Diary 4

Sligthly distracted by having the children staying home during summertime, I have now moved on to read Talal Asad. In his book Formations of the secular (2003), he asks the question “how will an anthropology of the secular look like”. Asad is a Foucault inspired writer. He writes about concepts, how they change (genealogy), how they are used and how they (in)form action. The basic idea is that the notion of the secular cannot be grasp as the oposite of religion, myth, belief and so on, but that its anthinomies rests upon changes in the formation of society. I was not too inspired by his writing, so I did not read the entire book.

Parallel with the reading of Asad, I am reading the book: The interpretations of cultures (1973), a collection of essays/articles made by Clifford Geertz. Geertz is inspired by Gilbert Ryle and his project is to promote a semiotic approach to the analysis of culture by making “thick descriptions” of cultures, moving from the particular towards a more general description of culture.

The aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them in exactly with complex specifics. (p. 28)

One article is of special interest to me. In “Religion as a cultural system”, Geertz treats questions pertaining to meaning and religious belief. Again, he builds his argument on the idea that the human behavior is less determined than is that of non-human species (see other article: He is inspired by molecular genetics and neurology, p. 45). From this condition follows the freedom to choose among possible solutions to a “problem” (such as what to eat, how to eat, when to eat etcetera). When biology “fail” to regulate human lives, culture is needed to inform (or determine their choice) humans about a choice. The line of reasoning imply a rejection of human reason as something detached from culture (the Enlightenment notion of human reason). Reason is not cultivated it is partially culture, because culture is what is used in order to think in the first place. So far so good.

According to Geertz, religious belief is a matter of the way we grasp the world with help from symbols (each parts of a larger all-encompassing symbolic system) to which we adhere. In ritual the “symbolic reality” or as Geertz puts it “the really real”, is presented (not represented, but displayed and visited by the performers of the ritual) and its authority accepted (through the act of participating in the ritual). It is this acceptance of what the ritual presents as real that can be called belief. Once accepted, the ritual changes the everyday experience of the participant (p. 109). This understanding of “belief” makes belief not solely a private matter, but a public one (the participation in the ritual is objective and has little to do with being personally convinced). After believing – accepting the presentation of the real – we can know the world (metaphysics) and how to act in it (ethos). Without the symbolic apparatus, understanding and acting is impossible.

This is how I read Geertz. Cultural acts are the construction of symbolic forms used to interpret the world. These also motivates people to feel in a specific way about events in life (p. 97). A religious perspective is applied the everyday encounters with pain, moral issues etc. enforcing their actuality (p.112) rather than analysing them. In ritual “the world lived and the world imagined” (p. 112) is fused. For a moment, the realm of the gods is open for visitors and the really real presents itself to humans in the world of humans. The gift of religion is its power to organize the understanding of life, and guide action.

What I make of this, is that Geertz puts a lot of trust into cognitive abilities to make sense of the world.

Diary 3

I think I will be less vain and ignore my bad English skills. I will post my diary unedited. Otherwise, the project of documenting the process of inquiry will be too time consuming.

In the last third of her book, La Fontaine directs attention towards maturity rituals. La Fontaine explains that these rituals has to do with adult sexuality because the category man/woman is the organizing principle of society. In order to maintain social order, adult status is determined through an articulation of gender (p.114). It is the purpose of ritual, so to say, to articulate gender and thereby establish boundaries between men/men’s tasks and women/women’s tasks, that which makes up society. This kind of boundary construction work is performed at “the right time”, where “right” satisfies social circumstances more than it meets with the biological development of the child.

In the following, I will write rather speculative about modern culture. This is my attempt to in a noncommittal and playful way to relate the structure of ritual as described by La Fontaine, with the structure of present western culture.  My references are suggested promemoria to assist me when I return to the subject later on, in order to reflect further upon this.

La Fontaine writes that adult status in most cultures is understood as the ability to procreate and that it stands in close connection with responsibilities of parenthood.

I think that the reasoning of the cultures explored by La Fontaine is no longer familiar to us. We do not understand adult status as that of being a man or a woman. To be an adult is to be a human (not a sex, gender neutral) and to be a human is connected to reason, to progress and to work.  These are all signs of maturity. Our concept of maturity is linked to the idea of the citizen and the concept of citizenship is linked to an idea of productivity (activity; Boltanski) in a non-biological sense. Questions pertaining to gender is set apart from the ordering of society, privatized. Instead, the vehicle for social order is the work of a body, of anybody in favour of the abstract entity money and the worship of economic growth.

In our culture attempts are made to displace gender to privacy. It has no place at the workplace nor in school. Being a man or a woman do not contribute to prosperity of any enterprise or public institution. It is no prerequisite for reason or workability, ideally speaking.This if off cause not true. In real life, men are in general more productive due to the fact that they are not paused by a period of pregnancy and that they spend fewer days at home taking care of their offspring. The fact that “home-work” such as childcare does not qualify as (real) work of crucial cultural and social importance (furthering economic growth) is displayed in the circumstance that there is little legislation regulating the domestic work of parenting, no unions to articulate the rights or protect the needs of the housewife/man.

It would perhaps be more correct to say that modern society is regulated by the idea that it should not matter if you are a man or a woman. When it does matter, a lot of energy is invested in sorting of the differences between the two genders. Advocates for gender equality advise men to take more leave, woman to take less leave, to change from breastfeeding to bottle, childcare centres to extend their opening hours and so on. Taking care of offspring pose an economic problem and due to the economic ordering of society (vaguely referred to as capitalism), it constitutes a social problem, instead of being considered a prerequisite for the society to exist in the first place.

What is central to western social order does not seem to be every person’s personal contribution to the birth and raising of children or the gathering and preparation of food. These affairs are to a wide extend impersonalized, automatized and delegated to workers employed by the state or by private actors (childcare centres, school, food manufactorers, supermarkets, fast food chains etc.). It seems important to release the productive potential of “men and woman” from the burdens of such activities, often related to gender, invest them in profitable work and base the access to this work on knowledge (baring on education, certificates and a well-functioning bureaucracy) which is considered unrelated to gender. This is partly done by dissolving the difference between genders on a cultural level.

The relation of specific tasks with a specific gender is gradually becoming history. Tasks are removed from, or distributed between, men and women. In return, the two categories are gradually reduced to a matter of biology (the difference between the two is supported by neuroscience and medicine) with no connection what so ever to culture. The work to deliberately construct and protect the categories “man” and “woman” is no longer a public performance (articulated in ritual, as in the case with the cultures La Fontaine describes. The ritual infuse gender with particular powers connected to specific tasks important in order for the community to sustain itself. It is a division of labor based on gender. Knowledge is related to gender, divided into female and male knowledge, and it bares upon practices more akin to apprenticeship than to bureaucracy). One example, of removing production-limiting tasks from adults, is the delegation of child fostering to institutions of “the state”. This way even childcare can be transformed into productive- enforcing activity.

When it comes to work, we are made generally “employable” (no one know what they will be doing in the future after school) through participating in the obligatory ritual of our educational system, which is for all.  In school, children are transformed into pupils. They learn to abstract from concrete instances of reality by way of withholding reality from their experience and instead introducing them to simulations of reality and to the vocabulary of modern culture. So children spend a lot of time in a marginal phase (second phase of Van Gennep’s tripartite of the ritual) away from life and integrating the model (could the substitution of experinced life with a model of life, be seen as the outcome of neo-kantian metaphysics?) of modern life i.e a conception of life as it should (ideally) and could be, if it was truly democratic.

[A side remark. One perhaps can say that we moderns live in a society organized by the dichotomy child/adult that denotes the difference between non-productive/productive (in the economic sense of the word, not the biological). Cannot the liturgy (meaning; “work of the people” (Rappaport, 1999)) of modern society be characterized by the effort to move from the concrete to the abstract i.e. from subjectivity to objectivity from the particular to the general? We operate with abstract entities, concepts and tools of interpretation such as money, citizens, market, knowledge, education, growth, science, numbers (Porter writes about the meaning of numbers and mechanical objectivity in his book Trust in numbers) etc. It is not clear to us what these concepts specifically refer to (Poerksen provides a nice critique of this problem in his book Plastic words).]

I think that La Fontaine’s emphasis on how foreign cultures conceives maturity is exactly the reason why western culture escapes the eye of the anthropologist. When not a matter of re-production and gender related affairs, we tend to think that our own culture is somewhat different from those baring on gender. However, modern western culture is also organized according to ideas about maturity and adulthood. They differ from the ones described by La Fontaine, first and formost with respect to the mythology and practices that “pertains to maturity”. For example, it is reason and the ability to judge that marks human maturity and sets it apart from human immaturity, recognizable as using the distinct feature of human, the free will, to make poor decisions (just think about the enlightenment!). This might have been linked with manhood for a long time (reason as a feature of men), but a lot of effort has been invested in blurring the line between genders in what seems to be in favour of a capitalistic notion of order (read Ivan Illich for a critical contribution to an understanding of this cultural development) where everyone is supposed to contribute to economic growth that sustains a capitalistic (world) society.

Diary 2

Research Diary 2 Picking up where I left. La Fontaine makes a point regarding the way anthropologists have defined initiation rituals as a matter of the relationship between personality and culture. She blames psychology, especially psychoanalysis, for the attempts to explain ritual in emotional terms as a way to manage relations to the father/mother. As if ritual suits the purpose of developing the individual by altering her relationship with the parents. To La Fontaine, ritual is not about personal relationships but about organizing society. She argues that there is lack of evidence for the emotional state (causing need for ritual) and for the effect of the rites in term of resolving an emotional problem (p.106).

This discussion, again, is not of too much importance to my work. It is mostly concerned with explaining the function of initiation ritual in terms of its social relevance. I already take this to be true, and will not bother to raise the question myself. I settle with referring to authorities on the subject. Still, I cannot grasp exactly what La Fontaine means by the reference to social significance, opposed to private significance. She claims that ritual is not solely a matter of the status of the individuals (p.104) but also of the “participants” invoking the ritual – so far so good. She also states that ritual cannot be understood in terms of socialization, that is, “the process by which culture was transmitted and with the relationship between culture and personality” (p.104), hmmm….

However, I question La Fontaine’s rejection of ritual as something generated by emotional tension. After all, we do feel strongly about our rituals. While I can agree that rituals are properly not “invented” to solve inner conflicts pertaining to a child’s relation with his parents, I do think that ritual conveys truths and with them instructions for living. These can cause inner trouble pertaining to how to submit to the demands (we accept them but really do not want to do what the ritual demand from us.). I believe that coping strategies for dealing with cultural demands (truth and obligation) are an integrated part of the ritual itself. This means, I do find that ritual in this specific way, is “invented” to solve inner conflicts. Not those pertaining to how we feel about our parents, but those pertaining to how we feel about culture i.e. common values and obligations.

An example to illustrate my point is of course school. Commonly we agree that being a citizen is good (it is true that citizenship furthers democracy) and that you must be educated in order to become a citizen because, and here the myth is mobilized, education fosters the human capacities such as reflexivity, judgement, creativity.

However, few of us would care to be enrolled in the ritual of becoming a citizen (schooling). The issue with the ritual is solved by letting children perform the tasks that makes a citizen. In rather the same way, as Christians would light candles in order to escape the task of praying themselves. This line of reasoning suggest that the western maturity ritual that children are part of, is as much for adults as it is for children. School conveys the truths and norms of our society and by means of mandatory school for children only, these values are transmitted to everyone but performed only by children. The adult contribution to the ritual consists in supervising pupils (teaching), regulating the schoolwork (reform), and giving instructions on how to perform the ritual (research). This make me think that children are objects of maturity rituals more than they are subjects receiving an important lesson in life. To the adult society (not to children themselves), children are the focal point of ritual, but only as objects representing the idea of humanity on behalf of everyone and they are in no position to escape this role, assigned to them by society. Meanwhile, adults are engaged in normal life, working, shopping, paying rent.

La Fontaine writes that maturity rituals vary according to the cosmology of a society (my interpretation of her words). The rituals do share common features that makes it possible to identify a maturity ritual, such as ordeals, but any of the features can be more or less prominent in the ritual. Characteristic for western(ized) countries is the separation of mind and body and the emphasis put on the intellect. Reason is highly appreciated for its capacity to bring order about. The body is kept isolated from questions pertaining to the social order (it should not be of importance to the social order. We seek to dissolve gender and create equality between humans by smoothing out differences between gender and between those with and without body-related disabilities) and displaced to the realm of leisure time (is it not?). If maturity rituals in non-western societies pays the body special attention (circumcision etc. points to this) and connects adult status with the ability to procreate (p.  114), this is not the case in western countries. Here adult status has little to do with the responsibilities of parenthood. In western countries, those who work are considered citizens i.e. adults. Work is taken to indicate the presence of the ability to reflect, judge and be creative, because work is the reward for possessing these capabilities. Those that do not work are suspected to not possess these human qualities (this is why they have no work and should be educated/initiated). The difference in how adults are cognized is reflected in the maturity ritual. Thus, in western countries the ritual is symbolic of that which we think of as proper adult tasks such as being engaged in democracy by voting and working, taking social responsibility as a consumer of welfare and the like. Reading the chapter on interpretation in La Fontaine’s book was rather thought provoking not to say thought generating. I cannot say that she would ever draw the same conclusions pertaining to western maturity rituals as I do, but she certainly feeds my thesis about the function of school.

Diary 1

I have begun my research on the topic of school, a modern ritual. Starting with some insight into the work of contemporary philosopher Robert Pfaller (concerned with the delegation of obligation to objects as an aspect of modern rituals) and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (emphasizing the role and use of objects when coping with “otherness” whether this be another person or cultural norms) I now dive into the subject of rites of passage.

I first read an introduction to anthropology of Childhood. One called An Introduction to childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives, written by Heather Montgomery (2009). It was fun reading about how different cultures perceive children but not very relevant with respect to my work on the role of school in transmitting cultural values or the role of children as small “transmitters”. In the book, it is described how schooling destroys local cultures (because it steals away time to learn to hunt, or perform the rituals of the culture). I want to explore how school contributes to the creation of western culture in Europe. The book also focuses more on how children are products of culture instead of on how culture is a product of the treatment that children are subjected to. As if culture is communicated only to the child. I believe that culture is self-referential. Culture is the transmission of messages about itself. It consists in a nice arrangement of objects, persons and myths. Children are both transmitting and receiving culture, but I want to direct attention on to their transmitting role.

Next step was to read a classic. I have made it half-ways through Jean S. La Fontaine’s book Initiation (1985). At first, I was a bit disappointed with the book. I found it difficult to see the relevance in the many descriptions of other cultures initiation rituals more or less following the scheme of Van Genneps tripartite structure, especially as emphasis was put on initiation into secret societies. Then, in the middle of the book, La Fontaine (to me) suddenly broadens the perspective on rites of passage. She creates a sub-category to transitional rituals that’s she names maturity rituals and these might not involve initiation into secrets. As a matter of fact they may not involve any kind of knowledge for the child, besides that of knowing that he or she now occupies a new position in the community. In contrast to initiation into secret societies, the defining feature is not oath-taking but the enduring of physical ordeals (that the child need not understand the meaning of). Let me sum up the other defining features. Maturity rituals are not voluntarily performed, but mandatory. Those not initiated are rubbish and despised. They involve suffering that can be physical and/or psychological (pain and sometimes mutilations are accompanied by teasing and terrorizing). The maturity ritual is a central institution, it is public significant more than personal, “the symbols employed in the rites refer to the central, most deeply held values of society concerned” (p. 103). Only people of authority conduct the initiation. For a period, children are contained outside normal life and the marginal period following the phase of separation, can be relatively long (as in Europe where the marginal state is ten or more years!) before changing into the phase of integration. The purpose of the Maturity rite is to change the whole person. The ritual establish boundaries between different categories of people. It display maturity as social status (not a biological one). The children are objects used in ritual to support the position of those in authority. “ritual is “for” those already initiated, as much as for the novices” (p.104).

I want to relate these eleven features to school. Starting from the beginning onwards.

Ordeals: School pretty much consists of ordeals we just call it assessment instead. La Fontaine stresses that ordeals studied in non-western cultures can be both physical and psychological of kind. She writes that physical ordeals can be everything from radical bodily mutilation to unpleasant positioning of the body. In school, children are not beaten (anymore). Children are seated for hours on chairs and expected to endure boredom. We want them to be silent, pay attention and do schoolwork.

Mandatory: School is obligatory. Education can no longer be provided by “outsiders” such as parents.

Uninitiated rubbish: Very few children escape school. Those that does are pitied for their lost chances of being included in society.

Public significance: It is uncontroversial to say that school is public significant, a social matter.

People of authority in charge: Children can only be educated by teachers with authorization. Curricula is designed by authorized researchers and approved by authorized officials.

Isolation from normal life: School is a world in its own. During education time (structured by a school schedule) children are isolated from life outside school.

Length of marginal period: Very long!

Transforming the whole person: The pedagogical idea is to transform the child into a citizen. She is to transgress herself in favor of an abstract notion of humanity.

Creating categories of people: School is known for its segregating function.

Displaying social status: After school you become a citizen.

Children as objects: In western culture children are employed to state a fact about the values and (democratic) state of the given culture. By letting children perform according to our ideals the ideals themselves are demonstrated. This is why it is important how children perform in school and also why their performance is constantly subjected to reform (it is almost per definition difficult to realize ideals. Ideals are better suited as regulatives). By means of PISA test and reports, Nations compare themselves with each other in order to see just how democratic they succeed in being. In this respect school is part of our culture’s self-referential message and the same can be said of children performing the school labor on behalf of the adult society.

At some point in the book (p. 102) I believe that La Fontaine commits a common crime of interpretation by taking for granted the educating (knowledge transmitting) function of western school. She says that maturity rituals in contrast with school (as well as with secret societies), does not transmit knowledge. Thus, maturity rituals are not “”schools” of initiation by analogy with western institutions”. I think La Fontaine makes a mistake when she thinks that school transmit knowledge and has an “educative function” (p. 102). She writes that the information received in ritual can be minimal and reduced to “”instruction” given in adult roles” (p. 103), “ barely more than symbolic of adult tasks” and pretty much just an “experience of the ritual”. I think same thing can be said of school. Many children complain that they cannot see the point with the tasks assigned to them, besides the obvious thing that the tasks is the ticket to a diploma and ensures entrance into society (get higher education and a job).