I feel pretty good, but have no voice whatsoever. So, since I have four and a half hours of class to teach today, I’ve spent the morning typing out my introduction to Victor Turner for my class on Ritual. We’ve spent most of the first three weeks discussing Durkheim’s Elementary Forms and van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, but the students have not been given formal introductions to Marx or Weber in this class (though they’ve likely encountered them elsewhere).
The reason I’m really posting this here, though, is that I’d like to submit these notes to the collective wisdom of both of my readers. Anything in here you’d care to quibble about? Let me know!
RITUAL – Introducing Victor Turner
Erik W. Davis
In many ways, Turner sets the stage for contemporary interventions in the anthropological theory and study of ritual. He combines in his person and scholarship a lot of the concerns from conflicting and previously unassociated theoretical approaches: Marxism, Durkheim, and Van Gennep.
Durkheim and His Competitor Trains of Thought
Recall that Durkheim is considered one of the three major founders of Social thought (inclusive of both Anthropology and Sociology), along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Each of these founders has a distinctive approach to key problems: the nature of the social division of labor, the relationship of economic and social organization to ideology and religion, ‘modernity,’ and the role of institutions in social life.
Each of them were confronted by an apparently radically novel social situation – capitalism – which seemed to break definitively from all previous forms of traditional society. It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which all three of these thinkers, regardless of their differences, saw the contemporary modern period as a period of profound social flux and change. All of them also tied these changes to capitalism, the new division of labor in society into classes, and the role of religion. Summarizing any of these individual’s thought does violence to their subtlety. However, schematically, we can characterize them in the following ways:
What I’m reading. Comment if you want to know more about anything in particular.
- Scott, James C. 2009. The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Should be a groundbreaking correction to the pernicious and tenacious stereotypes about upland and lowland cultures, genesis, maintenance, and relationships. So thoroughly revises reflexive assumptions about mainland Southeast Asia that the book resists quick summary. A lengthier review may be required. Required reading for SEAsianists, Sociology.
- Holt, John Clifford. 2009. Spirits of the place. Buddhism and Lao religious culture. In many ways this book represents a landmark in the English-language study of Lao religion. Taking upland-lowland realities seriously, Holt treats the interaction between ‘animist’ and Buddhist systems and rituals (and peoples) from a theoretical and historical point of view. A bit weaker in the last two chapters, the first three would serve excellently as an introduction to both the theory and realities of Lao religion and history. Strongly Recommended to SEAsianists and Buddhist Studies.
- Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the witch: women, the body, and primitive accumulation. Stunning. A corrective to Marxist theories about the genesis (transition) to capitalism, Federici argues convincingly that a necessary and (logically) prior moment in the developing of formally free, male, waged productive labor, is the production of a denigrated, reproductive, female, unwaged domestic laboring class. She then ties in, also completely convincingly, the witch-hunts of roughly two and a half centuries of (primarily) European history (though her last chapter traces the witch-hunt throughout colonialism’s path). Required reading for Anti-capitalists and Feminists.
- Jerryson, Michael K, and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. 2010. Buddhist Warfare. A much-anticipated and somewhat controversial volume that traces the connections between the Buddhist religion – stereotyped as a pacifist religion – and warfare. The essays are uneven, though some of this unevenness is undoubtedly tied to the wild diversity of attitudes and approaches (insider, outsider, political scientist, anthropologist, sociologist, religious studies, etc.) represented. (Note that google books does not show the actual cover on their page. Actual cover has a picture of a Lao Buddhist novice monk holding an automatic pistol). Recommended to Buddhist Studies.
- Kummu, Matti, Marko Keskinen, Olli varis, eds. 2008. Modern myths of the Mekong: a critical review of water and development concepts, principles, and policies. Of great interest and contemporary currency, this volume contains a few critically important moments, but is of such wildly uneven quality that I cannot recommend it in its entirety. I’m personally most impressed with the essays by Jussi Nikula (“Is harm and destruction all that floods bring?” – an introduction to ‘flood-pulse’ ecosystem functioning) and Lustig, Fletcher, et al. (“Did traditional cultures live in harmony with nature? Lessons from Angkor, Cambodia.”). This latter is somewhat misleading, since ‘traditional’ here seems merely to mean ‘historical,’ which in many ways means ‘nothing.’ As a specific case study of Angkor, however, their evidence is clear and the conclusion not negotiable – Angkor was not ‘ecologically neutral.’ Not recommended as a volume.
- Watts, Peter. 2008. Blindsight. Hard Sci-Fi. Very very cool, cerebral: is consciousness worth it, from the perspective of the species? And exactly how would an empathic vampire act in space toward a half-brained crew member who can’t be convinced to act in the interests of self-preservation? Essential for Hard Sci-Fi fans.
- Wu Ming. 2005. ’54. Just awesome. From the same collective author responsible for Q, this time the group tackles the year 1954 – the height of the cold war, the rise of the global heroin industry, and Cary Grant. And Hitchcock. Awesome.
- Germano, William. 2008. Getting it published: a guide for scholars, and anyone else serious about serious books. 2nd Ed. Essential for academics.
- Germano, William. 2005. From dissertation to book. Essential for academics.
- Silvia, Paul J. 2007. How to write a lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing. Recommended if you need help scheduling your writing.
- Boice, Robert. 2000. Advice for new faculty members. Recommended for academics.
- Lamont, Michèle. 2009. How professors think: Inside the curious world of academic judgment. Recommended for academics facing tenure review, or charged with some form of ‘assessment.’
Look at those last five titles. I’ve read all of them in the last month. Can you guess what I’m working on?