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Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology…

Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology

by Mary Douglas

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Mary Douglas did anthropology in a structuralist vein, and this book probably had its greatest significance for the discipline in her introduction of the idea of "group and grid" defining a coordinate plane on which to position the social-symbolic dispositions of different cultures. She arrived at this form in the process of attempting to apply the socio-linguistic theories of Basil Bernstein to the medium of ritual and ceremony.

An inquiry driving the development of this model concerns the varying affinity of different cultures for ritual expression and magical postulates. Douglas identifies the sacramental perspective rather explicitly with the magical one (26), and nicely deflates the secularization hypothesis regarding contemporary societies. There is nothing essentially religious about the "traditional or primitive," nor is secularism either predictable of or peculiar to modernity (36).

The chapter on "The Two Bodies" is concerned with "the human body ... as an image of society" (98), which put me especially in mind of the O.T.O. instruction that "in True Things, all are but images one of another; man is but a map of the universe, and Society is but the same on a larger scale." As expressed in the traditional doctrines identifying macrocosm with microcosm, this notion undergirding Douglas's structuralism is melothesia. There were also a few points in this chapter where I wondered if it might bear comparison with certain notions in Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism.

It was a little surprising and gratifying to see the Exclusive Brethren raised repeatedly as an example, and correlated positively with tribal societies preoccupied with witchcraft (140 ff.)! These Plymouth Brethren were not only doctrinal forebears of the greater part of 20th and 21st-century Anglophone fundamentalist Christianity, but the Exclusive stripe also accounted for the childhood religious environment of Aleister Crowley.

An especially interesting passage is the one in the "Test Cases" chapter on "co-varying ideas of sin" (131). Douglas delineates two types, which she supposes are the poles of a comprehensive continuum. These types are, however, merely the first two of three in the dialectic presented in section 32 of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, where he calls them "pre-moral" and "moral." The notion of Nietzsche's "post-moral" (and the consequent puzzle regarding its fuctional relationship to and distinguishability from the pre-moral) does not arise. Thelemites may wish to read the referenced Nietzsche in connection with the Aeons of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, but the bridge to Douglas's socio-cultural typology (however incomplete) is certainly intriguing.
5 vote paradoxosalpha | May 4, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mary Douglasprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dijk, Anna vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0415314542, Paperback)

One of the most important works of modern anthropology. Written against the backdrop of the student uprisings of the late 1960s, the book took seriously the revolutionary fervour of the times, but instead of seeking to destroy the rituals and symbols that can govern and oppress, Mary Douglas saw instead that if transformation were needed, it could only be made possible through better understanding. Expressed with clarity and dynamism, the passionate analysis which follows remains one of the most insightful and rewarding studies of human behaviour ever written.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:24 -0400)

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