“On blood and words, or, How certain objects turn into subjects, among the Mande (West Africa)”

Conférence donnée par Agnès Kedzierska-Manzon

Helsinki, 21-22 octobre 2015 

lors du panel “Ethnography of Contemporary Ritual LAndscapes”, dans le cadre de la Conference of the Finnish Anthropological Society: “Landscapes, sociality and materiality”, tenue à l’université d’Helskinki (Finland), les 21 et 22 octobre 2015.

Among the Mande (Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire) the usage of a wide range of material artifacts manipulated on a regular basis to influence human life is well established. Such artifacts include, on the one hand, Arabic talismans or amulets (the Mande have been Islamicized since the fourteenth century CE), and on the other hand, non-Islamic, primarily plant-based amalgams that are designated in Mande languages as boliw or basiw (singular: boli or basi). They may be of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, horns filled with substances, assemblages of separate elements such as shells, wooden statues, cola nuts, etc. As with similar artefacts used elsewhere in Africa—for example Congolese “nail fetishes” (nkisi nkondi), Baule “spouse figurines” (blolo bian/bla), or Evhe and Fon vodun, to name only a few—they are addressed through sacrifices and with words, asked for protection and for help in difficulties. Their “users” or “masters” (tigiw) seem to conceive of them as a very special category of not entirely sentient yet autonomous entities, endowed with agency. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (Kedzierska-Manzon 2013), they treat these objects as subjects with which one may enter into a genuine partnership. They engage with them into an ambiguous relationship that has an impact on their sexuality and affective life and that is locally conceptualized as an alliance between human and non-human lovers (Kedzierska-Manzon 2015).This relationship is perpetuated through the ritual practice consisting in regular sacrifices of cola nuts and poultry as well as, more rarely, those of cattle or sheep. They are accompanied, preceded, and followed by speech. As I will argue, both the words uttered in the direction of basiw, and the sacrificial blood poured onto them, are essential in the process of their production, defining their identity and their potential for acting. The blood constitutes more precisely the basiw’s flesh, making their surface uneven and appearance amorphous, suggesting that their creation never fully ends, and that they are, to use the expression coined by David Graeber (2005), “gods in the process of construction”. Drawing on the work of Martin Holbraad (2007 and 2011), I show that their materiality informs us on the way they and their relation to humans are locally comprehended, as in constant transformation. Things rather than objects, if one were to apply to them the classic Heidegger’s dichotomy, forever unachieved, they represent, as does the mound analyzed by Ingold (2012), an open-ended, always expanding “locus of growth”.
Their process of growing and their very existence relies not only on the sacrificial substances but also on the words addressed to them within the ritual context. Such words permit to situate each basi within the larger context, in respect to others similar artefacts and in relation to their “users” or “masters”, as well as these masters’ masters, apprentices, and clients. They inscribe it into a broader network of relationship between humans and non-humans, a network in which these artefacts seem to be nodes. Through ritual speech, they are ascribed certain qualities, represented as potent, which, in fact empower them. At the same time, they are assigned into the position of humans’ interlocutors, capable to listen, to see, and to react. The words addressed to them are supposed to please them or even to enchant them, while sometimes challenging them, in order to provoke them to act on behalf of their allies. The “enchantment” under question is thought to be achieved mainly thanks to the phonetic, stylistic, and lexicographical features of the utterance to which I will attend in my presentation, drawing on the works of Carlo Severi (2007), Anne de Sales (1991), Danouta Liberski-Bagnaud (2010) as well as Webb Keane (1997) and Stephan Feutchtang (2007).
The unusual sonority of ritual speech, its syntactic parallelism, together with abundant use of hyperboles, neologisms, epithets and other stylistic figures typical of poetic language – attested worldwide – contribute in this particular case to the emergence of the ritual landscape within which the artefacts known as basiw are engaged in action and in dialogue with humans. My intention is to analyze this process of emergence through the study of the properties of the words uttered in the intention of these artefacts as well as the examination of the alchemy of their continuous production through blood sacrifices. Their perpetual creation, linking past to the present, bush to the village, visible to the invisible, and last but not least, humans to their fellow humans, shape the Mande world in which the people as well animals, plants, powerful things and some invisible entities dwell.

On blood and words (ppt)

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