulates through the aesthetic form as well” (58). Then, we slip out of the analytic register as quickly as we entered it—“If you’re going to mess me around, I don’t care” (58)—but the implications of the analysis bleed into the ethnographic scene. Behind the dancer’s brash words, a social world churns and thrums. Cut.
“From the midst of the crowd, ululations spill into the texture of the song. Laughter” (58). Cut. These montage techniques introduce tensions that at once electrify and threaten to dissolve the text’s coherence. I’d like to suggest that the phrase “control at the edge” describes Dust of the Zulu’s poetic play of forces, just as Dust of the Zulu deploys it to describe ngoma performance. In splicing together disparate scenes, however, there is risk: risk that the irrepressable energy of the parts can rupture any achieved unity of the whole. Such risk rears its head when you cut from social context, to performance, to another social scene. . . . How do these pieces hold together? Your orchestration is just deft enough to compose elements without containing or reducing them. The registers you identify at the beginning—evocative and explanatory, terse and detailed, mimetic and analytic—are resonant enough to be complementary rather than cacophonic.
Ngoma’s ambiguity of aesthetic form is also reproduced in the scenes that you craft. Reflecting upon the power of your writing—the way you balance attention to form and attunement to affect—I’ve concluded that a degree of ambiguity is essential. How does one explain the affects that accrue to aesthetic forms without explaining them away? One cannot be sure. “The significance . . . must remain up for grabs by being presented seamlessly, as if slipped into the flow of things, worked into the groove of communal life” (119). Although you offer interpretations—unfolding scenes and interactions that would be otherwise incomprehensible—you also choose to leave some things open, rendering moments so saturated with detail that they cast up a myriad of meanings while refusing firm resolution.
I’m not sure if the resonances traced out above truly define the text of Dust of the Zulu—or if, rather, my own predilection for homology has amplified a passing structural resemblance. Either way, I appreciate what I have gleaned by reading your text as mimetic in form and affect. For me, your text crystallizes a kind of fidelity to the object that all ethnographies should aspire to . . . not least ethnographies that traffic in form and feeling.
Very best wishes, appreciatively,
Robyn Holly Taylor-Neu