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Your own private griot

[Reposted from the SLA Blog.]

In her now classic 1989 paper on language and political economy, Judith Irvine talked about situations where language doesn’t merely index political and economic relations in the way that accent is linked to class in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but where speech acts are themselves a form of political and economic economic activity. Her example is that of the Wolof griot “whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron’s behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messagesto the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing.” She discusses how while not anyone can be a griot — you have to be born into the right caste — it is the “most talented and skillful griots” who “earn high rewards and are sought after by would-be patrons.” Irvine then goes on to discuss not just the verbal skill of the griot, but “cases where a verbal statement is the object of exchange.” It is worth quoting this discussion in full:

Recently there appeared a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, entitled “Flattery getting someone somewhere” (M. Stevens, 28 July 1986). “You’re looking great, Frank!” says a man in business suit and necktie to another, perhaps older, man with glasses and bow tie. “Thanks, Chuck! Here’s five dollars!” Bow Tie replies, handing over the cash. The joke depends, of course, on the notion that the exchange of compliments for cash should not be done so directly and overtly. We all know that Chuck may indeed flatter Frank with a view to getting a raise, or some other eventual reward; but it is quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment. A compliment should be acknowledged only with a return compliment, or a minimization, or some other verbal “goods.” If it is to be taken as “sincere,” it is specifically excluded from the realm of material payments.

Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however. It is doubtful, for example, that the cartoon would seem funny to many Senegalese. With a few suitable adjustments for local scene, the transfer it depicts is quite ordinary. There is, in fact, a category of persons-the griots-specializing in flattery of certain kinds, among other verbal arts. The income they gain from these activities is immediate and considerable, often amounting to full-time employment for those whose skills include the fancier genres of eulogy.

I remembered this article because something I read made me wonder about the claim that it is “quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment.” It was a piece in the Washington Post by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled “Five myths about prostitution.” The second of these five myths is that “men visit prostitutes for sex.”

Often, they pay them to talk. I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.

Figuring out why men pay for sex they don’t have could sustain New York’s therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: “Men like it when you listen. . . . I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen — and to tell them how great they are.” Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man’s need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership. Little wonder, then, that so many describe themselves to me as members of the “wellness” industry.

So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private. While a woman at a Japanese hostess bar may be paid to listen and make complements in a public setting, in the US this activity seems to have been relegated to the private sphere – between the man and his griot.

7 thoughts on “Your own private griot

  1. So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private.

    Public/private makes all the difference, indeed. Part of what “tell[ing] them how great they are” stems from is that the client is not having sex with the prostitute despite money having changed hands; part of why money will change hands when a griot singles you out for praise is your (well-merited!) anxiety regarding what he will let everyone else in attendance know about you if you don’t.

  2. The history of art is largely the history of paid flattery; it still is in its way.
    And lawyers and PR flacks are paid spokesmen. There’s nothing odd about the Griot’s role. The supposed independence of “art” is a modern invention.

    This is another problem with the language of “form”, “content” and the misnomer “content provider”. As if a painting of Charles V were thought of as in the form of paint and canvas and not also the “form” of official portraiture. The history of art is the history of actions. Novelists use language as form -as molded substance- not as vessel for something else called “content”. They’re called writers because that’s what they do.

    “Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions”
    That means that the “content” of the exchange (sex) is less important that the form, the [pretense at] seduction.

    I knew a man who’d been an escort for a female clientele and it was always treated as a date: a night out, dinner included. It was never only sex, it was the process.

    But “high-end” is significant.

  3. Kerim, in one of the quotes this was said: Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however.

    Considering pre-mercantile Europe, I am wondering if feudal and ancient Europe operated with such a system in place (certainly Aristotle’s point of view of commercial exchanges is typical of many in the ancient world). Despite Aristotle’s misgivings, certain ritual activity may have been acceptable, even if the transaction of money was involved. In particular, I wonder about the ritual of dinner entertainment, whether or not this involved compliments to the host by the paid poet/musician?

    Aside from this possible special case, how might an economy of compliments operate. I think it would function if it were tied to an notion of gift-giving, thus allowing a wide variety of economically available objects to be disposed of as gifts (ie. food, land, services). Gift-giving would allow the greater circulation of goods within society, and for the wealthy would be a form of power-brokerage (Seth’s point about art and compliments fits in very nicely). Gift-giving allows a recoding of wealth (ie. money, land) that may be initiated by compliments.

    In our present day were we have to interact with so many strangers on a daily basis, reducing interactions to monetary arrangements seems a logical and effective approach. We don’t need an economy of gift-giving largely because we infrequently meet with most of the people we do meet with during our days. But when we think of friendship and money, we are back with Aristotle, feeling money would only distance us from any true meaning of friendship. That may be the ideal, but as Kerim points out American “griots” do exist, it is just we are blind to many of them, i.e your personal fitness trainer, the barista at the coffee bar, etc. How often do we put a little more money into the tip jar?

  4. Royal portraits were not simply objects or gifts. There were very specific symbols attached to them and audiences understood the significance. Symbols and allegories of justice, strength, etc were deployed for very specific purposes, and paintings or copies were sent to places where the king himself might never go. A Ruler’s court painters and poets were his or her own private griots.

    “Carol Ann Duffy, designated in May 2009 official poet of the United Kingdom, is the first “royal bard” in the post’s three centuries of existence to be a woman, and also the first to be openly bisexual.”

    One of the responsibilities (now voluntary?] is to write birthday poems for the Queen.

    The Guardian UK:
    “[Duffy] takes over from current incumbent Andrew Motion, who wished her luck in an email exchange earlier this morning. Motion has completed a decade in the post, writing poems for events including the Queen’s 80th birthday in 2006, the 100th birthday and death of the Queen Mother, and a rap for Prince William’s 21st.”

  5. That’s really interesting Seth. I knew that England had a poet poet laureate, as does the US, but I don’t think in the US the poet’s job involves writing (even on a voluntary basis) poems for the Obama family?

  6. The US position is recent, 1985, and the responsibilities seem minimal, mostly to act as spokesman for the arts in the “Art is good for you” vein.

    I have to admit I’ve never segregated the linguistic sign from the material world as the author of the essay you refer to describes it. That’s the heart of my annoyance at the discussion of advertising here. As “form” ads are a form of praise poetry. But treated in terms of content it elevates function to the level of art. Scholars interested in communicating ideas prefer an art that communicates ideas. But that’s not how art works. We don’t look at Titian’s Charles V on horseback because of the sitter but because of the maker. That’s why it’s called “a Titian” not “a Charles V”. In discussion of the arts the linguistic sign is always material. Art history and literary history are the study of the ways people say things not the study of the things they say.

    There are plenty of clear parallels in contemporary culture to the role of the griot: in advertising, public relations, and and trial law. Defense lawyers are actors on stage.

    A guest poster just wrote “Advertising is dead”. But advertising is seduction, and seduction isn’t dead. Now it’s in the architecture. And architecture is also form.
    Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

  7. In light of Seth’s comment I would add something to the notion of gift that I had missed: Royal portraits were not simply objects or gifts. There were very specific symbols attached to them and audiences understood the significance. Gifts are symbols themselves, we just don’t hand out any object, but specific objects fitting to the recipient. In other words, “it’s the thought that counts” implies the symbolic nature of the gift as a sign made material.

    Mightn’t then the griot be performing a gifting service, for which a gift is expected in return. For us the trouble is the griot’s gift is verbal (ephemeral in Western standards–we would say “it’s just words, words, words”), but it takes on a material nature–I very much like Seth’s interpretation of ads as “a form of praise poetry.”

    To end on this, I am reminded of a particular gift, which are nothing but ‘words, words, words”: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets to the Portuguese for her husband. This is a perfect example of praise poetry that is both an idea told in a special way that makes it special. In line with Seth’s identification of the Titian as “Titian” not “Charles V,” we tend to thinnk of the Sonnets in terms of their author’s name (interestingly, we still retain for whom they were written as part of their value).

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