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Lecture

Lecture 2.

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Department
Anthropology
Course
ANTH 1001
Professor
Bernhard Leistle
Semester
Winter

Description
Lecture 2: “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Miner and “Reversed Gaze” by Mwenda Ntarangwi Both texts are examples for the anthropological perspective on the culturally Other. Horace Miner’s short essay is an anthropological classic and a staple in anthropology courses, in particular introductions. I suggest that this is because it illustrates something every important about anthropology: its relationship to its own culture and our ability to see this culture as if it was Other. In this respect, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” is not unlike Monty Python’s “The Batsmen of the Kalahari”. Why am I saying this? Because Miner describes not the bizarre customs and beliefs of some exotic tribe, but the Nacirema who are, when read from right to left, no other than theAmerican(s). There is literally a reversal of the gaze in Miner’s essay and all the indigenous terms he uses lose their exoticism when they are read in the other direction: Nacirema becomes American, Notgnihsaw (the culture hero) becomes Washington, latipso becomes hospital. On the surface level, Miner’s text is a persiflage of the ways in which anthropologists portray other cultures: as exotic and bizarre, unreasonable and superstitious, ineffective and unscientific. His use of Nacirema words is supposed to give his descriptions and interpretations credibility – the anthropologist shows that he has first-hand knowledge of the other culture, that he has learned their language. The body rites are normally secret and kept hidden from outsiders, says Miner: “I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.” (503/504) This, too, is standard technique of traditional anthropology to establish credibility with the reader: the anthropologist knows the natives intimately, he has become their friend whom they trust (and who subsequently betrays that trust by writing an article about the secrets entrusted to him). The Nacirema are thus shown as gullible and naïve, as well as ridden by their irrational body cult. Towards the end of the article he writes: “Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves.” (507) This is the kind of patronizing tone and objectification that anthropology has sometimes been accused of, sometimes by the people it studied, sometimes by anthropologists themselves, most often by academics from other disciplines like sociology and cultural studies. Miner’s stance also 1 seems critical, but he goes beyond that. In and through the criticism he demonstrates the potential of the anthropological perspective: He portrays American culture through the eyes of the other. How does he achieve that? Most importantly, by blurring or wiping out the differences between oppositional categories of thought: ritual, magic, religion, superstition are identified with hygiene, medicine, science, knowledge. This metaphorical equation shows the cultural nature of the categories involved: seen from the perspective of the culturally Other our own practices surrounding our bodies seem exotic, like other people’s rituals to us. Miner produces this effect of alienation by employing a number of anthropological tricks of the trade. DescribingAmerican body practices as religious and magical rituals, he uses familiar, i.e. not too technical, anthropological terminology: he calls the bathroom a shrine, the medicine cabinet a “charm-box”, the water-basin a font, hygienic practices around the mouth he refers to as “mouth rites”, the dentist becomes the “holy-mouth- man” (put in quotation marks to indicate the fact that this is a translation), the psychoanalyst the “listener”, etc. Sometimes he also uses more technical terms, like “neophyte”, which means a person to be ritually initiated into a group. The effect of estrangement produced by this way of description is not homogenous: in some areas we are quite prepared to acknowledge that there is something ritual-like by how we treat our bodies, for example when we think about the aesthetics of the body, or such practices as daily shaving which are subject to changes and fashions (see, for example, the trend among young men to wear beard, or the Nacirema practice to “bake their heads in little ovens for an hour”). In other cases we are far more reluctant to accept the equation between ritual and magic on the one hand and medicine and science on the other. Sure it is reasonable to brush one’s teeth and not just superstition; surely, medicine is science and the hospital is a place where people are being cured and not a temple where they undergo painful rituals which often end deadly. And yet, by portraying his own culture as if it was another culture, Miner brings out certain things that we prefer to neglect, but know they are there. Consider for example his description of a hospital stay, or better a ritual initiation ceremony in the temple latipso: quote 505/506 “The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are 2 performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso.Aman whose wife has never seen him in an excretory act suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation, and prodding of the medicine men.” (505/506) – and continuing to “….The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.” (506) This passage shows drastically what many of us experience when they have to stay in a Western Hospital setting: the lack of privacy and anonymity (having to do one’s business in public, being stripped of one’s clothes), being manhandled by nurses, lacking agency and being bored etc. We are inclined to accept these things without complaint because they are presented to us as necessary for medical efficiency. However, not even within Western biomedicine there is homogeny as to how people are being treated in hospitals: Medical anthropologists have shown how in Japanese hospitals, where the same kind of medicine is practiced, there is a different way of dealing with people’s individuality: patients are allowed to wear their private clothing, and family members are allowed to cook their own food for them. Still, we want to object, it is not “right” to refer to tooth paste as magical powders, as Miner does, when he describes brushing one’s teeth in the following manner: “It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.” (504) And yet the comparison is quite adequate when we consider why most of us buy a particular brand of toothbrush – the way it is advertised in the media. Here the ability of the paste to remove decaying forces is indeed presented in terms that could be called magical. Even “serious” scientific discourse makes use of cultural metaphors as we will see later in the course when talk about Emily Martin’s work “The Woman in the Body”. The most powerful insight that the Nacirema text produces is for me its emphasis on the fantastic nature of the body-ideal. It seems almost pr
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