Reflection on Vincent Crapanzano’s work “Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan”

In a classic cultural anthropological text titled Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan, by Professor Vincent Crapanzano embarks on a fascinating tale of she demons, and an attempt to discover new ways of writing ethnography. My initial reaction to his work was mere fascination by Tuhami’s story, but the more you peal away at Crapanazano’s fantastic prose and dig beneath the surface of the story, another story about an ethnographer and his readers is unveiled. What follows some may call a book review, but I hesitate in doing so because I do not want this text – which is endowed by some authority by the mere fact that it is posted online in a respected blog – to be a definitive re-statement (of sorts) of Crapanzano’s work. Instead, in the spirit of experimentation, what follows is my initial reflection to his work. Rather than a review, I suggest you read the book, which is a great read and unlike many ethnographies, it’s short.

In the Introduction, Crapanzano writes,

“The subject of Tuhami’s tale is ontologically different from the subject of those tales with which we in the west are familiar. Generic differences are not simply formal differences. They are cultural constructs and reflect those most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, including the nature of the person and the nature of language” (pg 7).

After reading Crapanzano’s book, I found myself searching for the ontological differences and what or who the subject of his (who exactly the “his” indexes to I leave open for discussion) story is.

Throughout the book, we are described fantastic tales of struggle against demonic forces or against oneself. Typically, we (again who “we” refers to is left open—is it “westerners”, all of humanity, the theorist, the reader, etc..) think of demonic forces in terms of ontology in two possible ways. The first is that they absolutely exist, the second is that they absolutely do not exist. The dichotomy is testimony to the western abandonment of the supernatural for a reductionist approach motivated by the search for scientific objectivity. I ask myself which is true for Tuhami and which is true for Crapanazno, or rather for myself. I believe that they are indeed real for Tuhami. Demons are absolutely real and serve as objects in Tuhami’s ontology. For Crapanzano, they are “symbolic-interpretive elements” (pg75), they are explanations, and have no ontological reality, or better objectivity.

Interestingly, Crapanzano writes, “Tuhami had been speaking the truth from the start…” (pg 130). It seems that from the beginning we see an inescapable truth. The truth is we cannot escape ourselves. We are subject to our own cultural constructs, which we have very little control over. Heidegger put it best when he said that we find ourselves thrown into the world. We don’t really have control of what our world is, we simply find ourselves thrown into it, and have to make do. We find this throwness (as Heidegger put it) evident in the fact that we cannot seem to know that demons are real, as opposed to can be real, ontological objects. Instead, its very natural that we simply brush aside the notion that they are absolutely real for Tuhami, and instead fall back to theorizing and our fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. In a sense, we stop ourselves from knowing, and compromise with understanding. We are inescapably stuck in our way of seeing, speaking, listening, interpreting, and understanding. The walls that create the constructs of our understanding are the things that make us who we are. Consequently, we cannot escape ourselves and are limited to an epistemology of self. Knowledge outside oneself seems inaccessible.

The most we can do is understand (never really know), as Crapanzano does when he writes that

“… the real was a metaphor for the true– and not identical with it. Tuhami had been speaking the truth from the very start…, but I had been listening only for the real, which I mistook for the true“ (pg 130).

Parting from Crapanzano, can we say that Tuhami had been speaking the real and the true, only the real for Tuhami was not real for Crapanzano? The real was not real, or at least real and not-real (in true Platonic fashion), for Crapanzano because it was foreign to the contextual framework he was working within. Demons are real for Tuhami and thus he has access to knowledge about them we are unable to have. For Crapanzano the only sense in which they are real is that they are symbolic-interpretive elements, and can only be understood as such.

In addition, we see that Crapanzano himself fears the notion that there are other equally successful ways of constituting reality. He writes that such a notion “is always threatening” and that “it may produce a sort of epistemological vertigo and demand a position of extreme cultural relativism” (pg 8). Crapanzano writes that his work is a reaction to anthropology’s failed attempts to deal with the matter. Yet, latter we find that Crapanzano ends up saying that even his own relativism has its limits (pg 133).

In coming full circle now, we can try to answer the questions posed earlier: what or who is the subject? Is the subject of Tuhami’s tales himself? He is. The stories Tuhami tells are stories about she-demons, but they are also stories about seduction, captivation, enslavement, identity, etc… Such themes apply directly to Tuhami. So the subject of Tuhami’s stories is ontologically different because Tuhami’s ontology is different from the west. Within his world, demons are ontologically objective, much like atoms are ontologically objective for a physcist. However, the subject of the stories told by Tuhami and the text constructed by Crapanzano is also Crapanzano himself. Crapanzano gives us a description of his reading and his notes. We gain our own insight into Crapanzano’s reactions to Tuhami’s stories, his insights, views, ideas, biases, etc… So Crapanzano is very much the subject of his own work as well. Additionally, what I consider one of the stronger points of the book, is that anyone can bring to the reading what ever they will. Ethnography, for me at least, is a way of exploring, not only the intended subject, but myself as well. Due to this, we are also given the chance to become the subject of the book, and in general ethnography itself.

In being the subject of this text (my text or Crapanzano’s), I ask can we question our own fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality, or in other words are demons real for you?

One thought on “Reflection on Vincent Crapanzano’s work “Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan”

  1. Great to read some of your work Emmanuel. I am very impressed with your work. I can really tell you enjoy writing and are passionate about it. I hope to read more of your work in the future. Hope all is well.


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