Thursday, 21 May 2009

"The Mystery of Printing and the Magnet"

I've recently discovered a really excellent blog called Early Modern Whale, from Royal Holloway lecturer Dr Roy Booth. Dr Booth blogs about 17th century English texts, and he has a habit of ferreting out sources which make the period sound really quite surreal.

(Some examples:
A 1674 pamphlet graphically arguing that coffee causes men to become impotent and 'Frenchified'

A wonderfully petty-sounding squabble between two professional astrologers

A pamphlet relating the "true discourse" on one Stubbe Peeter, alleged werewolf and demonologist

More astrology plus, in the comments, the following gem:

"'Arise Evans had a fungous nose, and said, it was revealed to him, that the King's hand would cure him, and at the first coming of King Charles II into St. James's Park, he kissed the King's hand, and rubbed his nose with it; which disturbed the King, but cured him'." -John Aubrey)

But since I've been looking at missionary history lately, I'm more specifically interested in this passage. This is from A Collection of letters and poems: written by several persons of honour and learning, upon divers important subjects, to the late Duke and Dutchess of Newcastle (published 1678). Specifically, it's from a letter which Joseph Granvill wrote to the Duchess as part of an attempt to persuade her of the reality of witchcraft. In response to the Duchess' counterargument that witches go unmentioned in the New Testament, Granvill replies:

"Negative Arguments from Scripture use not often to be of any great signification or validity. Our Saviour spake as he had occasion, and the thousandth part of what he said, or what he did, is not recorded, as one Evangelist intimates. He said nothing of those large unknown Tracts of America, gives no intimations of the Existence of that numerous People, much less any instructions about their Conversion. He gives no particular account of the affairs and state of the other World, but only that general one, of the happiness of some, and the misery of others. He makes no discovery of the Magnalia of Art, or Nature, no not of those whereby the propagation of the Gospel might have been much advanced; viz. The Mystery of Printing, and the Magnet. [...] I confess the omission of some of these particulars is pretty strange and unaccountable, and an argument of our Ignorance of the Reasons and Menages of Providence, but I suppose of nothing else"

I'm guessing, though not certain, that the 'mystery of the magnet' refers to the invention of compasses, and hence the means to navigate to the Americas. But I guess I hadn't really considered the difficulty that early missions to the Americas would have faced in trying to adapt Biblical evangelism to their new situation. I wonder whether Granvill ever reached any conclusions about why the gospels had opted to remain silent on the topic.

"Earnest idolators make earnest Christians"?

I've been flicking through William John Townsend's biography of Robert Morrison. The latter was a Protestant missionary to China from 1807-1834, and Townsend's biography of him was written around 1890. Since CSR often stresses the role of doctrine in Christianity, I thought this passage (from p.266-7) was interesting.

"At the same time, women form a very important element of society. Their influence in the household, as in England, counts for a great deal. Having far less knowledge, they are far less under the influence of Confucian ideas, the most conservative ideas in the Empire. Their nature is much more religious than that of the men. The men trifle with their beliefs; the women are in earnest. They are capable of a practical faith, the men much less so. As a rule, the male part of the family are Confucian, the women Buddhists or Taoists. [...]

When the men pretend to worship them [the Chinese pantheon] they only play at it. But the zeal of the women has kept alive the faith in these grotesque and senseless deities, and supplied the impulse which from time to time has reconstructed their broken shrines and renovated their falling habitations. On this account they make much better Christians than the men. The men are satisfied with the cold abstractions and moral maxims of Confucianism, are interested in nothing higher than the earth or wider than the bounds of human life; the women must have something warmer and more emotional- they have deep cravings for the spiritual and the eternal. The men talk about their religion much, but practise [sic] it little; the women feel their religion, and thus practise it. The men can do without worship; the women cannot. Earnest idolators make earnest Christians. The affectations and aspirations which clung around and sanctified imaginary and superstitious beings, transferred to a living Christ and a god of eternal love, are the impulse to a new and holy life. Indifferent heathens make indifferent Christians. The habits of insincerity and practical scepticism which through a lifetime have been associated with a false faith are too often, on their conversion, retained in connection with the true.

Until woman, as the ruling power in the home and the influential factor in moulding the successive generations of China, is grasped and sanctified by the spirit of Christ, the work of the missionary will be largely in vain; but as in other great onward Christian movements, let the women be drawn into the Church, and the conquest of Empire will be chiefly accomplished."

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Ramblings about the role of knowledge in doctrinal religions

So I was talking to Bunny the housemate the other day about some of the CSR (cognitive science of religion) stuff I've been reading lately. Bunny is originally from Hong Kong, and we were talking about Robert F. Campany's essay 'Xunzi and Durkheim as Theorists of Ritual Practice'. Campany describes the views on ritual held by the Chinese philosopher Xunzi (a Confucianist or group of Confucianists from sometime around the 3rd century BCE). Xunzi apparently believed that ritual was a very important part of every day life, but disagreed with the opinion (mainstream within his own society) that it was important primarily because it appeased gods, spirits, ancestors and other supernatural beings. Xunzi argued that although his society's rituals contained numerous appeals to supernatural beings, their main purpose was not to appease these beings but to help cultivate and civilise the human participants, by providing a "model" for behaviour (see p.207, 211).

Anyway, we were talking about this, and Bunny mentioned something I thought was interesting: as far as she knows, the concept of "forbidden knowledge" doesn't really exist within traditional Chinese culture. She thinks that in general, the assumption seems to be that more knowledge can only be a good thing (both in the sense that it provides opportunities to better your material position, e.g. by passing exams to get a better job, and also in the sense that it potentially brings you closer to spiritual enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, or Taoist immortality).

Whereas in Western culture, the idea of "forbidden knowledge", "that which man was not meant to know", etc, seems to be pretty pervasive. I don't know if there's actually a continuous line of intellectual descent between the idea as it currently exists and, say, the Tree of Knowledge in the original Genesis account, but it seems like you could plausibly argue at least for continuity in medieval attitudes towards demonology and the more recent image of the "mad scientist" (both being examples of someone who's believed to so hungry for knowledge that they're willing to sacrifice their humanity to get at it).

More recently we've had Lovecraft, and the general idea that progress in ANY field of knowledge will inevitably lead to you learning something terrible which you'll be unable to live with comfortably (obviously Lovecraft was a fiction writer rather than a philosopher or theologian, but his ideas do seem to have resonated with a fair number of people). So while Western culture also frequently endorses the idea that more knowledge is a good thing (e.g. by encouraging greater and greater numbers of people to pursue tertiary education), there are definite contexts in which people become uncomfortable with that idea.

We were wondering whether the roots of this distinction might lie in the Christian idea that your relationship with God is paramount, and everything else is secondary (so that knowledge is good if it brings you closer to God, bad if it threatens to distract you or lead you astray). This would seem to be opposed to the traditional Chinese concept of deities who make certain demands on their followers, but don't seem to assume that they will or should be the immediate focus of anyone's attention 24/7. You further seem to have the concept that spiritual development based purely on knowledge is possible, rather than having a personal connection to a specific being be a necessity for the process.

I hasten to add that these perceived distinctions are highly speculative, and so are probably Just So Stories- I know virtually nothing about Chinese culture. I guess the relevant question is: can anyone here think of a Chinese story or belief system which seems to draw on the concept of "forbidden knowledge"? And if so, does that seem to be a borrowing from Western culture, or something that Chinese culture has traditionally found intuitive?

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Frederica Mathewes-Green on Eastern Orthodoxy

I've just added Frederica Mathewes-Green to the 'Food for Thought' list on the right sidebar. It's a list I've set up for people who I mostly don't have an awful lot in common with, but who I think are engaging and good at articulating how/why they reached their current opinions. Mathewes-Green is a writer, public speaker, pro-life activist and a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. She doesn't have any ethnic heritage from the communities we tend to associate with Eastern Orthodoxy (Greece, Russia, etc)- she was originally a mostly-agnostic person who went through a period of identifying as Hindu. Then she and her husband converted to Christianity, and she accompanied him to seminary and helped him establish himself as an Episcopalian pastor. Eventually she and her husband got disillusioned with Protestantism, and so they both converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and established their own church in Baltimore (where he's pastor and she's Khouria, or Mother of the church).

Here are some quotes from her essays which I thought were interesting:

Excerpted from her book At the Corner of East and Now:

"Though westerners tend to think of Protestant and Roman Catholic as the two opposite poles of Christian faith, in eastern eyes this quarreling mother and daughter bear a strong family resemblance. The two circle around questions of common obsession, questions which often do not arise in the east: works versus faith, scripture versus tradition, papacy versus individualism. This very context of habitual argument creates a climate of nitpicking, and every theological topic that can be defined, and some which are beyond definition, gets scrutinized in turn. As a result, the east sees in the west an unhelpful tendency to plow up the roots of mystery."

"Since there is no locus of power where the [Eastern Orthodox] faith may be tailored to fit current fashion, it doesn’t change in any significant way–not over long centuries nor across great geographical distances. The faith of the first century is the faith of Orthodox today. When we meet in this little stone church outside Baltimore, we celebrate a liturgy that is for the most part over fifteen hundred years old. We join in prayers that are being said in dozens of languages by Orthodox all over the world, prayers unchanged for dozens of generations."

"Also, he [her husband] began to believe that the compromising flaw lay at the very heart of Anglicanism. The beloved doctrine of “comprehensiveness” suggested, “Let’s share the same prayers, the same words about the faith, but they can mean different things to you than to me.” Not a common faith, but common words about the faith— mere flimsy words. A church at peace can survive this way; a church attacked by wheedling heresies must tumble into accommodation reducing orthodoxy to shreds."

"The constant experience of doctrinal disagreements contributed to a Western tendency to make the Christian experience more about ideas than about heart-driven living faith, more what you think than what you do; more assensus than fiducia, more ideas about God than surrender to him. The Orthodox Church, escaping this sort of discord, could admire a butterfly without having to pin its head to a board. [...] For example, rather than over-defining Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, or tossing out the concept entirely, Orthodox are content to say that the bread and wine become his body and blood simply because they “change.”"

From her book Facing East:

"A kaleidoscope of images flashes through my mind. The textures, the scents, the music of the liturgy, a continuous song of worship that lifts me every week. The Great Fast of Lent, a discipline far more demanding than I’d ever faced in my Christian walk. Kneeling on Holy and Great Thursday and listening to the hammer blows resound as my husband nailed the icon of Jesus’ corpus to the cross; seeing my daughter’s shoulders shake with sobbing. Easter morning giddiness and champagne at sunrise."

I thought this was quite interesting in terms of the CSR debate over what role doctrine plays in Christianity. I don't know much about Eastern Orthodoxy- maybe I should go look up some stuff.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

As always with films, I'm a bit late to the party, but I can highly recommend Slumdog Millionaire. I know virtually nothing about actual Indian slums, but it at least feels like it strikes a very good balance between sanitising poverty and dehumanising the protagonists. It's also one of those films I love because it feels like every shot is crammed with fascinating bits of setting detail (Apocalypto is still the best example I've seen of this, but Slumdog does pretty well and arguably edges ahead on the versimilitude front, due to being filmed on location rather than in constructed sets).

Johnathan Foreman has an interesting article on it in Standpoint magazine. I was especially intrigued by this:

"Krishna and his British partner at Reality Tours run a school in Dharavi. He told me that the children liked Slumdog Millionaire - they saw the Hindi version - but hated the name "slumdog", as do slumdweller organisations. This is understandable. The term was invented by the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, who seems to have ignorantly assumed that it would be believable as a derogatory but semi-affectionate nickname for young slumdwellers. But even "slumrat" might have been less offensive. You won't ever hear the word "dog" used affectionately in India. Unlike monkeys, elephants and of course cows, dogs have no religious significance and are disliked by both Muslims and Hindus. There are stray dogs everywhere you look in most Indian cities; though rarely dangerous, they are feared and persecuted. In 2007 the city of Bangalore sponsored the mass killing of tens of thousands of them."

Wikipedia elaborates:

"Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, a representative of a slum-dwellers' welfare group, filed a defamation lawsuit against the film's music composer A.R. Rahman and actor Anil Kapoor, alleging that grim depiction of slum dwellers violated their human rights. Vishwakarma's filing argued that the very title of the movie is derogatory, and he was particularly displeased that Indians associated with the film did not object to the use of word "slumdog." Nicholas Almeida, a social activist working in Mumbai, organized a protest against the film on the grounds that it intentionally exploited the poor for the purposes of profit, also arguing that the title Slumdog Millionaire is offensive, demeaning, and insulting to their dignity. The protesters were Mumbai slum dwellers who objected to the film's title and held up signs reading: "I am not a dog."

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Reading Barth's 'The Guru and the Conjurer'

Barth, Fredrik, 1990, 'The Guru and the Conjurer: transactions in knowledge and the shaping of culture in Southeast Asia and Melanesia', Man, 25, 4, pp.640-653

So, cards on the table: I really like this essay, and I agree with a lot of the things Barth says here. But the more I think about this topic, the more I think that the issues Barth brings up here need to be addressed in a much more thorough and rigorous way. This isn't a criticism of Barth per se- I think this essay's meant to be more about asking the first few speculative questions, so while there are areas where he's not as clear as I'd like, I don't think it's an insult to say that these ideas need to be taken up and developed further. One of the people who's done a lot to try to develop these ideas is Harvey Whitehouse. I have some disagreements with Whitehouse's approach, so I'm going to try to express those in a later post, but I think it's worth starting off by going and looking at the person who kickstarted an important part of the debate.

Barth, unlike most social anthropologists, has done fieldwork in several different countries. In this essay, he tries to articulate some of the differences between his fieldwork with the Baktaman of Papua New Guinea vs his experience of Bali and Bhutan. He proposes that some of the differences between these societies comes from the fact that the transmission of religious knowledge is based around very different sets of assumptions. He proposes that the mode of transmission used in Bali and Bhutan could be referred to as the 'Guru' mode, whereas that found among the Baktaman is the 'Conjurer' mode.

The basic difference between the two modes hinges on different strategies of cultural transmission. In the Guru system, people gain prestige by continuously broadcasting religious information (theology, religious history, discourses on ethics, etc) in a verbal form to anyone willing to listen. You see this happening in religions like Islam, Buddhism and Christianity.

By contrast, in the Conjurer system, people gain prestige by having a reputation for knowing many great secrets. This means that, rather than publically broadcast their knowledge, religious experts will only impart their wisdom slowly to a selected few (who are often first required to undergo some sort of taxing initiation ritual in order to prove their worth). This knowledge is often not conveyed in a verbal format, but via ritual, or visual symbols.

These differences have consequences for the way the religion develops. As Gurus compete with each other for prestige, they strive to portray themselves as erudite, learned and logically consistent. This leads to the kind of material that we usually think of when we use the word 'theology': complicated verbal arguments about the relationships between text, or how to apply a particular text to a specific situation. By contrast, a Conjurer may not have spent a great deal of time working out the minutiae of their beliefs about the divine, and if they have then they may not share this with anyone else. There's a good chance that they haven't ever articulated their beliefs in a specifically verbal way, rather than in terms of the associations between specific symbols (like, say, totem animals). This leads to a religious system which doesn't look much like how Western people generally expect it to.

Another upshot of this is that Gurus are much better at invading* populations of Conjurers than vice versa. This is because Gurus have gotten into the mindset whereby they see it as a good thing for them to spread their knowledge to as many people as possible, therefore it's relatively easy to persuade them to start travelling around and infecting* new populations. Also, broadcasting verbal information is a pretty efficient way of reaching a large number of people. By contrast, if a Conjurer for some reason decided that they wanted to convert a new population to their belief system, then any initiation requirements would make it a much slower process with a higher degree of initial commitment required from converts. Also, the Conjurer would probably struggle to convey the largely non-verbal elements of this religion to people who came from a different cultural context. As a result, religions like Islam, Buddhism and Christianity have spread around the world, whereas religions like the Baktaman initiation system have stayed very local.

I think this is a really interesting idea, particulary because if it's true then it has big implications for ethnography. Since Westerners frequently assume that absence of verbal information means absence of information, period, this theory implies that in cultures like the Baktaman ethnographers are frequently going to miss what's going on with the local religious system.

It's also interesting in terms of what it implies for religious history. I'm wondering whether anyone's tried making an AI model of something similar to see if it seems to capture the sort of behaviour you see in real life conversion situations.

One thing I would have liked to see Barth clarify, though: he never specifies what sort of scale he sees most individual Gurus and Conjurers as working on. In his initial examples of Gurus (p.642), he seems to be describing people who focused on preaching to entire communities whenever they got the chance. But elsewhere (e.g. p.643) he describes Gurus as "mystifying" things in order to make his students feel more dependent on him, and to "exclude outsiders from the circle of disciples". The latter strategy doesn't sound like a particularly good way to convert new populations. I'm wondering whether Barth is using the term 'disciples' to refer specifically to the closest students of a guru who also preaches to the masses (as was the case with Jesus), or whether he's describing two strategies which are distinct from a transmission perspective but may be used interchangeably by members of one culture depending on the situation. Either way, I think it would help if he'd clarified what sort of numbers we're talking about in terms of the number of 'disciples' a Guru is likely to have, versus the number of 'initiates' per Conjurer. I expect Barth elaborates on the latter in one of his books, but it would have been helpful to get some idea of what sort of approximate transmission rates we're talking about.

My other criticism is that the paper's a bit androcentric- by which I mean: I think it's fine to decide that you want to focus exclusively on the ways in which men in some cultures transmit information (particularly if you're talking about religious transmission in a context where women don't usually become preachers/ ritualists/ etc), but I think you ought to make a point of saying explicitly that this is your focus. Otherwise you risk giving the impression that when you talk generically about 'people', you actually mean 'men'. It's possible, of course, that the cultures he's referring to have both male and female Conjurers and Gurus, in which case I've jumped the gun, but that's not the impression I've gotten from my (admittedly non-specialist) reading.

*When I say 'invading' or 'infecting', I'm stealing the terms from population genetics, where they're used to talk about how a genetic variant arises in one population and then spreads to another one. I'm not intending to imply that an 'invasion' or 'infection' of Gurus is necessarily going to be military, unfriendly or damaging.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Reading List: Richard Hamilton's 'The Social Misconstruction of Reality'

“Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”

-Hypatia, quoted p.43 of Hypatia: mathematician, inventor and philosopher.

It's worth mentioning that Hypatia's concept of 'truth' probably diverges quite a bit from mine, what with the fact that she lived hundreds of years ago and seems to have been a pretty hardcore Platonist. Having said that, I think this quote is a decent suggestion for why hypothesis-testing doesn't seem to have caught on in the social sciences (not that I'm biased or anything...)

There's a book which I want to get my hands on at the moment called The Social Misconstruction of Reality, by Richard F. Hamilton (who I'm guessing is probably a different Richard Hamilton to this one, although I prefer to believe that he isn't, because that allows me to maintain the mental image of him coming back from the dead to lecture us all on epistemology before disappearing away on his government-funded UFO).

I should stress that I haven't read The Social Misconstruction of Reality (or anything else by Richard 'not really the retired agent in Men In Black' Hamilton), so for all I know I might violently disagree with him if I actually read it, but from review articles written by other people, it sounds like he's arguing that in the social sciences and humanities there's sometimes a tendency for the following to happen:

  1. someone proposes a tentative hypothesis for some social phenomenon, without flagging up the fact that it's tentative and doesn't yet have much evidence to support it.
  2. the hypothesis sounds plausible and so a lot of academics endorse the idea
  3. the idea becomes an 'established fact'
  4. someone subsequently comes up with evidence refuting the hypothesis
  5. everyone ignores this evidence because it clearly contradicts established facts.

Obviously this is something which potentially could happen in any academic field if people are willing to fudge the facts to make them fit their theories (and people are inevitably going to do this to some extent, cf Lakatos). But it sounds like Hamilton's arguing that it's more of a problem in the social sciences and humanities than in the natural sciences (presumably due to the fact that hypothesis-testing is at least a theoretical goal for most natural scientists, whereas it's not for most other academics). Hamilton focuses on three theories which he thinks have been particularly resistant to contradictory evidence. These are:

  • the 'Protestant work ethic' explanation for capitalism
  • the idea that Hitler's rise to power in Germany was largely due to the support of the lower middle class
  • Foucault's theory (as proposed in Discipline and Punish) that the transition from corporal punishment to prison sentences in the West was not a sign that the state was becoming more humane. Rather, it was a symptom of a shift from big obvious expressions of state power (like public maimings) to more subtle and insidious methods of control based largely around intense surveillance of civilian populations.
Interestingly (because I'm pretty sure they're coming at this from pretty different angles) Hamilton seems to have reached a similar conclusion to The Kugelmass Episodes when they say:

"For dedicated opponents of psychoanalysis, and the legacy of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, it is simply impossible for a psychoanalytic argument to be valid: the writer is spinning his wheels, and that is all. No matter how elegantly scientific citations, anecdotes, literary examples, and so on are woven together, the premise is wrong. In many cases, the very elegance and density of a piece becomes a reason to suspect that the author has filtered out reality and built castles in the air.

[...] As long as false premises create opportunities for displays of intelligence, and as long as those displays are worth money, we will never be rid of the falsehoods themselves: we’re just too grateful for them. That’s why liberalism that prides itself on the simple desire for intelligence accomplishes nothing besides staged debates with conservatives. It’s also why “anti-philosophers” turn into philosophers who mix critiques of Kant with paeans to his intelligence."

So now I need to go chase up the critique of Weber, at least (since that's the most directly relevant to my field).