Who should I be looking oat?

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 16 Sep 1994 21:11:16 JST

Dear Colleagues,

A few years back I began writing a paper on the language of a
Taiwanese exorcism. It is scheduled to appear next year in American
Ethnologist. Part of the reason it has taken so long tob?R get into
print is that having been away from the academy for several years, I
wrote the first draft without acknowleding the work done in
linguistic anthropology over the last decade or so. The first round of
reviews sent me scrabbling to catch up with my reading and make up
for this lapse.

Now I am working on another paper, this one dealing with visual
images instead of language. I am only dimly aware of what has been
going on in visual anthropology, studies of iconography, etc. My
starting points are once again theorists I read in the 60s and 70s.
Following this note you will find a thousand words or so in which I
sketch my argument (Stop here if you don't care to read it!) I would
be very grateful indeed for pointers to more recent work that should
be taken account of in pursuing this topic.

Sincerely yours,
John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)


Iconographies of Power
The Representation of Spirits
in Chinese Religion

The rituals of Chinese religion are, for the most part, directed to
spirits who are physically present in forms constructed of paper,
wood or other materials or, sometimes, human bodies. The thesis I
wish to argue here can be summarized briefly as follows: These
forms embody a visual logic that constitutes a cultural space. Each
particular form is a metaphor that positions the spirit(s) it
represents within this space. The logic that shapes their variations
embodies Chinese conceptions of social and political power.
By "Chinese religion" I mean the worship and magical
manipulation of gods, ghosts and ancestors. Influenced and
elaborated by the great traditions of Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist
thinkers, Chinese religion is neither church nor sect. An integral
part of Chinese culture, it is found in homes, temples and
cemeteries wherever Chinese form distinct communities. Alive and
well in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, it can also be found in
Chinatowns around the world and seems, as of this writing, to be
undergoing a renaissance in the Peoples Republic of China as well.
In the cosmos conceived by Chinese religion the first and
greatest division is that which divides the yang world , the realm of
everyday human life, from the yin world, the invisible realm where
gods, ghosts and ancestors dwell. By "spirits" I mean any and all of
the yin wo2lt $@R (J?H? $@7 (Jhabitants.
The forms in which spirits appear in the rites of Chinese
include paper charms, ancestor tablets, printed or painted images,
statues of gods and the bodies of mediums, any and all of which may
figure as key symbols toward which ritual acts are directed. The
claim I wish to advance here is, first, that all these forms exhibit a
common structure. This structure defines a space in which one
critical dimension runs from abstraction in forms which are flat,
still and rectangular to articulation in forms which are rounded,
active and skewed. At the flat, still and rectangular pole, power
appears as the pure crystalisation of authority. At the rounded,
active and skewed extreme, it appears as corruptible, and thus
potentially usable, power. Cutting across this primary axis is
another dimension embodied in materials which are more or less
permanent and physically represent power in more or less durable

>From Tangible Logic to Moving Metaphors

The framework for the argument I develop here was developed
while writing two previous papers (McCreery, 1990; McCreery,
1995). It combines ideas found in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss
and James Fernandez within an overarching project suggested by
Clifford Geertz. Here it reveals a visual analog to the uses of
language described by Maurice Bloch, in which restricted forms of
expression assert authority while less restricted forms allow
To Levi-Strauss I owe the inspiration of that magical phrase in
the "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked : "There is," he writes," a
logic in tangible qualities."(1970:1).
To an anthropologist whose training in philosophy and
sociological theory had filled his mind with abstractions, this
clarion call to look for structure embodied "in" tangible qualities
(not somewhere "below,: "behind," or "beyond"" them) came as a
revelation. Combining the appeals of rationalism and empiricism, it
offered a way to enliven an interest in formal systems with the
sensuous force of direct perception. The added thought that
following this path might lead in the end to a "Mendelevian table of
the mind"(Triste Tropiques.?) and discovery of the elements of
human thought made it irresistible.
The study of Chinese religion brought substance to inspiration.
In a seminal article on Chinese funeral dress, Arthur Wolf (1970)
showed how colors and textures constitute a code which articulates
mourners' relationships with the dead. Subsequent studies have
demonstrated beyond doubt the parts played by the raw and the
cooked, the whole and the chopped and other tangible differences in
the logic of Chinese ritual. (SOURCES???)
My fieldwork in Taiwan further confirmed the utility of Levi-
Strauss' inspiration. It also revealed its limitations. As there is a
great gap between grasping the basic structure of the table of
chemical elements and understanding chemical processes, there is
at least an equal gap between deciphering ritual logics and
understanding the work they do in social life. As James Fernandez
observes in Persuasions and Performances, "More is involved in the
games people play than the rules and boundaries by which they play
them." (1986:19)
Fernandez suggests that culture be conceived as a n-
dimensional space and society as "movements of pronouns within
this space." (1986:13) Like pronouns the persons and groups who
form societies are, when first encountered, unknowns. Their
character is revealed by what is said (and, I would add, drawn,
painted, sculpted, acted out) about them. And what is said, of course,
may change as time goes on. Society, in this view, is a process of
negotiation in which the persons represented by "you" and "I", "we"
and "they," "he," "she" and "it" (or their equivalents in other
languages), are constantly reinterpreting our relationships to each
other. Metaphors are the engines by which we push each other around
within the spaces our culture provides.
Combining Fernandez' ideas with those of Levi-Strauss
suggests that the "tangible logic" to which Levi-Strauss draws our
attention structures the cultural space within which metaphors
work. Metaphors use tangible logic to position and move their
subjects. At the same time, they reveal the potentials implicit in
the space which tangible logic defines. Our purpose, then, should be
to attend simultaneously to the movements embodied in metaphors
and the tangible logic on which they depend. And this, more than
anything else, means careful attention to details.
In Islam Observed Clifford Geertz suggests that
anthropologists attempt to "discover what contributions parochial
understandings can make to comprehensive ones, what leads to
general, broad-stroke interpretations particular, intimate findings
can produce." (1968, vii) The broad-stroke interpretations should
not, however, be simplistic. As Geertz observes elsewhere, our goal
is not to replace the complexities we find in our anthropological
subjects with simple interpretations. It is, instead, to substitute
"complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain
the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones." (1973:33)
One way to do just that is to focus precisely on what we see.
To proceed in this way is to bring to the study of visual
symbols a stance like that of literary critics who deconstruct texts,
not with an eye to offering a single, definitive re $@c (J? $@u (Jt, but instead
in an effort "to consider how it is that a text can have the potential
for multiple meanings, not just one single meaning, but also not just
any meaning "(Cohan and Shires, 1993:21-22). We may notice, then,
the rigidity with which claims to authority are made, the looseness
and flexibility that allows manipulation, and how in some cases
historically one becomes the other. Pursuing this thought will lead
us to a visual analog to Maurice Bloch's theory that ritual speech
restricts the infinite flexibility inherent in all language to exclude
competing voices and support its claims to authority (1974??).

The bulk of the paper 8??Fwilix $@n (J
will be detailed
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The bulk of the paper will be detailed descriptions and analysis
of the various types of symbols mentioned above.