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Saturday, March 31, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (3)—Social Rhythms

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series about Marcel Granet, "La Pensée Cyclique"
Round and Square one year ago—Seinfeld Ethnography Introduction 
[a] Flow RF
This series is dedicated to understanding one of the most fascinating intellects of the twentieth century, Marcel Granet (1884-1940). In an earlier era, he might have been considered (at least by bibliophiles digesting tomes ranging from De l'esprit des lois to 呂氏春秋 between the world wars) the most interesting man in the world. For me, he is every bit of that (as we say back home). Granet's range of interests in social theory and Chinese literature were profound, catholic, and engrossing. I hope that (whether you are interested in French, social theory, or Chinese) you will give Monsieur Granet a little bit of your attention. The material is not simple, by any means, but it is an ideal way to grasp how knowledge really works.

Social Rhythms 
Marcel Granet’s oeuvre has often been described as dense, and that reflects several important issues in his writings. From one perspective, it could be said that Granet reworked similar ground throughout his entire scholarly career, and, indeed, one can see prominent themes appearing in several books—and some ideas from earlier books being fleshed out in later ones. His was not the “slash and burn” scholarship described by Claude Lévi-Strauss—moving from one idea to another with little reference to earlier work.[1] Granet’s production hardly reached the other extreme, however, and he could never be called a scholar who tilled the same field throughout his scholarly life (I remember a historian who once told me that my job would be to "work the field" of a decade in history that most interested me; I was appalled). Granet's interests in two complex fields were far too diverse to allow for that. I think of Granet's approach as a way of taking one topic, working it, and then letting it lie fallow for several years before returning, reseeding, and retilling the intellectual soil.
[b] Tête-à-tête RF
Maurice Freedman has cogently described Granet’s total body of work as “a series of overlapping discussions of a group of central problems in Chinese social organization and thought.”[2] Indeed, from Granet’s first published book in 1919—Fêtes et chansons de la chine ancienne [Festivals and Songs in Ancient China], which he jointly dedicated to his sociological mentor Emile Durkheim and his sinological mentor Edouard Chavannes—through the publication of La pensée chinoise [Chinese Thought] in 1934, Marcel Granet worked to explicate the social and intellectual cycles at the heart of the Chinese social order. He was not interested in only “primitive” forms, as were some of his intellectual contemporaries. Nor was he interested solely in the elite social and intellectual order that dominated indigenous Chinese traditions for over two millennia. His interests ran the gamut of Chinese practice and belief, and represented a complex and diverse methodology that would allow him to bring out the sociological implications in his Chinese texts.

Several powerful ideas work their way through all of Granet’s published works, and found their place, as well, in his teaching. As the title of this series—La Pensée Cyclique [Cyclical Thought]— indicates, I find Granet’s engagement with social and intellectual cyclicality to be one such powerful theme, and one that is far more subtle, adaptable, and refined than a cursory treatment ever could explain.  

[c] Cyclical RF
Indeed, Granet’s published work itself reflects a kind of scholarly cyclicality that brought him back to similar themes and similar questions over the course of his scholarly life. He did not treat the questions the same way in later books, and that seems to be precisely because the angles and approaches that he employed called for subtle and precise interpretation. The field was more fertile after lying fallow for a while.

As a way of beginning, I have chosen a prominent theme in Granet’s work, and have taken a passage whose themes would be reworked, rethought, and reconfigured throughout Granet’s career—those of social gathering and celebration. Nothing is more important in Granet's thinking than the cycles—the undulating rhythms—of social life.

[d] Clustered RF
Gathering is one of the most powerful of all social and religious actions, and, in true Durkheimian fashion, the assembly created through individual footsteps and movements is much, much greater than its parts. This happens on Chinese mountains, on the way to synagogues and churches and mosques, and in quiet villages seeking to allocate irrigation resources for the coming year (these are linked, even though it will take some time to show precisely how).  

Indeed, Granet's teacher, Emile Durkheim, devotes a good deal of space to the theme of tumultuous gathering in his own writings, and makes the key point that all religions (which he bluntly states are society) absolutely need the regeneration that is created by bringing disparate believers together for periods of communal excitement. Durkheim's point is as profound as it is straightforward, and Granet channeled it in his own writings, as we will see. 
          Sentiments created and developed in the group have a greater energy than 
          purely individual sentiments. A person who experiences such sentiments feels 
          that he is dominated by forces that he does not recognize as his own, and of 
          which he is not the master, but by which he is led…He feels himself in a world 
          quite distinct from that of his own private existence. This is a world not only 
          more intense in character, but also qualitatively different. Following the 
          collectivity, the individual forgets himself for the common end and his conduct 
          is directed by reference to a standard outside himself…

          It is, in fact, at such moments of collective ferment that are born the great ideals  
          upon which civilizations rest. These periods of creation or renewal occur when 
          people for various reasons are led into a closer relationship with each other, 
          when gatherings and assemblies are more frequent, relationships closer and 
          the exchange of ideas more active…Nevertheless these ideals could not survive
          if they were not periodically revived. This revival is the function of religious or 

          secular feasts and ceremonies, public addresses in churches or schools, plays 
          and exhibitions—in a word, whatever draws men together into an intellectual 
          and moral communion.[3]

[e] Harvest RF
Early on, Marcel Granet described peasant communal activity in a way that would become an intellectual magnet in his life's work. Peasants gathered at seasonal festivals to mark the beginning and end of agricultural work for the year. Much larger—and infinitely more complex—gatherings would mark the feudal nobility and later imperial court in China. Nonetheless, for Granet, the peasant gathering is the beginning of all later social and religious life, and he is hard-pressed to restrain his ethnographic and literary enthusiasm. In this passage, Marcel Granet does not fill his footnotes with sources and theoretical justifications. All he needs are the Classic of Poetry [Shijing] and Durkheim’s writings on religious gathering. It is rather as though his pen floats across the page, guided, as it were, by L’année sociologique and the Chinese classics. Don't skim. Read it carefully. Marcel Granet is in a kind of sociological-theoretical trance here, and understanding it is the key to his thought. Read it slowly (aloud), and carefully. Really.

          From day to day the individual belonged completely to his family, and the 
          awareness of this belonging entailed a habitual feeling of opposition towards
          neighbors. It was only on exceptional occasions that family egoism could feel 
          itself mastered by the vision, then sudden and dazzling, of higher interests 
          never clearly seen in ordinary circumstances. Their rhythmic life provided the 
          Chinese peasants with these occasions at two points in the year: when they 
          finished and when they began domestic work and labor in the fields, when 
          men and women, their activity alternating, changed their mode of life, at the 
          beginning of spring and at the end of autumn.

[f] Weaving RF
The weaving done or the grain harvest brought in, each family group was put in possession of an abundance of riches: these were moments of joy, moments when the harshness of practical concerns was relaxed, moments favorable to large gestures, propitious to generous exchanges, welcome periods of large-scale social intercourse.  And it was not at all an interchange that sought only direct and material advantage:  each family, proud of the fruits of its labor, wished to display its fortune; neighboring groups came together in a communal assembly, each inviting the others to make use of all its riches: it won recognition of its prestige by its generosity.

          In these solemn meetings of families usually withdrawn into themselves and 
          shut up within the circle of their daily cares, each of them, becoming aware of 
          its power at a time of plenty and feeling it to be increased by its public display, 
          lost its usual feelings of enmity towards the neighboring families at the moment 
          when its self-confidence was carried to its highest point. The interpenetration 
          of the different groups was more intense, more moving, more intimate, and 
          more absolute for their isolation and self-contained nature being in normal 
          times more complete.[4]

[g] Seeds RF
“Gathering” in the passage above is a powerful idea that is no less sociological for its having a Chinese name: 會. As Granet’s mentor Edouard Chavannes would point out, although the character hui has come to be extended a great deal in both Chinese and Japanese, its core meaning is “coming together,” or “gathering." For Durkheim, the key concept of communion and renewal gives spirit to his work on the elementary forms of religion. Granet links them.

What separates Granet from his two mentors is his unwillingness to leave the matter where each of them did. Chavannes studied the Classic of Poetry and the Book of Rites at length; Durkheim theorized about religious communions and social solidarity.  For Granet, the question seems to be: “What can we make of ‘gathering,’ and how does it figure in the Chinese textual tradition, as well as the sociological one?”  

Such “gathering” is at the heart of all of Marcel Granet’s arguments about not only “peasant society,” but elite writings and even the classification and movement of the calendar itself, which rules and orders the heavens and coordinates all life in the universe, according to traditional Chinese cosmology. It would appear in all of his writing and his teaching, throughout his career. We'll examine some of those materials in the next few posts.

[1] Something that Professor Lévi-Strauss asserted more than he practiced, in any case. Claude Lévi-Stauss, Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 58.
[2] Marcel, Granet, The Religion of the Chines People [Translated, with an introduction by Maurice Freedman} (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 4.
[3] Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings [Edited by Anthony Giddens] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 228-229.
[4] Granet, Religion: 40.

Granet, Marcel.The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated, with an introduction, by Maurice Freedman]. 
     New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Durkheim, Emile. Selected Writings [Edited by Anthony Giddens]. Cambridge: Cambridge University 
     Press, 1972.
[h] Gathering RF

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