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The case of the ‘disappearing body’: habitus shift and bodily practice

In Shawn Lindsay’s 1996 article ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’, the author describes his (her?) process of learning drumming in preparation for doing anthropological fieldwork.  Drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, Lindsay explores the idea of ‘practice as a mode of bodily understanding’, prefiguring a recent resurgence of interest in habit as social and embodied practice (see Body and Society journal’s recent special issue on habit) by exploring repetition and habit in learning a musical skill.

The main contention Lindsay raises is that ‘the habitus must be envisaged as possessing the capacity for generating practices which are not in themselves “inherent in the particular conditions of its production” (Bourdieu:1990, 55) but are actually transformative of those conditions'(p200).  (A nice link with our ‘discourses of transformation’ discussion last month – see previous blog post).  Lindsay notes that learning a new skill – in this case drumming – ‘presents a threat to the habitus in that it entails a reworking and a revitalising of the body’s corporeal schema (Merleau-Ponty 1962:142)’ (p202).  In his drumming practice, the learning of a complex rhythm brought about a ‘habitus shift’ which altered his perception of the timing of this particular beat from hearing 6/8 time to hearing hemiola time, i.e. two against three.  This shift occurred while drumming with his teacher and another student, in a circle, and to his surprise, it was accompanied by a visualisation of the construction of the rhythm between the three drummers, in the form of a floating triangle.

Our discussion in our September meeting circled around this idea of whether bodily practice can transform habitus.  This idea of transformation focused on the shift that Lindsay describes between the moment of not being able to do something and then being able to do it; and also around the embodied capacity which Lindsay describes acquiring, that of a particular kind of active relaxation.  He describes how ‘an essential element of feeling a rhythm is being able to relax your entire body’ which doesn’t mean ‘a lack of energy’ (p208), but ‘cultivating a body that is actively, habitually relaxed.  Achieving a state of habitual relaxation constitutes a rearrangement of the habitus’, as this experience can be taken into other areas of one’s life (p209).

We had some questions around whether this shift does indeed constitute a moment of potential rupture in the habitus, with concomitant generative capabilities, or whether it is just a moment of a new, more energetic reproduction of the habitus.  If there is indeed a transformation, what kinds of newness take place?  And do we have any control over this transformation?  Certain disciplines such as learning a musical practice, or engaging in still and silent listening, can facilitate new experiences, or the kind of shift that Lindsay describes, but what then does this shifting enable?  My own critique was that before learning a new practice from a different culture, it is necessary to possess a habitus wherein the learning of new skills from other cultures is something that is possible and imaginable for you – something which as Skeggs (2003) notes, can be read as an attribute of a middle class self, drawing on a history of appropriating the culture of others.

Despite one very avid defender of the concept of habitus in the group, as well as various newly-minted Bourdieusians, I was not convinced by this idea of the habitus shift through bodily practice, even though I found it hugely exciting to think about as a possibility.  This is partly because it encourages (and draws on) an even looser conceptualisation of the habitus which is already a somewhat blurry concept.  But despite this, what Lindsay describes is interesting in its own right in relation to embodied practice and affective transmission (see Blackman:2012).  Lindsay describes the ‘disappearance of the body in drumming’ (p202) ‘in reaching out to grasp a rhythm not of its own making […] my body had become invisible to me […] It surpassed itself, becoming for a moment ‘co-extensive with the world’ (Sartre: 1956, 420)’ (p201).  We were all fascinated by this account of the ‘disappearing body’ and its implications for ideas of craftsmanship as well as music pedagogies.  There emerged through this ‘disappearing body’ a different mode of sociality which was in itself generative, regardless of whether it might allow lasting transformation of ‘structuring structures’.  And is it really true that if you persist at drumming, ‘the body’s awkward parts will soon disappear’?  I live in hope.

The article ends with a call for ethnographers to learn the basic skills ‘required to engage in new patterns of living’ such as how to use ‘the hoe, the drum, the hatchet, the water jar’ (p211).  This is one place where ethnomusicologists have the upper hand, as learning the musical practice of our research sites is one of the key unifying elements of the discipline.   But as was noted in our discussion, how to write about this practice – particularly how to describe the experience of ‘flow’ or the ‘disappearing body’ – is something we all grapple with, and this article provided a fascinating example of capturing embodied musical experience in prose.


Blackman, L., 2012. Immaterial bodies: affect, embodiment, mediation, Theory, culture & society. SAGE, London.

Lindsay, S. (1996) ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’ in M. Jackson (ed.) Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press); 196-212

Skeggs, B., 2003. Class, self, culture, 1st ed. Routledge.


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The social impact of the arts: what do discourses of transformation do?

For our August discussion group, we read excerpts from Eleanora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett’s 2010 book The Social Impact of the Arts: an intellectual history (introduction, chapter four on Personal Wellbeing, conclusion).  This was quite a different type of reading to our usual ethnomusicological fare, chosen by Jonathan to link into current discussions of what is somewhat vaguely termed ‘cultural value’.

The introduction, which we ended up focusing on in our discussion, sets out the problem of finding a language beyond economic value in which to discuss the role of the arts in society: the question of intrinsic or instrumental value.  Unfortunately for our purposes as ethnomusicologists, the book limits itself to discussing drama, literature and theatre, but as the broader debate around cultural value encompasses music, we felt justified in extending the ideas discussed to music as well.  Belfiore and Bennett identify two narratives related to cultural value: a narrative of transformation in which arts ‘change lives or define identity’ (p4), and a narrative of ‘beleaguerment’ or crisis which suggests that ‘the arts are undervalued and in serious danger of collapse’.  They suggest that examining the intellectual history of ideas of value in the arts can help make sense of current debates.  Continue reading

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Contextualising music, generalising music and a music philosophy conference

Going to a conference outside one’s own discipline is always a strange experience. Interdisciplinary conferences, then, would seem necessarily to be quite unsettling for all concerned. The different sets of delegates bring contrasting disciplinary baggage and have different but deeply held opinions about what makes a valid research question and the proper ways of addressing such a question. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone in experiencing a sense of discomfort during much of the recent interdisciplinary Music and Philosophy conference, organised by the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the Royal Musical Association at King’s College London from 19th to 20th July 2013 (details here: Continue reading


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This morning I woke up with aching muscles and a smug sense of satisfaction. The reason? I went to a Zumba class yesterday. It was an hour-long workout (it felt shorter), to loud, energetic music and it was great. A lot of the songs we exercised to were pumped up versions of salsa classics (Celia Cruz’s Quimbara made an early appearance). I loved this. I’m a keen amateur salsa dancer, but haven’t been able to dance since last November due to an unrelated injury; it was wonderful to be able to perform some of the moves I have missed to music that I adore.

My experience of the class seemed an obvious demonstration of the power of music, both to make me work harder and to make me smile. When I had observed a portion of the previous day’s class from relative safety on the other side of the soundproof door, the sweaty bodies moving not-quite-in-time looked ridiculous. But from the inside, with the bass pumping, I was carried away, and it felt as though we were all moving in harmony. (Although I haven’t thought it through properly yet, this would seem to resonate with the “distributed subjectivity” that Anahid Kassabian theorises in her brilliant latest book Ubiquitous Listening (2013).)

It is possible to formulate critiques of this experience on at least three levels:

1. Zumba (Or rather, “Zumba®”.) According to the website, this is “The World’s Leading Branded Fitness Program”. It asks participants to “Ditch the workout – join the party!” and describes itself as “a global lifestyle brand that fuses fitness, entertainment and culture into an exhilarating dance-fitness sensation!” The website continues, “Zumba® exercise classes are ‘fitness-parties’ that blend upbeat world rhythms with easy-to-follow choreography, for a total-body workout that feels like a celebration.”  In this context, “branded” is an understatement. There is, for example, a whole section of the website detailing their “Trademark Usage Guide”, with instructions such as the following:


With the letter “Z” not capitalized—For example, zumba or zumba fitness.
Misspelled — For example, “Zoomba” is not allowed.
As a verb — For example, “once you zumba, you’ll be hooked” is not allowed.
As a noun — For example, “zumba is my favorite exercise” is not allowed.
As part of a trade name — For instance, “The California Zumba Center” is not allowed.
As a generic term — For example, as a name for a fitness program “My gym offers Zumba” is not allowed.
To advertise programs or products not affiliated with Zumba Fitness, LLC.

Zumba is the latest stage in a long-standing process of romanticisation, appropriation and commodification of the idea of Cuba and Latin culture more broadly in the UK and America. It rode in on the back of the salsa craze and the viral popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club (both already heavily packaged and commodified) and represents a further step away from the culture it claims to represent. As in salsa dance classes, participants are encouraged to shake their hips and to identify with crude stereotypes of sexy Latinas. This is schizophonic mimesis on crack (Feld 1996).

2. Zumba and Virgin. I encountered the tightly-controlled corporate hegemony of Zumba in the context of a Virginactive gym; it was embedded within the multi-pronged Virgin Group corporate machine, which, as we know, touches everything from airplanes to credit cards. Zumba and Virginactive are a good fit: Zumba’s party ethos perfectly matches the “Virgin Vision” in which “Fun is fundamental” and according to which we are encouraged to “Live happily ever active” ( Although I have indeed enjoyed using the gym (including the Zumba class) enormously, I am troubled by the very explicit way in which it is attempting to sell me beauty and happiness.

Virgin gyms are strange places, where your average aqua aerobics class is renamed simply “Aqua” and spinning goes by “V-Cycle”. (Seriously, whatever next? A complimentary V-towel? Overpriced bottles of V-water? After Apple led the way by claiming the prefix “i”, it isn’t hard to imagine the approaching dystopia, in which all objects are prefixed by the one-letter brand symbol of the corporation that we buy them from.) And they’re expensive. (Even if, as I did, you negotiate the advertised membership fee down.) In my borough, the cost of membership alone makes the gym inaccessible to most; amongst other things, this produces all sorts of barely visible, uncomfortable distinctions in terms of social class (and race) between gym users and gym employees.

3. Gyms, neoliberal bodies and a bulimic society. Gyms in general are a problematic phenomenon, anyway.

In an enlightening discussion of how neoliberal capitalism is played out on our bodies, Julie Guthman writes of a “culture of bulimia, where on the one hand consuming in encouraged and on the other deservingness is performed by being thin no matter how that is accomplished” (2009: 187). She draws on writing by Susan Bordo (2003 [1993]: 201):

Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism, while anorexia and obesity embody an attempted resolution of that bind. Anorexia could thus be seen as an extreme development of the capacity for self-denial and repression of desire (the work ethic in absolute control); obesity, as an extreme capacity to capitulate to desire (consumerism in control). Both are rooted in the same consumer-culture construction of desire as overwhelming and overtaking the self.

Gym-going, then, is the perfect example of bulimic culture; it allows for the consumption of self-control. When we succumb to the desire to buy gym memberships, we are paying exorbitant membership fees in order to purchase thin bodies, happiness and, paradoxically, the illusion of being rational subjects in control of our desires.


Returning to my experience of yesterday’s class, which was overwhelmingly positive, I am left with all sorts of unanswered questions. What am I to make of the happiness I felt during the class? Is there any way of redeeming this positive experience? More broadly, what should I do with music that I enjoy, but that simultaneously I find highly problematic? I suspect these questions will not easily go away.


Bordo, Susan. 2003[1993]. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press.

Feld, Steven. 1996. “Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28: 1. doi:10.2307/767805.

Guthman, Julie. 2009. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” In The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York and London: New York University Press.

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.


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Feld’s back in the field

How do we write ethnomusicology and what counts as scholarly work in our field? Feld’s 2012 book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, (of which we read the introduction and first chapter) sent us chasing these questions in our discussions of the introduction and first chapter at the May EDG (ethnomusicology discussion group) meeting. I’ll attempt to recapture some of the flavour of our discussion in this blog post, which I hope will be the first of a series which will follow on from our monthly discussions which take place at the Institute of Education bar.


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Globalisation and Music

I’ve been trying to sort out my thinking this week, partly prompted by Andy Nercessian’s book,Postmodernism and Globalisation in Ethnomusicology: an Epistemological Problem,(2002), and partly by recent conversations. Due to the process of globalisation, discussing musical understanding in terms of the emic-etic dichotomy has become problematic, rendering these terms of limited use. Transcultural musical appropriations are on an unprecedented scale(no pun intended).Musical meaning, never an easy topic, has become ever more complicated owing to postmodern influence with its accompanying relativistic inclinations.On the meaning of any piece of music so many questions can be posed.Whose meaning? Who says? Which interpretation should be privileged? Are all equally valid?…And so it goes on!!

These tumbling thoughts raise questions about the ontological status of music.To my rescue,the current issue of Ethnomusicology Forum came through the letterbox recently. Stephanie Conn’s article contains references to Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic arc. If I’ve understood this correctly,it seems to offer a way to bridge the gap between the autonomy of text position and the meaninglessness of absolute relativism.

I’m off to the library tomorrow to explore further the writings of Paul Ricoeur.


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Welcome to the new-look EDG blog!

Welcome to our re-vamped blog!  I hope you like it.  The re-browning, I mean, re-branding, of the page is to prepare us for the influx of posts that are going to follow.

We are going to have several themes running over the next few months: first, a series on fieldwork, including discussions of access, and people’s reflections on their experience.  Also, we’re going to have regular posts on What We’re Reading, which I will kick-start with a review of Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore. Please feel free to post summaries, reviews, or discussions of what you’re currently reading, whether it’s for the EDG reading group or your own reading.

Finally, I’m hoping that some of you who have sent me photos to use in the blog will also take the opportunity to write about them.  In Paul Gilroy’s chapter in The Auditory Cultures Reader (2004, eds Bull and Back) he discusses a photo of a crowd listening to reggae in London in 1974.  The photo doesn’t show any music or musicians – just the faces of the crowd who are mostly listening intently, some frowning, some looking down.  Gilroy writes ‘this was cultural work that incorporated defensive and affirmative elements: working over and working through the memories of slavery and colonialism, past sufferings and contemporary resistances, so that they could provide resources for interpreting the present and imagining a better future for blacks and for the whole world’ (2004:388).  It’s a beautiful passage, and it’s worth reading all of it, but maybe this snippet will inspire you to look at your fieldwork photos and think about the ‘cultural work’ that is occurring in them.

And finally, seeing this is a music-themed blog, maybe we should have some music in it – go ahead and add clips or links to some of the music you’re studying.

Happy reading/listening/looking!


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