Saturday, October 22, 2016

James Fenimore Cooper on Steamboats colliding with Folklore

This would have made a nice footnote in the book, though of course it is a narrative one and not a historical source in the strict sense of the word.

Hugh C. MacDougall, who edited the Gutenberg copy of The Lake Gun,  the short story where the following paragraph appears in, dates the story to 1850, gives it a decidedly political context, and points to a visit of Cooper in Geneva College (now Hobart College) on Lake Seneca sometime between 1840-1844, when Cooper's son Paul was studying there, as the origin of the "local knowledge" such as it is.
"I haven't seen that ere crittur now"—Peter always spoke of the tree as if it had animal life—"these three years. We think he doesn't like the steamboats. The very last time I seed the old chap he was a-goin' up afore a smart norwester, and we was a-comin' down with the wind in our teeth, when I made out the 'Jew,' about a mile, or, at most, a mile and a half ahead of us, and right in our track. I remember that I said to myself, says I, 'Old fellow, we'll get a sight of your countenance this time.' I suppose you know, sir, that the 'Jew' has a face just like a human?"
"I did not know that; but what became of the tree?"
"Tree," answered Peter, shaking his head, "why, can't we cut a tree down in the woods, saw it and carve it as we will, and make it last a hundred years? What become of the tree, sir;—why, as soon as the 'Jew' saw we was a-comin' so straight upon him, what does the old chap do but shift his helm, and make for the west shore. You never seed a steamer leave sich a wake, or make sich time. If he went half a knot, he went twenty!"
Two ideas that I find curious here are that the novelty of the steamboats, which rubs oddly with this American form of the legend of the "Wandering Jew", is expressed narratively as a form of resistance to be encountered. Nevertheless, when encountered, the supernatural remains superior, going faster than the engine-powered boat.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Objective as time-independent

In her article on the then-latest breast cancer screening research, 538-science writer Christie Aschwanden noted
Welch’s group has published other studies with similar results. One of those categorized cancers according to stage, rather than size, however, and some critics countered that the way that cancers are categorized has evolved, which could make comparisons difficult. So in this latest study, the researchers looked at size — a measure that is objective and hasn’t changed over time — and came to the same conclusion: Mammography produces an increase in the number of women diagnosed and treated for breast cancer and a non-invasive cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), but it doesn’t do much to prevent the deadliest cases.
The main point I wish to draw attention to is the distinction between evolving categories, such as cancer stages, and the measurement of size. Though her precise wording, namely that size is an objective measure, is contestable, Aschwanden's phrasing suggests that the crucial difference is the one between evolving and categories that remain constant for a duration of research.

Now granted, this is not what people mean when they use the word "objective", but perhaps it is a better meaning for the word than the current one, which seems to imply some socially indisputable common ground.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Explanation in the Golden Bough

In describing the Arician Grove, Frazer writes--all quotes from the two-volume Golden Bough (Vol 1Vol 2) edition of 1894:
Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him he held office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier. 
This strange rule has no parallel in classical antiquity, and cannot be explained from it. (GB-1894, v1, p.2) 
And then Frazer goes on to spell out what his concept of explanation is.
It is the very rudeness and barbarity of the custom which allow us a hope of explaining it. For recent researches into the early history of man have revealed the essential similarity with which, under many superficial differences, the human mind has elaborated its first crude philosophy of life. Accordingly if we can show that a barbarous custom, like that of the priesthood of Nemi, has existed elsewhere; if we can detect the motives which led to its institution; if we can prove that these motives have operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different but generically alike; if we can show, lastly, that these very motives, with some of their derivative institutions, were actually at work in classical antiquity, then we may fairly infer that at a remoter age the same motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi. (p.3)
Frazer assumes a structural equivalence across the human race for the "first crude philosophy of life", which is the origin of the "custom" we wish to explain. This assumption allows us to go wide and search other times and places (i.e. "elsewhere") and discover the structural similarities of the customs practiced in other places and at other times. Frazer sees the customs or "institutions" as responses to "motives".  [RCK: it is quite possible that Frazer does not distinguish between institutions and customs much, as one of the meanings of the Latin word "institutiones" is "custom", e.g. Cicero, Attic Nights.]

Thus if the motives so isolated led to comparable customs and institutions across time and space, and these motives can be shown to be present in classical antiquity, it is probable to assume that they led to similar outcomes, i.e. "the same motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi".

In order to understand the Frazerian notion of motives, we need to look to this Paragraph 2 (pp.7-), titled Primitive Man and the Supernatural, where Frazer expounds his theory of the relationship between primitive man, the supernatural and causality, especially with reference to the task of influencing the agricultural necessities of rain and sunshine (cf. (p.13) below).
A savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more advanced peoples between the natural and the supernatural. To him the world is mostly worked by supernatural agents, that is, by personal beings || acting on impulses and motives like his own, liable like him to be moved by appeals to their pity, their fears and their hopes. In a world so conceived he sees no limit to his power of influencing the course of nature to his own advantage ... [his tools being, RCK] prayers, promises, or threats [which, RCK] may secure him fine weather and an abundant crop from the gods .... (pp.8-9)
In the limit, this similarity ends in the notion of incarnation:
... and if a good should happen, as he sometimes believes, to become incarnate in his own person, then he need appeal to no higher power; he, the savage, possesses in himself all the supernatural powers necessary to further his own well-being and that of his fellow man. (p.9)
But this is not the sum-total of Frazer's conceptual tools; for side-by-side with it is that precursor, the "germ of the modern notion of natural law or the view of nature as a series of events occurring in an invariable order without the intervention of personal agency" (p.9), as Frazer sees it, namely sympathetic magic.
One of the principles of sympathetic magic is that any effect may be produced by imitating it. (p.9)
To choose two agricultural examples that Frazer cites.
In Thüringen the man who sows flax carries the seed, in a long bag which reaches from his shoulders to his knees, and he walks with long strides, so that the bag sways to and fro on his back. It is believed that this will cause the flax crop to wave in the wind. (p.10)
In the interior of Sumatra the rice is sown by women who, in sowing, let their hair hang loose down their back, in order that the rice may grow luxuriantly and have long stalks. (p.10)
These illustrations also provide the general pattern of explanation that Frazer has in mind. The activity alludes via symbolism to a property of the object under consideration, and understanding the example means understanding the relationship between the activity and the intended property.

But Frazer is quite right that this use of symbolism in sympathetic magic is fundamentally instrumental; it is not itself pointing to a separate agency.
Thus we see that in sympathetic magic one event is supposed to be followed necessarily and invariably by another, without the intervention of any spiritual or personal agency. This is, in fact, the modern conception of physical causation; the conception, indeed, is misapplied, but it is there none the less [sic RCK]. Here, then, we have another mode in which primitive man seeks to bend nature to his wishes. (p.12)
This also elucidates that Frazer considers the motives to be primarily influence over social--e.g. enemies; cf (pp.11f)---and especially natural phenomena:
 Of all natural phenomena there are perhaps none which civilised man feels himself more powerless to influence than the rain, the sun, and the wind. Yet all these are commonly supposed by savages to be in some degree under their control. (p.13)
Frazer of course knows his examples too well to make the mistake of drawing the lines too clearly between sympathetic magic and supernatural agency (p.12), and will comment on this problem when looking at specific examples:
The Fountain of Baranton ... in the forest of Brecilien, used to be resorted to by peasants when they needed rain; they caught some of the water in a tankard and threw it on a slab near the spring [i.e. sympathetic magic]. (p.15)
In a Samoan village a certain stone was carefully housed as the representative of the rain-making god [i.e. supernatural agency RCK];  and in time of drought his priests carried the stone in procession, and dipped it in a stream. (p.14)
There is a lonely tarn on Snowdon called Dulyn or the Black Lake, lying "in a dismal dingle surrounded by high and dangerous rocks." A row of stepping stones runs out into the lake; and if any one steps on the stones and throws water so as to wet the farthest stone, which is called the Red Altar, "it is but a chance that you do not get rain before night, even when it is hot weather." In these cases it is probable that, as in Samoa, the stone is regarded as in some sort divine. (p.15)
In Navarre the image of St Peter was taken to a river, where some prayed for him to rain, but others called out to duck him in the water. Here the dipping in || the water is used as a threat; but originally it was probably a sympathetic charm .... (pp.15f)
Thus, explanation needs not only pay attention to the action as such, but also to the intended form of influence being exerted: is there a supernatural agency involved, which is threatened, propitiated, or merely leveraged---compare the New Caledonian ancestor represented through a dug-up skeleton, who functions as a conduit to the sky, i.e. "They [the New Caledonian rain makers, RCK] supposed that the soul of the departed took up the water, made rain of it, and showered it down again." (p.16)
Or is a non-agentive entity leveraged as part of the symbolism. The Servian girl turned into the Dodola--a fertility goddess dressed in grass, herbs and flowers only--does not herself become divine in the process (p.16), though she represents the "spirit of vegetation" and the drenching with water is imitative of rain. In a lurch, a passing stranger will do as a visiting god or spirit (p.17) and be treated as such (p.16).

The problem of explanation remains that not all aspects of a ceremony may be elucidated in this fashion in all cases. Consider the scenario of the floating harrow.
In the district of Transylvania, when the ground is parched with drought, some girls strip themselves naked, and, led by an older woman, who is also naked, they steal a harrow and carry it across the field to a brook, where they set it afloat. Next they sit on the harrow and keep a tiny flame burning on each corner of it for an hour. Then they leave the harrow in the water and go home. (p.17)
We already have some of the infrastructure to suggest pieces for the interpretation. Naked women symbolize spirits, and the cultural implement put into the water expresses the need of the parched ground for rain. However, it is unclear what the flames burning on the corners (they have to be tiny because the harrow is most likely wooden) and the hour of floating in the brook is supposed to accomplish. Is the carrying of the harrow over the field from the to the brook part of the ritual or part of the description? Is the age difference between the leadership and the performers ritually relevant (wisdom vs fertility) or pragmatic (someone needs to know what to do, but is too old to do it themselves)? Thus, there are different levels of matching quality that need to be kept in mind. (The rainmaking ceremony of the Diyerie of South Australia, with its bleeding and large stones and putting the stones into the trees fifteen miles or more away is another case with oddities; cf. (p.20).)

Sometimes even the experts cannot agree.
A peculiar mode of making rain was adopted by the heathen Arabs. They tied two sorts of bushes to the tails and hind-legs of their cattle, and setting fire to the bushes drove the cattle to the top of a mountain, praying for rain. This may be, as Wellhausen suggests, an imitation of lightning on the horizon. But it may also be a way of threatening the sky .... (p.20) 
Frazer gives the example of West-African rain-makers threatening the sky with fire (p.20).