Touching Excess: Haptic Sound from the Multispecies Delta

Sandro Simon



In the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal, water, salt, and soil intermingle along ecological rhythms while delta dwellers continuously adjust their mobilities and practices. The gleaning for molluscs is an ample example of this (see Simon 2021, 2022, 2023a). It has evolved to become the most important female livelihood activity in the delta while remaining embedded in gendered hierarchical relations around benevolence and marginality.[1]


Female gleaners search for molluscs across mangroves, sandbanks, and mudflats with their hard sand or mud, covered by more or less water again mixed to different degrees with swirled-up sand. While doing so, they attune to seasons, tides, molluscs or colleagues. Their practice is one of moving within movement (Vigh 2009) and of multispecies relation; it hinges on correspondence with the different deltaic beings, phenomena, and forces. As gleaning partly takes place in the mud and underwater, this relation is crucially guided by the gleaners’ haptic engagement. Laura Marks notes that “haptic perception is usually defined as the combination of tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies” (Marks 2002: 2, italics in original). Gleaners’ haptic engagement produces sound, including underwater sound. Due to the density of water, it is ultimately not the bones in the inner ear but the bones of the body that provide the resistance needed to register such underwater sound and turn it into resonances in the body (Ashmore 2000: 65; Helmreich 2007: 624). Audio-visual practice has the potential to give visual and sonic access to this haptic realm of gleaning and to inquire into it from a multispecies perspective. Sound seems especially apt for evoking sensuality and connection, as sound and touch are related in that they can both be perceived on and through the body (Lovett 2013: 65, 66, drawing on Brandon LaBelle). 


Audio-visually navigating the human and the more-than-human dimensions of gleaning required close attention to the gleaner’s bodily gestures and movements between air and water/mud; to move myself and the camera in accordance with them as well as to let the camera, with its microphones, rest in observation or swirl around with molluscs, sand, and water in sieves, buckets, and bags (see Simon 2022). Such an approach mobilized the camera and microphones as sometimes guided, sometimes autonomous actors, connected to the materiality of the deltaic world as well as to human and non-human bodies moving therein (see MacDougall 2006). It produced a multitude of visuals and sounds. Some audio recordings turned out “normal” and “clean,” while others were “indeterminate,” “disproportionate,” or “imperfect,” containing sounds and tones that are interchanging and merging as well as difficult to localize and categorize; sounds that are “too loud,” representing touch’s aurality in amplified ways; or sounds that are grainy, overdriven, distorted, dull, piercing, full of static hiss or windy, and so forth. It thus appears that, in correspondence to the continuous emergence of deltaic life and matter, recordings from the amphibious delta lack stability and surpass norms. Moreover, they offer access to a multispecies world exceeding everyday experience and at the same time gesture towards the constructiveness of technological mediation and the unknowability of the world. In short, they allow for contact with the world’s excess and are, in part, excessive themselves. 


Anthropology and related sciences have long been fascinated with the excessive (see e.g. Mauss and Beuchat [1906] 1979; Bataille 1985, [1957] 1986, [1949] 2012; Durkheim [1912] 1995; Martínez 2009, 2010; Koller, Schrödl and Schwantner 2009; Groes-Green 2010; Czarniawska and Löfgren 2014; Reyes 2017; Carruthers 2023). Excess has been drawn to the non-essential and surplus, the irrational and ambivalent, the fringe, the transgressive, to overflow and even waste and, at the same time, has been deemed crucial for social relations and reproduction or personal pleasure as well as to the expression of critique, release, and renewal. The interest in the excessive has been guided by the idea that it can reveal something “more” or “overlooked” about the world: when things deviate from the normal and become excessive, the hidden or marginalized is revealed and we can gain a deeper understanding of life, is the idea. However, in its own practice, anthropology has been striving for abstraction, homogenization, and generalization instead, and analyzing the excessive often had the side effect of taming it (MacDougall 1998; Poole 2005). Deborah Poole observes that, more recently, “the theoretical work of ethnography is now more often assumed to be inseparable from the specific forms of encounter, temporality, uncertainty, and excess that characterize ethnography as a form of both social inquiry and writing” (Poole 2005: 173). Moreover, voices have been arising that call for experimentation with language, form, and media as critical, performative means of both disruption and exploration of alternative ways of collective existence as well as propose excess as an analytical tool that does not need mastering (see Russell 1999; Willerslev and Suhr 2013; Schneider and Pasqualino 2014; McLean 2019; Birks 2021). The excessive as a transgression, writes Chelsea Birks, “is not a static entity but rather refers to the thing that slips through at the very moment of seizure; it must be experienced rather than known and as such necessarily remains elusive to thought” (Birks 2021: 15).


Continuing along these lines, this article proposes a (re)considering and embracing of my audio/visual material as excessive data in its own right. Accompanied by five sound files and three visually contextualizing photos, it traces the sonic-haptic dimensions of mollusc gleaning and the attempts to record them across the amphibious deltaic environment. In doing so, it shows how haptic sound is touching and, in this touching, evokes both alterity and multispecies sensitivity. Additionally, haptic sound also makes the materiality of camera and microphones and their inscription into data tangible, and it discloses how the world reveals itself as never fully graspable. Thus, haptic sound, with its excessive qualities, can help to decenter anthropocentrism and to foster a sense of an embodied multispecies conviviality in anthropology as well as cinema and related audio-visual practices. 

The mudflat and Aissatou sieving (2019)