Together in the Flesh
From the Series: An Otherwise Anthropology
Otherwise names the subjectivity in the commons, an asubjectivity that is not about the enclosed self but the open, vulnerable, available, enfleshed organism.
—Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility
Can we laugh our way into the otherwise? In my fieldwork in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, I encountered laughter more frequently than I had expected. In my encounters with camp residents, laughter gestured at curiosity, suspicion, indignation; expelled as breath along with sighs, shrugs, and other evocative gestures. Most often, laughter accompanied tales of the absurdity of humanitarian aid. It shadowed stories of long wait times, a lack of food, and buildings and shelters that had gone unrepaired, but also bureaucratic inefficiencies and ill-considered interventions that had (sometimes unintended) consequences. It also frequently accompanied brief digressions about violence and punctuated longer testimonials whose performance was all but demanded by humanitarian “protection” mechanisms. In the camp, violence, the changing of human beings into animals and vice versa, sexual relations with transformed bodies, death and disappearance, and the grim inadequacy of humanitarian aid were all fodder for laughter, explicit, and implicit jokes.
They gave us one ID card with everyone’s name on the sheet. Ha ha. We used to get rice from Japan, but we haven’t had any since they stopped funding it. Can you believe it! Ha ha. Yes, he turned into a goat! [Guffaws] It’s like that only! [Laughter]
Georges Bataille is right that the joy of laughter can never be separated from the tragic. According to Bataille (1986, 90):
[L]aughter is, let us say, the effect of un-knowing, though laughter has not, theoretically, as its object the state of un-knowing; one does not, by laughing, accept the idea that one knows nothing. Something unexpected occurs, which is in contradiction to the knowledge we do have.
In the camp, though, laughter points to an embodied form of (un)knowing. Here, grounded in the body, it reworks one’s very being. Laughter as revelation of vulnerability (among other things) was not simply a way of making claims with regards to the humanitarian exertion of power, it represented a way of “making space” into an otherwise. What, then, could be the power of laughing together?
Anthropology has long been preoccupied with the task of attuning our non-visual senses within the context of fieldwork—of using our sensing bodies to make sense of the world. Smelling, sensing, hapticality, and hearing. We might explore dreamworlds, soundscapes beyond immediate dialogue, tastes, textures. Such “sensuous scholarship” (Stoller 2010) cannot but be embodied. Laughter is yet another sensing, embodied experience. Building on John L. Jackson’s (2010) critique of “building rapport” and exhortation to pay attention to humor and laughter as well as anthropological explorations of laughter as a marker of social relationships (Radcliffe-Brown 1940; Carty and Musharbash 2008; de Vienne 2012; Mauss 2013; Amrute 2017; Devlieger 2018), I argue that laughter, smiling, and exhalations function as a means of calling the listener in by sketching the contours of difference and thus vulnerability. In Nyarugusu, laughter often emerged around conversations having to do with bodily vulnerability. Laughter is not only preoccupied with the body, along with its materiality, transformations, and vulnerability, but is also of the body—that is, it is an embodied gesture that points towards a political otherwise in the excess of meaning and invitations that it generates. But rather than the suggestion that we must gain trust in order to do ethnography, what seems important to me is that laughing together is not simply “laughing together”; rather, we must think of laughter as a specifically embodied practice that folds together time and space and engenders togetherness in the flesh. Here, “in the flesh” suggests both presence, and that which is prior to the disciplined body (Hortense J. Spillers’s  zero degree of social conceptualization).
Laughter’s relationship to unease, danger, and distress underscored moments of potential precarity: when violence threatened to interrupt ordinary moments too forcefully, when the small fissures between my colocuters and I were at risk of turning into chasms. It illustrated incommensurability as well as intimacy; it illuminated our different understandings of the world, and their acknowledgement of that fact. It expressed the warmth in our relationships, as well as the distance and the unknowing that marked them. Declarations of suffering like “you see, we live a hard life here” (unaona, unaishi maisha magumu), “we are just suffering patiently” (tunavumilia tu!), and “we’re in pain here” (tunaumia huku), as well as complaints about the lack of food and the breakdown of physical health accompanied by laughter were invitations into an affective mode of relationality that privileged the corporeal. But I suggest that this “bodying forth of words” (Das 2006, 6, 40) implied by laughter and exclamations is not so much an attempt to “reinhabit” the world as it is to make a claim on what once was and what should be—or rather, a claim to what one is: a human being. Camp residents frequently insisted that aid workers could not (or would not) see their humanity; “after all, we are human beings,” they would add, speaking of conditions they found unbearable. Recalling the enfleshed body (Spillers 1987) unmarked by humanitarian confinement, they gestured to their shrinking bodies to assert how they might be healthy and thus fully human. The whole “human” they imagined contrasted to the unembodied “human” of the human rights education programs prevalent in the camp, tethered not to the flesh but to the law.
Some moments were fraught: when my presence was suspicious and laughter sharply limited my welcome. Still others called me in, when laughter made our differences clear and laid the grounds for an invitation into openness to another. Rather than a mere methodological tool to lay the foundations for interpersonal trust in ethnographic encounters, laughter enables a kind of recognition of one another. It delineates incommensurability, and in doing so demands respect. As breath(ed), laughter moves us away from abstractions and toward an ethics of vulnerability grounded in the body—an embodied invitation to openness. By writing anew the relationship between my respondents and myself, this laughter opened me up to the possibility of conversion (Jackson 2005), all the while gesturing toward a different set of political concerns. Laughing together in the flesh not only limned enfleshment but demanded the respect of political engagement with the differential conditions of its production.
Amrute, Sareeta. 2017. “Press One for POTUS, Two for the German Chancellor: Humor, Race, and Rematerialization in the Indian Tech Diaspora.” HAU 7, no. 1: 327–52.
Bataille, Georges. 1986. “Un-Knowing: Laughter and Tears.” Translated by Annette Michelson. October 36, Spring: 89–102.
Carty, John, and Yasmine Musharbash. 2008. “You've Got to Be Joking: Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology.” Anthropological Forum 18, no. 3: 209–17.
Das, Veena. 2006. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.
de Vienne, Emmanuel. 2012. “‘Make yourself uncomfortable’: Joking Relationships as Predictable Uncertainty among the Trumai of Central Brazil.” HAU 2, no. 2: 163–87.
Devlieger, Clara. 2018. “Rome and the Romains: Laughter on the Border between Kinshasa and Brazzaville.” Africa 88, no. 1: 160–82.
Jackson, John L., Jr. 2010. “On Ethnographic Sincerity.” Current Anthropology 51, no. S2: 279–89.
———. 2005. Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mauss, Marcel. 2013. “Joking Relations.” Translated and introduced by Jane I. Guyer.” HAU 3, no. 2: 317–34.
Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred R. 1940. “On Joking Relationships.” Africa 13, no. 3: 195–210.
Spillers, Hortense J. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2: 64–81.
Stoller, Paul. 2010. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Originally published in 1997.