Appendix – Raw Material
1.What do you think the “Comedy of Things” might be ?
The content and the presentation of the box brings to mind three things: 1. Apple packaging; 2. a parcel bomb; 3. Mission: Impossible.
This box, with just a few items in it, all so neatly arranged, with no user manual (just a flyer) looks like a parody of Californian capitalism. It’s like receiving a new MaсBook. Yet, on the other hand, the countdown clock sounds like a deadly warning. So, maybe the “Comedy of Things” is meant as a collective reflection on the predicted collapse of millennial capitalism (in just about 2 days, give or take).
Then again, it might not just be a “reflection”. The conveners seem to imply that we have a mission. And the recording device on top of the parcel announces a special kind of mission. The kind that is impossible. Disappointingly, the device did not self-destruct in a cloud of smoke after delivering the recorded message. The recorded instructions, also, are a bit of an anti-climax. I kind of expected to be requested, should I accept this mission, to blow up with a time bomb the heart of techno-financial capitalism (precisely located in Helenekilde Badehotel, for some obscure reason). But nothing of the sort. So what is it going to be? Are we just going to read out our conceptions of what the event might be, or is there something else to it? Anyway, what the hell? It’s all paid for, meals and beverages included.
Then I think again and I realise it might actually be a trap. In a way, we cannot say they did not give us fair warning. Indeed there’s this gift, the package itself. Obviously something is going to be asked from us in exchange during these days and we don’t know what yet. We’ve been asked to fill in the box with something else of our own, so that might be it. But what if not? What if by accepting the initial gift of a mysterious parcel, we had commited to a debt larger than we could ever pay back? What if the whole point of the “Comedy of Things” was to reduce us to slavery: to have us work off our unsuspected debt in the damp cellars of the hotel we thought we had been invited to?
Classic! The deceiving Danes : they pulled a Hans og Grete on us, and we’re in for it. We should have known it when they lured us with beer, which is obviously the academic’s candy! After the first few drinks, the beautiful beach hotel will turn into a derelict manor, and Morten and Morten (who might in the end just be the reflection of one another in a wicked trans-temporal hinged mirror) will turn back into the witch they had always been in reality. Finally, we will witness a real ontological turn! Impossible forms will overflow through and through the hotel, while the witch, from the height of her perspective from above, will condemn us to toil namelessly toward the next anthropological paradigm. Our institutions and universities will be notified of our sudden disappearance with an elegant handwritten note from Katrine Duus Terkelsen, and Morten and Morten only (or should I say, the witch) will reap all the academic rewards. I’ve heard such stories already, in South Africa. Obviously it happened before.
But calm down now. Breathe. Drink a glass of water. Remember the DVDs that were included. Maybe they are clues also. Then, it might not be so bad. We might just be all made to improvise along the lines of pre-written characters, yelling, fighting, cursing, raping and killing each other according to the erratic movement of ants… Or better still, we might be ourselves the very “things” through which the “comedy” shall take place. We’ll be arranged next to one another so as to be propelled, propagated, combusted, spumed and transformed following a complicated series of chain reactions. Indeed, it might not be so bad after all.
2a. Identify and write down one humourous anecdote or joke from what you consider your primary site of research
This is an account of my first (and probably last) real joke in rural Mongolia. Until today I feel unable to decide whether this was a bad joke (in a sense it was) or a really good one; even after many years however, I cannot think about it, let alone recount it, without a certain degree of shame. Explaining it –why it was fun and why it was not– requires a little bit of background information.
It happened in 2004, at the end of a few months stay in Northwestern Mongolia’s Harhiraa mountains, where I had been doing ethnographic research on and off for the past 5 or 6 years. I had decided to throw a small farewell party at my friend’s yurt, to thank them for their help and patience with my research. I was feeling quite comfortable within the community by that time, the language and the everyday social codes were starting to come quite naturally and people would commend me for it. I was feeling good. Too good maybe.
Among the guests to this party were several people who liked to repeat they made no distinction between their siblings and myself, but one elder in particular had been actually acting as kin towards me, treating me consistently as a son. That same year, for example, he had welcome my girlfriend as a daughter-in-law, presenting her with a yak from his own herd (my girlfriend was French, and we lived in Paris, so the yak remained in its herd until further notice). This elder was also a renown ritual specialist, a “skilled person” (mergen hün) to whom neighbours and relatives would turn were they in need of healing, of directions to find a lost horse, or of exorcism. Mongolians tend to emphasise the amount of “respect” (hündlel) owed to certain people and things in all circumstances: elders are to be “respected” of course, most of all male elders, and among them “skilled persons” even more; this status commands reverence and formal terms of address. There are certain situations, however, such as drinking parties, where demonstrations of respect might loosen up a little. Of course, the degree of informality one might adopt with whom, the acceptable level of irreverance, is quite difficult to get right. My friends liked to repeat they could take a joke (nairgaa), and they surely liked to make irreverential ones. Yet, supposed “lack of respect” during drinking parties were the origin of many violent fights, often studiously ignored the day after.
My party was successful. By the time everybody prepared to go home we had eaten, sung and drunk more than our share. My “father” was slumbering in the middle of the dining space, noisily grinding his teeth as he always did when he slept drunk. His snuff bottle had slipped out of his hand and was lying wide open on the floor without anybody noticing. Now, snuff bottles are a key element of male social status and self presentation. It is customary for any self-respecting male elder to own one and to exchange it with other men when meeting each other. Prior to any significant discussion, any number of mature men would start by passing their snuff bottle to one another, admire each other’s piece, open it and extract a pinch of tobacco in order to sniff it conspicuously. On top of being a token of sociality, it is obviously a symbol of virility. Actually, it is even more specific a symbol than that: the bottle itself is made of a rounded hollowed dark stone and it bulges on each side of the lid, which is itself bright red and points upwards. And of course, the higher your status is, the bigger your tobbacco bottle is expected to be. Yet, however obvious, the phallic metaphor is never spelled out, even jokingly. At least not until this party.
I don’t know what got into me then, but without a moment of hesitation I snatched the red lid that was lying on the floor and I kept it hidden in my hand. As the elder’s wife started to wake up her husband in order to walk him to his bed, she noticed that the lid was missing on his snuff bottle, and everybody started searching the house for it. I pretended to look around a bit then suddenly put my hand in my trousers exclaiming “oh I found it!”. I fumbled in my underpants with visible effort for a few moments while everybody was watching me in disbelief. Then I opened my zipper with my other hand and made the red lid stick out from my pants exclaiming “Look! It’s here!”. I guess there were shocked expressions among the guests, but mostly general laughter covered it up. I gave back the lid, everybody went back home, and I went to sleep happy. Even slightly proud of my own cheekiness.
The next morning I had forgotten this particular scene. One of the guests came for tea and made cheerful comments about the party: everybody was drunk she said, and you in particular. It was ok I replied, I had seen worse. She scoffed and reminded me what I had done with explicit gesturing. This is when shame came down on me. Mongolian people like a dirty joke as much as anybody, but obviously I had picked the wrong target. I tried to convince myself that everybody had laughed, that the joke had been successful, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had gone too far –much, much too far. The joke was gross and it was disrespectful to the one man I ought to respect.
Hurriedly I went to pay a visit at the elder’s house. He wasn’t home but his wife was. I couldn’t decide whether her welcome was cold or just normal. I wanted to apologize, but then again, it might be more embarrassing than anything else to bring back the subject and dwell on it. So I just said: “thanks for coming yesterday, it was a good party, I got very drunk and probably did stuff I don’t remember now. If any of my actions offended you, please forgive me”. She smiled and said it was ok.
The reason I could get away with it, on second thought, is not so much because I was “integrated” into the community, but rather because I was not. Or more precisely, because my status was inherently ambiguous. It would have been just unforgivable for a son to make this kind of joke to his father. I could get away with it because I’m not his son, in reality. Still, it was shockingly funny because I’m almost his son. I could be. Moreover, this was a woman’s joke, made by a man. Presumably women in the attendance (there were almost no men left in the house when I did the trick) enjoyed the bawdy parody of this symbol of patriarchy, the fair challenge to the old man’s virility. The reason why it was shocking (and fun), and yet that I could get away with it, is because I’m not so manly (I’m still useless at hunting and herding), yet with a man’s body.
2b. Identify and write down one humourous anecdote or joke from what you consider your primary place of origin
Here is the first joke I remember remembering as a child:
“A man standing on a bridge in Paris stares at the river intently, as if looking for something. A passer-by stops and offers his help. The man says:
- Thanks, I seem to have lost my glasses in the Loire
- You mean the Seine, corrects the other;
- Well you know, without my glasses on I can’t tell, really.”
3a. Identify and write down one myth or mythological narrative from what you consider as your primary site of research
There were two hunters who could not succeed in catching any game.
One of the hunters knew ceremonial blessings and wishes so he recited them, praising the invisible “land masters” who own wild animals like herders own their flock. He addressed blessings and wishes to all the masters in the Altai mountains.
The other hunter did not know any of these ceremonial formulas, but he “saw things with his eyes”: that is, he was able to see plainly the “masters” who remained invisible to his partner.
Attracted by the blessings of the first hunter, scores of land masters crowded around him: they sat on his knees and all over his body, until there was no space left at all. Then came one especially old land master for whom no place remained, except on the nose of the hunter. Obviously this is the most unsteady and slippery spot, so the old “master” took a tumble.
The other hunter, who was following the whole scene, could not help but laugh at the comic fall of this tiny old creature. The first hunter, thinking it was he who was the target of his partner’s mockery, got offended and left abruptly, interrupting his blessings and praises. The land masters were very disappointed with this untimely interruption, and they scolded the clumsy old fellow: “this is all your fault! What did you need to climb up there for! You’ll give away your only black deer as a punishment.”
So the old master gave away his only black deer, sending it to be killed by the hunters. This is why one should always praise land masters when hunting.
3a. Identify and write down one myth or mythological narrative from what you consider as your primary place of origin.
Paris is the son of Priam, king of Troy.
His mother Hecuba, having had the (true) premonition during pregnancy that her son would be the end of the kingdom, tried to kill him upon his birth with the help of her husband. Neither him nor her could reconcile themselves to doing it however, and the boy lived. He grew up a strong and beautiful man who would pick fights with cattle thieves, seduce the nymphs, and enjoy the sight of bull fights. It is this hobby, actually, which earned him his first encounter with the gods. Indeed he had managed to train such a powerful bull that it would defeat all the other bulls in the area. When he offered a golden crown to anybody who could come up with a stronger bull, Ares took fancy in answering the call. Turning into a bull himself, he easily crushed the champion. Paris duly delivered the crown to the god, who appreciated his fairplay.
Therefore, when a mortal was needed to arbitrate a beauty contest in the Olympus between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, Ares remembered Paris’ magnanimity and suggested his name to Zeus. Whoever won the contest was to receive the apple of discord, malignantly produced by Eris, the goddess of strife. Thus the three goddesses came down to earth, to an unsuspecting Paris, and asked him to give the apple to whoever he thought was the most beautiful among them. Having requested to see the goddesses naked he still could not decide, so it classically came down to bribing. Hera proposed Europe and Asia, Athena some fighting skills, and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman on earth, who happened to be Helen of Sparta. She also happened to be married, to a King Menelaus of Sparta, but this did not deter Paris, who chose Aphrodite and thus Helen, whom he rightfully abducted, thus sparking off the infamous war of Troy.
What I Think ‘The Comedy of Things’ Is
This is what I think the intention of the organizers is in using this term “Comedy of Things.” I think they are playing on two meanings of the word Comedy. The first, being a funny performance, and the second, a more classical one, referring to a play in which two “societies” (field site and place of origin?) are pitted against one another, the less powerful but more vital youth against the elder, where the youth uses laughter and irony as a tool of subversion. (So, Richard Pryor a young black man uses comedy as a form of social subversion.) And I think the organizers want to extend this usage to “things” –nonhuman Latourian actants: Rube Goldberg machines that do “things” in beautiful and subversive ways (these machines even seem to start again and anew –they go through the cycle and begin to initiate new cycles); “mindless” ants that make Danish actors act mindlessly.
And I think there is also a “machinic” element to this meaning. Comedy in the Greek sense is also a play with a happy ending. That is, you know how it will end, which, when thinking about the ant and Rube Goldberg films, makes me think of Comedy as machine–like, and thing-like in an inert way in which I imagine the organizers don’t intend. Comedy here would then be teleological as opposed to an open-ended and therefore creative form of telos.
I am particularly drawn to comedy and humor as a form of disrupting logic in a way that creates possibility. (The Jewish joke I brought gets at this in one way, and the Amazonian anecdote I brought does so in another.) And, I think this too seems to be an intention of the organizers. And by thinking about possibility with things, we can perhaps disrupt humanist forms of thinking as well. So I see tremendous potential in this workshop. I have been looking forward to it for some time, but I must add, last night, watching the “ant” movie I started asking myself why I’m going and what the purpose of this is (the trip comes at a very stressful time with the beginning of the school year and many deadlines this week; and watching that movie I began to think that this workshop may be a “boy” thing in a not very good sense of the term).
But thinking about humor as a form of logical and temporal disruption makes me see this workshop as being centrally about temporality, and especially how to live with multiple temporalities –how to interpose them and disrupt them in a productive, by which I mean, creative way. That is what my “artifacts” are about (tools from my field site to enter dream time, and perhaps the impossibility of being able to do this on this trip; and a photo essay and film, about the multiple times, places, and especially things, especially as they have been bubbling forth in my dream, in ways that that make me, and how these seem to be caught up in a confusing, haunting, and sometimes paralyzing way with things that I cannot part with) and I hope to be able to explore these themes more in the workshop as they are “things” that have been on my mind a lot especially in my return to the Ecuador and the field this summer.
I also see the workshop as a space to spark creativity and that too, although I am saying little about it, is something that I crave.
In around 1996 in Ávila I was living with Librina’s family. I would horse around a lot with her son Benjamin who was five or six. Once he was standing between my legs and I squeezed them around him, which caused him to expel a fart. His three-year old sister heard this and imitated it: “tiun, ticún.” The fart didn’t really cause anyone to take notice but everybody thought his sister’s imitation was hilarious. And they always remind me of this event. This summer (2014), Benjamin, now about 25 and his mother, probably in her late 50s, reminded me again of this. I went to Ávila with my family, and back in Quito and later here in North America I heard my kids, Benjamin (with whom Benjamin Sr. bonded over the name) and Milo imitating this imitation: “tiun, ticún.” I very much like the way this “joke” can circulate and the potential that circulation has. How it comes from a not fully verbal infant and then moves to my own kids (who don’t speak Quichua).
A Jewish Joke
Also recorded along with a couple of others on the dictaphone. This is one of my father’s many Jewish jokes (He is a Czech Jew whose family found refuge in Ecuador during WW II, he later moved to New York). He loves to tell jokes and I grew up hearing tons of Jewish jokes from him. I didn’t realize that his form of telling jokes is something “traditional”. It is not just about telling the joke but about being able to come up with a joke that captures the logical peculiarity, or potential of the moment at hand. Being able to tell a joke that is appropriate to a particular context –“that reminds me of a joke…”– adds a layer of humor.
The joke: Two shamashim (rabbi’s helpers), were each bragging about how miraculous and clever the rabbis they served were. The first shamash from a small shtetl said, “my rabbi is so miraculous, he once had a vision that the great rabbi of Prague was dying. We immediately set off by carriage and travelled over night and got there by the next day.” “Did you make it to the funeral?” the other shamash asked. “The great rabbi wasn’t dead,” the first shamash responded. “Then what’s the miracle?” asked the other. And to this, the first countered: “It’s not whether or not the great rabbi died; it’s the fact that my rabbi could see so far!”
Myth from Ávila
A “rey” (a king) was travelling, possibly from down river (uraipartimanda). He crossed the Suno and went upriver to near the Sumaco volcano to a place called, “Balsiti”. He started to make a city there (llactan callarisca) but the lord of Sumaco Volcano didn’t want this. The king started to throw stones in every direction using a huaraca (a sling). But he had to abandon his plan to build this city because the Sumaco lord was against it. So he left but on his way he made Huamani mountain (the páramo that separates the inter-Andean valley from the Oriente) and made it very rainy there. Then he went to Quito and made the city there because the lord of Pichincha Volcano wanted it so. So he threw the stones with the huaraca in all directions and it was big enough for a big llacta (a big city).
Here is another version collected in the 1920s:
According to this version, the ancestors of the Runa were savage and they could talk to the birds and animals. The Pope from Rome sent the Inca king so that he could teach them Quichua. This king tried to build a city near Satas mountain on the Upper Napo but was unable to: Unable to establish his capital in the place he had chosen, the Inca king founded another one at the highest point (Quito) (en todo el zenit (Quito)). He created this by swinging a bull around by the tail and throwing him to the ground. And from his pieces, from each part the building materials were formed [É] If the city of Satas had been built, the ocean would have been in that direction (to the west)
instead of where it is now (to the east). Since Quito was created the ocean has
been on this side (Wavrin 1927: 330).
I find this myth interesting because it seems to me an example of what Philippe Descola would call an analogical mode of reasoning being resisted by an animist one, and an example of a pre-hispanic analogical mode not being able to take hold in an animist domain but combining quite well with Hispanic analogism.
Story from my “place of Origin”
I have always been attracted to the story of Jonah and the whale, the mingling with the sea, the seaweed, the ingestion and the resurfacing. It is recited on Yom Kippur (the tenth day of Tishrei, the first or seventh month of the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, which usually falls in Sept./Oct., this year it falls on the fourth of October). When I lived in Ecuador, I would usually go up to Quito for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei, a new moon), I even recited the blessings and read the story at the Yom Kippur services one year (I think it was the last year that services were held in the old synagogue in downtown Quito). Strangely Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur seem to align well with the flight of the edible and coveted leaf cutter ants in Ávila; as a consequence I often missed this event.
God calls on Jonah to cast judgment on Ninevah, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee on a fishing boat. As a punishment God makes the sea stormy, the fishermen realize it is Jonah’s fault, he offers to jump into the sea to calm the storm. A sea creature swallows Jonah and Jonah is in its belly for three days. He repents and prays to God:
“I cried to God out of my distress, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell I cried, and You did hear my voice.
For You did cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods compassed me about; all Your billows and all Your waves passed over me…The waters compassed me about, to the point of death; the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.”
God then has the creature spit him out by the shore. He goes to Ninevah and the people repent. God doesn’t punish them and this angers Jonah. He goes off and wants to die in the sun. God makes him a shade bush, then God kills the shade bush, Jonah is upset that he killed the bush, and God asks him why he is upset by this and not by the possibility of all of Ninevah being destroyed.
I am drawn to Jonah’s passivity (his name means dove) and the fact that he sleeps during the storm, and the weeds wrapping around his head as he goes down into the depths.
Home Anecdote (Næstved, Denmark)
My childhood Sundays were spent at my grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Holme Olstrup, a small rural village in the southern part of Sealand. After the ceremonial Sunday lunches, everyone would sit around the dinner table in their small and always overheated living room sharing stories about the wrongdoings of our predecessors, most of which would today probably be considered as village fools (‘landsbytosser’). Among my older relatives, it was well-known that my grandfather’s relation to historical facts was fairly relaxed and often required some tweaking in order to correspond to his personal and accurate memories. Although I have forgotten many of the wild-west like stories of my predecessors, I do remember one that my grandfather told with particular pride and determination and that was the adventurous account of how my great great grandfather’s brother during the mid-18th Century became a local celebrity, first known for his heroic courage and, soon thereafter, also for his incredible bad luck. When my grandfather told this story, he would already be a few beers into the afternoon and there was therefore few or no attempts on his side for incorporating – let alone accepting – additional historical data into his version of the heroic tale. Sitting in the squaking office chair that he had apparently be given by a friend working at the city dump in Næstved, he would fist both hands around his suspenders, look up into the low ceiling and describe the occurrences exactly as they happened…
During the mid-18th Century, Anders Nielsen, who was the brother of my great great grandfather, worked as farm labourer at the Næsbyholm Estate that is located near the beautiful Tystrup-Bavelse Lakes from which spring Sealand’s longest stream called Susåen. During the period when Anders Nielsen was working at Næsbyholm, the estate owner went on an extended trip down through northern Europe and ended up in Paris where he was supposed to spent the beautiful late summer. For some unknown reason, he became seriously ill and died not long after having reached Paris. (During particularly spirited afternoons, it was at this point in the story that my grandfather would begin to embellish the narrative with a few colorful comments about the reasons for the estate owner’s death, quite a few of which would have sexual connotations). It did not take long for the relatives of the deceased estate owner to reach the crucial decision that the corpse should be retrieved and returned to Denmark in order to be buried on the family’s land. While knowing that it was, in fact, illegal to take dead corpses across national borders, they instructed Anders Nielsen, my great great grandfather, to drive a horse-drawn carriage to Paris, locate the corpse and get it back to Næsbyholm in order for the mourning family to properly bury their beloved husband and father. And so he did. Without any considerations for his own safety, Anders Nielsen drove from Næsbyholm to Paris where he located the dead corpse that was then positioned in the carriage as if asleep before he commenced the long and tiresome journey back to Denmark.
Let me briefly pause here to clarify certain relevant issues. For some reason, I never really thought about the logistical implications of this adventurous journey. Being a farm labourer from the southern and most rural part of Sealand, Anders Nielsen probably did not speak any foreign language; French or otherwise. His endeavour is therefore all the more impressive considering that he apparently managed to locate and persuade the local authorities in Paris not only to hand over the corpse but also to conspire in the high-risk project of getting the dead body back to Denmark by positioning the deceased estate owner as if asleep in the back of the carriage. As is probably well-known, the decomposition of the human body commences immediately after death and before long the skin becomes so porous and loose that even a slight touch will make it slide off the flesh. The bacteria, methane and hydrogen sulphide leak to such an extent that stomack and face swells up and cell liquid begin to trickle forth from the lower layers, thus causing huge blisters between upper and lower layers of skin. The accumulation of gases within the bodily cavity produces the distention of the abdomen and gives a cadaver its overall bloated appearance. The gases also cause natural liquids and liquefying tissues to become frothy. As the pressure of the gases within the body increases, fluids are forced to escape from natural orifices, such as the nose, mouth, and anus, and enter the surrounding environment. The buildup of pressure combined with the loss of integrity of the skin may also cause the body to rupture.
For some reason, my grandfather never incorporated any of these rather interesting details into his otherwise captivating account of our predecessor’s adventurous journey back and forth to Paris. Had he done so, he might have reflected on the relationship between the average speed of a horse-driven carriage and the ratio of human decomposition. There are approximately 950 kilometers from Paris to Næsbyholm and during the mid-18th Century, the distance would be done by travelling on dirt roads and the occasional cobbled stones. Under these conditions, a horse-driven carriage can do no more than 8 kilometers per hour. If we take Anders Nielsen to be a healthy man with little need for sleep, he might have done 16 hours a day, thus making the trip back to Næsbyholm in approximately nine days if we consider also the boat ride from Germany to Denmark. Needless to say, we need to add to this calculation the days prior to Anders Nielsen’s arrival in Paris. Assuming that a horseman from the estate owner’s entourage rode to Denmark the moment his master’s heart stopped beating, he might have reached Næsbyholm after 30 hours. Then we need to add a few hours of intense mourning and discussion among the relatives before Anders Nielsen was ordered to prepare a horse-driven carriage and drive to Paris, a place whose language and lay-out was completely unknown to him. Thus, with the most optimistic calculations, when Anders Nielsen crossed the border between Germany and Denmark, his master had been dead for at least 20 days and, most likely, quite a few more. After 20 days, the dead body is undergoing what is known as the phase of butyric fermentation. The corpse begins to flatten and all of the remaining flesh is gradually removed as the body dries out. There is a remarkable cheasy smell coming from the corpse that is caused by butyric acid and this will increasingly attract a new suite of corpse organisms, such as beetles feeding on the skin and ligaments. Predators and parasitoids, such as wasps and beetle larvae, are present at this stage and will consume the remaining moist flesh.
Despite their apparent narrative qualities, all references to these physical processes were strangely omitted from my grandfather’s account of Anders Nielsen’s heroic journey across northern Europe. As we were told sitting in the overheated farm house, our predecessor returned heroically to Næsbyholm with his master sitting proudly in the carriage almost as if he had completely refused to acknowledge the untimely occurrence of hos own death. At this point in the story, my grandfather would slow down the pace and pronounce every word with particular care; he was clearly preparing for the finale. The estate owner’s family did not forget Anders Nielsen’s heroic contribution, my grandfather reminded his audience. Not only did the bereaved family donate a huge piece of land to their proud farm labourer, they had made a memorial tablet describing the heroic feat that was placed in the nearby Næsby Church. With two stiff index fingers, my grandfather would outline a rectangle in the air in front of him while smiling knowingly. But Anders Nielsen never even saw his new plot of land, my grandfather told us. Being quite a thirsty gambler, he soon lost everything in a game of cards and he ended up having to rent a room with a local widow.
Having reached the end of the story, my grandfather would shake his head and sigh. Farmers are never lucky. They are too stupid and too thirsty. Before moving on to another account that would graphically outline the wrongdoings of our predecessors, my grandfather would assure us of that not everything was bad. The memorial tablet is still there, my grandfather claimed. It’s right there in Næsby Church for everyone to see. We all nodded proudly.
A few years ago, my mother’s brother did, in fact, go to Næsby Church in order to find the mythic tablet. He spoke to the priest, to the verger and looked through the parish registers described all local occurrences throughout the last two centuries. Strangely, no one had even heard about the heroic adventure of our predecessor and no memorial tablet was to be found in Næsby Church. But, as our grandfather reminded us, they had probably taken down the tablet when the estate was sold to another family of lesser importance.
Home Myth (Næstved, Denmark)
Once there lived a bad-tempered troll in Fladså, an area in the southern part of Sealand. Although the Fladså troll was bad-tempered in general, he was particularly mean when it came to the incessant ringing of the church bells in Næstved, the largest city in this part of Sealand. On a clear Sunday morning when the wind carried the high-pitched sound of the Næstved churchbells towards the already grumpy Fladså troll with particular clarity, he finally decided to do something about the intolerable situation. Being a troll of rapid and somewhat spontenous decisions, he quickly filled a bag with sand and headed for Næstved intent on burying all churches in the parish. Apparently, the decision to act swiftly had made the troll forget to check whether his equipment was in order for the upcoming adventure. Unfortunately for the troll but fortunately for everyone else, there was a small hole in the bag from which the sand slowly poured out. As he walked from Fladså towards Næstved, the troll spilled nearly all of the sand and thereby created the Fladså Hills and the extended ridge that now crosscuts the southeast part of Sealand. When the bad-tempered troll discovered that the bag was nearly empty, he became so infuriated that he threw the remaining sand towards Næstved where it landed in a part of the town that is now called Teatergade. In this way, the Monk’s Hill was created and the troll still stands at its foot belching out its malicious remarks at everyone passing by.
Field Myth (Maputo, Mozambique)
While working in a small peri-urban community on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique, I heard the following story in different versions. This one was told to me by Angélica. The text is a transcription of her words.
A woman was working in the field (machamba) with her daughter. They began to cultivate the land but soon the girl became tired and said ‘I want to rest for a while’. She fetched her cloth (capulana) and went to sleep in the shade under a tree. The mother continued to work while the girl was sitting there. Later, when the shadow had disappeared, the mother noticed that her daughter was still sitting in the same place. The mother tried several times to wake up her daughter but without luck and that is how she discovered that the girl was dead. In rural areas, you bury people immediately in the yard (quintal) behind the house. So they prepared the burial site and soon thereafter they buried the girl.
On the same night, a gentleman (senhor) who was walking along the road stopped by the house. When he entered, spirits began to appear. The gentleman came into the house and collapsed on the floor. People in the house got very frightened and wondered how this person had come into the house . When he woke up, he asked the people there: ‘Has anyone died in this house?’. The people responded that someone had, in fact, died. Then he started to talk, but it was not him talking, it was the spirits. He said that the girl was not dead but the people in the house did not believe him. He said that what they had seen was not the girl. The spirit that spoke through the gentleman gave instructions to the people and ordered the owners of the house, the elderly (os pães), to dig up the coffin. It was already night by then. They dug and they dug and finally they opened the coffin right there but there was no one in it. It was the trunk of a marula (canhueira) tree. The people got very scared. ‘How is this possible?’, they wondered. The gentleman said that the girl could be found where the trunk had been. They asked the gentleman if she really was there. ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘we can go there but we have to go before daybreak. We have to act swiftly. She was put in this place and now she is very weak’. They went to the place and he started to do his stuff, his witchcraft (curanderismo), in order to locate the girl. The girl appeared and she was in a tree where a piece of the trunk had been cut out. The gentleman lifted down the girl and took her back to the house. He said that they could not tell about this to anyone. They were not allowed to talk about it. ‘It is a secret and we need to deal with it here’. He cut the trunk inro pieces in order to make firewood and threw them into the hearth. When someone has died, you need to make fire and it cannot be put out. It needs to burn for a week. So he threw the firewood made from the trunk into the fire and waited for a response. The gentleman then left but said that they should leave the firewood there. The people prepared food, it was porridge. At dawn, ten old ladies had died because they were the ones having done it. They were the ones thrown into the fire. People came running and said ‘ahh, someone died here, ‘someone died here’.
Field Anecdote (Maputo, Mozambique)
In recent years, several people in Inhambane and elsewhere in Mozambique have been attacked by lions, both normal ones and spirit lions. As a precautionary measure, the Inhambane Municipality sent out an official warning outlining what to in the event of encountering a lion. Below is a warning sign distributed on the web as a commentary to the official warning.
Nigel Rapport ‘THE COMEDY OF THINGS’ (21 August 2014)
Having spent 80 or so of the least funny minutes of my life in the company of the Richard Prior DVD, I must assume that ‘comedy’ is not to be taken literarily. I think it might refer to the serendipitous connexion between things in a life, the contingencies and coincidences and muddle, and the way that accidental events and occasions and actions ramify, even into tragedy. Social relations, I have in the past concluded from fieldwork of my own, is a muddling-through. There is ‘the complexity, the inconsistency of things. Social life is not about neat, mechanical models, about overarching systems, whatever may be the conventional wisdom about structure and function, synthesis and consensus. Social life is farcical, chaotic, multiple, contradictory; it is a muddling‑through, which turned on the paradoxical distinction between appearance and actuality’ (Rapport Diverse world-views in an English village 1993:ix).
[Footnote: I have brought a DVD of Britain’s currently most popular stand-up comedian, Michael McIntyre. Will you find him funny?]
This muddle is, I suppose, the story of the DVD on the Lars von Trier exhibition in which the randomness of ants in the USA passing across sections of a computer screen in Denmark determine the moods and behaviours of a set of actors whose characters and ambitions are unknown to one another (and only vaguely fleshed out to themselves) and who are placed together—their lives set against one another—in the confined spaces of a certain number of rooms in a Copenhagen museum. I have thought in the past of describing the discipline of anthropology as ‘the study of the effects energetic things-in-the-world have upon one another’ (Rapport I am dynamite: An alternative anthropology of power 2003:75). Each individual human being is a centre-of-energy driven by its own metabolism, within its own embodiment, along its own biographical course of activity-in-the-world. The constituent unit of human social life is the individual organism-in-its-environment. Each organism is not alone in the world, of course. (It is discrete but not alone.) Each organism is embarked upon a distinct voyage of activity-in-the-world (-in-its-world), and of sense-making, but each is surrounded by a plurality of other things-in-the-world, inorganic and organic, some engaged in comparable voyages to its own. The ‘comedy’ of the inadvertent and indirect and miscommunicated effects that each has on the others is our ethnography. One reason I also disliked this DVD was the limited range of behaviours and reactions that Lars von Trier or the actors or the film-maker ended up playing with. I could see little but sex and sexism in the dramas of that unfolded.
I suppose that the DVD was also to show the effects that Bateson would have described as schismogenesis, or feedback. Each had effects on the others that were incremental: more from one led to more, or less, from another in equal gradations. These knock-on effects were of course the visible matter of the third DVD, the ‘run of things’ that I found wonderful and captivating. I think that the ‘comedy of things’ also concerns what Morten likes to describe as things’ affordances. What does one thing have to possess in order for it to be affected by some thing else. It must possess properties that can be triggered, however inadvertently, by the energetic otherness in its environs. I am triggered by what I take to be anti-Semitism or by superstition and bigotry; I am perhaps not triggered in the same way by racism or class-ism or age-ism. I am triggered by the possibility of a cup of tea; I am not triggered by the possibility of a drink of a puddle of rainwater and urine in a field of cows. ‘The run of things’ depended on the intricately calculated way in which things had been connected by their affordances, whether of a chemical or physical or locational nature.
I suppose the question for the anthropologist arising from this is the extent to which this models social relations. There is no engineer or God-figure in society. ‘The run of things’ could have gone on indefinitely if engineered with sufficient care and patience. But social relations are incoherent and they collapse; there is little social reproduction. ‘Things fall apart’, as Yeats phrased it. Or, in the words of Fernando Pessoa: ‘The only reason we get on together is that we know nothing about one another’; life is a masked ball and every relation a mismatch and a misunderstanding. The means that one has to communicate with another, words and gestures, are ‘uncertain, divergent things’. Pessoa again: ‘The very way in which we come to know each other is a form of unknowing. When two people say “I love you” (or perhaps think or reciprocate the feeling), each one means by that something different, a different life, even, perhaps, a different colour and aroma in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the activity of the soul’. People are fellow travellers on a ship set sail from one unknown port to another. How should we live? Pessoa’s answer is that we should treat each other with friendliness. This means neither doing good nor evil to another; each of us has the right not to be bothered by anyone else. There is enough evil of mishap and of the parasitical nature of life on earth. And do no good because who knows what that might be or what interfering might effect? We have no right to make others the victim of our caprice. Freedom is isolation. Society is vulgar, slavish. With isolation there is no ‘run of things’.
One of the natural evils I have come to recognise in my anthropology is ‘category-thinking’: the proclivity of human beings to classify one another and see not the individual being-in-the-world but a representative of a class and a collective. These give rise to the jokes and myths I have chosen. I should also say that ‘home’ and ‘fieldsite’ are interchangeable terms and categories for me, indistinguishable in terms of subject-matter or location or even lifestyle. So the classes below are for convenience only.
Why are 20-pence pieces heptagonal in shape not circular? So that you can get them of a Jew’s hand with a spanner!’
An Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman are captured while fighting in a far-off land. The leader of the captors says: ‘We are going to line you up in front of a firing squad and shoot you all in turn. But first, each of you may make a final wish’.
The Englishman responds: ‘I’d like to hear “God Save The Queen” just one more time to remind me of Blighty, sung at Twickenham, the HQ of rugby, with Morris Dancers dancing in tune’.
The Irishman replies: ‘I’d like to hear “Danny Boy” just one more time to remind me of green Eire, sung in the style of Daniel O’Donnell, with Riverdance dancers skipping in time’.
The Welshman answers: ‘I’d like to hear “Land of My Fathers” just one more time to remind me of The Land, sung by the Treorchy Male Voice Choir at an eisteddfod’.
At which the Scotsman quickly ejects: ‘I’d like to be shot the first’.
‘Home’ myth: ‘God save the Queen’
God save our gracious Queen, / Long live our noble Queen, / God save the Queen! / Send her victorious, / Happy and glorious, / Long to reign over us; / God save the Queen!
O Lord our God arise, / Scatter her enemies / And make them fall; / Confound their politics, / Frustrate their knavish tricks, / On Thee our hopes we fix, / God save us all!
Thy choicest gifts in store / On her be pleased to pour; / Long may she reign; / May she defend our laws, / And ever give us cause / To sing with heart and voice, / God save the Queen! /
Not in this land alone, / But be God’s mercies known, / From shore to shore! / Lord make the nations see, / That men should brothers be, / And form one family, / The wide world over.
From every latent foe, / From the assassins blow, / God save the Queen! / O’er her thine arm extend, / For Britain’s sake defend, / Our mother, prince, and friend, / God save the Queen!
Lord grant that Marshal Wade / May by thy mighty aid / Victory bring. / May he sedition hush, / And like a torrent rush, / Rebellious Scots to crush. / God save the Queen!
‘Field myth’: ‘O Flower of Scotland’
O flower of Scotland / When will we see your like again / That fought and died for / Your wee bit hill and glen / And stood against him / Proud Edward’s army / And sent him homeward / Tae think again.
The hills are bare now / And autumn leaves lie thick and still / O’er land that is lost now / Which those so dearly held / And stood against him / Proud Edward’s army / And sent him homeward / Tae think again.
Those days are passed now / And in the past they must remain / But we can still rise now / And be the nation again / That stood against him / Proud Edward’s army / And sent him homeward / Tae think again
The opposite of myth (or culture) is truth (or civilization). This final truthful insight is from George Steiner: There is no ethnic community or nation or polis or church that is not worth leaving. Every nation, every collectivity, will end up behaving unacceptably because it is based on the falsehood of insiders and outsiders, of mythic tradition as against heresy, and perpetrates itself by lies. (Every synagogue will excommunicate a Spinoza.) ‘And a ‘true thinker, a truth-thinker, a scholar, must know that no nation, no body politic, no creed, no moral ideal and necessity, be it that of human survival, is worth a falsehood’. ‘Personally’—this is Steiner still—‘I believe that anarchy is one of the ideals and hopes and utopias of anyone who wants to do serious thinking and work. It is when you find yourself agreeing with another person that you should begin to suspect that you are talking nonsense. I repeat: there is no community of love, no family, no interest, caste, profession or social class not worth resigning from’.
Having said all that I cannot hear the Welsh national anthem, sang at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, before a rugby match, with out getting a lump in my throat:
1. What Is the Comedy of Things?
- a play, movie, etc., of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.;
- that branch of the drama which concerns itself with this form of composition;
- any literary composition dealing with a theme suitable for comedy, or employing the methods of comedy;
- any comic or humorous incident or series of incidents.
- used to indicate distance or direction from, separation, deprivation;
- used to indicate derivation, origin, or source;
- used to indicate cause, motive, occasion, or reason;
- used to indicate material, component parts, substance, or contents;
- used to indicate apposition or identity;
- used to indicate specific identity or a particular item within a category;
- used to indicate possession, connection, or association.
- a material object without life or consciousness; an inanimate object;
- some entity, object, or creature that is not or cannot be specifically designated or precisely described;
- anything that is or may become an object of thought;
- things, matters; affairs:;
- a fact, circumstance, or state of affairs;
- an action, deed, event, or performance;
- a particular, respect, or detail.
- do /find one’s own thing, Informal. to pursue a lifestyle that expresses one’s self. Also, do/find one’s thing.;
- make a good thing of, Informal. to turn (a situation, experience, etc.) to one’s own profit; benefit by;
- not to get a thing out of,
- to be unable to obtain information or news from;
- to fail to appreciate, understand, or derive aesthetic pleasure from:;
- see /hear things, Informal. to have hallucinations.
2. Myth, Home
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
3. Myth, Field
As told to an informant
The world should know that he is the Almighty, it is prophecised, the prophecy has been fulfilled, open your eyes and look. Haile Selassie from his youth, was a mysterious person who was said to have been feared by priest and other persons working in the palace … Their is a story about Haile Selassie in his youth, his father & mother was astounded by his vast knowledge and wisdom of and from the bible. They brought in priest to talk with him to ask him where he knew all these things from, Haile Selassie knew books that aren’t printed in the bible, like the 8th, 9th & 10th books of Moses, the Dead Sea Scrolls, he would know line for line. The priests would ask him questions and he would call them to tell them the answer in their ears and the answers he would give would frighten the priests away, and some would never return to see him. At one time their were two priests talking to Tafari, who had claimed he talks to animals and the wild beasts in the jungles of Ethiopia, One of the priests asked Tafari to draw one of these animals, so Tafari requested for crayons and a piece of paper and began to draw it formed into a dove of bright multi-colors and before the priest could question Tafari about the bird on the page he was dumbfounded when he saw it arise off the paper and fly through the window, the two priests hysterically left the palace and never returned.
From the Jamaica Gleaner
The heat that rose from the tarmac of Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport was nothing compared to the level of expectation that was seeping through the thousands gathered on the tarmac that 21st day of April, 1966. The day was declared a public holiday in honour of the Emperor and people had started arriving from Wednesday night from places near and far, to form the largest crowd to have ever assembled at the Norman Manley International Airport. They came to the airport any way they could by car, by truck, by bus, by bicycle, by foot. Drum beats and chants were heard almost non-stop, providing an almost hypnotic rhythm. The smell of ganja wafted through the air completing a welcome unprecedented in size and expectation for the Emperor on his first state visit to Jamaica. Brother George Huggins of Accompong, explained the enthusiastic welcome, “it is hard to put in words what seeing this man, this great man, the Lord of lords, in Jamaica meant to us in the Rastafarian community. We had heard so much about him for so
long.” On the tarmac, some waved palm leaves, some red, green and gold
Ethiopian flags, and some blew the Maroon cowhorn known as the abeng in welcome. Everyone kept their eyes on the sky wondering when the plane carrying His Imperial Majesty from Trinidad and Tobago would arrive. Rain began to fall and the crowd continued to wait, hoping even for just a glimpse of the plane through the thick clouds that had formed.
When the insignia of a roaring lion and stripes of red, green and gold finally came into view, the rain stopped. People shouted, “See how God stop de rain.” The sound from the crowd was deafening as masses of people rushed to get closer to the island’s distinguished visitor. The crowd simply broke down any barriers that stood in their way in their eagerness to position themselves as close as possible to the “King of Kings.”
4. Joke, Home
Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion. – Norman Scwartzkopf
5. Joke, Field
Q: How does a joke in a police state start?
A: By looking over your shoulder.