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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Paolo Santilli, who has been unable to join in the seminar so far, but hopefully will soon, has passed on a paper on the Makuxi that describes how 'circles of happiness', evidenced by sociable laughter, are foundational in their social dynamics. The connection to Joanna's paper should be clear. Here is a taste of his intervention:

Se, como aventamos, o ethos humorístico é fator constitutivo da dinâmica social Makuxi, pode-se também depreender como a produção da alegria, cuja manifestação por excelência é o riso, conforma círculos, circuitos de socialidade, não apenas pela incorporação de novos partícipes nas rodas do riso, como também por sua exclusão. Com efeito, o riso, enquanto expressão da alegria produz sociedade e como tal, inversamente, é a sanção moral que motiva a repreensão pública mais severa.  Poder-se-ia invocar inúmeros casos nesse sentido, como pude registrar nos cadernos de campo em períodos e aldeias diversos, o de um jovem Makuxi cujo reiterado procedimento obsessivamente raivoso (sakarope) converteu-o em objeto da mais generalizada pândega, movida por seus co-residentes e especialmente pelas crianças, e que, dentre outras conseqüências, lhe aniquilava as eventuais possibilidades de levar adiante qualquer pretensão conjugal com as moças núbeis da aldeia, forçando-o, assim, a retirar-se; e, mesmo, o de um professor, recém nomeado diretor de escola, cujo comportamento considerado excessivamente avarento (amunek) insuflou uma tal onda de escárnio por parte dos habitantes da aldeia, que levou-o a declinar o cargo e retirar-se diante do cerco implacável que lhe impunha o riso, minando qualquer possibilidade de estabelecer ali relações minimamente consistentes


Thanks for the reply, Joanna?  How do you translate humor?   Humor, at least in my culture, is a linguistic or literary vessel for intentions, emotions, values, insults, sarcasms, etc.  One can tell a humorous story to insult a listener or to make himself  comfortable in the midst of strangers or to feel jolly amid problems and worries.  How will you write about a lonely clown?  Will it be about his loneliness or his clowning or both?

Joanna, I want to look further at the relationship between the capacities for the culinary arts and the cosmology of the grotesque that you describe. You don't talk here in detail about the culinary arts as these are practised in the everyday since the discussion has more to do with how the shamanic performances tell of the mythtime antics when these arts were brought equivocally into being. You mention the processes of eating and excretion as potential signs of excessiveness - 'the excessive use of orifices'. But I began to think about the making of the food in question - its preparation, sharing and eating in relation to the body. I wonder if you could tell us some more about food, how food is prepared using the culinary arts, how it goes in and comes out of the body from a Piaroa point of view.

I happen to have been reading Audrey Richards on food over the last few days, and she makes some interesting points about how the body may not be so much a 'physiological' entitiy as a 'psychical' one, a site of emotions; the same 'heat' that is felt when a person eats might also be felt when they kill someone or when they have sex (she is talking mainly about Southern Africa). So, a penny for your thoughts.

Keith Hart said:

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?


Dear Keith,  It is certainly the case that the stories for children are tied to the shamanic myths - including those I've used for this paper. The shaman teaches the young children, those between 5 and 12, by telling them stories based on vignettes from the mythic past, morality tales - very funny - gods, monsters, etc getting their punishment for ridulous, foolish, nasty behaviour. Very colourful. The Shaman is singing the histories of the mythic past for a good part of each night. The children would be sleeping, and not hearing the full blast, nor the strong words sung by the shaman. By the time they are teenagers, the childreen are well aware of the lessons  of grotesque realism. Some times I was somewhat shocked by the reaction of humour used when things go wrong. One day, the teen agers came to tell of a disaster within another village - A young shaman, in teaching several youny men in the shamanic arts, gave them a much too strong hallucinatory mixture to 'help' them on the way of knowledge. The boys died. The kids lauughed. The arrogance of a shaman showing off. And thus killing instead of healing others. He had not accepted the fact that he did ot yet have the skills of a shaman. So he must be mocked - strongly. As a lesson. But what about those boys? The act had been done, and they couldn't by helped. So the focus on the shaman. Also, the words of shamanic chants can be exceedingly strong - and indeed colourful. Dealing with the nether parts... Words that should not be used public use (e.g. between men and women, between different generations, etc. But are sung at night, and drunk the next morning by  both adults and children - for curative reasons. The shaman blows his words he sang into a cntainer of water, for adults to take, and into a container of honey, for the children. Strong words and tales - strong lessons - moving through bodies, each morning.

I guess that grotesque realism is used in many cultures - in everyday contexts. It took me a long time to realise  its strength. In that context. The power of laughter is complicated, and we do need to spend time trying to understand its significance. It is all about power, as well. But not 'power' as we learn it to be in though our lessons in the sociological narratives of western theory. Certainly within it children would not be taught about the destructive and thus horrifying, but nevertheless laughable, outcomes of hubris - where you gotta learn to live with it, so the trick is to handle it through (intelligent) mocking. Now what does this have to say about our theories of the public and the domestic, or of society and polity...



Joanna Overing said:

Now what does this have to say about our theories of the public and the domestic, or of society and polity...

I guess it partly depends on what we mean by "our". The Piaroa and the Tallensi are self-consciously egalitarian societies. Maybe the Greeks were when they invented their myths, if not later when the great plays about them were written. Modern western societies both are unequal and yet claim in some important ways to be equal. Maybe that screws it up a bit.

Then Vico had a theory about how civilizations are born, mature, grow old and die. They are poetic in the first phase,but succumb to rationality later as they outsource creativity to bureaucratic institutions.

I agree that this case, as you have vividly presented it, challenges the norms of western civilization (so-called). I wonder how we could take the prism you have provided to a more systematic level of comparison.

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. (Alan Passes)

Hi, Joanna. Thanks for this.

“There are also similarities to the often erratic destiny and suffering found in the historical tyrants of Sophocles’ time, with their tendency to rely on their own solitary knowledge, rather than solving problems by conversing with ‘the people’ and other ‘knowledgeable’ advisors.”

This reminds me of our conversations in 1999 about a community leader in the Medio Caqueta region whom others recognized as in possession of great knowledge, but also deemed as a tyrannical madman whom that very knowledge (an agent in its own right) had rendered socially destructive. One young man described for me an event where the leader had said, arrogantly, ‘I can take the knowledge, and I can dominate it,’  whereupon the knowledge had said ‘Let’s see if that is the truth’ and had entered the leader…Indeed, his tyranny and loneliness, and the fact that his brothers left him or wished to do so, all allegedly proved to his consociates that the knowledge had overwhelmed him.  Of course, the leader did not frame events in this way himself…

Interestingly,  the same leader told me a creation myth, where the Grandfather of Tobacco found himself alone in the world, and because in order to create and be productive one needs a conversation partner, spent his days conversing with his own knees, which performed as his what-sayers…

But I had a different comment/question: People of the Centre’s narratives are similarly about creator gods’ powers, screw-ups, and successes. Back in First Time, proper human bodies, ways of life, and accoutrements were pre-figured but non-existent, and through trial and error they were brought to existence. However, in the process, false or spurious thoughts, emotions, houses, ways of marrying, ways of preparing ritual substances and foods, and so one, were also created, and were forever to impinge upon human lifeways…Only true human beings achieved proper, true bodies and ways of life… but these were always besieged by animals and other non-human beings who could cause human beings to cease to be properly human, while still thinking they were human. What’s interesting, though, is how phenomenologically persuasive their whole accounts were, and the central existential anguish that came from them for People of the Centre. Take anger, for example. It was often treated as the first and most relevant symptom of animalistic usurpation of a person’s thoughts/emotions. People accused each other, and more rarely admitted about themselves, that an animal’s thoughts/emotions had taken over them, and that therefore they were behaving and treating each other as immoral animals treated their conspecifics… An alternate frame was readily available, though: anger was the righteous reaction of persons’ constitutive tobacco, which caught on to impropriety and wished to prey upon its sources.  Such alternative frames were permanently available, and people asked of themselves and of each other, all the bloody time, whether their substances, thoughts/emotions, actions, relationships, and so on, were the real thing, a true product of the good tobacco that they said constituted their bodies, or whether they were false products, made to appear good and desirable by an animalistic tobacco that blinded persons to the impropriety or spuriousness of their ways. They paid a lot of attention to, and talked a lot about, how ‘true’ this or that thought/emotion might or might not be, or how this or that project –to build a new maloca, or to accept the presence of an environmentalist NGO in their community—might be akin to the Anaconda of Food’s basket. The latter was pure appearance: it was chock full of beautiful fruit, manioc, abundant tobacco paste and coca powder, all of which should have engendered satiety, health, pleasure, and conviviality…Yet it was a false basket, and it led only to strife, hunger, itchiness, disease, health problems. Same went for projects: they might have looked, promising,  profitable, and beneficent, but one never knew whether this was a false appearance that hid evil.

So there was always this deep existential problem, stemming from the unavoidable possibility that one wasn’t actually truly oneself at a certain point in time…that one’s thoughts and plans were actually not one’s own but an animalistic veil. True tobacco was available as a symbolic resource that supposedly anchored one’s frame…but even tobacco was usurpable!  

I guess this is an understanding of personhood and the cosmos that incorporates irony intrinsically… for it involves always being wary that one’s thoughts/emotions aren’t one’s own. Maybe it’s the same way for Piaroa people: the absolute conviction of the tyrant, his sense that he is unvanquishable and unquestionably right,  is a symptom…it’s a false thought/emotion, characteristic of a jaguar or some other authoritarian inhuman beast. I’ll note that humor came in when people were gossiping or ridiculing others, but not when this concerned the possibility that they themselves were not being truly human…

People of the Centre’s own theories of what thoughts/emotions were made their account phenomenologically plausible to them… A woman screaming at a man that he had a jaguar (or a jaguar tobacco) inside him and that he’d better kill it was quite literal… People could come to see that thoughts/emotions that they experienced intimately were not really their own…namely, that they did not stem from their own tobacco but from an usurping one. I guess the same kind of coherence and phenomenological plausibility applies for the Piaroa...I can imagine people arguing (?) that somebody who misbehaved had been maddened by their own creative powers. But did people ever question themselves? Did people ever recognize that they themselves had been maddened? Was there some angst about the possibility that they weren’t thinking properly, even though it seemed to them that they were?

Hey Joanna,

A great paper. ANthropologists have been very good at turning what has been, so far, the most enjoyable part of my fieldwork - joking relationships - into a very boring thing. I spend hours with one of my friends, who's got a crush on my sister, insulting each other in the funniest way, most of them involving sodomy. I was also told that even though I'm short and skinny, I can still b of help, when a friend of mine told me a myth where an insect killed the giant, white, man-eating monster by tricking him into parting his arse-cheeks and farting, so that the insect entered his anus and ate him from the inside. The context for this being the State's determination to exploit oil where Shuar people live, and the fear that they might send the military to make it happen. A good way of simultaneously asking me to help, telling me how, and attacking the state. 

What I've found interesting is how much Shuar humour is in words and voices, and how little in bodies: few mimics, no grimace, but a lot of accents. That's a pretty strong difference from a lot of European humour with its masks and stereotyped bodies, and for instance Artaud's great work around the deadly serious job of being cruelly grotesque. Not sure what to make of that.

It also raises the issue of fiction. The very friend who treats me like a brother-in-law and who invents a grotesque homosexual relationship with me find it very difficult to understand what fiction is, and why anyone would want to watch a film about things that never took place.


Who, among us, working in the Guianas, was never the object of the mordacious laughter of our hosts? Everything I considered trivial and unnoticeable  in myself – physical appearance, modes of verbal or gesticulatory expression, even sartorial style – at the commencement of living with the Wapishana - was mercilessly scrutinized and was a relentless source of amusement in daily talks, during the work in the garden or at home. It was some consolation to note that all  whites were subjected to the same laughter, be they farmers, civil servants or NGO officers. More than this, I was also startled to observe that the Wapishana or Macoushi members of the local Amerindian association’s discourses on grave matters, such as land rights, were accompanied by overt or covert mockery. And, in the weekly meetings of the village, old women sat behind the men and made sarcastic comments on the men’s public discourses, irrespective of their kin ties.

Living with this biting humour demanded a significant capacity to laugh at myself. Humour and irony are, certainly, the most difficult figures of language, and grasping the nuances of both demands a deep knowledge of the conceptual universe in which they are rooted. Were it not for Joanna Overing’s work, understanding the wide politico-existential scope of this Guianese laughter would not be possible. As has been noted in the course of debate, Overing, inspired by M.Bakthin, perceived the Rabelaisian quality of the Piaroa laughter, a laughter evoked in the West by the ritual suspension or inversion of hierarchies in popular carnivals.

Indeed, this seminar paper summarises ideas to which Overing has been attentive and patiently working on since the 80s. This work makes a bold comparison between Greek  and Piaroa cosmologies, establishing a contrast between the lines of force that lead to the centralization of power, in one case, and those that intentionally exorcise greed, violence - in sum, power - in the other. What emerges is a Piaroa political theory whose values of personal autonomy and egalitarianism confront Western concepts and practices of the State. If Clastres, long ago, pleaded for a Copernican revolution in Anthropology – one that would abandon the notion of lack of  State as an absence, and instead enable the reading of the absence as an active eschewal of State - this paper demonstrates that Joanna Overing’s ethnography has carried  it out.

Ridendo castigat mores – the Latin dictum perfectly summarises Piaroa use of mockery to expose and control the absurd features of domination. Joanna Overing  has shown how Piaroa aesthetics of the grotesque - by pointing out the excess in the counter-example of the gods - delineates the human measure. A human measure that has to be exercised daily in the moral evaluation of action and interaction, in sharing words and food, in bringing up children, in controlling anger or greed. I guess it is a source of constant moral dilemmas, to adopt Carlos Lodoño’ s comment. Nevertheless, the secret here is that the acquisition of personal autonomy is the correlate, not the opposite, of the tranquillity of living together.

Besides Eastern traditions mentioned in the paper, this political theory, in my opinion, finds a parallel in Western minority and dissident thoughts – indeed, it is reminiscent of Proudhonian mutualism or, even closer, of the individualist anarchism of H. Thoreau or M. Stirner. For these last two, community is only acquired by the effort of radical personal autonomies. Besides, it is noteworthy that anarchist thought, irrespective of its internal tendencies, historically valued moral education to prompt a person to generosity as a means to reach collectivism, as opposed to the obligations of the liberal social contract or to the revolutionary capture of the means of production.

In this vein, Joanna Overing’s political anthropology has brought alternative modes of conviviality for ourselves, as good ethnography always does. As this paper summarises, departing from Piaroa theory, J. Overing has been avant garde, pointing out the daily construction of the joy of living together, that only now has begun to be taken seriously by sociologists and political scientists, as a communal alternative to the role of the State in development theories.

For me, this is the coda of the paper. I take the liberty of paraphrasing Joanna Overing to claim that her work is  libertarian because so are the Amazonian  socialities.


A fascinating series of interventions. I want to hear more about the anarchist strands Nadia indicates, the political critique Alan mentions and also the ethnographic observations of Carlos, or as when Victor notes how "What I've found interesting is how much Shuar humour is in words and voices, and how little in bodies: few mimics, no grimace, but a lot of accents." A great deal to consider and discuss.

It is marvelous to hear from so many others who have worked in the same region and thus are in a position to enrich our understanding of what Overing says about the Piaroa. I remain, however, unpersuaded of the theoretical significance claimed by this ethnography. Why? The root metaphor, Piaroa are to ancient Greeks as egalitarianism is to the state, is unconvincing. The ancient Greek city states could be as different as Athens and Sparta, and in the club of top gods Zeus is barely on a par with a Melanesian big man (ok, maybe a chief in the classic band-tribe-chiefdom typology), when compared with Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, or even the Jade Emperor (the top god in the popular Daoist pantheon). The possibility of a comparative study of humor, creation stories and divinities to which this paper points is a fascinating one. As it is, the underlying logic is still the stale, old, West vs the Rest, corrupt state vs the noble savage narrative that was fresh and new when Rousseau wrote Then Social Contract but has been thoroughly discredited since. 

I'm not sure Joanna was arguing for such a dichotomy, it is more of an outcome of the comparison between only two societies. It would need to be broadened, of course, but Joanna was mainly pointing at the serious job humour does in a very powerful way. This isn't such a noble job, by the way: humour also serves to humiliate individuals and categories of people, and it is, at least among Shuar people I know, pretty much always an aggressive thing. This was also emhasized by Bakhtin, that the Carnival is at least potentially totalitarian. The thing here is that humour is not something that happens in between serious times and, by turning the normal order upside down, ends up reinforcing it indirectly, but that humour and the grotesque are "the enforcement of the social order" in a very direct way, except it doesn't come from over above people and takes the "force" away from "enforcement". To repeat, then, it's not a noble savage vs evil state, but a comparison of sophisticated ways of making living together bearable.

John McCreery said:

It is marvelous to hear from so many others who have worked in the same region and thus are in a position to enrich our understanding of what Overing says about the Piaroa. I remain, however, unpersuaded of the theoretical significance claimed by this ethnography. Why? The root metaphor, Piaroa are to ancient Greeks as egalitarianism is to the state, is unconvincing. The ancient Greek city states could be as different as Athens and Sparta, and in the club of top gods Zeus is barely on a par with a Melanesian big man (ok, maybe a chief in the classic band-tribe-chiefdom typology), when compared with Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, or even the Jade Emperor (the top god in the popular Daoist pantheon). The possibility of a comparative study of humor, creation stories and divinities to which this paper points is a fascinating one. As it is, the underlying logic is still the stale, old, West vs the Rest, corrupt state vs the noble savage narrative that was fresh and new when Rousseau wrote Then Social Contract but has been thoroughly discredited since. 



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