Feel It in Your Bones - Bourdieusian bodyworlds and verisimilitude
“We learn bodily. The social order inscribes itself in bodies through this permanent confrontation, which may be more or less dramatic but is always largely marked by affectivity and, more precisely, by affective transactions with the environment…The most serious social injunctions are addressed not to the intellect but to the body, treated as a ‘memory pad.’ The essential part of the learning of masculinity and femininity tends to inscribe the difference between the genders in bodies (especially through clothing), in the form of ways of walking, talking, standing, looking, sitting, etc.” - Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations
I have no evidence to back this up but recently it feels like more and more folks have been talking about how “hollow” the thought-worlds of a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stuff can be - the sort of disquieting insubstantiality that flows from an unwillingness to seriously engage with alterity on its terms. The impetus for starting the blog you’re reading rn was a deep frustration with this emptiness in the Afrofantasy products and spaces I spent my time on and it’s been a frequent topic of discussion here ever since. Assessing the efficacy of the little fixes and theories we love so much here at Majestic Fly Whisk, Inc. remains challenging, tho, even on the level of impressions. It’s probably reflective of my own biases that most of my attempts to play with deeper, more textured cultures at the table tend to revolve around people and relationships; within this (admittedly broad) category, it’s been hard to discern precisely why some experiments resonated more with me than others…UNTIL NOW??!!?!?!
What We Talk About When We Talk About Talk
This post really doesn’t need the historiography bit to make its point anymore but goddamnit I’m keeping it.
The integration of anthropological perspectives on gossip into the realm of historical scholarship was a glacially slow process - the formalized and explicit examination of gossip and rumor within anthropology has deep roots, largely traceable to the pioneering work of Africanist scholar (and certified cool guy) Max Gluckman during the 1960s*, but it took a long time for this body of literature to permeate mainstream historical scholarship. I say mainstream bc the then-recently reborn subfield of Central African history was a noteworthy exception; Vansina & Friends were inveterate thieves of methodology who desperately assimilated new anthropological or linguistic insights as the dearth of conventional sources compelled historians to adopt the distinctive hybrid approach that would come to define the New African History and eventually produced a number of interesting advances. There are probably other examples of similarly localized engagements with the gossip and rumor literature that I’m unaware of, but the turning point in the general incorporation of gossip studies came with Marxist king Chris Wickham's 1998 paper "Gossip and Resistance among the Medieval Peasantry." It still holds up honestly, elevating the importance of gossip as an integral facet of the socio-cultural fabric in medieval societies. Wickham's conceptualization of "fama" as a focal point for delving into medieval thought catalyzed a renewed interest in the role of informal communication networks in shaping historical dynamics. "Gossip and Resistance” in turn instigated a flurry of scholarly activity and this energy culminated with the publication of the edited volume Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe, masterfully curated by Thelma Fenster and Daniel Lord Smail. This is the book that really inaugurated work on fama, which is a whole thing now. I’d seen it cited in a bunch of very different books (learned about it from McMahon’s Slavery and Emancipation in Islamic East Africa: From Honor to Respectability) for a while but didn’t bite the bullet on reading it until a couple of days ago.
So, what is fama? Fenster does a pretty good job of summarizing here:
“Fama is ‘rumor’ and ‘idle talk,’ ‘the things people say.’ It is ‘reputation’ and ‘memory’ or ‘memories,’ ‘the things people know.’ It is ‘fame,’ or perhaps ‘glory,’ as well as their opposites, ‘infamy’ and ‘defamation.’ Across its semantic range fama intersected with a number of other terms, such as honor, shame, status, and witnessing, and it glossed the essential nexus of performance, talk, reputation, and speech regulation [...]. It retained and incorporated meanings that had been active in Latin-speaking cultures. [Both] a good name and a bad one were called fama, and while fama denoted information or news, at the same time it meant the image formed of a person by that information.”
It’s pretty intuitive and uncontroversial (except for hard agency types ig) to say that a substantial portion of human knowledge emerges from the realm of social exchange, where discourse shapes the decisions and judgments that establish and govern communities. In a lot of Middle Ages Europe, this form of discourse was labeled "fama," a wonderfully polysemous term represented both a product – akin to 'common knowledge' or 'public sentiment' – and a process, reflecting widespread discourse (‘the ongoing dialogues’) / prevailing narratives or metadiscourse on the nature of reputational knowledge. Medieval fama encompassed communication, account, and rumor altogether. To achieve the status of 'famosus' (for good or ill) was to be a central topic of discussion, a name on the lips of many. Most intriguing, 'fama' bridged 'talk' and 'knowledge'; they were intertwined, reinforcing one another. This knowledge wasn't the sole domain of an individual but reflected collective consensus, albeit with individual variations - Wickham’s closing paragraph on this aspect of fama in the paper he wrote for the edited volume was the spark that forced me to rewrite this:
“All societies are structured not only by rules, which people can be taught, and which can be policed, but also by a much less clear body of knowledge about how these rules can be negotiated and bent, about how far one can go before people think one has gone too far, and about which people can get away with more and which with less. Fama is the best guide we have in this period to these quasi-rules, what Pierre Bourdieu has called habitus. Only if we track fama in operation can we find out how those quasi-rules worked then, and how they work now.”
I’d been picking out interesting examples of engagements with fama from the book (the original version of this post was a not-really-even-gamified collection of weird shit) when I reread this; any mention of Bourdieu is like crack to lefty social science losers, so I reviewed my list to see if the selections I’d excerpted told me anything new. And they did!
At the risk of exposing myself to withering criticism from TRVE BOVRDHEADS who would (rightly, to some extent) insist that there’s no way to understand habitus outside of the full system - field, cultural capital, practice, etc - I’ll try to contextualize my point. Habitus is in a lot of ways the product of sociology’s famous structure v. agency debates; Bourdieu argues that diverging from reductionist, mechanistic interpretations of socio-cultural determinism doesn't imply refuting the objective reality of existing conditions and means of action, nor does it simplify the significance and origins of acts to merely the conscious intentions and considerations of individuals. In short, something like a centrist griller perspective on consciousness is presented, one that eschews a rigid binary distinction between conscious and unconscious realms in favor of recognizing le nuanced continuum. This perspective underscores that the majority of human experiential terrain lies within the intermediate span between these two extremities, what Bourdieu calls 'the domain of habit.' This domain is where the foundational effects of socialization and early learning are ingrained; it's where cultural norms imprint on the individual's physique, transforming the body into a vessel that both communicates and exemplifies cultural codes (encompassing aspects like attire, gender roles, societal norms, and power dynamics). Proficiency in social engagement largely resides in this habitual sphere: individuals regularly conform to societal norms without conscious effort. The pervasive role of habit in human behavior serves as a channel through which external determinants and institutionalizations exert their influence. Objective social constructs give rise to the 'habitus', defined as a persistent and adaptable set of tendencies that underlie and generate consistent, objective social behaviors. These tendencies, coupled with the resultant behaviors, can collectively be termed 'culture' — an ingrained system of habitual behavior that shapes individuals' action paradigms. To condense a little, it is the social structures that engender culture, which, in turn, engenders practices that ultimately perpetuate the very social structures from which they emanated.
The thing I’d realized about the collection of stuff I’d put together was that I’d been gravitating towards examples where habitus was somatized, interactions with concepts of fama happening below (or beyond) the level of verbalized or written discussions of reputation. This is really important bc a big part of how habitus works is precisely on this level. Social relations, according to Bourdieu, are not confined to intellectual apprehension or conscious understanding; instead, they become embodied, inscribed within individuals. Spilling beyond the confines of thought proper, knowledge of the world assumes practiced manifestations. Bourdieu describes this phenomenon through the interplay of two simultaneous processes: a) cognitive structures arise from the assimilation of the objective social structures within which an agent operates and b) our tools for apprehending the world are inherently shaped by this very world. Analogized by Bourdieu as being akin to the permanent imprint of a tattoo, the habitus permeates the subject, molding its contours - habitus is (perhaps more than anything else) a bodily state, “history incarnated.” The practices it engenders or curtails arise from the gradual infusion of social structures into an individual's very being. Bourdieu's conception of the self emerges from a ceaseless interplay between the corporeal and the societal realms, encapsulated in his assertion that "[t]he body is in the social world but the social world is in the body, in a relationship of belonging and ownership.” There’s a gorgeous example of this interplay within Rudolph Ware’s excellent The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa:
“Human ‘bodies of knowledge’ are made, not born. Islamic learning is brought into the world through concrete practices of corporal discipline, corporeal knowledge transmission, and the deeds of embodied agents. Knowledge in Islam does not abide in texts; it lives in people. From this viewpoint, some of the ‘non-sense’ of the Qurʾan school may make sense after all. If the goal was not so much to impart discursive knowledge as to transform a vile lump of flesh into God’s living Word, then remolding the body was essential. Disciplining the limbs and the appetites created certain kinds of bodies and sensibilities. Hunger and thirst, corporal punishment and mimesis, love and service helped inscribe the Book onto the body and being…That one could embody the Book is a notion deeply rooted in the Muslim societies of West Africa. This understanding is properly epistemological rather than ideological and thus is not often explicitly discussed, but subtle traces of it are everywhere. According to the family histories of southwestern Saharan clerical lineages, one famous precolonial female scholar made the equation explicit, saying, ‘I am the ninth of the nine Books of my family; meaning—and God is best informed of the truth—that she was the ninth, among the people of her family, knowing [by heart] the Qurʾan.’ And among the famous late-eighteenth-century clerics of the Senegal River Valley was ‘Ceerno Siise Salamata, who was called Ceerno Siise ‘Deereeji.’ Deereeji means ‘the papers of the Book.’”
I can't help but wonder if there isn't something missing from the now-familiar injunctions to "make alien aliens" or the like. Most advice in this vein privileges the ideological and the rationalized, the sunny airy peaks of culture, over these earthy roots in moving and feeling. Even the stuff we do get which takes the realm of gross matter seriously - usually w/gender - often lacks the osmotic relationship between habitus and flesh. The ratfolk wear this because that, elf girls do x for y reason; transcendental subjects instead of socialized (and socializing) bodies. "Thinking weird" is probably not enough, because a large portion of our relationship with culture isn't really about thought, or rather is about thinking through and with corporeality. I'm not really sure what everything here means as far as practical uses at the table, will def have to sit with it for a minute, but I suspect that some sublimated form of this has been driving my attraction to games with animist inspirations in central roles - Pariah, ATTI, Max Cantor's in-development spirit game. There's a sense of the bodyworld in them - maybe the bodyworld asserts itself when you get that close to the spiritual dimensions of materiality. Could very well present a way out, perhaps through something like Willerslev's description of Siberian animist "soul-concepts that combine the material with the immaterial and swim in and out of focus" in The Soul of the Soul is The Body, where the Cartesian dualism that defines our own body-soul systems is replaced by connections in which "one constitutes the 'flip side' of the other, implying that each may take the place of the other: the soul becoming the body and the body becoming the soul...the body is what is on the inside and the soul is what is on the outside, because the two belong together as 'reversibles'—which, 'unlike other expressions of counter-points—for example, contraries, antithesis, or polarities . . . are opposites that self-contain themselves.'"
* In a Festschrift for Herskovits, no less!