“Crocodiles are the Souls of the Community”: An Analysis of Human-Animal Relations in Northwestern Benin and its Ontological Implications
Sharon Merz, Thèse de Doctorat, 2014
In this thesis I explore human-animal relations amongst the Bebelibe of the Commune of Cobly, in the northwest of the Republic of Benin, West Africa, with a focus on how they relate to their tikedimɔmɔnte (true totem(s), literally “interdict(s)-true”). I start with an historical review of totemism, the debates it generated and how these contributed to the recent ontological turn in anthropology. I then explore the theoretical ideas I use for my analysis, which include “presencing” and the “ontological penumbra” (J. Merz 2017b; J. Merz and S. Merz 2017). Presencing builds on semiotics by explaining how people make meaning present through their engagement in and with the world around them, whilst ontological penumbras are the shadowy spaces of limbo that affect our whole being and that people need to negotiate as part of making sense of their engagement with the world. As part of these theoretical frameworks, I examine the “onton”, as introduced by Johannes Merz (2017b). Ontons are experiential, agentive and relational entities that are the result of presencing processes. Ontons, however, cannot be divided into representations (signifiers) and represented (signified) as signs can. An engagement in the world between different entities in an ontonic and thus nonrepresentational sense necessitates my introducing further notions including shared “ontonity” (instead of shared humanity) and “ontonhood” (rather than personhood). I demonstrate how these theoretical ideas work with reference to human-animal relations primarily amongst the Bebelibe in the Commune of Cobly. In order to do this, I provide an in-depth, “thick description” (Geertz 1973) ethnography that explores how people perceive and relate to animals through hunting, domestication, attitudes to eating meat, animal commodification, reincarnation, shapeshifting and totemism. As part of my analysis I also examine the impact of Christianity on human-animal relations by exploring several incidents involving Christians and their tikedimɔmɔnte.
Making Meaning Present: Semiotics and the Ontological Life of Stones in West Africa
Johannes Merz, Studies in Media and Communication 5 (2) : 145-156, 2017
Semiotics, which is a foundational principle of scientific thought, has also shaped anthropology’s understanding of live stones that serve as shrines in the savannah region of West Africa, such as in the Commune of Cobly of northwestern Benin. Semiotics either reduce live stones and other religious and ontological phenomena to a function of signification or they recast them as semiotic anomalies attributable to the Other. Either way leads to an epistemological paradox in which such phenomena can be rationally understood yet existentially denied. I propose to counter this by introducing a new type of entity, which I call the “onton.” Building on the notion of presence and the anthropology of ontology, I understand ontons as indivisible and non-representational entities that cannot be broken down into different sign components. Ontons are more than meaningful; they are made present in the world when other entities relate to them through the process of presencing that shifts the focus from meaning to action. Presencing, which builds on semiotics, is guided by different practices, which, in turn, can account for ontological diversity and differentiation. I claim that presencing, which allows for ontonic entities, leads to a deeper understanding of ontology and human experience more broadly. Meaning as a basis for communication is thus extended to include presence as a basis for a wider engagement with the world, thereby breaking down difference between humans, animals and things.
Frictions et inversion de modernité : Portrait de la Commune de Cobly dans l’Atacora du Bénin
Johannes Merz, SIL Electronic Working Papers 2017-001, 2017
Dans cet article je présente un portrait de la Commune de Cobly de la République du Bénin dont les habitants continuent à être perçus comme sauvages et sous-développés. Cette image trouve son origine à la période coloniale quand les Européens pensaient avoir trouvé une société isolée, traditionnelle, réactionnaire et même anarchique. La puissance de cette image a inversé la modernité translocale qui a caractérisé la région depuis bien avant l’arrivée des Européens à la côte ouest africaine. Au temps précolonial ce qui est aujourd’hui la Commune de Cobly servait de refuge aux diverses populations déplacées par les perturbations créées par la traite transatlantique d’esclaves. Comme des réseaux de commerce traversaient la région, Cobly et ses alentours étaient déjà exposés à la circulation commerciale translocale. Or, la colonisation a conduit à une rupture sans précédent, ce qui a accentué la tendance de résistance et a promu la formation des ethnies distinctes le long des lignes linguistiques. La colonisation a également réorganisé l’espace et repositionné le territoire de Cobly comme une des parties les plus reculées et inaccessibles de la nouvelle colonie du Dahomey. En même temps, le colonialisme apportait la sécurité qui permettait aux gens de regagner leur mobilité précoloniale. Plus récemment, l’État indépendant du Bénin s’est consolidé lentement, d’abord par une révolution marxiste-léniniste, puis par la démocratie et la décentralisation. Présentement, les gens sont de plus en plus ouverts à toute chose moderne, ce qui mène à un intérêt accru pour la technologie, les médias, l’éducation et le christianisme.
Contribution à l’histoire précoloniale des Bèbèlibè du territoire de Kobli (Nord-Ouest du Bénin) des origines à 1897
N’koué Benjamin Kaucley, Mémoire de maîtrise, 2016
Mémoire de maîtrise sur l'histoire précoloniale de Cobly, département de l'Atacora, République du Bénin.
A Religion of Film : Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin
Johannes Merz, Thèse de Doctorat, 2014
Three Christian films have become popular in the Commune of Cobly of today’s Republic of Benin, notably the American “Jesus Film” (1979), the American-Ivorian film “La Solution” (1994) and the Beninese video film “Yatin: Lieu de souffrance” (2002). The discussion centres on how people receive and understand these films together with the digital video technology that facilitate their recent success. Christian films are so important in this part of Benin that the question needs to be raised whether Christianity is shifting from a religion of the book towards a religion of film. The theoretical starting point is semiotics, a theory that has been foundational not only for film, media and media reception studies, but more recently also for the study of materiality. This thesis’ main theoretical contribution is a critique of semiotics, arguing that this theory, which has been foundational to Western science, is in fact too limiting. Semiotics, even in its Peircean orientation, cannot sufficiently explain how people in the Commune of Cobly understand shrines, film and media more generally, both through their material manifestations and interactively in terms of communication. Instead, a process called “presencing”, which goes beyond semiotics, can explain better people’s understanding of shrines and media.
“My Nose is Buried at my Maternal Uncle’s” : Bebelibe Family Structure
Sharon Merz, SIL Electronic Working Papers 2014-001, 2014
In this paper I examine Bebelibe family structure and social relationships. I start by looking at the overall structure of the society, which can be defined by its communities, lineages and families. This is followed by an overview of marriage and inheritance, kinship terminology and typology (duo-Iroquois) before looking at different family relationships. Of particular interest is the interplay between the maternal and paternal families. The paper includes case studies of how different relationships play out in real life and how these demonstrate the value people place on harmony and respect. I also explore the impact of social change, especially with regard to marriage.
Mortality and Regeneration : Bebelibe Understandings of Life after Death
Sharon Merz, Mémoire de Master, 2013
The Bebelibe of northwestern Benin are experiencing rapid socio-cultural change following the arrival of modern institutions. People’s views about what happens following death are based on the cyclic flow of kɛbodikɛ (vital force) and mtakimɛ (agentive purpose). Death occurs when kɛbodikɛ and mtakimɛ leave the physical body. Despite this, their bond with it is not completely severed. Only once the flesh has decomposed, leaving just the bones, can they go on to reincarnate. Consequently, the Bebelibe have two funerals: mhuumu (burial, literally ‘death’) and dihuude (celebration), which should follow several months to a year later. Part of the dihuude celebration includes a ritual that allows kɛbodikɛ and mtakimɛ to ‘breathe’.
The introduction and proliferation of coffins during the past twenty years has proved controversial as many think they slow down and complicate reincarnation. For others, kɛbodikɛ and mtakimɛ have been dematerialised and spiritualised, primarily through the influence of Christianity. One outcome of this transformation is the quick separation of kɛbodikɛ and mtakimɛ from the physical body. For those who accept this development, coffins no longer pose a threat and the focus of dihuude changes from ritual to symbolic. Reincarnation aside, many are worried about the escalating costs associated with both mhuumu and dihuude and the increasing social pressure to use coffins.
As many have embraced aspects of Christianity, even if they do not convert, its impact and the importance it has gained in the area cannot be ignored. Especially younger people are attracted to Christianity as it is associated with being modern. Despite this, many churchgoers still accept reincarnation, although their understanding of it may be modified as people appropriate the parts of Christianity they find attractive on their own terms.
I Seek Life : Witchcraft Beliefs and Moral Dualism in the Northern Atakora of Benin
Johannes Merz, Mémoire de Master, 1998