The Experience of the Bush

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my PhD dissertation, slightly edited and enriched of various media. I prepared this post for the reading list of my course in Regional Studies of Culture – West Africa on Ways of Knowing in the Mande.

Learning to hunt

One of the crucial days of my fieldwork, about a month after my arrival in Burkina Faso, was my first visit to master hunter Adama Sogo Traoré. As related in Chapter 2, Lasso introduced me to his teacher as soon as he could, after I was initiated as a donso. This was a sign of respect for the hierarchy that positioned Adama at the head of a group of about thirty students, from a dozen different villages and some eight different ethnic groups. On the day I asked to become his student, Adama spoke to me starting with a very simple sentence which, unlike the rest of what followed, I could understand clearly. He said: “Donsoya ye segèn ye,” donsoya is pain, misery, exhaustion. This was his presentation of the subject he knew the best, for somebody who wanted to approach it for the first time.

About twenty days later I got a first taste of what Adama meant. In Bobo Dioulasso I had managed to get a shotgun, a locally made artisanal copy of a French 12-gauge model called Simplex. I had not planned to practice actual hunting, at the research proposal stage, but in retrospect I understand that the possibility of accompanying hunters in the bush without hunting myself was just nonsense to their ears. There were also other practical reasons that became evident when Lasso started to take me with him for brief excursions.

I would drive following his directions on bush paths around Karankasso, then we would drop off the motorbike to continue on foot. The thick bush at the end of the rainy season offered no visual reference points. On the very first outing we walked in the vicinity of a small stream, where the vegetation was especially thick and lush. The muddied stream wound about with continuous bends, and we crossed it a few times. In other words, in a couple of minutes I had no idea of the direction we had left the motorbike, no idea of the cardinal points, and no way to see anything more distant than 10 metres away. My only possibility of not getting lost was to stick to Lasso at a close distance, and keep my eyes on him as often as I could. I would be walking very close to him, which meant I did not have much opportunity to look for animals. Because I was holding a shotgun in my hands for the very first time, Lasso wanted me to practice shooting, but there was no way he would let me waste ammunition on a target. Shotgun shells, which in Burkina are a precious commodity, are imported from Mali and have a cost per unit that equals a good meal on some street vendor’s stall. Most hunters in Karankasso rarely can afford to go out with more than 5 or 6 shells, which marks a difference with many European contexts (where hunters can easily carry 20 or more). This difference also reflects on their hunting style, in that local hunters generally do not shoot any flying or running animal, for fear of missing them. One of the first times I was out hunting with him, Lasso amazed me killing four birds with three shots, catching a pair with a single shot.

Many sizes of small birds that are commonly shot in Europe are ignored by the donsow, because they are not considered worth a shotgun shell in terms of the meat they can bring. For the same reason, I had to try my first shot at something that I could possibly kill and eat. This also characterises a hunting style that would surprise a European or North-American hunter. In the first place, shotguns are generally single barrelled with manual ejection, which imposes a much slower pace than a semi-automatic shotgun that can fire three shots in less than two seconds. The most common practice is one of stalking the animal to arrive at a close shooting distance before it runs away, rather than trying the shot and at the end of the day calculating the result in terms of statistics of missed versus on-target shots. Flushing animals is not a common practice, and dogs are not used with the same techniques as in European modern hunting. Many donsow in Karankasso still use gunpowder muzzle loaded shotguns, which have a very long and heavy barrel that inhibits swing. Even if you are skilled, their recharge time averages two minutes. This, combined with a very poor aiming system and the irregularities in the shape of home-made tin balls meant that the kind of hunting practiced in the area developed mostly by stalking, approaching animals silently so as to be able to aim accurately.

That first day, then, Lasso wanted to find a bird for me to shoot, most likely one of the two varieties that I would kill most often: a Violet Turaco (Musophaga violacea) or a Western Plantain-eater (Crinifer piscator). Whilst we did not find any, I had a lot of time to appreciate Adama’s warning about the hardships of donsoya. I realised firstly the difficulties of the terrain, since the bush was flourishing at that time of the year. I often found myself having to look more often at the ground on which I was placing my feet than at tree branches, because of the red rocks that are everywhere in the bush around Karankasso. They would make walking really difficult and the soles of my boots lasted less than six months. Moreover, very soon I realised why the donso dileke, the shirt hunters wear, is woven from such a thick cloth: it proved to be the only piece of clothing that would not be ripped by the many thorny branches we often had to pass through. Some of these thorns, which were hook-shaped, would prick my skin and break, remaining hanging from my forearms. I have mostly unpleasant memories from that first day, including the first contact with what would become a familiar accompaniment to my daytime excursions – little flies called in Jula woro-woro. They were one of the markers of the bush, for they were absent from the village. Just as soon as you began to sweat, they would start to swarm around your head, landing around your eyes and ears and entering the nose, looking for salty liquids.

Talking about perspiration, I was struck by the way I started to suffer the humidity as soon as I moved from the motorbike to walking. The bush around the stream was so thick that not much air circulated. With backpack and heavy donso shirt, I quickly found myself dripping with sweat.

In general then, hunting was far from a pleasant experience, and I could add more here about the heat and the burning sun, or about the fact that we never brought food for a whole day out and therefore did not eat from morning to sunset. In fact, my hunting companions did not carry any water, for a whole day or more in the bush. They would just drink whatever water they found in pools or streams. The commonly given explanation was that they needed to travel light, without burdens. It might be that this custom derived from longer hunting expeditions than those practiced commonly during my fieldwork, which rarely exceeded two days. This was one of the few instances in which I came across explicit prescriptions that influenced the ways the bush was experienced.

Most of the time hunting was just about walking and walking, without stopping. On one occasion we went to visit Daouda Traoré, a distant relative of Lasso in Gwenion, some 25km south of Karankasso, for a two day hunting expedition. We were looking for a place with more game than the overexploited bush around Karankasso, and in 36 hours we slept just 6, spending most of the remaining time hunting. Those were two incredibly exhausting days, but I made a point of keeping up with the pace of my companions. The fact that I was able to make it somehow reinforced their respect for me, and was an indication of the way certain mechanisms of group building work at the level of bodily sensations. Not only was walking an important way of placemaking that connects the hunters in a network of paths (Ingold 2004; Ingold and Vergunst 2008), but I realised that sharing thirst, hunger and hardship reinforced interpersonal bonds, just like sharing meat.

My first experiences in the bush also taught me about the importance of perception. I quickly understood, without much indication by Lasso, that it was very important to produce as little noise as possible, while being on the lookout for possible targets. It was just a matter of imitation and of observing and listening to Lasso walking in front of me. In fact, most of the things I learnt about the actual hunting were the fruit of imitation and practice. These were added to the very few pieces of explicit verbal advice or tips I received from Lasso or Adama. The only problem with moving silently was that at the time of that first, brief excursion I was barely able to avoid falling every ten steps, so I spent most of my time with my eyes on the ground, in order to choose accurately where to place my feet, to avoid stepping on dry leaves, breaking dead wood, or hitting rocks. This is not the ideal stance if you hope to spot some animal on the tree branches. It was also very clear to Lasso that walking around as a two persons system, as he dragged around his noisy companion, made us easily noticeable to birds. One of the reasons we did not see any bird on my first day in the bush was because of the very system we adopted for navigating, doubling the possibilities of being spotted. It was my first step toward the understanding that hunting involves not just mastering one’s own perception but also dealing with animal perception, developing strategies to perceive but at the same time be as undetectable as possible.

One of the few explicitly formulated suggestions I received arrived from Adama himself, in response to my frustration. He asked rhetorically: “You see why studying donsoya is so difficult? Some think that hunting is just a matter of walking and walking until you come across something, but this is only true for night hunting, when you wear a head torch. During the day, a donso has to learn to walk slowly and silently, stopping from time to time to pay attention (korosi) to possible hiding places. You have to look and listen carefully to spot immobile animals, otherwise you will not see (and hear) any animal, but animals will see (and hear) you. Animals are on the lookout, and so must a donso.” Adama’s words and my initial experiences in the bush confirmed the importance of perception for hunters. But what is crucial here, in contributing towards an answer to my original question of what makes a donso, is how we conceive of perception.

Anthropology and perception

I had in mind to study hunters as individuals who experience a specific environment, having privileged access to the bush. This derived, among other things, by an assumption taken from texts about the Mande area, whereby hunters have the characteristic of venturing themselves into the bush, whereas common villagers are generally afraid of it. But the previous two chapters should have given a clear sense of how in today’s Burkina Faso the bush is a relatively accessible space. I realised this as soon as I arrived in the field, and it also became clear to me that this erroneous assumption constituted a flaw in my research proposal. My idea had been to accompany the hunters in the bush to experience the same sensory stimuli and to see what kind of role this sensory experience could play in their constitution as a group. Was it possible to call them an aesthetic community, a term referring to a group sharing sensory perceptual patterns (Cox 2002; Goldstein 1995; Marano 2005; Meyer and Verrips 2008)?

Adama had started his presentation of donsoya with suffering. The literature on donsoya sometimes conveys a certain self-indulging rhetoric about heroically enduring hardships that I also heard in Adama’s tales about hunting in the days of his youth and maturity. Later I heard this kind of talk in informal conversations between hunters and in descriptions of the activity of the donsow made by villagers. This kind of rhetoric is also present in donso epics, and Karim Traoré has called it an “aesthetics of suffering” (2000: 94, 186–192; see also Kedzierska-Manzon 2006: 50–52). I can say I am concerned with aesthetics too, but not so much in the sense one could use the term in a study about oral literature, such as Traoré’s. In other words, I am not so much concerned with local conceptions of beauty and order (as in Coote 1992; or Sharman 2006). Rather, coming back to its etymological meaning, aesthetics is to be understood as referring to sensory perception and, by extension, to embodied experience (Eagleton 1990: 13; in Cox 2002: 74) as in the concept of social aesthetics. But I wanted to propose a different interpretation than the one that conventionally ties aesthetic communities to the appreciation or “valuation” of sensory experience, relying on the work of David MacDougall to underline the importance of culturally patterned sensory experience in the constitution of a group (1999). In other words, my focus here was not so much on discourses about perception and experience or on aesthetic appreciations. I wanted to look at the sensory experience of being in the bush as constitutive of the community of hunters, before it reached the level of discourse or rhetoric.

But once in the field I asked myself what sense would it make to consider the bush as constitutive of the experience of hunters, if all sorts of categories of people had free access to the bush. Had my approach become obsolete because of the changes described in Chapter 4?

I want to argue that the flaw was less in my knowledge of the state of the field setting than in the way I conceived of such notions as perception and environment. Even though hunting meant sometimes being side by side with farmers, children, women, herders and domesticated animals, none of these groups perceived the bush in the same way as the hunters did. My confusion consisted, in other words, in calling the bush an environment but conceiving of it as space, a given setting through which one can move and be exposed to its features. By approaching the environment according to Gibson’s definition, instead, it becomes easier to allow, for different groups of persons, different experiences of an environment that depend on their skills, capabilities for and histories of interaction. If the bush had been the same for everybody, so to say, the differentiation of hunters from other villagers would only have had a quantitative basis, instead of a qualitative one. They would simply have been exposed to the features of the bush for more time or more intensely than, say, a herder, who also spends much time away from settlements.

The understanding of perception, and more broadly cognition, implied by the line of reasoning I initially followed is a dominant one in much Western thought, starting at least with Descartes but with its roots in Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.[1] According to this version, reality is given and external to the perceiver, who collects information on it through the mediation of his senses, which are the only way we access the world. So we all perceive the same reality, but the plurality and sometimes incoherence of people’s perceptions is driven by anatomical differences and by mental ones – the latter including psychological and cultural differences. It is quite evident how this hardware-and-software analogy, implicit in the anatomical-mental divide, takes this conception of the way we apprehend the world very close to the functioning of a computing machine. In fact, even though its roots are in the much older Cartesian shift between mind and body, the diffusion and even popularisation of the computationalist model of perception is due to the contributions of cognitivist models to cybernetics first and to computer science later (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991: Chapter 3; applied to anthropology Bloch 1998; Ingold 2000a: 159–165; Toren 1999).

Anthropology has developed a specific interest in the relevance of sensory perception for human experience since the end of the 1980s. This period has seen the publication of a few important books in what has become known as the “sensory turn” or “revolution” (Howes 2006). Scholars like David Howes, Paul Stoller, Constance Classen, Nadia Seremetakis, Steven Feld, Michael Jackson and others have, in different ways, asked how our experience is shaped by culturally specific patterns of sensory perception. In part as a reaction to the increasing emphasis on textuality derived from the “writing cultures” movement (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and in part building on a growing interest in experience (Turner and Bruner 1986; Turner 1985), they underlined how cultures also had other experiential dimensions that were less easy to transcribe and translate into ethnographic texts (Jackson 1989; Stoller 1997).

Despite the apparent uniformity suggested by labels such as sensory turn, though, most of these scholars are only loosely tied together by an interest in perception. In fact they took very different directions, one of which is commonly labelled anthropology of the senses. Its starting point was a critique of the emphasis put by Western culture on vision as a privileged modality for knowing. Fabian (1983) linked visualism to the power discourse of colonialism. Feld (1982) and Stoller (1984), underlined the relevance sound has for the cultures where they worked. Only slightly later did some visual anthropologists, most notably David MacDougall (1999; 2006), try to explore the potential of audiovisual media to represent different sensory worlds.

The group of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal concentrated on differences and transformations in the sensorium – the range, segmentation and organisation of the senses (see especially Classen 1993; Howes 1991; Howes 2005; Smith 2007). This group adopted a historical and comparative approach, also following the work of historians like Alain Corbin (1986; 1998) and Roy Porter (Bynum and Porter 1993; Porter 2005). Howes looked at the senses’ attributions of value and connections with social organisation, class and worldviews (1991). Classen underlined some key historical moments that redefined the hierarchy between the senses (1993).

Tim Ingold has raised a critique of this kind of anthropology of the senses, underlining how studying the configurations of the sensorium reinforces the illusion of a separation between the senses. In particular, he has argued against those who, like Howes and Classen, identify a given sensory modality with a culture – for example visualism as intrinsically Euro-American – and derive from it a dominant way of apprehending the world – in the case of vision, detachment and domination (Ingold 2000c: 281–282). Instead, vision does not entail by itself a given attitude towards the world because it is not in the first place essentially separate from other senses – such as hearing, to which it is often opposed. But the most fundamental problem with the anthropology of the senses is its cultural constructionist approach that explains the diversity of the ways we apprehend the world with the elaboration of a flux of raw data of experience. Vision has then become conceived as a mirror for visualisation, the representationalist paradigm whereby by perceiving we create internal representations of an external reality (idem: 282-293). This paradigm rests firmly on the Cartesian dualism between mind and body, even in apparent contradiction with the epistemological principles of the anthropologists of the “sensory turn.”

My research has shown that applying an “anthropology of the senses” approach to the specificities of the hunters in my fieldwork would not be very useful in separating out their experience of the bush from that of other villagers. A study of the “cultural shaping” of perceptions among the Sambla, for example, would tell us very little about the experience of hunters because it would overlook the specificity of the active perceptual engagement required by the search for game. This is why I need to look at a theory of perception that speaks of interaction, exploration and synaesthesia, instead of representation and reconstruction.

An Ecological approach to perception

I will start then from James Gibson’s conception of ecological perception (1979), because it is in my opinion best suited to underlining the specificities of the hunters’ engagement with the bush. Gibson studied, during World War II, the visual perception of military pilots – especially the perception of depth and the problems entailed by the use of training films. Starting from that experience he developed a radical critique of cognitivism.

Instead of considering the eye as a receptor and the brain as an information processor, he wrote of a complex, synaesthetic system, as described in his The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). It is in fact remarkable how, even though he worked all of his life on vision, his approach can be applied across all sensory modalities. Gibson introduced the notion of visual world, defined as a spherical extent surrounding the perceiver. Unlike the field of view, the visual world does not transform itself according to the perceiver’s movements (Gibson 1950: chapter 3). A visual world is instead the experience of a body in time and space: Gibson considers vision as a form of interaction with the environment, constituted of movements in space and active exploration by the perceiver (1979: 1-2). The environment plays for Gibson a much more important role than it did for classical optics, so much so that at the beginning of the book he underlines how an animal and its environment share a relation of mutual dependence, and one would not exist without the other. But, most importantly, in the visual world the shapes of the objects are inseparable from the meanings and functions they have for the perceiver.

One of the most interesting ideas elaborated by Gibson is that of affordances – or possibilities for – that an organism can find in the environment:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment (Gibson 1979: 127).

The remarkable points that make affordances a unique concept are the way they are not measurable in the abstract language of physics or that of culture, because they depend on the perceiver they refer to. Yet they are not simply a form of subjectivity, and Gibson clearly states that an affordance “cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy” (idem: 129).

Gibson then critiqued some of the most established assumptions of the psychology of his times, centred around theories of perception based on the input-computation process. These assumptions start from the fundamental idea that the world offers to our receptors raw stimuli, in themselves inadequate for the extraction of information that is relevant for survival. For these theories cognitive processes have precisely the function of extracting sense from raw inputs provided by an environment in which the perceiver is a stranger who, in order to survive, has to draw useful information from sensory data. Stimuli are thus enriched, through inference, with innate or learned processes (Gibson 1979: 251–252). But given the mutual dependency of organism and environment, for Gibson, the perceiver is not to be considered a passive receiver, applying a creative-interpretive process to raw data, but rather an active perceiver, whose activity is exploring and picking up information already contained in the events, themselves enough to allow cognition.

Gibson’s use of the term information can be misleading, for it apparently overlaps with input. Nonetheless, he wants to underline the way the environment is already filled with information, not just sensations or stimuli, without any need for symbolic computation or representation. In other words, information does exist on its own, before its reconstruction or decoding, but it contains a redundancy for which the perceiver has a specific receptivity. In this way he suggested the existence of a direct perception, skipping the intermediate level of representations. In order to gather sufficient information an interaction, an active exploration of the environment is required, to determine structure and invariants, affordances and geometrical properties of an optic array. One can then affirm that cognition resides in the animal-environment system, rather than in the perceiver’s head. Movement and the recognition of invariants in the optic array are two basic characteristics of ecologic perception. Nothing like a frame-by-frame detection of light impulses happens through time, but rather perception works in a much more economical way, for Gibson. By perceiving changes in the optic array, we learn about our own relative position, and start to consider the variants as relevant.

Although Gibson has a few devoted followers in psychology, his thought is definitely not mainstream in his own discipline. In anthropology, Tim Ingold is no doubt the greatest user of his ideas: the American psychologist provided him with a theory that could represent a bridge between the biology of an organism in the environment and culture. He even wrote in 2000 “I cannot think of any other work that has exerted a greater influence on my thinking over the last ten years or so” (Ingold 2000a: 17). Philosopher Edward S. Reed is another of Gibson’s disciples, to the point of devoting most of his work to an “ecological philosophy” (Costall 1999). He tried to develop concepts like that of affordance, extending it to entire populations of animals (Reed 1996a), or that of direct perception that he equates to first-hand experience (1996b). Finally, architect Raymond Lucas has applied Gibson’s ideas to urban design, with a specific focus on the sensory experience of place (Lucas 2012). He also designed a notation system for the senses inspired by Gibson’s approach (Lucas 2009).

Using Gibson’s approach to conceive of perception helped me make sense of the experience of hunting, to understand the relevance of sensory experience in shaping hunters as a community and setting them apart from other villagers in the bush. In the examples that I relate in the rest of the chapter I will show how, even though I was often tempted to draw distinctions between prevalent sensory modalities in night or day hunting, I realised that one hunts synaesthetically, with all of one’s body. I will also connect another of Gibson’s important insights, the importance of proprioception as an often-neglected sensory modality inseparable from perception (1979: 65–66, 86, 106–113), and describe my realisation that the mastery of one’s body and the sounds it could produce were as fundamental to hunting as the ability to spot animals. Finally, I will show how it became evident to me that basing perception on the simple capture of inputs model could not explain the superior perceptual skills local hunters would demonstrate in the bush, and which starkly contrasted their hunting efficacy with my own.

According to Edward Reed, who tried to apply Gibson’s ideas to social contexts, “not only can social agents directly perceive their mutual affordances for one another, but they are also able to share their perception of other constituents of the environment. Attuned through prior training and experience to attending to similar invariants, and moving in the same environment in the pursuit of joint activities, they will pick up the same information” (Reed in Ingold 2000a: 168). As Ingold continues, this is an attempt to ground sociality in shared sensory experience, rather than in conceptualisations constructed on the basis of perception.

Both Gibson’s ideas and the intensive practice of hunting helped me to realise the inadequacy of my approach to hunters as an aesthetic community on the basis of their frequenting the same space and being subject to similar sensory stimuli. The realisation that the boundaries of a traditional partition between bush and village were collapsing went hand in hand with the opening of new perspectives by my own practice of hunting.

In parallel, I started to shift my attention from looking at hunters being exposed to the same sensory stimuli, to hunters using their senses to engage with their environment through practical activity. In other words, my own repositioning in the field became the basis for conceiving aesthetic communities through perceptual activity rather than receptive passivity. I realised that the bush of the hunters was indeed different from that of herders or farmers, because their “intentional environment” (Descola and Pálsson 1996: 18) and their affordances were different. I found much resemblance to Eden and Bear’s analysis of northern England’s anglers as environmentally engaged in a relationship of mutual coproduction, which changes the angler “in terms of skills, technology and perceptions” as much as “the fish, the river and the riverbank” (2011: 299). This ecological engagement is a knowledge-practice, one that requires a synaesthetic intelligence located not so much in the head but in the whole body-mind system, something which has also been highlighted in studies on walking (Michael 2000; Ingold 2004; Waitt, Gill, and Head 2009; Wylie 2005). What would set apart a hunter was precisely that, presented with the same space as a non-hunter, he would find himself in a different environment: he would be able to move through thick areas that others could not cross, hear or see animals from the distance, find their traces and understand how recent they were, recognise plants and know their uses.

There is another body of well established literature here, with its roots in the intersections between ethnography, cognitive science and historical psychology, that has situated cognition in the interfaces of apprenticeship, communities of practice and interaction with tools (Lave 1977; 1988; Lave and Wenger 1991; Suchman 1987). These interfaces form “environmental systems, including both material and relational structures, underlying the recursive, co-constitutive and co-evolving dynamics that organise them” (Grasseni 2007: 6). It clearly became crucial for me to look at the processes of acquisition of these skills, what Ingold called enskilment, or “Understanding in practice, […] in which learning is inseparable from doing, and in which both are embedded in the context of a practical engagement in the world” (2000a: 416). I get back to the bush, then, to show how from the intersection between my hunting experiences and an ecological approach to perception hunters become characterised by a series of specific perceptual interactions with their environment.

Noise and sound

Hunting, in the area of my fieldwork, is not necessarily a solitary activity, but it always involves a degree of isolation. Hunting in a group means setting a distance between each other so as not to disturb each other’s perception, and not to intensify the sounds produced by the hunters’ movements.[2]

During my first period as a trainee hunter I was too noisy. I just could not help producing so many sounds with my feet and whole body, and this emerged even more by contrast with Lasso’s skill. I was reminded of some passages in Turnbull’s The Forest People, where he describes how silent were the steps of Pygmy hunters in the forest, compared to his heavy, noisy steps (1968: 73). Moving silently is an art I learned very gradually, so much so that I have never been aware of this process of enskilment. I only had sudden moments of realisation, as when a friend came to visit me in the field from Italy. He spent most of his time in Bobo Dioulasso, but also joined me in Karankasso for a couple of days. On one occasion he insisted on joining Lasso and me on a hunt, just to see what it was like. I was against this idea, unable to see what interest he could have in accompanying hunters without hunting. I had already forgotten my research proposal and initial naivety at my arrival in the field. He insisted, so we took him along to a perennial stream neighbouring the village of Bwende – an area called in Seenku Bomwène. Because after several months I knew quite well the area we reached that evening, I could separate from Lasso in a way I could not do at the beginning of my stay. Lasso was smart enough to go alone and left me with my friend who, a bit like I did on my first day, started to follow me closely. As I was starting to concentrate on the bush, I was struck by how much noise he produced behind me, with his steps. At the same time, I became aware of how little noise I was producing while walking, as if by contrast. We did not see any animal during those hours, except for a group of francolins that took off while we were still very distant.

The fact that I was never given instructions on how to walk silently does not mean that hunters are unaware of this aspect, quite the opposite. Very early on I was made to notice that the trekking soles of my shoes were too noisy, unlike the almost smooth surface of the heat-molded plastic shoes that most hunters wore. Some, like Si-Lamoussa, the secretary of the hunters’ association of Karankasso, told me they only hunt barefoot, considering it the ultimate way to produce as little noise as possible. When I asked about the peculiar design of a donso‘s trousers, characterised by the use of buttons to slim down the part of the leg below the knee, I was told this avoids the noise produced by the fabric of the two legs rubbing against each other.

Noise, in Jula mankan, is a very broad concept, applied to a variety of contexts. Trying to learn more about the perception of the transformative process the bush environment was going through in the area around Karankasso, I was told several times that noise is one of the main factors responsible for the progressive disappearance of wild animals. One particular noise in this respect was tree cutting. Rather than destroying the habitat for animals to live, reproduce and feed, the sound of the axe chopping wood scared and chased them away acoustically. Cows were a constant presence in the bush, there was no way a day could pass without meeting some of them. Traces of their hooves were just about everywhere, often preventing us from seeing the traces of our prey. The inhabitants of Karankasso were aware of the increase of cows in the past thirty years, and most told me that they scared away wild animals with their loud lowing sounds, along with the calls of the Peul herders that accompanied them. In the bush, when I would hear the screams and whistles of herders, or of some children looking after goats, I would just move to a different area, for I was sure I would not find any game until I got out of the acoustic range of their calls.

As mentioned above, I learned to walk more silently. This went hand in hand with learning to move with more ease in the thick bush, managing to keep my eyes less on the ground and more on the vegetation around and above me. But at the same time I learned to identify many more sounds than I could during my first walk with Lasso. First, while I was just following him closely, I did not care to know what was making him head in the directions he followed. When I finally asked, he told me he was following the call of some bird. I could not single out what he was listening for, and if he pointed towards some distant bird silhouette, I was still unable to understand where exactly he wanted me to look. One of the first things I learned to recognise, then, was the call of the birds we would hunt.

There are areas where the bush is especially soundful with the voices of birds, for example when one follows the bed of a stream. This is a kind of hunt I practiced very often, because it allowed me to walk alone, with no guidance, just following the stream in one direction and then return back to the starting point. Along a stream vegetation is denser and different in nature, as one can come across trees from more humid climates like palms and vines. Birds tend to concentrate here regardless of the season because of the thicker foliage and the abundance of insects. Again, one is necessarily short-sighted here, and relies on hearing. Most of the sounds I learned to hear were of small birds, chirping or digging through dry leaves in search of insects. The process was so gradual I cannot recall any moment of sudden realisation, but after around six months of hunts I was able to distinguish not only the calls of edible birds, but also the sounds different species made when taking off, and even different steps on dry leaves, including the sound of a francolin searching for insects. I especially recall the characteristic sound of the latter bird taking off, associating it with the frustration of having missed yet another one. The sound is so peculiar that hunters sometimes used to refer to is as an onomatopoeia instead of the Jula or Seenku name, so as to help me understand: “RRRRRRRRR…”

I was surprised at discovering this listening ability in myself, and at not being able to account for the process of acquiring it. When I told Lasso, he just smiled, as if to imply that I was on the right track. All I can think of are the countless times I failed to individuate and recognise an animal, and my determination in wanting to bring meat home and not being just the one who bought the ammunition. For example, I killed my first francolin only after 4 months of attempts and countless failures to take by surprise this very suspicious, tasty little animal. A mixture of frustration, determination and practice built very slowly into what Gibson would call an “education of attention” (Gibson 1979: 274) that translated into a new acoustic sensibility.

This double sensibility – to the sounds one produces and to the sounds around the self – seem to point at the existence of an aesthetic community of hunters based on control and discernment of sound. Hunters would at times comment disparagingly on the noisy clumsiness of the other villagers in the bush, demonstrating an appreciation of the ability to move silently as a way of being at ease in the environment. Steven Feld similarly underlined an important nexus between sound and perception of space, where the acoustic becomes the medium for a connection of the body with the surroundings (1996: 97; Forthcoming). In parallel, the hunters’ sensibility to sound as perception and proprioception highlighted their connection to the bush as an acoustic environment where one’s capacity for suppressing sound is in direct connection with one’s capacity for perceiving sound.

Frustrated visions

It is very difficult to disentangle, in my perceptual experience of hunting, exclusively acoustic elements from visual aspects. Gibson has underlined how the senses always work in synergy, and are never independent from each other (see also Feld 1996: 92–94). Hunting made me appreciate this interplay and that between perception and proprioception, when an increased mastery of my body allowed me to expand my sensibility to the bush around me. But if, for analytical purposes, I had to concentrate now on the visual aspects, I would say that, in the area, daytime hunting was surprisingly less about seeing than I would have expected.

As noticed on my first day, the bush can be visually very limiting and at the same time often so rich in details that it becomes confusing and disorienting. First, my desire to have a clear view of the area around me was frustrated by the thickness of the vegetation. Then the same thickness, the same layers densely overlapped, would create such a complex scenario that details would get lost in an ocean of leaves, branches, rocks, shadows, wooden logs, pebbles, sand, earth, water pools, and so on. Too much fine detail made it impossible to focus and recognise shapes, to detach figure from ground, especially from a continuously wandering point of view. During the dry season it is a common strategy to hunt during the hottest hours of the day, when the sun is high and bright, generating strong contrasts between shadow and light. At over 40 degrees, small animals often lie under the branches of low bushes, to rest and regulate their body temperature. One of the things I found the most difficult was to spot them, immobile in the shadows. Given the brightness of the overall scenario, those shady corners were pitch black for me, and I could not distinguish any detail, perhaps with my prescription lenses playing their part. As a result of my enskilment in silent walking, quite a few times I happened to almost step onto a sleeping hare or francolin, that would quickly run away or take off at full speed, before I could aim and shoot. On the other hand, it was very easy for me to see anything moving, as small as it might be, though on most occasions when I saw an animal moving it was already running away.

I was struck to see my hunting companions spot and shoot animals lying this way, while I was unable to see them from a more favourable position. On one such occasion, for example, I was walking with other hunters on an abandoned field – a relatively clear terrain – when I saw Madou Barou aiming at something on the ground, roughly towards me, from a distance of about 25 metres. I was not able see what he was aiming at, so I could not know whether, to get out of the line of fire, I should have quietly moved a few steps to the left or to the right. The ground was clear, with a few dry herbs and irregular brown-red clods. In a moment Madou shot, and I heard the balls whizz past, about a metre from me. The small cloud of dust that quickly dissipated revealed a francolin, very well camouflaged, which had been lying in the hope that we would pass by without noticing. On this and other occasions where I had time to observe very well the hunter aim in some direction, I was extremely puzzled by my inability to discern the animal until it was shot, even if its location was by then clear. The comment I heard from other hunters was that I was not yet “used” to looking at the bush. Once again, there were no tricks to be learned, no suggestions and no instructions. Rather, it was a matter of perceptual attunement, of developing a “skilled vision” (Grasseni 2007). Rather than distinguishing fine detail in an extremely complicated scenario, spotting animals seemed rather a matter of knowing where to look, recognising the right shapes and isolating them from a background that would otherwise overwhelm the perceiver. As mentioned before, in terms of Gibson’s ecological perception, movement and the recognition of invariants in the optic array are the basis of an efficient perception. Performing this recognition in an unfamiliar environment requires attunement, which is precisely what was lacking in me according to the hunters. Moreover, in an ecological perspective seeing is an action performed by a whole perceptual system, so that I had to learn a new modality more similar to what Gibson called “looking around” (1979: 203; quoted in Downey 2007: 238 note 1), a way of seeing that is especially aware of the surroundings.

Gibson was not concerned with features of the environment that could perceive the perceiver, and seemed to mostly draw on examples about the perception of inanimate objects. But in the case of hunting, I was rather presented with a perceptual relationship between hunter and prey, in which the challenge was to recognise before being recognised – that is, not necessarily being perceived in the form of a stimulus, but as a menace. The difference is relevant here, because in most cases I would shoot animals already aware of my presence but not yet scared by it. So part of the skill, for a hunter, consisted in approaching the animal close enough to have a clean shot without alarming it. It is no surprise then that the donsow speak of fetishes being able to amplify this skill to the point of allowing the hunter to approach his prey as one would approach a domestic animal.

In the previous part I referred to the seasonal fires that farmers and hunters light during the dry season, and their relevance for agriculture and the domestication of the bush. But this clearing of the bush is also a way to make animals visible and did not involve agriculture. Such was the case when Lasso and I lit fires in November, just as soon as herbs turned golden. The sense of our actions was to restore visibility creating a suitable environment for the hunt. For even given the importance of skilled hearing, I learned that a hunter only shoots something visible. Once, for example, I was hunting near Adama’s compound with his grandson Boubacar. We had crossed one of the branches of the Black Volta River that runs not too distant from my teacher’s house. A series of depressions are flooded there during the rainy season, but at that time of the year are dry and full of thorny bushes. Some of these can host the kò nyinan, or Greater Cane Rat (Thryonomys swinderianus), a large rodent that is well known for the excellent taste of its meat. It is also one of the largest animals you can find in the area, and we were silently walking around the bushes hoping to find one. At some point Boubacar made me a sign to stop, and pointed his shotgun somewhere in the middle of the bush that stood between him and me. I noticed some subdued rustling from the area he was aiming at, and I could understand that something, apparently not very small, was moving slowly underneath the thorny cover. It was so close to me I believed I could easily shoot it, yet I waited for a sign from Boubacar. We waited until the noise moved to an area we could not reach, and we eventually moved along. I forgot the episode, but later I found myself again in the situation of locating some sort of animal very precisely, only by its noise, for example behind a foliage curtain. While reflecting on the role of sound as opposed to sight, I thought I would ask Lasso if he ever shot something locating it exclusively on the basis of the sounds it produced. His reply somehow surprised me: “It is a law of hunting that you only shoot what you see clearly. Both my father and Adama [our teacher] told me this many times, it is a matter of safety. You could shoot a person or even a companion.” What surprised me was not his very sensible explication, but his use of the term law (in French, actually), applied to a domain that did not have many explicit rules. In other words, there may be hunting situations where the aural dimension is dominant, but the last word, so to say, is always to sight.

Perceiving in the darkness

Burning herbs also opens the path for a completely different kind of hunting, which takes place at night. It is during new moon periods or before it rises, when the bush is completely dark except for the stars and a remote glow in the direction of Bobo Dioulasso. It was clear from the first night I went hunting with Lasso, in late October, that what we were about to do was different from the usual daytime hunting. As soon as the sun went down, after Lasso was back from the mosque, we met in the courtyard of the house where I lived. He asked for some embers, which he put in a fragment of clay pot, laying on them some crushed, dried vegetal preparation. We let the smoke run through the barrels of our shotguns, and along their outside surfaces. He also brought a white powder I had never seen before, and gave me a pinch. We mixed the powder with some karité butter (shea butter, from the Butyrospermum parkii tree) and passed the mixture on our faces, hands and forearms. It was my first contact with Adama’s nyamafla (see Chapter 2), and it was explained to me that its smell keeps the jinanw away. One can also blow a pinch downwind, or put it on embers and immerse oneself in the smoke. As Adama explained once, there are things in the bush that get out mostly at night. Apart from snakes and predators, he was referring to the jinanw – genies – that populate the bush in the Mande area.

Only after these preparations did we take the motorbike and drive for about half an hour following a bush path, stopping on the edge of a large clearing. There we lit our head torches and started to walk, separated from one another by some 100 to 200 metres. Lasso told me to just walk “straight,” and I would have the reference of his cold LED light flashing to my side, when he would turn his head toward me. Sometimes I would not be able to see him, perhaps because of vegetation, so I would stop and shut down my torch, remaining in complete darkness under breath-taking stars, until I would discern a tiny distant glow. I would also use Lasso’s light as a reference to set my walking pace.

It was a peculiar landscape we walked in, as made visible by the light of the torches. I find it difficult to describe the strange, focused vision made possible by the cone light of the torch, revealing all things in a shadowless, colourless glare. The peripheral light around the central beam would be quite broad and diffused, but revealing even fewer colours. The ground was covered in the ashes and the half-burned stems of herbs, and at the light of the torch it would look like a sort of winter, frozen landscape, an impression enhanced by the ‘crunching’ sound of my steps as if on frozen snow. The clearings were scattered with the usual stones, which would punctuate from time to time the rustling sound of my steps with a lower note, as I hit one with the tip of my boots. Then at some point I would get to a wall of trees, cross it and in a few metres find myself into another clearing.

After walking for about fifteen minutes I heard Lasso shooting, on my left. He called with his whistle, and I reached him. He had shot sonsani, an African Savannah Hare (Lepus microtis). I asked him how he did it, how does it work, what should I look for. He replied that I had to look for the reflection of the torch in an animal’s eyes, and shoot while it is puzzled by the strange apparition. A layer of tissue behind the retina of many animals, called tapetum lucidum, reflects light improving low-light vision. But it also provokes a very visible eyeshine if a strong light source hits it, at the same time obfuscating the animal’s view. Later Lasso added that he loves night hunting because he can get so much closer to animals, thanks to the surprise effect.[3] I kept walking straight, until Lasso called me and gave us a new direction. That night I saw two hares, but was unable to shoot them because of the torch. As soon as I raised my shotgun to aim, the light bounced on the rear sight and my eyes were blinded. The background disappeared behind the glow as my eyes tried to adjust, giving time for the hares to run away. Unlike daytime, this form of hunting was a visually stripped experience, given the way the torch desaturated the colours and reduced contrast. We also tended to look for more open spaces, where we could exploit the power of seeing distant things without being recognised as threats.

The head torch completely redefined the rules of the perceptual relationship between hunter and prey. Here our task was not any longer that of going unseen and unheard, but one of spotting and killing quickly, before the animal could realise what was going on. Thanks to this eminently visual advantage, we were able to afford producing more noise than during daytime. Not any amount of noise, though. As Lasso reminded me many times, one should try to be as silent as possible even at night.

If hunting with a head torch at night somehow requires the hunter to rebalance and readapt his perceptual engagement, from this point of view one of the strangest experiences that I had was ambushing bala, the Crested Porcupine (Hystrix cristata) on a rocky hill near Bwende. This is a kind of hunt that you also do at night, yet it is completely different. One ambushes the animal hiding near its hole, without moving, often for hours in complete darkness. Lasso, myself, and our host in Bwende Sa-Doto Traoré did not see any porcupine that night. It was not until a visit to Adama, when the teacher asked if we had checked the direction of the wind, that I remembered distinctly a breeze climbing the hill behind my shoulders, toward the holes of the porcupines. Although hunters are generally aware of the relevance of the olfactory dimension, the direction of the wind is often an overlooked detail, in my experience. I attribute the reason to the disappearance of big game, and the contemporary loss of a hunting style based on long periods of stalking. It is not surprising then that tracking is not commonly practiced, and that hunting is mostly based on casual encounters with the small animals that are still common in the area. Tracks are indeed looked for, but only as a marker of the presence of animals, and not followed.

Researching experience

In the accounts above, what emerges is how the position of the apprentice – where I had in part found and in part put myself – was crucial in granting insights into the skilled perception of the hunters. The ethnographic style of these accounts derives from another product of the “sensory turn,” an approach that I find more fertile and compatible with a study of hunting and with Gibson’s conception of perception.

Michael Herzfeld, in the chapter dedicated to the senses in his book entitled Anthropology, has argued that the discipline should not make of the sensorium another sub-field of studies – yet another “anthropology-of” (2001: 252). Rather, the senses should become a method and a perspective to apply across the discipline. Some scholars have indeed tried to develop an anthropology through the senses, or a sensate anthropology or a sensory ethnography. In other words, they have reflected on the role of the embodied, sensuous experience of the ethnographer as a way to access local sensory cultures. It is important to remember that this happened in a period that saw, in anthropology, the strictly connected rise in an interest in the body and embodiment, with perspectives inspired by phenomenology (Csordas 1990; Csordas 1994b; Jackson 1996a; Kirmayer 1992; Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987). [4] I was especially inspired by Paul Stoller’s call for a “sensuous scholarship” (1997) and his experiences of apprenticeship to a Songhai sorcerer (Stoller and Olkes 1987; Stoller 1989). He experimented on his own skin the rivalries between sorcerers when he was the victim of a magical attack that left him temporarily paralysed. Other scholars have chosen to study craftsmanship by taking up the role of apprentice, most notably in Africa, see Lave (1977) and Marchand (2009).[5]

The experience of the field is here something more than the basis for the ethnographer’s authority (Clifford 1988: 35). Such a process marks a difference from the idea of reflexivity as advocated by the literary turn of the 1980s, a self-consciousness of the author’s role inside the text and an opening to dialogue with the natives. This latter conception of reflexivity works completely on the level of representations, while Csordas proposes, on the level of being-in-the-world and lived experience, a reflective effort to include the researcher’s experience in an intersubjective negotiation (1999).

If the past experiences of these ethnographers allowed me to think of the possibility of studying the experience of hunters through the sharing of practical activity, they also raised a whole set of new problems. The very elusive field I was determined to study, embodied human experience, poses relevant methodological issues. My research subject has often been beyond the level of verbalized knowledge and even conceptual thought. This translated into the impossibility of relying mainly on transcribed interviews and oral accounts, traditionally a pillar of ethnographic practice (Cox 2002: 74; Harris 2007b: 2, 8–12; Hastrup 1990: 51–54). Jason Throop seems to feel the same urge for “employing methodological strategies that complement the collection of explicitly retrospective assessments” (2003: 235–236).

I would like to stress here that my attempt is one of studying experience, as opposed to representations of experience. One of the best-known books on the topic of experience (Turner and Bruner 1986), in fact deals mostly with such representations, and not by chance. Anthropology has for a long time focused on the public aspects of experience, its subjective dimension being considered inaccessible or not relevant. Therefore for many anthropologists an ethnographer could only access experience through the medium of representations such as systems of symbols, social dramas, narrations or any other form of cultural artefact (Goulet and Granville Miller 2007a: 8–9). Geertz’s remarks in the epilogue of The Anthropology of Experience are telling of his disregard of more introspective approaches:

We cannot live other people’s lives, and it’s a piece of bad faith to try. We can but listen to what, in words, in images, in actions, they say about their lives. As Victor Turner […] argued, it is with expressions – representations, objectifications, discourses, performances, whatever – that we traffic […]. Whatever sense we have of how things stand with someone else’s inner life, we gain it through their expressions, not through some magical intrusion into their consciousness (Geertz 1986: 373).

Writing about Husserl, Geertz affirms to be interested in the relationship between actor and context, rather than in any internal state of the actor, since we can only access public objectifications of experience as symbols (1973: 110 footnote 134). In his classic work The Interpretation of Cultures cultural processes do not take place in minds – the ghost in the machine, in Gilbert Ryle’s well-known expression – but use public symbols to impose meaning on experience. Without them experience would be an amorphous and unmanageable matter (Geertz 1973: 45–46). Referring to the anthropology of the 1970s and 1980s in general, the emphasis on meaning and the reading of culture tended to exclude experience and the senses from the discipline’s field of enquiry. Generally, according to Csordas, anthropologists from the period collapsed the dualism between language and experience, reducing the latter to the former (1999: 146).

This tendency is typical of the seventies, with the interpretive turn, as much as of the eighties, with the literary turn: the textualism underlying the paradigms used for the study of culture is basically unchanged excluding from anthropology a relevant part of the ethnographic experience (Jackson 1989: 184). Coming back for a moment to the ideas of Turner and Geertz, for example, experience is conceived as twofold.[6] From the work of both transpires the belief in a raw, flowing indeterminate component – mere experience – that is later interpreted or processed through the imposition of meaning to become an experience (the terminology is Turner’s, 1986; in Throop 2003). This view, at least in its basic main traits, is the same I was referring to when mentioning the popular version of cognitivism that influenced both the human sciences and common thinking, thanks to the parallel between the mind and computers. In parallel there is, in anthropology, a recognised tendency to consider only processed experience as possible area of enquiry (Jackson 1996b). It is easy to recognise here the same paradigm I described in the first part of the chapter when discussing perception. The conception of experience that emerges from Gibson’s ecological approach to perception offers an alternative to this paradigm of Cartesian derivation, and offers the possibility for the ethnographer to consider researching experience in its own terms.

Writing about the perspectivist qualities of Yukaghir animism, Rane Willerslev analyses its practical, embodied character in a reflexive way, as a form of mimetic empathy grounded in learning to follow tracks and kill animals during hunts. It is interesting to look at the way he downplays the role of representation in this passage, and contrast it to Geertz’s quote above:

My adoption of the Yukaghir hunter’s perspective was not mere representation, but it had a materiality grounded in my bodily experiences of their lifeworld – which, through my mimetic mirroring of their behavior, senses, and sensibilities in day-to-day events and routines, became our shared lifeworld. Mimetic empathy, we might say, then, does not imply simply representation or imagination, but it has a decisively corporeal, physical, and tangible quality from which the former ultimately emerges and from which it derives its “material” (Willerslev 2007: 106).

So the choice of my field methodology was an attempt to deal with the role of embodied experience in a specific group, engaged in a specific way with their environment, through experience itself – what Goulet and Granville Miller have called “experiential ethnography” (Goulet and Granville Miller 2007a: 4).[7]

These observations on my sensory experiences of hunting demonstrate how the method I had envisaged for this research, based on bodily participation, worked on at least two levels. First, I could start to experience the bush as a hunter’s environment, thanks to the enskilment of perception applied to hunting. Second, I had a kind of access to the community of hunters that initiation alone would never have been sufficient to grant me. Ever since I was initiated I started to hunt, and this gave me and other hunters a ground to establish a relationship born of practice. A simple association card or a ritual would never have constituted a comparable bond. That I was not studying hunting by asking countless questions made perfect sense to the hunters, and in the bush I earned their respect, sharing hardships and frustrations. One of the most meaningful moments, showing how I was perceived to have entered donsoya in terms of my bodily involvement, was a day toward the end of my stay, when Adama and his son Dramane remarked how I progressively lost weight: “He was not this skinny when he first came here” said Adama “he really took donsoya seriously.”




[1] Alternative, mechanistic and anti-idealistic models of perception were formulated by Democritus, Epicurus and later by Lucretius (Lucretius Carus 1986; Greenblatt 2012).

[2] A remarkable exception are collective ritual hunts such as the Sambla tèen, which on the other hand is based on completely different techniques (see previous chapter).

[3] For the same reason, hunting at night is illegal in Burkina Faso as in many other countries.

[4] But compare the pioneering conception of ciné-transe in the work of Jean Rouch (1973; Henley 2009: Chapter 12).

[5] I could give many more examples from the fields of the anthropology of emotions (Desjarlais 1992; Hage 2009; Newmahr 2008; Rosaldo 1984), every-day life (Jackson 1983; Seremetakis 1996; Pink 2004) martial arts and boxing (Bar-On Cohen 2009; Cox 2011; Kohn 2001; Wacquant 1995; 2004), dance (Downey 2011; Taylor 1998; Wulff 1998) and music (Hood 1960; Rice 1994; Roseman 1993).

[6] I do not want to suggest that Geertz’s and Turner’s positions on experience, which can be made to correspond on the broad epistemological level (Throop 2003: 222–226), also correspond on the methodological level. See from this point of view Turner’s On the Edge of the Bush. Anthropology as Experience (1985).

[7] It must be remarked, though, that the phenomenological tradition that inspires Csordas, Jackson, Ingold and even Gibson is not in fact the only possible approach to experience that tries to deal with the mind-body dichotomy. Some scholars have found in the work of Spinoza – and later of Bergson – and in his notion of affect a dimension of experience that is independent from emotion and rationalisation (Clough 2008; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Massumi 2002). But the emphasis on a parallel form of cognition in the bodily affective dimension for thinkers like Massumi has been criticised as another form of dualism of mind and body (Leys 2011). On the other hand, what Gibson’s ideas and approach to the perceived environment allow us to do is to overcome the distinction between the two kinds of experience proposing a truly non-representationalist model for perception.




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