Re: Classifying Our Navel

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 00:18:56 +0900

>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 of
>> >centrality in modern society. Symbolic reversals of social order are common
>> >in "ritual" the world over; so much so that British social anthropologists
>> >have argued for years that rituals tend to occur at exactly those points
>> >where the social system is weak and needs shoring up.(See Turner, _The
>> >Ritual Process_, Gluckman,_Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Societies_,
>> >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 those
>> who cannot cope with, or opt out of, the dominant culture often find useful
>> refuge in ritual-type behavior. Of course, this would not apply in the
>> case of degraded rituals which are used for reasons of fashion, fad, style,
>> whimsy, etc. It reminds of the Greeks of Plato's day complaining
>> comtemptuously of their own contemporaries who still participated in animal
>> sacrifice. These were THEIR subculture problem.
>While I can sympathize with the (agonizing) attempts of many on this server to
>get a handle on ritual/mutilation, the above passages illustrate the
>pitfalls of
>attempting to classify or characterize "rituals" ahistorically: I am
>really tired
>of reading posting after posting which combine a surface discussion of
>topics as
>diverse and historically/culturally specific as infibultion, tattooing, Ndembu
>rituals, homosexuality, etc. as if the combination of all these elements would
>lead to some final, coherent understanding of "ritual" as a definitional
>This is not even some neo-structuralist/Levi-Straussian-inspired attempt to
>reach the underlying structure of "ritual" in some essential, universal
>sense--which however flawed in its assumptions, can nonetheless provide
>stimulating, challenging reading; rather, this discussion seems to be
>evidence of
>the worst of anthropology's imperialist heritage, the uncontrollable
>to classify social phenonemon into discrete categories. Here the genus is
>and the species in this butterfly collection cover everything from
>speculations on
>the role of tattooing in Latino gangs in the 1950s, to (now) the animal
>sacrifice of
>the ancient Greeks. To invoke Turner or Gluckman--two anthropologists who
>deeply enmeshed in the specific social dynamics of distinct ritual
>somehow sanction this hodgepodge of generalities and off-the-cuff speculation
>is to do the British social anthropologists of the 1950s-70s a great
>injustice and
>says very little about how American cultural anthropology has moved in the
>last 25 years.
>More importantly, it leads to sweeping statements about the "centrality" of
>particular cultures, the flippant ability of anthropologists to identify
>who is an
>"insider" or "marginal," thus leading to the lumping of "prisons,
>homosexuals" as the same category/group of socially-marginal people-such an
>uncritial grouping says much about the author/discussants's homophobia (the
>re-pathologizing of "homosexuals" as criminal/degenerate and marginal to the
>rest of the culture) and little about the actual function/role of rituals
>within the
>different cultural groups cited.
>In addition to venting my frustration, I would suggest that those of us on
>server so involved with discussion issues of domination and the role of
>ritual/mutialition in respect to centrality/marginalization, should minimally
>reveiw Raymond Williams on hegemony [or Althussar on naming, or Foucault's
>theories of discourse] and critically interrogate our/anthropology's
>[inadvertant?] role in bolstering the claims of our own "dominant
>culture" before
>continuing this conversation further.....

Martin (and Robert Snower, too), mea culpa, the off-the-cuff reference to
"ritual" helped to muddle the models. Just meant to say that there is no
necessary correlation between social types whose images are salient in
popular culture and those who wield real power in society. It is not at all
unusual,in fact, to find that the powerless figure largely in cultural
imagery, frequently as the awful "Other" in relation to whom those in power
define themselves.

It was also, of course, a gross error to conflate "prisoners, gang-members,
and homosexuals." I do, in fact, know better. My best gay friend has an OBE
and is executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo.

Martin, now that you've vented, would you care to share what you think is
relevant in Williams, Althusser and Foucault. Pure appeals to authorities
are just a bit too scholastic.

Just for the record, I, too, have read Leach (Have you?) and have no
particular interest in butterfly collecting, i.e., definitions for
definitions sake.

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo