Natural symbols – explorations in cosmology

Itacoatiara, Tupi-Guarani astronomical cave painting, in Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil


Author's introduction to the newly edited book

The title of this book seems to contain a contradiction. Nature needs to be expressed in symbols; nature is known through symbols, which are themselves a construction on experience, a product of the mind, an artifice or conventional product, therefore the opposite of the natural. Nor does it make sense to speak of natural symbols, unless the mind tends in some natural way to use the same symbols for the same situations. This issue has been explored in depth over time and the existence of natural symbols is rejected.

A symbol only makes sense in its relationship to other symbols within a pattern. The pattern gives the meaning. Therefore, no pattern item can make sense in itself, isolated from the rest. Consequently, even human physiology, which we all share, does not provide symbols that we can all understand.

An intercultural, pan-human pattern of symbols must be an impossibility. On the one hand, each symbolic system develops autonomously according to its own rules. On the other hand, cultural environments add up to their differences. Furthermore, social structures add an additional range of variation. The more closely we examine the conditions of human interaction, the less rewarding, if not ridiculous, the pursuit of natural symbols appears. However, the intuition against such learned negative is strong.

This book attempts to restore intuition following the line of argument of the French sociologists of L'année sociologique. For if it is true, as they claimed, that the social relation between men provides the prototype for the logical relations between things, then whenever that prototype fits into a common pattern, there must be something in common to be identified in the system of relationships. symbols he uses. Where regularities in the system are found, we should expect to find the same natural systems of symbols, systems that are recurrent and always intelligible in different cultures. Society was not just a model that classificatory thinking followed; it was their own divisions that served as divisions for the classification system.

The first logical categories were social categories; the first classes of things were classes of men into which those things were integrated. Since men were grouped and thought of themselves in groups, they, in their thinking, grouped other things. The center of nature's first scheme is not the individual; it is society (DURKHEIM; MAUSS, 1903). The search for natural symbols becomes, by virtue of this argument, the search for natural systems of symbolization. We will look for trends and correlations between the character of the symbolic system and that of the social system.

Of these tendencies, the easiest to recognize can be expressed as the rule of distance from physiological origin. On another occasion, I stated (in purity and danger, 1966) that the organic system offers an analogy of the social system which, other factors unchanged, is used in the same way and understood in the same way throughout the world. The body is capable of providing a natural system of symbols, but our problem is, on the one hand, to identify the elements in the social dimension that are reflected and, on the other hand, how the body functions or how its wastes are to be judged.

In that book, I made some suggestions, but the subject is very complex. According to the rule of distance from physiological origin (or purity rule), the more the social situation exerts pressure on the people involved in it, the more the social demand for conformity tends to be expressed by a demand for physical control. The more bodily processes are ignored and the more firmly placed outside social discourse, the more important the latter becomes. A natural way to investigate a social occasion with dignity is to hide organic processes. Therefore, social distance tends to be expressed in terms of distance from physiological origins and vice versa.

Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, explains the anthropomorphic reference to God with this language. Organs of locomotion, sensation, or speech are figuratively attributed to God to express his agency in some results. The Lord possesses a mighty voice (Psalms, 23, 4), his tongue is a devouring fire (Isaiah, 20, 27), his eyes watch (Psalms, 2, 4). The external organs have a direct figurative sense, since the power to act and the power to know are among the attributes of God. But a problem arises when internal organs are to be interpreted:

“In phrases like “my bowel is worried about him” (Jeremiah, 31, 20); “The sound of your bowels” (Isaiah, 63, 15), the term “bowel” is used in the sense of “heart”, as the term “bowel” is used both in a general sense and in a specific sense; it specifically denotes "intestine" but more generally can be used as the name of any internal organ, including "heart." The truth of this argument can be proved by the phrase “And your law is within my intestines” (Psalms, 40, 9), which is identical with “And your law is within my heart”. For this reason, the prophet used in this verse the phrase "my bowel is troubled" (and "the sound of thy bowels"); the verb hamah it is, in fact, used more frequently in connection with "heart" than with any other organ; compare “My heart is fluttering (manh) in me” (Jeremiah, 4, 19). In the same way, the shoulder is never used as a figure in reference to God, because it is recognized as a mere instrument of transport and also comes into direct contact with what it carries. Much more reason are the organs of nutrition never ascribed to God; they are immediately taken as signs of imperfection”. (MAIMONIDES, 1956, p.61)

The possibility of imagining God with organs of digestion and excretion is out of the question for this theologian. In fact, this is not considered at all in the Jewish religion. But this is not a universal trend. Many religions worship gods who are incarnate in every way. The Incarnation is the central, distinctive doctrine of Christianity. A basic question for understanding natural symbolic systems will be to know which social conditions are the prototype for this or that set of attitudes towards the human body and its aptitude or inadequacy to represent deities. What are the limits within which disdain for organic processes can be used as a language for social distance? Great methodological difficulties are encountered in any attempt to answer these questions.

One of the thorniest difficulties is the problem of keeping other variables fixed while comparing a piece of behavior in one culture with a parallel piece in another culture. Consider the case of laughter, for example. In many social systems, the idea of ​​a loud, raucous laugh may be inappropriate in formal situations. But what counts as loud and vociferous can vary widely. in your book Book of Manners for Women [Book of Conduct for Women] (1897), Mrs. Humphrey rather cruelly described the laughter of a theater audience where very few "know how to yield to desire in the expression of their mirth."

“For every one whose laugh is melodious, you will find a dozen who simply smile and half a dozen whose only relief is physical contortion. Some of the latter bend forward, bending almost in half, then pull themselves together and repeat this spasmodic and ridiculous movement with every joke. Some throw their heads back in such a way as to suggest dislocation unpleasantly. Some find it so difficult to discharge their overwhelming sense of entertainment that they slap themselves violently, twisting their entire bodies as if under torture. Laughter in all tones resounds from all sides, ranging from the shrill, understated “He! Hey! right down to the double laugh “Ho! Ho!”, off like the postman's knocks, with enormous rapidity, as if to be ready, ready, for the next joke. Cacklings alluding to a barnyard and sounds reminiscent of pigs add variety”.

Mrs. Humphry disapproved of displacements, violence, shaking, uncontrolled laughter, snarling and cackling. In a chapter on learning to laugh, she declared, "There is no greater ornament to conversation than the ripple of silver notes that makes the perfect laugh." But what is seen as ripples in one culture might be considered a series of gross jolts in another.

This is the central problem of comparison that has chained the attempt to compare rules of bodily behavior between different societies or different historical periods of the same people. If we are trying to compare forms of expression, we are involved in behavioral assessment in the physical dimension. The range of physical variables is so surprisingly wide that it obviously contains a strong cultural element. As Lévi-Strauss said: “The thresholds of excitability, the limits of resistance are different in each culture. "Impossible" effort, "intolerable" pain, "unlimited" pleasure are more criteria sanctioned by collective approval and disapproval than individual functions. Each technique, each unit of behavior, traditionally learned and transmitted, is based on certain nervous and muscular syndromes that constitute true systems, related within the whole of a sociological context”. (LÉVISTRAUSS, 1950)

Therefore, no objective physiological limit on the interval between the most complete body control and the most absolute abandonment is relevant. The same goes for the whole range of possible symbolic expressions: each social environment determines its own limits to modes of expression. From London to the north, conventional stimulants range from beer to whiskey; in some social circles, they range from weak tea to panache to coffee. And these changes are accompanied by special variations of noise and silence and body gestures.

There is no way to control cultural differences. However, without a method, intercultural comparison collapses, and with it the whole interest of this exercise. If we cannot bring the discussion of tribal ethnography back to ourselves, there is no point in starting it. The same applies to the experience of social control. The feeling that other people control someone's behavior varies according to the quality of restrictions and freedoms they can use.

Each social environment sets limits on the possibilities of distance and proximity to other humans and on the costs and rewards of group loyalty and conformity to social categories. Comparing aspects across cultures is like trying to compare the value of primitive coins in situations where a common standard of value does not apply. However, the problem is basically the same as that faced by linguists when comparing tonal languages ​​in which pitch variations occur within a range of relative pitches, rather than in relation to absolute pitches.

One way to solve the comparative problem is to limit the predictions of a hypothesis to any given social setting. Even in this case, the difficulty of defining a social environment is great. The methodological rule is merely a rudimentary kind of safeguard against the most uncontrolled types of cultural selection.

It serves to combat the effects of Bongo-Bongoism, the trap of all anthropological discussion. To this day, when a generalization is tentatively proposed, it is rejected out of hand by anyone who has done fieldwork and can say, "That's all very interesting, but it doesn't apply to Bongo-Bongo." To enter into the present discussion, the bongoist must specify specifically the cultural field within which his comparisons are drawn.

The hypothesis I will propose about the concordance between social and symbolic experience will always have to be tested within a given social environment. One of the arguments will be that the more value people place on social restrictions, the greater the value assigned to symbols of bodily control. The rule of comparison will not allow me to compare Lloyd George's unruly hair with Disraeli's flowing curls, as they belonged to different cultural periods in English history. Strictly speaking, she shouldn't allow me to compare Lloyd George with a younger generation of contemporaries with short hair. The latitude allowed by the term "a given social environment" is a matter of discretion. The more limited the ranges within which the comparison is made, the more significant the results.

Taking into account these rules of method, I will try to identify four distinct systems of natural symbols. They will be social systems in which body image is used in a variety of ways to reflect and enhance each person's experience of society.

According to one, the body will tend to be conceived as an organ of communication. The main concerns will be with its effective functioning; the relation of the head to subordinate limbs will be a model of the central control system, the favorite political metaphors will refer to the flow of blood in the arteries, food and the restoration of strength. According to another, although the body is also seen as a vehicle of life, it will be vulnerable in different ways. Threats will come not so much from lack of coordination, food or rest, but from the inability to control the quality of what is absorbed by the orifices; fear of poisoning, border protection, aversion to bodily waste, and a medical theory that mandates frequent purges.

Another system will be very practical with regard to the possible uses of bodily waste and very relaxed with regard to waste recycling and the outcome of such practices. The distinction between the life within the body and the body that carries it will not arouse interest. In the areas of control of that society, controversies about spirit and matter will rarely arise.

But at the other end of the spectrum, where most are controlled by these pragmatists, you will see another attitude. Here the body is not primarily the vehicle of life, for life will be seen as purely spiritual and the body as irrelevant matter. Here we can locate millenarian trends from our ancient history to the present time. For these people, society appears as a system that does not work. The human body is the most readily available image of a system. In these kinds of social experiences, a person feels that his or her personal relationships, so inexplicably unprofitable, are under the sinister control of a social system. This implies that the body tends to serve as a symbol of evil, as a structured system contrasted with the pure spirit, which by nature is free and undifferentiated.

The millenarian is not interested in identifying enemies and incapacitating them. He believes in a utopian world in which goodness of heart can prevail without institutional instruments. He does not seek to value any particular social form. He would eliminate them all. The millenarian likes the frenzy; he relishes the experience of letting go and incorporates it into his procedure for ushering in the millennium. He seeks bodily ecstasy, which, by expressing for him the explosive arrival of the new age, reaffirms the value of the doctrine.

Philosophically, he is inclined to distinguish spirit from flesh, mind from matter. But for him the flesh does not suggest the temptation of lust and all physical pleasures. It would most likely represent the corruption of power and organization. For him, the spirit finds itself working freely in nature and wild nature – not in society. Through this way of thinking, anthropologists can relate their field material to the traditional object of study of the history of religions, as it unravels the implicit forms of the great theological controversies.

According to some religions, gods and men can have sex; in others, a very big barrier separates them; in others, the god can acquire human form only in appearance, not in the reality of the flesh; in others, the god is incarnated, but not through normal physiological processes. Here we have an index, as Leach indicated when discussing virgin birth tenets, of the way flesh and spirit are categorized. For some people, the categories are too distinct and it is blasphemous to mix them up; for others, the mix of divine and human is right and normal. However, I hope to demonstrate that the dimensions of social life govern fundamental attitudes towards spirit and matter.

*Mary Douglas (1921-2007), anthropologist, was professor of Humanities at Northwestern University (USA). Author, among other books, of Purity and danger (Perspective).



Mary Douglas. Natural symbols: explorations in cosmology. Translation: Priscila Santos da Costa. São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 332 pages.


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