The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
Why not post a video I did in 1990. That’s only 26 years ago! Frankly, what I say in this 7 minute clip I still relevant to me today. I think it’s a good way to start off my new set of blog posts. Hope you enjoy it, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the best word to use here. The clip was filmed in Vancouver with a Knowledge Network crew over a 12 hour period in one day. It was part of my North Island College tele course on the Knowledge Network that ran from 1986 until 1992. Interesting times.
Barbarian Status of Women, Part 2: Women as Weak and Unclean.
To start, I include here a sample of Thorstein Veblen’s writing to give you a sense of what it would be like to read a more substantial piece of his work, like his book The Place of Science in Modern Civilization. Of course, this long quote is relevant to what I want to pursue in this post, that is, the general cultural institutional perception of women as weak and unclean, associated with the earth, dirt, blood, the night and death. After all, Gaia, the first of the gods in Greek mythology was female, she was the earth. [She wasn’t personified as later Greek gods were, but she is a god helping to bring order into a chaotic universe.] Veblen doesn’t go in all of these directions, but others do, including the Freudians. We’ll have a little visit with them today too. Now for Veblen:
In such a community [of barbarians] the standards of merit and propriety rest on an invidious distinction between those who are capable fighters and those who are not. Infirmity, that is to say incapacity for exploit, is looked down upon. One of the early consequences of this deprecation of infirmity is a tabu on women and on women’s employments. In the apprehension of the archaic, animistic barbarian, infirmity is infectious. The infection may work its mischievous effect both by sympathetic influence and by transfusion. Therefore it is well for the able-bodied man who is mindful of his virility to shun all undue contact and conversation with the weaker sex and to avoid all contamination with the employments that are characteristic of the sex. Even the habitual food of women should not be eaten by men, lest their force be thereby impaired. The injunction against womanly employments and foods and against intercourse with women applies with especial rigor during the season of preparation for any work of manly exploit, such as a great hunt or a warlike raid, or induction into some manly dignity or society or mystery. Illustrations of this seasonal tabu abound in the early history of all peoples that have had a warlike or barbarian past. The women, their occupations, their food and clothing, their habitual place in the house or village, and in extreme cases even their speech, become ceremonially unclean to the men. This imputation of ceremonial uncleanness on the ground of their infirmity has lasted on in the later culture as a sense of the unworthiness or Levitical inadequacy of women ; so that even now we feel the impropriety of women taking rank with men, or representing the community in any relation that calls for dignity and ritual competency ; as for instance, in priestly or diplomatic offices, or even in representative civil offices, and likewise, and for a like reason, in such offices of domestic and body servants as are of a seriously ceremonial character ‚ footmen, butlers, etc.
Veblen, then, in his odd style, explains that women are considered lesser than men because they can’t fight. What they do around the house is fine, but the really important stuff, like hunting and protecting the group, is the purview of men and that type of activity becomes entrenched as the value standard by which to judge all action. So, men, powerful men, manly men, become the standard by which to judge all of humankind.
Veblen’s explanation, then, remains at the level of performance. The tabu on women is a result of their ‘infirmity’, their inability to pursue the hunt and to fight. Because this ‘infirmity’ is infectious, men must avoid women, especially at certain times of the year and when women’s infirmity is most obvious during their time of her ‘customary impurity’ otherwise they risk losing their prowess. There have been obvious residual instances of this proscription when it’s been made clear to professional athletes by coaches and others interested in winning. So I googled: Is it ok to have sex before a high level athletic competition? There were enough ‘hits’ to suggest that its still on people’s minds, mindless though that is. After all when the French refer to orgasm as ‘la petite mort’ what they are referring to is the overwhelming bodily release of tension and semi-immobilization that comes with it. One dies a little upon ejaculation. At least that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking by it. Others have suggested that ejaculation and orgasm give up a little of a man’s ‘life’ every time it happens. I don’t think so, but it does bring up the notion that bodily functions in general, especially those that involve orifices, ejaculates, evacuations and such are subtle little reminders of our mortality. Why else do Catholic priests and others vow to be chaste? Why else would people (men, that is) in certain societies wear butt plugs? Well, both practices deny the body and its downright nasty habit of getting ill, diseased and eventually dead. Men can delude themselves into thinking that if they just abstain from bodily stuff and stick to the symbolic, spiritual side of life then they can live eternally. Yeah, right.
Next class, we visit the Freudians via Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker. It might be fun later to look at Greek philosophy and myths to get a sense of how they see this stuff.
Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler
I have lingered on guilt, sacrifice, heroism, and immortality because they are the key concepts for the science of man in society that is emerging on our time.
Sociology has largely ignored this kind of analysis because it’s been caught up with it’s own immortality-project, it’s own definition of itself as a structural or constructionist endeavour. History, evolution and process are not welcome in its parlour. In my younger days I thought that if I wrote interesting and relevant material I would be taken seriously. I was a bit naïve. Sociologists could ignore Hitler or Mao as aberrations. Becker mentions two sociologists who bucked the trend, Kenneth Burke and Hugh Dalziel Duncan. I don’t know their work. It was never on the curriculum when I studied at university. Although Burke died it 1995 he was born in 1897 so his work could easily have been on the menu of any number of courses. Becker does point out though that their work is pretty much contained within Rank’s, so I don’t feel so bad not having read them. I have read many of Rank’s books, Art and Artist being one of my favourites.
The point here is that the old-time religious immortality-ideologies, the thousands that have existed and the many that still do can promise immortality. The body is the source of all evil and temptation. It’s where the Devil resides. If you can stay in the realm of the symbolic you stand a chance of heroic eternal life, but if you succumb to the pleasures of the flesh, you die just as all flesh dies. Spirit, if you can believe in it, lives on eternally. That has got to be the most difficult thing for people who still believe in a supernatural world. It’s bound to be a different supernatural world than many others so who’s supernatural world is the right one? Doubt creeps in and that brings on guilt and the need to expiate that guilt. One way out is to strike out at other immortality-projects, destroy them. They all, potentially, have a role to play in the expiation of guilt and in the concretization of belief in the one and only real way to heaven. But what happens in a world where the secular rules, where science and technology cannot promise any kind of sacred absolution? Then, as Becker points out, the nation, the race or ‘the people’ become god, the transcendent immortality-project that keeps people in the same kind of grip that ancient religions did and modern religions still do. It’s ridiculous, but it worked for Hitler and it worked for Mao. Both had no transcendent god to offer the people, only a vision of the people themselves as the vehicle for apotheosis. Hitler promised the German people a heroic victory over death as represented by the Jewish people. Mao had the great revolution and the glorious future into which his believers would march in all their glory.
In this cosmology it is the people themselves who carry the ‘immortal revolutionary substance’; God, then, ‘is none other than the masses of the Chinese people.’
Man still gropes for transcendence, but now this is not necessarily nature and God, but the SS or the CIA; the only thing that remains constant is that the individual still gives himself with the same humble trembling as the primitive to his totemic ancestor. The stake is identical – immortality power – and the unit of motivation is still the single individual and his fears and hopes.
The kind of effervescence that the promise of immortality brings is evident in events from music festivals to victory celebrations to protest marches. We don’t often have the kind of real opportunity to feel alive alongside thousands of others in a common cause where the stakes are high. We have our substitutes on professional hockey, football, soccer, cricket, the Olympics. These can get our blood pressure up; they can get that collective effervescence (as Durkheim described it) going in a ritual bloodletting and victorious battle. How often have I heard someone say, “Yeah, we kicked the shit out of the Oilers last night.” Meaning that the Canucks defeated the Oilers. The ‘we’ there is completely out of place in this sentence given the reality of the competition, but that doesn’t matter, it’s us against them, and it’s our immortality that’s at stake.
Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!
On page 100 of EFE, Becker takes on The Mystery of Sacrifice. I must admit that I learned a lot from Thorstein Veblen about recognizing assumptions and separating them out from research findings. There’s no question that Becker makes loads of assumptions about value in his work. Even his concept of evil is based on a view that he must have about non-evil or good. For him, evil is often measured by the wonton destruction of human life and environmental destruction. His assumption is that human life has intrinsic value and should not be destroyed in the name of an ideology of immortality. The ‘should’ there is the key to understanding Becker’s moral assumption here. In the world of animals, there is a great deal of killing and sometimes for the equivalent of an immortality project. When a wandering male lion challenges the dominant male in a lion pride and kills him, he also kills the cubs so that the females will immediately go into heat and bear his cubs. He instinctively knows that his genes are superior to his defeated foe’s and must therefore be the ones to take the pride into the future. In fact, lions are much more predictable than humans in their behaviour, but not entirely. We often feel that the world is driven by irrationality. I mean how else explain the 1994 Rwandan massacre or what’s happening in Syria today. However, according to Alex Comfort, as Becker points out, “the Freudian revolution in thought…revealed to us that the irrational had structure and so we could begin to understand it.” (p. 101)
For Becker and many others before him, such as Brown and Mumford, to whom he acknowledges an intellectual debt, sacrifice is a barter with the gods. It’s an acknowledgment of the “pitiful finitude and powerlessness of man in the face of the mysterium trememdum of the universe, the immensity of what transcends him and negates his significance.” (p. 101)
Sacrifice, then is not an ‘irrational aberration,’ but a basic human reflex of truth, a correct expiation of natural guilt.
If one feels blocked, immobilized, guilty in a word, the solution is to expiate that guilt and reassert the flow of life by sacrificing life to the gods. The gods give life, but they want the sacrifice of life in return or their gift giving may just dry up. Gift giving must be reciprocal between the gods and us. Now, of course, the expiation of our guilt is a social-political affair. People are quite willing to put up with much tyranny “because of its rewards not only to their stomachs but also to their souls.” (p. 101) Becker writes:
They support tyranny by willingly marching off to war, not only because that reduces the frustration they feel at home toward authority, not only because it enables them to project their hatreds on the enemy, but also because it expiates their guilt. How else explain the parents that we read about during each war who, when told about the tragic death if their son, have expressed regret that they had not more to give? This is the age-old essence of primitive gift giving; it chills us only by the nature of the sacrifice that they make so willingly and by the secondhand god to whom it is offered – the nation-state. But it is not cynical or callous: in guilt one gives with a melting heart and choking tears because one is guilty, one is transcended by the unspeakable majesty and superlativeness of the natural and cultural world, against which one feels realistically humbled; by giving one draws oneself into that power and emerges one’s existence with it.
Of course, there may be choking tears and genuine gratitude to the gods for providing us with life, but there is celebration in sacrifice too. A scapegoat, in the original meaning of the word was really a goat over which a ritual was performed so that all the tribe’s uncleanliness and weakness was transferred to the goat which was then killed or run off leaving the village clean.
Men spill blood because it makes their hearts glad and fills out their organisms with a sense of vital power; ceremoniously killing captives is a way of affirming power over life, and therefore over death.
We want to feel as though we have casual control over powerful forces. Becker notes that Detroit car makers sell power and speed –“with their businessman’s realism about the truth of life –“ (p. 102) They knew that to sell cars they would be wasting their time talking about how great their cars were on gas. It’s no coincidence that car ads on TV always show the manufacturer’s car with no other car in sight barreling down a highway, the driver with not a care in the world. Perfect control. The sacrifice in this case may be personal indebtedness but what is more important, having a sense of power driving a special car or living a prosaic, meek, invisible life with nothing obvious to show how great a person you are? We feel guilt for driving an inferior vehicle or getting stuck in traffic unlike those fortunate, strong people in the car ads who apparently never experience traffic jams.
To bring this to an end for today, I think this quote from Becker is appropriate:
…if you kill your enemy, your life is affirmed because it proves that the gods favor you.
Does this analysis make any sense to you in trying to figure out what Harper and the conservatives are doing in Canada? Harper is desperate to know that the gods of capital favour him. He seems to be willing to sacrifice everything for that to happen. Whatever it takes.
Escape 14: Promise me immortality and I’ll kiss your boots.
So how did we go from creating inequality just on the basis of personal qualities to what we have now? In present times, in lots of ways it isn’t even people who we bow down to it’s capital. That’s how abstracted from the original basis of inequality it’s become. Chapter 4 of EFE is called The Evolution of Inequality and that’s what it delivers. The next chapter brings us closer to the present, but for the moment we must stay with primitives for a while longer.
Once men consented to live by the redistribution of life’s goods through a god figure who represented life, they had sealed their fate. There was no stopping the process of the monopolization of life in the king’s hands.
Actually, this quote, although representative of part of the thesis of this chapter only reflects the trajectory in broad terms of the creation of ‘organized’ inequality and the development of classes. In early primitive societies there was a basic equality. Yes, some individuals were superior hunters and received prestige because of it but there was a mutual support system built into this arrangement. The gods provided life and the society provided prestige for the gods or their intermediaries, the priest-rulers who fancied themselves capable of harnessing the power of the sun to benefit the society in question. Early on there were people who commandeered the ritual techniques of manufacture and demanded that people followed them precisely or else death and destruction would follow. Most Indiana Jones movies are based on this kind of scenario. People weren’t necessarily happy about giving up some of their own power to the king or ruler, but they were willing to put up with a certain amount of tyranny if the harvests were good. If not, one consequence was often the violent deposition of the ruler. ‘You deliver, or else.’ Still things are never simple or straightforward everything considered: people like to be cajoled and seduced into following. They don’t want it to be simply a question of force.
…men will not give in to power unless it is accompanied by mystification, as in the service of something that has a grander aura of legitimacy, of symbolic compellingness. (p. 58)
So, eventually, after a period of thousands of years through the power of mystification and a good measure of coercion humankind moved from a simple system of sharing to one of redistribution by the ruler. Slowly, without noticing it, people bartered away social equality and some individual freedom for prosperity and order.
Once you went from an economy of simple sharing to one of redistribution, goods ceased to be your natural right. (p. 58)
Here Becker uses the potlatch as an example of a situation whereby economic activity and social morality began to be disconnected from each other. He calls the classic potlatch as practiced by the ‘Kwakiutl’ a redistribution ceremony pure and simple. Huge surpluses were gathered and concentrated in the hands of the chief without creating severe hardship for the people then redistributed. It created a situation where heroism and expiation could be exercised concurrently. The more goods one could give away or destroy the more heroic he would be and the more power could be accrued. Expiation came too because in giving away loads of goods, the chief atoned for the sin of accumulating the surplus in the first place. Now the invisible powers started to take a back seat to the more visible chief. Now we were witness to what Hocart calls the ‘growing conceit’ of man. Communal ritual now replaces the ritual importance of the family. The thing about the classic potlatch though was that it didn’t transcend the group. The modern ‘potlatch’ whereby Ted Turner gives the UN billions of dollars or public buildings are donated by the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller or more tellingly, Telus, GM and Molson’s is good publicity but it’s giving but a tiny fraction of what was gotten by exploitation.
Escape 13: “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.”
So, this is my 13th post looking at Ernest Becker’s last book Escape From Evil (EFE) published posthumously in 1975. I’m taking a different tack from now on in these posts. First of all, I’m changing the titles so that they always start with Escape, rather than Ernest Becker. I’ll start with a short quote from Becker’s EFE then put that quote into perspective and elaborate. So far I’ve used sometimes long quotes from Becker so as to let Becker speak for himself. As I said before, there’s no substitute for reading Becker himself, but this will hopefully tweak your interest in the subject of Becker’s work which can be summarized in this quote:
Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death. [EFE 125]
Of course that promise is empty, always unfulfilled except temporarily, and brings with it astonishing pain and suffering to millions of innocent people, because more often than not evil and death are seen to have a face and that face must be destroyed at all cost. This is exactly how Hitler thought of the Jews. To him, the Jewish people presented a threat to the Aryan race. Every Jewish face was a reminder for the Nazis of disease and death. In the end, Hitler’s promise was a monumental con and he himself became the personification of evil and death for millions of people who vowed to destroy him even at the cost of their own lives.
But back to the quote in the title: “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.” This quote is from the last paragraph of Chapter 3 in EFE called The Origins of Inequality. In this chapter Becker tackles a basic fact of life in virtually all societies beyond the primitive. Hunting and gathering societies had virtual equality, but even then there were people who stood out because of their prowess in certain things like hunting or healing. Becker argues in this chapter that we are unequal in society because from the very beginning personal qualities gave rise to rank, power and privilege. And those personal qualities were there for all to recognize. Becker notes that a Sioux warrior announced by means of decorations on his moccasins how many horses he had captured, ‘enemies killed…etc.’ If a person is particularly good at hunting and consistently ‘brings home the bacon’ it’s hard not to see how all benefit from his skill. He will always be rewarded and eventually the rewards become part of the structure of society. This is the origins of the concept of hero. As Becker notes “…he is the one who gambles with is very life and successfully defies death, and men follow him and eventually worship his memory because he embodies the triumph over what they fear most, extinction and death.” (p. 43)
So, we’ve always sorted ourselves out by personal characteristics, but Becker argues that the first real class distinction was between humans (mortals) and immortal beings which were not only gods, but ancestors and other fauna inhabiting the invisible world and played with human lives, or so the primitive thought. What else was he supposed to think? Without science, there was no recourse but to imagine or dream of what it might be that controls us. So, class society began with the distinction between immortal and mortal. It wasn’t much of a stretch then to see that heroes, because of their special skills might just have a special connection with the invisible forces that surrounded the primitives in their world. Heroes were revered for their special gifts, but also feared because of their connection to the sometimes merciless and volatile forces that controlled life on this planet.
Once the ‘hero’ who was also the shaman and chief created the techniques of perpetuating his power even as he aged and became weaker the stage was set for society to have a structure of followship where the chief and shaman spoke for the gods and demanded subservience and tribute from the people. “Who has the power to mystify?” (p.49) Class distinctions have always been and still are sacred because they are all about the quest for immortality. The leaders promise immortality or at least future prosperity and we sometimes gladly, sometimes reluctantly, surrender our own personal power. We defer because we are promised immortality, we hold on to that promise with dear life and we bend to the wishes of the gods through their earthly intermediaries. We may complain now and again, but our first instinct is to submit. Still, there are moments in history when our gods have abandoned us and that’s made it necessary to abandon their promises and adopt new, more powerful ones.
I haven’t been overtly critical of Becker yet in these posts but I must disagree with his analysis of Marxism in this chapter. That won’t concern most of you. Suffice it to say that his emphasis on the control of economic power by the elite is grounded in the humanism of a certain brand of Marxism and not of Marx himself whose analysis of class was purely historical and structural.
Ernest Becker 9: Morality is Fundamentally a Matter of Power
I know that I’m dealing with Becker in these posts but there was a sociologist, the first bone fide European sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1857-1917), who considered sociology the science of morality. Morality is not what most people think it is. It’s not some abstract universal condition that has no relationship to reality. No, morality is fundamentally rooted in political power. This is not the place for it (I don’t think) but sometime it would be nice for you to challenge me to prove this by announcing what you think are moral precepts and defying me to show how they are connected to the material, real world. It would be especially fun if you think that morality lies exclusively in the realm of ideas.
In any case, I digress. Morality underlies all of his work, but now back to Becker and his closing remarks to Chapter 1. So far he has established clearly that we are animals and that our animality must be considered if we wish to construct a model of humanity’s time on this planet. We must eat and procreate, both activities that require certain types of organization for a species that is as social as ours. In fact these activities are so important to us that we elevate them to lofty heights creating elaborate symbol systems around them including what we call morality. We seek to control life and death although we can’t in any fundamental sense but we try just as primitive man did. We do it with science, engineering and technology. The primitives did it with ritual altars. They weren’t happy with just creating life, of course, they wanted it to last for an eternity. So, they invented immortality ideologies or projects with the requisite ritual organization so as to convince themselves that immortality is possible. This wasn’t easy. Becker writes:
…man quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment and had to conceive ways to qualify for immortality. In this way the simple food quest was transmuted into a quest for spiritual excellence, for goodness and purity. All of man’s higher spiritual ideals were a continuation of the original quest for energy-power. Nietzsche was one of the first to state this blatantly, and he shocked the world with it: that all morality is fundamentally a matter of power, of the power of organisms to continue existing by reaching for a superhuman purity.
I haven’t mentioned in previous posts Becker’s thoughts on what he calls macrocosmitization and microcosmitization. These unwieldy terms refer to the primitive’s tendency to ‘humanize the cosmos’ with the zodiac or think that reading entrails or engaging in any number of other similar rituals could bring us in touch with the heavens.
By opposing culture to nature in these ways, man allotted to himself a special spiritual destiny, one that enabled him to transcend his animal condition and assume a special status in nature. No longer was he an animal who died and vanished from the earth; he was a creator of life who could also give eternal life to himself by means of communal rituals of cosmic regeneration.
Obviously to primitives, nature was being controlled by forces beyond their capacity to understand sensually so they had to imagine what these forces might look like and not surprisingly, they came to look surprisingly like humans, special humans, of course, but human in look and with superheated capacities. These forces were the ones who created life and took it away, often, it seemed on a whim. How to control such capricious forces? By giving them what they trucked in, life. Sacrificing life to the invisible forces so that they would give up life and not take it away so casually. Hence, Becker’s comment:
Man has always casually sacrificed life for more life.
And of course we’re still into that. The Rwandan massacre of 1994 was just this kind of sacrificial ritualistic search for purity with a concomitant cleansing of unpure, evil ‘others’. Historical examples abound of our attempts to control life by sacrificing life.
Each organism preens itself on the specialness of the life that throbs within it, and is ready to subordinate all others to its own continuation. Man was always conceited; he only began to show his destructive side to the rest of nature when the ritual technology of the spiritual production of animals was superseded by other technologies. The unfolding of history is precisely the saga of the succession of new and different ideologies of organismic self-perpetuation – and the new injustices and heightened destructiveness of historical man. Let us now turn to this.
Ernest Becker 5: The Power of Ritual or Build Me A Sacrificial Altar
Becker was a master synthesizer. He didn’t really do any empirical research himself. His arguments are based on a careful distillation, combination, and re-combination of the work of many other writers, among them A. M. Hocart, Otto Rank, Johan Huizinga and Norman O. Brown. In Chapter 1 of EFE, entitled The Primitive World: Ritual as Practical Technics, Becker introduces the work of the anthropologist A. M. Hocart (1883-1939). Hocart was a major influence on Becker and provided him with a number of basic insights upon which Becker built his elegant and provocative analysis of the thing that drives humankind to distraction…the striving for immortality.
Ritual. As well as being creatures of habit, we are also creatures of ritual. Human beings love ritual. Our lives are frequently punctuated by ritual. Becker writes:
Hocart…saw the universal human ambition as the achievement of prosperity – the good life. To satisfy this craving, only man could create that most powerful concept which has both made him heroic and brought him utter tragedy – the invention and practice of ritual, which s first and foremost a technique for promoting the good life and averting evil. Let us not rush over these words: ritual is a technique for giving life. This thing is momentous: throughout vast ages of prehistory mankind imagined that it could control life!
Through spells, incantations, charms and magic primitive peoples believed they could control life. In fact, ritual was required to make just about everything happen, from making sure the crops were good from year to year, that there was plenty of game to kill and eat and that no harm would come to people and their families. Harm would come to people only if the ritual was not properly conducted or some malevolent being interfered with it.
The point I want to make is very simple and direct: that by means of the techniques of ritual men imagined that they took firm control of the material world, and at the same time transcended that world by fashioning their own invisible projects which made them supernatural, raised them over and above material decay and death. In the world of ritual there aren’t any accidents, and accidents, as we know, are the things that make life most precarious and meaningless.
Let’s be clear. Primitives believed they could control the material world with ritual. We think we can control it with science and the modern secular worldview. Primitives, of course, lacked the science-based engineering capacity of us moderns. They didn’t have the factory system and mass production. For primitives,
…ritual is actually a preindustrial technique of manufacture; it doesn’t exactly create new things, Hocart says, but it transfers the power of life and it renovates nature. But how can we have a technique of manufacture without machinery? Precisely by building a ritual altar and making that the locus of the transfer and renewal of life power…Man controls nature by whatever he can invent, and primitive man invented the ritual altar and the magical paraphanalia to make it work. And as the modern mechanic carries around his tools, so did the primitive scrupulously transport his charms and rebuild his altars.
We call it magic because we don’t believe it worked, and we call our technology scientific because we believe it works. I am not pretending that primitive magic is as efficacious for the control of nature as our science, but in out time we are beginning to live with some strange and uncomfortable realizations. Primitive ritual manufacture of life may not have actually controlled the universe, but at least it was never in any danger of destroying it. We control it up to a point – the point at which we seem to be destroying it.
Emile Durkheim was the first European to actually hold a ‘chair’ in sociology. Actually it was in education and sociology because there were no ‘pure’ sociology departments back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was born in 1857 and died in 1917 just before the end of World War I. There is much in Durkheim that I disagree with but much that I consider brilliant. I disagree with his reification of society and his notion that a society can either be healthy or ill. He refers to sociology as social pathology, or the study of what makes society ill. That’s a bit of a stretch for me. I’ve been a sociologist for a long time but I’m not sure that ‘society’ exists. Social relations exist in a myriad of interweavings and interdependencies, but society as a thing? No, I’m not convinced. But does that negate his whole ‘oeuvre?’ Not at all. His Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is quite brilliant and for two important reasons. First, he argues, based on his studies of Australian aboriginal clans (from his office in France), that religion and society are one and the same thing. Clan and totemic organization are so intertwined as to be singly incomprehensible. In a more general sense, he argues that gods are personifications and projections of the society itself. Projections (which are a complex of moral and behavioural precepts) are then used to judge individuals in the society itself. This makes perfect sense to me. He’s not the only one who argues similar things, but his argument is prototypical. The second reason is his emphasis on ritual as the application of ‘glue’ that holds us together in our social bonds. Ritual brings people together in an attempt to strengthen social connections and interdependencies, even when these are built on a foundation of power imbalances and sometimes extreme inequalities.
So, what is the upshot of all of this? Well, a most important one is that God (or gods) and all of religious belief and ritual are socially-constructed. So, as a Christian, when you pray to God you are praying to your society. In our case, Christianity is fully compatible with the notion of individual responsibility and private property rights. Christianity has been able over the centuries to adapt to the political and economic engines of the ages and it has served those political and economic interests well. In saying this I disagree in a sense with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their intractable denial of the existence of God. I agree with them that there is no God ‘out there’ somewhere looking after each and every one of us. But God does exist, in the minds, institutions and habits of people all over the world. In a future blog I address the issue of self-esteem and complete surrender to God which is a driving idea for many Christians. That notion makes complete sense from the perspective of Durkheim’s work.
Another important lesson arising from engagement with Durkheim’s work is his focus on ritual as a binding force. As humans we are driven by ritual in our relations with others. Durkheim argues that the less we are integrated into society by engaging in ritual which must always involve others(fully bound by its morality) the more we are susceptible to suicide. These are critical concepts for sociology, at least my sociology.