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Denial of Death: Affirmation of Life

Author(s): David Turner, John Morton and Warren Shapiro

Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 521-526
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
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Skar, H.O. & F. Salomon (eds). 1987. Natives and
neighbors in South America: anthropological essays
(Etnol. Stud. 38). Go5teborg: Etnografiska
Denial of death: affirmation of life
Warren Shapiro's article 'Ritual kinship, ritual in-
corporation and the denial of death' (Man (N.S.) 23,
275-97) is, to my mind, itself an attempt to escape
the clutches of the Grim Reaper. Shapiro is trying
to save what is probably the most inapplicable of all
paradigms forAboriginal studies, extensionistkinship
theory, from the undertaker who would finally lay
it to rest. This is not 'alliance theorists' as he suggests
but the very data on which his essay is founded,
namely 'spint-finding', 'totemic clans' and 'pseudo-
procreation'. The attempt is, it is to be hoped, one
ofthe last gasps ofthe Euro-American imperialisation
of Australian Aboriginal studies.
The claim that Scheffler's Australian kin classfication
and Heath's The language of kinship in
tralia are 'a landmark, not only in the time-honoured
study of Aboriginal kinship but also in certain other
areas of anthropological theory' (p. 275), and that
the validity of extensionist assumptions with regard
to Aboriginal studies is now 'settled' would startle
many Australiamsts. I have in mind T. G.H. Strehlow
(who would turn over in his grave at the prospect),
Kenneth Maddock and Robert Tonkinson, to name
but three.
The problem, it seems to me, is that Abongines
deny material determination of social relations and
'culture' at every turn, while the extensionist para-
digm requires it; Aborigines operate within an
alter-oriented universe of pre-established institu-
tional ties focused on Land in which E/ego is
pre-situated in a positive relation to 'other' while the
extensionist paradigm, as the term implies, insists that
'kinship' relations proceed from an E/ego-centre (or
a socio-centre the principle is the same) outward
in a pragmatic way to incorporate wider and wider
circles of 'classificatory' kin.
Extensionists began the modification oftheir para-
digm by positing that the genealogical relations at
issue here could be real or 'culturally-posited' (Schef-
fler 1972: 113). This caveat was introduced to cover
the possibility that other peoples may have very
different conceptions of conception from ourselves,
the presumption being that were they to learn the
'true' facts of the case they would adjust their think-
ing accordingly. Now they move a step further,
trailing after the now-established, but awkward from
the paradigm's point ofview, 'fact' that 'spirit-matter'
and the like constituted a distinct order of reality
separate from 'kinship'. But instead of seeing this
order as dissolving 'kinship', Shapiro situates it over
and above 'kinship' as an autonomous domain oper-
ating according to certain laws whose identity he
fails to define (p. 280).
To obfuscate his purpose Shapiro invents an
enemy, those dastardly 'affiance theorists' (not
named) who presumably fall to acknowledge both
'kinship' or 'spintuality'. These theonsts he lumps
together with the 'cultural materialhsts' and the per-
petrators of ideas of the 'patrilocal band'. I am sure
Levi-Strauss would be surprised indeed to find him-
selfin bed with Marvin Harris. The irony, of course,
is that it is the 'alfiance theonsts' who pointed out
the distinction between 'genealogy' and 'category'
in Australian and other societies (see Needham 1966:
Even in his treatment of the level of the 'spiritual'
Shapiro exhibits the same imperialising tendency.
He not only insists that Aboriginal cosmology, by
denying maternity, 'must therefore demgrate
women, or, more specifically, the female reproduc-
tive tract', but also that 'both Chnstian and
Aboriginal theorists denigrate men as co-conspirators
in the act of bodily procreations' (p. 276). In my
view, in the transcendence of kinshlp to determina-
tion of human relations by supra-natural Forms,
Aboriginal people elevate both men and women
(despite culturally fabricated lllusions of inequality)
to the status of the possible in the human condition
(Turner 1985/87; 1989).
Finally, to say that Aboriginal people 'incorporate'
is but another projection. The new-born is not in-
corporated into the cult-lodge of the 'spirit-finder'
or the 'father' or whomever, but, in my expenence,
is already and always there and, through birth, simply
finds his/her way back into the matenal world after
a sojourn in another of the same order if different
substance. Initiation and other ceremonies merely
cement the connexion that rebirth in matenal form
implies. This is not so much a denial of death as an
affirmation of rebirth.
There seems to be a lot of scurrying going on at
the moment to save old paradigms from the onslaught
of the 'discovery' of Aboriginal spintual reality (see,
for instance, Testart's attempted appropnation to
Marxism in Current Anthropology (29/1). A similar
effort may well occur in aliiance theory too. What
is required, however, is a break from all these 'isms'
of ours.
David Turner
University of Toronto
Maddock, Kenneth 1972. The Australian
a portrait of their society. London: Allen Lane, the
Penguin Press.
Needham, Rodney 1966. Age, category and descent.
Bijdr Taal-, Land- Volkenk. 122, 1-35.
Relmng, P. (ed.) 1972. Kinship in the Morgan
Centennial Year. Washington.
Strehlow, T.G.H. 1971. Songs of Central Australia.
Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Scheffler, Harold W. 1972. Systems of kin
classification. In Reining 1972.
Testart, Alain 1988. Some major problems in the
social anthropology of hunter-gatherers. Curr.
Anthrop. 1, 1-31.
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Tonkinson, Robert 1978. The MardudjaraAborigines:
living the dream in Australia's desert. New York:
Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Turner, David H. 1985/87. Life before genesis: a
conclusion. New York: Peter Lang.
1989. Return to Eden: a journey through the
Promised Landscape ofAmagalyuagba. New York:
Peter Lang.
In his article (Man (N.S.) 23,275-97) Warren Shapi-
ro explores the role of death in social reproduction
among Australian Aborigines. In an earlier article,
'The effectiveness oftotemism' (Man (N.S.) 22,453-
74), I explored a similar theme, and I have since
expanded on that theme elsewhere (1987; in press).
So discordant are the conclusions drawn by Shapiro
and myself from our forays into key areas of Abo-
riginal ethnography that I feel bound to call attention
to what I regard as some serious flaws in his argu-
Central to Shapiro's article is the idea, borrowed
from Ernest Becker, that all men seek immortality
through the denial of death. In the Aboriginal case
it is said that the inescapable fate of death is 'an
intolerable state of affairs' giving rise to 'desperate
fantasy' (283) and 'death-denying edifices' (291) in
the shape of ritual lodges which ensure that mortal
humans become immortal ancestors destined ever to
renew themselves.
There is no doubt that Aborigines stress an ideal
of permanence in respect of their ancestral beings
and cult lodges, but how far can we attribute this to
a denial of death? I find no direct evidence for this
proposition in Shapiro's article, though I can cite
evidence that suggests the contrary. For example, the
usual Aboriginal practice of expunging a person's
name from discourse is surely enough to suggest that,
generally, Aborigines affirm death. As one of T.G.H.
Strehlow's informants once said, in opposition to
Christian doctrine: 'All of us die and are annihilated
for ever; and there is no resurrection for us' (1947:
A second central point in Shapiro's article is that
there is a fundamental split between female corpo-
reality and male spirituality. 'Aboriginal cosmology
... gives temporal and ontological dominance to the
spiritual over the bodily, to pseudo-procreation [in
male ritual] over procreation; ... it must therefore
denigrate women, or, more specifically, the female
reproductive tract' (276). '[F]emales are more bodily
than males, who for their part are more spiritual than
their sisters' (277). 'Because women are more pro-
foundly involved in the process of "natural"
procreation ... their role in folk ontology has a de-
cidedly negative valence. At best their sexuality is
seen as providing only the all-too-mortal raw ma-
terial upon which pseudo-procreative fantasy acts'
Shapiro knows such views are contestable, though
he relegates contrary evidence to the status of ex-
ception (277). Yet the evidence in favour is not
produced at all. That various aspects of cult life are
dominated by men is not in doubt, but it is ques-
tionable to assume thereby that women's roles in
pregnancy, birth and child-rearing are not commen-
surate with the spiritualresponsibilities ofmen. How,
for example, would Shapiro's scheme be able to
account for the common spiritual tie of siblings born
from, and raised by, one mother, whose personal
spirit fosters the welfare of those brothers and sisters
(Carl Strehlow 1908: 57)? Clearly, there is no dis-
missive 'misogyny' here.
Looking at the matter from a different direction,
Shapiro says that men are normally patrifihiated to
the ritual lodges of their genitors, regardless of con-
ception identity. He finds this apparently 'surprising'
(280), because of the strong recognition it gives to
physical paternity, and thus to corporeality. Shapiro
is, of course, correct to emphasise the importance of
bodily procreation here, but his surprise is condi-
tioned by the spuriously aligned dualisms between,
on the one hand, body and spirit, and women and
men on the other. There is no evidence that such
aligned dualisms exist, and it is beyond me how
anyone familiar with the use ofthe body in Australian
initiation rites (circumcision, subincision, scarifica-
tion, etc.) can suggest that the body itself is not the
bearer of spiritual qualities. It is simply not enough
to try to avoid the problems by saying that 'men,
because of their pseudo-procreative commitment,
are deemed to be relatively-though not absolute-
ly-noncarnal' (281).
Shapiro also calls attention to 'the separation of
humanity from animality ... in Aboriginal thought',
which has been obscured by 'a century of flim-flam
on "totemism"'. Animals, he suggests, are 'socialised'
in Australian totemism: humans are not 'animalised'
(284). Animals, because they are not morally or-
ganised, stand in complete opposition to humanity
and 'provide metaphorical derogation for foreign
people' (284): they are 'absolute outsiders' (285).
I find this reduction of 'a century of flim-flam on
totemism' quite extraordinary. This may not be the
time to renovate Levy-Bruhl, but if animals really
are 'absolute outsiders', just how are we to account
for such classic totemic statements as 'I am a kanga-
roo'? Have Aboriginal informants been saying all
these years that they are only 'outsiders'? Clearly not,
because such statements are about one's inner or
hidden identity. 'I am a kangaroo' means nothing if it
is not a profession of one's own identity, and the
statement thus 'animalises' humanity. The question
of morality in such a context is much more complex
than Shapiro would have us believe. (See, for
example, Strehlow's [1947: 1-46] now long-standing
analysis, which makes clear that men identify with
totemic beings precisely because such heroes are in
some fundamental sense amoral.)
These three areas are not the only problematic
ones in Shapiro's article, but they are sufficient to
call in question the general drift of his discussion.
Given the problems, what are we to make of his
central thesis that ritual incorporation into lodges
counteracts 'the minimisation of the self' in
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Aboriginal and anthropological realities (see ab-
stract)? Everything hinges here on the way Shapiro
constructs his key terms 'fetishisation' and 'pseudo-
'Fetishisation' comes from Becker and is tied to
'the psychoanalytic notion of "transference"' (276).
The gist of the argument is that in the fetishisation
of cult objects, the landscape and ritual lodges, men
overcome their morbid fear of death by investing
themselves in 'eternal bodies' (287). Thus the trans-
ference takes effect by the projection ofthe 'self into
enduring objects (cf Munn 1970), which thereafter
embody an immortal 'self 'a definition of oneself
in terms of a posited Enduring Object' (291).
Yet, that the dissolution of the self is premissed on
the 'definition of oneself in an object is in question.
It appears, in fact, that the dissolution of the self may
be absolute: one dies and that is all there is to itfrom
the point of view of the self But since it is undeniable
that Aborigines proj ect somethinginto their 'Enduring
Objects', what could this 'something' be?
Freudian theory is not really concerned with
'multiple selves': it is primarily concerned with the
growth of the self (the ego) out of a situation where
there is no
sef (the, id). But psychoanalysis is also
concerned with the opposite process-the deflation
ofthe self (death) and the return to a state ofnon-self
This latter process is mediated by the super-ego, an
agency set up against the ego or 'self. It was precisely
the construction and maintenance of the super-ego
that I showed in my own article in Man to be critical
in the understanding of the male cult. Put simply, I
suggest that totemic lodges are not about construct-
ing 'Enduring Objects' carrying immortal 'selves':
they are precisely what Aborigines say they are-en-
during forms which are 'not their idea' because they
come from others (mythical beings) (cf. Myers 1986).
We should, I think, listen hard to Aborigines when
they say that they truly become mythical creatures in
their cult activities, because the notion at least makes
more sense than the contradictory idea that 'the
dissolution of the self leads to 'the definition of
oneself (291). Rather, the dissolution of the self
occurs in ritual when men become other than them-
selves: it is this otherwhich is projected into 'Enduring
If we find this non-lineal conception difficult
(steeped as we may be in the ideas of 'personal
creativity' and 'the autonomy of the ego'), that is
insufficient reason for doubting its truth. Aborigines
employ totemic metaphors not only to derngrate
others, but to celebrate the fact that they are others.
They employ these metaphors consistently in rela-
tion to the body, although totemic spirituality differs
in accordance with sex and age. As Shapiro says, both
men and women have both spirits and bodies, but
there is no evidence of quantitative inequality.
Rather, it is simply a question of the way in which
body and spirit are articulated in each case and of
how these articulations are geared towards reproduc-
tion. Thus construed, even the once useful notion
of 'pseudo-procreation' has to be questioned, be-
cause men no more 'pseudo-procreate' than do
women: both are involved in the employment of
sexual and totemic metaphors to symbolise their
respective responsibilities to reproduction.
Although I find many other aspects of Shapiro's
article problematic-in particular the sustained com-
parison of Aboriginal and Catholic theologies and
the assertion that ritual lodges have nothing at all to
do with alliance (282)-I will refrainfrom comment-
ing on them at length. Suffice it to say that it is hard
to know why Aborigines spend so much time de-
fining their territorial relations in terms of sacred
sites, whose maintenance is guaranteed through re-
production, if these sites have nothing to do with
marriage alliances. Suffice it also to say that it is
equally hard to know why Aborigines have bothered
to resist the encroachments of mainstream Christian
influence if the latter is so in tune with their indigen-
ous conceptions. Like any other anthropologist,
Shapiro is entided to project his own theological
concerns about men's lives and descent onto Abo-
riginal people, but only if that projection can be
substantiated with evidence otherwise anthropo-
logy will be reduced to the status of mission activity.
I fear, however, that all Shapiro has managed to do
is to introduce an alien totemism into Australia: his
story tells of the journey of too many red herrings
searching for an elusive 'Enduring Object'. But as
Aborigines remind us, such objects have a life or
death of their own, depending on whether they
embody the truth.
John Morton
Macquarie University
Berndt, R.M. (ed.) 1970. Australian anthropology:
modem studies in the social anthropology of the
Australian Aborigines. Perth: Univ. of Western
Australia Press.
Morton, John 1987. Singing subjects and sacred
objects: more on Munn's 'transformation of
subjects into objects' in CentralAustralian myth.
Oceania 58, 100-18.
in press. Singing subjects and sacred objects:
a psychological interpretation of the
'transformation of subjects into objects' in
Central Australian myth. Oceania.
Munn, N.D. 1970. The transformation of subjects
into objects in Walbiri and Pitjantjatjara myth.
In Berndt 1970.
Myers, F.R. 1986. Pintupt country, Pintupi self
sentiment, place, and politics among Western Desert
Aborigines. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press.
Strehlow, Carl 1908. DieAranda- undLoritja-Stdmme
in Zentral Australien. 2, Mythen, Sagen und
Mdrchen des Loritja-Stdmmes, die totemistischen
Vorstellungen und die Tjurunga der Aranda und
Loritja. Frankfurt am Main: Joseph Baer.
Strehlow, T.G.H. 1947. Aranda traditions. Melbourn:
Univ. Press.
The gravamen ofTurner's critique ofmy article (Man
(N.S.) 23, 275-97), and some of Morton's remarks
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as well, turn upon my assertion that a dichotomy of
body and spirit, and a related cleft between kinship
and pseudo-procreation, can be found not only in
Christian theology but also in its Aboriginal counter-
part. Morton makes the important point that
Aborigines make ritual use ofthe body, which there-
fore cannot be dichotomously related to spirit. This
requires modification, though not abandonment of
my original formulation. Following Rosaldo and
Atkinson (1975: 70-1), I would now argue that spiri-
tual value is indeed attached to the body-more
specifically, to violation ofits boundaries-when that
violation is seen to be undergone voluntarily, i.e.
within one's control, and from the outside of the
body, as in Aboriginal circumcision, subincision,
scarification and tooth-evulsion. When, by contrast,
violation is seen as beyond one's control and coming
from inside the body, as with defecation, menstru-
ation and birthinig, it is likely to be regarded as
quintessentially anti-spiritual. These propositions
deserve cross-cultural test, and are meant to counter
Mary Douglas's Durkheimian analyses of body sym-
bolism (Douglas 1966; 1970).
Hence I agree with Morton that Aboriginal
'women's roles in pregnancy, birth and child-rearing
are ... commensurate with the spiritual responsi-
bilities of men': indeed, many of the latter are
symbolic derivatives of the former (Beckett 1967;
Hiatt 1971; Shapiro 1981: 67-8). But such meta-
phorical equivalents should not be taken to indicate
the absence of gender hierarchy based upon local
notions of relative spirituality: some of the com-
parative materials employed in my article make just
this point. Similarly, I join Turner in insisting that
incorporation' is a fantasy; indeed, it is one which
is widely encountered in Aboriginal ritual life, espe-
cially where men so mime women's reproductive
career (see esp. Hiatt 1975). And Aboriginal thought
does indeed posit ritual lodge affiliation both before
'initiation'-in fact before birth-and after death:
the point is made at several places in my article (see
also Shapiro in press). But I suggest that this thought
also takes account of such contingencies as recalci-
trant young men and disinterested bodily remains
(Warner 1937: 435-42). To argue thatsuch emphases
on incorporative symbolism 'merely cement the con-
nexion that rebirth in material form implies' is to
play everyman's 'social scientist' (Shapiro 1971)
and-what's worse-to miss the subtleties of other
worlds which one claims to penetrate.
But if the notion of 'incorporation' is to be ques-
tioned on the grounds that, in Aboriginal theory, a
human being 'simply finds his/her way back into the
material world after a sojourn in another of ... dfferent
substance' (emphases added)-if, in other words,
Aboriginal thought posits two separate ontological
realms-why is it an 'imperialisation' ofthat thought
to recognise the distinction?
Though it could be thicker, there is indeed evi-
dence that Aboriginal thought distinguishes yet more
widely between two realisms which are reasonably
glossed as 'spirit' and 'body', or 'spiritual existence'
and 'temporal existence', and that although kinship
idioms figure in both realms, their primary denotata
lie in the 'temporal' one. Thus in northeast Arnhem
Land the term dawu ('story') covers both what I
would render as 'myths' and what I would render as
'presumed historical events'. But these renderings are
not only mine: informants often pointed out, after a
particular narration, that the 'story' just told was not
from 'the present age' (diyangu bala) but rather from
wanggarr, bokmanangu ('the creative age') or-most
frequently, in Aboriginal pidgin-'the Dreaming'.
Although kin-terms are used with 'Dreaming' beings
as both egos and alters, there is compelling evidence
that 'temporal' connexions of a kinship order provide
their focal referents (Shapiro 1981: 38-41). Using
the pubhshed materials, Scheffler (1978: 524-31) has
made a closely comparable case for the Walbiri of
the Central Desert. Hence the tentative conclusion
can be drawn that 'the Dreaming' is not-as Turner
claims I claim-'an autonomous domain': it is derived
from the 'temporal' domain, its kinship elements and their
logical connexions. Comparable materials from Chris-
tian thinking are presented in my article.
Thus extensionist theory is by nio means inapplic-
able to the Aboriginal data, among others; indeed,
as I have argued elsewhere (Shapiro 1982), it comes
far closer to unearthing an 'atom of kinship' which
alliance theory, of which Turner (1980 and else-
where) is so fond, has claimed but utterly failed to
deliver. As such it has major significance for a theory
of humanity: it argues for the time-honoured notion
of the psychic unity of mankind (Lounsbury 1969),
and for the related contention that human thought
is partly independent of its social and cultural envi-
ronments (Shapiro 1982:284).
Contrary, then, to Turner's romantic image, Abo-
riginal thought posits both 'ties focused on land' and
ego-centred kinship relations. This is the contrast I
pressed in my article between pseudo-procreation
and procreation. Aboriginal pseudo-procreative the-
ory is friendlier to the self-maintenance programmes
of both male Aborigines and male anthropologists:
hence the immense appeal of its alliance theory ren-
ditions, despite their enormous empirical and logical
deficiencies (Hiatt 1968; Scheffler 1973: 780-86;
Shapiro 1979: 89-99: n.d.). But, outside of ritual
activity and certainly in residential alignments and
the politics of marriage, ego-centred relations are far
more salient (Hiatt 1965; 1967; Meggitt 1962; Shapi-
ro 1973; 1981).
In the process of thus mangling the ethnographic
materials, Turner also does injustice to the history
of anthropological thought. Scholarly contest be-
tween extensionists and alliance theorists is not my
invention: it is a matter of published record for at
least three decades. Homans and Schneider (1955)
versus Needham (1962) began the games, at least in
their modern guise, though I am sure Needham is
able to find ancient antecedents. The pertinent lit-
erature is so extensive, and so irrelevant to the main
thrusts of my article, that I thought it unnecessary to
supply a full combat-record. Turner partly fills the
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gap by evoking Needham's hackneyed genea-
logy/category opposition, the value of which has
been given its due appreciation by Scheffler (1978:
Similarly, five pages of Marvin Harris's Cultural
materialism (Harris 1979: 80-4) bear afairresemblance
to Levi-Strauss's major kinship tome. There are the
further considerations, to which I allude in my article,
that neither Harris nor Levi-Strauss has shown much
interest in human emotional life; and that thls ties
them to a wide variety of other anthropologists and
to what appear to be certain avoided grounds of
anthropological inquiry (Epstein n.d.; Palgi & Ab-
ramovitch 1984: 385).
Morton's critique, by contrast, raised some re-
markable interpretive issues. Statements in which
Abongines seem to identify with an animal species-
'I am a kangaroo'-need to be analysed far more
carefully than has been the case. I should guess that,
at the very least, complete identification-'I am
nothing but a kangaroo'-is out of the question. But
even if the implied statement is something like 'I am,
in some fundamental sense, a kangaroo', we still need
to know whether an extant or an archetypical form
is intended, for the two are usually seen quite chf-
ferently. Thus in Radcliffe-Brown's classic analysis
ofthe Eaglehawk/Crow moiety opposition in West-
ern Australia (Radcliffe-Brown 1958: 114-15),
Eaglehawk is WF to Crow; yet Aborigines surely
know that male eaglehawks sire other eaglehawks,
and that these mate with still others and not with
crows. Similarly, I must assume that, in Central Aus-
tralia, a distinction is made between non-human
kangaroos, who mate with one another, and human
'kangaroos', who may not do so. Still, as I endnoted
in my article (292), increase rites in Central Australia
and elsewhere (Morton 1987a) call into question my
argument that extant animals are outside the purview
of ritual lodges, and Morton is right to bring this
into bolder relief
Strehlow's informant's comment (Strehlow 1947:
45) is indeed remarkable, but not for the reason
Morton avers. Morton has elsewhere (1987b; in
press) discussed Aranda notions of rebirth and
'Dreaming' reinstantiation, so I presume he is not
here claimnng that the Aranda generally posit a finality
to death. Rather, the comment has indeed to be
considered 'in opposition to Christian doctrine'-
and assertion of Abonginal identity in the face of
interrogation by a Christian clergyman. A similar
interpretation can readily be made of the more
general rejection in Aboriginal Australia of Christian
theology, even 'if the latter is ... in tune with ...
indigenous conceptions'. I take it as granted that,
despite the massive record of religious assimilation
in the world, there are also innumerable cases of
symbolic assertion of differences; and that neither
Morton nor I can specify the conditions under which
one or the other response will occur.
Morton's interpretation as death-affirming the
taboo on using the names of the recently dead re-
quires far more support. I can make a perhaps equally
plausible-and equally abbreviated-argument that
this selfsame usage is death-denying, on the grounds
that it suggests not that the deceased once existed
but that he/she neverexisted. Compare Gorer (1976)
on 'the pornography of death' in the modem West.
Warren Shapiro
Rutgers University
Beckett, J. 1967 Marriage, circumcision and
avoidance among the Maljangaba of northwest
New South Wales. Mankind 6, 456-64.
Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and danger. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul.
1970. Natural symbols. London: Cresset
Epstein, A.L. n.d. Anthropological paradigms and
the image of man. Unpublished manuscript.
Gorer, G. 1976. The pornography of death. In
Schneidman 1970.
Harris, M. 1979. Cultural materialism. New York:
Random House.
Hiatt, L.R. 1965. Kinship and conflict: a study of an
Aboriginal community in northern Amhem Land.
Canberra: Australian National Univ. Press.
1967. Authority and reciprocity in
Australian Aboriginal mamage arrangements.
Mankind 6, 468-75.
1968. Gidjingali marriage settlements. In
Lee & DeVore 1968.
1971. Secret pseudo-procreation rites
among the Australian Abongines. In Hiatt &
Jayawardena 1971.
Swallowing and regurgitation in Australian
myth and rite. In Australian Aboriginal mythology.
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Towards an anthropology of technology
For two main reasons, Pfaffenberger's paper (Man
(N.S.) 23, 236-52) was a good surprise. First, to
read about technology in an English-speaking an-
thropological journal is a sort of an event; second,
there's really nothing to disagree with in the author's
theoretical views on the topic. Demonstrating that
to consider technology as a given is a dead-end, and
using key-words as 'choices', 'system' or 'knowl-
edge and know-how' gives-to me-the right
image of what technology is made from and why
it is definitely a 'social construction'. Furthermore,
by pointing at the 'interpenetration of technology
with social forms and systems of meaning', and by
raising the issue of the social dimension of both
failed and successful technologies, Pfaffenberger
evokes crucial questions for the contemporary ap-
proach to technological systems.
The bad news is that, even with the help of a
computer search of Sociological Abstracts, a specialist
can obviously miss basic writings on the subject, and
be unaware of less fundamental but numerous pub-
lications on research currently in progress. For some
reason, it happens that pioneers in the field were
French scholars and although they often published
in their strange language, going through their work
is still an inescapable preliminary to anthropological
investigations on technology. As 'anthropologists [ ...]
have been slow to detect the hidden influence of
technological somnambulism and determinism', we
had better stop periodicaliy reinventing the wheel,
in order to accelerate our researches before the com-
plete disappearance of traditional technologies.
Thus, it is a pity that, quoting Mauss's Essai sur le
don, Pfaffenberger omits this author's 'Les techniques
du corps' (1934, easily accessible in English, 1979)
which is the classical paper in the matter. Likewise,
one cannot ignore either Leroi-Gourhan (1943; 1945;
1964; 1965) who, years ago, set the pace for both
theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of
homo technicus, Haudricourt (1962; 1964; 1988), whose
ethnoscientific insights promoted the study of social
representations of technology, or Gille (1978) who
devoted hundreds of pages to demonstrate the impli-
cations of the systemic side of technology throughout
history. It is also to be remembered that research on
the anthropology of technology is often-if not most-
ly-carried out by historians and archaeologists who
prove to pay more attention to the subject than eth-
nologists, economists or philosophers. For example,
one can greatly profit from J. Needham's work on
China or from having a look at the current debate on
'style' and 'function' in the Journal of Anthropological
Archaeology, not to mention fieldwork done by 'eth-
noarchaeologists' or the theoretical views of the
Cambridge so-called 'contextual archaeologists' (even
though they are sometimes excessive; see comments
by Yengoyan 1985).
The Sri Lankan example itself is another good and
well-documented demonstration that forces of pro-
duction and social relations of production cannot be
disconnected from each other. But it may not be the
best illustration of Pfaffenberger's own theoretical
framework: the literature being what it is, the an-
thropology of technology has no longer to prove
that material culture (by the way, why abandon this
expression?) is a social production and is made of
'choices'. As the author himself suggested, it is now
time to investigate how and where technological
choices take place. This implies, of course, the study
of 'technological knowledge' of societies, as well as
social relations of production; but it also makes it
necessary to pay the greatest attention to cultural
aspects of physical actions and their impact on the
material world. Strangely enough, the anthropology
of technology cannot escape the most detailed ob-
servation, description and analysis of technological
behaviour! There, too, is social meaning.
Last, taking the risk of appearing a little more
chauvinistic, I cannot resist suggesting interested
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