Friday, January 28, 2011

Mellon Seminar Reflection 11: Rites of Passage

I spent last week reading older materials published in the early 1900s and then in the 1960s about rites of passage (life crisis, induction, and calendrical rites). I found the material exhilarating. I went back to Arnold van Gennep who wrote a book in French in 1908, The Rites of Passage. I found the work to be very complex and thought-provoking which I wasn't expecting. The experience makes me even more determined to study materials written before 1960 (or some might even say 1980). Just because we have learned some things since then, doesn't mean that the older studies have no value or that their methodological approaches are empty.

I also learned that we need to reread these materials because their reception history in secondary literature has misread or devalued the original material in such a way that the secondary discourse no longer is faithful to the old author. For instance, in van Gennep's work, I found very complex and nuanced thinking, far more than contemporary references to him grant him. His biggest 'receiver' was Victor Turner who famously studied the 'limen' or state of marginality that novices-intitiates find themselves in when going through rites of passage. Turner refers again and again to van Gennep in one brilliant essay after another, crediting van Gennep with the idea that rites of passage are characterized by three stages: a stage of separation from normalcy; a stage of liminality or marginality; and a stage of aggregation into normalcy restructured.

Van Gennep does say this, but not quite as directly as we are led to believe. He, in fact, nuances it substantially. First he analyzes these three, not as stages or phases, but as three kinds of rites of passage, thereby subdividing rites of passage into rites of separation, transition, and incorporation. He explains that these types of rites of passage are not developed to the same extent by all people in every ceremonial pattern. Rites of separation are prominent in funeral ceremonies, rites of incorporation in marriages, transition rites in pregnancy, betrothal and initiation. He says, "Although a complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation), in specific instances these three types are not always equally important or equally elaborated" (11).

He also understands that rites of passage may include other forms of rites. Marriage ceremonies might also include fertility rites; birth ceremonies might also include protection and divination rites; etc.

At any rate, these examples serve my point today. Secondary discussions of authors, particularly older authors who wrote before 1960, work to homogenize the author and simplify his or her contribution. Then they can more easily be attacked for what they didn't do (even if they in fact did!). When I read van Gennep, I found his work to be very aware of the problems of classification and the acknowledgment of historical complexity and specificity. We can learn much from him still.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mellon Seminar Reflection 10: Medussa is Laughing

We opened the seminar this semester with Derrida and Deconstruction. I won't even try to summarize Derrida because it is "impossible" (smile!). What I got out of the readings and our discussion if that Derrida showed us how much we are trapped in language and our constructions of meaning. Deconstruction appears to me to be a mental process or approach that seeks to discover inherent contradictions in all of our cultural productions, which reveals to us that there is no essential meaning to words or other forms of expression. The complete meaning of anything is postponed or delayed; it is in flux and ever-changing. This makes it impossible to fully grasp.

I think that Deconstruction puts us into a liminal space, where either-or makes no sense anymore. Both-and reigns. An example of this for me is some of Derrida's work on ethics. What is ethical to one party in the relationship usually harms the other. If we choose to spend more time with our families (an ethical choice for our families), this means that we don't spend as much time at work (an unethical choice for our workplace).

The big question for us in the seminar (and maybe you have an answer to this and can share it) is to what extent does Deconstruction exploit the contradictions to the sacrifice of the commonalities of language? We do in fact use language to communicate meaning and most of the time our minds meet on the subject and we know what is being expressed. We don't live most of our lives not knowing what is being said. We don't live in language-meaning chaos. Of course there are moments when we are misunderstood or misread. Those of us who are authors certainly have experienced times when our works have been read in ways we never intended. But even given all these contradictions, there still seems to me to be something stable about language and meaning in a given context or community. Something agreed upon that makes language useful to communicate between us.

What really got me excited actually wasn't Derrida, but Helene Cixous who developed an experimental form of writing influenced by Deconstruction. The piece we read is her very famous "The Laugh of Medusa" trans. and published in Signs 1.4 (1976) 875-893. Not only couldn't I put it down, but I sat in shock afterward. Two thoughts were going through my head. First, when I die I want this read aloud at my service. Second, how could a French woman in 1976 express what I have been feeling for years as an American woman in 2011? It is like she was inside my head and my feelings.

I really don't know what else to say, my reaction was so visceral. Her piece is a call to women (yes it is written to women which makes me wonder how different my writing might be if I imagined an all-female audience) to take our bodies back, to reject the phallocentric perspective that has dominated and determined and confiscated us, and to WRITE. Write we must because it is in the act of writing that woman seizes the occasion to speak, it mobilizes her to enter history no longer as the suppressed. It allows her to become "at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process" (880). Women must break out of the silence that has imprisoned us and "shouldn't be conned into accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem" (881). Famously she writes about men who have riveted us between the two horrific myths of Medusa and the abyss: "Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren't men, or that the mother doesn't have one. But isn't this fear convenient for them? Wouldn't the worst be, isn't the worst, in truth, that women aren't castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing" (885).

Did I mention that I finished my manuscript Sex and the Serpent: Why the Sexual and Gender Conflicts of the Early Church Still Matter?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mellon Seminar Distinguished Scholars

One of the biggest highlights of the Mellon Seminar is its inclusion of a number of distinguished scholars who will be visiting Rice and lecturing. The subject of my seminar is Mapping Death: Religious Preparations for the Afterlife Journey. Here is the schedule of special events. The luncheon lectures are by reservation only, so please contact me if you are considering attending. The Year's End Symposium is open to the public and needs no reservation.

Alan F. Segal Professor of Religion and Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies

Barnard College, Columbia University

January 19th, 9-11:30 am, private Seminar

Rituals of Immortality: The Bible and the Rise of Immortality among Jews and Christians

Greg Shaw Professor of Religious Studies

Stone Hill College

Feb. 16th, 9 -11 am, private Seminar

11:30 am -1 pm, RSVP Cohen House Luncheon and Public Lecture

Iamblichean Theurgy: Reflections on the Practice of Later Platonists

Mark Turner Institute Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science

Case Western Reserve University

March 9th, 9-11 am, private Seminar

11:30 am -1 pm, RSVP Cohen House Luncheon and Public Lecture

How to have an afterlife

Dale Martin Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies

Director of Graduate Studies

Yale University

March 23rd 9-11 am, private Seminar

11:30 am -1 pm, RSVP Cohen House Luncheon and Public Lecture

Confusions of Death: On the Lack of Unanimity on Death in Earliest Christianity

Roger Beck Professor Emeritus, Department of History and Classics

University of Toronto

April 13th 9-11 am, private Seminar

11:30 am -1 pm, RSVP Cohen House Luncheon and Public Lecture

Ecstatic Religion in the Roman Cult of Mithras

Year’s End Symposium

April 23, 9 am-5 pm, Kyle Morrow Room, Fondren Library

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Keynote Presenter

April D. DeConick, Mellon Faculty Leader Presenter

Grant Adamson, Matthew J. Dillon, Rebecca Gimbel, Franklin Trammell, Adriana Umana: Graduate Student Presenters