Death doesn’t exist. Certainly not as an entity, or a place. Even if we consider it a process, we have no good way to determine its limits: where does it begin? When does it end? Either way, we argue over when precisely it happens, and even disagree with each other occasionally over whether someone is or isn’t dead. When I write ‘Death doesn’t exist,’ part of what I mean is also that the word death refers to the absence of something, and that an absence isn’t itself a thing. The Buddhist notion of rebirth arranges these familiar difficulties into a complementary loop of sorts: death begins at birth, and begins again with the next birth. Ending only happens if you attain enlightenment. No more birth, no more death.
I’ve often been frustrated by the lack of prior attention to Castoriadis’ thought in anthropology: good work has been begun by Alain Touraine (sociology) and Nancy Munn and David Graeber (anthropology), but nothing really systematic and explicit has been done. That’s not a criticism, just a complaint that the work’s not already done.
Here are some thoughts I’m working through today, from Castoriadis’ foundational The Imaginary Institution of Society, all from Chapter Three: “The Institution and the Imaginary. A First Approach” (Castoriadis 1975, 114ff.)
If you’re not familiar with Cornelius Castoriadis, I highly recommend becoming familiar. He was a founder of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, a Greek Communist who fled Greece chased by both the Stalinists (for his then-Trotskyism) and the Fascists, and who was one of the very first marxists to mount a critique of the USSR, a critique he made by criticizing its bureaucratization and its alienation from the revolutionary social groups that attempted to institute it. Often called either the “Philosopher of the Imagination,” or the “Philosopher of Autonomy,” his influence has been deep in some fields (radical political thought, psychoanalysis) but negligible in its reception in other fields and disciplines, including my own. He is sometimes credited with inspiring the 1968 worldwide rebellion, though it is certainly both more accurate and more modest to say rather that his writings influenced some of those revolutionaries in way that significantly altered their approach. Here’s a Wikipedia article, and here’s a link to the Cornelius Castoriadis/Agora International Webpage.
A first word of introduction: Castoriadis’ use of the word ‘institution’ refers to any shared object created by society, ranging from concepts, gestures, and symbols, to organizations and governments, those things which we more commonly use the word to refer to in everyday American English. These institutions are created by groups of people – that is, they are instituted, and, in a way that replicates much of Weber’s analysis of routinization and the creation of bureaucracies, become alienated from these groups, an alienation that signals the institution’s autonomy from society: the institution has gained its own life, its own force in the social world. One might almost call this the creation of a form of social agency, or as David Graeber wrote of the concept of the fetish in an essay that references Castoriadis, “Gods in the process of construction” (Graeber 2005)
More after the jump…. Continue reading
Working on some of my thoughts on Ritual and Imagination right now, and it’s always good to go back to Mr. Rappaport. Here are some good quotes from, and about, his thought:
“The nature of humanity…is that of a species that lives and can only live, in terms of meanings it itself must fabricate in a world devoid of intrinsic meanings but subject to physical law.” (Ritual and Religion, 451)
Roy defines ritual as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.” (Ritual and Religion, 24)
“The meaning of ritual’s informationlessness is certainty.” (Ritual and Religion, 285)
According to Rappaport, social truths are hierarchically organized so that “the ultimately sacred forms an unchanging ground upon which all else in adaptive social structures can change continuously without loss of orderliness.” (Ritual and Religion, 427)
“Rituals create conventional states of affairs and conventional understandings. Magic is the extension of the process ‘beyond the domain of the conventional in which it is effective into the domain of the physical where it is not.; A war can be ended by a properly conducted ritual of peace, but a drought cannot. However, the domains are hard to distinguish: ‘people occasionally die of witchcraft.'” (Ecology, meaning, religion, 191).
“[A]s Rappaport himself so ably argues, precisely because the cooperative act of symbolic communication enables – indeed demands (cf. Wagner 1981) – individuals’ continual invention of new meanings, ritual’s speechless form and performance persist within already established systems of symbolic communication as a way of defending ourselves from the arbitrary power of our own symbolic formulations to imagine alternatives, sanctify the inappropriate, and intentionally lie.” Watanabe and Smuts, (“Explaining Religion without….” 105)
Why am I interested? I find in ritual a far less ‘noisy’ set of cultural ‘rules’ or ‘norms’ (I’m not being at all precise in my language here) than the discourses about such rituals – either emic or etic – could ever provide. I am convinced that these basic sets of meaning, or certainty, are extremely generative and powerful, and construct themselves around particular sets of social closure, a topic I’ve begun to address – also unfortunately elliptically, which seems to be my curse – here.
I was planning on writing up a short review and recommendation on Peg LeVine’s book Love and dread in Cambodia: weddings, births, and ritual harm under the Khmer Rouge today. But then I finally got to a point in my writing where I picked up another book, Margaret Slocomb’s An economic history of Cambodia in the twentieth century, and at the end of it was this wonderful, refreshing quote:
As the following chapters will demonstrate, agriculture, which has always been the main occupation of the people and the mainstay of the state surplus, has consistently failed to fulfill its potential as the designated catalyst for the sort of economic development that Cambodia’s modernisers envisaged. It is equally true, however, that after each catastrophe that befell the nation, it was traditional agriculture that revived the national economy and salvaged the people’s livelihood. (p. 29)
Yes, yes, and again yes: the role of agriculture as a foundation for economy, culture, politics, and ritual imagination, has never been genuinely appreciated in Cambodian studies (or indeed among Cambodian ideologues).
A quotation from Philip Gourevitch gives this blog its (current) title. The following quote, from Black Panther George Jackson, makes the same point in a different way; it’s beautiful.
The present, due to its staggering complexities, is almost as conjectural as the past.
People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do, they believe. And then, they will not take responsibility for their beliefs. They conjure things, and then don’t trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness: with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe. And it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
From an unknown page of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.
BoingBoing caught this a few days ago, and now its being picked up by the brain blogs. The boingers thought that the animation was cool (it is), but much more interesting to me (and the brain bloggers) is the way in which it quite concretely and effectively communicates the way in which false memories work. We all have them. Samuel R. Delany’s wonderful autobiography starts with his realization that a memory he’s told for years is in fact, wrong.