From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (12)—Marriage

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party

Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
[a] Married   RF
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
The photograph above is vintage, anonymous, and in the public domain. Jerry's marriage is only the last of these. Pretend marriage. It's a big step, and the couple moves rapidly from counting "I love yous" to dry cleaning discounts. The subtext(s) in this episode are about as breathless as the narrative, so take a look, and then we'll ponder love and kinship alliances for a while.

The episode could go much, much further into the analytical realm. I was ready for a discussion session with George and Elaine at the restaurant. It is all just a little too predictable. Still, it does call to mind the very social nature of marital alliances, and the ways that a wide array of people quickly become involved in the lives of the couple. Marriage and privacy are two words that create more than a little challenge the world over (as we have seen in the news recently and as we will read below). 

The fairly predictable bickering is not Seinfeld at its best, but it does move fairly quickly from the playful exchanges of a couple in love to annoyed marital/martial antagonism and breakup. If this episode is "masterful" in any way (I find the topic fascinating, but the carry-through a little cliché-ish), it is in compressing a story-line of syrupy love to cool separation in just a matter of minutes. With a nod to E. M. Forster's famous assessment of narrative, "the couple was all love-syrup, married for dry cleaning, argued, kissed, made up, rolled over, and then divorced." That's...something.

                    We can't both get pancakes, it's embarrassing. It's like one step 
                    from the couples that dress alike.

And time marches on.
                    Can opener. "Yeah...that's what I said."
And on...
                   "What happened to us Jerry?"
And on.
                  "I guess I just wasn't prepared for the responsibilities of a pretend marriage."
                  "We'll always have...pancakes."

[b] Discount  RF
Courtney and Jerry have left us with a good deal to ponder, even beyond the episode, though. Marriage is one of those institutions that seem to cry out for generalization, only to be beaten back by the sheer wealth of details "out there," in history and culture. Today's episode is really a way to think about generalization...and cliché. Although I do not find it to be even close to one of the best Seinfeld episodes, it may very well be one of the better ones for just making us think. What is this "marriage" thing, anyway?

***  ***
Although they might look like a great deal of work, spend some time with the readings this week. I refrain from calling them "theoretical," because only the last piece has those pretensions. They present a fascinating array of thoughts about marriage in wildly different contexts. They are worth pondering—yes, even the seemingly difficult Lévi-Strauss piece, which should be read just for the cadences...even in English translation. Marcel Granet (1884-1940) gives us an "imaginative ethnography" of early Chinese spring festivals. It is based solely on Chinese classical sources and his fertile, French literary imagination. This is not the place for me to argue for him as a truly brilliant thinker (he is), so just read his very strange "picture" of society in motion. Finally, as the reading in the middle this week, we have the similarly eloquent anthropologist Paul Riesman (1938-1988), whose work among the Fulani is beginning to be recognized by an ever-wider set of readers. In this excerpt, he discusses elements of love, marriage, and "keeping society going" in the patient, reflexive style that his students so admired.

Marcel Granet
The Religion of the Chinese People

[c] Granet
Their first unions were celebrated in the Festivals of Spring, but they could set up house only after the Autumn Festivals. As long as the work in the fields lasted, even old couples were kept apart; nor were suitors allowed to join their betrothed except by night and furtively. They jumped the hedges and, hiding from their kin, courted each other; especially at the full moon, they sang their aubades, taking great care not t be surprised by the cock-crow. These meetings at night were doubtless chaste. The opposition of the sexes was so strong that a long preparation and favourable times were needed to bring them together; sexual union seemed so frightening that it was forbidden for long periods. But when it was allowed and regulated, when in the spring festivals all the young people of a community came together for the first time, what a unique and moving moment it was! They were poetically inspired and, not being able any longer to sing once they were married, they knew of a sudden how to improvise dances and songs in the traditional spirit of their race. 

They made all of surrounding nature take part in their powerful emotions; boys and girls assembling on the holy earth imagined that their youthful unions cooperated in the revival of nature, when in the Holy Place the ice on the rivers melted under the breath of spring, when the waters came to life and the springs, long dried up, spurted forth, when finally the soft fertile rain fell and the dew appeared, when the precocious flowers came up in damp corners, in the time of new foliage, of plumtrees and flowering peachtrees, of swallows returning, while the magpies built their nests and singing, the birds chased one another in pairs.

All the hopes of fertility mingled in their breasts: while the eggs they swallowed, the meteors they caught sight of, the bunches of plantains they gathered up in the laps of their skirts, the flowers they offered each other as betrothal pledges seemed to them to embody the principles of motherhood, they believed further that their nuptials were propitious to universal germination, that they called forth the seasonable rain, and that, finally, by desacralizing the earth, forbidden to human work during the winter, they now opened the fields to fertilization. Sanctified witness of their magnificent labours, the Holy Place appeared to contain an infinite creative power endlessly renewed by the Festivals.[1]

Paul Riesman
Freedom in Fulani Social Life 
[c] Freedom
Thus we saw that Fulani marriage is established little by little over several months or even several years, instead of being a sudden transformation as with us. In the light of Fulani attitudes toward their feelings, however, marriage may appear to be a means, even a training, whose goal is the mastery of love. It is commonplace in anthropology to say that marriage, as an institution, channels man's sexual impulses so that they contribute to the maintenance of social structures rather than subversion. But in reality, in the case of the Fulani at least, the effect of marriage is much more complicated than that. On the one hand, instead of channeling sexual impulses, so that they flower within limits defined as legitimate, marriage, in its beginnings, makes this flowering very difficult. Instead of being a honeymoon, in which the young couple can satisfy their passion and begin to become a unit which will present a common front to others, this period in Fulani marriage prevents the couple from being together and, especially, prevents them from becoming a unit. On the other hand, the ease of divorce and the possibility of polygamy are a positive encouragement to men to be interested in other women. in the same way, this interest on the part of men is an encouragement on women to remain in a way available, whatever their matrimonial situation of the moment.

In a sense, then, the function of Fulani marriage does not consist simply in channeling sexual impulses, for at the same time it diffuses them, making difficult a mutual, exclusive attachment between a man and a woman. This has consequences for people's social life as well as for their emotional life. In social life, that tendency of marriage goes in the same direction as the division of "social" labor which we analyzed earlier, for it favors what we called "the daytime social order" over that of the night. The danger of love, for society, is not that we might be led to make love with an unsuitable person (that happens, but rarely), but rather that we might fall in love with someone so deeply that it seems the other person alone is sufficient and we do not need the rest of society. Indeed, the Jelgobe make fun of a man who obviously loves his wife, and jealousy is severely criticized. Their reasoning on this subject is a bit different from what I have just presented. For them, jealousy, in the first place, is an antisocial emotion, since a beautiful woman is beautiful for everyone and should somehow be shared with others. That does not mean a man should allow others to sleep with his wife, but only that he is wrong to take offense at the feelings she arouses in them. As for the man who appears to be in love with his wife, whether he is jealous or not, people make fun of him for the same reason that they make fun of someone who breaks wind: he shows a lack of self-control and risks, thereby, being accused of being weaker than his wife.[2]

Claude Lévi-Strauss
The Elementary Structures of Kinship
[d] Elementary
Thus, it is always a system of exchange that we find at the origin of rules of marriage, even those of which the apparent singularity would seem to allow only a special and arbitrary interpretation. In the course of this work, we have seen the notion of exchange become complicated and diversified; it has constantly appeared to us in different forms. Sometimes exchange appears as direct (the case of marriage with the bilateral cousin), sometimes as indirect (and in this case it can comply with two formulas, one continuous, the other discontinuous, corresponding to two different rules of marriage with the unilateral cousin). Sometimes it functions within a total system of (this is the theoretically common characteristic of bilateral marriage and of matrilateral marriage), and at others it instigates the formation of an unlimited number of special systems and short cycles, unconnected among themselves (and in this form it represents a permanent threat to moiety systems, and as an inevitable weakness attacks patrilateral systems). Sometimes exchange appears as a cash or short-term transaction (with the exchange of sisters and daughters, and avuncular marriage), and at other times more as a long-term transaction (as in the case where the case where the prohibited degrees include first, and occasionally second, cousins). Sometimes the exchange is explicit adn at other times it is implicit (as seen in the example of so-called marriage by purchase). Sometimes the exchange is closed (when marriage must satisfy a special rule of alliance between marriage classes or a special rule of observance of preferential degrees), while sometimes it is open (when the rule of exogamy is merely a collection of negative stipulations, which, beyond the prohibited degrees, leaves a free choice). Sometimes it is secured by a sort of mortgage on reserved categories (classes or degrees); sometimes (as in the case of the simple prohibition of incest, as found in our society) it rests on a wider fiduciary guarantee, viz., the theoretical freedom to claim any woman of the group, in return for the renunciation of certain designated women in the family circle, a freedom ensured by the extension of a prohibition, similar to that affecting each man in particular, to all men in general. But no matter what form it takes, whether direct or indirect, general or special, immediate or deferred, explicit or implicit, closed or open, concrete or symbolic, it is exchange, always exchange, that emerges as the fundamental and common basis of all modalities of the institution of marriage.[3]

[1] Paul Riesman, Freedom in Fulani Social Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 211-212.

[2] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 44.

[3] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship [Revised translation by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer] (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 478-479. Italics mine.

Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman]. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship [Revised translation by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer]. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Riesman, Paul. Freedom in Fulani Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Just Dessert
A Snickers(TM) bar. A knife and fork. And social learning. Stay tuned.

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