From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (7)—Embodied Wholes

[a] Whole 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 studying 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.

[b] Embodied RF
Embodied Wholes
Marcel Granet’s reaction to the pages that Durkheim and Mauss devoted to Chinese classification is instructive, and provides a window to his thought. Although there is an air of advocacy in his statement—promoting the work of his friend and his mentor—there is much more to it than that. Marcel Granet was generous in his scholarship, but in a way that goes far beyond kindness to others. He saw whole arguments where others often saw fragments.

He was not alone in this, of course, because that very generosity lay at the heart of the Année sociologique approach to social phenomena. Rather than pointing out the quite obvious confusion of even basic issues in Primitive Classification, Granet saw its interpretive potential, conceptual rigor, and creativity. These were things that he brought to his own work, and the criticism of his Chinese scholarship often reflect an irritation with his attempt to find wholes, where (for many readers) parts would do.

[c] Round-square RF
A prominent professor of Chinese studies once remarked to me that he hoped that someone would translate Granet’s last book, La pensée chinoise, and said that it would be an easier job for a translator because Granet’s chapters on etiquette, government, and public service, being somewhat derivative, could be skipped. To my mind, that approach is exactly what is wrong with sinological readings of Granet, and is why he is not fully appreciated by many readers. Even when scholars of China find him brilliant, they focus only on a few chapters that, if read in the wider context of the book as a whole—or Granet’s whole body of writings—would show the sociological foundations of his thinking, and his reworking of his mentor’s ideas in a Chinese context. Indeed, isolated readings of even a great work such as La pensée chinoise will never bring a reader to an understanding of the method to which Granet adhered so closely, and that deeply influenced his own students.

Our focus must be reversed if we are to bring out the full impact of Granet’s work, and that requires a thorough understanding of his early work on Chinese religion and seasonal festivals, his careful studies of Chinese sociology, and his almost forgotten blend of sociological insight and sinological depth, Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne.  For, as one prominent scholar has noted, Granet was “a historian by training and a sinologist by accident…spiritually and intellectually a sociologist in the sense given that term in the 1920s.[1]  

[d] Ritual RF
When reading even the table de matières of Danses et légendes, once can see the themes of Année sociologique, for it deals not only with the social background of China’s Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BCE), but the role of ritual, sacrifice, and communion in early Chinese society. In addition, Granet addresses early Chinese classification and categorization, as well as political themes (rendered always in the wider context of his sociological understanding) such as the transfer of power and the creation of new political orders. Indeed, in the widest possible sense, it represents a seven-hundred page expansion into the realm of Chinese texts of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life and Marcel Mauss’s studies of sacrifice, magic, and gift exchange.

The spirit of Danses et légendes can best be summarized by Granet’s student, Rolf Stein, who has done as much as anyone—even while producing a formidable scholarly reputation of his own—to preserve the memory of Granet’s work. Here it is in Stein's words.

          In his courses, Granet forced us to analyze texts on our own, to examine 
          them critically, and to draw from them the maximum amount of knowledge. 
          The questions he asked were designed to elicit not necessarily an immediate 
          solution to any single problem, but rather a slow, progressive journey toward 
          personal discovery. If he was not always pleased with our replies, this was 
          simply because even the most advanced student could not hope to reach the 
          high level of a master like Granet.

          In order to work as Granet did, a student would have to have complete 
          knowledge of ancient Chinese literature, for Granet set down this general 
          principle: no single detail of any civilization can be understood and explained 
          except in the context of the entire civilization, just as in a jigsaw puzzle the 
          meaning of a piece can be seen only when it is put into it place in the larger 
          picture. Any interpretation from the outside, based on a priori principles, was
          immediately rejected. Only those who have completely misunderstood Granet 
          could accuse him of holding preconceived ideas.  He always refused, for 
          example, to “explain” a legend or a myth on the basis of any “theory.”

          But he did actually have one preconceived idea: that of the importance of his 
          method of working. He would accept only explanations that resulted from 
          casting a new light on facts by putting them side by side, revealing their 
          relationship to each other, and finally grouping them into a whole.[2]

[e] Steps RF
It is this “grouping of wholes” that lies at the heart of Granet’s method and his publications, and his own oeuvre needs to be understood in the same spirit. They constitute their own jigsaw puzzle in many ways, and it is not possible to experience the full thrust of Granet’s scholarship without it. It is one of the reasons that the reactions of Granet’s students and many readers are often at such odds,[4] and why even many patient scholars of Chinese civilization have been puzzled by his work. They have failed to approach Granet’s scholarship (and sometimes even his individual works) as embodied wholes that require equal attention to all of their parts, even those that seem preliminary or already well studied.

Although it is the purpose of series of posts—as a whole—to make a detailed analysis of Granet’s sociological sinology (or sinological sociology), I turn briefly to one of the most cited sections of Danses et légendes for an introductory example. As part of the book’s final section on “Heroic Sacrifice and Dynastic Dance,” Granet analyzes the Yubu—the “step of Yu.” Beginning memorably with the phrase: “He knew how to dance,”[3] Yu, the great sage king and founder of the Xia, “dragged a leg as he walked,” the result of his toil on behalf of the fledgling empire as he worked without respite to quell the flood waters ravaging all under heaven. The “Yu Step” is a Daoist dance and ritual that celebrates, in precise motions—left foot trailing, right foot in front—the toils of Yu.

[f] Coordinates RF
The “Step of Yu” is precisely the kind of ritual that fascinated Granet, for it forms a mimetic representation and encapsulation of powerful political and historical processes. For many readers, however, it is read in isolation, and becomes nothing more than part of a catalogue of interesting rituals that give “flavor” to Chinese civilization and culture (imagine a French ritual portraying Louis XIV dragging his toiling, aching leg behind him; whole shelves of the library would be devoted to it).

For Granet, the example of toiling Yu follows hundred of pages dealing with the context of Chinese history and political life in the Zhou period, and grows directly out of a chapter that begins with an analysis of agnatic and uterine kinship as they connect to sacrificial ritual. Unlike even Edouard Chavannes, his “other” mentor, Marcel Granet showed little interest in the scholarly “trinkets” of Chinese texts. He was not inclined to polish and admire them in relative isolation, as have been many of his predecessors and successors.[4] For Granet, the “Step of Yu” was instead part of a great jigsaw puzzle of Chinese society that must be understood—indeed, could only be understood—as part of an embodied whole. 

[1] Marcel Granet, Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne [Introduction by Rémi Mathieu] (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1926), vi. Rémi Mathieu writes in the  préface à Danses et légendes...  « Quoique historien de formation et Sinologue par accident, M. Granet est spirituellement et intellectuellement sociologue au sens donné à ce terme dans les années vingt du XXe siècle.  Sa méthode est essentiellement « sociologique », c’est a dire, à ses yeux, durkheimienne et maussienne, mais cette adhésion est autant rationnelle qu’affective. »
[2] Rolf Stein, The World in Miniature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 3.
[3] Danses et légendes, 549.  « Il savait danser.»
[4] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 10. Even Granet’s own students struggled with these matters.  “Granet seems to have divided his teaching into the mythique and juridique, and was disappointed when, as appears generally to have been the case, he could not hold their interest equally in both: the kinship often bored those who were entranced by the myth and ritual.” 

Granet, Marcel. Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne [Introduction by Rémi Mathieu]. Paris: 
     Presses Universitaires de France, 1926.
Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated with an introduction by Maurice 
     Freedman]. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

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