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It is an alliance, and shared dreams sometimes make for, well, strange bedfellows. Recently, on Capitol Hill, conservative and liberal members of the House of Representatives banded together on a vote in which their various "intents" were at either end of the ideological spectrum. They were united, nonetheless, by a shared "nay" dream, at least for that hour on a late-September afternoon. They would soon be back to partisan bickering. It doesn't only happen in politics, either. Have you ever found yourself cheering for a team you would ordinarily dismiss (at best), in hopes that it might crush your rival when you didn't make it to the playoffs? Well, I am a Detroit Tigers fan this week (only), hoping that they will defeat the New York Yankees, who have spoiled the postseason for my Minnesota Twins seemingly every year this half-decade.
Alliances are not always friendly, but sometimes they are necessary—practically, psychologically, or both. This leads us to an illuminating array of readings this week. They range from Claude Lévi-Strauss's classic, The Elementary Structures of Kinship to Paul Riesman's nuanced ethnography Freedom in Fulani Social Life, before leaping the decades back to the 1930s for E.E. Evans-Pritchard's elegant portrayal of the way that the Nuer band together and disperse in reaction to outside threats to their livelihood. Remember that the readings are meant to touch upon and juxtapose themes brought up in the Seinfeld clip, and these selections do just that.
|[b] Alimentary structures|
The Principle of Reciprocity (1949)
But the ritual of exchange does not take place only at ceremonial meals. Politeness requires that the dish, salt, butter and bread be offered to one's neighbour before serving oneself. We have often observed the ceremonial aspect of the meal in the lower-priced restaurants in the south of France, especially in those regions where wine is the principal industry and is surrounded by a sort of mystical respect which makes it 'rich food' par excellence. In small restaurants where wine is included in the price of the meal, each customer finds in front of his plate a modest bottle of wine, more often than not very bad. The bottle is similar to his neighbour's bottle, as are the portions of meat and vegetables which a waitress passes around. Nevertheless, a remarkable difference in attitude towards the wine and the food is immediately manifested. Food serves the body's needs and wine its taste for luxury, the first serving to nourish, the second to honour. Each person at the table eats, so to speak, for himself, and the noting of a trifling slight in the way he has been served arouses bitterness towards the more favoured, and a jealous complaint to the proprietor. But it is entirely different with the wine. If a bottle should be insufficiently filled, its owner will good-humouredly appeal to his neighbour's judgment. And the proprietor will face, not the demand of an individual victim, but a group complaint. In other words, wine is a social commodity, while the plat du jour is a personal commodity. The little bottle may contain exactly one glassful, yet the contents will be poured out, not into the owner's glass, but into his neighbour's. And his neighbour will immediately make a corresponding gesture of reciprocity.
What has happened? The two bottles are identical in volume, and their contents similar in quality. Each person in this revealing scene has, in the final analysis, received no more than if he had consumed his own wine. From an economic viewpoint, no one has gained and no one has lost. but the point is that there is much more in the exchange itself than in the things exchanged.
Greetings seem to exist in all human societies. In general, they consist in an exchange between two people, for if there is no response we feel that a greeting has not been completed. Their content may vary perceptively: on eh on e hand there are words which have no meaning for the users (such as "Hi!" in English), and on the other, there are words which express specific ideas, but always indicating the general notion of "all is well." In Fula, all greetings have a meaning. They vary according to the time of the day, the situation in which the people meet, and the lapse of time between this occasion and the last time they saw each other. Here are some examples. The first one is a morning greeting, between people who see each other every day:
A. Jam waali (Night of peace! lit: Peace has spent the night)
B. Jam tan kor jam waali? (Peace only; I hope it was a peaceful night?)
A. Alhamdulillaahi! (Praise God!) A daanike na? (Did you sleep?)
B. Mi daanike, alhamdulillaahi! (I slept, praise God!)
A. Kori on pinii e jam (Did you awaken in peace?)
B. Alhamdulillaahi, baasi fuu walaa e amin. (Praise God, there is nothing wrong
in our house).
A. Alla suuran en baasi! (May God preserve us from evil!)
B. Aamin! (Amen!).
A. Jam nyallen en! (May peace spend the day with us!)
B. Aamin! Nyallen e jam! (Amen! Let us spend the day in peace!)
A. Aamin! (Amen!)
...[This example] could have been much longer, for one often repeats the same phrases (or quite similar phrases, like ada selli and ada jamoo), and one may enter into a great deal of detail in asking for information about the different members of the family. But even such samples can enlighten us as to the meaning an function of greetings among the Jelegobe. In the first place, the fact that we can give a sample of them is significant, for it suggests that their content is predetermined by the situation. That is true; if we know the hour of the day and the circumstances, we know in advance almost precisely what people will say to each other. But if we know in advance what people are going to say, where is the "information" in these formulas? May we even speak of information? After all, when someone says that all is well, that does not necessarily mean that all is indeed well. People repeat the same words whatever their true situation; it is only after the stage of formalities has been passed that there is really an exchange of news.
Blood Feuds Among the Nuer (1940)
A feud has little significance unless there are social relations of some kind which can be broken off and resumed, and, at the same time, these relations necessitate eventual settlement if there is not to be complete cleavage. The function of the feud, viewed in this way, is, therefore, to maintain the structural equilibrium between opposed tribal segments which are, nevertheless, politically fused in relation to larger units.
Through the feud whole sections are left in a state of hostility towards one another, without the hostility leading to frequent warfare, for the scope of direct vengeance is limited to small kinship groups and their efforts to exact it are not incessant...The feud is a political institution, being an approved and regulated mode of behaviour between communities within a tribe. The balanced opposition between tribal segments and their complementary tendencies towards fission and fusion, which we have seen to be a structural principle, is evident in the institution of the feud which, on the one hand, gives expression to the hostility by occasional and violent action that serves to keep the sections apart, and, on the other hand, by the means provided for settlement, prevents opposition from developing into complete fission. The tribal constitution requires both elements of a feud, the need for vengeance and the need for settlement...We therefore regard the feud as essential to the political system as it exists at present...
 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship [Translated by James Harle Bell and Richard von Sturmer] (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 58-59. Italics mine.
 Paul Riesman, Freedom in Fulani Social Life [Translated by Martha Fuller] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977),169-171.
 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer (London: Oxford University Press, 1940), 158-161.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. The Nuer. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. [Translated by James Harle Bell and Richard von Sturmer] Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
Riesman, Paul. Freedom in Fulani Social Life [Translated by Martha Fuller]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Wednesday, October 5th
Newman has a taste of Jerry's broccoli and struggles to regain composure and dignity.