Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors
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Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors

Symbolic Action in Human Society

Victor Turner

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eBook - ePub

Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors

Symbolic Action in Human Society

Victor Turner

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In this book, Victor Turner is concerned with various kinds of social actions and how they relate to, and come to acquire meaning through, metaphors and paradigms in their actors' minds; how in certain circumstances new forms, new metaphors, new paradigms are generated. To describe and clarify these processes, he ranges widely in history and geography: from ancient society through the medieval period to modern revolutions, and over India, Africa, Europe, China, and Meso-America.

Two chapters, which illustrate religious paradigms and political action, explore in detail the confrontation between Henry II and Thomas Becket and between Hidalgo, the Mexican liberator, and his former friends. Other essays deal with long-term religious processes, such as the Christian pilgrimage in Europe and the emergence of anti-caste movements in India. Finally, he directs his attention to other social phenomena such as transitional and marginal groups, hippies, and dissident religious sects, showing that in the very process of dying they give rise to new forms of social structure or revitalized versions of the old order.

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Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors1

In this chapter I shall trace some of the influences that led to the formulation of concepts I developed in the course of my anthropological field work and to consider how they may be used in the analysis of ritual symbols. In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience. I will try later to locate the sources of some insights that helped me to make sense of my own field data.
The concepts I would like to mention are: “social drama,” “the processual view of society,” “social anti-structure,” “multivocality,” and “polarization of ritual symbols.” I mention these in the order of their formulation. All are pervaded by the idea that human social life is the producer and product of time, which becomes its measure—an ancient idea that has had resonances in the very different work of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Henri Bergson. Following Znaniecki, the renowned Polish sociologist, I had already come, before doing field work, to insist on the dynamic quality of social relations and to regard Comte’s distinction between “social statics” and “social dynamics”—later to be elaborated by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and other positivists—as essentially misleading. The social world is a world in becoming, not a world in being (except insofar as “being” is a description of the static, atemporal models men have in their heads), and for this reason studies of social structure as such are irrelevant. They are erroneous in basic premise because there is no such thing as “static action.” That is why I am a little chary of the terms “community” or “society,” too, though I do use them, for they are often thought of as static concepts. Such a view violates the actual flux and changefulness of the human social scene. Here I would look, for example, to Bergson rather than, say, to Descartes, for philosophical guidance.
However, I am alive to the virtues of Robert A. Nisbet’s warning in Social Change and History (1969: 3–4) about the use of “becoming” and similar notions, such as “growth” and “development,” which rest fundamentally on organic metaphors. Nisbet has drawn our attention to a whole metaphorical family of sociological and sociophilosophical terms such as “genesis,” “growth,” “unfolding,” “development,” on the one hand, and “death,” “decadence,” “degeneration,” “pathology,” “sickness,” and so on, which take off originally from the Greek idea of “physis.” This term literally means “growth,” from ϕύ-ΔÎčτ, to produce, Indo-European root BHU. It is the “key concept of Greek science,” ϕΜσÎčÎș᜔ meant “natural science,” as in physiology, physiognomy, and so on. This family also derives from the Roman and Latinized European basic concept of nature, the Latin translation or rather mistranslation of physis. “Nature” is from “natus” meaning “born,” with overtones of “innate,” “inherent,” “immanent,” from the Indo-European root GAN. The “nature” family is cognate with the “gen” family, generate, genital, general, gender, genus, generic, and with the Germanic kind, kin, kindred. All these terms “have immediate and unchallengeable reference to the organic world, to the life-cycles of plants and organisms” (pp. 3–4), where they are literal and empirical in meaning. But “applied to social and cultural phenomena these words are not literal. They are metaphoric” (p. 4, my italics). Hence they may be misleading; even though they draw our attention to some important properties of social existence, they may and do block our perception of others. The metaphor of social and cultural systems as machines, popular since Descartes, is just as misleading.
I am not opposed to metaphor here. Rather, I am saying that one must pick one’s root metaphors carefully, for appropriateness and potential fruitfulness. Not only Nisbet but Max Black, the Cornell philosopher, and others have pointed out how “perhaps every science must start with metaphor and end with algebra; and perhaps without the metaphor there would never have been any algebra” (Black, 1962:242). And, as Nisbet says:
Metaphor is, at its simplest, a way of proceeding from the known to the unknown. [This corresponds, curiously, with the Ndembu definition of a symbol in ritual.] It is a way of cognition in which the identifying qualities of one thing are transferred in an instanstaneous, almost unconscious, flash of insight to some other thing that is, by remoteness or complexity, unknown to us. The test of essential metaphor, Philip Wheelwright has written, is not any rule of grammatical form, but rather the quality of semantic transformation that is brought about [1969:4].
Metaphor is, in fact, metamorphic, transformative. “Metaphor is our means of effecting instantaneous fusion of two separated realms of experience into one illuminating, iconic, encapsulating image” (p. 4). It is likely that scientists and artists both think primordially in such images; metaphor may be the form of what M. Polanyi calls “tacit knowledge.”
The idea of society as being like a “big animal” or a “big machine,” as James Peacock has pithily put the matter (1969: 173), would be what Stephen C. Pepper has called a “root metaphor” (1942:38–39). This is how he explains the term:
The method in principle seems to be this: A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of common-sense fact and tries to see if he cannot understand other areas in terms of this one. The original area then becomes his basic analogy or root metaphor. He describes as best he can the characteristics of this area, or if you will, “discriminates its structure.” A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description. [E.g., the gen-words, the kin words, the nature words.] We call them a set of categories [a possibly exhaustive set of classes among which all things might be distributed]. . . . In terms of these categories he proceeds to study all other areas of fact whether uncriticized or previously criticized. He undertakes to interpret all facts in terms of these categories. As a result of the impact of these other facts upon his categories, he may qualify and readjust the categories so that a set of categories commonly changes and develops. Since the basic analogy or root metaphor normally (and probably at least in part necessarily) arises out of common sense [which is the normal understanding or general feeling of mankind, but for anthropologists this operates in a specific culture], a great deal of development and refinement of a set of categories is required if they are to prove adequate for a hypothesis of unlimited scope. Some root metaphors prove more fertile than others, have greater power of expansion and adjustment. These survive in comparison with the others and generate the relatively adequate world theories [1942:91–92].
Black prefers the term “conceptual archetype” to “root metaphor,” and defines it as a “systematic repertoire of ideas by means of which a given thinker describes, by analogical extension, some domain to which those ideas do not immediately and literally apply” (1962:241). He suggests that if we want a detailed account of a particular archetype, we require a list of key words and expressions, with statements of their interconnections and their paradigmatic meanings in the field from which they were originally drawn. This should then be supplemented by analysis of the ways in which the original meanings become extended in their analogical use.
The illustration Black offers of the influence of an archetype on a theorist’s work is of exceptional interest to me, for this very case had a profound effect on my own early attempts to characterize a “social field.” Black examines the writings of the psychologist Kurt Lewin whose “field theory” has been fruitful in generating hypotheses and stimulating empirical research. Black finds it “ironical” that Lewin
formally disclaims any intention of using models. “We have tried,” he says, “to avoid developing elaborate models; instead we have tried to represent the dynamic relations between the psychological facts by mathematical constructs at a sufficient level of generality.” Well [Black goes on], there may be no specific models envisaged; yet any reader of Lewin’s papers must be impressed by the degree to which he employs a vocabulary indigenous to physical theory. We repeatedly encounter such words as “field,” “vector,” “phase-space,” “tension,” “force,” “valence,” “boundary,” “fluidity”—visible symptoms of a massive archetype awaiting to be reconstructed by a sufficiently patient critic” [p. 241].
Black is not upset about all this on the ground of general principles of sound method. He feels that if an archetype, confused though it may be in details, is sufficiently rich in implicative power it may become a useful speculative instrument. If the archetype is sufficiently fruitful, logicians and mathematicians will eventually reduce the harvest to order. “There will always be competent technicians who, in Lewin’s words, can be trusted to build the highways ‘over which the streamlined vehicles of a highly mechanized logic, fast and efficient, can reach every important point on fixed tracks’” (p. 242). There, of course, we have another uninhibited flood of metaphors.
Nisbet, too, as well as Black and Pepper, holds that “complex philosophical systems can proceed from metaphorical premises.” For example, Freudianism, he says, “would have little substance left once stripped of its metaphors” (p. 5)—Oedipus complex, topographical and economic models, defense mechanisms, Eros and Thanatos, and so on. Marxism, too, sees social orders as “forming embryonically” in the “wombs” of preceding orders, with each transition akin to “birth,” and requiring the assistance of the “midwife,” force.
Both Black and Nisbet admit the tenacity as well as the potency of metaphors. Nisbet argues that what we usually call revolutions in thought are
quite often no more than the mutational replacement, at certain critical points in history, of one foundation-metaphor by another in man’s contemplation of universe, society, and self. Metaphoric likening of the universe to an organism in its structure will yield one set of derivations; derivations which become propositions in complex systems of philosophy. But when, as happened in the 17th Century, the universe is likened instead to a machine, not merely physical science but whole areas of moral philosophy and human psychology are affected [p. 6].
I believe it would be an interesting exercise to study the key words and expressions of major conceptual archetypes or foundation metaphors, both in the periods during which they first appeared in their full social and cultural settings and in their subsequent expansion and modification in changing fields of social relations. I would expect these to appear in the work of exceptionally liminal thinkers—poets, writers, religious prophets, “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind”—just before outstanding limina of history, major crises of societal change, since such shamanistic figures are possessed by spirits of change before changes become visible in public arenas. The first formulations will be in multivocal symbols and metaphors—each susceptible of many meanings, but with the core meanings linked analogically to the basic human problems of the epoch which may be pictured in biological, or mechanistic, or some other terms—these multivocals will yield to the action of the thought technicians who clear intellectual jungles, and organized systems of univocal concepts and signs will replace them. The change will begin, prophetically, “with metaphor, and end, instrumentally, with algebra.” The danger is, of course, that the more persuasive the root metaphor or archetype, the more chance it has of becoming a self-certifying myth, sealed off from empirical disproof. It remains as a fascinating metaphysics. Here, root metaphor is opposed to what Thomas Kuhn has called “scientific paradigm,” which stimulates and legitimates empirical research, of which it is indeed the product as well as the producer. For Kuhn, paradigms are “accepted examples of actual scientific practice—which includes law, theory, application and instrumentation together—which provide models from which spring coherent traditions of scientific research” (1962:10)—Copernican astronomy, Aristotelian or Newtonian “dynamics,” wave optics, and others. My own view of the structure of metaphor is similar to I. A. Richards’ “interaction view”; that is, in metaphor “we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction” (1936:93). This view emphasizes the dynamics inherent in the metaphor, rather than limply comparing the two thoughts in it, or regarding one as “substituting” for the other. The two thoughts are active together, they “engender” thought in their coactivity.
Black develops the interaction view into a set of claims:
1. A metaphorical statement has two distinct subjects—a principal subject and a “subsidiary” one. Thus if one says—as Chamfort does in an example cited by Max Black—that “the poor are the negroes of Europe,” “the poor” is the principal subject and the “negroes” the subsidiary one.
2. These subjects are best regarded as “systems of things,” rather than things as elements. Thus, both “poor” and “negroes” in this metaphorical relation are themselves multivocal symbols, whole semantic systems, which bring into relation a number of ideas, images, sentiments, values, and stereotypes. Components of one system enter into dynamic relations with components of the other.
3. The metaphor works by applying to the principal subject a system of “associated implications” characteristic of the subsidiary subject. In the metaphor cited, for instance, the “poor” of Europe could be regarded not only as an oppressed class, but also as sharing in the inherited and indelible qualities of “natural” poverty attributed to black Americans by white racists. The whole metaphor is thereby charged with irony and provokes a rethinking of the roles both of the (European) poor and the (American) blacks.
4. These “implications” usually consist of commonplaces about the subsidiary subject, but may, in suitable cases, consist of deviant implications established ad hoc by the author. You need have only proverbial knowledge, as it were, to have your metaphor understood, not technical or special knowledge. A “scientific model” is rather a different kind of metaphor. Here “the maker must have prior control of a well-knit theory,” says Black, “if he is to do more than hang an attractive picture on an algebraic formula. Systematic complexity of the source of the model and capacity for analogical development are of the essence” (1962:239).
5. The metaphor selects, emphasizes, suppresses, and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject.
I have mentioned all this merely to point out that there are certain dangers inherent in regarding the social world as “a world in becoming,” if by invoking the idea “becoming” one is unconsciously influenced by the ancient metaphor of organic growth and decay. Becoming suggests genetic continuity, telic growth, cumulative development, progress, etc. But many social events do not have this “directional” character. Here the metaphor may well select, emphasize, suppress, or organize features of social relations in accordance with plant or animal growth processes, and in so doing, mislead us about the nature of the human social world, sui generis. There is nothing wrong with metaphors or, mutatis mutandis, with models, provided that one is aware of the perils lurking behind their misuse. If one regards them, however, as a species of liminal monster, such as I described in The Forest of Symbols (1967), whose combination of familiar and unfamiliar features or unfamiliar combination of familiar features provokes us into thought, provides us with new perspectives, one can be excited by them; the implications, suggestions, and supporting values entwined with their literal use enable us to see a new subject matter in a new way.
The “becoming” metaphor fits fairly well, despite the apparent quarrel between functionalists and cultural evolutionists, with the structural-functionalist orthodoxy or paradigm, that gave rise to what Kuhn would have called the “normal science” of British social anthropology when I went into the field. For functionalism, as Nisbet has argued, following Wilbert Moore, from Durkheim through Radcliffe-Brown to Talcott Parsons, tried to present a unified theory of order and change based on a biological metaphor—it tries to draw the motivational mechanisms of change from the same co...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Preface
  2. 1. Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors
  3. 2. Religious Paradigms and Political Action: Thomas Becket at the Council of Northampton
  4. 3. Hidalgo: History as Social Drama
  5. 4. The Word of the Dogon
  6. 5. Pilgrimages as Social Processes
  7. 6. Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas
  8. 7. Metaphors of Anti-structure in Religious Culture