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Chapter 2 Realms of Meaning
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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]

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Chapter 2 Realms of Meaning
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