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DeltaLab#1 - Rhythm

In our first lab we explored the theme 'rhythm' along texts by Ingold, You, Harris and Stasik. This post serves as a snapshot and reflects on the readings, our discussion and the questions we pondered.

Tim Ingold - The Temporality of the Landscape

Based on a critique of landscape as text, where history gets inscribed into or laid onto nature 'out there', Tim Ingold's concept of taskscape describes the ongoing temporality of the landscape and its interweaving with its dwellers.

We who dwell, along with other living beings, are part and parcel of the taskscape. Hence, taskcape is on the one hand bound to our individual but relational timing and movement rather than to a fixed chronology with a clock time and on the other hand based on our engagement with the phenomena of the physical conditions rather than on the physical conditions themselves (e.g. the tide instead of the moon and gravity). It is through this engagement with the taskscape, one could say, that we set it into a rhythmic vibration. This is very different to the understanding of landscape as a collection of chronological activities that are layered on top of each other and can then, when they are 'dead', so to speak, again be 'dug up', 'divided' and 'read'. 

Ingold further relates his concept of taskscape to music. The members of an orchestra for instance attune to each other and, as they do so, they resonate with each other. This relational, resonating playing can basically be understood as a movement in a common environment. By moving in this common environment, we interweave with each other and with the environment. Furthermore, to be able to play a piece together, the musicians need to be skillful – not only with regards to their particular instruments, but also with regards to their colleagues and their actions. The same accounts for our dwelling in the taskscape. 

Despite its usefulness, the concept of taskscape also leaves us with some questions: For example, how can we account for people or things that do not move and that do not create or 'contribute'? What about the power relations between the active and the passive, probably inanimate? And how to deal with resonance (e.g. an orchestra at work), when there always needs to be an input-signal (e.g. the notes) and some form of coordination or structuring of complexity (e.g. the conductor)? 


Haili You - Defining Rhythm: Aspects of an Anthropology of Rhythm

You approaches rhythm with a focus on how we can anticipate and experience it. According to her/him (?), rhythms do not exist per se, but only when we have a perception of them. This perception is a matter of education (similar to Ingold and Gibson), as it is based on relating past experiences to future possibilities. Like this, we can prepare and anticipate and finally perceive rhythm – a combination of tempo, recurrence and difference (cf. Derrida). 

When rhythm is the combination of tempo, recurrence and difference, then it is also form in becoming – but never a timeless and fixed object. And when everything flows and resonates well, when we are immersed in flow and dance along to or with the rhythm, then this form-in-becoming is not really to conceptually grasp – only when there is friction or a break, we 'awake', or, we 'pause'. 

This could be transferred to social life (cf. Bourdieu, Mauss): when we fit in, we dance along, but when we 'fall out' of rhythm, we step out, oscillate back from the emic to the etic, from the intense to the extense. However, it might well be, that we keep dancing along without knowing that the rhythm is imposed on us: work schedules, for example, impose rhythms on us and we dance along to them (cf. Foucault). This dancing along indeed requires and renders possible creativity, improvisation and manipulation (cf. Lefebvre, Harraway), but still, it is not us who 'write the music'. 

If rhythm, as You states, is all about anticipation, knowing when 'the next beat hits', then we might wonder, how we, in this anticipation, influence rhythm: Can we stay or step outside of it or are caught up in it anyway? And if rhythm has no opposite, how can we locate its end and its beginning? Or its interweaving with other rhythms? 


Mark Harris - The Rhythm of Life on the Amazon Floodplain: Seasonality and Sociality in a Riverine Village

In his study on a coboclos village in the Amazon, Harris works out, how life in the floodplain is inherently rhythmic. The dwellers attend to the rhythms of the floodplain in order to resonate with them, both individually and socially. Consequently, in the dry-season, one moves around, visits friends and family and attends festivities. During the wet-season, in contrast, one rather stays at home. This relates to the dangers of drowning in the floods or becoming ill, for example after seeing the (mythically connoted) freshwater dolphin. The rhythmicity of the seasons hence divides and unites people and interplays with both sociality and work. Water is thereby perceived as something that both blocks social flow and that makes it possible later on again in the sense that in its blocking there is already the 'seed' of connectivity: For the intersubjective, mobile practices of the dry-season, the recovery in the household, the basis for social (re)production during the wet-season, is necessary. This 'recovery', 'non-creation' (of social relation) and 'immobility' is consequently also an immanent and powerful part of the taskcape (as introduced above). However, Harris does not go deeper into questions of the formation of seasonality and rhythmicity and how they are influenced the dwellers themselves. Wet and dry – these are described as quite stable ‘natural’ (f)actors, to which the floodplain-dwellers attune, or even, adapt. 


Michael Statik - Rhythm, Resonance and Kinaesthetic Enskilment in a Ghanaian Bus Station

A little less structural focus is offered by Stasik's account of a bus station's rhythmicity. As a hub for travels to other places outside the city, Accra's Neoplan station threads together the different rhythms of clock-time (e.g. working hours, weekends, market days), nature (e.g. seasons, day/night), oecological time (after Evans-Pritchard a conceptualization of practice along tasks that are based on nature's cycles, like a peasant's day according to the rhythm of his or her cattle, where one activity relationally follows another) and arrhythmic events (e.g. jams, accidents or sport-events). The rhythms are negotiated and running together in the station, in the destinations and in between, on the roads – when there is a feast in one of the destinations, the workers and passengers in the Neoplan station have to dance along. To be able to do so, for example to anticipate passenger rates, experience and attentiveness are required. Such an educated perception (cf. Ingold, Gibson) fosters an agile socio-economic organization, where for example buses 'fill and run' and are not bound to a strict clock-time, where hawkers adjust their products to the flux of travelers (in rush hours, they sell smaller goods) or where workers successfully maintain a 24-hour shift system of service, although it does not run parallel to any of the passengers rhythms. 

Stasik's work, however, also describes the limits of scientific endeavor that is concerned with rhythmic connectivity across scale: While the workers and the researcher were quite able to trace and anticipate events in some smaller cities as distinct input-signals for the resonances within the bus station, the relations between Kumasi and Neoplan are too complex to dance along or to disentangle. 

This problem of scale points to an important challenge for ethnographic fieldwork in general and for research in deltas in particular: without clear boundaries, ends and beginnings, categorization and disentangling with attention to power relations poses a real challenge. If scale is now additionally joined by irregularity (or volatility), complexity is again altered and we might be tempted to speak of arrhythmicity. This, however, although Stasik indeed uses this term for certain events, depends on our understanding of rhythm itself. How do we define irregularity? Can rhythms be irregular but still be rhythms? Does irregularity go together with recurrence? And could we settle with anticipation instead of prediction?

Just by observing rhythms and how people dance along to them, we might not get to know enough about the powers that constitute and enforce them and we might end up getting stuck with explaining something mainly with our informants' creativity, improvisation and manipulation (as criticized above for Harris). As important this is for accounting for local practice and agency, we as anthropologists might want to go beyond explaining something we do not understand by describing our informants' skillful dealing with that what we do not understand. What we need for an anthropology for river deltas is hence both: a perspective of local dwellers’ self-determination and a perspective of the power relations at play. 



Harris, Mark (1998). The Rhythm of Life on the Amazon Floodplain: Seasonality and Sociality in a Riverine Village. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(1), pp. 65-82.

Ingold, Tim. (1993). The Temporality of the Landscape. In: World Archaeology 25(2), pp. 152-174.

Stasik, Michael (2015). Rhythm, Resonance and Kinaesthetic Enskilment in a Ghanaian Bus Station. In: Ethnos, pp. 1-24.

You, Haili (1994). Defining Rhythm: Aspects of an Anthropology of Rhythm. In: Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 18(3), pp. 361–384.