OAC Seminar - "Why do the gods look like that?" by John McCreery


Before I introduce our first presenter, I would like to begin by thanking John Postill for initially organizing the OAC Seminar Series.

I am pleased to announce that our first presenter is John McCreery, one of the more active members here at the OAC. John was born August 3 1944, raised in a pious Lutheran family in southern Virginia. Graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. with Honors in Philosophy in 1966 and received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Cornell University in 1973. His career includes 13 years (1983-1996) as Copywriter and International Creative Director at Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest advertising agency. From 1994 to 2005, he was a lecturer in the faculty of the Sophia University Graduate Program in Comparative Culture, offering seminars on “Marketing in Japan” and “The Making and and Meaning of Advertising.” His book, Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers was published in March 2000 as part of the the ConsumAsiaN Series (Curzon Press, UK; University of Hawaii Press, USA). Other publications include “Negotiating with demons: The uses of Magical Language,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1995, “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors,” in John Sherry (ed.) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior, 1995, and  “Traditional Chinese Religion,” in Ray Scupin (ed.) Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, 2008.

He will be presenting a working paper entitled, Why do the gods look like that?
The abstract reads as follows:

Guan Yu Nearly half a century has passed since Claude Lévi-Strauss urged anthropologists to search for a “logic in tangible qualities” and Victor Turner proposed that dominant symbols combine a sensory pole that evokes powerful emotions with a cognitive pole where abstract meanings cluster. Material culture has become a thriving subfield of anthropological research. Anthropologists who study Chinese religion continue, however, to look for meanings behindthe images of Chinese gods instead of looking at them. This paper explores what closer attention to the visible and tangible qualities of Chinese god statues reveals about Chinese religion and its relation to religious traditions in which gods remain invisible.

This seminar will run from 27 April to 11 May 2010. During that time, members of the OAC are welcome to post comments to John about his paper in the discussion forum and he will respond. The seminar will unfold at a leisurely pace, as and when participants, including the presenter, find the time to post. After two weeks, the chair will thank the presenter and discussants, announce the next session and close the seminar.

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As you say, though, John, that's an essential aspect of the vitality of anthropology: that we can share and discuss ideas that have come from different places. Otherwise we end up with a kind of walled-off area studies, which is precisely the problem I have with the anthropology of Japan, as it is (largely) currently practised in Britain. As you quite rightly asked, why does it seem so irrelevant to the rest of anthropology? We may not be able to understand the particularities of each others' ethnographies, but there is a whole history of theory that we do share.
To see the images of "opening the eyes," i.e., consecrating a god statue to transform it from only an image to an embodiment of the god, point your browser here. Those familiar with Chinese symbolism will note that the theme that runs through this rite is supercharging the image with Yang energy: in this case from sunlight, blood from the comb of a white cock, and fire. Yang not only activates the god. It also dispels Yin ghosts, who might be tempted to usurp the god's position and steal the offerings made to him.

The Taoist master performing the ceremony is Tio Se-lian (Mandarin: Chao Shi-lian), with whom I worked during my first fieldwork in 1969-71. The location is his storefront temple, the Puli Hai Kok Tong (Mandarin: Hai Guo Tang), which was then located in a storefront next to the Puli wholesale vegetable market.

In the interests of transparency, I should note that these images are from a partially staged event. I purchased the statue as a token of gratitude to Master Tio, and he kindly paused for photographs at critical moments in the process of opening its eyes.
This is just a footnote, really, to Amiria's useful allusion to Taussig, which prompted me to go back to my copy of Mimesis & Alterity. Why, Taussig wonders, do the spirits invoked in Cuna curing ritual require objectification in the form of wooden figurines, when their efficacy is deemed to lie inside the spirit of the wood rather than in its outward appearance. And, of a particular image carved in the form of a big-nosed Douglas McArthur, Taussig asks why this figure took the form that it did, and why no one seems to have considered this. '[E]mbodiment itself is never problematized. Why imagine a nose? Why imagine at all? Why this urge to tangibilize?' (M&A, p10). In Amiria's potent paraphrase: 'If statues only "represent" the gods, why do they need bodies at all?'

As Amiria indicates, with her scare-quoted 'represent', what is it that statues do? Do they, in fact, merely stand in for some absent something else? Such, it seems to me, would be the assumption of our 'modernist anthropologist' for whom (to paraphrase Ingold) meaning is conceived to hover over the material; the latter being an index or an indication of the former. Now, this kind of conception might seem analogous (as I earlier suggested) to the thinking of the devotee, for whom the statue is an index of a god elsewhere. (Didn't that informant of Lin's say that the gods are 'three feet above our heads', hovering, as it were, over their material forms?) But I don't think the analogy is right, because, in an important sense, the statue is also the god, and this would lead the devotee to agree with Ingold's view, that the god (like culture) permeates the material.

The modernist anthropologist, in her view that the material must somehow 'stand in' for something else invisible (meaning), is arguably indebted to a thinking that goes back to Augustine (and beyond, way back, to Plato). It was an essential part of Augustine's critique of 'pagan' images that they were merely representations. But as Ando (2008) points out, the pagans themselves often had other ideas. He draws attention to the fact that pagan writers discussing divine images are just as 'likely to refer to "Athena" as to "a statue of Athena"' (2008: 23).

In other words, as Gell stressed, the god (in context anyway, rather than in general) is its image. So perhaps it might be legitimate to say that, in many cases, the divine image doesn't 'stand in' for the god; rather (to evoke Roy Wagner) it stands in for itself.

But these musings probably get us nowhere nearer to unlocking John's question.

Ando, C. (2008). The matter of the gods: Religion & the Roman empire.
And, I can't resist mentioning this pocket anecdote: a warning against the dangers of deifying our own interpretations. This isn't directed at anyone in particular - most certainly not to John, whose excellent paper kicked off this conversation in the first place. In fact, its a caveat for all of us to carry around as we work (me especially). Anyway, the anecdote:

In that fourteenth century Japanese classic, the Tsurezuregusa (translated as 'Essays in Idleness'), the Buddhist priest Kenko tells a story about a holy man (presumably a proto-anthropologist) who, on visiting a certain shrine in Kyoto, is much moved to observe that the statue of the lion and the dog guarding the shrine's entrance are placed back to back - the reverse of their normal positioning.
'These lions are placed most unusually. There must be a profound reason,' he says breathlessly. Then he quizzes the priest for the ancient meaning of this local oddity.
'The fact is,' replies the priest, 'that they were put that way by some mischievous boys. It's a disgrace'!
Many thanks to Philip for finding (and fleshing out) Taussig's revealing point about the necessity of religious images.

PS: 'It was an essential part of Augustine's critique of 'pagan' images that they were merely representations. But as Ando (2008) points out, the pagans themselves often had other ideas. He draws attention to the fact that pagan writers discussing divine images are just as 'likely to refer to "Athena" as to "a statue of Athena"' (2008: 23)'.

Not to mention those Christians who perhaps didn't go in for Augustine (I'm not sure where he stood on images of God). Geary suggests that, in the Middle Ages:

"...the preferred medium through which God used his saints to act was their bodies. Their corpses were seen as the pignora, literally, the security deposits left by the saints upon their deaths as guarantees of their continuing interest in the earthly community. At the end of the world, the saint’s body would rise and be glorified; in the meantime, the saint continued to live in and work through it" (1986: 176).

This, he reminds us, was the theological view, ‘the learned theory of educated churchmen’, while:

"The perception of the operation of relics on the part of most people, lay and clerical, seems to have been much more immediate: relics were the saints, continuing to live among men. They were immediate sources of supernatural power for good or for ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power" (1986: 176).

Which of course is why people bothered going on arduous pilgrimages to fondle them.

Obviously, beating this sort of idea out of people was a not insignificant aspect in the rise of Protestantism (think of all those iconoclasts). So (just to briefly carry on another conversation - see What's Wrong with Quine over on Theory in Anthropology) we have another eloquent example of ontological incommensurability within a single culture - for either saints are their relics or they aren't - a point over which people fought (even died) over for centuries.


Geary, Patrick, 1986. 'Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics', Chapter 6 in A. Appadurai (ed.) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge.
First, thanks to everyone who has spoken up so far. Here I would like to reply in particular to Philip Swift's comments, i.e,

The contrast seems to turn on the difference between iconic and aniconic images.


I'm not certain that there is necessarily a connection between an-iconicity (and/or invisibility of imagery) and the expression of authority.

The line of argument that I am attempting to develop can be briefly sketched as follows:

1. Abstraction asserts authority. Derived from Maurice Bloch's hypothesis that the formalized language of ritual uses a restricted code to limit the options of those who utter ritual formulas as well as those who hear them, this bald statement could clearly stand some refinement.

2. It does, however, seem plausible in the context of Chinese popular religion, where, instead of a binary opposition between iconic and an-iconic, we find, instead, a spectrum of representations, with the distinctive, detailed and dynamic at one end and the tablet inscribed with a name on the other. Nazha, The Third Prince, depicted as if speeding into battle on his wheels of fire and thrusting with his spear toward the demons he is attacking, lies at one extreme. The Jade Emperor, the supreme deity in the popular pantheon, when represented only by his name on a tablet, lies at the other. Between them, however, are numerous variations, including in the case of Guan Gong, a variety of images reflecting different "superscriptions" of the deity in question. One can, for example, compare a seated Guan Gong with a painting of the Jade Emperor. Not only is one a three-dimensional sculpture, while the other is a two-dimensional painting. Guan Gong is depicted stroking his beard; his legs are slightly askew. In contrast the Jade Emperor sits perfectly erect, staring straight forward, with both feet firmly planted on the ground; his pose resembles that of the death portraits of recent ancestors.

2. The Jade Emperor, ancestors enshrined on family or lineage altars, Guan Gong as the embodiment of martial virtue and devotion to country, and Confucius, following the Song iconoclasts rejection of anthropomorphic images, all take the form of names inscribed on wooden tablets. In each case we see an association between ultimate, non-negotiable values [a formulation I am now suggesting as a replacement for "authority"] and text.

3. To see Jehovah or Allah, the unique and literally unrepresentable supreme beings of the great "religions of the Book" does not, at least to me, seem too great a stretch. At this step, the great problematic cases are Western and Eastern Catholicism, and the rich traditions of art associated with them. Here I could really use some help. In the Western tradition, there are, I know, painted representations of God the Father, for example, in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo. These are not, however, objects of worship in the way in which the Christ in a crucifix or the Virgin Mary or numerous saints represented sculpturally, in three dimensions, are. Concerning the Eastern tradition, I am aware of the importance of ikons in the Russian, Greek, and Eastern European Orthodox churches. I am, however, woefully ignorant of whether and how they serve as the focus of worship in the way that the statues of gods on Chinese altars do.

4. The invisibility of Japanese kami in Shinto is another case that clearly requires more detailed ethnographic study. I have ordered the books that Philip recommends, but they haven't arrived yet, and my personal impressions are sketchy.

The notions that fill my head at the moment suggest that kami are collective instead of personal deities. People do ask them for personal favors. But the process, at least as far as I have observed, it is nothing like as elaborate as its Chinese counterpart. The Japanese worshipper walks up to the front of the shrine, rings the bell, bows, prays, claps his or her hands, and tosses a coin in the offering box. In contrast, a Chinese worshipper looking for a serious favor from the god will prepare offerings of food and spirit money lay them on the table in front of the altar. She will then light incense, pray, and toss the divining blocks to assess the god's response. At the end of the rite, the food will be removed and the spirit money burned. The offerings give the Chinese rite a quid pro quo flavor that I do not detect in the Japanese rites, or recall from Protestant condemnation of the sale of indulgences in late-medieval Catholicism.

Clearly, if I continue this research, or if someone else wants to pick up the topic and run with it, more needs to be done to identify the contexts in which specific types of images appear and to examine in detail the kinds of ritualized behavior directed toward them. It occurs to me as I close that, whatever else people have in mind, when they talk about powerful art, visitors to art museums rarely if ever pause to bow toward paintings or sculptors or ask favors of the individuals depicted in them.

Once again, thanks to everyone, and especially to Phil, for getting my brain cells moving again.
Amiria Salmond writes,
we have another eloquent example of ontological incommensurability within a single culture - for either saints are their relics or they aren't - a point over which people fought (even died) over for centuries.

Could we pause a moment and try to sort out what we mean by "ontological incommensurability"? In one, very strong possible sense of this notion, two worlds are composed of entities and relationships between those entities that are so radically different that no communication between them is possible. This, however, cannot be the sense in which the notion is deployed here. People have, indeed, died for beliefs that others, with whom they were fighting didn't share. It is far from clear, however, that both those who died and those who didn't failed to understand what each other were fighting for.

I recall what was, to me, an important and educational moment. I was seventeen, in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, attending the Telluride Summer Program at Cornell University. That summer the topic was labor relations and I, so young and innocent, voiced the opinion that the world would be a better place if those involved in battles between labor and management would take the time to understand each other. The professor running the discussion (I wish that I could remember his name) replied, "It is, you know, possible for people to understand perfectly each other's position and to know that their positions are irreconcilable."

Much later I read Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton's observation re the need for common ground for political debate that, "If we are discussing patriarchy, by which you mean a system of social domination in which men are superior to women and I mean a small town in upstate New York, we are not having a political discussion."

When considering how the Chinese conceive of shen, the term usually translated "god" in discussions of Chinese religion, it is clearly important to realize that the entities so conceived are, indeed, ontologically incommensurate with Yahweh, Allah, or the Lord God Jehovah. The One God of the southwest Asian monotheisms is the Creator of the world. The world he creates is outside the God and the God is outside the world. In contrast, Chinese shen are not creators. They are part of the world, not outside it. Both the One God the Creator and the Chinese shen differ from the supreme deities envisioned by Hinduism who dream the world, which remains, as ultimately only a dream, inside them. And how all of the above relate to the "Our father who is in the rafters" described by Reo Fortune in Manus Religion is an interesting question, indeed. What is the ontological status of an ancestor who is worshipped only so long as his descendants remain alive and healthy—then, when one of them dies and takes his place, has his skull smashed and thrown into the sea, where, Fortune tells us, some believe it turns into a sea slug?

None of these considerations, however, prevents us from getting at least some handle on what the adherents of these various beliefs are talking about and where their differences lie. Or am I missing something here?
It occurs to me as I close that, whatever else people have in mind, when they talk about powerful art, visitors to art museums rarely if ever pause to bow toward paintings or sculptors or ask favors of the individuals depicted in them.

Just closing the comment, not the seminar. That's just getting started. Also "bow toward paintings or sculptors" [sic] should be "bow toward paintings or sculptures."
Justin and John, apologies for belated entry, but I have been away on a demanding business trip cum family holiday for the last week.

I read this piece some time ago in another context and liked it then, as now, for its fresh way of combining lots of different angles on the question. I am still not sure, however, what the question is behind the question, the meta-question. The tourist is a useful expositional device, but what is the real interest of her question? And behind the meta-question, there is the meta-meta-question of what religion is for. You could say that the answer lies in the reading. If the paper engages us in new and fruitful ways, that is its own reward. Who could disagree? So this hare is set running in case it opens up another angle on the rich technical discussion we have had so far.

Citing Robert Weller (1994 or 1996?) on p. 26, you say:

"At a deeper level these cases force us toward some position like Wolf ’s: that Chinese religious interpretation moves hand in hand with social experience" (1996: 21).

The classic Durkheimian vision in which religion mirrors society may be too simplistic. We now recognize that,

"Religion is not a reflex of Chinese social structure, or even of class, gender, or geographical position. It is instead part of an ongoing dialogue of interpretations, sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating" (1996:21).

Notice that here the relationship between religion and society seems to be an issue of meaning, interpretation, representation, reflection. And poor old Durkheim is reduced to the easily refutable claim that religion is just a mirror of society.

Now I think that The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Durkheim's last book, is the most radical of those left to us by the founders of classical social theory. It is his most neo-Kantian work, an attempt to address society from the perspective of individual participants. According to him, each of us is trapped in the everyday world that we know well, but we are also vaguely aware of a world that we don't know, a world of death, war, social revolution and economic catastrophe with which we would like to establish a meaningful relationship. Religion is that bridge between the known and the unknown. Ritual and belief help us to internalise the norms and values that underpin a stable relationship to society. Society, how we belong to each other, is the biggest unknown we would like to connect with. It is inside us, but mysterious. So we worship society and call it God. The sociologist's job is to help people to understand this relationship better and perhaps find more effective secular versions of religion like socialism.

This quick summary introduces elements that I find missing in the paper. Religion is literally a matter of life and death for believers. It is not just or even mainly an intellectual puzzle. The sociologist of religion, Durkheim in this case, is trying to achieve something of social consequence, a more stable moral foundation for the Third Republic's politics, education and national cohesion (something Hu Jintao would certainly identify with). Here, much more than in his positivist books of the 1890s, he envisages society as a project of subjective significance to its individual members. Religion is not simply a rich topic for intellectual or aesthetic contemplation. Hence my interest in the meta-questions behind the tourist's question.
Keith Hart writes,

The tourist is a useful expositional device, but what is the real interest of her question? And behind the meta-question, there is the meta-meta-question of what religion is for.

These are wonderful questions. Let me try to address them in the order in which they appear.

First, what is the real interest of the tourist's question. To me the real interest of the question lies in the tourist's location and the range of possible answers that her question suggests. Since Guan Di is a Chinese god and his temple is located in Yokohama's Chinatown, we look for one possible set of answers in things Chinese, Chinese society and culture. If we broaden our perspective a bit, however, we see a question motivated by differences between China and Japan, instead of differences in Chinese things alone. Then, if we step back further, we find ourselves considering answers broader still, with possible applications the length and breadth of Eurasia, possibly even worldwide. In this way, the arc that began with the functionalist rejection of the global explanations proposed by our 19th century predecessors and led us to the point where some now insist that the only possible anthropological explanations are local ones comes full circle. The locality in question, a Chinatown in Japan, a famous Japanese tourist destination with a temple that advertises itself online in Japanese, and visitors frequently include those who are neither Chinese nor Japanese, unsettles our notion of what the relevant context (community, society, culture; Chinatown, Japan, East Asia, the world) might be.

We may even find ourselves facing with your second question and taking a second look at what theorists like Durkheim, who like others among our ancestors conceived of anthropology as an inherently pan-human discipline, with things to say about humanity as a whole, actually had to say. And, as you so gracefully suggest, one of the barriers we confront are caricatures like "Durkheimian" that suggest such handy but spurious formulas as "religion is the mirror of society."

We may, then, discover that when Durkheim discussed religion, he also discussed its fraternal but despised twin—magic. Having begun to define religion, he pauses and notes that,

Magic, too, is made up of beliefs and rites. Like religion, it has its myths and its dogmas; only they are more elementary, undoubtedly because, seeking technical and utilitarian ends, it does not waste its time in pure speculation. It has its ceremonies, sacrifices, lustrations, prayers, chants and dances as well. The beings which the magician invokes and the forces which he throws in play are not merely of the same nature as the forces and beings to which religion addresses itself; very frequently, they are identically the same.

For students of what we now call "Chinese popular religion," Durkheim points to a serious issue. So much of what goes on in Chinese ritual and the temples dedicated to Chinese gods straightforwardly seeks "technical and utilitarian ends," and the interests pursued are, more often than not, private ones. Chinese intellectuals may follow the the model of Confucius and regard the rites as a better form of social control than violent coercion. They may note the passage in The Analects, where the Sage, in words admired both by Voltaire and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, asserts that while it is necessary for the gentleman to participate in rites as if the spirits are present, he need not concern himself with speculation about whether they really exist. The less powerful and skeptical seek long life, wealth and children or, when the need arises, help with everyday ambitions or misfortunes. Recall, for example, the lists of the sorts of requests for which the various deities enshrined in the Guan Di temple in Yokohama are supposed to be particularly efficacious.

Then, pause for a moment and reflect on the Protestant origins of that purified, neo-Kantian view of religion that Durkheim promotes. So much of what we see in Chinese temples and the rites through which Chinese worshippers address their gods is what, in another context, was called Papist superstition, then more politely labeled magic in classic sociological theory. If Chinese believers are mainly concerned whether the gods they worship are ling, i.e. efficacious, their belief as well as their practice is magical through and through, a fact that may help to explain why Christian missionaries and Confucian mandarins found common ground in regarding Chinese popular religion as mainly superstitious nonsense.

From this perspective, "Durkheimian" theory of religion could be taken as a kind of banal Unitarian-Universalist theology that has lots to say about establishing meaningful relationships but only so long as they are kept safely abstract, carefully isolated intellectually if not in practice, from the mundane worries of everyday life. Anthropological thinking that, in the name of being respectful, has banished "magic" and swept all ritual into a dustbin category called religion seems to me equally thin.

Resurrecting the use of "magic" to point to aspects of ritual that seem too personal, too instrumental, too interested to be reduced to generic values may be a hard slog. What else, I wonder, could we do?
John McCreery writes: Could we pause a moment and try to sort out what we mean by "ontological incommensurability"? In one, very strong possible sense of this notion, two worlds are composed of entities and relationships between those entities that are so radically different that no communication between them is possible. This, however, cannot be the sense in which the notion is deployed here. People have, indeed, died for beliefs that others, with whom they were fighting didn't share. It is far from clear, however, that both those who died and those who didn't failed to understand what each other were fighting for.

Well I guess it all comes down to what it means to 'understand' each other, John. Yes, I might be able to see that you are fighting me because you believe that my disrespect for your relics is a form of blasphemy. But that doesn't mean that I understand what it is to have someone smash, defile and defecate on my gods.

Note the ubiquity of that tricky little word 'belief' in accounts purporting to explain - or convey understanding of - things that appear to defy reason. Archaeologists are notorious for ascribing any configuration of objects that they can't otherwise explain to 'ritual' - a material expression of the '(religious) beliefs' of the people concerned. Similarly, when we anthropologists are asked to account for the seemingly bizarre assertions or practices of our informants, we frequently invoke the concept of belief to assert an understanding of why they do things differently from ourselves.

But what is a belief, in our (anthropological) terms? It's a concept normally invoked when we're at a loss as to how we might rescue our informants from coming across as irrational, superstitious, or illogical in their actions and claims. It's something that they hold to be true, but we don't, so we call it a 'belief' in an attempt to avoid having to contradict them. (Even if we have our own 'beliefs' we normally keep these strictly segregated from our 'knowledge' - though see Matthew Engelke's wonderful article on 'the Problem of Belief' for some partial exceptions to this rule in the work of Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner, who apparently felt that their own Catholicism gave them an extra edge in understanding the 'religious beliefs' of their informants.) Yet invoking 'beliefs' does not actually avoid the problem of ontological incommensurability. Because of course, as Philip pointed out somewhere, many of the people to whom we ascribe 'beliefs' don't see it that way - on the contrary, they regard themselves as being party to truths from which we may well (in their eyes) be excluded by stupidity, ignorance, moral depravity or lack of breeding.

This is where it gets all political, for surely it is more enlightened to relativize different truths as 'beliefs' in the event of conflict, rather than insisting on the authority of our own? But this is precisely where our neat segregations betray us, for our 'truth' is precisely this: that those who can't see their own beliefs for what they are (mere beliefs as opposed to universal truths) are less than us morally, philosophically and politically, and (at least according to anthropology's activist arm) require urgent educational interventions (think Swedish girls teaching Somali men about women's rights in Mogadishu) if not (according to our democratic governments) military suppression (think Al Qaeda). They certainly don't deserve our understanding.

And that's the rub. The most obviously incommensurable ontologies find expression in 'cultural forms' that even we anthropologists can't relativize - back to the old female circumcision, child slavery and genocide debates. We can talk about them (communicate) with their practitioners until the cows come home - we might even convince them that what they're doing is wrong, but I for one will never truly understand what it is to subscribe to the kinds of truths that make (for example) blowing oneself up in the name of god seem like a brilliant idea.

But these are only extreme cases, and versions of these kinds of impasses occur constantly in ethnography as in everyday life. You and I share a small and rather specialized discipline, yet we don't agree about what it is that we actually study (i.e. how reality presents itself as an object of anthropological attention). We can still communicate, we might even one day achieve understanding (because people's ontologies can change), but you'll never see things through my eyes, and I'll never see them through yours. This is hardly surprising, since even - or perhaps especially - in domestic situations, people 'talk past' each other, 'miss the point' and generally fail to understand each other on a daily basis, where all kinds of shared and not-shared ontological factors are at play (truths about fatherhood, women's roles, the importance of God in our lives, what it is to be valued as a person and all the other things over which families fight).

As for your professor who said "It is, you know, possible for people to understand perfectly each other's position and to know that their positions are irreconcilable". Obviously I would have to agree, if the idea of trying to get to grips with others' ontologies is to get off the ground. I hope it is possible to 'understand' or at least 'get a handle on' other ontological positions that are incommensurable with your own without either actually coming to occupy them, or reducing them to mere 'beliefs'.

But the only way to do this, I'm convinced, is to start from a position that acknowledges that others' truths are just as true as yours are - others' realities (at least potentially) just as real. And this is a very difficult thing to do (perhaps particularly for those raised in cultural relativist traditions, accustomed as they are to insisting on the authority of their own assumptions about the status of 'culture', 'meaning' and 'beliefs' in general, vis-a-vis 'the world'). But it's probably a whole lot easier for us anthropologists to do it than say for philosophers or scientists, since after all, it's not actually our job to act as ontological arbiters - to pronounce authoritatively on what 'is' - is it?
Thanks John for sharing your paper. I like the format of this--especially the "leisurely pace," as Justin puts it. Much more amenable to the end of the semester.

Anyway, one part that I wanted to comment on was where you were talking about the art collector Keith Stevens on pgs 15-17.

His statements, first of all, reminded me of some of the tour guides at sites like Chichen Itza, where there are often a plethora of different stories and interpretations of the archaeological remains, histories, etc. So what this means is that all of the tourists who file through these sites come away with a vastly different (and sometimes pretty colorful) understanding of these places, all based upon what they see as "official" interpretations. This sounds pretty similar to the temple custodians here. There are always the official meanings, and then there are the unofficial, popular, incorrect, or contested meanings. My guess is that these kinds of alternative and conflicting dialogues have been ongoing for some time--so meaning-making has to be about power at some point or another, or the ability to actually define and control definitions and narratives.

I also thought that it was interesting that many of the carvers and shop owners were not quite clear about the actual meanings (official meanings at least) and stories behind the specific material artifacts in their shops. This actually reminds me of my own home town--sure, I know the larger histories of the region, and the histories of the town, but there are plenty of material artifacts (buildings, statues, etc) that I could not really tell you much about without looking at the plaque that's attached! So it's interesting to think about the role that specific material objects play in larger collective histories--especially if access to those objects is limited, or if access to information about them is limited.

Anyway, I'll post something else about this later. The anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards does some great work on materiality--especially in relation to photography. Her work on photographs is really fascinating to me because she looks at them in terms of how they are used and understood socially--literally how photographs are passed around as objects, how they can be used as memory aids, etc. It's interesting to think about the imagery of material culture vs the social uses and understandings--and of course where there is overlap between the two.

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