From Round to Square (and back)

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Divinatory Economics (5)—Sacred Mountain Incense-e

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] Calculated RL
The next half-dozen posts center on a research question I have been pondering for some time—the way pilgrims spend their incense on China's southern sacred mountain (南嶽衡山). I gave a lecture on the topic at Erlangen University in November, and then expanded some of that work into an Asian Studies Faculty Research Seminar—an ongoing series in the Beloit College Asian Studies program—in December. Although I will be continuing my research and writing on this subject, I thought that this might be a good time to begin exploring in depth some of the implications of "divinatory economics." If you have not read the introduction to the series, I would recommend it as the place to begin. If you have, settle in for a series of posts that describe the Chinese mountains (the first post, below, re-covers some of the territory from the Longevity Mountain series so that readers without that background are "ready" to spend their incense). I have tried to make these posts reasonably entertaining—even the "theoretical" sections to come next week. 
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Variations on a Temple Theme
The combinations (tens of them) for these variables make the microeconomic equation very difficult, indeed. On the other hand, it is really no more complicated than any other set of microeconomic issues. Choice is difficult to explain under any circumstances—fish and chips, fish or chips, codfish soaked in lye. The stable points in almost all mountain operations include the following, and I am continually struck by the relevance in these matters of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice, on the one hand, and Marshall Sahlins’s analyses of structure and history, on the other. I will return to both of these thinkers as we discuss the theoretical implications of these itineraries. Note that that almost all pilgrims “engage” both base and peak temples.

          ·  90% +                        Supplication at base temple 
          ·  Highly Varied             Intensity of engagement at base temple
          ·  Varied                          Travel up the mountain (see above)
          ·  Varied                          “Sectarian” commitment (佛道儒)
          ·  Varied                         Supplication at mid-mountain temples
          ·  Varied                          pecialization within temples (e.g. 送子殿)
          ·  Highly Varied              External supplications (e.g. stone altars on path)
          ·  90% +                         Supplication at Zhurong Peak Temple 
          ·  Varied                          Intensity of engagement at peak temple
          ·  Extremely Varied        Visiting other temples on the “winding descent”
[b] Spent RL

This remains only the beginning. For example, the enormous array of temples between the base and the peak (clearly the start, climax, and finish of most incense-bearing journeys) are inaccessible to many travelers—arguably most of them today. While hikers have access to most temple sites on the long ascent, and cars or motorcycles can reach perhaps two-thirds of them, bus riders miss almost all temples on the mountain. Those who take the bus to mid-mountain may stop there to visit temples, but a cable car trip will take out of play all but two of the rest—even forcing pilgrims to backtrack to reach one of the major mountain temples at South Heaven Gate. In short, only the mountain-hiking pilgrim (a rapidly shrinking group) comes anywhere close to “blanketing the mountain” with incense. Moreover, there is no firm evidence that the “authenticity” of such travel is much valued, as we shall see.

What, then, are we to make of this? How can we find a way to theorize, and not merely to note clusters of ethnographically observed cases, as we have done up until now? Before we proceed, let us quickly review a number of intersecting themes at work on China’s southern sacred mountain.

          ·  Buddhist “feel” (serious “religiosity”)
          ·  Joint travel (almost no one travels alone)
          ·  Rock carving (the pilgrim climbs through caverns of text)
          ·  Historical issues (the Nationalists are commemorated)
          ·  Longevity (a theme closely connected with the mountain)
          ·  Secularism (today’s China takes this seriously, even on sacred mountains)
          ·  Cosmology (the long tradition still shows itself everywhere)
[c] Detail RL

The danger here is, indeed, to be found in a profusion of historical, cosmological, and cultural detail. These things matter, and I have struggled to find a way to portray them in the rich detail they deserve, even as I seek to refine the analysis of "mountain spending." The interplay between cultural detail, historical context, and theoretical focus is always difficult in this kind of analysis. I would argue, however, that this "messiness" is precisely what the anthropologist can bring to the table in a full discussion of microeconomic choice on a sacred mountain.

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Spending Religiosity
We'll get into the nitty-gritty of the microeconomic equation tomorrow before proceeding in our final three days to theoretical matters.

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