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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (33)—Face Paint

Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
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George's Friend        Jerry's Haircut          Face Paint             Mustachioed       Smoking              East River
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Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
I study anthropology, among other things, and one constant in my reading has been the value of, let us say, facial embellishments in a wide array of societies. We have whole battalions—even regimen(t)s—of salespeople ready to go with cosmetics, and the gendering of those products is only a little less obvious now than it was, say, fifty years ago. Some men might be man enough to moisturize and use a few creams here or there, but the industry is geared powerfully toward women.

[b] Yin-yang RF
So do men express their complex personhood without cosmetic masking? Well, yes and no. Certainly, the cosmetic makers would love to take even an infinitesimal share of those 100 out of every 207 babies who grow into aging facial consumers. They don't get much. But there are other ways for men to set their jaws, so to speak, against the winds of mundan(e)ity, not to mention aging.

To begin, there are beards. It is only relatively recently in many societies that a clean shaven face has come to be de rigueur. Speaking only of the nineteenth century French society that continues to fascinate me with its twisting turns of literary excellence, social theorizing, and madcap politics, it was the rare man who walked about without a full beard. The same goes for another area I study. In, say, Tang dynasty China (CE 618-906), a beard and somewhat lower voice register was one of the markers (other than attire and hair style) that separated government officials from, well, government eunuchs.

So, let's remember that facial distinctions play a powerful role in society, and for both men and women. In the lines above, we have only touched lightly upon the interpretive possibilities. In today's post, however, I would like to turn our attention to what we might call combative faces. Take a look at the Seinfeld clip, and pay special attention to everyone's reaction to the wavy lines of tribal identification and pugilism.

[c] Peinture RF
O.k., that episode might just trigger thoughts of other kinds of facial distinctions. It is not just moisturizers and beards (and the occasional mustache). Men (and women) paint their faces for many reasons. They also occasionally paint them in order to fight. What is it with...culture...that leads grown people to paint their faces, jump up and down, and clutch various implements? I am not making fun here (well, except of some sports fans).

Today's readings will consider face painting from several angles, and will look at the ways in which painting, identity, and (often) testosterone mingle together in the arenas of violence. We have three readings from different eras and analytical backgrounds. We begin with Sir James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, the odd classic that both inspired and repelled would-be anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (this excerpt is from the abridged 1922 edition). From there, we will look at Caduveo face painting in Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, and conclude with Victor Turner's account of Ndembu circumcision rituals. It's all about the face paint...and a whole lot of other stuff.

Sir James George Frazer
[d] Unbowed PD
The Golden Bough (1922)
In Windessi, Dutch New Guinea, when a party of head-hunters has been successful, and they are nearing home, they announce their approach and success by blowing on triton shells. Their canoes are also decked with branches. The faces of the men who have taken a head are blackened with charcoal. If several have taken part in killing the same victim, his head is divided among them. They always time their arrival so as to reach home in the early morning. They come rowing to the village with a great noise, and the women stand ready to dance in the verandahs of the houses. The canoes row past the room sram or house where the young men live; and as they pass, the murderers throw as many pointed sticks or bamboos at the wall or the roof as there were enemies killed.[1]

Claude Lévi-Strauss
[e] Face à PD
Tristes Tropiques (1955)
In the tribe we visited, the men were sculptors and the women painters. The men fashioned the statuettes I mentioned earlier from the hard, bluish wood of the gum tree. They also embossed figures of men, ostriches and horses on the zebu horns they used as cups. Occasionally they made drawings, but only of foliage, human beings or animals. The women’s specialty was decorating pottery and leather, and doing the body paintings, at which some were undeniably expert.

Their faces, and sometimes even their bodies, were covered with a network of asymmetrical arabesques, alternating with delicate geometrical patterns. The first person to describe this feature was the Jesuit missionary, Sanchez Labrador, who lived among them from 1760 to 1770, but exact reproductions were only made a century later by Boggiani. In 1935, I myself collected several hundred designs in the following manner. My first intention was to photograph the faces, but the financial demands of the ladies in the tribe would soon have exhausted my resources. I next tried to draw faces on sheets of paper and suggested to the women that they should paint them, as they would their own countenances; the result was so successful that I abandoned my clumsy sketches. The women were not put off by the blank sheets, and this showed that their art in no way depended on the natural contours of the human face.

Only a few very old women seemed to have preserved the ancient skills; and for a long time I remained convinced that I had mad my collection at the last possible moment. I was, therefore, greatly surprised two years ago to receive an illustrated account of a collection made fifteen years later by a Brazilian colleague. Not only did his documents seem as expertly executed as min, but very often the designs were identical. During all that time, style, technique and inspiration had remained unchanged, just as they had remained unaltered during the forty years which had elapsed between Boggiani’s visit and mine. Such conservatism is all the more remarkable in that it does not extend to their pottery, which, if we are to judge by the latest illustrated accounts, is not in a state of complete decline. This fact would seem to prove the exceptional importance attributed to body paintings, and still more so to facial paintings, in native culture.[2]

Victor Turner
[f] Liminal lamination PD
The Forest of Symbols (1967)
Just after sunrise, I was Sampasa wash the senior Lodge Instructor, Kutona, from Wadyang’amafu Village, with ku-kolisha medicine from the mortar beside the chikoli tree in the middle of the campsite. After that, he washed himself and the other circumcisers, yifukaminu assistant circumcisers, and guardians with the medicine, then all the novice’s mothers and fathers.

Next a really big meal of fish and cassava meal was given to the novices by their mothers, each mother feeding her son by hand as though he were an infant. After eating, the novices sat trying to look impassive (as Ndembu say “not showing their liver”), while a number of lads who had already been to Mukanda stood by them offering encouragement, much as White had described it. The mothers looked grave and subdued. There was a feeling of tense expectation. Wukengi was nowhere to be seen. Someone told me that before dawn he had gone into the bush with the important circumcisers and Lodge Instructor to select the site of the lodge and of the ifwilu where the boys would be circumcised. There were various ritual “properties” to get ready—a muyombu pole and a mukula log, for example. Perhaps Wukengi was helping with these things.

Shortly after the novices meal, all the circumcisers, looking thoroughly menacing with red clay daubed on brow and temples and each with a red lourie feather in his hair, marched in and proceeded to dance around the chikoli tree, holding up their equipment…What should have been done next, but was in fact omitted until circumcision was over, was to erect a frame of mukula poles, in the shape of a soccer goal post, over the entrance of the new path…Through it the novices had to pass on the way to circumcision, and over it were hung the clothes they wore as children and would wear no more as circumcised tribesmen.[3]


[1] Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996), 248.

[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques Translated by John and Doreen Weightman (New York: Penguin Books, 1973, 185-187.

[3] Victor Turner, Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), 212-213.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.
Turner, Victor. Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Facial Artifice
George and Jerry wear mustaches and discuss the Netherlands. Really.


  1. This immediately drew to mind another work of literature that makes a point of our tendency to "paint [our] faces, jump up and down, and clutch various implements."

    William Golding
    Lord of the Flies (1954)

    He knelt, holding the shell of water. A rounded patch of sunlight fell on his face and a brightness appeared in the depths of the water. He looked in astonishment, no longer at himself but at an awesome stranger. He spilt the water and leapt to his feet, laughing excitedly. Beside the pool his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled them. He began to dance and his laughter became a bloodthirsty snarling. He capered towards Bill, and the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness. The face of red and white and black swung through the air and jigged toward Bill. Bill started up laughing; then suddenly he fell silent and blundered away through the bushes.

    Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Faber and Faber, 1945.

    --William Locke IV

  2. I am wondering why and how the circumcision became a rite of passage?