previous chapter
Chapter 2 Realms of Meaning
next chapter

Chapter 2
Realms of Meaning

The World in Traditional and Modern Terms

It is a July evening in 1992, and I am driving north on Colorado Highway 71 on my way from Bent's Old Fort to Stapleton Airport in Denver. I have stayed too long and am in danger of missing my flight, the "red-eye" back to Baltimore. On the advice of the superintendent of Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, I am taking this shortcut, a two-lane road instead of the interstate, I-25. The superintendent has assured me I can make good time this way, and he is right. As he explained, "It's a straight road with no traffic. There's one little jog about fifty miles north that tells you to slow down for Punkin Center." I've been a little high on fatigue and caffeine for hours, but I am getting a bit drowsy now, so I pull over to get yet another Diet Coke out of the trunk of the rental car.

As I step out, I am struck by the silence. There are no headlights in either direction; there are no artificial lights at all, I realize. On an impulse I switch off the engine and headlights. The stars in the night sky, seen through this dry, clear air without ambient light, are brilliant. I am always surprised in a place like this that there are so many.

I think about the meteor shower of 1833, which the Cheyenne regarded as a sign that the world was about to end. Cheyenne warriors rode about on their war ponies, dressed and painted for battle, singing their death songs. From inside the walls of the newly completed fort, the Bents and their employees watched.[1] To the Cheyenne, as to people in all traditional societies, the heavenly bodies and their cyclical movements were the ultimate and most reliable benchmarks in their system of cultural mean-


ings. Mircea Eliade has presented a strong case that such celestial phenomena are archetypal to the arrangement of territories, cities, and religious edifices in traditional cultures worldwide.[2] Of course, this works reflexively: Meaning has been previously assigned to celestial phenomena through their inclusion in ritual and myth. Further, by attaching their value and belief system to the arrangement and movements of the heavenly bodies, traditional peoples are linked to the eternal, the predictable; what is cyclical appears to change but is eventually proved immutable. If the connection is convincing, a traditional people finds refuge against the vicissitudes of time.

On the narrative level, the Big Dipper in Cheyenne mythology for example, is the form taken by seven orphaned children. The eldest child, a young woman, was to be the bride of the White Buffalo. The other children did not want their sister, who provided for them, to leave, and so they took refuge in the limbs of a tree. The White Buffalo sent his herd to butt the tree. When the tree was about to go down, the children shot arrows into the sky and were drawn up behind the arrows to form this constellation.[3]

On the physical level, the stars in what we call the Big Dipper, the constellation Ursa Major, move. One can easily watch them move here on the Plains if one is outside and takes the time on any clear night (and nights are rarely not clear). But one can also watch them move back to where they were before, making a complete cycle. A line drawn through the two stars that form the far side of the cup of the dipper will connect with a star nearby, the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This star, which we call the North Star, does not move. The Big Dipper will make a complete circuit around the North Star every twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes. As mariners in the Northern Hemisphere haste known for centuries, the North Star offers an unchanging point of reference for navigation. Likewise, in the fiat landscape of the Plains, as wide and changing as a sea, the North Star and other celestial bodies offered the Cheyenne orientation not apparent in the daylight hours.

This orientation was more than spatial, it was cultural and integral to the Cheyenne's sense of how the world was constructed. I can't help but wonder if the myth about the creation of the Big Dipper is a dreamlike reference to the relationship between the Cheyenne and the Anglos. This relationship became central to the Cheyenne way of life in the early nineteenth century. For about one-quarter of a century., while the Bent & St. Vrain Company operated their big wading post on the Arkansas River, there was a kind of marriage between the two groups. The Cheyenne were new-


comers to this land, a long way from their ancestral home. In the traditional way of looking at human life, this is something like being orphaned.

A lifetime is filled with the changes and uncertainties that come with the passing of time, while myth is timeless and therefore eternal. Myth is thus the realm of the sacred. By participating in the rituals that mold the social world—the world of human events—after the sacred, each person finds consolation for the uncertainty and unfairness in his or her life and for the knowledge that individual life must end. Against what Eliade termed the "terror of history," traditional man arrays his myths, rituals, and symbols which, he believes, provide him access to a higher reality, one impervious to the ravages of time. Eliade observed that "an object or act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype. Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything else which lacks an exemplary model is 'meaningless'; i.e., it lacks reality." Such "primitive" ontology has a Platonic structure: "Plato could be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of 'primitive mentality."'[4] According to such an ontology, celestial phenomena offer the archetypes—the "ideal forms"—and all else is only a reflection of these. The world would, indeed, seem to be coming to an end when the archetypes appeared to be falling from their exalted positions.

Standing alongside the empty road, I find myself remembering a conversation I had a few years before with a very modern friend, a lawyer living in Washington, D.C., who was going through a divorce from her equally busy and competent lawyer husband. Facing life alone, she said, was like looking up at the stars and thinking that there were more stars beyond the ones that you could see . . . and more stars beyond those . . . and more beyond that, endlessly. Doesn't this describe the estrangement from a traditional system of meanings that is so much a part of the modern condition?

From a modern, existentialist point of view, as Eliade has pointed out, "the man of traditional culture sees himself as real only to the extent that he ceases to be himself (for a modern observer) and is satisfied with imitating and repeating the gestures of another. In other words, he sees himself as real, i.e., as 'truly himself,' only, and precisely insofar as he ceases to be so."[5]

Modern man, in contrast, claims his "reality" by acting alone. He eschews a traditional basis for his behavior and takes delight in the intellectual exercise of debunking myth as illusion, portraying ritual as reactionary, and revealing the use of symbol to be manipulative. He constructs the world on his own, drawing from his "own" resources (not realizing


that they are a part of his culture). In doing so, he recognizes implicitly, at least, that this task—to create oneself, to become the American "self-made" man, for example—is daunting to all but the most adept at modem life. Traditional peoples, in this scheme, are relegated to the ranks of the unenlightened. The enlightened, it is true, must cope with chronic existential anxiety. as best they can, although they are sustained somewhat by the knowledge that this very anxiety anoints them as a member of a kind of cultural elite.

It is to this point, the point of absurdity, that modern Western thought has come. Modern man must validate his existence by proclaiming that such validation is not possible. In the post modern world, which many social critics say is at hand, all must avail themselves of the "bricolage" approach to world creation that Claude Lévi-Strauss once attributed to traditional cultures.[6] As traditional man once picked through the ruins of a traditional world, a world destroyed by modernity, salvaging fragments and fashioning them into a makeshift universe, so now modern man must adopt the postmodern strategy of mining the debris of the world he has turned against itself.

Reconciling Traditional and Modem Realms of Meaning

The nihilistic strain of postmodern thought purports that the best one can hope for in a world that does not refer to a higher realm of meaning is to amuse oneself by arranging the bits of wreckage in clever ways. A problem with such nihilism is that meaning is tenacious. It is really inevitable, a prerequisite to human existence. Humans are self-evidently social creatures—they must coordinate their actions to survive. In doing so meanings are constructed, and not only linguistic ones. Other meanings reside in conventions of behavior that organize in myriad ways the shared and therefore external world. The most essential of these are learned by children as they imitate the actions of their caregivers. The dependency. of the child on the caregiver for sustenance, approval, and attention is later projected into other relationships and provides the basis for social cohesion as well as the impetus for social change. Participation in society by the individual is regarded by her or him as meaningful insofar as it seems relevant to the pattern for human relationships set in childhood.


Because humans construct meaning in collective and largely noncritical ways, neither God nor history is really dead, despite the statements of Nietzsche a century ago and despite postmodern assualts on "metanarratives"—the grand overarching stories, such as broad recountings of history, that can validate or trivialize personal stories. Nietzsche's nihilism was strangely optimistic: It foresaw a new ground for knowledge in reason rather than faith. His God, anyway, had been dispatched earlier in the nineteenth century by Ludwig Feuerbach, who coined the aphorism "theology is anthropology." Although not as striking as Nietzsche's more famous maxim, it nonetheless evidences the replacement of a theological with a scientific order. Postmodernity, with its hyperawareness of perspective and mode of expression, questions science itself and, of course, anthropology. and history. It is perhaps most succinctly what Lyotard has said, "incredulity toward metanarratives."[7] Such skepticism is common among thoughtful persons. How far is this statement from the philosophical starting point proclaimed by Socrates: "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing"? It is a mistake in any case to think that metanarratives are constructed only by thoughtful persons or, for the most part, in thoughtful ways. Critical evaluation, even deconstruction in the postmodern mode, of a metanarrative is not the same as the construction of one. Whatever incredulity may result is not sure to destroy the metanarrative or to alter it in important ways. Equally likely is that the metanarrative may be transformed in ways unforeseen by the critic.

For example, Nietzsche suggested "will" as the antidote to the sense of universal isolation that the modern viewpoint frequently engenders; he reasoned that man's existence in a cosmos without ordained order gave him the capacity, to become whatever he determined to be, to become, finally, a "superman." Of course, Nietzsche did not have the final word, as no one ever does. Theologians, like Paul Tillich in his The Courage to Be, found ways to accommodate Nietzsche's intellectual position, building upon Feuerbach's legacy as Nietzsche himself (and Karl Marx) did, but in a different direction. Tillich argued that God exists apart from "theism," and that the courage to face this draws one nearer to the truth, a line of reasoning not dissimilar to the Eastern expression that "the Buddha you can name is not the Buddha."[8]

It should be evident, too, that for most who are unengaged with philosophical or theological niceties the proposition that human life is essentially without meaning is not a durable one. Perhaps it did not serve even Nietzsche well, who suffered from delusions of grandeur and persecution, and near the end of his life was put into an asylum. Lawrence Wright,


a journalist who specializes in the foibles of religious leaders, described his own reflections on the matter:

"There is nothing more," I said to myself once in the middle of the night when I was forty years old and struggling once again with the questions that life poses at that hour. . .. I had an image suddenly of the spinning planet; behind it was a great screen, like a portable home-movie screen that rolls out of a tube. It was there to capture my projections. Then the screen snapped and rolled itself up, and I was looking into the stars. It was if I had never seen them so clearly. I realized that the screen had always blocked my view. I think it was also there to protect me from the coldness of space. . .. Atheism forced me to focus on the life I was actually living. Never before had I savored the sweetness of existence so intensely. . .. I felt comforted by the thought that I was living with the truth and not flirting with possibilities. I lived for a year in this state of crystallized certainty. Then doubts crept back in.[9]

Wright's doubts stemmed from his being "open to mystery." He pondered the unified field theory after reading an article about it. He began to think of all attractions as in some sense emotional, the sort of emotion he felt for friends, nature, community, ideas, and values. Then he realized that for him this emotional network was merely another way to envision God. It made him wonder "why the God idea is so resonant it keeps echoing inside me."[10]

In fact, God and history in this era of accelerated modernity continually reemerge in new forms that often are not recognized as such or appear twisted and perverted to those accustomed to the old versions. The recent evangelical movements sweeping the New World, emptying, for example, Catholic churches in South America, are such forms. So are "careerism," the environmental movement, the New Age, the "human potential" movement, the manias that people often develop about everything from railroads to the Civil War to Corvettes to soccer and baseball teams, the resurgence of concern with ethnic identity, and reform movements. These sorts of collective efforts strive to transform the condition of the world (or the world according to the group in question) from mundane to sublime. All implicitly recognize that history has not come to an end, that there is still work to be done and improvements to be made. All are driven by the concern that the human world is less than perfect; all imply that standards exist by which such judgments can be made.

The model for ultimate glory is always in the past. The classic Corvette, the New York Yankees in their heyday, human compassion before the church was corrupted or capitalism introduced, the purity of the race before mongrelization began, the human condition before ancient wisdom


was lost or repressed, gracious living in the American South before the Civil War, Atlantis, Camelot (where the "rain never falls 'til after sundown"), the Ottoman Empire to the Turks, ancient Rome to Italians, the American West to "rugged individualists" in the United States and elsewhere, the kingdom of Sukhothai to the Thais (when "the fields were full of rice and the rivers full of fish and the king took care of the people"), the fourteenth-century trading center of Malacca to present-day Malays, paradise before the Fall—nostalgia for lost worlds spurs us onward to an imagined future that is really an idealized past.

Modern politicians know this. We may not be privy to their reflections on the subject, but we can see that they deploy this knowledge in a practical way at every opportunity. Mussolini, de Gaulle, and Thatcher, to mention only a few, explicitly or implicitly promised to reclaim national greatness, and Hitler provides perhaps the most notorious example. John E Kennedy was more subtle in his calls for a "New Frontier," which he portrayed as an era of selfless patriotism animated by the spirit of American frontiersmen. At the 1992 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton went to great efforts to attach his programs for American revitalization to Kennedy's, which, in part because of Kennedy's assassination, have now attained nearly mythical status.

The Transformation of Time

I'm back on the road now and looking forward to the few hours of sleep I'll get on the plane. I'm weary, but I value these long solitary drives because they give me time to think. Not that this is entirely pleasant. When I am less preoccupied with the immediacies of work and conversation, anxieties that have been submerged by my hectic routine come bubbling up to my attention. I begin to worry about my family, my job, my research. These obligations, for all their rewards, require what my parents readily identified as "sacrifices," a term that I regard with both amusement and curiosity now, given my interest in the structure of religion. I frequently sacrifice sleep.

I often sacrifice the "nowness" of life, too. And this isn't because as an archaeologist I spend a good deal of time thinking about the past. It is easy for me to relate the past to the present; my appreciation of the present is enhanced by my regard for the past. What takes me away from the present is the future. Even now I am engaged, as I so often am, in calcu-


lating how long it will take me to drive somewhere and to do what I need to do when I get there, when I should leave there, how long it will then take to travel to somewhere else, how long to accomplish what is needed at that locale, when I should leave there, and so on into the week, month, year, and years ahead. I have an urge to look at my appointment book, which I can't reach while I am driving, to plan with even more precision—and to see what I am forgetting. I, like so many inhabitants of the modem world, am obsessed by time.

This modern obsession with time has it roots in traditional concerns. The Cheyenne, like all premodern human groups, saw in the cyclical movement of the heavenly bodies reassurance that the world would go on despite the mortality of each human in the world. The path to immortality, predictability; and certainty in what humans can see to be a world replete with unpleasant surprises could only be gained through access to such eternal cycles. Access was through ritual, but in order to most effectively marry, the fate of the individual with the eternal cycles the ritual had to occur at propitious moments in the astronomical calendar. Personal transition was tied to instants of cosmic change, so a great deal of attention was paid to the skies.

Societies everywhere have built devices by which to enhance their understanding of this calendar; these constructions are observatories, in effect. Being nomads, the Cheyenne built observatories that were not large in scale. They were constructed of durable materials, however, and so many remain today. They are called "medicine wheels," and they dot the Plains (see figs. 4 and 5). In plan view they are circles of stones; spokes and other features on the circle align with specific celestial objects as they rise over the horizon. The appearance of these objects, the sun and various stars, mark the summer and winter solstices, the fall and spring equinoxes, and other calendrical events. The sun and stars were associated with various mythological characters and occurrences.

It is not likely that astronomical devices were developed to aid the proper timing of subsistence activities. Traditional peoples are familiar with their environments to a degree that precludes the need for the kind of rigid precision provided by calendrical time. The !Kung of Africa, for example, can recall the location of a particular edible root or a place where they cached water from year to year as they travel their nomadic rounds. Also, the optimal time for hunting, gathering, planting, harvesting, and other subsistence activities varies a bit each year according to the weather, so it is not productive to begin such activities at the same calendrical date each year. Finally, in the case of nomads like the Cheyenne, the territo-


Figure 4.
Plan view of a medicine wheel. (Illustration by Steven Patricia after
map of cairn alignments by D. Grey; reported in John A. Eddy, "Astronomical
Alignment of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel," Science 184, no. 414 [I974]:
1040; courtesy Science .)

ries within which they range are exceedingly large. The Cheyenne typically traded as far east as the Great Lakes and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Since their observational devices were generally not portable, they could not be used as these nomads ranged over their broad territories.

What is more certain is that the astronomical observatories were used to schedule ritual. Ritual is the preeminent social mechanism, marshalling and organizing human energies in many ways. It is significant that groups with more sophisticated and complex social and technological systems constructed correspondingly more elaborate observatories. The Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica, to mention only one example from the many sophisticated ancient civilizations around the world that did likewise, built magnificent pyramids that functioned as components of an observation apparatus; one is still the highest humanly constructed edifice in Belize. With this apparatus the Maya identified cycles of time, varying in length from 52 to 256 to thousands of years. Pyramids were built collectively, and


Figure 5.
Sunrise at Big Horn Medicine Wheel, aligning with
cairns and spokes. (Illustration by Steven Patricia.)

so construction was a ritual of sorts. Each served as an axis mundi and therefore a center of ritual. These rituals were social mechanisms that stemmed from religious impulse but were appropriated for "practical" purposes. The Mayan civilization, like our own, has been described as being "obsessed with numbers and time." Whatever the practical benefits to society of this obsession, which might include the ability, to better coordinate specialized societal components as society increases in complexity, in order to understand it one must see that the concern with and valuation of quantified time is neither wholly rational nor inculcated by means of the human capacity for critical thought.

Function and Meaning

At present, the practical, or functional, aspects of ritual are widely recognized in traditional societies. It is standard fare in ethnographies to document that subsistence activities in traditional societies, like hunting, planting, and harvesting, are accompanied by ritual. For example, in Thailand, the king, who in the minds of most Thais is holy, sows the


first seeds of rice each year. Based upon such evident connections between ritual and function, many anthropological studies have emphasized, to the exclusion of other interpretations, how ritual works to distribute food or organize human labor or accomplish many other practical tasks. These studies have not only seeped into popular consciousness, they are in accord with modern popular consciousness that sees the world operating on a practical, functional basis.

Consciousness is largely determined by a complex of habitual behavior, though, and so modern consciousness, while it sees the function in ritual, is largely blind to the ritual in function. Driving down the road right now, most of what "I" am, objectively speaking, is occupied by habit or by convention, which is social habit. I am at this place at this time engaging in what archaeologists, who are sorts of anthropologists, conventionally do (even if the field by convention is unconventional). My driving habits arc so firmly in place that I guide the car down the road on "autopilot." If I don't occasionally make a conscious effort to check where I am, I will probably drive right past some important intersection—and miss my plane. Both habit and convention are like that: They are convenient, even necessary (overall, people are safer drivers after driving skills become a habit), but they easily lead one to overlook important phenomena.

So it is with the habit of looking at the world from a "functionalist" perspective. From this angle, one can scarcely see that not only do functional activities conform in pattern to ritual ones, but that functional behavior depends upon ritual; it is socially inscribed by it. What motivates us to engage in the functionalist activities of the modern world is the traditional desire to locate ourselves in relation to culturally determined benchmarks. Ritualistic behavior reassures us that these benchmarks are of paramount importance, unchanging, and natural, and at the same time they establish our place among them. By ritual, "reality" is socially constructed.[11]

Even the most practical and "modern" actions must be to some degree ritualistic to be regarded as meaningful. They, must conform to a pattern of what has transpired before, of what was supposed to have transpired before. Meaning is predicated upon pattern established in the past. As a rule of thumb, the more distant the past, the more profound the meaning, no less in modern than in traditional societies. Ultimate legal precedent, for example, is constitutional. Moral laws—drawn from natural or supernatural orders—are generally considered superior to civil or criminal ones, as in civil disobedience, conscientious objection to the military draft, or refusing to obey an immoral command issued within the context of a governmental bureaucracy. Geometry is based upon axiomatic statements (and


the ancient Greek Pythagoreans saw a mystical significance in geometry, as have others, a significance that derived from reference to eternal truths). The most important inventions and discoveries are commonly considered those that occurred "first." In the arts and literature, what is important is usually determined by how closely a work approximates or how radically it departs from what is regarded as "classic." One may argue with the desirability of these attitudes but cannot dispute that they exist.

Modernity, then, is an amplification of certain trends that one can notice early on, as in the obsession of the Maya with "numbers and time." In fact, this obsession is an essential part of modernity, of the culture of capitalism, industrialism, quantification, abstraction—and individualism. We have internalized the modern view of the world and the basic values and beliefs that shape it and at the same time motivate us to sustain it.

Individualism and Identity.

The burden of modernity is carried on the shoulders of the individual. As my parents were kind enough to tell me clearly, this involves sacrifice. Each of us caught up in modernity is supposed to emulate the central figure in the formal religion most associated with modernity, Christianity. We separate ourselves from the communion of humans (as we at least imagine this to exist in the traditional world) to pursue a higher path and thereby serve humanity, better. As Yi-Fu Tuan has pointed out, individualism typically generates a sense of independence, a belief in the untrammeled freedom to ask questions and explore, a notion that the world can be assayed without illusion and from a rational standpoint and that the individual is responsible for his destiny. One might say (although Tuan does not put it this way) that individualism holds out the promise of achieving a godlike status, that of Nietzsche's "superman." At the same time, individualism is also characterized by a sense of isolation, loneliness, and disengagement; a loss of vitality and, as Tuan reflects, "of innocent pleasure in the 'given-ness' of the world, and, most oppressively, that the world has no meaning other than what a person chooses to impart to it."[12] In his opinion, modernity is essentially the Western response to the demands of civilization: "A civilization, unlike simpler cultures, is constrained to acknowledge explicitly the problems of society and individual, and to review periodically the relationship of the whole to the parts." A response in China was Confucianism, which did not stress this


sort of segmentation of the world and saw "no conflict" among self, society, and nature.[13]

In the Western response, however, society is seen as "a strenuous theater in which each person must be adept at various roles played before a constantly alert and critical public . . . the constant need to be 'on one's toes,' of living in an artificial world, that is, a world that does not, like nature, run on its own but must be constantly maintained."[14] It may be argued (and I for one would argue this) that the "world" in the sense Tuan uses the term is, for the most part, socially constructed by all human groups. It, therefore, must always be socially maintained. What is not recognized is that the construction and maintenance of the world is largely accomplished through ritualistic means in both traditional and modern societies. It is the complexity of modern society that makes of these rituals "strenuous theater." Modern ritual may be found in the realms of business, law, academe, politics—in every sector of modern society. Specific sorts of training are required for roles in this theater, and training in skills for which there may be differences in aptitude is not equally accessible to all. Particular kinds of temperaments are more amenable to these than others. Some people are simply unwilling to make the "sacrifices" required by participation in the theater, sacrifices of communal lifestyle or of innocence, for example. And certain groups have been largely excluded, or excluded from consideration for the most prominent roles.

Females, for example, have not been regarded as suitable for certain roles. After working many years in a notoriously male-dominated industry and rising to the rank of vice president in the corporation, my sister was passed over for a senior vice president position. When she asked why, the CEO told her that "I wanted someone in the slot who, when I gave him the ball, would know what to do with it." The man chosen for the senior post was someone who had been a professional football player.

Those excluded from meaningful participation in high-grid, low-group societies either find the basis for an identity elsewhere or fall into anomie. My sister, after the discrimination she had sensed for some time was made explicit, quit her job. Although her work had once seemed to her to be an exciting and challenging part of her life, it had ceased to be meaningful. She then treated herself to a two-year hiatus, a time "away from it all." During this period she went birding. A birder keeps a list of each species she or he has observed. Observing 600 species within the boundaries of the United States is remarkable, 700 species is exceptional. My sister set herself a goal of 700 species. In a two-year period, she traveled to every state in the union (excluding Hawaii, which is "out of bounds") to ac-


complish this. But leavening this obsession with time and numbers was another aspect of birding: My sister enjoyed the fact that she could go almost anywhere worth birding and find human communion.

Her new avocation, like her old job, provided a structure based in tradition that could accommodate the modern preoccupation with rationality. Birders reenact the exploits of nineteenth-century naturalists, Charles Audubon among them. They are scrupulous in their record keeping. My sister tells me that ornithologists are often vague about bird locations, but a birder can direct you to the tree and the limb where a particular type of species might be observed.

Such specificity reminds me of discussions I have had with members of groups that would like to use the national parks in special ways. In addition to birders, such groups include, but are not limited to, rock climbers, Civil War buffs, French and Indian War reenactors, environmentalists, Native American groups, local historians, backpackers, and advocates for the preservation of old houses, bridges, machinery, and railroads. The activities of these groups have always struck me as being ritualistic in the way that birding is. A national park is especially attractive for this because it is a national theater and thereby provides recognition in a very public way and place. Each group has a pantheon of individuals with heroic accomplishments that will never be matched; all can relate the details of their fields of interest in astounding detail. Rock climbers can tell you who first climbed El Capitan and who set the first permanent piton. Railroad preservationists can tell you where to find the handful of craftspersons still able to repair rolling stock manufactured fifty years ago.

Local historians, notably genealogists and military buffs, are similarly attracted to national battlefields, and they have comparable knowledge of detail. Civil War enthusiasts often speak of troop movements as if they had been a part of the battle and of the participants in these battles with the familiarity, one associates with relatives or close friends. Not infrequently, genealogical and military history interests converge. As a descendant of Turner Ashby, of "Ashby's Raiders" fame, once told me, "I don't know why other people get so excited about Ashby. They are not related to him." The speaker was implying, of course, that psychological identification with Ashby did not constitute as valid a relationship as her familial one. Nonetheless, such identification can be intense. At a reenactment of the Battle of Monocacy I attended a few years ago, each reenactor had been encouraged to conduct painstaking research into the life of the person they played in the battle. If the person had been a male soldier,


they knew the names of the man's wife and children, where he had lived, his medical history, where he had served, and as many other details of his life as possible. If the soldier had been killed or wounded in the battle, the reenactor attempted to fall when and where he had, remaining in the hot sun or crawling slowly through the tall grass, as the role demanded.

Such interests are attempts to reclaim an identity threatened by the ways personal knowledge is trivialized in the face of global modernity. Knowledge of one's kin, family history, and the environment in which one lived once was both intimate and essential. Such knowledge is much less important in the modern world. Each person's grasp of the world is less sure because no one can know the whole, vast array of knowledge that modernity has to offer (even specialists, or perhaps especially specialists because they are so narrowly focused). For these reasons, knowledge is, as Anthony Giddens calls it, "disembedded." Giddens continues: "For the ordinary individual, all this does not add up to feelings of secure control over day-to-day life circumstances."[15]

To regain a feeling of control, one must reappropriate abstract knowledge and reembed it within one's span of sensuous control, in the now of the massive reality of one's immediate environment. What is true for avocational activities holds as well for vocational ones. Clifford Geertz observes that, "like sailing, gardening, politics, and poetry, law and ethnography are crafts of place; they work by the light of local knowledge." When one pursues these interests as a profession, one is bound to attend to the broad themes of the global, capitalistic network that ultimately supports one's profession. At this point, one becomes "absorbed in the artisan task of seeing broad principles in parochial fact."[16] Success depends upon the ability to apply one to the other. If one is able to do this in one's vocation, he or she has succeeded within the "grid" of capitalism; the rewards for this are such (in money, power, and recognition) that one can often sustain at least a limited sense of control.

The emotional rewards when one succeeds in applying principle (which in the modern world is similar to arcane, sacred knowledge) to experience are heightened when the element of risk is added to the undertaking. Risk is a constant factor in high-grid, low-group capitalistic societies. I recall sailing near a hurricane (before I was as enmeshed in the capitalistic grid and had time to sail). Because of stinging rain and huge waves it was impossible to know with any certainty where shoals or low islands might be lurking. The desire to know my position in relation to what were now essential benchmarks was truly urgent. After the storm abated a bit and the danger passed, someone on board said, "Why are we


doing this?" No one had an answer. But I remember vividly the sense of wild euphoria we shared. I have since suspected that the Bents and the Cheyenne had a proclivity for this kind of experience.

Geertz, borrowing the term from Jeremy Bentham, has examined "deep play." "Deep play" means "play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from [a] utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all."[17] Geertz made his comments as a part of his consideration of Bali-nose cock fighting, where men bet much more than they can afford to lose and where "in seeking earthly analogues for heaven and hell the Ba-linese compare the former to the mood of a man whose cock has just won, the latter to that of a man whose cock has just lost."[18] Nonetheless, Geertz was imp1ying universal application. In part, the sense of what he says about this is like the American notion that "it's not if you win or lose, it's how you play the game." What is important is the demonstrated ability to play the game properly—and to be permitted to play the game.

But "deep play" tells us more than this. We can see that the value of reembedding activity increases as the emotional intensity associated with it rises. So it is with ritual. Explicit content, conveyed primarily with words, may be minimal, clearly secondary, or entirely lacking. What is important is that "sentiment" be generated, as Emile Durkheim, the "father of sociology," would say, and that this be accomplished according to an "ancient" pattern, one that mimics the behavior of the gods and ancients as they founded the world.[19]

Ubiquitous Mechanisms in World Construction

Durkheim mistakenly associated the power of ritual and sentiment too exclusively with traditional peoples. And how strange it is, given the constant religious fervor in the United States as well as the popularity of quasireligious self-improvement groups and group psychotherapy, that this mistake has been perpetuated by academic and other thoughtful treatments of modern society. From about the time of Freud's publication of The Future of an Illusion, religion and what have been regarded as its trappings, including ritual and myth and to a lesser extent symbol, have been relegated to the realm of the unenlightened, the traditional, or, at best, "folk" worlds.

Rituals of initiation provide an example. Mircea Eliado has observed


that "all pre-modern societies (that is, those that lasted in Western Europe to the end of the Middle Ages, and in the rest of the world to the First World War) accord primary importance to the ideology and techniques of initiation."[20] Most scholars minimize the importance of initiation in modern societies, although they recognize that it survives in the Christian baptism, Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs, and in other patently religious rites. What this modern point of view overlooks is that rites of initiation persist in fugitive forms.

C. G. Jung proposed, for example, that individuation, which he regarded as the ultimate goal of human life, was accomplished by ordeals which were initiatory in nature—privatized initiations, as it were, which were occurring in individual lives but were not generally recognized as what they were, and therefore were not usually discussed. Also, initiatory themes are common in artistic works, including novels, poems, works of plastic art, and film. Again, an experience once easily observed now occurs in a much less obvious way.[21]

Even more obvious forms of ritual in modern societies have not been given much scholarly notice. In a recent book, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America, a work that is one of the few that deal in a scholarly manner with the subject, Mark C. Carnes made a number of observations that seem surprising because of the lack of academic attention. Carnes noted that at the turn of the last century, between 15 and 40 percent of American men belonged to one or more of 70,000 fraternal lodges that had as their main order of business at every meeting the conduct of secret rituals. These rituals were arranged by degrees, each permitting entry into higher levels of belonging and realms of arcane knowledge. A majority of these men were middle class and often included the most influential men in a given town. Carnes quoted a contemporary observer, who wrote for the North American Review:

Members intent on "gratifying their desire" to accumulate initiatory degrees neglected work and wasted huge sums of money. He concluded that men joined the orders and attended lodges because they felt a "strange and powerful attraction" to the ritual. He explained, "There is a peculiar fascination in the unreality of the initiation, an allurement about fine 'team' work, a charm of deep potency. in the unrestricted, out-of-the-world atmosphere which surrounds the scenes where men are knit together by the closest ties, bound by the most solemn obligations to maintain secrecy."[22]

Eliade, in fact, has repeatedly argued for the "irreducibility" of religious structure, saying that sociology and anthropology are often reductionist


when they attempt to describe what are essentially religious phenomena in other terms. Modern, irreligious humans, even when they are determinedly irreligious, retain "a large stock of camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals."[23]

Why should this be so? It is because these are essential mechanisms for making sense of the world and manipulating meanings. When I board my airplane this evening, all around me will be people arguably as steeped in the rituals of exchange as any "native" group studied by anthropologists in Mesoamerica, Africa, or the Western Pacific. Their world was founded by Ford and Edison. They will be reading tales in the Wall Street Journal about demigods named William Gates and Donald Trump. The in-flight magazine will offer them products—time organizers, briefcases, plaques with inspirational phrases, books and cassettes with formulaic approaches to "management"—which will, according to advertisements, contribute to their success in what amount to magical ways. They will sleep and dream about establishing trading relations with powerful social organizations like Honda, 3M, Marriott, and Disney.

That we don't see the profoundly ritualistic nature of modern enterprises like business and science is due in no small part to the pattern laid out by Emile Durkheim . . . but more than that, to the world in which Durkheim formed his own, subsidiary world. This was the world of colonialism. Western nations developed interests in every part of the globe. This was not by any means the first time one human group had exploited others, but it had never occurred on this scale. Nor had it occurred in this way, one that was largely capitalistic. That meant that a region's resources could be transformed into money, and that this could continue as long as there was a market for those resources, or until the resources were depleted.[24]

Sociology, growing in the hothouse of colonialism, incorporated some of its basic assumptions. These assumptions provided the means, the motivation, and the justification for the exploitation of humans and the environment. Part of the justification involved the amplification of differences between exploiter and exploited human populations. These were projected in a reasonable way—rationality, after all, is a hallmark of modernity, and colonialism grew out of modernity. Sociology did not say, for example, that the exploited were infidels or innately inferior. Sociology (and anthropology) merely said that the exploited were "traditional" or "primitive" peoples. These terms, in the way they are most often used, gloss over the fact that tradition persists in the most technologically advanced societies and that modernity does not arise from a cultural vacuum, but is the result of an exaggeration of cultural character-


istics and social practices that commonly exist among largely traditional groups.

I turn on the car radio now, to punctuate the sameness of the night countryside rolling by my windows and listen to music associated with one of the exaggerated social practices of modernity. Until the juggernaut of modernity determines the course of a society, its music generally deals with religion. In contrast, music in modern societies deals most frequently with romantic or, at least, physical intimacy. Romantic love is a watershed between being "traditional" and "modern." An arranged marriage today is looked upon as a sort of barbarism. Witness the public's fascination with the mass marriages orchestrated by religious cults. In fact, we accept as a hallmark of cults what these marriages demonstrate: the subordination of individual choice to that of the group. Romantic love establishes a person's independence from group authority. Parental authority is the archetype for this. I reflect that many of the fairy tales to which my daughter is exposed tell the story of a princess who falls in love with someone the king thinks to be inappropriate.

But romantic love, as the Romantic poets and other artists have pointed out many times, is a particularly thorny rose. Right now on the car radio a singer is lamenting his "achy-breaky heart" in a song that has been the one most frequently played for the past month on a jukebox in a La Junta restaurant, according to a waitress I talked with earlier today. I can believe that; I heard it three times during lunch. Romantic love well represents the problems faced by those who utilize reembedding strategies of the sort needed to maintain one's bearings in the modern world of change and movement. In societies usually described as traditional, each person is embedded by affinity to place, kin, and others with whom one cooperates throughout the course of one's life. Religion offers a poetic expression of these connections. With the collapse of the traditional community as a familiar place that offers daily opportunities for the face-to-face, often ritual interactions that reinforce one's place in the world, one must select "access points" to the modern social network.

These access points are relationships with others, and because there are in the modern world relatively few, one invests a much greater portion of one's attentions and energies to them than one would have to any single relationship in a traditional society. Friendship and, even more, romantic love require a level of intimacy rare in the traditional world, where such relationships are to a much greater degree prescribed. These intimate relationships are notoriously difficult to maintain—hence the singer's chronically "achy-breaky heart." As Giddens has said:


Personal trust demands a level of self-understanding and self-expression which must itself be a source of psychological tension. For mutual self-revelation is combined with the need for reciprocity and support; yet the two are frequently incompatible. Torment and frustration interweave themselves with the need for trust in the other as the provider of care and support.[25]

"Self"-knowledge, then, is a prerequisite for this and many other tactical maneuvers in the overall strategy of reembedding. It involves the knack of looking at all parts of the world "objectively" and of expressing one's operant principles and the facts pertinent to the phenomena in question (a relationship, or whatever it might be) in explicit ways. The linguist Basil Bernstein has called this an "elaborated" mode of communication and has marshalled evidence that indicates that this form of communication is learned, and learned primarily through the relationships a person has had in his or her family of origin. Families in which one's influence upon others is structured largely according to traditionally determined roles typically do not engage in explicit forms of communication; Bernstein calls this a "restricted" mode. On the other end of this communication continuum are families in which influence is determined by the content of speech, families which communicate in the "elaborated" mode. Communication in the latter families has more frequently to do with principle and fact, and less frequently to do with familial obligations.[26] The person in a family or a society which does not have habitual practices (and beliefs about the operation of the world) appropriate to modernity will likely experience difficulty with reembedding in the modern world. And reembedding will become increasingly necessary for each individual as modernity continues to make inroads all over the globe, as the juggernaut careens on its way.

I have borrowed the term "juggernaut of modernity" from Anthony Giddens, who comments that "the term comes from the Hindi Jagannath[*], 'lord of the world,' and is a title of Krishna; an idol of this deity was taken each year through the streets on a huge cart, which followers are said to have thrown themselves under, to be crushed beneath the wheels."[27] With this image in mind, the term conveys even better some of the awesome power of modernity. This power is especially evident in transitional societies all over the globe in which populations from the countryside are rushing headlong into urban areas, where they exist in poverty. and escalating anomie.

Pierre Bourdieu, an eminent sociologist, has looked at such societies, those in transition from "traditional" to "modern" status, including his


own. About France, generally regarded as a modern nation by others in the world, many have observed that traditional values hold close sway over the peasantry even to the present. In the 1960s, Bourdieu investigated an increasing dissatisfaction among peasants that so many of their young people were unable to find marriage partners. These unattached individuals were termed "celibate." The poignancy, of their condition had provoked the attention of the urban population in France (among whom it is somewhat fashionable to be able to claim peasant roots).

Bourdieu's research showed, surprisingly, that marriage was no less frequent among the peasantry in the 1960s than it had been in 1881. The dissatisfaction among the peasantry resulted from changes in demographic patterns of marriage and in changes in attitudes about celibacy. In the past, the youngest children had frequently emigrated to find marriage partners or had remained celibate, living with and caring for their parents as the parents aged. Marriages were less likely to be arranged for the youngest children. Because marriages were arranged, peasants had no need to develop skills required by courtship—in other words, to be able to present the "self" attractively to the opposite sex. When marriages were no longer arranged, those who married were those who had best mastered these skills, and these individuals could as well be the youngest in a family as any other in the birth order. Contributing even more to the dissatisfaction was that once the traditional pattern had been broken, there was no longer social recognition and support for the role of the celibate who cared for his or her parents during old age. The traditional order had changed, and those displaced had been unable to secure a position in the new one.[28]

Those who are threatened by modern practices and values but have less connection to the net of global modernity. are in even worse positions. French peasants, after all, garner respect through the nostalgia of the more urban populations of the country, and they participate in the economy, sometimes in characteristically "French" ways, as with the production of wine or other "French" products, that resonate with nationalistic sentiment. But what of those relegated by the shade of colonialism to the status of "pure" primitives?

Bourdieu terms these groups the "sub-proletariat." These groups, such as those he studied in Algeria, live in traditional countries undergoing modernization. They become estranged from their customary lives and eventually must seek out work to obtain capital. Having few or none of the habits associated with modernity, they consider employment to be a result


of luck, like winning the lottery. One of the habits the sub-proletariat has not developed is the exercise of applying rational analysis to the "objective" world, and so these people do not have the means by which to understand the basis of their position. It is among such groups that anomie is especially rife. Observing this, Bourdieu predicted that they might "slip into complete disaffection, marginality, and despair which might be fueled into militancy by self-seeking demagogues, or they might be encouraged positively to participate in the construction of a new society which would integrate their old values with modern, capitalist pressures."[29]

How interesting it is to consider Bourdieu's comment about Algeria in the 1960s in terms of the position of the Cheyenne in the early nineteenth century, as well as that of the Mexican peons to the south of the Arkansas River at that time. The Cheyenne world, in a manner of speaking, had fallen apart many times prior to the 1833 meteor shower, and each time the Cheyenne were faced with the task of piecing it back together. The most vulnerable to the plagues introduced by Europeans during the previous centuries, and so the first to die, were the old and the young. These were, respectively, the past and the future of the Cheyenne, both necessary to a meaningful present. In societies without writing, the old were key to the propagation of culture. The old were keepers of the mechanisms whereby the knowledge could be inculcated to society at large—the myths and the rituals. The young, as in all cultures, were the rebirth of the world; without them there was only death. There have been few more militant groups in history than the Cheyenne, who had risen from despair determined to defend as much as possible of their culture.

The most important Cheyenne leaders were charismatic ones, those who possessed "medicine." In an uncharitable mood an anthropologist might term them demagogues. Such leadership, no matter how it is termed, led the Cheyenne to a position that for a time was "embedded" in global modernity, as middlemen in a global exchange network. When the juggernaut of modernity careened in a different direction, however, the Cheyenne were excluded.

The Hispanics in New Mexico were not so easily dislodged. Marginalized first by New Spain and then by Mexico, their response to the American-borne expansion of modernity was not militancy but one that did, in fact, "integrate their old values with modern, capitalist pressures." But the Hispanics did not suffer at the hands of the Anglo newcomers as did the Cheyenne, in ways that denied their status as human beings.


Archaeology and Meaning

I imagine the presence of Sand Creek, somewhere in the darkness to the east, and feel the revulsion and sorrow that I experienced when I visited the massacre site by the cottonwood-lined dry creek a few days ago. The mood this precipitates reminds me that the story of Bent's Old Fort ended badly for both the Cheyenne and the Bents. It strikes me now that there is a tragic, poetic significance in the fact that a son of William Bent, Robert, was forced at gunpoint to lead Chivington's troops to the Indian encampment. Though he did his best not to play a role in the tragedy, even leading the troops through a deep river in the hopes that ammunition would be damaged, he could not prevent the massacre by his efforts. The script had been written. The story it contained was of the destruction of the traditional by the modern. It is one that has been told in myriad ways so many times since the advent of the colonial era that, until very recently, it seemed completely unremarkable to most.

But how true are such stories? Are there metanarratives and themes in history, and are they deterministic? Increasingly such ideas have come into doubt, particularly by postmodern social critics. François Lyotard says bluntly, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives."[30] Another who has done much to generate this doubt is Michel Foucault. He sees the process by which the past can be understood as operating like archaeology—an idea of great interest to me, having been an archaeologist for twenty years. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault says:

There was a time when archaeology, as a discipline devoted to silent monuments, inert traces, objects without context, and things left by the past, aspired to the condition of history, and attained meaning only through the restitution of a historical discourse; it might be said, to play on words a little, that in our time history aspires to the conditions of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument.[31]

History, according to Foucault, depends upon metanarratives; archaeology is concerned with the means by which knowledge is created. "Knowledge" includes what we know, or think we know, about the past. About archaeology Foucault says, in part, that it

tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules. It does not treat


discourse as document, as a sign of something else . . . it is concerned with discourse in its own volume, as a monument .[32]

Foucault's statement seems to apply especially well to Bent's Old Fort, where archaeology contributed indispensably in the reconstruction of the monument, the fort itself. The reconstructed fort might be thought of as a working model. I emphasize that the model is incomplete and therefore misleading unless scholars and the public see it in the broader context of the physical and cultural landscape, the latter being the sort of landscape that has not been, and can never be, physically reconstructed. What is needed, then, is an abstract reconstruction. The exercise should not be one of abstracting from the monument (as Foucault would say), but of abstracting to the monument.

The abstract, the order, that was embodied and conveyed by Bent's Old Fort will be visible in yet another form when I look down from the airplane tonight at the landscape below. I will see patterns of lights, which especially out here on the Plains will be arranged in straight lines. Lines as straight as this road I am driving on now. During the day from the air I would see to the far eastern horizon countless squares of brown or green dominating the other shapes lying within the grid formed by them. Those striking landscape features are artifacts of modernity here in the United States. They have been produced by the "most extensive cadastral system in the world," as an historian of land survey systems has noted.[33] The United States rectangular survey originated with the Ordinance of 1785. It laid out six-mile by six-mile townships that form a basic political unit in many of the states over which I will fly. The townships are divided into 36 sections, one mile square. Each section contains 640 acres. Once the land was surveyed into townships, an act in 1804 provided for the sale of public lands to the highest bidder by sections, half-sections, and quarter-sections, with the cost for surveying these subparcels to be borne by the purchasers. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862 were intended to encourage settlement of the western lands by offering it on quarter or even smaller sections at low prices or giving the smaller parcels to those who would occupy them.

The U.S. rectangular survey seems unrelentingly rational in the modem way, but not commonly understood are its origins in premodern thought and the way that kind of thought is compatible with the settlement of the western United States. There are good reasons to think that the American survey may have been derived from the Roman system—in any case the Roman system is a precedent to the American one.[34]


Hildegard Binder Johnson has studied the American system extensively and has commented upon this connection:

We now begin to realize another aspect, the original connection of the Roman system with the religious meaning of the center. To clarify the religious symbolism we must distinguish between two derivations from Latin: square, from quadra (also quadrum leading to quadratum ), and quarter, from quartarius, or the fourth part, as in "quartering" a circle. The first implies form in equilibrium and has a static meaning in ancient cosmology. The second has dynamic meaning in cosmological schemes. The quartering of the circular horizon by the augur who stood at its center facing east was a religious act by which stability—the orderly delimitation of fields by agrimensores—would be achieved.[35]

Johnson notes also "the old and revealing word for the cross point, umbilicus (naval, center of the world)."[36] The axis umbilicus is a term used interchangeably with axis mundi, the center of the world and the axis connecting heaven and earth. What Johnson describes is called "squaring the circle" among Hindus and Buddhists, which consecrates all of the land that lies in reference to this central, sacred point. It brings the cosmic, sacred, real and true order down to earth. The spires of temples—called variously stupas, chedis, or pagodas—are located according to a similar procedure throughout Asia and the Indian subcontinent.[37] The procedures of the U.S. rectangular survey resonate with the ancient ones, and so legitimate the new order.

This reminds me of an incident told to me by an archaeologist who was excavating a small area at one of the national parks. He carefully drew the location of his excavation unit on a map showing the locations of historic buildings. But one of the historians at the park, who had seen archaeologists at work in remote locations, asked him why he hadn't used a transit to record the location of his excavation unit. My colleague explained that the procedure was unnecessary; the buildings he had used as reference points were drawn on maps and so could be tied to United States Geological Survey benchmarks that were recorded precisely in terms of latitude and longitude. But the historian visited him several times a day, suggesting over and over that a transit should be used. So he could work in peace, my friend eventually "shot in" his excavation unit with a transit. He unfolded the tripod legs, located the device exactly over one of the corners of the excavation, carefully leveled the instrument with adjusting screws, and then peered through it. He recorded ranges and bearings in his field notebook. The historian watched respectfully, enthralled


with the process. "It was like a ritual to him," my archaeologist colleague told me, "we had sacralized the site." "Or," he said after a thoughtful pause, "perhaps we had treated the site with the respect the historian thought it was due. The site was already sacred to him because of its history."

Somehow, despite my reveries, I have remembered to turn west on I-70 as it intersects with 71 near Limon. I see the ambient light of Denver in the sky ahead. I think about the "little jog" that told me to slow down for Punkin Center, and realize that I had encountered an irregularity, in the township system. The north-south lines on the globe, the meridians, gradually converge. To maintain consistency in the size of townships, a new baseline must be established every fourth township, which is every twenty-four miles. Meridians are shifted along these baselines, forming abrupt off-sets. North-south running section roads must adjust to these. It is a reconciliation of local knowledge with one of the principles of modernity, a “reembedding" of local conditions to a global grid.[38]

The jog indicates that the global, modern grid cannot lay sole claim to "reality." Foucault calls attention to just such "jogs." By doing so, he urges resistance to conceptual systems, overarching themes, and metastories. But the cadastral survey system provides a clue to the way in which such privileged positions are achieved. Mechanisms that create the order of the world are ritualistic and so essentially the same in all societies, whether we term them traditional or modern. Today they are practices like those associated with trade and interpersonal relationships and rituals "calcified" in the built environment of architecture and the landscape—what Foucault might term "monuments."

Foucault speaks favorably of the autochthonous transformation taking place in history, history that springs from its own ground, so to speak. In emphasizing how local orders are appropriated by central authorities, however, he recognizes that national and global networks of meaning and power exist. This, of course, explains the sad ending to the story of Bent's Old Fort. The fort was a mechanism for the imposition of the global network, but the vitalized network had no further need of it. What Foucault ignores is the human penchant for creating overarching themes and metastories; all persons are implicated in their creation. His preoccupation with denouncing overarching themes as misleading and exploitative is such that he pays little attention to the sense of desolation typically experienced by those excluded from them. It makes no difference that God is dead if people continue to resurrect Him.

Nonetheless, I think of the dynamic that Foucault implies by his use of the term archaeology. It describes Bent's Old Fort's role in the embed-


ding of the Native Americans, Hispanics, and American entrepreneurs in the global world order.[39] The fort acted as a monument in Foucault's sense of the word, a kind of discourse. And to Foucault the world is created by discourse.[40] What he calls discourse I would prefer to term ritual, because ritual is more clearly a means of conveying meaning that is not strictly rational. Ritual is multisensory and therefore more experiential; consequently it manipulates the emotions more effectively than might, in contrast, a "dry" discourse. Ritual is therefore more likely to "move" us in the direction of a new apprehension of the world or to reinforce an old one.

The connection between archaeology (at least of the sort that deals with monuments and landscapes) and language is not new. Jean-François Lyotard, another noted postmodern social critic, has used this connection in his work, which likens social bonds to "language games" that operate according to different rules depending upon where one is "located" at the moment. To illustrate, Lyotard uses a metaphor he attributes to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who originated the theory of language games: "Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from different periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with regular streets and uniform houses."[41]

There is also a long-standing connection between archaeology and "meaning" in a more general sense, one that Sigmund Freud was especially fond of positing and exploring. Although Freud's biographer Peter Gay dismisses it as "genial hyperbole," he quotes Freud in a letter to a friend saying that, "I . . . have read more archeology than psychology." Gay and others have noted that Freud often made comparisons of this sort: "The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologists in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient's psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures."[42] Freud likened human mental life to the landscape one might confront if all components to all landscapes of ancient Rome could be restored at once: "On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built."[43] His point was that the past was preserved in the human psyche. But despite the reference to underlying and deeper meaning, Freud, like Foucault, must have thought that meaning was structured through monuments and landscapes, and revealed by archaeology, by means too obvious to deserve elaboration.


What Foucault, Lyotard, Wittgenstein, and Freud, among many others, intuitively grasped, and made great metaphorical use of, was the ability of archaeology to contribute to our understanding not only of the physical landscape as it has been altered by the actions of humans but also of the importance of that reconstructed landscape to our ability to understand the human world. The landscape is an artifact shaped by ritualistic behavior that conveys the world it reflects in ritualistic ways. It is the calcified ritual suggested by Yi-Fu Tuan.

I wearily go through the routine at the car rental agency, writing the mileage on the rental form, checking the car for my belongings, boarding the shuttle bus to the airport terminal. It feels wonderful to move and stretch. I watch the little blue car that was home for a while disappear as the bus turns a comer and feel a twinge of nostalgia. There are few people on the bus, no line at the ticket counter where I check in, and the plane is only half full for this late flight. That's fine with me; the familiar sequence of events is reassuring and comfortable, but I want to continue with my thoughts and it would be difficult to fit them into a casual conversation. When we're in the air the flight attendant comes by. It's just the level of human interaction I want at the moment. She smiles and is efficient, and I order white wine and ask for extra pretzels. I haven't had time to eat. I sip my wine and munch my pretzels and look out the window at the stars. I remember on a previous flight teaching my daughter her A-B-Cs, using as a prop a pretzel package just like the one I have in my hand now. I was delighted with her ability to recognize the letters, and she was just as delighted with my delight.

On that flight we looked out the window at pretty much the same set of stars I see right now, including the Big Dipper. I told her how to find the North Star by tracing a line through the stars that form the far end of the dipper's cup. That lesson began a chain of questions that continued when we got home. My answers had nothing to do with white buffalo and orphaned children, although had they I'm sure my daughter would have been intrigued. Instead, they introduced for her consideration phenomena equally improbable from the standpoint of everyday experience: the earth's rotation around the sun, the reason that day changes to night and winter to spring, the shape of the earth, gravity, the sun's place in the galaxy, quantified concepts of distance and time; in short, some of the basic knowledge—or basic assumptions—upon which she must build.

I close my eyes and hover at the edge of sleep, thinking about Stephen Jay Gould's statement that neoteny "as a life-history strategy for longer learning and socialization may be far more important in human evolution


than any of its morphological consequences."[44] I suspect that effective ritual must involve a suspension of disbelief, sometimes willed, which engenders in participants something approximating a childlike state of trust. The very thought of this is probably enough to provoke profound discomfort among most modern peoples. Nonetheless, it's a step in the learning process all the way through life, one that must occur before each application of critical thought. Striking the proper balance between ritual and critical thought is the real challenge in this postmodern world, I think as I drift off. Learning to recognize and understand ritual is a beginning.


previous chapter
Chapter 2 Realms of Meaning
next chapter