Souls in Other Selves and the Immortality of the Body

Souls in Other Selves and the Immortality of the Body

(soft music) – My name is Paula Varsano and I’m professor of East
Asian Languages and Cultures and Chair of the Foerster
Lectures Committee. We’re very pleased along with the graduate council to present Maryln Strathern this year’s speaker in the
Foerster Lectures Series. As a condition of this request bequest we’re obligated to tell you how the endowment supporting the Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul came to UC Berkeley. It’s a story that exemplifies in many ways how this campus is linked to the history of California and the Bay Area. In 1928 Miss Edith Zweybruck established the Foerster Lectureship to honor the memory of Agnes A. Foerster and Constantine E.A. Foerster. Edith was a public school teacher in San Francisco for many years, and the teaching profession was to her an opportunity to develop a true knowledge and love of the spiritual values of life in the young mind entrusted to her care. Edith’s beloved sister Agnes A. Foerster shared her high ideals and her hopes as did Agnes’ husband Constantine E.A. Foerster. A lawyer by profession, Foerster was a man of high intellectual achievements and a rare personal charm. Although he passed away at the age of 37 he had achieved an enviable place at the San Francisco Bar and was considered one of it’s most highly respected members. For several years prior to his death Foerster was law partner of Alexander F. Morrison; one of the most prominent
of San Francisco attorneys for whom our own Morrison
memorial library is named. In her last days miss Edith Zweybruck expressed an abiding interest in the spiritual life by creating this lecture series on the subject the Immortality of the Soul or other similar spiritual subjects. She left us a little bit of leeway there. She believed that through medium of a great university and the words of scholarly lecturers she might bring new light upon a subject that has interested the
world for centuries. Thank you Edith Zweybruck. And now about our lecturer. Distinguished social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s first field site was in Melanesia. But it’s fair to say that she quickly revealed herself to be an incisive ethnographer of Euro-American society, too. Casting over a period of some 40 years a penetrating, yet generous eye on questions ranging
from the representation and practice of gender and kinship which engaged her early on, to the social significance
of reproductive technologies and intellectual property, and beyond. But there is a guiding thread as there often is in the
work of a great scholar. A fruitfully troubling line of interrogation that extends through her work. Always in her sights seems to be a questioning of the very mechanisms of knowledge formation and knowledge formulation that have long guided scholars in her field. Indeed, and this is very impressive to me, it was during her undergraduate years that she first began interrogating not just the objects of
anthropological research, but the research practices themselves. As described in one of the
many encyclopedia entries dedicated to somehow capturing the breadth of her contribution, professor Strathern quickly arrived at the point of asking not so much what specific objects or practices mean but what does it mean anthropologically to ask after them? One of her best known works, and she is the author of 15 books is The Gender of the Gift, published in 1988 and first drafted while a visiting scholar here at Berkeley, which she describes as a, quote “Gentle deconstruction “Of gender relations in New Guinea.” but which the encyclopedia of theory and social and
cultural anthropology describes as doubly admonitory. For it takes seriously the fact that constructs of gender observed in the field are not ready-made realities
waiting for analysis rather, they are ever evolving historically and socially
specific categories in dynamic formation at all times and not just in the observed society but in that of the observer. Her 1991 work, Partial Connections expands this rather
dizzying line of thinking into the larger question
of meaning making. It’s especially difficult
to do justice to this work recognized almost since its publication as a classic in the field. It makes for challenging reading at least for the likes of me, and not least because language itself comes under scrutiny. And this, from the perspective of
the student of literature is a wonderful thing. As I have done what can only be described as reading in Strathern I’ve come to think of her work as offering a poetics
of social anthropology. A body of scholarship that takes fiction in all of its senses seriously, in which aesthetics and politics, history and self-reflection unfailingly bespeak her fine-tuned instict for anthropology’s basis in relationality. From what I understand professor Strathern is, as a matter of fact currently working on a book simply called Relations, which I now cannot wait to read. Marilyn Strathern received her B.A. in archeology and anthropology in 1963 and her Ph.D. in social anthropology from Cambridge University. Strathern held positions at Australia National
University in Canberra, and at the Girton and
Trinity colleges in Cambridge as well as guest lecturing at UC Berkeley. In 1985 she was appointed Chair of the department of social anthropology at Manchester University before returning to Cambridge to serve as William Wise professor of social anthropology from 1991 until her retirement in 2008. Other notable positions include life fellow of Girton
College at Cambridge. Honorary life president of the UK ad common wealth association of social anthropologists. Presidential Chair of the European Association
of social anthropologists. Honorary fellow of Trinity College and former member of the
Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Regarding today’s Foerster lecture Souls in Other Selves, and the Immortality of the Body professor Strathern notes “Sometimes the soul “Seems a more precise
concept than the body.” This lecture goes to a place and time where kinds of beings including food plants have souls, and where the bodily basis of life is immortalized through cloning. It comments on the way present-day anthropology brings fresh illumination to what we thought we knew. It’s my pleasure to welcome professor Marilyn Strathern to Berkeley. (applause) I should say back to Berkeley. – [Marilyn] Thank you so much. – My pleasure. – I find it such a pleasure to be in Berkeley again. And in particular to have the honor of giving the Foerster lecture. It’s customary on such occasions to make a gesture towards the rubric of the lecture. But I want to make more than a gesture. Adding to my warm thanks to the graduate council for the kindness of the invitation thanks are also due to Miss Edith Zweybruck and the memorial she set up. That she specified the immortality of the soul as a topic of contemplation has led me to some anticipated thoughts on matters that one would imagine had
already been thought through to exhaustion if not actually discarded as unfit for present-day thinking. Anyway, I do mean thanks. Because raising the question
of the immortality of the soul becomes provocative when the soul in question
is the archetype of soul in the history of anthropological theory namely the animist soul as it became known in
the late 19th century. And I refer to Edward Tyler’s landmark publication on religion in primitive culture in 1871. Tyler demonstrated that everywhere people had ideas about souls. With a personal or diffused through notions
of ghosts and spirits and encompassing the animation
of all kinds of beings as though like people, they too had souls. More than that his thesis was that this apprehension of the vital breath or spirit pervading everything extensions of what human
beings sensed of themselves was the earliest sign of a religious disposition. It was at once the basis of later religious development hence the primitive, in his title; and could be found here and there in survivals. Thus, he both brought animism within the purview of the world’s cultures and revealed its formative role in what his contemporaries regarded as the higher religions. Tyler’s theory had a long life. At to the end of the 19th century. Now, in the course of
his extensive elaboration Tyler does something rather surprising. He suggests that we would be imposing later theological formulations onto animism to suppose that the
animist soul was immortal. The animist soul is not immortal, he said. Hmm. The questions come crowding in. So what is a soul? So what is mortality? And if the soul is not immortal, is nothing immortal? The very doctrine of soul so central to theories of animism is not a straight-forward as it might seem. The argument I eventually make is rather simple. And aspects of it have been articulated many times. But how we get to it perhaps holds a little interest. I’m going to set out various staging posts on the way. And at the outset the posts will seem rather far apart. So they have nothing
to do with one another. But hopefully, they will
move closer together as we proceed. They are by way of illuminations more than anything. And if I may be so bold may I suggest you just sit back and relax, and allow yourself to be carried from one to the other. The overall signpost to our destination comes from Ms. Zweybruck. It reads, the signpost reads; what might happen if contra-Tyler we dare as precisely about immortality in animist thought. And I’m going to refer to one of the great regions of the world who’s indigenous cosmologist are often described as animist, namely Melanesia. Staging post one. The immortality of scholarship. (laughter) Let me start with a secular enlightenment form of immortality. One that certainly is but is also a little more than metaphoric. I would not be finding much of interest in this Victorian idea of animism if it were not for its spectacular rebirth in recent anthropological debate. Often remarked upon with some surprise animism now circulates as a respectable term for insight into the lives and ontologies of certain peoples as though the very concept were risen from the dead. What remains dead is much of the evolutionary
apparatus of Tyler’s thinking as in the assumption that present-day animists practices indicate lower echelons of spirituality or in higher religions occur as mere survivals. Indeed, as originally presented the theory of animism is a bit of an embarrassment. At the same time the notion that animism is best understood as a
projection of human experience onto other forms of life continues to be debated. In any event recent anthropological analysis has converted its awkward primitivism into a dazzling array of tools for thought. And I’m briefly going
to mention three names, but you don’t need to hold on to them. So we can read the animist soul in other terms. For example through Bird-David’s
Relational Epistemology. Alongside Descola’s interest in the way human interiority is attributed to other beings. Or with Viveiros de Castro
on subject positions, animism being less a mental state than a theory of mind. However, rather than offering other concepts and thus transcending the concept of soul, I want to turn back to it
rather than away from it. In anthropologist’s ceaseless battle with its own ethnocentrism one strategy is not to avoid the weight and freight of its own vocabulary, but instead get up close to it. This is in order to test its limits. So precisely in order to
interrogate the concept I propose to talk of the animist soul more or less in its Victorian sense. Among many of Tyler’s
contemporaries, after all it was a counterpart to the kind of soul they thought they had. Of course, I’ve no idea if Ms. Zweybruck herself had given much thought to animism. This returns us to its
present day incarnation. Think of the legal axiom that through bequests and such like a person’s will endures
beyond their decease. In the same way academia
embraces a commitment to the future of scholarship that will be carried forward by diverse minds sometimes giving the impression that the mind, thereby, endures. Here just as the will only has a future through the good offices of the heirs for all that scholars may celebrate the origination of
ideas in someone’s mind. Tyler’s thoughts seemingly
being given a new lease of life these ideas are now embedded within a scholarly apparatus that has a life of its own. They continue in other minds as notions refashioned for other debates. If this continuity is immortality of a kind then it flourishes through specific acts of regeneration as when new formulations are acknowledged and recognized as the rebirth of old ones. As we leave the staging post behind it’s with the suggestion that we have in the scholarly circulation and reinvention of ideas a model of how people’s thoughts serve as conduits, channels for the thoughts of others. Staging post two. Prehistoric horticulture. And I said at the beginning they’d be rather far apart. (laughter) So, this staging post
seems a bit of an outlier. We find ourselves on Melanesian island in the Pacific 10 thousand years ago. Not to linger, but staying just long enough to introduce some notable plants. In fact, Tyler sent us over here with his remarks on the souls of plants as a doctrine, I quote “That lay deep “In the intellectual
history of southeast asia.” And he was including the Pacific. We now know that the exploitation of food crops there goes back well before this. However, 10 thousand
years is interesting to me as the horizon of an archeological site in the Mount Hagen area of western highlands of Papua New Guinea called Kuk. And it’s spelled K-U-K. Kuk. A few miles from where the first
Australians to come to Hagen in 1933 set up camp. That horizon of 10 thousand years has yielded evidence of artifacts and cultivation features and the years following such as a stone pestle used to prepare yams,
along with taro seeds and starch grains. Yams and taro were being exploited at the site although undisputed
evidence of cultivation in the form of ditching and
mounding is 3000 years later. But we are talking of 7000 years ago and you could orient
this with what you know, what was happening with rice in China and of course with the middle east. These were root crops. The 1930’s Australian patrol recorded its amazement at the scale of intensive
cultivation it found. In the 1930’s. Since then, archeo-botanical work has shown that Papua New
Guinea was a local site for the domestication and
dispersal of vegetative crops. Notably yam and taro, also banana and sugar cane and a number of others, sago and so forth. Kuk is just one place on that large island but it’s exceptionally
well documented evidence has led to the excavation being nominated for world heritage status. There is almost nothing to see. Peering down a trench during the dig one might have observed landscape features a ditch, a mound, but little more. The surface is now covered
over for conservation. But then if you raised your eyes you would see root crops very similar to those excavated on the site, being grown today. When Europeans first arrived at coastal and hinterland
parts of Papua New Guinea in the late 19th and early 20th century, either yam, or taro tended to predominate as the principal subsistence crop. The principal crop invariably
received ritual attention; people in fact claiming that the plants wouldn’t grow without it; and anthropologists have
called the plants artifacts. Sweet potatoes came along much later. Whereas sweet potatoes grow from vines pushed into the soil both yam and taro depend on propagation through a portion of the tuber or corm being detached and put aside from what is eaten to form the beginnings of the new plant. Yams undergo a bifurcated cycle of growth throwing up vines above ground that cause nutrients to be stored below ground in the tuber. Taro send up thick stalks
and leaves above ground and are corm to be replanted will have some stalk attached. The bits so planted may be called the mother, or father of the child tuber or corm
that grows underground and only at harvest, of course is what is underground made visible. Let’s leave here then but with some sense, perhaps of what these root crops
might be in Papua New Guinea. Since the next staging post is all about taro souls. So, staging post three. Taro souls. An ethno-botanical study conducted in the 1960’s, it’s going to be published
posthumously later this year describes the horticulture of the Mayengi. And that is the name of a people I should coming back to. The Mayengi of new Britain off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Classic animism. Indeed the description could have walked off the pages of Tyler. The cultivators ascribed to taro their principal food crop the same theory of the soul that they entertained of themselves. The soul was a kind of second self. A concept Tyler also used which in the case of people permeated every part of the body and was left behind in food remnants or siting places. Taro souls were under the control of various deities. Masters of taro who had to be coaxed into letting the soul stay attached to the growing plants. Like peoples taro souls make a top and wander away. And taro are quick to take offense if they’re not properly cared for. It is the soul of the taro that makes the corm heavy and nutritious. And effort has to be made to keep the souls tethered to the plants or the harvest will be worthless. Now, while each plant will only be nutritious
if its soul is present such souls are refractions of a generic taro soul. And dedicated action is necessary to attract as much soul as possible. You could increase the amount of soul that a taro has. You want to attract as much as possible into the growing taro corm to make it weighty and thus satisfy hunger. There will be plants who soul fails to grow just as there are people
in the margins of society who souls never develop. Taro soul is as a stalk. It has to be replenished. But properly replenished it exists in perpetuity. A fractal entity each particular soul is also part of generic soul. The same is true of human beings. If one thinks, for example of the perpetuity of
matrilineal kin groups. The matriclan is at once itself and everyone who has been born or will be born. Listen to this Mayengi comment on the efforts of patrol officers to take a population census. Those young white men are ridiculous with their roll books. Why do they count only the living? Don’t they know that the living are very few in relation to the dead? If only they could see the spirits of all the dead. Spirits of the dead travel to the origin
places of their matriclan and whether remembered or forgotten by living persons they’re part of the present collectivity. Now if any of you happen to have heard Gananath Obeyesekere Foerster lecture on the Trobriand Islands you may recall the nature of Trobriand afterlife from which former clan members are reborn. But the idea of the soul as part of a collectivity isn’t peculiar to matriclans. Herman Strauss, who was part of the staff of the Lutheran mission established in 1934 in the vicinity of that first patrol camp at Mount Hagen not far from Kuk observed something very similar of Hagen patriclans. The personal soul which disappears at death is a person share or participation in the life force of the patriclan. For as long as they are remembered particular persons exist
as ancestral spirits before turning into moths. People say sometimes. Perhaps its not the fugitive future of the personal soul to which we should be addressing the question of immortality but the life force of
which any particular soul is a part. Life force, and I’m sorry about that term but for want of a better one has being in the enduring kinship collectivity where one soul is also the soul of others. We depart from this staging post noting that such a life force is not inert but requires replenishment. Staging post four. Replacements. Here is a little detail that may or may not reflect the patroness of the ethnographic record. Whereas Mayengi ideas about people’s souls can be echoes across the
regions of Papua New Guinea we can’t say the same of plant souls. The evidence of an animist attribution of human-like souls to plant crops or other living beings seems much more intermittent. Thus a recent and very detailed account of yam cultivation in another area identifies people’s life force survives after death in
the form of ancestral power but could find no obvious connection to the growing of plants. There plants were not said to have souls. So our classic animist study is not, after all, replicated everywhere across Melanesia. But whatever the reason for this intermittency something even more intriguing comes to light. Many elements which in Mayengi are held together with ideas about the soul are found numerous ethnographic accounts in terms of the person-like
characteristics of plants. And such person-like
characteristics of plants are there regardless of whether or not they’re thought to have souls. Thus yams are said to be
sensitive to people’s movements. Taro and yams both walk about. Yams flee; but not from a particular example. Yams flee gardens when there’s a drought. Something of the primordial
plant is in every plant. Yams have ideas or listen to people as do taro. They may be under the control of spirits or have their own sources of animation in the company of their cultivators, or in the company of other plants. The constellation of trays varies but generally the crops don’t grow without kindness and attention. In other words there’s a broader and more inclusive sense of the animatory qualities of yams and taro than simply their manifestation in a doctrine of the soul. And this shifts one’s thoughts a bit and suggests a parallel. For similarly, one can imagine the future rebirth of the personal soul or spirit of people in other members of a kin group such as a matriclan with or without a specific doctrine about
the soul’s journeying. There is no one story of rebirth in Papua New Guinea, or in Melanesia at large. Differences abound. Where death is supposed to lead to reincarnation, in some areas the moment of rebirth is left vague and unspecified, whereas in others it’s envisaged over a specific three generation cycle. There may be a defuse sense that spirits return or none at all. That is, they just continue their lives as ancestors influencing
their descendants. So on analogy with generalized notions
about the animation of plants I wonder if notions about reincarnation are not equally a particular instance of a more general phenomenon. In other words. In the same way as the person
like animation of plants doesn’t require the notion of a human-like soul, neither does the reincarnation of persons. The more diffuse phenomenon, I suggest is a concern with replacement. And I’m translating an indigenous term. With the idea that people who die will be replaced by specific others. While this may be elaborators of three generation process grandparents and grandchildren being identified with one another it’s also found in a two-generation form as between parents and children. It is among other things enfolded into marriage rules as in the claim people
have on formal in-laws to provide future spouses which in turn of course depends on the
discreetness of the kin group that sees itself being replenished in this way. And this seems to be an immortality of a kind. The dynamic of replacement makes sense of the
often fragmentary nature of stories about the afterlife. Stories often carry on so far and the trail vaguely off. The point is surely that there is no need for a continuous narrative as though the soul had a life history. Or for narrational
consistency about its return precisely because replacement is a self-evident process. Yet it is concept of replacement doesn’t require a narrative about happens to
particular personal souls. The soul may come back into the picture in another respect. Namely as part of a generic life force. From the perspective of the kin group matri or patriclan replacement is effected through the regeneration of group members. And that implies that perpetuation of the
collective life force. And for that the clan group forever needs conduits, needs channels. Bodily conduits. One colloquial connotation of replacement lies in the Hagen idea that a person recognizes as his or her particular replacement a child or some other relative who has a similar body form to his or her own. Nothing to do with
inheritance or succession. A simple question of a counterpart likeness in bodily form. But what is the body? We have to turn aside at the next staging post for an issue so far evaded. Staging post five. The animist body. We shouldn’t be too surprised to find Tyler sitting waiting for us at the bottom of this post. For among the reasons the Victorian thinker gave for rejecting the idea that the animist soul could be described as immortal was the idea that it was
not immaterial enough. Not spiritual enough. And I quote “The soul as recognized in “Such philosophies.” He means animism. “Maybe defined “As an ethereal surviving being “Concepts of which preceded “And led up “To the more transcendental theory “Of the immaterial and immortal soul “Which forms part of the theology “Of higher nations.” He says. In fact, he refers to the ethereal substance of the animist soul. Mayengi people would be in accord. The soul, or double self is said to have a viscous liquid presence animating at once the inner and outer form of a person. It exists both sides of the person. “It would be no exaggeration.” I’m quoting from the ethnographer. “It would be no exaggeration to say “That the whole life cycle of the Mayengi “Is spend in the effort of recovering “Or keeping these two
souls or selves together. “While one may be called inner “And the other, outer soul “They can only be held together “By that to which they give life. “Namely the body “That after death is no more “Than an empty husk.” The ethnographer argues that there is nothing mystical here. Counterintuitively for us, perhaps this double self is captured in terms neither of spirit nor of substance. In many respects it seems easier to apprehend the Melanesian soul than to apprehend the Melanesian body. Perhaps we can call the body that which is animated. Reciprocally it’s also that on which the soul’s replenishment depends. For the soul needs a container, a conduit. And what passes through people’s bodies is in counterpoint to what passes through spirit bodies. In relation to Mayengi taro in myth, food is the excrement of supernatural beings conveyed by and coming from their bodies. While people’s bodies are equally conduits for the growth and continuity of taro soul. Taro soul is augmented by passing through the bodies of people. More generally you may say that the soul requires this constant replenishment in the things it animates. Yet the notion of material substance clings fast to the way anthropologists have described Melanesian conceptualizations of the body. In life the body appears to be composed of substances that circulate
inside and outside blood and milk, and so forth, in relation to other bodies. Just as in death people treated in terms of the difference between flesh that decays and bones that endure. In the language they use Euro-American anthropologists cannot help giving these aggregations and disaggregations a material cast as in the very notion of substance itself. But perhaps what we’ve
learned about the soul will help here. I focus on one aspect of life and death recognizable across Melanesia including Mount Hagen. There seem parallels between on the one hand the personal soul that
dissipates after death and the bodily materials that decompose. And on the other what endures of the bones for a while and continuing identity for a while of ancestral spirits. To the Euro-American observer the body’s materiality seems especially evident in the decay and
disappearance of the flesh. But perhaps we should pay more attention to that process of decomposition. It is regenerative. Flesh is invariably regarded as returning to the land and contributing to the regeneration of the fertility of the soil. How so? Surely because the vitality its soul gave it. And do you remember that soul permeates the living body. It’s that vitality that is released into the ground. In other words, the very feature that might suggest the body is material it’s capacity for decomposition is a flow of life force the basis of fresh growth. That same aspect, bodily decay is also in Euro-American eyes a sign of mortality. Yet in these Melanesian configurations the constant replenishment of the soil seems to me no less immortalizing than a perpetual replacement of persons as members of kin groups. Indeed in many areas there’s a direct connection for example through a clan’s identification with its land. And as the soul now more generically life force travels from one container to another, it too is replenished now growing as a person’s body, now growing as fertile soil and the animate body’s human and non-human that the soil will produce. Might we then, in this regard talk of the immortality of the body. I turned to notions about the reincarnation of food plants. It’s in the treatment of the
dead parts of these plants that we find a specific justification for talking about immortality. We shall catch up with Tyler at the post after next, but in the meanwhile what follows is obviously speculative. Staging post six. The immortality of the body. As we look around we can see Kuk again. You’ll recall the
archeological site in Hagen though from another point of view. There is not much in
the ethnographic record that would speak as directly as I’m going to although there are plenty
of signs and pointers. That said, similar reflections have not escaped one or two present-day Papua New Guinean academics. Notably, the archeologist John Muke who was closely involved with the nomination of
the world heritage site. He articulated one of the foundations on which the nomination was based. The environs of the site. As I said, there’s
nothing there to be seen which presents some problems to the local committee
who needs indicators. Visible around Kuk, he argued, was an organically evolved landscape displaying the continuing cultivation of plants to whose early exploitation the archeology attested. He also mentioned the perpetual movement of plants and people across clan groups. And the value always put on finding new gardens for replanting a circulation already imagined by the archeologist of a
thousands of years ago. Now the phrase continuing cultivation hides an observation that the linguist-botanist André Haudricourt made many years ago of Yam growing in island Melanesia. Each plant is a clone of a previous one. The same genetic individual. The taro and yams that Hargon people cultivate are in this sense the same individuals. The clones of those first plants that were to be cultivated
over the millennia. And this does not mean that there was no possibility of change. In the words of two archeo-botanists; and I have to quote them because I don’t really understand this. (laughter) “While reproduction involves
the clonal propagation “From one plant to another “This does not prevent the formation “Of novel hybrids or domesticates.” And what they say is “Though asexual propagation “Only allows for sematic mutation “In the genome of the new plants “Changes to the physical environment “Can cause favorable and lasting changes “To the clonal phenotypes, “And the movement of these varieties “Within human spaces “Would have naturally led to the creation “Of new variants. “Vegetative or a sexual propagation “Does not lack change then “But it does mean that each plant “Is a clone of a previous one.” They are all one plant. Now, there is evidence that
in Melanesian horticulture such propagation was pursued as a matter of choice. Many of these plants were capable of being propagated by seed but that was ignored and vegetative propagation
was the preferred method. Each new plant taking a cutting or node from a previous one. And in the case of taro the stalk is detached
from the corm to be eaten with a little bit of the parent corm adhering to it for replanting. For not so distant neighbors of Mayengi, though I won’t bother you with the name, another ethnographer of New Britain says outright “The taro stalk is immortal.” And she says “Taro stalks are inherited, traded “Imported and exported. “When someone said, this
is my grandfathers taro “It was clear that it was
not only the same variety “As the grandfather had planted, “But was considered to
be the identical stalk “That the grandfather had planted. “The taro stalk has an immortality “That is taken as a human model. “In some instances “The history of a specific variety “Parallels that “Of a genealogical descent group. “In others of a local group. “And in yet others “Offers a personal history “As to who first imported it. “Above all, the identification
of the present planter “With his or her predecessor “The one who he or she has replaced “Is repeated over and again. “Both men and women desire replacements. “With the next generation
in sight, however “Anticipating their replacement “Also anticipates their death. “And the same is true of plants. “Without going into detail “It’s the bit of the corm or tuber “That is cut off, “Or otherwise separated
from what is to be eaten “That provides the nourishment “For the new corm or tuber “That grows in its stead. “What is eventually harvested “Is in effect a replacement “For the piece that was planted. “If you could imagine as a parent “Where the father or mother “Who dries up, shrivels and dies away.” There’s an observation to be made here. We do not need to decide Whether the discarded part of the plant and what is growing in its place is soul or substance. We don’t need to decide. Not just because of the
impossibility of these terms but because unlike the demands of the world heritage nomination, we don’t require a doctrine of continuity that would have to trace
the past and future of these elements. There is no need to narrativize the soul or have a theory about
continuous material regeneration. On the contrary, if we were to ally the botanists knowledge of vegetative reproduction through cloning with these indigenous actions that ensure perpetual replacement our attention would be elsewhere. It would be on the repeated breaks with the previous generation. The repeated cuts. The repeated deaths required for the next
generation to spring anew. Thus, among some present-day people at Kuk where heritage debates
might suppose claims about unbroken continuity the kind of continuity that John Muke, the Papua New Guinea
Archeologist was pointing to seems closer to an analogy. And this certainly, at least how some Hagen
people also express it. They say they can’t possibly know who it was who cultivated this area millennia ago. But those people’s actions and practices were like those of today and today’s people now live there in their stead. What is evident is the replacement just as in the clan child or the plant offspring. Repeated cuts, repeated deaths. So, what is death? We turn up at the penultimate staging post where Tyler’s shadow can be seen again and are going to stay here little bit longer. Staging post seven, life and death. Something Tyler said about the animist soul comes back to mind. Apropos the spiritual aspects of the soul in the theology of higher nations, he talks of the immaterial
and immortal soul as a transcendental one. The life of the soul surpasses other forms of existence. We may add that the very formulation holds transcendental possibility. A transcendentalist view
at once embraces ideas of both transcendence and imminence, while also supposing imminence as it’s transcended opposite. Thus it can suggest which is as far as Tyler goes that there are lower beliefs and practices locked into some kind of pre-transcendental state. In that state of affairs there’s no life or power beyond what is already imminent in the mundane world. Whether we go back to the axial age or to the countless reformations
of Christian history transcendence in the perspective
from which immanentism in whatever form can emerge as an apparently counter set of beliefs and practices. As to what has to be over come in transcendentalist thinking, in the case of persons, this generally entails some aspect of their being or selfhood. One answer that must have been familiar to Tyler’s 19th century contemporaries with those higher religions in mind is obvious. What is overcome is mortality. It follows that if it’s the
soul that transcends death then some other part
of the person must die from which comes a particular imagining of the material mortal body. Death this implies a cessation
of non spiritual life the end of the life course
in the present world. That radical disjuncture also requires though only dies once. And we’ll come back to that. Not in Tyler’s terms but as a legacy of his writing I want to suggest that
the concept of immanentism turns out to be unexpectedly helpful. Understood as a mode of existence that resides within, or
permeates being in the world it allows me to give a half turn to the
question I started with. I had wondered if we might ask about
immortality in immanest thought Melanesian-speaking. So let me rephrase that. The question becomes what would everlasting life for an immanentist existence look like? And it carries a corollary. What would death look like? First then, immanentist life. By definition such life is discoverable anywhere though people may formulate
it in different ways for persons plants or animals. Entities that Euro-Americans
would regard as inanimate such as features of the landscape maybe addressed as personal beings. As a force of growth or regeneration life is present in the
form things take and trees grow in the flourishing of children, in good health and so forth. It implies an active positive condition often additionally secured through invisible but present beings such as ancestral ghosts. And is made visible in the health and brightness of enduring vitality. Mayengi would say that these show how much soul one has. Such life is everlasting because people take steps to perpetuate it through appropriate
rituals or cult activity. They intervene to ensure his perpetuation. Whether on a routine basis
through spells or magic to make things grow or in an occasional basis by bringing in spirit beings as special concentrations of life force. In other words they immortalize themselves and what sustains them. In fact, one might say that life in this sense is the mortalizing set of
actions that people take in order to perpetuate their being. We might even say that the only life that can be lived is life everlasting. In so far as the evidence for vitality and thus the flourishing of people is there in the antecedent generations that brought them into
being and will exist in the future generations
that replace them. Moreover, as we saw in
the case of the cycling of Mayengi taro souls people don’t just draw on
such generative capacities a source of life for themselves they are also conduits for its perpetuation. Equally significantly then peoples actions are important for replenishing this power. Life has to be regenerated. People have to plant and they have to procreate. But this sense of procreation is perhaps closer to that of cloning than of lineality. Depending on where one is in Melanesia collectivities of kin perpetually replace themselves. The point is that there must
be forth coming generations who will be the future channels or conduits of life like the tubers that
spring anew from the soil. This kind of immanentist life does not culminate in a higher order of being but inheres in the deliberate regeneration of the present order of being to which everything belongs. So what about immanentist death? Well, you can imagine
what I’m going to say. If life is all around and everlasting, so too death is all
around and everlasting. It’s not the same as life. Rather, it’s the condition of existence that makes people work so hard at being alive. It is what makes life an achievement. In truth, people die all the time. As when their souls,
their invisible selves wander away when they’re sleeping or get captured by others. The botanist Haudricourt tells of an encounter on
the dock side in Port Vila Vanuatu, between two men who imagined
they recognize one another. One of them thinking the other is the
long deceased relative whispers to him “Are you dead or alive?” Rather than a sate of finality death is an ever-present possibility for a person’s invisible self. Indeed when it’s held in a person, life or life force is
under constant attack, whether from malevolent
sorcery, or malicious enemies, or ancestral ghosts with withdraw support. Someone’s innards may be eaten by a which but sown up again and the victim doesn’t know he or she has only a short while left. The very fact that life
force permeates the body means that it is present in it vulnerable to manipulation
by death dealing others. A person dies once and for all only when their invisible self succumbs to an attack
that is irreversible. In other words, they can no longer keep
their soul or souls together with the body as the soul’s container. In the language I’ve been using They’ve ceased to be a conduit for the increase of life force. Like a Mayengi taro
without its invisible self, the body without a soul cannot survive to nourish others in that form. And of course it’s routinely reported that morning for a person starts once their soul is departed and assumes there are
signs of it’s departure the body is bound to drop away because life continues in other persons. If life is part of a generic life force sustained through
particular people’s actions, so death, we may say, is
part of a death force. As has been described for
Hagen people around Kuk everything that exists can be seen as a transmitter of the forces of life or death. Death is imagined as a specific agency penetrating the world of human affairs. And every irreversible death comes from malign will of spirits or men. That is from an attack on the life force. I quote the aim of sorcerers to the destroy the soul of the life force of
the person to be killed. And this is the missionary
anthropology Strauss whom I mentioned before who’d been at Kuk in the area since the 1930’s. For which one needs something, within which the soul of
the person is contained. Or bits of the soul like left over food, or discarded garments, or simply a persons name. And it’s possible in this way to take revenge for an injury without recourse to fighting. It all happens invisibly. One can destroy an enemy by having a ritual expert call on the enemy’s name through which one enlists
his ancestral spirit so they hand over his soul. One more comment on death. On analogy with the life that springs anew in the newly growing
taro corm or yam tuber the falling away of the husk that was initially planted as the offspring’s mother or father also seems a regenerative moment. That wasting and decay enables new life which is itself the parent in a transformed state. It’s a form of death that is not a finality to be overcome or transcended. Rather, it’s an instrument of everyday, non-miraculous rebirth. We’ve come to the… Not worrying about the time, I hope. We’ve just come to the last
staging post, number eight. Souls in other selves. I’ve obviously trod a very selective path from post to post. Among innumerable
combinations and permutations in how people frame life and death. I focused on only two kinds of food plants and while the horizon
of 10 thousand years ago was introduced partly to
put the last 60 or 100 years into perspective as a very recent epoch I’ve ignored even more
recent ways of life. But these qualifications aside let me reflect on what has emerged about
Melanesian immanentism. It’s important to appreciate that the everlasting character of both life and death does not imply endless continuity or lack of change. To the contrary. People’s interest in the replacement of a life force whether in themselves or the crops that are
so much of themselves is also an interest in the displacement of one life by another. Gardeners, for example are always looking for new varieties of food crops to plant. The process of keeping life going is never straight forward, always requires work,
ritual and otherwise. And moving from one moment to the next, this replacement which is also a displacement is disjunctive. The life force that infuses any particular soul must enter fresh conduits other selves. Perhaps we now have some sense of the immanentist soul for these horticulturalists. While we may appreciate
Tyler’s healthy skepticism about reading 19th century
theological notions into the animism of other cultures he pursued a relation between the material and immaterial. Indeed the Victorians over compensated in their auto-critique. Criticizing the assumption that the soul is invariably
a spiritual being they stressed the materiality of animist notions, and of course, the accessibility of the spirit world at large to human needs and desires, overplaying the material and mundane, and reserving for themselves a different kind of spirituality. A transcendental move if there was one. But Ms. Zweybruck wonderful rubric concerning immortality has lifted us out if this. We simply do not need to concern ourselves with the relation between body and soul in the terms of materiality and spirituality; the material and the immaterial. I threw in a playful aside on the immortality of the body just to underlie the ambiguities these terms introduce. I hasten to add in that case, that this isn’t getting rid of a binary for the sake of doing so. On the contrary. There’s a powerful binary at play in these immanentist
worlds, but it’s not this. We’ve already encountered it at one or two junctures. The contrast between what is seen and what exists unseen. Melanesians are constantly testing what it is they see. Are you a living man or a dead one was the whisper. The unseen is many registers from the secrecy that excludes some to whole invisible counter worlds. And although of another time and place I’m reminded of Mariane Ferme’s The Underneath of Things. What is invisible works as a motivating potentially activating state of affairs of which visible appearance may, or may not offer a cue. In effect, this is a pairing that may be turned inside out. We might say that the visible and the invisible adhere to each other rather like Mayengis
outer and inner souls. At the outset I remarked on the kind of immortality that the circulation of ideas in the academy suggests. Not only in the notion
that one person’s ideas maybe reborn as another’s but also that they are
purposefully regenerated. Perhaps that makes less strange some of these immanentist notions, despite, of course different orientations
in many other respects. As to purposeful regeneration, however let me be explicit about what we might, or might not want to keep of Tyler’s doctrine of souls. As we’ve heard, Tyler tied immortality to a notion of an enduring immaterial spiritual life. In animism he demonstrated over and again to his own satisfaction that what might look like
a notion of immortality was diminished by not being immaterial enough. Thus, he wrote “Granted that the soul
survives the death of the body “Instance after instance from the records “Shows this soul to be regarded “As a mortal being “Liable like the body itself “To accidents and death.” In retrospect we can see that combining immortal an immaterial is simply repeated in his opposite the identification of the mortal with the material, and it’s not helpful. What we might like to keep is that in talking about soul he found a common language
with his contemporaries for all that he wished to disabuse them of misconceptions about the origins of religious thought. The problem of language recurs, is born over and again. An English speaker cannot talk of soul with his opposite body, and body is the mortal bit. Take that opposition away and one subject matter seems to vanish. So rather than throwing out the concepts The anthropologist may set them spinning as I’ve tried to do here. I have tethered the account instead to areas of Melanesian
horticultural practice insofar as these provide a specific model for thinking of everlasting life. Less, perhaps as an immortality frozen
at the moment of death as in some Euro-American views than as ceaseless regeneration. If we can identify as something as appropriate to call soul and refer to its rebirth within a kinship community, it can also be identified in the constant return of fleshly nourishment to the soil and its cultivation and Melanesians themselves may express this by drawing attention to the life cycles of the taro and yams they cultivate. Long ago Haudricourt offered an apt formula. Apropos Melanesia, people are cultivated during
their lifetime, he said. And indeed planted is the way we would have to translate
human in Hagen idiom, as the Kuk archeologist Muke also attests. And they cease to be cultivated at death. Ms. Zweybruck interest in immortality has opened up what it means that such being are no longer themselves. Cultivated they survive now in the life of others. I have a very brief postscript if you will allow. If you’ll just indulge me. This is a postscript for the anthropologists who are here. Ms. Zweybruck interest in immortality is not irrelevant to the 20th century anthropology that flourished after animism had disappeared as a topic. There was a long period
when aspects of societies that might formally have
been called animistic were studied under the
rubric of categories more compatible with self-acknowledged modern institutions such as politics, economics, religion and so forth. For British social anthropologists like myself the social turn that followed Durkheim’s
transformative formula. Religion is society worshiping itself meant that there was a
great swing of interest towards social organization including the prominence of institutions such as dissent groups that is the interactions of clan and kin collectivities. This was a notable example of anthropological rejuvenation and demise for dissent groups were
discovered in Melanesia and then discarded. The point to extract is that when they were
occupying center stage these constructs made
a kind of immortality visible to the anthropologist. As anthropologist uncovered
the powers and circumstances of a markedly social life where political or economic interests were seen to shape religious precepts or kinship obligations, they also brought attention the dynamics of a self regenerating social formation, perpetual succession, society enduring in its structures, rolls reproduced, and so forth. Perhaps those immortal dissent groups have since been too quickly dispatched from anthropological purview. Indeed, one might revisit analyses of the way in which people are, or are not caught up in kin groups as a model of self-formation that also a collective formation. In order to query an axiomatic assumption that ran through the
early animist literature. And I end on this point. This was the assumption that people’s personal awareness of their experience as sentient beings projected, it was argued onto their environment is sufficient to account for their apprehensions and ideas. The notion that how
people perceive themselves is projected onto other entities normalizes the soul as originating within the human being. Now, it’s no doubt going too far to suggest that people
gave themselves the souls they already recognized in other selves, human or non-human. But in any event that notion of projection has often rendered mute the state of affairs encountered in immanentist regimes and people’s immortalizing work in keeping the world going. Thank you very much. (applause) – [Paula] I’d really like
to thank professor Strathern for making the world feel so much richer and a lot more crowded, I would say. (laughter) Professor Strathern will take questions and Ellen will take the
microphone around and… – We ask that you make these questions and make them brief so everyone who would like to ask something has time to do so. So please raise your hand if you have a question. – [Marilyn] I have hearing problems so I need to come close to you despite your microphone. – [Woman] I won’t yell loudly then. Thank you. Thank you so much. As an archeo-botanist I just love this. – Oh, thank you. – [Woman] But I did want
to ask you something that maybe too specific for your talk. Anna Meigs has been a big influence on me and she talks about this
life force called new Nu. And I’m assuming you know about that because it’s from– – This is Anna Sing. – [Woman] No, Meigs. – Oh, sorry. – [Woman] Meigs. Anna Meigs. – Oh sorry, I beg your pardon. – [Woman] Meigs. – Oh Anna Meigs, yes of course. – [Woman] Yes. – I know Anna Meigs. – [Woman] Right, Nu. And I’m assuming that’s a version of the life force you were talking about. – Absolutely, yes. – [Woman] Would you say it’s the same or different, how is it? Because the focus that she talks about is people gain life force through eating. Eating the food that’s being generated– – Exactly. – [Woman] In the garden. And that is certainly part of what
you were talking about but you didn’t say anything about that. If you could comment about eating. – Absolutely. What she says is absolutely correct. That is part of the whole cycle. And in course in eating your also eating in those places that
regard plants having souls and not all do. But you are channeling the vitality of the plants as well in that process. Both sides are nourished. It’s a mutual nourishment in a sense. Which is a non-consuming metaphor if anybody wants to ask what the relevant of this is to 21st century. (laughter) – Surely there’s at
least one more question. – [Woman] As a comment. This is coming from Tibetan Buddhism. (laughter) So, there are three bodies that emanate dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya It’s this eminence of presence in being and everything appears in permanence. So it follows very nicely. I really appreciated what you had to say. And it’s interesting how different traditions have very similar– – Yes. – [Woman] Truth. There’s only one reality. – But shouldn’t I be
uncomfortable about that? – [Woman] How so? – Shouldn’t I regard forms Buddhism as belonging to the transcendental? – [Woman] It depends on
what kind of Buddhism your talking about.
– Of course. – [Woman] Yes. (laughter) – Sorry. – Thank you. – Thank you very much. – [Man] Thank you very much Marilyn. I want to talk about the people with whom I’ve worked Inuit, or Eskimos in northern Canada because the kind of
arguments about immortality have a great relevance today. One of which is the Canadian sorrow and anger at the enormous suicide rate amongst the indigenous peoples. Particularly the Inuit. Particularly young men. But the Inuit have explicitly or tacitly a belief in three souls. One of which is a breath soul that leaves you when you die. Breath is a soul. The other one it’s a… I guess it’s more like the kinds of soul that when you die goes somewhere but it doesn’t reenter you. But the most important one is the name. The name is the person, is the soul. And when a child is about to be born somebody is calling the name of a past person, and when it is, its name, it comes out. And, of course this means that they don’t
designate men or women. So you are, you may be called by your mother, grandfather or great uncle or something like that because that’s who you are, which is one of the reasons that children are treated
with some respect, or supposed to be. But nowadays the Canadian government
and many other people are really worried about the high suicide rate. But from the point of view of many of the young people and this is the work of Lisa Stevenson who got a Ph.D. at
Berkeley a few years ago. They say, well my friend dies recently or my friend committed suicide recently. And he’s up there and I’d love to join him. I miss him. I don’t particularly like it here anyhow. So maybe I’ll go off in my
truck and shoot myself or otherwise commit suicide. Then, I’ll see who I become the next time. After all, I’ve been alive for thousands of years. I am the same person for thousands of years. – [Marilyn] Fascinating, thank you. Thank you for that. Put it in a nut shell. – [Woman] I am curious about the structure of your talk. The eight posts. – [Marilyn] Yes. – [Woman] Have you used that before in giving a talk? – [Marilyn] Well I wasn’t showing any slides. There was no relief from the text. – [Woman] Right. (laughter) – So I thought it might actually help if there was a little joke that recurred at intervals. But it also enabled me to do something of course which I have used many times, which is to juxtapose
quite different material. I think I should bring it together. That is device. You start far apart and then by the end you put it together. And that’s a device I’d often use, yes. But on this occasion it was because there was no other relief. – [Woman] It worked beautifully. And I think it did help the listener to also visualize the posts and urged us to make connections. – [Marilyn] They ruined
my head, about this high. – [Woman] Oh yeah. (laughter) And you transmitted that to ours as well. Thank you. (laughter) – Thank you so much. I really appreciate that comment. – [Man] Since you have
reanimated for us animism I wonder of you can
also reconstitute for us where we stand as something that’s not animistic. You mentioned Euro-America or something like that which sounds like
Disneyland, or something. – [Marilyn] Yes. – [Man] But how would you characterize this Euro-American idea insofar as it’s different from animism? – Yes. Perhaps I should make very clear. I’m not actually doing a comparison between Euro-American
societies and cultures and these other Melanesian
societies and cultures. And those two terms are not on a par even though I label them as though they are. The point is that the language through which I’m describing what I’m trying to describe in Melanesia is of itself os a particular historical cultural moment. And it is labeling that moment. So I am actually labeling
the language I use as Euro-American. I think that’s probably
the best way I can; but as to, well. Sorry. I’m getting really out of my depth here. But insofar as that little contrast between transcendentalism and immanentism has any force, it is of course countlessly reinvented at every moment of religious reformation of diverse kinds for 2000 years as far as Christianity. So, things are identified as one or the other, constantly. So it’s a constantly reinvented duo. Which means that we
shouldn’t be at all surprised to find ourselves doing
immanentist things. That’s not an issue. The only thing is that if you start talking that way then you evoke a problem sometimes because they look as though you’re being superstitious or you’re not being rational. Or whatever, whatever. But it’s not a problem that the immanentists I’m talking about have. It’s only a problem of
immanentist behavior within a transcendentalist position. But I’m sorry about those awkward terms. – [Ellen] We have time
for one more question. There will be time after the lectures if you’d like to speak to professor Strathern. – [Woman] Thank you. – [Marilyn] Sorry. – [Woman] Thank you so much for the talk. I have a more personal question for how you decided the topic of this, I know it’s linked to the lecture but where does your inspiration to think about concepts the way think. And thinking through relations with relations come from. It’s like this memories
from your experience in Melanesia? Or, do you need to go back to conversations. Do you need to go personally back there? I’m just wondering where these kind of force come from that makes you think from the limit. Yeah. – [Marilyn] Alright, thank you. That’s actually a very important question. Because I’ve been doing what many scholars do which is mingle their thoughts in with the material that they’re trying to describe. In one sense that’s completely unavoidable. Because you can only order that material by conceptualizing it in certain ways. Actually, that’s one thing I could say in my favor. Don’t let me forget it. (laughter) Clenched my hand. You’re completely right
to ask the question because one has to keep that process really under control. One has to be constantly self-scrutinizing the categories through which one’s
thinking and presenting. I don’t know how familiar you are with
anthropological procedures but everything I’ve talked about is rooted in descriptions. It will be made by numerous anthropologists across Melanesia. So almost all my baseline observations are documented by others and that’s what I mean by referring to ethnographic accounts. Then of course I’ve spun things because of the pleasure of spinning. (laughter) But in my own favor I will say that one or two Papua New Guinea academics who’ve read the Gender of the Gift think it gives a reasonable account. So, I think maybe the
spinning sometimes works. (laughter) (applause) (soft music)

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About the Author: Emmet Marks


  1. This is proof of how your environment affects your beliefs no matter how smart you are.That's why she used to believe in Father Christmas but no longer does because no other adults do.If you have a brain you can be brainwashed.

  2. I could be wrong, but this exposé is ultimately fantastic at proving the existence of … particularily long attention span people.

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