Making Meaning

A monkey sticking his tongue outThis semester I’m teaching a course on the uses of anachronism in the study of the ancient Greek world, one such anachronism being the concept of religion itself (for it is hardly a local term in the ancient Greek world). Last week, just before class, I happened to stumble across an article that made the rounds on Facebook entitled “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals.” The title of the article was enough to catch my attention: “mysterious” along with “sacred rituals”? Definitely this was something that I could share with my students. We read the article that talked about a group of anthropologists who conducted a field mission in the savannahs of the Republic of Guinea in order to record and understand a group of wild chimpanzees who repeatedly threw stones at a tree. Near the end of the article, under the subheading “Sacred Trees,” the author offered two theories about this “mysterious” behavior, as she called it in the title. One reads as follows:

[I]t could be more symbolic than that—and more reminiscent of our own past. Marking pathways and territories with signposts such as piles of rocks is an important step in human history. Figuring out where chimps’ territories are in relation to rock throwing sites could give us insights into whether this is the case here.

Even more intriguing than this, maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees. Indigenous West African people have stone collections at “sacred” trees and such man-made stone collections are commonly observed across the world  and look eerily similar to what we have discovered here.

What is of particular interest here is the ease with which certain categories are used as natural descriptors, such as “a kind of shrine” or “sacred” to qualify the trees. Similarly, “sacred,” though a modern term, is heavily used in descriptions of the ancient world; open any book on “Religion in Ancient Greece,” for example, and sooner or later you will be reading about sacred spaces, sacred times, sacred marriages, sacred rituals, sacred gifts, sacred roads, etc. Sacred, in those books, is sometimes put in quotation marks as in the above mentioned article on the chimpanzees’ mysterious behaviors, but it can be unclear whether the author simply wants to emphasize the word (as if italicizing it) rather than to indicate that it is a modern term that roughly translates a variety of ancient Greek terms, such as hieros, or hosios or hagios, which, themselves, may have meant something entirely different from the modern understanding of the term. Its close connection with our descriptions of religion and religious things in the ancient world may be telling as to the kind of work this word, “sacred,” is doing for us when we use it to describe “them,” work that constructs a specific kind of world in the past. An anachronism such as this (as our course’s syllabus indicates):

is a socially formative identification technique that not only enables current scholars to identify their object of study in the otherwise ambiguous archive of the past (and more specifically the ancient Greek past) but which also allows them to extend and thereby authorize their own social world by portraying it as universal and thus timeless.

Similarly in the case of the chimpanzee article: using the adjective “sacred trees” becomes a way by which the anthropologists who conducted the study could have an insight to “our” own past. Of course the point is not so much as to whether chimps have this category or not or whether they see the world as having sacred things in it (whatever that may even mean) but the ease with which it is used by us, when confronted with novel situations, as if it is a natural descriptor, whether in quotation marks or not, something we do without the necessary acknowledgment that this is our own category by which we make sense of the world around us, making it one of our own signposts.

Because when it comes to the ancient world, it is more than clear that when “sacred” is used in our work, it is simply a shorthand for identifying, minimally, things religious, if not an indication of religion itself, when in fact it is that very usage of this term that fabricates for us the impression of things religious in their world. So when it comes to the chimps one is left wondering when the other shoe will drop and we’ll read something about chimps showing religious behaviors and therefore as the author of the article writes behaviors that are “reminiscent of our own past,” as in the, origins of our own religious self (actually a few days after writing this there was an article on the Independent about chimps showing signs of “a kind of religious belief”).

Failing to see that these are our categories prevents us from recognizing that by means of either studying the ancient world or chimps, we actually are studying ourselves.

But such anachronistic usage of categories, such as “sacred” or “religion,” is not something exclusive to religious studies; for when used, just like in the article I mentioned above, they help to fill in inevitable gaps (in space and time, between us and the things that interests us), they construct meanings when a situation is too unsettling or, as Mary Douglas wrote “to impose system on an inherently untidy experience.” So even though chimps’ behaviors are “mysterious,” they have just like us shrines and sacred trees, and there a link is established—they are understandable to us because they are familiar to how we think we operate. Similar moves, that is, the anachronistic use of categories, both synchronically (to understand the chimps) and diachronically (to understand ancient Greece), that allow us to construct certain sort of identities can be found in many situations (see, for example, “Subtle Strategies”; or “It’s sort of Traditional, I Guess…”).

Looking at the moves people make to make sense of their world—scholars included!—and the uses to which concepts are put (a similar point made by Craig Martin here) through such acts as interpretation, description, classification, and the interests that drive those usages in fabricating different selves, we can therefore examine and consequently compare those practices, those “acts of identification,” to quote Bayart, not only in other disciplines within the humanities but also in situations that we so easily take for granted as naturally or self-evidently occurring.

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