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Posts Tagged ‘ritual’

Introducing Castoriadis for Religion and Anthropology. A First Attempt

In comment on April 12, 2013 at 11:45 am

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…. Read the rest of this entry »

Architecture, especially funerary architecture, is ritual materialized and perfected

In comment on April 3, 2013 at 10:19 am

Architecture, especially funerary architecture, is ritual materialized and perfected.

Peter J. Wilson, 1991. The domestication of the human species. Yale UP, p. 130. cited in Bailey and Mabbett, The Sociology of Early Buddhismp. 96.

Quote: A Few Nice Thoughts From Roy Rappaport

In comment on August 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

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.

TEACH: Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia

In teach on April 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm

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):

Read the rest of this entry »

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

In notice on April 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm

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.

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

In religous studies on August 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wet-Season Offensive at Preah Vihear?

In khmer on July 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog about Preah Vihear, including perhaps especially this post here, which discusses a famous ritual performed at the site by Bun Rany Hun Sen, the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen. That ritual, the Krong Pali ritual, immediately brought accusations in Thailand that the Khmer were (typically) practicing ‘black magic’ against the Thais.

The dry season is over, so it’s out of season for the current hubbub over the ownership of Preah Vihear; these have thus far largely corresponded to the traditional military dry season offensives, which is an interesting aspect of the mobilizations themselves.  The current kerfuffle, rather, is based on a different calendar altogether, the calendar of opportunism within Thailand.

AFP PhotoHaving routed the Red Shirts, and with the Thai government hunting them down in ways that smack of Thaksin’s extrajudicial killings during his notorious ‘war on drugs,’ the Yellow Shirts (PAD and allies within the military and government) having again taken up the popular irredentist banner of nationalism. They definitively lost the last round, and Preah Vihear temple was properly listed as a World Heritage Site, under Cambodian authority.  This round is really about the administration plan for Preah Vihear, which the PAD insist be delayed until all land disputes on the border are resolved. Which, of course, they will never let happen.  Should disputes appear resolved, they’ll just head to the border again and cause more violence with the relatively amicable Thai and Khmer on the border, as they did last time. Read the rest of this entry »

Laryngitis=Typed Class Notes Introducing Victor Turner

In teach on February 25, 2010 at 11:57 am

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

Sounding on Anthropology and Archaeology for February 8, 2010

In sounding on February 8, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Running with Thai buffalos- 10 Nov 2008

In Uncategorized on November 10, 2008 at 9:24 am

A nice short piece about water buffalo racing in Thailand. This tradition exists in Cambodia as well, though I am not aware of any argument as to which way (if any) the historical dispersion went.

more about “Running with Thai buffalos- 10 Nov 2008“, posted with vodpod

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