Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

This is an article a teacher read to us in a high school class in 1976, to our giddy amusement, sparking a lively discussion. It spawned a series of "Nacirema Studies" in which anthropologists turned their "impartial" and "objective" gaze upon many other aspects of Nacirema culture.

Body Ritual among the Nacirema
University of Michigan
THE anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. This point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock (1949: 71). In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

Professor Linton first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago (1936:326), but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength-the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.
Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people's time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man's only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charm-box of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshipper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charmbox, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated "holy-mouthmen." The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouthman once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client's mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women's rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because "that is where you go to die." Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained admission and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In every-day life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client's sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation and prodding of the medicine men.

Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magic wands in the supplicant's mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte. in no way decreases the people's faith in the medicine men.

There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a "listener." This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals. The counter-magic of the witch-doctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the "listener" all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth.

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women's breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hypermammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.
Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski when he wrote (1948:70): Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.

Linton, Ralph
     1936  The Study of Man. New York, D. Appleton-Century Co.

Malinowski, Bronislaw
     1948  Magic, Science, and Religion. Glencoe, The Free Press.

Murdock, George P.
     1949  Social Structure. New York, The Macmillan Co.

This essay was originally published in: American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 503-507. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Another Zen Moment

Watching TV, an episode of House, we had to turn on the closed captioning to understand what a deaf character was saying.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Yale University Library Digital Archives

Here are some Gurdjieff-related pictures in an archive at the Yale University Library, in their amazing digital collection:
Raw links to selected items of interest:
Oh, and one more document you might like to see, just for fun.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Health Care Reform

We need a total reorganization of the way people pay for health care services in our country. I mean, we need to come together to find a way to get the millions of uninsured & underinsured people the security they need. But it's dangerous ground. We've all seen it time and time again. People get together to help one another—all pitch in to clean up after a hurricane—and the first thing that happens, over and over, right out of the box—they start killing each others' grandparents. Just like clockwork.

These are just a few of the 74! abbreviations listed in a glossary on a discussion forum site:

  • FFS for f**k's sake
  • FWIW for what it's worth
  • FYI for your information
  • HTH hope this helps
  • IIRC if I remember correctly
  • IKWYM I know what you mean
  • IME in my experience
  • IMHO in my humble opinion
  • IMO in my opinion
  • IYKWIM if you know what I mean
  • IYSWIM if you see what I mean
  • LMP last menstrual period
  • LOL laugh out loud
( . . . . for the sake of full disclosure, the discussion forum is for parents and people trying to become parents—still, that second-to-last item took me a little by surprise.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gosh I really do love Asian English

Say, if you want to know whether this particular software will meet your needs, you need only visit the publisher's website:

1: C/DVD Mate Deluxe support microsoft Windows x86 32bit Edition(9X/ME/2K/XP/2003) and microsoft Windows x64 64bit Edition(XP/2003).
2. The edition on probation that the trial edition is downloaded for the network, if you have not installed a software yet and please click this button to install.
3. Try out if edition is it after the Install editions of serial number , become the formal edition at once to input.
4. The upgraded edition, for already installing to the user in the workshop of the laser disc worker and upgrading the edition to use.

UPDATE (a while later):

Whoaon second thought I'm not really happy with the idea of loading something called "Intel(R) Integrated Performance Primitives"—two versions—before installing "The edition on probation".
(The link goes here: http://my.so-net.net.tw/anchen03/Intel_IPP4.exe—rather than, oh, say, a site at Intel? Does not inspire confidence.)

Please depend on one file in year of the following steps , and install Procedure .
Step 1: Microsoft DirectX 33MB 9.0c
Step 2: Microsoft Windows Media Format 4MB 9.0
Step 3: Intel(R) Integrated Performance Primitives RTI 1.1 12MB 1.0
Step 4: Intel(R) Integrated Performance Primitives RTI 4.0 26MB 4.0
Step 5: C/DVD Mate Deluxe installation procedure 30MB
Remarks :
1: C/DVD Mate Deluxe support microsoft Windows x86 32bit Edition(9X/ME/2K/XP/2003) and microsoft Windows x64 64bit Edition(XP/2003).
2:: If your computer has all already been installed Microsoft DirectX /Microsoft Windows Media Format/ Intel IPP Can download C/DVD Mate main program of the step four directly .
3: Remind: The file is downloaded can utilize and spread software download automatically continuously . ( FlashGet )

UPDATE No. 2 (Later in the evening):

Oh my god it's a real live actual thing, and that is the actual name of it. As my dear old Mom used to say, "Well shit the bed, honey!"

I guess it isn't always a bad idea to look into something before making fun of it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Web Surfing Straight to Hell

In case you were planning to ask, no, I don't know why I suddenly have an abnormal obsession with religion. But anyway ...

I spent quite a while the other day reading through a Christian web site for college students. I took the time to fill out this damned web contact form, and no matter what I did, I could not get it to post!

Screen shot from a religious web site for college students. 

They had several science-related articles in which they acknowledged that the universe began with a "big bang" 13.7 billion years ago, and that humans per se have existed for only a smidgen of that. So I got curious. All the Evangelical and/or Fundamentalist Christians I have known were believers in the literal truth of the Hebrew Bible, and in particular, the time line of creation placing the age of the earth at (about) 6,000 years, explaining marine fossils in high mountains all over the world by appealing to the biblical story of the flood, etc. But these guys expressed an Evangelical style of religion and a non-psychotic view of science. It really did make me wonder, and I tried to post the following question: 

Reading the posts on your website, especially the science-related ones, many questions arise for me.
I cannot grasp the concept of Jesus as a finite, temporal, corporeal being, "sitting at the 'right hand' of [an infinite, eternal, non-corporeal] God," one in the same being as God, and yet, the only possible way for any creature to connect with God. Are there are no intelligent beings on other planets? If there are, are they human? Are they, like us, "fallen from grace"? If so, has Jesus become incarnate separately to each of them to redeem them? Are there planets in which beings have not yet fallen from grace as they have on Earth? Are there any that were once fallen, but have since become perfected as is foretold for our world? Knowing from recent astrophysical observations that the universe began with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, and that humans as we are today have existed for but a few tens of thousands, does this mean there are likely worlds where beings with souls do not yet exist, but may exist in the future? Between now and the time our sun expires in about 4-5 billion years, is it likely there will be a time in which humans no longer exist? Now that humans have arisen on this planet, will other kinds of beings with souls ever arise here? Will humans as we know them today ever change or become extinct?

I understand that the true answer to most of these questions is "we don't know what forms of life there are on other planets, or what might happen to the human species in the distant future," but I am asking for examples of possibilities that would not be in fatal conflict with your belief in the nature of God, Christ and humanity.It's easy to approach questions like these with a big rubber stamp saying "IT'S A MYSTERY," as they did when I was a kid in Catholic catechism classes, but I'm hoping you can answer them with more insight and detail than that.
Thank you very much for your time.

I really wanted to hear what they would have had to say.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My paper for class

Wow. This is the first time I've written anything for a class since 1980. Where does the time go?
The class is called The Problem of Evil in World Religions, and the assigned topic was "Why did Job suffer?" The professor is a Roman Catholic Priest, a physician specializing in medical ethics at the V.A., and an out lesbian. I thought the Episcopalians had the market on openly lesbian priests pretty well cornered, but I've learned a thing or two in this class that were not in the syllabus. Pretty cool.

Why did Job suffer? 

Within the literal confines of the story, a radically anthropomorphized character of God chose to accept the challenge of “Satan,” to find out whether Job’s faith was purely a response to the extraordinary blessings he had received, or if he loved God for his own sake. Throughout the Psalms and the Wisdom Literature there is an assumption that being good and upright will bring rewards, but The Book of Job turns the tables by depicting a person who was afflicted in a sense because of his blessings.

I know there are people who take the literal existence of God and Satan in the story seriously, in varying degrees. I must assume however that the writer was depicting processes that might occur in a God-free world as well as a Godly one. Were a person like me to go through the trials of Job today, they might be apt to understand it from a purely fatalistic point of view in which the good stuff, the bad stuff, and the subsequent good are totally the result of blind happenstance, or at best, personal courage. In the story, however, as much as his suffering, (by putting him on Satan’s radar), results from his innate goodness and the great good fortune it brought him, his redemption results from his ability to endure his suffering with integrity; the chain of causality can’t be dismissed as easily as the literality of the supernatural beings in the story, so it can’t be chalked up purely to “Bad Luck.”

Someone with my world view would have to ask if such a process is sufficiently universal and fundamental to the human experience to warrant its having become an icon as deeply rooted in our culture as it has. Even from a purely secular viewpoint, I think it is. It is not uncommon to experience far-reaching, catastrophic hardship after a life of relative ease. And I can imagine scenarios in which “good people” might experience catastrophes resulting from the very things generally looked upon as “blessings”. Many people persevere and emerge from these with a deeper appreciation for what they have. Others go down to ruin. The key difference from Job’s point of view is whether or not they can meet the difficult times with a deep strength of character, hold on to their values, and continue to do what they believe is right, regardless of circumstances. To a person sympathetic to Buddhist ideas, this kind of steadfastness could be a manifestation of “detachment,” and the rewards it brings, emblematic of a spiritual transcendence over suffering that it is possible through discipline to achieve. It is commonly assumed by people of many faiths and viewpoints that suffering, one way or another, can produce benefits in the way of inner strength. No pain, no gain.

So how does Job answer the Problem of Evil? Unfortunately the only answer I see on its face is that God “Is Who He Is,” and the human proclivity to question the rightness of whatever He dishes out in the way of suffering is misplaced. Religious believers I have known—e.g., nuns I studied with in college, hospital chaplains who have tended to relatives with cancer—often end up taking out the big rubber stamp that says “Mystery” whenever religious axioms as fundamental as the infinite love and goodness of God come up against stark reality, and I fear that this is all the author of Job intends to do. In skimming some of my old materials on Job in preparation for this exercise, I spotted multiple references to the problem of God's involvement in suffering being “beyond the scope of human understanding” (or any such formulation). Regardless of the side benefits to one’s character of going through something as extreme as cancer, I take that as a cop out. It is not sufficient to say that God surely must have a greater plan, which he keeps hidden from us. It can be resolved, but one's ideas of the nature of God—the very existence of any God in a form we might recognize—must be modified to do so.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Web 2.0 is Grand!

I'm always on the lookout for good music sites, and I came across this really excellent thing called "Huevos," at pettingmytapeworm.blogspot.com, written by a really smart and funny 17-year-old from Louisville KY. Bouncing around her various inter-linked sites, I was really impressed, and left her a couple of notes to tell her so. So she wrote back, something like, "Who the fuck are you? Fuck you. Get the fuck out of here."

So on the one hand you have this person who is obviously pretty vain about her work, publishing it all over every conceivable Web 2.0 venue, declaring that she "lives and bleeds" for her blog, and then gets pissed off when someone -- I don't know, I guess someone not in her personal clique at school -- signs up as a fan.

Maybe it's just the creepy old guy thing. But isn't the point of publishing -- especially artistic, nearly professional-quality material everywhere you can think to post it -- to attract readers?  Is it all about Gen-Zero?

I'm taking a class at UNM on "The Problem of Evil in World Religions," and I scoff whenever I read one of those God Damned Catholic theologians who says, "It's all just beyond the scope of human understanding. It's a Mystery." Unraveling the most difficult philosophical problems in the history of the world is easy. To fathom teenagers and the web is a wholly different scale of problem altogether.