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:

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Classification and Desire

Found this very nice, short post from Missive From Marx, which picks up the Durkheimian interest in social classification and then draws upon Mary Douglas (a good Durkheimian) and Melanie Klein (a very good psychoanalyst and absolutely not a Durkheimian) to make the following point. MfM is elaborating on the notion that incompatible conceptual schemes (social classifications, I presume) make ‘sense’ as long as our desires don’t overlap the schemes.  Then, MfM says this:

Concepts and knowledge are always, I allege, related to desire—we create concepts because we want something.

In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas suggests something similar. In her discussion of how classification gets off the ground, so to speak, she uses Melanie Klein’s claims about the development of infants:

For the infant, such classifying is the only method for gradually differentiating the other and the self. … It needs to know whether the source of milk, if external, is one breast or several, and if several, how to distinguish allies from enemies? Is this the good breast or the bad breast? Is it for me or against me? The earliest social interaction lays the basis for polarizing the world into classes. Survival depends on having enough emotional energy to carry this elementary classificatory enterprise through all the hard work needed to build a coherent, workable world.

Her conclusion? “Social interaction supplies the element missing in the natural history account of the beginnings of classification.” We don’t classify for fun! We classify while interacting with others in order to get fed.

Very nicely put indeed.

Kübler-Ross and Dying in the New Yorker

This short, elegiac piece in the New Yorker covers about 150 years of social theory about death, wound ’round the pathos-laden story of “Miss Death.”

Then mourning rituals in the West began to disappear, for reasons that are not entirely evident. The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, the author of “Death, Grief, and Mourning” (1965), conjectures that the First World War was one cause in Britain: communities were so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead that they dropped the practice of mourning for the individual. Certainly, there does seem to be an intuitive economy of grief: during war, plague, and disaster, elaborate mourning is often simplified or dispensed with, as we now see in Haiti. But many more Americans died during the Civil War than during the First World War; it seems, then, that broader changes in the culture hastened the shift.

Even before the war, according to Emily Post, mourning clothes were already becoming optional for any but the closest of kin. More people, including women, began working outside the home; in the absence of caretakers, death increasingly took place in the protective, and isolating, swaddling of the hospital. With the rise of psychoanalysis came a shift in attention from the communal to the individual experience. Only two years after Émile Durkheim wrote about mourning as an essential social process, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” defined it as something fundamentally private and individual. In a stroke, the work of mourning had become internalized. As Ariès says, within a few generations grief had undergone a fundamental change: death and mourning had been largely removed from the public realm. In 1973, Ernest Becker argued, in “The Denial of Death,” that avoidance of death is built into the human mind; instead of confronting our own mortality, we create symbolic “hero-systems,” conceptualizing an immortal self that, through imagination, allows us to transcend our physical transience. (“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die,” the young Nick Adams thinks in the last line of Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.”) Gorer himself had diagnosed an over-all silencing of the mourner: “Today it would seem to be believed, quite sincerely, that sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as . . . masturbation.” Ariès added that this silence was “not due to the frivolity of survivors, but to a merciless coercion applied by society.”

via Finding a better way to grieve : The New Yorker.