Re: Mutilation as a legitimate object of inquiry

Daniel Solomon (dasolomon@VASSAR.EDU)
Mon, 15 Jul 1996 02:07:15 -0500

>On Mon, 15 Jul 1996, John McCreery wrote:
>8 snip . . .>8

>> Then, however, a question for Mike. What are the criteria you are using for
>> ritual? My impression is that you have in mind some form of *obligatory*
>> *public* ceremony, which makes *private* non-obligatory *choices*
>> non-ritual.
Mike Shupp replied

> A public, or at least observed, procedure. I doubt that circumcision
> or public whippings always go by the rulebook.

Well, I'm just a poor little undergrad - haven't even majored in anth, yet,
but this has driven me out of my dark&dingy lurking place to attempt a
feeble, unlearned comment. At least among more conservative Jews,
circumcision would seem to go more or less by the rulebook, given changes
over time (I think this may have been mentioned in some context a few days
ago . . .) As for public whippings . . . well, whipping as part of
initiation ceremonies would seem to
be pretty rule-governed . . . Public whippings as punishment - indeed, any form
of public punishment, perhaps - can become quite ritualized. I'm thinking
of public hangings in colonial America, or various public punishments in
China (anybody want to talk about ritual and politics?) . . . There's also
that great passage in Foucault's Discipline&Punish . . Then again, Mike
Shupp includes
> C. Circumcision of infant males in Jewish/ANE cultures
> K. Mutiliation as punishment (whippings, amputations and
> ear lobe cropping)
as being involved with rituals of one sort or the other . . . so doubtless
I'm missing the point. Nothing /always/ goes exactly by the rule book; but
it would seem to me that ritual practices should come pretty close, given
that they can sometimes be adapted to different circumstances . . .

> As for castration,
> foot binding, and the like... you're generally talking about inflicting
> pain on uncomprehending children.


> However splendid the outcome
> of this may be, the process itself is simple violence-- I don't
> know of any culture which parades such monstrosities before the
> public.

Well, yes, it is clearly a violent practice, a monstrosity not to be
paraded before the public . . . to us, now. However, hangings used to be
public spectacles relatively recently, and both the Huron and Iroquois
publicly tortured enemy captives . . . Foot binding was not a public
affair, and neither
was the closest European equivalent of whalebone corsets - but perhaps that was
because of the sexual implications, not the violence? After all, I doubt the
respective cultures viewed these practices as monstrous . . .

> The dividing line I see is with private, voluntary, but
> commonplace actions such as teen aged girls getting their ears
> pierced-- and I recall when this was shocking!-- and soldiers
> being tattooed.
> At what point does a performance ceased to be stereotypical and
> become true ritual?
Well, I'm just a little undergrad student, as I said, but this discussion seems
to indicate that perhaps there is no one easily defined point when a practice
gains the status of true ritual. At least, perhaps not in this culture.
This may be (probably is?) an artifact of our insider's view, but (as
mentioned earlier somewhere in this discussion)we seem to be lacking in
much "true ritual." Marriage, let's say . . . but that seems to be
increasing 'de-ritualized' in certain circumstances . . . Most noticeably
in large urban areas, our culture has an emphasis towards the private and
non-obligational. On one hand the public is much larger, due to mass
media, but the immediate group one interacts (extensively) with has become
fractured; from a wide spectrum of people in a small community, it now may
consist of a small or increasingly exclusive group of people - and hence
the increased popularity of piercing, as a
symbol of membership? oh well, too simple . . . but my point is, given the
nature of this society, where the only initiation rituals might be such
things as drinking, driving a car, getting's one's ears, etc pierced, or
graduating/getting a job, perhaps many ritual practices have been altered
to the
point that some sort of term to describe the middle ground between true
ritual and private, seemingly voluntary (does peer pressure count?) actions
would come in handy?
-Daniel Solomon

"...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
- William Shakespeare, _Hamlet_ (II, ii, 247-48)