Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Taussig and Turner

I felt a bit bothered by Taussig’s criticism of Victor Turner in Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, so I had a look at a few of the books by Turner I happened to have at hand, The Ritual Process (Aldine Transaction, 2007) and From Ritual to Theatre (PAJ Publications, 1982), to see how fair the criticism is.

First, here’s what Taussig writes. Describing the “sensory pandemonium” of the yagé nights among Colombian shamans and healers as akin to the production of dialectical images or montages in Benjamin’s sense, he adds that “the movements and connections involved here between self and group are not susceptible to the communitas model that Victor Turner postulated as a universal or quasi-universal feature of ritual” (Taussig 1987:441f). He then quotes the following passage from Turner:
In flow and communities what is sought is unity, not the unity which represents a sum of fractions and is susceptible of division and subtraction, but an indivisible unity, ‘white’, ‘pure’. ‘primary’, ‘seamless’. This unity is expressed in such symbols as the basic generative and nurturant fluids semen and milk; and as running water, dawn, light, and whiteness. Homogeneity is sought, instead of heterogeneity [and the participants] are impregnated with unity, as it were, and purified of divisiveness and plurality. The impure and sinful is the sundered, the divided. The pure is the integer, the indivisible. (Turner, from Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, co-authored with Edith Turner, Columbia University Press 1978)
Taussig adds:
Impregnating people with unity may fit well with certain fantasies of maleness and fascism. Certainly the communitas features of the yagé nights are the antithesis of this whiteness, this homogeneity, this soppy primitivism of semen and milk and the unified and the pure. Against that the yagé nights pose awkwardness of fit, breaking-up and scrambling, the allegorical rather than the symbolist mode, the predominance of the left hand and of anarchy. (Taussig 1987:442)
So, is Taussig’s criticism fair? In fact, Turner is far from clear about to what degree he sees unity as a necessary feature of liminal experiences, the experience of “anti-structure” or communitas. Although the quoted passage strikes me as extreme, it’s not hard to find other passages describing communitas in terms of unity. For instance, describing what he calls “spontaneous communitas” (as opposed to “ideological” and “normative communitas”) he writes that “[i]ndividuals who interact with one another in the mode of spontaneous communitas become totally absorbed into a single synchronized event” (Turner 1982:48). Elsewhere he describes communitas as “homogeneous”, “relatively undifferentiated”, and “unstructured” (ibid 47, 2007:96, 132).

At the same time, Turner, somewhat inconsistently, also writes: “For me communitas preserves individual distinctiveness – it is neither regression to infancy, nor is it emotional, nor is it ‘merging’ in fantasy” (ibid 1982:46f). And recall how he describes liminality, a quality he closely associates with communitas and anti-structure: “Characteristic of this liminal period is the appearance of marked ambiguity and inconsistency of meaning, and the emergence of luminal demonic and monstrous figures who represent within themselves ambiguities and inconsistencies” (ibid 113). Here we hear nothing of oneness or unity. Liminality seems must more closely associated and communitas to ambiguity, play, and insecurity. 

What Taussig’s criticism reveals is the rift that seems to run through Turner’s thinking about communitas – the fact, in other words, that the way he describes liminality doesn’t always accord with the way he describes communitas.

The problem seems to be this: Turner describes communitas both as a unity in which distinctions are dissolved, and as a unity in which the distinctions are preserved. Several passages suggest that his model of communitas is that of religious grace. Grace itself, however, is closely modeled on love, and one of the most striking qualities of love is surely the presence of an overflowing sense of oneness which paradoxically coexists with a sharpened eye for the uniqueness of the other person. As Adorno states in his aphorism about "Sabbath eyes", love seeks oneness, and yet wants the other person just the way he or she is: "The eyes that lose themselves to the one and only beauty are sabbath eyes. They save in their object something of the calm of its day of creation" (Adorno, Minima Moralia, Verso 1987, p 76).

What should be criticized in Turner, then, is not really that he equates ritual with the experience of unity – for as we have seen he is very ambiguous on this point. What should be criticized is rather that he models the experience of communitas on that of love without clarifying the riddle of how the seeming opposites of unity and individuality can coexist in it. 

P.S. Having read Image and Pilgrimage, I must admit that Taussig's criticism is not unreasonable. Their views on pilgrimage are completely at odds, one stressing homogeneity and the other heterogeneity.

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