Dr. Matthew Taunton – ‘Collective Vocalisation and the Anthropological Imagination: Zora Neale Hurston, Jacques Roumain and Ousmane Sembène’

Collective speech—the act of speaking, chanting, or singing in unison—carries a number of important meanings in modern culture, which my current book project is hoping to map. In the form of prayers, football songs, chants of political protest, and so on, choric utterance is a common feature of modern life, that normally operates (albeit in a variety of ways) as an expression of group solidarity. In this paper I will be exploring how collective speech operates as an object of anthropological investigation. From the late nineteenth century, anthropologists studying the rituals of indigenous peoples became fascinated by the phenomenon of collective chanting, and European literary writers also pursued this interest in their encounters with (and depictions of) colonial subjects. My paper focuses on three writers—Zora Neale Hurston (USA), Jacques Roumain (Haiti) and Ousmane Sembène (Senegal)—who used the tools of anthropology to investigate the ritual functions of collective vocalisation, producing ethnographies, novels, poems and films that celebrated its role in African folk traditions and their New World derivatives. As I hope to show, these writers, in distinct and contrasting ways, made collective speech a site of anti-racist and anti-colonial resistance. It is perhaps not surprising that many anthropological descriptions of choral speech involved colonial assumptions and racist tropes: this paper explores how these three Black writers deployed an anthropology of ritual incantation in the service of a critique of racism and colonialism.

Matthew Taunton is an Associate Professor in Literature at the University of East Anglia. His publications include Red Britain: the Russian Revolution in Mid-Century Culture (OUP, 2019), A History of 1930s British Literature (CUP, 2019, co-edited with Benjamin Kohlmann) and Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris (Palgrave, 2009), as well as numerous journal articles and chapters in edited volumes. The British Novel of Ideas: George Eliot to Zadie Smith, co-edited with Rachel Potter, is forthcoming with CUP this year. His current project, funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, investigates the phenomenon of collective utterance in modern literature, film and the wider culture. He is (with Janice Ho and Benjamin Kohlmann) co-series-editor of a new OUP book series, Literature and Politics, and he also serves as senior deputy editor of Critical Quarterly.

March 29 – 17.00-18.00 – Rehearsal Room 1, ArtsOne, Mile End Campus. Map available here.