Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: ethnography
Tuesday, 17 May 2011 00:00

Hourglass Configurations

In response to the Focus 'Beyond the Pale: Architecture in Taiwan' Pierre Maranda would like to introduce readers to what world-famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote on the subject of religious and cosmic interpretation of traditional Chinese architecture. With this aim Pierre gives you a quote of the first two pages of the chapter Lévi-Strauss wrote for a book he edited. The book is availible under hardcover and also as an e-book from the University of Toronto Press in Canada: P. Maranda (ed.) The Double Twist: From Ethnography to Morphodynamics. Toronto-Buffalo-London. 2001, 316 p.

It was in 1977, in Japan, facing the Ise Shrine, that the reflections I am sharing here took shape in a somewhat disorderly fashion. I was struck, as would be most people, by the roof frames of which the principal rafters cross in an X and jut out past the ridge. The Izumo Shrines, also of archaic style, have a similar appearance, but due to crossbeams which are not part of the structure but are affixed to the roof as a decoration.

This is reminiscent, of course, of islands in the South Seas where the roofs of certain houses resemble those of Ise: a further indication of the links which existed between Japan and that area of the world, already manifest when one compares their myths[i]. However, to apprehend what this kind of structure could signify to the Japanese themselves, we must let their ancient texts speak. According to the Kojiki, a ritual formula accompanied the construction of a palace or a shrine: "Root the posts of your palace firmly in the bed-rock below and raise high the crossbeams unto [the upper world][ii]." In this manner, the shape of the roof frame, which one might say recalls that of an hourglass, reproduces the form of the universe. The part below the roof ridge corresponds to the earthly world, the part above it, to the heavenly world which rises up to the "plain of the highest heaven" inhabited by the gods.

This representation of the cosmos comes to us, by way of China, from India. It may have originated in Mesopotamia, but this will not be my concern; rather, I will consider its extension in the opposite direction. Paul Mus has often evoked, in its Indian form, the axial Mountain which carries the lower stories of the divine worlds, while more immaterial worlds float above its peak.[iii] "The first feature to be considered" of this axial Mountain, center of the world, Meru or Sumeru in Sanskrit, writes Rolph Stein, "is the mountain's shape. [...] it is a pointed cone emerging from the sea and carrying on its summit another, inverted cone that represents the abode of the [...] Gods. [...] The whole thing resembles an hourglass. Wide above and below, it is narrow in the middle.[iv]"

A feature of religious architecture thus refers to a cosmology. These hourglass forms, in their application to architecture or to movable objects imbued with symbolic meaning, are also found in the New World that Orientalists have left out of their investigations.

Before coming to America it is appropriate to make a stop in eastern Siberia, en route to Bering Strait. In his investigation of the relationship between architecture and religious thought, Stein has mentioned the Koryak who reside in wooden houses, roughly hexagonal in shape, with roofs in the form of a funnel or an inverted umbrella. [FIG. 3] Like other commentators, he has reiterated Jochelson's utilitarian explanation in which this unusual structure functions to protect the entrance hole in the roof from snow, or to break the force of the wind during a blizzard so as to prevent snow from covering the house[v]. Stein remarks in a note, however, that this inverted umbrella-shaped roof evokes the form of K'un-Lun (Chinese name for the cosmic mountain) and that of Mount Sumeru[vi].



Whatever the practical utility of such an appendice, one must not exclude that it may also be imbued with symbolic meaning. This appears even more credible since other parts of the house or furnishings, such as a notched central post used as a ladder, the hearth, a fire-drill, etc. all have symbolic value and because, for the entire region of the Far East, the house and each of its parts have symbolic significance, as Stein has admirably shown.

Hourglass Configurations by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Translation from the French original by Robbyn Seller, Anthropology, McGill University, Montréal, Canada.


[i]. C. Lévi-Strauss, "La place de la culture japonaise dans le monde", Revue d'esthétique, 18, 1990, p. 12-14.

[ii]. Kojiki. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Donald L. Philippi, University of Tokyo Press, 1968, ch. 24 (14), 27(3), 39 (18); see also Nihongi. Translated by W.G. Aston (Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London), 2 vols. 1896, Vol. I, p. 132-133.

[iii]. P. Mus, La Lumière sur les six voies (Travaux et Mémoires de l'Institut d'Ethnologie, T.XXXV), Paris, 1939, pp. 42, 54, 172-174, 284 sq.

[iv]. R.A. Stein, Le Monde en petit, Paris, Flammarion, 1987, p. 232. (English translation, Phyllis Brooks, The World in Miniature, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 246.)

[v]. R.A. Stein, l.c., p. 163 sq. (English translation, p. 169); W.W. Fitzhugh and A. Crowell, Crossroads of Continents. Culture of Siberia and Alaska, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, pp. 33, 200, 201.

[vi]. R.A. Stein, l.c., p. 318 n. 93. (English translation, p. 323, n. 60).


Tuesday, 15 March 2011 13:38

New Media in Anthropology and the Lau People

Pierre Maranda is a distinguished cultural anthropologist, and his academic career is renowned for its broad scope and the development of highly innovative research methods. His main innovation is concerning the structure of anthropology, which took root early in his career when he worked on the island of Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands with the native Lau aboriginal tribes. He combines the research methods of social and cultural anthropology, philosophy, literature, mathematics and other disciplines. In 1996 he was awarded the Molson Prize from the Canadian Council for the Arts. The panel of judges praised him as follows: "The international impact and recognition of his research are remarkable. Pierre Maranda is a talented professor and communicator whose lectures and publications have contributed to the dissemination and application of his research findings."

He has worked in various scientific journals and books, published over 150 papers, and participated in more than ten international conferences in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Australia, Britain, France, Sweden, Japan and other countries as well as holding seminars and special events and giving speeches. In 1998 he was granted L'Ordre des Palmes académiques in Paris.

In this interview Maranda introduces the website and how new media can be used to reform anthropology:

Alternative (for those readers in China)

In a second interview Maranda gives us an account of his anthropological work in Malaita in the Solomon Islands and his attempts to retain traditional institutions against a tide of fundamental evangelicanism and modernization, which was later chronicled in his documentary film:

Alternate (for those readers in China)

Below is a summary of Pierre Maranda's key-note speech to the "Mapping and Unmapping the Pacific" conference, held in Taipei in February 2011.

Pierre Maranda  - Key Note Speech (Abridged)

First, I want to congratulate the organizers of this conference for the formulation of its theme and its bearing. They are questioning current ideas about Oceania through a double inversion, actually a paradoxical title. A paradox is a statement contrary to commonly accepted ideas and that seems self-contradictory or absurd, but that may in reality express a possible truth. The first inversion consists of a statement, “mapping” and its inversion, “un-mapping”. The second resides in the contrast between “island” - here understood of course as the thousands of Oceanic islands - and the term “continent”.

Such a paradoxical approach is a most productive dialectical heuristics. Turning an idea upside down questions - which is disturbing - common assumptions. Indeed inversions compel one to work back and revise completely one’s thoughts and feelings on a given subject. Provocative, paradoxes are dialectical in that they trigger disputation or debate aiming at exploring differences between two opposite views so as to come up with a renewed, transcendent one. Accordingly paradoxical statements are heuristic because they lead to higher levels of knowledge. And that in turn, when one reflects on one’s mental processes, leads to what is currently called meta-cognition.

The theme of this conference echoes Epeli Hau’ofa’s important and most relevant essay A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands. Like the title of this conference that of his essay is actually a paradox.

A quick reminder of who was Epeli Hau’ofa (he passed away in Janyary 2009) -

In the words of our colleague Alex Golub of the department of anthropology, University of Hawai’i,

“Ethnically Tongan, born in Papua New Guinea, educated in Australia, and a naturalized citizen of Fiji, Hau’ofa’s life exemplifies the vibrant, diverse, and connected image of Oceania he promoted throughout his life. Those of us who study Papua New Guinea will remember him as an ethnographer of the Mekeo, but his influence expanded far beyond his ethnographic work — indeed, he is most often remembered as a novelist and author of short stories, and his humorous, satirical writings about the fictional but too-close-to-home Tikongs are widely read both in and out of the Pacific. […] In “Our Sea of Islands” Hau’ofa argued against the then-common (and still-common) presumption that Pacific Islanders lived in small, isolated, remote communities separated by a massive ocean. Instead, he argued that Pacific Islanders were connected by an ocean which facilitated movement and connection. Like all great ideas, it was an inversion of popular understandings that was so true and so timely that in retrospect it seems impossible to imagine how we lived without it (emphasis added). (

However Hau’ofa did not touch on an important point. Indeed what would be the common language, the lingua franca of the “sea of islands”, what would be the continent’s idiom that would enable Oceanians, proud speakers of their native tongues, to communicate with each other? Pijin? English? And how about French Polynesia and New-Caledonia? A lingua franca to the detriment of mother tongues? Actually, as is already the case for instance in the Solomons, Pijin has become the mother tongue of young adults… Will consequently the so many different native languages be doomed? I would doubt it because so many Oceanians have been multilingual for generations in their numerous interactions with people of different ethnicities with whom they maintained trading and other relationships.

Keeping alive the irreducible diversity of native languages is a fundamental issue that must be addressed when considering remapping Oceania. One way to do it is to provide texts in native languages both for the population at large within a linguistic community and more specifically for use in schools. There is a great need in that respect and TSPS could contribute very significantly to meeting it so that whatever lingua franca predominates, it will not jeopardize the people rootings in their own cultures. Oceanians must remain firmly planted in their most fertile Pacific soil in order that their branching out does not entail losing their specific identities that warrant their survival instead of transforming them in pseudo Whites. Solomon Islanders have so often told me

Our guts ache, because we no longer know who we are. We know that we are not White people, we know that we are not sons and daughters of savages as they have called our fathers and forefathers. Christians tell us that our kastom is the work of the devil, that the stories we believe in are all wrong, but how about their own stories, their Bible? We too have stories about dead men resurrecting. But we know that it is no longer so. Is it not the same with their story about the resurrection of Jesus? We don’t know what or in whom to believe.

Years ago, I have witnessed pagan priests arguing with missionaries in Malaitan market places. They told them “David’s and Jesus’ genealogies are good for you, but we have our own genealogies that are good for us and we don’t ask you to learn them. Why should we learn your own genealogies? Then it says in your Gospel that if one has faith, one can move mountains. You have faith, no? Well look, there is a mountain right there, behind you: tell it to move and if it does then we’ll believe you”.

Oceanian identities are function of what is written in the Synopsis of this conference which

aims at identifying the ways of mapping the Pacific in time and space that have been developed by islanders, especially by Austronesian populations. Such "mapping" has taken place through migration roads, tales, songs and genealogies, as well as by astronomic or geographic charts and artistic renderings. Taking these representations both in their irreducible variety and as an organic whole may help a new generation of scholars to challenge the usual ways of looking at the Pacific world, thus enabling the inhabitants of this "oceanic continent" to enrich and develop the interactive process through which they understand their history and destiny.”

In Epeli Hau’ofa’s words(emphasis supplied),

if we look at the myths, legends and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania, it will become evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions (Appendix 1, p. 7).

And the Synopsis voices a rejoinder to Hau’ofa’s statement under “Sacred Space-Times”: “Sacred elements in traveling and mapping, missionary routes and their rationale, conversions, new religions and the blurring of traditional religious mappings…”

The tack we have taken in CHEO (Cultural Hypermedia Encyclopedia of Oceania) to represent Oceania rests on the fact that there are major thoughts underlying language and actually structuring the ways their speakers use it, i.e., semantic syntaxes. As a dynamic substratum to different yet interconnected linguistic families such thoughts constitute a thesaurus of collective representations, i.e., ideas and feelings that shape worldviews, and that give people the conviction that they belong together. Some such major themes are universal and cut across linguistic families, others are culture-specific within linguistic families. According to the French semiotician and computer scientist François Rastier (1991, 1992) there are some 350 such major ideas - fundamental “keywords” - in Western societies : God, man, woman, sex, work, money, etc. Of course many other societies share all or some of those basic vectors of thoughts, feelings and behavior. Yet each society maintains identity vectors that enable its members to stand up and let other people know who they are. Here we fully endorse Fr Benoit Vermander’s (2005: 8) statement to the effect that

Though identities are mobile and changeable, they are still discrete entities, and the solutions to our common challenges will remain localized and different in substance. However, throughout the interpretative process these particular solutions will considerably vary from the ones suggested by the traditional understanding of one’s culture and identity, and the array of solutions devised form [sic] one’s culture or group to another will then be legitimately understood as a correlated set of attitudes, choices and decisions.

The “correlated sets of attitudes, choices and decisions”, networks of basic thoughts and feelings - “ontologies” in contemporary terminology -, depend on heavily loaded and deeply engrained culture-specific cognitive processes generating the fundamental “ideas” that structure ideologies. Expressed in cultural keywords as it were they “grip our guts”, Oceanians tell us. And such correlated sets form the ballast of societies, act as gyroscopes that maintain them on course in spite of difficult times that challenge their deep identities and ways of life. As both identities and ways of life must be reshaped without losing their groundings especially in times of crisis, we call those heavy and dynamic keywords “attractors” as I will explain below (Part 3). And, again in Fr Vermander’s words (p. 8),

In this perspective, all cultures, creeds and world-views are perpetually reshaped, and what defines them is never taken for granted but rather is being discovered and challenged throughout the process of exchange and interpretation. Thus, the core of our identity is never “behind” us, it is always “beyond”, it cannot be “essentialized”, it is rather “related to” the Other whose identity is similarly challenged and reshaped. At the same time, this ever-evolving reshaping of one’s culture, creeds and world-views does not lead to a confusion or a mix, it does define and sometimes sharpen one’s sense of belonging and core values (emphasis supplied).

Stimulated by the thought-provoking paradoxes of the title of this conference - powerful mental instruments to map and remap worldviews - are we now ready to take up rethinking and redefining the Pacific islands as Oceania? Perhaps we can try by moving beyond language, beyond native idioms and lingua franca, viz., to reach a level of collective representations that would remap and reshape Oceania. Is there a shared ontology that would “not lead to a confusion or a mix” but “sharpen one’s sense of belonging and core values”? Before showing CHEO’s approach to explore it I will briefly recall the importance of Taiwan as regards that endeavor.






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