An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque: Seminar 15th July onwards.

I am pleased to to announce that we will begin our seminar on Joanna Overing's paper, An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque, on 15th July - all are welcome to participate.

Joanna Overing has worked with the Piaroa of the Venezuelan Amazon for decades and is recognised as a doyenne of Amazonian Studies. Here she brings us her vision of Piaroa myth, shamanic practice and egalitarian worldview. Check the OAC press page on the toolbar above. We thought her paper would be a fine opportunity to launch a series we have been planning for a while; the Art of Anthropology.

As has already been pointed out this paper is a wonderful expression of what it is possible to achieve with an anthropological eye. The essay explores the awareness of the grotesque as it impinges on the human capacity to create a workable life. For the Piaroa, life has a grotesque foundation in the antics of the gods in creation time; Kuemoi and Wahari, the creator gods were tasked with establishing the conditions for the lives of humans, animals and others. The results were a grotesque disaster with human beings, the Piaroa, left to pick up the pieces. In order to find equality Piaroa must deal with and accept the monstrous and absurd as conditions of life. The shaman's raucous performances of the creation myths have a serious weight to them - how do we deal with the mess mythtime has left us with? We might see this as an esoteric problem for a far away people - but look around - are the quandaries the Piaroa face so different from our own?

The paper leaves us with serious questions - is a sense of the grotesque, the humorous, simply time out from the serious work of social life as Mary Douglas and others argued, or is it central and integral to finding some kind of partial human equality in difficult circumstances? What kinds of comparisons are useful and appropriate in anthropology, do we need to broaden our horizons further? Have structural analyses of Amazonian communities missed an all important aspect of lives there by taking myth too seriously? 

I am looking forward to a discussion that touches on so many classic anthropological themes while opening new avenues.

Occasionally people are puzzled about the online seminar format. This is how it works:

You need to be a member of OAC to add a comment. From the start date of the seminar anyone can type in a question or a comment in the box below. When they have time, the paper giver reads the questions and responds. Sometimes the conversation will be 'live' and sometimes there will be a gap between query and response.

Views: 1704

Replies are closed for this discussion.

Replies to This Discussion

I am massively tied up at the moment, so comments specific to Joanna's paper may be a day or two away. I did want to mention that my delight in reading it was informed by a remark by Don Deglopper, a Cornell-trained anthropologist who preceded Ruth and I in Taiwan, was the best man at our wedding, and recently retired from a position at the Library of Congress. Don observed that anthropologists who studied Chinese religion seemed utterly tone-deaf when it came to humor and irony and were forever treating the local equivalents of the Virgin Mary, the Easter Bunny, and Tinkerbell with the same monotonous seriousness, seeing all in the same dull Durkheimian manner as symbols for this or that social group or category. Joanna's more, what shall we call it? perhaps Rabelaisian, view of Piaroa myth and ritual, her taking the grotesque seriously, is a marvelous alternative to that particular version of, now I turn to E-P, the dull hand of competence.

Should that have been "the dead hand of competence"? 

As I read

The story of creation time is one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: it is a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement,

I am struck by how completely opposite, absolutely antithetical, it is to the Biblical story of Genesis, in which one God, the epitome of knowledge and goodness, creates a world and declares it good, initiating a line of thought that will culminate in Leibniz's vision of the best of all possible worlds, which will then be parodied by Voltaire in Candide. These thoughts make me wonder if Zeus, who retains some human frailties, is only partially antithetical to Kuemoi and Wahari. Also, what does it say about the ancient Greeks that quarrels among the gods are seen as leading to heroism as well as tragic consequences for the humans who become involved in the Trojan War.

Welcome, then, to the first of several days where we can explore perspectives on Joanna Overing's paper. John has already added some comments and interesting reflections on the topic. To pick up those first; on the one hand there is the problem that tone deafness to humour means that ethnographic work turns everything it encounters into the same flat terrain.

The second works its way into the centre of the cosmological problem here - where do we get to comparatively by looking at another pantheistic cosmology rather than starting with a monotheistic one? John also hints at something else; that for the Greeks the gods were understood to take a direct part in people's intentional behaviour.

Let's see where those points get us to begin with. For anyone engaged by what they have read, please remember that anyone is free to comment or to bring a question.

Dear John MCreery

I'm just learning how to manage these messages. So Thank you for your thoughts, and I will now read them more closely, and answer you more fully!...

Yours Joanna

Joanna, very thoughtful of you. No need to rush. It may help you to know that I write from the curious position of a man in his sixties who grew up in a pious Lutheran home, developed a view of God that made Otto's mysterium tremendum et fascinans appealing to my adolescent self, went off to college and studied analytic philosophy, then found my way to anthropology and a Ph.D. dissertation on Daoist magic, followed by a career in advertising. Along the way, I have acquired an interest in the ways in which people imagine the invisible powers that affect their lives and the sorts of relationships imagined as possible with them.

I know little about Amazonian cosmologies, but a fair lot about Chinese popular religion, in which the Yin world of the spirits is broadly similar to the  Yang world in which we live, the principal difference being that 20th century revolutions have not occurred in the Yin world, in which, again broadly and roughly speaking, imperial China remains alive and well: ancestors are kin; gods imperial bureaucrats, generals who have a demonic side, or other VIPs (including some powerful females); and ghosts neither kin nor VIPs, presumed to be hungry and malicious. Curing is a matter of identifying the spirit or spirits plaguing the victim and negotiating a settlement, a process that involves providing the right offerings, calibrated to the status of the spirits in question. This, and that pious Lutheran world of my childhood, are the contexts from which my questions are likely to arise. 

Wow, Joanna, you're a good storyteller.  This is a good example that shows anthropologists can clearly tell stories from the field if this theoretical cut and paste is controlled.  For anthropologists who value length more, it is tempting to include Sophocles and his Theban plays, but yours is more on comparison and description not extension through citation.  Comparative exposition is more readable than obtrusive citation.  I hope you can turn this into a book.  For some reason, I sense social drama in your paper.  I find Burke, Goffman, Turner, and Geertz relevant in my reading and re-reading.  

Speaking of writing, I recently discovered Kirin Narayan's _Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekov_. Everyone who thinks about the art in writing ethnography should own a copy and consult it whenever writer's block strikes.



John McCreery said:

I am massively tied up at the moment, so comments specific to Joanna's paper may be a day or two away. I did want to mention that my delight in reading it was informed by a remark by Don Deglopper, a Cornell-trained anthropologist who preceded Ruth and I in Taiwan, was the best man at our wedding, and recently retired from a position at the Library of Congress. Don observed that anthropologists who studied Chinese religion seemed utterly tone-deaf when it came to humor and irony and were forever treating the local equivalents of the Virgin Mary, the Easter Bunny, and Tinkerbell with the same monotonous seriousness, seeing all in the same dull Durkheimian manner as symbols for this or that social group or category. Joanna's more, what shall we call it? perhaps Rabelaisian, view of Piaroa myth and ritual, her taking the grotesque seriously, is a marvelous alternative to that particular version of, now I turn to E-P, the dull hand of competence.

Dear John, I think all is now resolved by my grandson.

To answer you on the above observations. I have found it strangely difficult to be taken 'seriously' by many anthropologists, when remarking on the importance of laughter, or aesthetics to the creation of society - from many peoples point of view. One young scholar asking me what did comedy, laughter have to do with the creation of community (apropo to a seminar  on this topic I was responsible for at a big conference on 'hunters and gatherers').  And I asked him: 'Didn't people laugh where he worked - in Africa'? He replied - Sure, they laughed all the time. I then asked 'So?' He didn't understand. 'society' must be a strong, tough, hierarchical business, carried out by men, etc., etc.  A modern western view, obviously, and also found elsewhere. Kings, and queens, ets. So Amazonia people, and others, just haven't reached the 'society' stage, much less the 'politial level'. Well this in part is due to anthropologists following the politial economy approach - In this view, 'primitive' people like the Piaroa don't have much polity or society. Strange, isn't it? The Piaroa understood themselves 'the 'intellectuals' of the Orinoco! There was their understanding of how to properly create society - a daily chore for each adult. Constantly re-creating a society you can live within - 'tranquility' (they spoke of constantly as a necessary ingredient to live iwithin society. Their's is an amazing social psychological theory of living peacefully within a community, one that can sucessfully create children - and each other on a daily level. It is there view that people need to be happy to achieve such goals. For them, happiness is being able to enjoy the beautiful. Beautiful puns that make others laugh and enjoy. Beautiful behavior, so as not to torment others - Anger and arrogence are terrible sins. Destroying the tranquility of others. The arts - the aesthetics of living well - allow for the creation of society, an on-going process day and night. Positive laughter (making one giggle) is an essential ingredient of the creation of communitas. Edith Turner has a lovely new book out on the topic of Communitas: the anthropology of collective joy. Most of the movies made among the peoples of Amazonia show people laughing. Laughing for lots of reasons. Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism - lots of sefl mockery there. One must gently taunt the emerging tyrant, for instance j or openly laugh at the tyrants of mythic time. In daily laughter the minor grotesqeries within which daily life is carried out are being observed. Also Bakhtin and Rabelais are very much to the point here. Fighting for an egalitarian way of life (there are many forms of 'egualitarianism' - we nust remember that) - laughter is the strongest to maintain it - from the Piara and Bakhtin and Rabelais point of few. Also, all the very dirty words are used in Shamanic chanting, and not accepted in everday life. One reason being the the 'dirty wordsl' of mythic time are extraordinarily  powerful - in the wrong way - The use of really dirty words is normally to kill the other (in mythic time), and the shaman has to deal with that - use the dirtiest of dirty words.

So much to talk about - how to have a healthier daily life of the social. It has taken me 40 years to to begin to unravel the 'Piaroa way'. Extraordinary sophistication, that they develop, of living 'a social sort of life'., a HUMAN sort of life. And, yes, it takes a long long time to unravel the effect of the puritanical upbrings most of us went through! We didn't learn to face all the monsters out there - not when at home, at least. The Piaroa are telling us that we must uknderstand the grotesque  - bring it to the surface to be understood. And not swept under the table - whether at home or dealing with big organisations (what the Amazonian peoples hate). From my point of view - all of this has to do with understanding that there exist a great variety of types of polity - and the putting to the forefront the world of aesthetics (as was also true of Rome, and also ancient Greece - the aesthetics of living together - giving room for the respect to others) Thebes is a good start to begin comparisons...

The point is: How do get anthropologists to accept that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces. All of this is a political matter. For us, as well as those we study. And it certainly is a lot more fun!

Cheers,

Joanna

Joanna,

When you write that, "Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism," you are, I suspect, alluding to what Chinese call Daojia, usually described as "Daoist philosophy" and associated with classic texts like the Dao De Jing attributed to Lao Zi or the Zhuangzi,attributed to Zhuang Zi. What I studied in Taiwan was Daojiao, usually described as Daoist religion, whose relationship to Daojia is complex and often contrary. But let's put that aside.  What you write reminded me of a book by N. J. Girardot titled Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (University of California Press, 1983, a volume in the series "HERMENEUTICS: Studies in the History of Religion"). In the preface to the paperback edition Girardot writes,

Chaos is an oddly fashionable topic these days. This is not the usual state of affairs, since chaos has typically been imagined as the fearful antagonist of God, of the cosmic order, and of all that is normal. The dark Otherness of chaos has, therefore, most commonly lurked within the locked closets of civilized discourse and sanctioned revelation—only showing its monstrous and misshapen face, still half-concealed by a primordial hockey mask, at times of dreadful confusion, insane retribution, and irrevocable change. However, at other times and sporadically within some traditions—especially as seen in the early Taoist texts examined in this work—chaos has been upheld as the creative source, hidden order, and ongoing power of cosmic life.

Girardot then moves on to chaos as conceived by modern science, mathematics and economics.

As pointed out in best-selling works like James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), "chaos theory"—and its attendant exotica of Mandelbrot sets, Koch curves, Menger sponges, fractal clusters, smooth noodle maps, and other beautiful "monstrosities"—has opened horizons of understanding in fields concerned with the strange science of process and becoming.

While I wish to suggest no more than a very simple rhetorical symmetry between chaos theory in contemporary science and the hun-tun theme of a blessed "chaos-order" in the ancient Taoist texts, beneath the surface, and somewhat chaotically, both emphasize understanding reality in its authentic "wildness"—as a dynamic system in which constant change and erratic complexity harbor an enigmatic principle of patterned regularity and regeneration....For both, it has to do with the interrelated flowing of heaven and earth—the way clouds form, smoke rises, and water eddies, as well as the way human health depends on the inner rhythms of the body.

What I wish to point out here is that the "monstrous and misshapen" are described here as the evil other of the Southwest Asian monotheist's Almighty God, the patriarchal principle of order in all things.  The "monstrosities" mentioned in connection with scientific chaos theory are, in fact, patterns of exquisite beauty, examples of dynamic order that emerge from chaotic processes, becomings rather than beings. To me they seem as alien to 

The story of creation time [as] one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: ... a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement

as they are to the timeless order envisioned by Greek philosophers or Christian theologians or the Genesis story in which God speaks and the world Is, and death and evil slip in through the actions of Adam and Eve, who are ancestors but in no sense divine. Taking your premise,

that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces

as given, how should we account for these differences?

Thanks so much for sharing this with us and being available for discussion, Joanna. Your link between egalitarianism and wild stories reminded me of my time spent studying a group of peoples which included the Tallensi of Northern Ghana. They were traditionally raided by slaving armies and were fiercely opposed to political hierarchy in any form. What struck me was the violence and ironic exaggeration typical of children's stories. This was the region from which the trickster hero, the bush rabbit, came to be transformed in Louisiana as Brer Rabbit. Yet, at least in the versions I read as a boy, these tales were a lot milder than the originals which were often both very funny and disgusting -- persuading the gullible that a red-ass baboon in a tree is a bird to be shot at or that a mule shits cowries overnight or trying to hide his own non-existent anus while bending over to hoe the ground. One series involved monstrous twins who go rampaging through the country committing murder in blatant violation of every rule of hospitality and common decency, the negation of their society.

I suspect that we would find such stories too frightening for our children. But the Victorians and Edwardians were made of sterner stuff: look at some of Beatrix Potter's horror stories, Jemima Puddleduck, for example.

One of my favourites was a riddle. A man crosses the river to market in a small boat with his wife, mother and sister. The boat capsizes and they swim to the bank. His wife cries out, "I have lost my vagina!", his mother and sister the same. He dives back in, but can only find one vagina. Who should he give it to? The kid will probably start by saying his wife, of course. But he came from his mother's vagina, doesn't he owe he one? and without his sister's he would not get the cows to marry again. And so a lesson in kinship and marriage ensues, but the premise is grotesque.

So my question is, would you identify specific genres of children's stories among the Piaroa? In particular, do they take their cue from the shamanic myths you enlist here?



M Izabel said:

Wow, Joanna, you're a good storyteller.  This is a good example that shows anthropologists can clearly tell stories from the field if this theoretical cut and paste is controlled.  For anthropologists who value length more, it is tempting to include Sophocles and his Theban plays, but yours is more on comparison and description not extension through citation.  Comparative exposition is more readable than obtrusive citation.  I hope you can turn this into a book.  For some reason, I sense social drama in your paper.  I find Burke, Goffman, Turner, and Geertz relevant in my reading and re-reading.  

Dear Isabel,

Thank you for your kind words! If I am a good storyteller, here, it is because Piaroa people are such good storytellers. By watching performance, the chants and story telling of the shamans, and the reactions of his audience, you can learn so much. And then the long hours of translating the words of the myths (their performance), you learn what is hilarious and what is gloomy.You learn the complexities of the words of the myth - the deep layering of meaning (my article in Man 1990, 25, 601-192 - 'The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds'...). Piaroa are great teachers - they like explaining to you. They quickly become bored with kinship terms - not enough drama/entertainment there.

    Translation is the real question. How to translate this richness? As you learn, you find the stories getting better and you begin to understand how sophisticated they are,psychologically speaking. There is tremendous social drama played out. 

And yes, I cefrtainly have found Burke, Goffman, and Turner important - and also Geertz. And also Firth, who knows good ethnography. But in more recent years I've been reading 'out of anthropology' -  I've turned to Michel de Certreau (The Practie of Everyday Life' - good for developing an Anthropology of the everyday'.  And also Ivan Illich, on 'Tools for Conviviality'.  And of course, Bakhtin. And there is the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. who teaches us in greater depth about our own understanding of the world - very anthropologically oriented - see  his 'Philosophy and the Human Sciences, and Human Agency and Language. And Dell Hymes has always been a favourite.  And Boas. I went back to these after an early spurt of structuralism - which was in the air when I was writing my thesis. I was then happy to get back to the people. For translation, we need to know ourselves. What we have been taught. What is 'truth', from a scientific point of view? vs 'truth' from a Piaroa point of view. Recently I've been talking about their 'fractal' universe. You cannot talk of them livining within a 'landcape'. Rather each everyday task is acted out within particular 'mythscapes.  Whether 'fractal' is the right word, I don't know. These mythscapes, however, always have their poisonous danger... Laughter does put it to bay. Also, their 'truth' is always tied to moral or immoral instances of life. So what is 'true' always has its own intellectual background. For Piaroa, the richer the background, the more 'true' something is... Unlike Western science...

Finally, about publications - I have about 5 articles out on these topics - of grotesque realism, and some others still not polished, but which I like very much. Maybe just maybe, I can get my act together to put all this into one book.

Cheers,

Joanna

d

 

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2017   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service