Laryngitis=Typed Class Notes Introducing Victor Turner

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:

Continue reading


Haiti by the Numbers

890 million.  Amount of international debt that Haiti owes creditors.  Finance ministers from developing countries announced they will forgive $290 million.  Source: Wall Street Journal.

644 million.  Donations for Haiti to private organizations have exceed $644 million.  Over $200 million has gone to the Red Cross, who had 15 people working on health projects in Haiti before the earthquake.  About $40 million has gone to Partners in Health, which had 5,000 people working on health in Haiti before the quake.   Source:  New York Times.

1 million.  People still homeless or needing shelter in Haiti.  Source: MSNBC.

1 million.  People who have been given food by the UN World Food Program in Port au Prince – another million in Port au Prince still need help.  Source: UN World Food Program.

300,000.  People injured in the earthquake, reported by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.  Source: CNN.

212,000.   People reported killed by earthquake by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.  Source: CNN.

63,000.   There are 63,000 pregnant women among the people displaced by the earthquake.  7,000 women will deliver their children each month.  Source:  UN Populations Fund.

17,000.  Number of United States troops stationed on or off coast in Haiti, down from a high of 22,000.  Source: AFP.

9,000.  United Nations troops in Haiti. Source: Miami Herald.

7,000.  Number of tents distributed by United Nations. Source: Miami Herald.   President Preval of Haiti has asked for 200,000 tents.  Source: Reuters.

4,000.  Number of amputations performed in Haiti since the earthquake. Source: AFP.

900.  Number of latrines that have been dug for the people displaced from their homes.  Another 950,000 people still need sanitation. Source: New York Times.

75.   An hourly wage of 75 cents per hour is paid by the United Nations Development Program to people in Haiti who have been hired to help in the clean up.   The UNDP is paying 30,000 people to help clean up Haiti, 180 Haitian Gourdes ($4.47) for six hours of work.  The program hopes to hire 100,000 people.  Source: United Nations News Briefing.

1.25.   The U.S. is pledged to spend as much as $379 million in Haitian relief.  This is about $1.25 for each person in the United States. Source:   Canadian Press.

1.  For every one dollar of U.S. aid to Haiti, 42 cents is for disaster assistance, 33 cents is for the U.S. military, 9 cents is for food, 9 cents is to transport the food, 5 cents to pay Haitians to help with recovery effort, 1 cent is for the Haitian government and ½ a cent is for the government of the Dominican Republic.  Source:  Associated Press.

via Bill Quigley: Haiti by the Numbers.


Sounding: in general


READ for the Week Ending 1/15/2010

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?


Sex Workers Unite

AP Press Photo

I don’t normally deal with sex work here, instead preferring to stick to areas somewhat closer to home. But, since I dumped on someone else’s laudable intentions to help sex workers in Cambodia recently, perhaps I’m due. Much more importantly, Cambodia Sex Workers took collective action the other day, in a courageous way that I hope foreshadows the future.

One of my constant frustrations in talking to Americans about Cambodia is the ubiquity of two particular stereotypes: First, that Cambodia is a land of trauma and skulls, and Second, that Cambodia is a land of ubiquitous sex for sale, especially sex with children.

Of course, there’s a fair amount of truth in both statements: Cambodia has, and continues, to experience a massive amount of trauma (of course, the secondary issue there is that the continuing and contemporary traumas receive almost no attention compared to historical traumas). Cambodia also has a booming and predatory sex work industry.

So, whenever I see stories like that from Kate Hardy on Sex Workers uniting in Cambodia to protest the recent police crackdowns, I’m thrilled. The United States has recently upgraded the Human Trafficking status of Cambodia for the first time since 2006, due to a massive and unrestrained police crackdown. Continue reading


Body Worlds – Possession, Fetish, Education, and Controversy

This ranks, I believe, as the first mention here of grave-robbing and dead-body possession fetishism (my own phrase, please offer alternatives!). I began work on this theme (work that directly led to my current work in Cambodia) more than ten years ago. My partner had been working as a NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) officer, and I had begun to work through some of the issues of academic and ethical interest in a few papers, including one that was presented at several conferences. My specific argument then was that Native American bodies are the object of so much institutional and white-settler desire precisely as a fetish of legitimate possession of the land. That is to say, the grave-robbing and continued possession and display of Native American grave goods, including bodies, is itself an attempt to overcome an ethical objection to the oppression of Native America.

Native Americans were fetishized by early European settlers first as peaceful Rousseauean noble savages, then progressively as various forms of subhuman: savage (just not noble), ignorant, culturally and mentally and spiritually impoverished, uncivilized, &c. These transformations in the imagination of the Native American in the mentality of the white settler had everything to do with the expropriation of Native land.

To this day, people buy and sell the bodies of indigenous people around the globe. Do a search on eBay for “jivaro shrunken heads,” and among all the fakes, you will certainly find a few genuine ones. After NAGPRA, it was illegal for any museum that receives public funding to continue to hold on to these bodies, or associated grave goods, if their descendent communities wanted them back. [text of NAGPRA]It remains to be seen whether NAGPRA, which is no longer directly funded, to my knowledge, will have any lasting effect on the practices of museums – they have clearly not had as large an effect on private collectors.


My experience with this line of reasoning in Cambodia will have to wait until another time – suffice it to say, my reasoning had to be revised for the new context. But what I want to point to here is the truly negligible attention paid to the Body Worlds business empire that has been making so much money worldwide.

Body Worlds is the roving Museum Exhibit – one of those multi-million-dollar superstar exhibits that Museums have been so dependent on in the past few years (as governments pull public funding, museums begin to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open) – that displays real human bodies, most of which have been flayed, and all organic parts of which have undergone a form of preservation called ‘plastination‘ by the originator of the technique, a German man named Gunther von Hagens

That’s not to say that no attention has been paid. Some has, and much of it has been quite decent. Such as this article over at Salon. But certainly not enough.

Some of the issues indicating that a more in-depth exploration might lead to a really horrendous story (possibly even a ‘funny’ one) are:

  • He keeps calling himself “professor” though it is unclear he has a legal right to that title (in Germany, that’s a serious legal offense – really!). [1]
  • He has a serious aversion to having the proper paperwork
  • His former partner, who performs the same techniques and has a competing exhibit, called “Bodies – The Exhibit”, openly acknowledges that most of his corpses are purchased from the Chinese state – the bodies of prisoners, mental patients, etc. von Hagen refuses to open up his paperwork; although he claims to have enough papers for each body, the bodies are separated from the paperwork and rendered anonymous, so there is no way of confirming this.
  • He apparently tried to buy a very tall man’s body from him before he died.[2]
  • He’s ‘half scientist, half sideshow,’ in the words of some reporters, such as this one from NPR. He calls himself a “public scientist.” Which is what justifies a public autopsy, for example.
  • This play with his identity and credential causes him to make, by his own admission, a number of outrageous ‘mistakes.’ Like when he announced that he thought it would be feasible to sell plastinated corpses as commodities, to private individuals. He had to take that one back.
  • Perhaps most worriesome is the persistent idea that his bodies come from Chinese prisoners and patients. The German publication Der Spiegel has been most aggressive on the Body Worlds exhibit in general, though their considered outrage hasn’t translated elsewhere very well. And in 2004, they published evidence that some of the bodies in the exhibit were, in fact, executed Chinese prisoners. I cannot find the Spiegel piece, but this piece restates the main facts. As does this piece from NPR. Continue reading

Mariarosa Dalla Costa

Few voices have been as consistent and eloquent in speaking out about the importance – indeed the centrality – of domains and spheres of labor that are presented to us as peripheral, as Mariarosa Dalla Costa. In her first essay (one of three in the latest issue of the wonderful journal The Commoner), she begins

I began to pose to myself the issue of the land as a crucial question at the end of the eighties, on the heels of a trajectory which, during the end of the sixties and seventies, had as its crux the factory as the space of waged labour and then the home as the space of unwaged labour within which the former finds its roots. The labour, therefore, involved in the production of commodities and that of the reproduction of labour power, the labour of the factory worker and the labour of the housewife within the Fordist organization of society. At that time we said that the employer with one paycheck in reality bought two people, the worker and the woman behind him. Agricultural labor, or the labour of the land, which reproduced life for everybody, remained in the shadows however.

I love reading Dalla Costa because of her ability to so concisely illuminate the interconnectedness and mutual penetration of different domains of oppression. Read the above again and note how she indicates that the exploitation of waged labour depends on the ability to further exploit unwaged labour. Capitalism depends, in that instance, on the further oppression of women by men, and farms that oppression out to male workers, some of whom accept the charge.

Similarly, in the industrial age, the focus on factory production has allowed the rulers to present agricultural production as a peripheral activity, rather than that which makes everything else possible. The regimes of monoculture which decimate local food security and render entire regions vulnerable to price shocks – followed by demands from the World Bank and others to engage in Structural Adjustment Programs and then to actually take over a country’s economic policy – oppress the farmers. The oppression of farmers, in turn, depends on the oppression of the land, and what I think of as theft from the future.