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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Joanna Overing said:SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/joannaovering/Desktop/doc%202culinary%20arts

Huon Wardle asks Joanna to tell more about the relations for the Piaroa between their culinary arts and their cosmology of the grotesque (and the sublime – another story – see Tipiti volume 2006).


Huon, this is an enormous topic, as you know. And what I say is here too lengthy – but your demand is big. I will try to give a simplified version providing some Interesting points. (also, it is the topic of my paper in the American  journal, Tipiti (2006)

As with other Amazonian peoples, the Piaroa understand their bodies to be open to the world, to the cosmos.

They live in a multiverse mythscape, which can at will penetrate into human bodies – for better or worse.

A shaman’s  brain can be zapped by Kuemoi’s mythic time’s infamous crystal boxes of tyranny, treachery and domination. The consequence is that the shaman descends into the madness of gonorrhoea as his brain becomes transformed into boils. (not so good). Also, the Creater god, Wahari, in his madness, created a perverted set of “culinary arts” for his people, which were also a set of diseases of excessive orifices. In today time these diseases can dangerously impregnate human bodies.. They do so through the ‘thoughts’ of the animals (once human, but transformed by Wahari at the end of mythic time). In today time, if you, a human being, step on a animal’s excrement, or blood, the animal will impregnate you with one of the diseases of excessive orifices, such as skin disease, venereal diseases, and so on. Each animal owns it’s own disease. In Wahari’s madness, these were the diseases that Wahari gifted to his own people.

Knowledge, skills attained for the culinary arts, travel through the blood stream of a person. Contact with a person’s poo or blood can be dangerous.

If you kill another person - physically, that person becomes incorporated into your bowels. And the next time you poo you defecate your entire stomach and bowels, and die.


The culinary arts are partly incorporated into the body through ceremonies. Young teenage boys go through ceremonies that open the skin to certain powers of hunting – wasps or ants stinging the forehead, the upper arms and chest transfers the ferocity of the wasps and ants to the young hunter. Hunting is an important aspect of the culinary arts – which demands endurance and strength.


On the other hand, when using the culinary arts to bring home game, fish, or garden plants for the community’s use, your close presence with kinspeople can have positive and creative affect. To smell the aroma of fish grilling, pots cooking, children are literally being formed. The smell of cooking is curative, and it has a fertile affect. The smell of the capable use of the culinary arts moves into the bodies of those present – and thus into their own blood streams.  This is what creates kinship. This sort of daily contact. People taking in the beauty of the culinary arts. Smelling them, seeing feeling them.


On the other hand, if you are a young man and make love with a menstruating women, you will die of the disease of lethargy.  The blood of women is very powerful.

However, if you are mighty shaman, you can make love with your menstruating wife with no bad consequences.

Women wail that they are a terrible danger to young men. Just through the act of proximity.

What is going on here? 

What is the blood of women doing to young men? Of what is the blood comprised?

Blood can obviously be dangerous, but why? What does blood do? Carries through the body all that knowledge of the practices of the culinary arts – whether good and bad.

Remember that Piaroa people had to use the mighty, poisonous powers of Kwemoi’s  culinary arts. Wahari’s were useless – a load of diseases. In today time the gods are constantly cleansing the powers of Kwemoi’s culinary arts:  gods of today give cleansed powers of the culinary arts (gardening, hunting, fishing, cooking, etc.) to the Piaroa – as a gift to them. It is also the daily chore of the shamans to very carefully cleanse his own powers of the culinary arts (which includes his ritual duties).


For Piaroa, to bleed is very good for the person who bleeds, but possibly fatal for others if the blood comes into contact with them. Through bleeding, a person gets rid of all the poisons (of the culinary arts) that she or he have taken in from close kinsmen when in close proximity with them – working, eating, sleeping, playing. The skin is open to this transfer of poison (for instance through sweat, or urine, and other body fluids etc). Women, by getting rid each month of all the poisons they have taken in through their daily contact with others, become very strong, very fertile. Boys, farting in play, say they are farting out the poisons of their father-in-law – and if a shaman, would be very poisonous for the boy – so farting is a healthy habit.


Their culinary arts are poisonous. Cosmogenesis is a bag of tricks. Today, human beings (ironically) have to use the forces for the culinary arts originally created by Kuemoi. There are all sorts of danger there for dangerous folly (their intentions can so easily be poisoned by Kuemoi’s deadly powers).  Human beings must through daily hard work manage the forces for the culinary arts. Open bodies are dangerously open to their poison. Daily, Human beings must transform the ugly and dangerous powers for the hunt and the gardens into beautiful forces, safe for a civilised life, a common Amazonian theme. Which in turn makes the practice of these arts beautiful.  At the same time, they have to deal with the fact that the game they eat is really human in origin.


They are open to the horrors of the grotesque realism of mythic time. But at the same time it is only through their careful daily use (and cleansing) of this poisonous power they use that allows for a human sort of life.  To create children, gardens, hunters, cooked food – a counter world that allows for tranquility, well being, and creative fertility.


This everyday work of the culinary arts and civilised sociality is at the same time accomplished through a good deal of practice in the comic arts, the arts of conviviality – a sign that the powers they use are those of civilised eating, which keeps hubris at bay.

It all comes together.


Joanna Overing

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. 

Ethnographic detail please. How do the Piaroa react to menstrual blood? (I am thinking of the similarity and/or difference ascribed to menstrual blood as opposed to blood shed in the hunt and/or warfare, which I seem, albeit dimly, to remember from African ethnography. Vic Turner on the Ndembu, for example?)

Thanks for those insights Joanna. It could sound like there is a constant state of rather serious self-regulation - 'Zoot, I stepped on some animal crap!'  but now I remember George Mentore's paper about the idea of farting as an inverted shaman's breath (and everyone laughs).


Victor: 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.


This reminded me of the humour of the ghetto, or some of the laughter on the Jamaican streets where I have worked where the pressure to conform to someone else's model, an unachievable colonial type or template, instigates all kinds of ambiguating practices. In this case laughter can be a kind of equilibration between the sense of power and weakness - not necessarily a 'weapon of the weak', though. This makes me wonder how Piaroa society has changed and how the uses of humour may have adapted over time with further contact with Venezuela more widely.

The seminar on Joanna Overing's fine paper is drawing to a close, so I would encourage anyone who has any thoughts they would still like to bring to the discussion to do so during these last few days. 

Huon Wardle said:

The seminar on Joanna Overing's fine paper is drawing to a close, so I would encourage anyone who has any thoughts they would still like to bring to the discussion to do so during these last few days. 

Huon, thanks for organizing this, and Joanna, thanks for the paper. Joanna's work keeps reminding me to tackle humor and laughter. Huon's last response set me off on a path of thought -- I want to think about laughters as symbolic forms that can have very different sets of associations, and that can have very different intentions and effects...Among the latter, laughters can shape the footings of relationships in a great many ways...establishing comradery, complicity, superiority, discomfort,  fear, you name it. And as Huon notes, this all meaningful forms, they're historical, mutable. I wonder (I really do...I'm not playing at rhetorical effect here) whether it's useful to think of it always as somehow constituting and/or addressing a relation of inequality or domination. (I won't say 'power,' because I can see that from a Foucauldian perspective it's inescapably part of the conditions and effects of laughter.)

Anyway, many thanks to all for an enjoyable, thought-provoking discussion. These seminars are a cool idea...I hadn't participated in any to date.

Huon Wardle said:

The seminar on Joanna Overing's fine paper is drawing to a close, so I would encourage anyone who has any thoughts they would still like to bring to the discussion to do so during these last few days. 

Just to say thanks to Huon for setting up the discussion and to Joanna for the paper. Like Carlos, this was the first time I've participated in an e-seminar, and also the first time I've 'done' any anthropology for a very long time. I enjoyed both experiences a lot.

Allow me to join the chorus thanking Joanna for this extraordinarily stimulating paper. 

Joanna replies,

I thank you all for participating - It has been great fun. It seems that among us we have created a number of possibilities for future seminars, conferences. It is also a belated spin off of the Chili conference on absurdity and laughter, et. held about 7 years ago. Maybe we can make up for lost time - and also extend to comparisons outside Amazonia. Developing a more sophisticated look at 'egalitarianisms'... And Victor, to compare your warrier Shuar with the 'tranquil', 'Intellectual Piaroa would be interesting. We probably would fine that the line between violence and tranquility is very fine... And, Alan, Nadia, Carlos, Paulo and Victor - we should work together again! We need each other to develop the obvious.

And thank you, Huon and Keith for making this forum possible - and come join us in developing a more sophisticated 'political anthropology'!


Time to wrap this seminar up, then. Thanks to all. I notice that as of today there have been getting on towards 800 views of this thread. No doubt that the seminars are of interest: the task is to see if there are ways more readers might become encouraged to participate in similar events in the future.



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