GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 18, 2016

Ancestor Worship

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:32 pm

Killing time on Yahoo a few days ago, I came across an article about the latest development in the (thankfully, seemingly settled) feud between Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl regarding the 2007 film, “Knocked Up,” in which they co-starred. What seemed to me worth mentioning (hopefully it will be clear why) in the context of this discussion is the following:

We love you Seth, and we even admittedly love Knocked Up as a whole, but maybe it’s time to re-watch the film with a pair of fresh, 2016 eyes and consider the fact that your movie might (gasp) actually be a little sexist and that Heigl was just voicing what so many women are rightfully feeling. Because this issue is bigger than just one movie!

What caught my eye was the assertion that “it’s time to re-watch the film with a pair of fresh, 2016 eyes.” What moral revelation and revolution, one wonders, does this (obviously very young) writer imagine to have taken place between 2007 and 2016? The film was already seen as a bit “sexist” then, and so Heigl may have thought she was simply apologizing to progressives for appearing in a successful “sexist” film, but the implication of this remark is that we were so steeped in sexism back in 2007 that all kinds of sexist implications we were all blind to then would be so apparent now as to make the film unwatchable, except as a historical document to be dissected in a Women’s Studies classroom. “Moderns” always speak this way, and no doubt any of us could imagine ourselves looking back at a 1950 movie or 1850 novel with “2016 eyes” and seeing all kinds of uncomfortably taken for granted attitudes. So much the worse for us moderns, but my point here is that the rate of acceleration of this process has increased, is increasing, exponentially. (Another, fairly trivial experience confirms this–after watching the Eddie Murphy film, “Beverly Hills Cop,” with my daughter, she asked me whether it was “controversial” to have a black male lead playing a defiant police detective back in the 80s–as if we had barely and tentatively emerged from segregation at the time or, perhaps, up until just right now,) Completely new forms of racism, sexism, and other isms and phobias are discovered daily—no claim to not be “bigoted” or “prejudiced” (it’s amazing that we still use such words) made prior to the latest shift in the Overton Window can expect to be greeted with anything other than mocking contempt (denying you are racist, rather than finding someone else to accuse of racism, is proof that you are racist). All of previous history, and that includes yesterday, is beyond the pale, under the ban—one can only appeal to it insofar as it offers up the occasional example of someone whose thinking was ahead of its time, i.e., anticipated ours (and, preferably, suffered for it).

What used to be a fairly leisurely, consensus-oriented process of relegating pieces of the past to the irrelevant or embarrassing has now become a remarkably ruthless attack on anything in the past that would stain the eternal presence of the SJW mind. The Stalinists at least respected, even revered, the basic narrative structure of the past, even as they erased individuals and switched around heroes and villains, but why and how people thought as they thought and did as they did now seems to be of no interest at all—one must put it even more strongly: articulating “discredited” perspectives has become indistinguishable from defending them, as if to understand were to be contaminated. As a result, it can be quite shocking to discover how little today’s college students actually know. I was a very uninterested and lazy student through high school, and to this day have absolutely no memories of doing any homework or studying through those years, and yet somehow I absorbed a basic sense of the main events of the past two hundred years (the American Revolution and Civil War, Russian Revolution, two World Wars, Civil rights Movement, etc.), including the general “plot,” main “characters,” consensus regarding who was good and bad, etc. This doesn’t seem to me to be the case anymore.

Now, I’m not interested in another jeremiad on the decline of Western culture and Western learning (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it does seem to me that there is a kind of “war” here—but on what, exactly? People often speak about the “wisdom” of the past in arguing for the importance of studying history and artifacts of the past, but we find that “wisdom” today, and we rarely see an argument for articulating what is genuinely different and alien to us in the thinking of some former era. (It seems so scandalous that women were regarded as “property,” for example, that there is almost no attempt to understand why male-female relations have taken all the different the forms they have.) So, what is the past really for? If we actually worship figures from the past, that would explain the “war” I have been describing—it is a war on ancestors, or, more precisely, on ancestor worship. Having said that, why not think big, and hypothesize that all “religion” (in Girard’s sense, which would exclude the anti-scapegoating monotheisms) is ancestor worship. If we could make this case, it would be enormously economical and clarifying regarding the vast diversity of religions; it would also make it possible to study the persistence of neutered forms of ancestor worship in the post-sacrificial world. In that case, the mania to wipe out the past would derive from an intuition that ancestor worship, even in its contained form, must be destroyed to complete the social justice transformation.

Primitive peoples generally believe they share descent with the animals they hunt and worship—this would make the ritual scene of egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities a form of ancestor worship. On the originary scene, the sacred object at the center gives life to the community, so it wouldn’t take much to narrativize that relation in the course of the mythopoeticizing of the community, and represent the animal at the sacred center as the literal ancestor of the community. The more elaborate mythologies of more complex communities simply elongate and complicate the lines of descent, but cities are always founded by the gods and populated by their descendants. Fustel de Coulanges, in his The Ancient City, shows the earliest and most enduring form of worship to be ancestor worship—indeed, every house is simultaneously burial ground and shrine to the ancestors. The act of creating larger social and political units, then, would involve identifying or inventing a shared divine ancestry between the amalgamating peoples. The creation of larger imperial units concentrates the divine ancestry within the royal family while, presumably, local cults would continue, in a reciprocally limiting relation to the emperor cult.

The logic of ancestor worship is very compelling. The dead are beyond resentment, and their achievements, by definition, precede and enable one’s own, thereby making them, in an important sense, unsurpassable. All rivalries within an extended family, or a tribe, can then be deferred through references to the figure of the ancestor and the practices he passed down to the community. The value and power of the ancestor can be “modulated” in accord with the strength of contemporary resentments—extremely dangerous rivalries would require the creation of especially wise and powerful ancestors. Moreover, the future is also beyond the scope of our resentments (we can’t really envy our potential great-great-grandchildren), and so we can, realizing that they will worship us in turn, strive to be models worthy of such devotion, for their sake. In this way, we will be imitating our own ancestors, and doing for our progeny what they have done for us.

Of course, ancestor worship is very limiting as well. Ancestors, as communities come, collectively, to imagine them, are meticulous, voracious and arbitrary in their demands; mystifying in their rewards and punishments. Trying to figure out what they want—which vendetta they want continued, which good they want sacrificed—is maddening. The first displacements of ancestor worship, through the installation of Big Men who create new rituals with themselves at the center, must have been liberating: the Big Man tells us what he wants. This displacement would also begin the “search for identify,” which is really the search for ancestors, as more distant progenitors of the community become objects of worship. But the Big Man must try and make his lineage that of the community, bifurcating ancestor worship in local and imperial forms. Jewish monotheism articulates the need, if not to worship, then commemorate and worship, in a simulated manner, alongside of, ancestors with the need to make group belonging a matter of law and choice, produced by a revelation which all nations, in principle, could acknowledge—the Jewish messiah is to be a descendant of a convert. But the universal monotheisms and metaphysics seem to assert the possibility of a community without ancestors. That may be impossible, which would help account for the resistance of the ancestor worship of nationalisms to universalist appeals, but before drawing that conclusion, we can imagine how the monotheisms might emerge from and displace ancestor worship.

Without ancestor worship, how would anyone know what to do? The right thing to do is to pay your debt to your ancestors: to appease them with sacrifice, to sustain their rituals, continue their projects, fight their enemies. But the fact that you will be an ancestor one day, and will obligate your descendants in turn, complicates matters—focusing on those descendants makes you aware of possible inconsistencies in the obligations transmitted by your ancestors. To the extent that differing imperatives cancel each other out, the decision regarding which to obey can be made in terms of which imperative will more effectively obligate your descendants in turn. Certainly a choice that weakens or destroys your descendants will undermine their obligations to you, and may ultimately obliterate you, since your immortal existence depends upon them tending to you. The more the contradictory imperatives from the ancestors prove paralyzing (presumably because some new conditions make it impossible to satisfactorily fulfill them all), the larger your descendants loom, and the more a new space is created, a space that Hannah Arendt called “between past and future”: the dispute between your ancestors and your descendants creates a kind of “timelessness in time,” in which one can imagine one’s decisions creating a new line from the distant past to the infinite future. This is the space in which the imperative not to carry out some violence at the behest of the ancestors that would initiate a chain of events the effect of which would be to purge the world of your descendants can be heard.

Hearing this absolute imperative, then, does not extricate you from the obligations of ancestor worship—indeed, it makes no sense without it. What it does is enable you to retroject that absolute imperative to the origins of your ancestors: that timelessness in time, that presenting, must have been experienced by them if it is possible for you, who are nothing without them, to experience it yourself. There is now a frame in which you can honor, rather than worship, your ancestors, because you both worship the same thing: the voice issuing the absolute imperative. Now, you heed that imperative because they did, and transmitted it to you. This opens the possibility, on the Jewish model, of choosing your own ancestors, and it also allows us to examine the limitations of such choices. Anyone familiar with the Left knows how deeply steeped in ancestor worship it is—Leftist historiography is hagiography, populated thickly by martyrs. The Left is many ways like the inhabitants of the ancient city analyzed by de Coulanges—irritable, nervous, petty, always worried that some imperative has been insufficiently fulfilled, the bloodthirsty demand of some ancestor unsatisfactorily complied with. As soon as you cut yourself off from one past you graft yourself immediately onto another—the intellectual world is full of complex filiations which are ultimately subtler forms of ancestor worship, as is obvious if you look at the way the participants of any discipline discuss the discipline’s founders. The limitation of nationalist ancestor worship is that it can be deaf to the absolute imperative—especially today, when nationalists are reasonably convinced that they have a pile of neglected debts to their ancestors the repayment of which outweighs all other urgencies, and that the resources available for paying these debts are being stolen. The only way to moderate while honoring (as a form of life) nationalist ancestor worship is with the artificial ancestor worship of the disciplines, and ultimately of the sovereign, since the artificiality of these disciplines means that the absolute imperative is part of their founding—all these disciplines can be traced back to, find their ancestry in, the studying of the divine will in the struggle for faith and law. On these grounds we can fight the war to defend ancestor worship.

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