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.

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Replies to This Discussion



Alan Passes said:

While theoretical and aesthetic concerns about the writing of ethnography are exciting and necessary, do they not run the risk of leapfrogging over the crux of Joanna's article: How to live a safe and fecund social life in a dangerous, destructive and insane universe? As Overing reveals – and this is her great and innovative skill – the wisdom of the Piaroa (and other Amazonian egalitarian communities) lies not so much in perceiving comedy in the incontinent and asocial folly of the gods, but in handling the threat of the potential replication of such madness among and by humans, through the realisation of the need to appropriate and convert this insane, asocial, divine potency into safe and social human end-results. This being accomplished by the daily practice of the interpersonal life charged with caring, love... and humour, and safeguarded and enabled by shamanic intervention. Of course, what the Piaroa and similar peoples in Amazonia and elsewhere throw into relief, thanks to this article, is the actuality (as opposed to the threat) of the unbridled antisocial insanity and grotesqueness of so many leaders in our own non-egalitarian societies – and our all too frequent incapacity to neutralise them.

 

At this point I shall follow the point emphasised by both Keith Hart and Alan Passes: This is the political matter that Anthropologists should pay attention to. It is important for anthropologists to clearly understand the relative nature of what we label as ‘egalitarian societies’. It would be highly interesting, for instance, for anthropologists (and the man and woman on the street) to see the western form of ‘egalitarianism’ through the gaze of peoples of the Amazon - as I have suggested in more depth in a recent chapter (“The spectre of the tyrant: Power; violence and the poetics of an Amazonian egalitarianism”, in Contesting the State, eds. A. Hobart and B. Kapferer, Sean Kingston Publishing July,2012).  For many decades, Amazonia  has been labelled by anthropologists as a ‘sociological puzzle’. Why? is the question! Amazonian understandings of sociality, society and polity have appeared to be truly untranslatable: at least through our own sociological and cultural understandings of power, polity, and society (a mouthful in itself!). Amazonian peoples are then understood as people who are gravely ‘lacking’ – socially, politically. Their leaders have ‘no power’ of command or coercion, and their communities no clearly structured corporate groups.  They are ‘lacking’ society and polity because they have no stable hierarchy through which to sustain something called ‘societal order’. As Riviere has written, Amazonian peoples have been defined by a series of negatives. On the other hand, Amazonian peoples define white people as socially, politically lacking monsters. Both being defined by what the other lacks. I talk in this chapter about the differences in understanding ‘power’, what it is, what it does. Power’s place in society? I end by asking how can we possibly understand (through our language) about an Amazonian type of political and economic freedom?

 

Just try to talk about the social and political implications of indigenous poetics, cosmology and aesthetics. And, how can we talk about an Amazonian women’s political and economic freedom, and their parity (we often find) with men in the creation of society? What about women’s roles in the generating and repairing of society (in Thebes, in Amazonia)? Just try to express any of these matters through the patronizing and paranoid gaze of Western social theory? We do need to extend the anthropological endeavour beyond the restrictive, self-serving borders of modern sociological theory. I end that chapter mentioned above: We need a more inspired perspectival gaze to allow us to consider more seriously the relativity of knowledges, polities and societies. What are the implications, so to speak, of strong differences between those societies labelled as “egalitarian”. This is what the paper you have read, and my recent chapter with Sean Kingston, are  about. How do we go about this task? And toward what end?

 

Like Victor, I didn’t read the paper as making as strong an analogy as John reads into it (Piaroa : ancient Greeks :: egalitarianism:state). It is a looser comparison…as it must be, when the author’s access to the one is through detailed ethnography, while her access to the other is through a literature review. The ethnographic stuff seems to me to allow us to get a better grasp of how the people in question frame events evaluatively. Joanna shows how Piaroa used stories about the hubris and stupidity of gods to make sense of what certain shamans did, and to act upon the shaman and his consociates…They thereby subverted hierarchizing gestures… I don’t know how stories of Zeus’s successes might have been used in daily life in ancient Greece…That’d be something good to explore further. I read something of James Laidlaw’s a couple of years ago, perhaps borrowed from Bernard Williams, on Ajax killing himself upon being shamed. He dreamt that he was engaged in some heroic deed, and sleep-walked and generally acted out his vision. When he awoke, his dignity as a great man and warrior simply could not deal with the ridiculousness of his actions. By the way, it was a god (godesss?) who caused him to dream and act in this fashion… It was all rather tragic, but I wonder whether in ancient tellings the occasional bard might not have played up the humor, enjoying the prospect of some big fellow being brought down a few pegs.

But more on egalitarianism - I recall People of the Centre criticising and subverting hierarchizing claims gestures, and generally condemning those who were ‘kehe-kehe’ (uppity, authoritarian). But there was great ambivalence there, for they also deeply admired glorious virtues they attributed to superior men (among whom speakers would often include themselves): the capacity for violent, angry predatory action upon some evil agent, to beat others in one-upmanship, and to unveil and scold those who misguidedly alleged to be knowledgeable and powerful. My sense is that ridiculing those hierarchizing gestures was intelligible because hierarchy was fully intelligible…It was in their horizon of concerns, and their sense of who they were, could be, and wanted to be, involved images of hierarchies of virtues, persons, and groups. Joanna, would you qualify ‘egalitarianism’? Maybe the point is that egalitarian peoples don’t allow themselves to take social organizational hierarchy very far, rather than that there is no hierarchy?

Just want to reiterate that I am not disputing the richness of the ethnography, the importance of taking how Amazonian peoples see the world seriously, or, most especially, the idea of taking what may seem to us grotesque or exaggerated in their myth/humor seriously—which opens up what seems to me a potentially fruitful line of research. All of this is good stuff and much appreciated. But turning my anthropological gaze on the anthropologists, I still see a familiar pattern, an argument framed as a binary choice between the West/White Man/Us and the Rest/Native/Good Guys in this Story. As an East Asianist with my own axes to grind about what I see as neglect of my region in anthropological debates, I propose that it would further enrich the project to at least triangulate a bit. Why is Zeus a relevant comparison and not the Emperor of the Center (Hun Tun=Chaos) in the Daoist origin myth analyzed by Girardot in the source I mentioned earlier? No reason at all, except that people are more likely to have heard about Zeus if they are educated in Europe instead of China.

And come to think of it, why, if we're sticking with the West as the other in the binary, bother with Zeus, about whom nobody but a few classicists, art historians, and a kid whose parents gave him a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology for a birthday present cares at all any more. In a world where, in Terry Eagleton's brilliant description, Muslims still beat their heads bloody on the ground and Texas ranchers expect to be lifted up into Heaven, Cadillacs and all, come the the Rapture, aren't we looking at how humor is used by believers in Allah or God Almighty? One thinks of Robert Frost's little poem, 

Dear Lord, forgive my little jokes on thee

And I'll forgive your great big one on me.

 

 

Want to add that I think Carlos Sulkin's point that

there was great ambivalence there, for they also deeply admired glorious virtues they attributed to superior men (among whom speakers would often include themselves): the capacity for violent, angry predatory action upon some evil agent, to beat others in one-upmanship, and to unveil and scold those who misguidedly alleged to be knowledgeable and powerful

is very important, indeed. As we focus on the political issue, egalitarianism vs hierarchy, are we neglecting the obvious message in the myths. The two key figures are brothers, one a genuine, cannibalistic monster who, nonetheless, makes important contributions—those culinary arts that, like Huon, I would like to know more about—and a well-intentioned fellow who is tempted into making mistakes with disastrous consequences. Especially if you are stuck living in small, egalitarian communities, knowing that individuals have both dark and light sides to their characters and you'd better pay attention to both could be a very important piece of practical wisdom. 

It is an theme that I attribute to Don Handelman, because I first heard him talk about it, that there are cosmologies which begin in chaos and others where the initial conditions are perfect and only unravel later. As it is used in this discussion, Greek mythology is simply the pantheistic comparison that most anthropologists will have a general familiarity with and it throws out certain key contrasts. Equally, she makes other comparisons with the Tao and so on.

There is an issue here in what we expect from humour. The behaviourist BF Skinner argued that humour is only ever aggressive - there is always an outgroup who are being excluded by humour - which may have said more about him than anything else. Somewhat similarly, Mary Douglas states that laughter is an irrelevant physical outgrowth of joking that means nothing on its own account. I think Joanna is providing several alternative views. I would indeed like to find out more about the bodiliness and mindedness of the culinary arts; that would give us insights into how the cosmological skills are put into practice. 

Side quibble—Why are people using "pantheistic" instead of "polytheistic"? The former means to me the belief that God/Nature/Gaia, whoever, is in everything, not a creator standing outside it. The latter implies multiple deities, whose relationships and interactions may account for particular events. Zeus and company are in the latter category; reading the myths is like watching episodes of JR.

 

 

Both are applicable in these cases, if we are talking about the pre-Socratics.

An amazonianist, whose work with the Palikur leads me to find echoes with the Piaroa studied by Joanna, I am sadly highly ignorant of China and Chinese thought, but I agree with John McCreery that it is lamentable that we anthropologists do not incorporate the Jade Emperor in our intellectual kit-bag along with Zeus. Yet, like Victor and Carlos, I think John's critique of our discipline's resort to superannuated polarities, such as West:Rest, Noble savage:Ignoble state, etc., which have come by default to underlie/overlay anthropological notions of indigenous ways of thinking about how to lead a good, sane and tranquil communal life, is misapplied in the case of Joanna's article, for I feel that in her understanding of the Piaroa such dichotomies are not present in the manner that John assumes and/or fears. As Joanna said earlier, we are largely faced with a problem of translation. When talking about egalitarianism and the practical and political living of the social convivial life, it is not surprising that, in an an non-egalitarian and largely non-convivial sector of the world that is academia's habitat, the vocabulary and understandings and images are sorely lacking.  

Alan, I take on board what you say. But a "good, sane, and tranquil communal life"? Where then do the lesser and greater forms of madness that the paper describes come from? Why does the shaman have to stay up all night? Is the admiration for manly violence and winning in contests of comeupsmanship that Carlos finds among his people absent about the Piaroa? Why do the origin myths describe brothers ferociously hostile to one another?



John McCreery said:

Alan, I take on board what you say. But a "good, sane, and tranquil communal life"? Where then do the lesser and greater forms of madness that the paper describes come from? Why does the shaman have to stay up all night? Is the admiration for manly violence and winning in contests of comeupsmanship that Carlos finds among his people absent about the Piaroa? Why do the origin myths describe brothers ferociously hostile to one another?

Dear John, You ask whence the insanity and violence in everyday Amazonian life. May I, by way of an  answer, offer you the best response (or at least the first) that comes to my mind, which is to draw a theoretical comparison between the issue of madness and violence in Amerindian philosophy and practice with another issue, gender supremacy. As has been shown by Cecilia McCallum (2001), Y. Murphy  & R. Murphy (1974) and others (myself included), the presence among many groups of a phallocratic ideology does not universally signify or equate with male dominance/female subordination in actual everyday life in Lowland Amazonia – a region noted as sociopolitically characterised by widespread gender equality. I would likewise argue that, in connection with violence and madness, whatever is enacted and stressed in myths obviously need not necessarily exist in each and every Amerindian instance at the level of the everyday life. Rather, the superstructural acts (aggressive, incontinent, crazy) of the gods in Piaroa and elsewhere are not there to serve as an example of how to live a proper social life, but of how not to – to warn and act against the danger of unconstrained destructive antisociality, which doesn't mean of course that such actions don't occur, but not systemically. So, yes, to return to Joanna's paper, I propose an apparent paradox insofar as I am suggesting that a 'good, sane, tranquil' communal life is feasible for many Amerindian peoples, not despite violence and insanity, but – in a sense – because of them.

(SORRY, COULDN'T MANAGE TO DEITALICISE) 

I had written a long answer, then it disappeared. To start again:

I think a good "comparative framework" would be one that comes fron the field itself. For instance, the people I'm working with watch TV and go to (evangelical) church. When they watch TV, a lot of them really enjoy two popular comedy shows: El Chavo del Ocho, and El Chapaulin Colorado, which are slapstick comedies. At church, though, they don't laugh so much, nor do they make God or Jesus jokes. That might seem obvious, but when you look at it more closely it's not that clear what's going on. The Bible is full of grotesque images and funny one-liners, andthe  Eastern European jews I know, for instance, make rabbi-and-God jokes all the time. Not so the evangelicals I know, whether they are missionaries or Shuar. Why does El Chavo make people laugh so much? It tends to be the sort of humour Adam Kotsko has described in Awkwardness, and Simon Critchley in Infinitely Demanding: we are trying to be heroes, or at least to behave normally, but we fail because we are weak and because it becomes more and more difficult to know how it is we should behave. It is particularly the case in gender relations, as men and women can more easily than before live alone thanks to money, and because of a very present discourse of Women's Rights that people are trying to make sense of. But a lot of this also has to do with trying to fit in colonial society, the great shame people feel just walking down the street and speaking shuar. In other words, it is a humour of the gaps, a humour that makes domination and anomia bearable. In contrast, everyday humour, like Joanna described, tends to be "regulatory", to be the paradoxical imposition of the rule that no one should rule, to defuse dangerous emotions and produce better ones. For instance, brothers-in-law become funny husbands and wives to defuse the potentially aggressive relationship, jealous men and women are mocked, etc. Now, evangelical Shuar also do make jokes and laugh, but not so much, because a lot of these jokes can be understood to promote things they are trying to get rid of: promiscuity, gossip, etc, partly because they are seen to promote conflict. So that looking at humour in this comparative context, I think we can also see pretty clearly how different sorts of humour respond to different forms of power and ideals of togetherness.



Huon Wardle said:

It is an theme that I attribute to Don Handelman, because I first heard him talk about it, that there are cosmologies which begin in chaos and others where the initial conditions are perfect and only unravel later. As it is used in this discussion, Greek mythology is simply the pantheistic comparison that most anthropologists will have a general familiarity with and it throws out certain key contrasts. Equally, she makes other comparisons with the Tao and so on.

There is an issue here in what we expect from humour. The behaviourist BF Skinner argued that humour is only ever aggressive - there is always an outgroup who are being excluded by humour - which may have said more about him than anything else. Somewhat similarly, Mary Douglas states that laughter is an irrelevant physical outgrowth of joking that means nothing on its own account. I think Joanna is providing several alternative views. I would indeed like to find out more about the bodiliness and mindedness of the culinary arts; that would give us insights into how the cosmological skills are put into practice. 

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