Tuesday, December 07, 2004

On Scholarship as a vacuum

This one, pulled from the unpublished archives, goes out to Eric in response to his post on "Theorese."

Response to Doty: “The Cosmological Human Body: Biogenetic and Cultural Factors”

There are times when you have to stop and wonder whether anyone knows how to write clear academic prose anymore. Doty’s “Cosmological Human Body” reads like narratology. Abstraction is abused to no real end outside the confusion (or amusement) of the reader [thanks to Doty we can now discuss “particular parts” and “enacted performance” (as opposed to non-specific parts and latent performance)]. It is a genuine effort to carve away from his unnatural prose all the filler and senseless abstraction, and once that is done very little of value remains.

Put plainly he claims in the introduction that the human body is central to cosmology. This is hardly addressed and its ‘recognition’ gets us nowhere. Early on he claims that human physical nature both influences and interacts with the social/universal aspects of myth and ritual. The body in essence becomes a model. Culture and biology are non-exclusive determinants of what is characteristically human. Further, comparison with animal nature yields helpful data toward understanding the use of the body in ritual as both a link to and a microcosm of the universal. However, “Ritualization” among non-human animals is merely a helpful model that must not be given too much weight. Finally, the human body is correlative to one’s social structure, existing as an individualized code which makes the universal immediate. The apparent lack of ritual among moderns is an illusion: we simply have different types of ritual. So far so good. Now one should expect evidence beyond the scattered theoretical ramblings of scholars across several fields.

Instead we are told that the colors white, red and black have symbolic significance because they represent presumably sperm, blood and excrement, each of which (in some indeterminable way) relates to an intensity of emotion and hence power. The body is the source of all expressions of the social and universal (somehow, though he never quite says how or relates the sperm-blood-excrement triad with the rest of this disconnected section). He feels content then to move on to the social ramifications of what he has failed to prove.

Social themes develop from the human life cycle, of which themes three shall be considered: 1) suckling; 2) gender differences; and 3) the family’s role in establishing social class. All three are treated carelessly and there is no real reference to the body as cosmological symbol. Breasts show up in stories, boys and girls play differently—possibly because of their genitals—, and the ‘family’ of gods is at odds on gender lines. Never mind that his mythological facts are wrong [Gaia, not Hera bore Typhon. Hephaestus is the product of virgin birth at Hesiod 927, but is fathered by Zeus in Homer. And to call the leg of Zeus (in the account of Dionysus) his “genital region” is quite a stretch], and that his choice of evidence seems randomly selected. The real question is what has any of this to do with “the cosmological human body?”

The answer shall never be found. Myth is simply a response to the tensions and complexities of society in bodily terms. Doty does not feel the need to tell us how. Further, his claim at last that myth is a medium of communication is not new, and is not derived from anything he has said. Again, the disconnected conclusion of this section bears no relation to what precedes, but seems forced to connect myth and ritual somehow with the modern world.

‘Ludic liminality’ is the same. Doty believes that “play” is an essential component of life, and that sports and hobbies are pale substitutes. ‘Real’ play is an active participation in myth and ritual. There is no justification for this, and no connection with the chapter as a whole. Again, what has any of this to do with “the cosmological human body?”

Perhaps we must explore the personal/individual/restricted code by which liminality is universalized, whereby one might perhaps envisage, in essence, a peremptory acting-out of the transpersonal modes of what one might indeed call ritualistic polarities.

Or something.

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