Anthro Classics Online: Body Ritual among the Nacirema

I can’t say I particularly care for this one, but it is a classic, and it is online. Legally, even. I’m afraid that, like a horror movie, it isn’t possible to talk about this article without giving away too much. So I suggest you read the article first and then read the rest of this post.

If the goal of anthropology is to “make the strange familiar and the familar seem strange” (what the hell is the source for that quote?), then Horace Miner’s article makes good on the second half. Perhaps it serves a useful initial shock value, but he accomplishes this at the expense of deliberately distorting reality. To say, for instance, that “women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour” is not only dated, but is inaccurate even for the time it was written. Is Miner’s goal to make fun of how wrong anthropology can be about other societies, or to make us look critically at our own?

More worrisome is that, like Bakhtin’s carnival, the categories “Civilized” and “Primitive” are only momentarily inverted. They quickly revert back to their original and “proper” place. Once we get the joke, we are comfortably able to laugh at our own momentary confusion and discomfort. It does nothing to challenge our very notion of “the primitive,” suggesting (as we suspected all along) that there is a bit of the primitive inside each one of us.

Compare this, for instance, with Marx’s famous passage on commodity fetishism, where we come to see how the seeming equality of exchange relations obfuscates the unequal social relations of the production process.

There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

Like Miner, Marx sought to make the familiar seem strange, also comparing our society with a stereotypical notion of primitive society:

There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.

But even if Marx is equally ethnocentric, his analysis of our own society is not cheap theatrics. The nature of exchange relations is (for better or worse) to render social relations as if they were the relation between things. We do tend to overlook the importance of human labor power in producing value, and this is caused (in part) by the way we experience economic relations.

Miner’s analysis attempts to provide similar insight in his discussion of medical practices, but his jumping around from dentists to doctors to psychiatrists allows for little insight, and the jokes can be as stale as comedian Richard Lewis’ attempts to channel early Woody Allen. Unlike the earlier two classics I mentioned, I don’t see much contemporary value for this article, but it still seems to be quite popular.

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