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Publication announcement; also: my C.V. moving to BePress

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Having recently acquired tenure at my position, I’ve gone ahead and begun to move my archive of articles and c.v., including links to downloads for the same, to my institutionally-hosted BePress page, which you can get here.

I’ll leave my old publications page up, but won’t be updating it anymore. It will eventually disappear or turn into something else.

My latest published article, “Kinship Beyond Death: Ambiguous Relations and Autonomous Children in Contemporary Cambodia,” published in the journal of Contemporary Buddhism, already has been downloaded 50 times (I get fifty free downloads to share), which is encouraging. But it you want to read about why most Cambodian parents consider past-birth memory in the children a disaster and didn’t get to the link, you can read the pre-print version of the article on my bepress page.

 

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Introducing Castoriadis for Religion and Anthropology. A First Attempt

ImageI’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.[1]  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

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Quote: A Few Nice Thoughts From Roy Rappaport

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.

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TEACH: Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia

I’m very pleased that I have been awarded a grant from the Presidential Initiative on Curricular Renewal (PICR) here at Macalester College. The topic of this year’s PICR grants was ‘sustainability,’ and the class for which I received the grant is titled Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia.

Here’s the description of the class from the grant proposal (after the jump):

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April 22: Friday Forum Lecture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

The good folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Center for Southeast Asian Studies have invited me to give a lecture at their Friday Forum Series [schedule]. I’m honored by their invitation, and will be talking about a relatively new direction in my research: the role of ritual in the construction of multi-ethnic communities.

Raising The Neak Ta (Sino-Khmer Ritual)

The presentation is titled “Khmer Spirits, Chinese Bodies: Spirit Possession in Contemporary Sino-Khmer Communities in Cambodia,” and is related to a forthcoming contribution of the same title [Forthcoming in “Articulations with modernity: Religion and cultural crisis in Southeast Asia.” Social Sciences in Asia Monograph Series. Brill, edited by Alexander Horstmann and Thomas Reuter.].

“Khmer spirits, Chinese bodies” explores two Neak Ta spirit possession rituals, performed by reconstituting and ascendant ethnic Chinese and Sino-Khmer community organizations and business groups throughout Cambodia. Neak Ta are ancestral place spirits conceived of as ‘ancestral spirits.’ This presentation examines the underlying Khmer beliefs and practices relating to Neak Ta cults, and focuses on the practices of spirit possession among Chinese Cambodians in these cults. The two examples discussed challenge a current typology of spirit possession and diasporic religion, opening up the possibility of diasporic practice that is localizing without assimilating.

Thanks also to those who have written in, congratulating me for my new position as the Chair of the Thailand/Laos/Cambodia Studies Group, succeeding the exceedingly successful tenure of Justin McDaniel.  I have very big shoes to fill on this front, and will rely on the continued good will and extensive knowledge base of the membership there, which I am so glad to have joined.

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Hitchens, Bolivar, Chavez, and Necrophilia: Deathpower in the Media

Christopher Hitchens is a hack.  Here’s how I know.  A non-hack would situate a seemingly weird story in context, rather than attempt to exaggerate its supposed uniqueness to demonize an enemy.  He’s also smart, so I can’t give him the excuse that Hitch is just stupid.  See, if there’s one thing I’m pretty well-trained in, it’s the theory of necrophilia. Seriously. It’s at the heart of much of my work on death rituals, though I focus less on the psychoanalytic aspects of the theory than I do in the practices, and the commentaries on those.

So, while I’m happy to have no less of a prose stylist than Christopher Hitchens address my topic of choice, he presents it as news, when it’s nothing more than another chance for him to lob his anti-Left IEDs into the interwebz. First, let me be clear: there are great reasons to criticize Chavez, though these criticisms are rarely shared by those who most loudly criticize him. Nope, the people whose criticisms of Chavez get heard are right-wing journos like Simon Romero (his NYT page) and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, who was a prolific writer of left-oriented journalism prior to his right-wing conversion has spent his time since advocating “The Clash of Civilizations,” attacking supposed “Islamo-Fascism,” attempting to transform George Orwell into a conservative fellow-traveller, and sneering at any and all leftist attempts to pry the fingers of the neo-liberal regime away from their necks.

So, when Hitch starts running on and on about Chavez’ necrophiliac love of Simon Bolivar, I get to say ‘balderdash.’ Also, would someone please check the Hitch’s sources? This is o l d news. And it’s much much bigger than Venezuela. In what remains, I make two points by snarkily referring to three texts which should have served to deflate Hitchens’ and Romero’s ‘graverobbing’ rhetoric. First: Chavez’ idealization of the Liberator is very very old news. Second: this ‘grave-robbing’ by Chavez is classic nationalist ritual. This is hardly ‘graverobbing,’ but instead ‘nationalist mortuary ritual’ of an extraordinarily common type. The characterization that Hitchens and Romero are involved in is disingenuous at best; Hitchens at the very least should be aware of the way Chavez’ worship of Bolivar falls very squarely in the most common of national rituals (sure, it’s still weird, but hey – humans are weird).

First of all, Chavez’s idealization of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, is hardly unusual in South America. Continue reading

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