Re: Classifying Our Navel

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 16:27:00 -0230

Levi-Strauss begins 'Totemism' be attempting to show the concept to be an
illusion, as Freud before him had done for that of 'hysteria'. Those of us,
and here I associate myself with the recent posting of Martin J.
Quinn-Meyler, who feel it unlikely that we will ever understand and account
for *ritual* through focussed attention on a narrow range of particular
social practices (least of all, I might add, practices engaged in, at least
in part, as an apparently direct, motivated and self-concious attempt of
members our own 'hot' society to produce innovation as a valued end in
itself), believe that the issue of what ritual excludes or includes is to be
found by using the power of anthropology's *comparative* and
*contextual-empirical* frame of reasearch.

Taking such an open perspective, we may either dissolve ritual as another
'hysterical' illusion, or (as I, pace Levi-Strauss himself, happen to think
that he, using the afore-mentioned comparative but context-sensitive
approach, showed us with respect to totemism) that there are may well be
certain core elements and features regularly present in such a concept, but
that the genius of particular cultures is that these elements get recombined
in an almost infinite variety of surface representations, with the results
never quite being the same. But this also means that, as with totemism,
religion, marriage, or whatever entirely social, and therefore non-obigitory
(in some sense), social practice we look at, we must be prepared to find
that there may well be social groups (possibly even ourselves) who have
found they can do without ritual altogether.

I have always found the most significant aspect of anthropology to be not
any revelation of what human nature (in a totally universal sense) consists
in, but its revelation of practices that are yes, extremely widespread, but
are still less than entirely universal. [Boyoyooing! to quote Ken Campbell -
sorry, couldn't resist that, I caught one of his performances last night -
he used it to signify sudden and profound revelation.] If we begin by
assuming ritual to be universal (and this seems to be entailed by those who
talk as if we were looking for the 'essence' of ritual as being close to our
own human essence) even if ritual's universality should eventually turn out
to be an established fact, we have thereby condemned ourselves from the
start to studying something that, since universal, must be some aspect of a
biological need, and for that reason (and here I venture a totally personal
view which is probably simply a matter of aesthetic taste) uninteresting, if
not trivial.

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland