Archive for March, 2009

Comparing ritual worlds: Sacrifice and reciprocity in Melanesia and Mesoamerica

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), General Anthro, Mesoamerica on March 5, 2009 by salul

Here it is folks. For all of those who have been waiting to finally see some substance behind the grandiloquent hints at grand comparativism between both culture regions. Upcoming seminar talk for tomorrow (Thursday 5 March, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, UNAM):

Rituals of transformation and shifting ontologies:

Rethinking sacrifice and reciprocity in Mesoamerica and Melanesia

Carlos Mondragón (ColMex) & Johannes Neurath (INAH)


This paper offers a discussion about the plurality of ontological principles as manifested in key rituals of reciprocity and sacrifice in two different societies – namely, the Huichol of North West Mexico and the people of the Torres Islands in Maritime Melanesia. Our aim is to problematise the assumption that while ritual practices and regimes of value have been considered processual, fluid and diverse, they ultimately rely on stable value systems. Ontologies, by any other name. By analysing new ethnographic data regarding rituals of existential transformation – specifically, the vision quest of the Huichol and the tamate ceremony – in Mesoamerica and Melanesia, we arrive at the conclusion that the problem is not a diversity of ritual forms, but of principles of existence. Throughout the ritual sequence, the participants in these events generate contrasting, and indeed incompatible, models of sacrifice (asymmetrical exchange) and idealised reciprocity (symmetrical exchange) that point to the open-ended and creative potential of the ontologies on which ritual action is grounded. The principle aim of the paper is to compare how two societies that draw on seemingly coherent “wholes” (Mesoamerican cosmologies, Melanesian principles of exchange) actually deploy multiple templates for ritual action which make manifest the contradiction of taking “ontology” for granted.



Sunday mornings with the LRB

Posted in Uncategorized on March 1, 2009 by salul

These are the unexpected little gems that, every so often, I really like waking up to on a quiet, sunny Sunday morning over coffee:

High in the Pyrenees, early in the fifth century, a knot of Roman soldiers huddled together over the saddest kind of duty. A comrade-in-arms had died young, after just two years under the standards. They buried him with the honours he deserved, in his best uniform and his shining metal belt – the cingulum that was every fighting man’s pride, the sign that he was a soldier. No headstone would mark his grave – there was no one for miles to do the carving and, besides, headstones had been falling out of fashion for centuries. Only the memory of the young soldier would remain, fixed in the minds of onlookers by the spectacle, by the precious things deposited with the body, vanishing for ever as the earth fell on it. Without a headstone, we can’t know this young soldier’s name. In that, as in the manner of his burial, he is typical of thousands of fifth-century soldiers whose graves have been excavated. Or typical save in one respect: the dead Pyrenean soldier was a monkey, an adolescent macaque from the coast of North Africa, a thousand kilometres from where he died. (LRB, 31:3, pg. 22)

That hooked me. And the review article (by Michael Kulikowski) did not disappoint. Another gem, towards the end of his text:

A year rarely goes by without a new version of the Attila story, whether told in its own right or as part of the story of Rome’s fall. Given that all the thorny historical problems were worked out decades ago, each new version differs from the last mainly by way of emphasis, artistic colour, and the author’s competence as a historian. Kelly’s well-told and reliable account is the best to have come along in years, showing a judicious approach to archaeological evidence that one could wish more widely imitated. Its subtitle and some of its conclusions, however, stand rather too close to a revenant ‘it were the Huns wot done it’ school of analysis: no Huns means no Goths means no fall of the Roman Empire. The revival of this external catastrophist model, last popular immediately after the Second World War, is no doubt a response to the rose-tinted, EU-inspired interpretations of the 1990s, which at their height could construe the fall of the empire as a Mediterranean break from which the barbarian holidaymakers forgot to return. Yet I suspect that barbarian hordes have come back into vogue because they are, in their way, a comforting explanation. If only the aliens had been kept out, if only the empire had had the sense to strike back in time, then Rome wouldn’t have fallen. In a Western world that feels itself increasingly under assault from mystifying outside forces, from multiculturalism where once there was monoculture, and from Islamism where once there were colonies, the model of barbarian invasion spares us having to contemplate a far queasier proposition: the worrying capacity of an entire society to collapse, and a whole culture to disappear, through stupidity, greed, indifference and the weight of its own unsustainable contradictions.

The  sideswipe at the petits fonctionnaires of the EU might be contrived, or cheap, but does not really concern me here. I’m just enjoying my coffee and a little more decent reading than that which is provided by the national (Mexican) press’s morbid, flat and otherwise philistinic headlines and editorial pages day in and day out (hmm, philistinic + comatose = philistose…good enough portmanteau for me, in this context!).