Ernest Becker 6: Today, will the Broncos hang their heads in shame?


Ernest Becker 6: Today, will the Broncos hang their heads in shame?

Following from yesterday’s post, primitive ritual is a tool used for the production of life.  [We get to the Seahawks and Broncos at the end of this post!] The Mayans and especially the Aztec were quite capable of ritually sacrificing scores of human beings to ensure future prosperity.  In this post I explore with Becker the consequences of our search for immortality and the means by which we pursue that search.  They vary in time and space, of course, but their aim is always the same: ensure prosperity and the good life.  Defeat anything or anyone that threatens it.

We have a great deal of faith in our way of controlling life, via science and especially engineering and technology.  So when our technology fails us, our faith is shaken.  When a plane crashes or a pipeline ruptures or a train crashes into a town killing dozens of people we wring our hands in worry.  We are wracked with doubt.  Maybe we aren’t infallible after all.  Maybe our way of life won’t lead us to immortality.  Look how easily it kills.  Anxiety fills our hearts.

When imperialists and colonizers came across primitives and their crude attempts to ritually control life, they smashed and burned everything and created a critical breach in the faith primitives had had in their immortality projects.  They were shown to be useless in the face of Western weapons and ideas.

One thing primitives did that was a complete puzzle to Western observers for a long time was the way they organized their societies.

The Australian aborigines – who were living in the Stone Age – seemed to most paradoxical of all, with their luxuriant system of kinship classification and their complex divisions of their tribe into half and half and then half again…One of the main things that took place between halves was something homo sapiens seems to thrive on: contests of skill and excellence…In fact it is possible that all team games arose out of the dual organization…

Technically we call it ‘moity’ organization – a dry and forbidding anthropological term that makes the study of primitives so dull…

But Hocart did not get carried away into abstractions as many did.  His explanation for this profound dualism lies in the real world of human ambitions and hopes:

 Perhaps it is a law of nature, but that is not sufficient to explain the dual organization…Nor does it explain the curious interaction of the moieties; in fact it is this interaction which must explain the dual division; for men divide themselves into groups in order that they may impart life to one another, that they may intermarry, compete with one another, make offerings to one another, and do to one another whatever is required by their theory of prosperity. [this paragraph is Becker quoting Hocart]

 There you have it.  Leave it to Hocart to cut through to the heart of the matter…The fundamental imperative of all ritual is that one cannot do it alone; man cannot impart life to himself but must get it from his fellow man.  If ritual is a technique for generating life, then ritual organization is a necessary cooperation in order to make that technique work. 

 …We saw in the Introduction that one of the main motives of organismic life was the urge to self-feeling, to the heightened sense of self that comes with success in overcoming obstacles and incorporating other organisms…Man can expand his self-feeling not only by physical incorporation but by any kind of triumph or demonstration of his own excellence.  He expands his organization in complexity by games, puzzles, riddles, mental tricks of all types; by boasting about his achievements, taunting and humiliating his adversaries, or torturing and killing them.   Anything that reduces the other organisms and adds to one’s own size and importance is a direct way  to gain self-feeling; it is a natural development out of the simple incorporation and fighting behaviour of lower organisms.

 I leave you today with this most important insight in EFE:

By the time we get to man we find that he is in an almost constant struggle not to be diminished in his organismic importance.  But as his is also and especially a symbolic organism, this struggle against being diminished is carried on on the most minute levels of symbolic complexity.  To be outshone by another is to be attacked at some basic level of organismic durability. 

 As I type this, the Seahawks are ahead of the Broncos 29 to 0 in the Super Bowl.  Seahawk fans are cautiously optimistic.  Broncos fans are in despair.  Will they be diminished along with their team?  Will their heads hang low in shame?  Everything is at stake!  Will the Broncos give life to the Seahawks?  Or will the Broncos overcome all adversity and kick ass?

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