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Monday, April 2, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (4)—Gathering the Social

[a] Social gathering 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.

Gathering the Social
All of human life, for Marcel Granet, was grounded in the study of society.  All of it.  A common, but nonetheless important, example is the very word for “society” used in China and Japan today—社會 shehui; shakai. Students of modern Chinese know it as a compound that simply means “society,” and forms further compounds such as shehuixue (sociology), shehui zhuyi (socialism), and many others. When those same students are asked to consider all elements of the phrase, as they must when studying the classical language so dear to Marcel Granet, they invariably have to learn that the phrase’s origins are quite different from their current uses. Bear with me if you do not read Chinese, but this is worth it.  
[b] Congregation RF
Hui should be read verbally here. To 會 hui—to gather, coalesce, congregate, commune (the social-religious idea behind it is powerful)—at the 社 she, the grain shrine to Earth, is to form something greater than the individual, something that moves, thinks, and acts differently than a single human mind or body ever could. It is social thought.

It is also society in its integral and foundational sense. The grain shrine in ancient China was a place to meet, to plan, and to coordinate activities (such as irrigating fields) that went far beyond the individual family’s interests. It was where village life happened. It was also a place to give reverence to the soil that provided all people with sustenance. “Gathering at the grain shrine,” then, implies a concept in which the individual is part of something far larger, and much more profound, than her own private thoughts. It is profoundly social.

Granet, who “became a Durkheimian before he ever dreamt of China,”[1] never left the intellectual roots of his teacher, and this can be seen clearly in the quotations presented in previous posts. It is only those scholars of China with a narrow focus on sinological esoterica (there are more of them than you might think) who fail to see the sociological analysis in all of his writings. Indeed, Granet recognized a few of these types among his own students in the 1920s and 1930s (those who clamored for the mythical even as they grew bored of the social-structural), and routinely bemoaned their inability to see social action in the texts they studied.

It could well be argued that it was Emile Durkheim’s perspective on earlyreligion that had the deepest influence on Granet. By seeking religion in its purest sense, Durkheim sought to understand a set of religious institutions that were generated by the necessities of life. “Necessity” meant life itself, and the way that it was patterned. By studying those who lived close to the land and focusing on year-to-year (and even day-to-day) survival, the basic—indeed, the elementary—forms of religious life could be seen. So Durkheim taught, and his student, Marcel Granet, internalized the point.

[c] Sacred site RF
This is precisely what Granet sought to do in his first two books. Studying the year-to-year (and, indeed, season-to-season) life of the Chinese peasant, he articulates the forces that provided social solidarity and opposition. He gives just as much care to the lonely life in the fields that separated men from male neighbors—and all men from all women—as he does the enthusiastic festivals in which they were reunited at the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes. Using his Chinese texts for specific images, he fully integrates a Durkheimian vision with Chinese social life.

As with the student, so, too, with the teacher. Durkheim’s is a religion of social movement and interaction. It is not a church religion. It is one that is as much a part of the campfire and the agricultural (or hunting) calendar as it is of ritual. This is not to say that ritual is absent, but it is a part of the very life of the people that Durkheim sought to study. Religion was intertwined with their very sense of being, their very sense of acting and moving.  So tired was Durkheim of the intellectual games and esoteric forms of “higher” religion that he despaired of finding the fundamental social origins of thought in them. Try finding the "germ" of religious life in a Catholic mass, he often challenged. 

He argued that you cannot go backward from religious actions that are the result of centuries of historical accidents. So-called "high" religion (Eastern or Western) was a maze of analytical confusion. Durkheim rather found those origins in ethnographic texts dealing with central Australian tribes with the elemental strains of social-religious life that he taught grounded all societies (and all high religions). Granet found them in collections of early Chinese poetry. Their sources varied, and Granet was indisputably the better linguist. Their social analysis, however, was of a piece. Original forms teach us something we cannot learn from present-day religious doctrine and action, they argued.

Granet headed first to the books (the Classic of Poetry was one of his favorites) and then to the fields. There lay his social-religious quarry.

The very statement that religion arises out of social necessity separates the work of Durkheim (1858-1917) and his students (c. 1870-1950) from most scholars of religion in their own time. For Durkheim, the life of Central Australians was so close to Rousseau’s primitive state that their thought would be generated by society itself. This is important, because Durkheim believed that all thought emerges from social interaction, and all theology emerges from human classification. For Granet, early Chinese peasants (and not those who tilled the land when he himself visited China in the early twentieth century) represented China’s elementary forms of religious life, and their greatest communion and greatest shared joy can be found in the very act of gathering at the seasonal festivals each year, where they became, for a moment, something other—something larger and more powerful than themselves. 

[d] Movement RF
Hui, “gathering,” means thinking as an individual—because collective emotions are still processed and articulated by individuals—but moving as a group. It gives a profound sense of integration and solidarity that binds people together who otherwise might be distant and detached. Indeed, for both Emile Durkheim and Marcel Granet, the conscience collective created by such gatherings can be shown only in action, in the movement of people in concert. Shehui (from gathering at the grain shrine through the conscience collective to general ideas about society  and the universe as a whole) implies lifting skirts while crossing muddy streams, carrying meals for an extended family, sharing food with strangers, anticipating competitions against neighbors, and feeling the lure of contact between the sexes. It implies song competitions, archery contests and, in time, the necessity of returning to working the earth and spending one’s time in labor that is divided both by gender and community. It is religion; it is society. 

Watch Granet the literary ethnographer and social theorist at work here. Take your time to see why he is writing in this very strange way. Don't rush. I think he is channeling the flowing rivers of literary and social thought traditions—from Montesquieu and Rousseau to Durkheim and Mauss...and from Balzac to Zola. Take your time.

          The gatherings of rural communities consisted in powerful orgies in which 
          were affirmed, at one and the same time, the strength of the family grouping 
          and that of the political grouping. Marking the beat of the rhythm by which 
          female and male work alternated, the gatherings had the character of great 
          sexual festivals in which were effected the great matrimonial exchanges by 
          which each group permanently held hostages from all the others and sent 
          them delegates. These festivals of peasant harmony were also festivals of 
          marriage and fertility. Marking the time of rustic work, inaugurating the 
          success to come, celebrating the success achieved, they were moreover 
          great agrarian festivals in which orgies of food were mingled with sexual 
          orgies. They snatched people suddenly away from their monotonous lives; 
          they sharply awoke within them the profoundest hopes to be conceived by 
          an agricultural people; they excited the creative activity of inner life to the 
          highest degree. The practices and beliefs born of this extraordinary activity 
          governed the development of Chinese religion: public and family cults, 
          ancestor and agrarian cults, even the cult of heaven, emerged from these 
          festivals of human and natural fertility in which the domestic spirit was 
          revealed in all its strength while the sense of society was created.[2] 

Granet is here the poet of social gathering and dispersal, but the foundations of his lyric lie in a combination of those very texts that he hurriedly packed into his bags as the fledgling Republican government took its place in Beijing in 1912 in the aftermath of the Qing dynasty’s fall. It cannot really be understood without understanding the sociology behind the sinology…behind the sociology…which in turn lies behind more sinology—all of which lies behind a description that, to my mind, is an outpouring of love for these two magnificent traditions, which were only in their second (or possibly third, depending on how you want to count) generations as objects of Western intellectual concentration when Marcel Granet began to study Chinese society and thought.

[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated with an introduction by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 7.
[2] Granet, Religion, 34.Italics mine.

Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated with an introduction by Maurice 
     Freedman]. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
[e] Dispersal RF

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