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Patterns of Culture: An Enduring Classic Kindle Edition
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The diversity of cultures and the coherent pattern that they form are presented as the core message of anthropology. The argument is made stronger by references to other social sciences and by powerful metaphors. According to Benedict, all the possible human behaviors are distributed along a great "arc" which covers the whole range of possible cultural traits. Each culture then select along this arc a configuration of human possibilities that fits its environment and forms a coherent whole. The analogy here is with language and linguistics: "In cultural life as it is in speech, selection [from the inventory of physically available possibilities] is the prime necessity"--and capsulated in the famous Digger Indian proverb that serves as epigraph to the book: "In the beginning God gave to every people a cup of clay and from this cup they drank their life." Another analogy is with psychology and medical science. The dominant pattern of each culture is compared to the categories used in psychiatry to classify human behavior. Schizophrenia, hysteria, and manic depression are not a bundle of disconnected traits, they form a coherent whole and allows the physician to make an informed diagnosis. Similarly, "self-torture here, head-hunting there, prenuptial chastity in one tribe and adolescent licence in another, are not a list of unrelated facts, each of them to be greeted with surprise wherever it is found or wherever it is absent." A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.
Each tribal society or primitive culture can thus be understood by its constitutive formula. As the author succinctly states at the beginning of each case presentation, the Zuni are "a ceremonious people"; the Dobuans are "lawless and treacherous"; and the Kwakiutl are "a people of great possessions". Each central chapter develops this fundamental principle stated at the outset, based on observations collected by prominent ethnographers--Franz Boas for the Kwakiutl, Reo Fortune for The Sorcerers of Dobu (and Bronislaw Malinowski for their neighbors of the Trobriand islands), and Ruth Benedict herself, as well as various sources, for the Pueblo Indians. The generalization about a culture's organizing principle emerges from careful observation, which should not be biased by hypothesis, thesis, or theory. There is a fine division of labor between the field worker and the armchair anthropologist. Benedict wants the fieldworker to be "faithfully objective": "He must chronicle all the relevant behavior, taking care not to select according to any challenging hypothesis the facts that will fit a thesis." The anthropologist then rearranges this empirical material along theoretical lines. In a process of inference, he detects patterns and regularities in the observed behaviors and customs. In order to grasp the meaning of a culture as a whole, he first has to immerse himself into a sea of rites and practices, of myths and beliefs. But he also dwells in the realm of high theory, and he draws general lessons from his observations.
Another way to express the dominant pattern of a culture is provided by the book's author through the categories of Dyonisian, Apollinian, and paranoid cultures. The Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy is taken from Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy--and from Oswald Spengler, who substituted Dionysian with Faustian--, while the reference to the paranoid pattern of behavior is borrowed from Freud. The "will to superiority" which characterizes Kwakiutl culture could be linked back to the same authors. These categories were in the zeitgeist when Patterns of Culture was written, and the reference to literary works or to critical theory gives a cachet of intellectual sophistication to the description of primitive rites and customs.
Like the social character of the Pueblos, Patterns of Culture is an Apollonian work, built around symmetries and written in a dispassionate tone. Upon closer examination however, this well-ordered structure shatters, and cracks appear in the edifice. There are contradictions between the bracketing chapters and the substantive part. In fact, Benedict doesn't fulfill the program she sets forth in the opening chapters, and she spends the last chapters dismantling it. The three monographs are self-standing and could well be read in isolation from the other chapters. But when replaced in the book context, they are at variance with the general messages formulated by Benedict. The appeal to tolerance and the celebration of cultural diversity ("the equally valid patterns of life" mentioned in the closing sentence of the book) are contradicted by the cruel and wicked ways of the Dobuans, or by the belief, shared by all tribal societies, that only their members are fully human while non-members are rejected outside the purview of humanity.
There is a sense of jubilation, of perverse sadism even, by which Benedict describes the self-tortures that the Plain Indians inflicted upon themselves in their Dionysian quest for delirious visions. "They cut strips from the skin of their arms, they struck off fingers, they swung themselves from tall poles by straps inserted under the muscle of their shoulders. They went without food and water for extreme periods." Similarly, she insists on the wickedness of the Dobuans that manifests itself in all their social institutions: in marriage and conjugal life, in agriculture techniques, in religious ceremonies and magic rites, in economic exchange, in death and burial rituals. "All existence is cut-throat competition, and every advantage is gained at the expense of a defeated rival." People are all the more treacherous that "in ordinary converse the Dobuan is suave and unctuously polite".
Apart from the question whether what Benedict describes really was true--and some descriptions seem to be marked by the seal of fiction--, we may note that the three cultures presented in the book were by no means stable and self-sufficient. As the last of the Digger Indians remarks, "our cup is broken now". The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico were just a shadow of their former selves. They had abandoned their walled cities and troglodyte housings long before the arrival of the white man, and were surviving on strips of desert. One may suspect that their formalistic insistence on rituals and ceremony, counting the number of feathers in their masks, was somehow directed towards the ethnographer, and for the tourists that were to follow in his path. Their culture was on the way to commodification, and would soon transform into empty forms destined for outside consumption. The Pacific Northwest Indians didn't even have this chance: by the time of Benedict's writing, their culture had already disappeared, and was only known through past observations. There was certainly a bent towards self-destruction in the gigantic potlatch and bonfires of the vanities that served as a substitute for war and exchange. Where intellectuals like Marcel Mauss or Georges Bataille, impressed by the descriptions of Franz Boas, saw the logic of a gift economy or the accursed share of culture, we may detect the last sparkles of a civilization consuming itself. As for the wicked sorcerers of Dobu, we know less about their highly dysfunctional culture, but one may detect they learned part of their treacherous ways from the white man, who tried to allure them into indentured labor.
The claim that primitive cultures are "laboratories" in which the problems are set in simpler terms than in complex societies raises the question of what is really being tested in these labs: if even simple experiences on a small scale such as Dobu Island leads to such grotesque failure, then one can be pessimistic about the fate of our complex societies, where problems are compounded by size and scope. But Benedict's point in describing the bizarre developments of behaviors in alien cultures is to emphasize the queerness of our own. She practices the art of extravagant otherness as self-critique. If the Pueblos are formalistic, the Dobuans mean and treacherous, and the Kwakiutl ostentatious to the extreme, don't we all share these proclivities? The whole enterprise of describing these cultures, in three chapters absolutely crammed with detailed material of the most curious sort--Zuni passage rites, Kwakiutl chants, Dobuan residence arrangements--is informed with concerns rather close to home. The author focuses on topics that were of particular salience to contemporary Americans: marriage and divorce (the later being seen as a normal development), adolescence and entry into adulthood (reference is made to the "prevalence of the petting party" among young Americans), conformism and conspicuous consumption ("keeping up with the Joneses"). In the end, anthropology is seen as a moral science, and the detour through other cultures as a way to adjust our moral compass to new coordinates. Looking forward, Benedict writes, with a touch of optimism: "It is probable that social orders of the future will carry their tolerance and encouragement of individual difference much further than any culture of which we have experience."