Commensalism and Village Organisation and the Sociology of Production and Consumption Essay

The consumption of food for sustenance forms the most fundamental goal of productive activity in Palokhi. Besides this, or indeed perhaps because of this, eating as an activity and idiom in verbal expressions appears to be a pervasive means of expressing and communicating ideas, concepts and cultural meanings about social relations. Some of these we have already seen. In Chapter II, for example, I described the Head Rite and its sequel, and showed how the ritual commensalism among the co-founders of Palokhi and the rest of the community may be interpreted as a symbolic expression of certain social and ritual relationships which also involve the Lord of the Water, Lord of the Land. Other examples of the symbolic significance of eating were also described in Chapter III, namely, the joint consumption of a meal by the bride and groom in public view on the final day of marriage ceremonies, followed by the drinking of liquor from a common cup. In the ‘au’ ma xae ritual, which is a quintessentially domestic ritual, as discussed in Appendix A, commensalism is the principal ritual activity; along with other considerations, it establishes the cultural meanings of various social relationships. And, in this chapter, we have seen how a number of contractual arrangements are described through the idiom of eating. These examples are by no means the only ones to be found in Palokhi. There are many others which attest to the pervasiveness and power of eating as a polyvalent idiom in the symbolic representation of a host of cultural meanings in the social life of the Palokhi Karen, ranging from the seemingly trivial to the highly complex and significant.

Not unlike the Northern Thai, the Palokhi Karen often point to the number of times a day that people eat to make distinctions between ethnic groups. Indeed, because they eat three meals a day — as do the Northern Thai — this is taken as an indication of some similarity as against the Lisu, for example, who are said to eat five times a day. Again, similar to the Northern Thai, and a great many other Southeast Asian societies, a commonplace greeting in Palokhi has, as its subject matter, eating. The greeting, which is shared by the Pwo Karen (Hinton [1975:76]), is simply “Have you eaten yet?” (na ‘au’ me wi li). And, if the answer is in the affirmative, the next question could then be “What did you eat with rice?” (na ‘au’ me dau’ ca’ lau). The response is almost invariably “(I) had rice with pounded chillies” (‘au’ me dau’ mysa tho).11 In ritual and non-ritual meals where chicken or pork is prepared, children (especially if they are very young) are not permitted to eat parts of the head. The reason given by parents is that the children will go hither and thither, heedless of parental instruction. Or, as we might say it in English, they would become “headstrong”. There is, perhaps, another unarticulated reason, namely, that the eating of the head is only appropriate to those who are mature or “old” because they are less vulnerable to the effects of what is consumed. In quite another context, healing rituals in cases of “soul loss” and “spirit invasion” entail the eating of a meal not only by the patient, but by all members of the household as well. The patient, however, is also given lustral water which has been chanted over with prayers or, more properly, spells, thus consuming the restorative power of the spells through the medium of water.

Furthermore, in all important rites which feature commensalism in one form or another, the accompanying ritual texts contain the words “eat” (‘au’) and “drink” (‘au’) as a key dyadic set stating explicitly the fact of commensalism which takes place. And, not unlike many societies in which eating is associated with sex (see, for example, Goody [1982: 11]), the Palokhi Karen have a formula for verbal abuse which makes a similar association. It translates as “eat your mother’s vagina” (‘au’ noe’ mo ‘a’ li). As an idiom and activity, eating very clearly has the capacity to express a wide variety of meanings in Palokhi. One of these, of particular relevance to the present discussion, is the “corporateness” of the household and the relations between households which generally make up the community life and organisation of the Palokhi Karen. This is to be found in two contrasting modes of eating behaviour. The first is routine eating behaviour; the second is a generalised commensalism which takes place in one of the most important community rituals in the village, that is, the rites of the New Year (lyta thau ni sau). In analysing the significance of these two modes of behaviour it is necessary to consider commensalism as a form of behaviour which can take place in a variety of contexts (as indeed it does in Palokhi) in which the symbolic meaning of the activity may vary, but which nonetheless possesses some common symbolic property, feature or value.

The analysis, in other words, must take into account the fact that eating does indeed occur in different contexts, that there is at least some common meaning attributable to the fact that the activity is the same in different contexts, and that there may also be other meanings present which are derived from the particular circumstances of the different situations in which the activity takes place. Thus, although I am specifically interested in interpreting two contrasting modes of eating behaviour in Palokhi — routine domestic commensalism and feasting in the rites of the New Year — the interpretation should nevertheless be generally applicable to other instances of commensalism, some of which have already been described and some of which will be discussed later (see Chapter VI). The analysis which I present below draws on Kapferer’s essay (1979) on ritual as a transformative process which is primarily concerned with the form and organisation of rituals as performances (rather than their content), and how transformations in meaning and action may be effected. In essence, the meaning of a ritual is the product of its context which is composed of its constituent elements (such as objects, actions, symbols and identities) and their particular configuration. Thus any change in the relation between these elements, for example, leads to a change in meaning. Following Grathoff (1970) and Handelman (1979) on the concept of “symbolic types”, Kapferer argues that:

… specific symbolic elements or forms have properties, often culturally encoded within them, which effect transformations in other symbolic elements and in the organization of the context which they enter.

Such elements or symbolic types, then, have their own internal consistency which may transform the contexts in which they appear, thus, effecting transformations in meaning. Symbolic types also have the property of “summarising” symbols (Ortner [1973]; Kapferer [1979:12]). That is, they can contain aspects of meaning which they carry with them from one context to another. In terms of the organisation of rituals, symbolic types, furthermore, can be of two kinds.

They can themselves be altered as a consequence of the transformations they bring about; or they can remain unaltered despite the changes in meaning that they effect. The former kind are best exemplified in rites of transition, the latter in “affirmatory” rites. Although Kapferer is essentially concerned with ritual in its “religious” or “sacred” sense as conventionally understood, it is clear that the definitions of “symbolic type” and “context” permit their wider application.12 Indeed, they must. Symbolic entities and, by implication and extension, the contexts in which they appear are not symbols and not necessarily “ritual” sui generis. They are appropriated from the context of everyday life and are, as it were, constructed symbols and situations. Accordingly, a consideration of an entity or element that is symbolic in ritual contexts must require at least some consideration of its relation to what it is when it is not symbolic or when it exists in a non-ritual context.

Or as Firth has pointed out in an essay specifically concerned with food symbolism (1973:245–6), it is the conceptualisation of the object in a given relationship that is significant and that where food is concerned, the symbolic and non-symbolic relationships are in fact intertwined. In more general terms, the critical issue here is whether or not a clear-cut distinction can be established between what is ritual and what is not. As Leach has suggested (1964:12–3), this is not always so easy to determine and a far more useful approach lies in taking the view that human actions may be placed on a continuum ranging from the purely technical to the highly sacred. What is symbolically meaningful and not symbolically meaningful, ritual and non-ritual, can therefore only be determined by a consideration of the objects, elements or entities and their contexts simultaneously. It is here that the nature and composition of what constitutes a “symbolic type” become important. I suggest that as a practical activity, commensalism, may be regarded as a “symbolic type”, the typical property of which is the “constitutive” in the sense that social relations are symbolically constituted by it. This is a view of commensalism which is by no means new in anthropology. Commensal behaviour, as it is well-acknowledged in the anthropological literature, symbolically expresses a solidarity, commonality (or, indeed, communality) and shared identity of those who participate in it.

Furthermore, I suggest that it is this property of commensalism as a symbolic type which effects transformations in meaning and, at the same time, allows it to remain unaltered despite these changes which it may bring about. In terms of the transformative aspect of ritual, therefore, we may consider commensalism as a symbolic type that transforms the context in which it appears through its “constitutive” property such that the essential meaning of the context lies in the process of the constitution of social relations or identities. The kinds of social relations or identities that are constituted, however, are defined by other elements in the context in which commensalism features. At the same time, the symbolic value of commensalism, in each context, remains the same notwithstanding the transformation in meaning that it brings about. Commensalism, in other words, is essentially “affirmatory” symbolic activity.


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