Monday, June 19, 2006

Avron Boretz at the Swenson's Meet Up, June 3, 2006

I promised a couple of weeks ago to type up Avron Boretz's presentation at the Swenson's Meet Up on June 3. I'm delighted to finally have the opportunity to redeem my promise. Sadly, none of my still pictures of Avron came out clearly, so I had to steal this iffy one from the video.

Dr. Avron's Boretz's presentation discussed fieldwork on temples, violence and young working class males in Taiwan. He continued a very fine string of presentations with some insightful and informative discussion of temple culture on the island. He also brought some pictures and played them on a laptop, setting yet another bar that future presenters will have to leap over.

Avron began by asking how violence and manhood are linked in Taiwanese working class society…..Jerome asked whether it is only in working class society, and Avron answered that it's everywhere, but he is only studying the working class.

Avron's work is in temples and popular culture in Taiwan, especially temple performance troupes. He was originally interested in popular religion, and its intersections with Taoism in its liturgy and texts. Local popular religion is exorcistic, and much of that exorcistic function requires martial or military symbols and implements. He wanted to understand what they did and how they function, what their internal logic was. He also wanted to know why it was martial and military - why not something else?

The first picture he showed was of a group of ritual items used by low-level priest in a ritual exorcism. He showed a sword with a set of Big Dipper markings, and a set of talismans with a weight on it. Some of the items on display were connected to the criminal justice system, and all had military or martial significance.

"You'll see sometimes one of the possessed shamans working with one of the swords," he said. "It's used in a very dramatic way," he said. "Why a sword? Why a weapon? Why does it embody this power? That was the first question I started out with."

Avron then showed a set of banners, the flags of the Generals of the Armies of the Five Directions, Chinese cosmology having five, not four, directions. Why summon these armies? Why the military metaphors?

Avron began to discover when he first started going to the temples that when people actually peform the rituals, there is a lot of blood flowing, a lot of violence. Sometimes it is symbolic violence, sometimes real, requiring a show of bravado on the part of the person undergoing the ritual.

He then got more interested in the people who perform the rituals rather than the rituals themselves. Many of the young men who perform the roles, who work or volunteer, sometimes even professionally, tend to be drawn from a certain class of individual - the working class. It's a term he uses because he lacks a better one, but generally he uses it to refer to the less educated members of society.

Many of these young men tend to be in groups that are often classified by the general public as gangsters and local hoodlums. They are really not "gangsters" in the sense we might think of it in the west. They are people on the margins of mainstream society, yet the temples themselves are central to local society and the local community, and are very much mainstream. The festivals are mainstream community events, major parts of community life, so how is it, Avron asks, that the public face of the temple at such festivals could be given over to peripheral members of the community?

Avron describes himself as an "extreme participant observation type." In addition to hanging out and talking to people, Avron likes to jump right in. After 7 or 8 months of fieldwork there, he got a break. One of the temples he was working in offered him the chance to participate in one of the temple procession troupes. He actually got a costume and learned the steps. After that, he found himself much closer to the people he was studying, "on the inside looking out." This inside experience enabled him to see things outsiders never saw. Further, the march through the streets, for two days and two nights, sleeping at the temple ("which means you don't sleep!"), is grueling. Naturally, the people who do this develop a camaraderie. This was important, because as Avron pointed out, he was in his thirties, and the people he was working with were largely young men in their late teens or just out of the army. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have been able to hang out with them. But from that point on, he said, people began talking to him.

He did the same thing in other temples as well. In fact at one point he became the subject of a "docutainment" video. He discovered that he was in the video when he walked into a video store one day and found what he thought was an interesting video on Taiwan temple performance. He read the liner notes and realized that he was the star. It even has a really embarrassing interview at the end. If by chance you see this video, don't watch the last seven minutes. He said he had one of those bad language days.

What does this experience do for the people who perform in it? After hanging out and listening and participating, Avron noticed two things that appeared to be related. First, looking at the guys who were not ritual specialists, not experts, but appeared to be involved in the temple procession for social reasons, the temple appeared to be one of the centers of their daily activities. The rest of their day is essentially spent working in a gang. These young men are channeled through the vocational track of the educational system, and thence into the army. Many end up in gangs, but many do not, he pointed out. The latter end up as laborers and workers.

At this stage of their lives, being involved in gangs and other forms of sworn brotherhood, deep loyalty to gangs - which may involve acts of revenge - there is an atmosphere of violence. They select the violent ritual even though there are many different possible ritual performances they could be involved in.

What is the link among all these things? First, there are links documented by earlier anthropologists working in Taiwanese popular religion. Previous field workers conjectured that the local sworn brotherhoods and the temple ritual have historical roots. This is true, said Avron, but only in a very limited way.

Prior to 1950, Taiwan's history was very violent, especially in the 18th and 19th century. Various ethnic and subethnic groups frequently committed violence against each other, over water rights, territorial boundaries, and so on. The need to protect the community against the threat of violence from outsiders led to the creation of some kind of self-protection society, or local militia. Young men would train together, sometimes under a martial arts teacher. The theory that was put forth by earlier scholars was that the ritual performance we see today is a remnant of the earlier violence. Since intercommunity violence is no longer the norm, the protection societies now provide symbolic protection against ghosts from other villages, who might do the village harm. But no explanation of why these activities would survive was provided, nor was it explained why the same group, the young men, were called upon to provide this service.

Avron observed that the tensions between groups now is no longer defined by ethnic or community lines, but now is delineated in other ways. For example, tensions might be generated by two rival temples or two rival gangs. In the festivals themselves tension may occur, for the technical term for a temple festival in Chinese literally refers to a competitive gathering of the gods.

What is this competitiveness? It is something that goes back to that early period, the old rivalries that could escalate into intergroup violence. This still exists, and seems to be a defining feature of not only the activities, but also of the social concepts that govern the mentality of the young participants. These young men see society as formed of horizontally competing groups arranged in hierarchies. The young men might follow particular bosses or particular temples or particular gods, and view themselves as in competition with rival groups who have their own bosses, temples, or gods.

Avron did his fieldwork in Taitung. One of the advantages of working there, he noted, is that there is no overarching gang structure with one gang at the top. "It's basically just that this particular individual has made a name for himself such that these particular young men follow him."

The young men seem to be living out a connection to the supernatural world, living out the expression of a power in their own lives, which are often violent, or at least potentially so, according to Avron. Thus these male-only rituals with their expression of violence are intimately connected to their sense of themselves as men.

Is there something about Chinese masculinity, or Taiwanese working-class masculinity, that entails or requires violence, or potential violence, as an essential component? Avron broke off with this question, leaving us deep in thought.

Syd Goldsmith asked what the connection was between this kind of violence and domestic violence in Taiwan. A good question, Avron responded, but he hadn't studied the connection in any depth. He did note that people tend to think that kids from families with domestic violence were all lost causes and hard cases, but many of them turn out OK.

In response to another question, Avron said that he was looking at two kinds of groups, one being the costumed performers, and another kind of public performers - those who go into trances, take up a weapon, and practice self-mortification. The latter tend to be individual performers, possessed by a higher-level spirit. Whereas the costume performers take on the role of a particular deity, but that deity is low-level, barely more than a ghost. Their job, Avron observed, is to go capture ghosts. However, this possession does not appear to extend into their social groups - nobody claims that their patron god is greater than other patron gods, and conflict between individuals does not occur on that basis.

A woman stood up and claimed that the performers all had to be virgins, to general laughter and many jokes. "Once they have sex, they are not pure enough to represent the god," she said. Avron politely stated that one problem with just asking people what's going on is that people give you idealized models instead of reality. "What's going on here is the same thing," he said, implying that there was no truth to the claim. He said that the people she had talked to simply gave the answer that their master told them to give. He added that there is something to it, in that the day prior to, or even three days prior to (depending on the particular god and temple), carrying out some act that involves representing or entering into the god's sacred space, you have to abstain from sex. "I know for a fact that most of these men are not virgins," Avron explained, "because in the troupes I have been in older men perform from time to time, and many are married and have kids." Further, he pointed out, the men sleep in the temple the night before, and the kids all brought their girlfriends to the temple. They don't have sex there, he said, but they all have girlfriends.

Jeff Martin asked what the appropriate level of violence was in these temple performances. Avron replied that the violence is carefully constrained by liturgy, convention, and tightly-controlled movement. "It's all an imagined violence, or even an imagined potential violence," Avron explained. Avron went on to point out that there has never been a time in Chinese history when local villages felt safe enough to hand over maintenance of the public order to representatives of the imperial state. Even today, he noted, there are areas of Hunan where every village retains its own cannon. So to be a community, or to be part of one, entails a sense of the constant presence of threat and violence. And one way of dealing with that is through such symbolic embodiment of violence.

Syd asked whether the rituals involve the idea of "sin" like mortification does in the Christian Church. But Avron said that in the majority of cases the answer is no - the men are possessed, and the violence is something that is done by the god, and does not involve agency of the men themselves. The pretext for the self-mortification is thus not sin, but possession. It is so extreme that it must testify to a miraculous presence, since no one would do such a thing if not possessed. Is it a kind of penance? Someone asked. Avron said usually no, but there is one cult that used to be found throughout the island but is now disappearing. They have a ritual, dedicated to the gangster god, which involves a living human, stripped to the waist, paraded around in a sedan chair and blasted with firecrackers. The members of the cult are gangsters, and the ritual, from their point of view, is simply a way of raising their status in the local gang culture. But the local people, Avron said, say that the gangsters feel guilty, because all year round they exploit the locals, but this one day they do penance for their sins.

Someone asked - since Chinese religious practice is so mixed, how can it be best described? "That's a question I started out with too," answered Avron, "but I've come to a very different take on that, which is - that question should never be asked." Most Chinese are not members of sectarian groups that are exclusivist, Avron explained, although such sects exist. Religion is very diffused into their daily lives, and daily life is sort of infused with religion. "This is a western question," Jerome added, in support of Avron. The kind of exclusive definitions westerners are used to do not exist in Taiwan. "It follows the same logic of the young men in the temple who treat it as a surrogate family," Avron said. "A lot of the people who attend the temples have made an oath of devotion to a deity. And they call that deity their 'big brother' or their 'father'. Devotees of Matsu call themselves 'Matsu's children.' Matsu is mother. It's all done in terms of fictive kinship." But this devotion is not sectarian or faith based - it doesn't require the rejection of other faiths.

How does all this fit into the greater society? Someone asked. "It's always been very central to the life and identity of the communities." In Taiwan today, while elites may remain aloof from the street processions, temples try to recruit powerful people into their temple committees, and powerful individuals want to be on them. Temples are closely connected to local factions. To get elected or chosen to the committee may be a boost to both the individual and the temple. Jeff Martin added the example of the mayor of San Chung, who was the head of a powerful local temple committee prior to becoming mayor.

At that point, since we had gone way over our time limit, Jerome Keating stepped in and thanked Avron for his fine presentation. I'd like to thank him too, for a very informative and interesting hour.


Taffy said...

Thanks for that comprehensive summary Michael - I thought Avron was obviously still fascinated by his subject after many years of study, which showed through in his talk.

I would just add one point to your synopsis, about the ties between participation in the simulated or controlled violence of the rituals and domestic violence. I got the impression that Avron was saying it was more likely to be a cart and horse situation, where kids from broken families often sought identification in the structure provided by these brotherhoods and that violence in their personal and domestic lives was in many cases antecedent to their participation in these violent rituals. I do remember him saying that the incidence of domestic violence among the young men he studied was, in his opinion, not significantly higher than the 'background level' in the wider socio-economic class.

Thanks again for summing up so well and here's hoping future events will see equally interesting speakers.

Jerome said...

Good job as always Michael. For those that want more follow up with Avron, catch him before he heads back to Univ. of Texas at Austin later this summer

Hallie said...

hey cool that was my intro to asia professor