Ethnography as a Veil: An Ekphrasic and Acousmatic Approach to Flamenco

Photo by Maria Fernandez-Pello.

How can one do an ethnography of a “mysterious force” that celebrates human struggle? How can one convey an experience of the uncanny in Flamenco music? Far from offering a definitive answer, what is suggested here is an experimental approach to ethnographic remediation. Drawing from the poetic notion of ekphrasis and the sonic concept of “acousmatic listening,” this experiment proposes to re-examine how we can use ethnographic texts when conveying presences—as much human as nonhuman.

“A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher can explain” (García Lorca 1933, 4). With this sentence, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca attempted to establish a definition of duende, a word used in Flamenco to describe moments of unparalleled intensity that one experiences in the presence of art. He may not have suspected it at the time, but when he gave his famous conference on the subject of duende in 1933, García Lorca created a sort of national anthem that would resonate within Flamenco and its aficionados until our day. García Lorca’s representation of Flamenco’s mysterious force evoked an image of Spain as a dark, earthy, struggling society, intimately connected with the experience of suffering and bodily intensities. A representation that, as I would find out during my fieldwork in Spain, has been reused and reproduced in many different contexts, and remains still alive in the Spanish imaginary.

Long before García Lorca (1933, 18) characterized duende as a force that “loves the edge, the wound,” the term had been widely used in the Spanish jargon to refer to a felt presence or presences that seemed to share many of the characteristics described by Sigmund Freud (1925) in his definition of the uncanny. In his essay, Das unheimliche, i.e., the uncanny, Freud explains that the concept keeps a close relationship with its apparently immediate opposite, heimlich, i.e. that which feels homely and familiar. Freud notes that those things, people, or situations that are heimlich, and therefore intimate and private, can simultaneously be perceived as unheimlich, precisely because of their tendency to remain secret and out of sight. Romantic affairs, private spaces such as the bathroom, or intimate parts of the body that are intimately familiar to one person are by extension obscure and secret to others. Interestingly enough, the etymology of duende reveals as well a double nature as it represents something that is both familiar and obscure: deriving from “dueño de”, i.e., “owner of,” it translates as “goblin,” “gnome,” or even “troll” (León 2015, 30–34). In European folklore, these creatures are represented as magical figures that secretly own the household—hence the expression “owner of”—residing in and taking care of it while its inhabitants are away. They do not let themselves be seen, but their presence can be felt, and they are used to explain phenomena such as doors that open and close on their own, things that disappear without explanation, or wooden floors that creak at night when everyone is asleep. A house that “has duende” is, therefore, a house that has a secret presence, one that is simultaneously familiar and strange. García Lorca’s proposition of Flamenco’s duende echoes this idea, in which it is a force that, in his own words, everyone can feel, but which we cannot see nor make sense of. Duende, “the spirit of the earth [that] has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood" (García Lorca 1933, 7) and that "changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic" (García Lorca 1933, 19) extracts its power from earthly bodies that bleed and get sick, bringing them forth in a spectacle of dance and music. As in Freud’s uncanny, the feeling of duende arouses when one witnesses obscured and forgotten human forces working on someone else’s body, becoming “dimly aware of them in remote corners of his own being” (Freud 1925, 243).

Thus the experience of uncanniness in Flamenco seems intrinsically linked to an estranged sensed of familiarity, an encounter with inner states or sensations that ought to remain hidden or secret. To achieve or produce duende, the encounter with the uncanny is suggested as necessary. In a similar way, in an essay called “The Sinister and the Beautiful,” Spanish philosopher Eugenio Trias proposed that the presence of the uncanny is necessary for the experience of what he called “true art.” He argued that the true work of art always borders on the unbearable, a source of horror from which it extracts the means by which to produce the most intense of the vital experiences. For Trias, the true work of art functions as a necessary “veil,” one through which we must be able to sense but never directly confront the uncanny. This veil sets the viewer in a position almost of vertigo, in which he is always about to see what cannot be directly seen. It is in this vertiginous moment when we sense that which we cannot bear to confront, that Eugenio Trias (1982, 11) contends one experiences true art: “the sinister constitutes a condition as well as a limit of beauty.”

All throughout García Lorca’s famous conference, we find a similar proposition to the one in Trias’ aesthetic theory: duende, the mysterious spirit of Flamenco, is associated with moments of death and madness, of risk and struggle, of pain and suffering, but also of extreme beauty. As a force that “won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death” (García Lorca 1933, 17) but that also signals the arrival of “the very substance of art” (García Lorca 1933, 4), duende seems to corroborate what Trias proposed: that art lacks any strength or vitality without reference to the uncanny. These representations of Flamenco as an art situated between the beauty and the horror of life experience, would repeat all throughout my fieldwork. Scenes such as a one-eyed Andalusian Roma dancing Alegrias—a Flamenco style characterized for its cheerful lyrics and melody—or an exhausted-looking drug addict singing about the pain he had inflicted upon his family, were highlighted by others during my fieldwork as being “full of duende.” These moments, in direct connection with Freud’s reading of the unheimlich, seemed to offer a glimpse at the familiar experience of pain and suffering, a veiled encounter through performance with that which tends to remain hidden.

The concept of “acousmatic,” referring to listening practices in which the source of sound is obscured (Kane 2014), offers a useful perspective with which to approach ethnographic representation. Because it emphasizes the absence of the source of experience, an “acousmatic” ethnography also stresses the impossibility to fully convey the source of ethnographic research, drawing attention to the fact that the ethnographer’s experience is always perceived through a medium. The term is more appropriate when we learn about its etymology. Acousmatic derives from the name given to Pythagoras’s disciples, Akousmatikoi, who according to the myth, listened to their professor through a veil. By hiding his body behind the veil, Pythagoras expected his students to listen more attentively and more focused than if he was to appear in front of them, gesticulating and distracting the students from the content of his lectures. Pierre Schaeffer, for his part, used the term to refer to the relationship between audiences and modern sound technologies such as the radio or the tape recorder, which he saw as participating in the “actuality of an ancient experience” started by the Pythagorean veil (Schaeffer 1966; see also Kane 2014, 25). Through the use of modern sound technologies like the ones Schaeffer refers to, an acousmatic ethnography replicates the Pythagorean experience by asking its audience to actively listen to someone’s discourse and to involve themselves in the creation of meaning. As a “veiled” experience of an ethnographic encounter, it also works as a reminder that there are others who exist behind that veil, inviting new interpretations of its content without letting its audience forget that they are caught in the act of interpretation.

Situated as well in the tension between absence and presence, text and representation, is the rhetorical exercise of ekphrasis. As a textual practice that “appeals to the senses of a listener” (Lindhé 2013, 8) and that attempts at “making absent things present” (Webb 2009, 190), ekphrasis seems to directly engage with recent anthropological debates around the sensorial and affective potential of ethnographic representation (Stoller 1997; Pink and Howes 2010). Ekphrasic poetry and text deal with the process of mental visualization, focusing on the capacity of words to create presences and to produce different spatiotemporal experiences (Lindhé 2013), a practice that one could say is not far from what many ethnographic texts attempt. Ruth Webb (2009, 168) stresses that the effects of ekphrasis are those of illusion: they “belong to the domain of likeness, of semblance.” As such, ekphrasis is also used to create a mental representation of things that are not necessarily perceptible to the physical senses, such as the history or the spiritual significance of an object. Lindhé also identifies an emerging field of possibilities for this practice, which she calls “digital ekphrasis,” and which she contends is crucial for rethinking the aesthetics and current uses of ekphrasic text. As a practice that heavily relies on writing to evoke presences, the question is, then, what can ekphrasic poetry or text do for ethnographic representation? How can we approach ethnographic text to evoke spaces, events, or even beliefs, while at the same time drawing attention to the processes of mental visualization generated by this type of texts? The piece that accompanies this article offers a possible answer in progress.

What I have proposed here is an experiment, using words to evoke presences and places, and thinking of how reading and listening lead to processes of mental visualization. Attending to the power of words to penetrate the body and act as almost physical forces (Webb 2009, 99), I have worked with textual conventions and meanings, approaching words as graphic elements with the capacity to generate a cinematic experience by themselves. Similarly, I have tried to suggest that an ekphrasic approach to ethnographic writing means not only to rethink the way in which words can describe or explain, but also how they occupy the page or the frame, how they move, how they impact us, how they reproduce in our mind, or even how they operate as visual elements. Finally, I have proposed to approach ethnographic representation through a veil that foregrounds the active role of readers and writers, listeners and speakers, in making experience possible and producing presence.


Freud, Sigmund. 1925. "The Uncanny." Translated by James Strachey. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth.

García Lorca, Federico. 1933. "Teoria y Juego del Duende." Poetry in Translation (blog). Translated by A. S. Kline. February 20, 2020.

Kane, Brian. 2014. Sound Unseen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

León José Javier. 2015. "El duende Lorquiano: de hallazgo poético a lugar común flamenco." PhD diss., University of Granada.

Lindhé, Cecilia. 2013. “‘A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips’: Towards a Digital Ekphrasis.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 1.

Pink, Sarah, and David Howes. 2010. "The Future of Sensory Anthropology/The Anthropology of the Senses." Social Anthropology 18, no. 3: 331–40.

Schaeffer, Pierre. 1966. Traite des objets musicaux: essai interdisciplines. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Stoller, Paul. 1997. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Trías, Eugenio. 1982. Lo bello y lo siniestro. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel.

Webb, Ruth. 2009. Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.