Just taught a section in which I introduced Levy-Strauss and structuralism, so I've been thinking about that good old standard, the binary opposition a bit. In that same section, I also introduce my class to the materialist perspective, for which I try to illuminate a link between the focus on culture core and Marx' theories on base-superstructure.

 

As a result, I find myself thinking about L-S and Marx in adjoining thoughts.

 

Can it be accurately said that the concept of binary oppositions, structured into recurring, coded relationships within myths, form as something similar to the thesis-antithesis-to-synthesis dynamic of the dialectic?

 

If this conclusion is correct, can we then say that L-S's structuralism was an more system-based, idealist elaboration on the concept of the dialectic?

 

Is it commonly held by anyone that Levy-Strauss was working from a Marxian theoretical foundation? What about Saussure?

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Hi Joel, interesting question. In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Levi-Strauss claims that the inspiration for his method came from geology, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Each in their own way explains the world of experience, how things appear to us in detail, through an analysis of the deep structures, invisible to the naked eye, that produce them. Thus the landscape is an expression of rocks formed long ago; price movements in the market reflect the mode of production; a patient's dream plays out childhood traumas. He might have cited Saussurian linguistics there, how speech events are made possible by the grammar of a language, but he didn't.

Binaries and dialectic have been with us since the Greeks. So yes there has to be some link there. But Marx was a much more complicated thinker than his followers, more imaginative and playful. They had to reproduce the intellectual system that he invented. So all that stuff about base and superstructure got added later. There is a nice little book by Francis Wheen, Capital: a Biography, which follows the development of Marx's thought before, during and after writing the book. Wheen makes the point that Capital is not just an exercise in political economy, but a critique of it. In reaching for something more than pedestrian analysis, for the heart and soul of capitalism (a term he didn't use), he took on some of the qualities of his great contemporaries who wrote fiction. And of course, Tristes Tropiques is a work of fiction too at one level.

Teaching such a point of view is another matter. I found students freaked out when told that they should approach the great books of social theory as novels.
I took part in a study group earlier this year where we skimmed through this theoretical development, namely Hegel–Sartre–Lévi-Strauss–Sahlins. I'd say it's quite clear that L-S was heavily influenced by Hegel. Perhaps it could be said that he was more Hegelian than Marxist in his dialectics?

I found this article in Man by Robert Murphy that seems to touch this issue, but my University's JSTOR license is acting up, and I can only access the first page: http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/2795874

If that link does not work for you, here's the citation information:

* 21. On Zen Marxism: Filiation and Alliance
* Robert F. Murphy
* Man
Vol. 63, (Feb., 1963), pp. 17-19
(article consists of 3 pages)
* Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
* Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2795874
I hear that the dialectical approach is much older than Marx. Can it be said that the ancient Greek principles of sophistry were a good example of a dialectical approach set into praxis?

I know that I've got my timeline going backward here, so perhaps this thought is mere free association, but it seems to me that I can hear echoes of the binary opposition in the distinction between use-value and exchange-value, a concept that I think is foundational for understanding Marx' criticisms. However, I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that the use-value/exchange-value binary was ever treated itself as a dialectic by Marx. Are there any examples that would suggest as much?

As far as teaching students to approach ethnographies as novels, I find that prospect to be exciting and devilishly fun.

Heikki: I definitely see your point. I've wondered about Hegel, especially since both seem to have focused more squarely on the "idealist" side of things.

Late last night, it occured to me that Saussure might have overlapped with Marx, but lived and worked in the generation just after Marx'; so, it might be more correct to muse on whether Marx influenced Saussure.

Keith Hart said:
Hi Joel, interesting question. In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Levi-Strauss claims that the inspiration for his method came from geology, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Each in their own way explains the world of experience, how things appear to us in detail, through an analysis of the deep structures, invisible to the naked eye, that produce them. Thus the landscape is an expression of rocks formed long ago; price movements in the market reflect the mode of production; a patient's dream plays out childhood traumas. He might have cited Saussurian linguistics there, how speech events are made possible by the grammar of a language, but he didn't.

Binaries and dialectic have been with us since the Greeks. So yes there has to be some link there. But Marx was a much more complicated thinker than his followers, more imaginative and playful. They had to reproduce the intellectual system that he invented. So all that stuff about base and superstructure got added later. There is a nice little book by Francis Wheen, Capital: a Biography, which follows the development of Marx's thought before, during and after writing the book. Wheen makes the point that Capital is not just an exercise in political economy, but a critique of it. In reaching for something more than pedestrian analysis, for the heart and soul of capitalism (a term he didn't use), he took on some of the qualities of his great contemporaries who wrote fiction. And of course, Tristes Tropiques is a work of fiction too at one level.

Teaching such a point of view is another matter. I found students freaked out when told that they should approach the great books of social theory as novels.
Can it be accurately said that the concept of binary oppositions, structured into recurring, coded relationships within myths, form as something similar to the thesis-antithesis-to-synthesis dynamic of the dialectic?If this conclusion is correct, can we then say that L-S's structuralism was an more system-based, idealist elaboration on the concept of the dialectic? Is it commonly held by anyone that Levy-Strauss was working from a Marxian theoretical foundation? What about Saussure?

Hello Joel. As I understand it, at one end the binary opposition concept as shown through the dialectics of langue and parole through L-S’s concept of myth in The Structural Study of Myth(1955) might be closer to the logic of the triadic that produces movement and contradiction, although the parallelism looks more idealistic. If L-S partially embraced the dialectics, but steered away from materialism, while Marx welcomed it as seen in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, it appeared that he was more concerned with the structure to address the transformation of culture, an area which was unexplored by Marx but of which is compatible with the Marxians.

However, when it comes to the ‘the unfinished business’ of making peace with the “three mistresses,” that of idealism, materialism, and Marxism in Tristes Tropiques (1955) by emphasizing theoretical stance which was later elaborated among others by Sahlins in Culture and Practical Reason (1976), I see that it is not only a matter of refusing to reduce structure/culture to economic determinism, but more on understanding how they, particularly structuralism and marxism, are determined by internal contradictions that have their own agenda.

I’m interested though to see how these musings might look in a comprehensive mapping of this discussion.
Thank you.

I found students freaked out when told that they should approach the great books of social theory as novels.

Hello Keith. Distance is great particularly for students, dumbfounded for sure but what an accomplishment! Unfortunately, in my limited experience there are only a handful of professors who would go through such distance themselves.

... took part in a study group earlier this year where we skimmed through this theoretical development, namely Hegel–Sartre–Lévi-Strauss–Sahlins …

It would be good to know how Sartre comes in this discussion as it would bring in the whole troops of phenomenology which L-S doubted, but then who knows?
Keith notes that,

In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Levi-Strauss claims that the inspiration for his method came from geology, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Each in their own way explains the world of experience, how things appear to us in detail, through an analysis of the deep structures, invisible to the naked eye, that produce them.

I would like to note two other passages from Tristes Tropiques. In one, Levi-Strauss describes his aim as a "Mendeleevian table of the mind." In the other, reflecting on the education that led to his aggregation in philosophy in 1931, he remarks that what he got from his philosophical education was an infallible method by which to address any problem whatsoever; he referred to the dialectical triad, thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

I would also like to note how Levi-Strauss was influenced by Roman Jakobson, the other "father of structuralism," the folklorist and linguist alongside whom he taught for awhile at the New School in New York.

And, finally, I would like to observe that Levi-Strauss rose to prominence at about the same time as Noam Chomsky.

This bricolage (or perhaps "assemblage" would be more appropriate) coheres in my mind because to me, encountering both Levi-Strauss and Chomsky as a graduate student in the late 1960s, they seemed to share a conviction (1) that language and culture are governed by underlying structures invisible until the scholar digs for them, (2) that these structures could be reduced to a set of basic elements defined by significant contrasts with each other, (3) that the contrasts could be described in terms of binary oppositions, and (4) that the relevant oppositions could be identified by comparisons modeled either strictly or loosely on the linguists' use of minimal contrasts, e.g., to identify the phonemic contrast between the [p] and the [b] sounds in the English words "pat" and "bat." If the program described above were properly executed the result would be a theory that, like Saussure's langue as opposed to parole (language vs speech) did not predict what would happen in any particular case but would set limits, inherent in human nature, to linguistic and cultural variation. Jakobson entered the picture because his phonology and his theory of folktale types were the models that Levi-Strauss had in mind when developing his own cultural version of structuralism.

What, then, of the dialectic? To my mind it was embracing that ready-to-hand solution for all intellectual problems that was Levi-Strauss's biggest mistake. It turned what might have been a rigorous research program, using minimal contrasts to articulate differences in myths, into an easily caricatured glass bead game. It was all too easy to point to up or down, raw or cooked, and posit that intermediate states were dialectical syntheses, so easy it became a joke. The Mythologigues will, thus, I predict with some confidence, suffer the same fate as The Golden Bough. They will be remembered as a mammoth effort by a great mind that went astray, an amazing scientific project that died with its author for lack of a teachable method to replace intellectual bravado expressed, alas, in too easy to think with terms.
John McCreery said:
If the program described above were properly executed the result would be a theory that did not predict what would happen in any particular case but would set limits, inherent in human nature, to linguistic and cultural variation.

The Mythologigues will be remembered as a mammoth effort by a great mind that went astray, an amazing scientific project that died with its author for lack of a teachable method to replace intellectual bravado expressed, alas, in too easy to think with terms.

Thanks, John, for this elegant and powerful contribution to what was already a promising discussion. You rang so many bells for me that I am not sure I can respond concisely to them. Read between the lines in what follows.

The appeal of structural linguistics is similar to that of economics, physics and a few other mathematized disciplines. Who could not be seduced by the promise of a grammar that can generate all possible speech events in a language with the smallest number of rules? But this project is ultimately mad and unattainable. Chomsky's version of it failed (while his complementary career as a polemicist flourished), as did Levi-Strauss's. At least they both managed longevity. Althusser, Poulantzas and Barthes all came to a sticky end: murdered his wife, jumped from a window, got run over.

It is worth asking what sustained the structuralist moment. Philip Mirowski's Machine Dreams (2002) is for me the best guide (though not directly about structuralism). By fighting a world war on several fronts the Americans were driven to make an intellectual revolution in the 1940s that L-S certainly learned from while in New York. Its first manifestation was Operations Research, but after the war it spun off cybernetics, game theory, mathematical economics and ultimately systems theory. The French were impressed by American social achievements but also by their intellectual rigour. They dumped history, dialectic and the human subject, all that German stuff, in order to embrace artificially coherent closed worlds with no living people in them. I believe that this was in implicit recognition of what Eric Hobsbawm (a fellow traveller, but too good a historian to sign up) called the golden age of state capitalism (1948-73). Structuralism depends on a vision of society run by the kind of powerful state that dominated the 60s, giving us a man on the moon and colour TV as Paul Feyerabend pointed out.

This version of actually existing totality encouraged ambitious intellectuals to shoot for the moon, literally. Tristes Tropiques is one man's confession of this impulse, the drive to put the whole world between his own ears (compare the likes of Stephen Hawking with their extension of this ambition to the universe, a theory of everything). Somehow L-S didn't come off the rails, but a lot of the others did (let's not talk about John Nash's "beautiful mind"). So I fully endorse your strictures on The Golden Bough and Mythologiques. The difference is that I would say the fantastic delusion was built into the project from the beginning. It was the same with Marx and his big book. Walter Benjamin killed himself because he couldn't live with being told he was the author of the next Capital. I could go on, but perhaps I have made my point.

You don't like dialectic, John. Well, you are certainly not alone. There are lots of different versions of it, not just the kiddies' triad you mention. But what I have come round to, having been seduced by most of these characters at one time or another, is that dialectic is our human capacity to make conversation, to think on the move. Any version of our existence that dispenses with history, dialogue and subjectivity pays too high a price for its intellectual order, for the illusion of system and even more of the Great Minds that invent them.
There are a great deal of things not being said that provide key context for this discussion, context that is in places rather inaccessible to me. So it is hard for me to comment on what is being said, or perhaps to properly appreciate its texture.

Yet, I find a few things a little troubling. In the first case, the assertion that Chomsky's program in linguistics is dead does not ring true, considering how much work still goes on under that broad umbrella. Neither can I understand how the many important results from this work can be dismissed out of hand. There are competing programs of linguistics, but any will have to account for the kinds of regularities and structures Chomsky and his students uncovered. Any alternate non-generative account of language must also account for the features of language (like its real or approximate recursivity) that made Chomsky's approach so reasonable to so many. Chomsky's hierarchy of languages is widely accepted in computer science; and is critical to our understanding of programming languages. And as I write in my blog, Kumiko Tanaka-Ishii shows that programming languages admit Peircian and Saussurian semiotic analysis quite readily.

I do not have a clear enough understanding of what you guys take L-S's program in structuralism to encompass. Yet, the notion of structure endures (and will endure), and any notion that human mental and material life is unstructured or cannot be described in terms of structures is an absolute farce. The world admits structural descriptions, and being human doesn't make us special. That said, structural descriptions must be particular, and respect the messiness of the world- boundaries get violated all the time, like when bacteria exchange genetic material horizontally.

I will note that some solutions or languages are too powerful in that one can, at will and as necessary, account for any exception. Rewrite rules come to mind, in kinship. Perhaps L-S's structural contrasts as well?

Placing intellectual ideas in historical and cultural context is useful and illuminating, but not so good or illuminating if it is only a way of dismissing the content of those ideas without actually considering those ideas on their own merits.
MAI Saptenno wrote:

“...I see that it is not only a matter of refusing to reduce structure/culture to economic determinism, but more on understanding how they, particularly structuralism and marxism, are determined by internal contradictions that have their own agenda.”

Keith Hart wrote:

“By fighting a world war on several fronts the Americans were driven to make an intellectual revolution in the 1940s that L-S certainly learned from while in New York. Its first manifestation was Operations Research, but after the war it spun off cybernetics, game theory, mathematical economics and ultimately systems theory. The French were impressed by American social achievements but also by their intellectual rigour. They dumped history, dialectic and the human subject, all that German stuff, in order to embrace artificially coherent closed worlds with no living people in them. I believe that this was in implicit recognition of what Eric Hobsbawm (a fellow traveller, but too good a historian to sign up) called the golden age of state capitalism (1948-73).”

Jacob wrote:

“Placing intellectual ideas in historical and cultural context is useful and illuminating, but not so good or illuminating if it is only a way of dismissing the content of those ideas without actually considering those ideas on their own merits.”

John wrote:

“It was all too easy to point to up or down, raw or cooked, and posit that intermediate states were dialectical syntheses, so easy it became a joke.”

I hope I’m not wrong, here, but I’m thinking that Keith and John are pointing to something that has always struck me as very odd about much of anthropological literature: there are simply no people actually present in them. If we are participating in a discipline that purports to illuminate human conditions, and which further purports to do so through the grist mill of observation, how is it that we end up with so many works that seem to treat actual informants/interlocutors as second thoughts?

It should be said that Keith has lamented the bureaucratization of academic anthropology, such that anthropologists are pushed to produced, produce, produce; but they seem to get fewer chances to actual go do ethnographic research.

It’s always easy to say whatever makes sense when you don’t have to refer to actual people. I don’t know about you, but everyone I know is sort of messy...

Having said that, it strikes me that the dialectic, along with the structuralist approach is useful, though I definitely see merit in John’s caution against flipping out binary oppositions and making tidy conclusions about how the human mind (any human mind, regardless of cultural context) works.

Perhaps, then, if the dialectic, in whatever form we get it, is too rarified, we should be turning to Bahktin's concept of the dialogic? Would you say that the concept of the dialogic would hold more currency in an actual world, populated by actual people?

It seems to me that there are a number of factors that we encounter today that are drawing us toward Bahktin’s idea.

First, we live in a world increasingly driven by dynamic texts, such as we are participating in here. The concepts of the hypertext and the writerly text, both which predate the Internet, to my understanding, means that our functional literacy no longer accretes around a text-reader dynamic (not that it ever really did).

I will shortly post a thread that I will tentatively title, “The Fourth Wall and Synergistic Storyscapes: lessons from theatrical dramaturgy and media theory,” thoughts which came as a result of an idle conversation over river-caught catfish and frog-legs while visiting some Ozark hillbilly friends. I’ve been balking on this thread because it’s not a fully concerted effort, but rather something I thought would be a fun addition to John’s Theory for Anthropology group. However, the comments recently made here have given me what I suspect will be a good unifying theme for the exercise.

Second, it seems that the environment on a global scale has let us into a set of social conditions in which we can no longer imagine a simple top-down relationship where the West/North gains unproblematic ascendancy. Especially in our day, we get back-talk, some of which is too violent to ignore. Then there’s the global economy...

If, as MAI and Keith assert, the popularity of the dialectic in previous times should be seen as symptomatic of certain kinds of agendas (and I’m not sure if I’m seeing diversity or contradiction between these two comments), then a relevant question is: what are the agendas that are driving today’s intellectual movements.

(To be sure, I’d say that there are intellectual projects to be found aplenty today that are highly structured around their own internal contradictions that drive their own agendas).
Thanks, Keith. Putting structuralism in historical perspective is a vital step, both to understanding its appeal and, I would add, its still untapped potential. I stress "untapped potential" because, while I agree completely with what you say about WWII and the postwar enthusiasm for theories of everything and even that, in the hubris of their ambitions, they are "mad and unattainable," I cannot agree that there is nothing in them worth developing.

I am likely the only contributor to this conversation who has written a dissertation inspired by structuralism (a grammar of Daoist ritual) and published papers that develop (as opposed to "rejecting" or "applying" in a cookie-cutter fashion) structuralist ideas. Looking back on this work, I recall what Clifford Geertz wrote in the opening of the first chapter of The Interpretation of Cultures. There he notes, following Suzanne Langer, that big ideas follow a predictable trajectory. When first encountered, they seem to transform everything. Then, as enthusiasts pile on, they are taken to be panaceas, answers to every intellectual problem. Eventually, however, critics begin to note their limitations; note is taken of where they work and where they don't work. Finally, if they were, indeed, genuinely big ideas, they become part of the intellectual toolkit shared by all sorts of scholars. As classic examples, Geertz cites the second law of thermodynamics, the ownership of the means of production, and the unconscious.

In the case of structuralism the big idea is the one you describe in the question: "Who could not be seduced by the promise of a grammar that can generate all possible speech events in a language with the smallest number of rules?" If misread by assuming that "generate" equals "predicts," then the project is, indeed, mad and unattainable.

Understood, however, as the claim that all possible speech events must belong to the infinite set of utterances specified by listing a finite number of elements and the rules that govern their possible combinations, it still has a lot going for it. We know that systems constructed along these lines exist and appear to be, in a mathematical sense, valid, e.g., in the formal derivation of number theory and then the calculus from the five Peano postulates. We have also learned, thanks to chemistry and biochemistry that the entire material world with which we interact everyday is made up of a finite number of chemical elements; those that appeared in Mendeleev's table at the time Levi-Strauss cited it, plus a few more discovered since. Human DNA is made up of long chains of only four distinct types of repeating nucleotides. Everywhere we look in nature we find similar systems, in which combinations of a small set of basic components account for the infinite variety of what we see. We have no good reason to believe that the same should not be true of linguistic and cultural systems. Variety is not a sufficient reason to assume incommensurability or to rule out accounting for variation in terms of structural transformations.
Perhaps, then, if the dialectic, in whatever form we get it, is too rarified, we should be turning to Bahktin's concept of the dialogic? Would you say that the concept of the dialogic would hold more currency in an actual world, populated by actual people?

It seems to me that there are a number of factors that we encounter today that are drawing us toward Bahktin’s idea

If, as MAI and Keith assert, the popularity of the dialectic in previous times should be seen as symptomatic of certain kinds of agendas (and I’m not sure if I’m seeing diversity or contradiction between these two comments), then a relevant question is: what are the agendas that are driving today’s intellectual movements.

(To be sure, I’d say that there are intellectual projects to be found aplenty today that are highly structured around their own internal contradictions that drive their own agendas).


Thank you Joel. I see in my jotting capacity that it seems all theories as shown by the others in this thread have their contexts and limitations, that’s why they are probably called theories (?) However, the fact that there is a continuation in search of what’s missing or perhaps ‘deliberately’ neglected or better stores somewhere for later purposes but along the way caught the attention of some other anthropologists makes structuralism never loose its footing.

For instance there’s a book written by Gerd Baugmann and Andre Gingrich (2004) on Grammars of Identity/Alterity A Structural Approach (2004), a book that used Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Evans-Pritcherd’s The Nuer (1940), and Louis Dummont’s Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1980) to build their theory of grammars to go beyond selfing that involves othering, dialogical inclusion or exlusion, and false opposition and to touch certain issues as collective and genocidal violence. Baumann wrote that the grammars consisting of orientalizing, segmentation, and encompassment have been in competition, interaction, and posed a ternary challenge. Relying on L-S’s question on the binary in his article Dual Organizations: Do they Exist? (1968), those writers went through Heidegger, Spivak, and Lacan to summarize grammars as articulating different ways of dealing with others in specific circumstances and constellations. Perhaps such theory might cast a view on relatively new or often neglected agenda (?)

I agree with you that Bakhtin is definitely another alternative. Perhaps his Carnivalesque and Mennipean style might make the crowd merrier.
MAI, thanks for the pointers to work of which I, at least, have been completely unaware. I would, however, like to challenge you to go a bit further. You write, "Perhaps such theory might cast a view on relatively new or often neglected agenda (?)." Could you show us a demonstration? By which I mean an application or development of the theory in question that offers fresh insight into ethnographic data, showing us something not noticed before.

For example, I once spent a lot of time trying, in a structuralist frame of mind, to decode the offerings used in Chinese rituals. I was focused primarily on two categories of offerings, food and spirit money. From my field notes and the work of other anthropologists I knew a number of basic rules of which Chinese who take an interest in such things are geneerally aware. Food could be raw or cooked. It could also be whole or cut up or cut up' cooked seasoned and ready to eat, vegetarian or include meat (sometimes whole raw pigs). I was told repeatedly that the gods, ghosts or ancestors to whom the food is offered takel only the ethereal essence of it. Unless pollutted by having been offerred to ghosts, the food left behind cat the end of a ritual would normally be consumed by the worshippers or their guests at a banquet following the ritual. Spirit money, prototypically rectangles of coarse paper to which squares of gold or silver foil was attached, was burned at the end of the ritual, and the burning vwaw said to convert it into real gold and silver in the Yin world of the spirits.

Then, inspired by Levi-Strauss and pursuing what he called the logic in tangible qualities, I asked why the food had to be real food, I.e., real in the Yang world of everyday life, while the spirit money was mock money, which only became real in the Yin world of the spirits. There was no intermediate form to provide a convenient dialectical synthesis, and even if it were, it wasn't at all clear how it would account for all odd the other variations in offerings mentioned above.

My solution was to reconceptualize binary oppositions like the raw and the cooked, etc., as defining dimensions in a multidimensional space of the kind in which, according to James Fernandez in Persuasions and Performances, metaphors push pronouns around. It was then easy to show how food is used to draw spirits into relationships that make negotiations with them possible, while spirit money is used to restore social distanced or, when dealing with ghosts, sever social relations altogether. The reality of the food was a clear' and arguably pan-human, assertion of commensality. The money played another familiar role, underlined by it's lack of Yang world reality, reasserting separation. The other differences mentioned above defined different classes of spirits and the relative quantities of offerings provided a metric for judging the relative ranks of the spirits and the desired distance of relations with them when the rituals were over. I found the analysis satisfying and so did the editors of the Journal of Chinese Reigions, who accepted it for publication (1990).

Other anthropologists with different intellectual tastes may prefer different problems and different approaches to addressing them. But the challenge that confronts us all is the one Victor Turner identified when he wrote in "Social Fields and Metaphors" that ideas we bring to the field only have value in so far as they illuminate the social realities encountered in the field. To say that a theory might be useful is easy. To show us how is the test that serious theory must pass.
...a demonstration? By which I mean an application or development of the theory in question that offers fresh insight into ethnographic data, showing us something not noticed before.

… ideas we bring to the field only have value in so far as they illuminate the social realities encountered in the field. To say that a theory might be useful is easy. To show us how is the test that serious theory must pass.

My solution was to reconceptualize binary oppositions like the raw and the cooked, etc., as defining dimensions in a multidimensional space of the kind in which, according to James Fernandez in Persuasions and Performances, metaphors push pronouns around. It was then easy to show how food is used to draw spirits into relationships that make negotiations with them possible, while spirit money is used to restore social distanced or, when dealing with ghosts, sever social relations altogether. The reality of the food was a clear' and arguably pan-human, assertion of commensality. The money played another familiar role, underlined by it's lack of Yang world reality, reasserting separation. The other differences mentioned above defined different classes of spirits and the relative quantities of offerings provided a metric for judging the relative ranks of the spirits and the desired distance of relations with them when the rituals were over.


Thank you so much John for sharing what seems to be a fascinating research in a structuralist frame and to let me see how other theoretical framing that began with or moved further away from the binaries might be something to compare to. At first such theory of grammars – orientalizing, segmentation, and encompassement - as explored and experimented by Baugmann and Gingrich in confronting the issue of identity/alterity and violence appears to be a mere reversal of binaries as commonly discussed in the early poststructural and postcolonial works. Then after a while, I thought they were complicating other models, for instance Bordieu’s (1961) structuralist framing of h’urma and nif in which the moving away from the binary has switched emphasis from observer to the Kabyles.

By working on the tension between structure and agency through Said, Evans-Pritchard, and Dumont, their methodology in falsifying the binaries began with language and violence. For them grammar, as classificatory schemata, of orientalizing is about self and other as negative mirror images of each other, segmentation, the second grammar as self and other according to a sliding scale of inclusions/exclusions, and encompassment, the third grammar as the other by an act of hierarchical subsumption. In questioning more complex grammars of selfing and othering in relation to social context and social processes, they and the other ethnographers who ‘tested’ the grammars were working on a ternary challenge. Following van Gennep, Douglas, Turner, and Leach, they thought of the third party that forms no part in the ordering of self and other as argued by Benveniste (1977) and Mroz (1984), whose ethnography of the Gypsies in Poland elaborated instead the three circles of cacó Roma, the other Roma, and gadjos. Then it was L-S’s (1968) article that made them see the possibility of integrating the binary and ternary, while the works of the semiologists such as Barthes’ (1973) ‘staggering’ techniques led them to work on the technical details how each binary in their grammars has its own way of going ternary and turned violence into a relatively peaceful state in analyzing social processes.

The ‘test’ of their grammars was shown for instance by Müchlich (2004) in the ritual of Ghanatakarna in Nepal in which scapegoats and scapegoatings were ‘necessary’ for social cohesion. The ritual emerged from a myth of rivalry between a demon and Vishnu. Since the demon continued to capture and devour women, Vishnu turned himself into a frog to drown the demon on the river. In the ritual, the Nepalese in the villages created reed figures symbolizing the demon and chose a boy, painted with sexual symbolism, from a low caste to represent the demon/the scapegoat, the gatha muga. He collected alms as symbol of the demon’s or the people’s evil and aggressive deeds/the scapegoating, the jagat, what considered as ransom money to transfer evil deeds to the scapegoat. At night fall, after the boy was cleaned and the reed figure was torn down, he took his place in the effigy and the people pulled the two of them around the streets. Muchlich considered the evil and violence projected on the scapegoat reflected the working of the orientalizing grammar, the exorcizing of the demon and disposing of the effigy that separated the people from the evil was the segmented grammar, while the act of the boy taking the lead by riding the demon, the unwanted conditions, was an act of encompassment. Müchlich concluded that the purification experienced by the people might be the reunification of segmentary interests for social cohesion. The complication of the analysis was shown further by confronting the perspectives of the outsiders, people who lived in the cities, tourists, etc and the insiders. From such ethnographic data, Baughmann and Gingrich showed that their theory of grammars when confronted to the issue of identity/alterity reflected the multidimensional, fluid, and power-related ascriptions by selves and otherings.

Perhaps, it is such a working of a theory that bears critical view for alternative ways of looking at ethnographic data. You’re right of course, John by referring to Turner, in the end theories we bring to the field would only be of value when they highlight the social realities that our fields expose.

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