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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Divinatory Economics (9)—Sacred Mountain Incense-i

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] Structure 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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Theoretical Implications—2
Marshall Sahlins—Structure and Event
A further approach to structural matters builds upon Pierre Bourdieu’s work. I attribute this to Marshall Sahlins, from whom I learned to think about “structure and history” in a seminar series in the late-1980s at the University of Chicago. Even then, I was both intrigued and annoyed by approaches various thinkers had taken to matters of “structure.” I was exhilarated by the idea that structures both constrain our actions and are ever-changing. Marshall Sahlins’s work on Hawaiian kingship and Captain Cook provides a beautiful analysis of these themes, and the way in which historical contingencies affect structures (and, of course, vice-versa).
[b] Event RL

Still, even twenty years ago, I could not shake the feeling that both Pierre Bourdieu and Marshall Sahlins could not resist the temptations to skip ahead to the analysis of large structures. I have always considered this a pedagogical, if not (necessarily) theoretical problem. What follows is my rethinking of Bourdieu and Sahlins—Structure 101; it is not so much a critique as a reexamination of what they might see as “simple” matters, but which I regard as vitally important to understanding structure on Chinese mountains.

For me, human beings are structure-negotiating animals. We are interpreting, altering, being constrained by, and fighting “structures” all of the time. These range from mountains of rock (constraining our actions as we move from base to peak) and even gravity to much more ethereal “structures” such as expectations about how to dress, act, travel, and pray. Bourdieu’s notion of habitus is very effective here, but I still like to think of things such as traffic laws as structures, fully invoking the Durkheimian idea of constraint. We “negotiate” a speed limit, to be sure (and people do, too, in China), but constraining forces are at work, including the one that “allows” you to go four or nine miles per hour over the limit—but not twenty).
[c] No "I" in "teem" RL

Space is structured. Expectations are structured. Constraints vary. This is why I like to think of “structures” as having various “levels.” Level One structures are things such as gravity (probably the most extreme everyday "structure"), mountains, and oceans. To get from San Francisco to Shanghai, one must negotiate the “structure” of the Pacific Ocean. To live on earth, one must negotiate (one hopes without thought) the structures of gravity. "Level One" structures (unlike, say, a sumptuary law) are not changing, except perhaps under laboratory conditions. Level Two structures would include roads, paths, and highways, on the one hand (I call them 2A) and traffic laws and conditions on those roads (which I call 2B). Both are structures. An interstate highway is not a bear trail. A speed limit is not a sense of “I had better watch out for bears here”). 

From there, structures continue. For purposes of explanation, I refer to Level Three structures in terms of genre, ideas, and the like. The rules of chess or sonnet composition would be included in this intellectual catch-all category. So, too, would the requirements for a BA degree or the expectations (within any field of study) of what constitutes a doctoral dissertation. Although there is enormous room here for quibbling and revision, it is not hard to get the idea that structures impose constraints of wildly different kinds. History or event is how we happen to “negotiate the structure” at any particular time (I take a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Shanghai and negotiate the Pacific Ocean structure; I drive sixty-eight miles an hour and skirt traffic laws on I-90 in southern Wisconsin). Culture for my purposes is…well, habitus. It is the way that most people at any time happen to negotiate any particular structures.
[d] Change RL

Let us now take this set of concepts to the mountains. Negotiating physical space is the first structural challenge, and it is much easier to do now than it was eighty or two-hundred years ago. Getting to Longevity Mountain now requires a plane to Changsha and a bumpy three-hour bus ride to the village of South Peak (or a train and a forty-minute cab ride to the town that is structurally prevented by mountains—for now—from having a train station). Negotiation of the incense seller stalls is another structural challenge. There are thousands (no exaggeration) of almost identical stores or roadside stalls. Then there is the hotel industry in a tourist village. Structures. Pricing. The next stop is the Nanyue (South Peak) Temple. Enter from the “back.” Walk to the back and enter from the “front.” Structure. The temple is structured, but the main event is at the furnaces. Sacrifice. Supplication. Teeming religious energy.
[e] Road RL

And then there is the mountain itself—a towering structure of rock, forest, and cultural outposts, from temples to teashops. How does one handle the constraints? The problem with most economic and cultural theory is that it is not confusing enough. I am serious. I would go so far as to say that human creativity is an outgrowth of negotiating tens of thousands of structures every single day of our lives—from lifting a coffee cup that spills easily to “typing” words on an 8.5x11 piece of paper (with one inch margins on all four sides). We are structure-negotiating animals, and we are negotiating all of the time. We do it by hiking uphill over the course of 7,000 stone steps (themselves a structure, of course) and by following the rules (read: habitus, expectations) of veneration at any particular temple. 

Or not. Visitors from Taiwan are often scandalized by what they regard as the ignorance of pilgrims from the People’s Republic of China, where religious ritual experienced a gap of at least a generation and as many as three, depending on how one counts. For the visitor from Taiwan or Hong Kong, it is as natural as can be to burn one’s incense stick with a tight, red, unobtrusive ember. That is “correct”. For the religiously experienced (in this setting), it is natural. Habitus.
[f] Trail RL

Not so much for visitors from far-flung parts of the People’s Republic of China. While many people, young and old, have relearned or remembered the habitus of old (nice, evenly-burning incense), it is startling—I came of ethnographic age in Taiwan—to see the flaming torches of incendiary danger and borderline sacrilege that have become very common in Chinese temples. It is as though thirty years of religious suppression has erased thirty centuries of patterned religiosity. At least partly. On every sacred mountain temple in China today, there is at least one prominent fire extinguisher as evidence that structures change, and are capable of burning down a temple…structure.

And change back. It is as though Chinese temple visitors on the sacred mountains are relearning the old ways—but in a new way. Structures change. To come full circle with Pierre Bourdieu (and I paraphrase)…it is as though we don’t know what we’re doing…ever. We are feeling our way through life with the aid of vaguely remembered habits (habitus; habiti) and even more scantily remembered ideas of what we ought to do. We are feeling our way through life and culture and history in much the way that we find our way to the bathroom in the dark in a familiar house (most of the time) and an unfamiliar one (some of the time).
[g] Trodden RL

Life is tough.

This is my message, and it piggybacks on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Marshall Sahlins. We are structure-negotiating animals, and we weave our way from Changsha to South Peak Village, on to the temple and the furnaces, and up the mountain (by one means of transportation or another) to the Zhurong Temple on the peak.

Our travels are structured every step of the way, indeed, they are constrained in significant (gravity, rock) and minor (incense here but not there) ways. These patterns are learned, remembered, and (sometimes) changed. That is why people take buses and cable cars to the (near) peak. 
1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9         10
Theoretical Implications—3 
We'll finish our prolegomena to any future divinatory microeconomics with a reading of Henri Lefebvre's The Construction of Space. From there, we'll see where this approach might take us in further research (and I do mean "us")—across continents and oceans. 
[h] Dao RL

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