Classifying Our Navel

Martin J. Quinn-Meyler (mquinnmeyler@EARTHLINK.NET)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 10:10:35 +0000

I would like to respond to the two passages below:

Robert Snower wrote:
> John McCreery wrote:
> >It would be a great mistake to believe that the salience of "Prisons,
> >gang-members, homosexuals" in contemporary popular culture is an index=
> >centrality in modern society. Symbolic reversals of social order are c=
> >in "ritual" the world over; so much so that British social anthropolog=
> >have argued for years that rituals tend to occur at exactly those poin=
> >where the social system is weak and needs shoring up.(See Turner, _The
> >Ritual Process_, Gluckman,_Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Societie=
> >etc.)
> I say:
> I wholeheartedly agree with this. (At least I think I do. Some of the
> phrasing is pretty obscure.) This is in line with the thinking that th=
> who cannot cope with, or opt out of, the dominant culture often find us=
> refuge in ritual-type behavior. Of course, this would not apply in th=
> case of degraded rituals which are used for reasons of fashion, fad, st=
> whimsy, etc. It reminds of the Greeks of Plato's day complaining
> comtemptuously of their own contemporaries who still participated in an=
> sacrifice. These were THEIR subculture problem.

While I can sympathize with the (agonizing) attempts of many on this serv=
er to=20
get a handle on ritual/mutilation, the above passages illustrate the pitf=
alls of=20
attempting to classify or characterize "rituals" ahistorically: I am real=
ly tired=20
of reading posting after posting which combine a surface discussion of t=
opics as=20
diverse and historically/culturally specific as infibultion, tattooing, N=
rituals, homosexuality, etc. as if the combination of all these elements =
lead to some final, coherent understanding of "ritual" as a definitional =

This is not even some neo-structuralist/Levi-Straussian-inspired attempt =
reach the underlying structure of "ritual" in some essential, universal=20
sense--which however flawed in its assumptions, can nonetheless provide=20
stimulating, challenging reading; rather, this discussion seems to be evi=
dence of=20
the worst of anthropology's imperialist heritage, the uncontrollable comp=
to classify social phenonemon into discrete categories. Here the genus is=
and the species in this butterfly collection cover everything from specul=
ations on=20
the role of tattooing in Latino gangs in the 1950s, to (now) the animal s=
acrifice of=20
the ancient Greeks. To invoke Turner or Gluckman--two anthropologists who=
deeply enmeshed in the specific social dynamics of distinct ritual proces=
somehow sanction this hodgepodge of generalities and off-the-cuff specula=
is to do the British social anthropologists of the 1950s-70s a great inju=
stice and=20
says very little about how American cultural anthropology has moved in th=
last 25 years.

More importantly, it leads to sweeping statements about the "centrality" =
particular cultures, the flippant ability of anthropologists to identify =
who is an=20
"insider" or "marginal," thus leading to the lumping of "prisons, gang-me=
homosexuals" as the same category/group of socially-marginal people=8Bsuc=
h an=20
uncritial grouping says much about the author/discussants's homophobia (t=
re-pathologizing of "homosexuals" as criminal/degenerate and marginal to =
rest of the culture) and little about the actual function/role of rituals=
within the=20
different cultural groups cited.=20

In addition to venting my frustration, I would suggest that those of us o=
n this=20
server so involved with discussion issues of domination and the role of=20
ritual/mutialition in respect to centrality/marginalization, should minim=
reveiw Raymond Williams on hegemony [or Althussar on naming, or Foucault=
theories of discourse] and critically interrogate our/anthropology's=20
[inadvertant?] role in bolstering the claims of our own "dominant cultur=
e" before=20
continuing this conversation further.....