1/9/13 - men build up placid surfaces that women puncture

In today's selection -- in his book Lost People, the liberal anthropologist David Graeber makes an interesting observation about the respective roles of men and women. After two years of extensive fieldwork in Betafo, Madagascar, he observed that "authoritative men tend to avoid displays or references to conflict" and "build up the placid surfaces that women would then mischievously puncture and expose". We wondered as we read whether his observation holds true for realms beyond Madagascar:

"My style of research ... mostly consists of people talking; often, of many talking at once. I rarely conducted formal interviews; instead, I would take out my tape recorder and turn it on whenever I had the slightest excuse; usually I would ask some questions or raise issues, but, once everyone was aware of the sort of topics that interested me things would often follow of their own accord. ... It helped that verbal performance is so much appreciated in Madagascar; rather than people freezing up or becoming stifled, the presence of a tape recorder would often set people into playful competition in conversational skills, wit, or knowledge. Of course, in a place like Betafo, who said what in front of whom was a ques­tion full of politics. The political aspects of conversation are one of the major theoretical issues of this book. ...   

"Avoiding topics people didn't want to talk about did not mean I only got the 'official version' of events. To be honest, I often found authoritative accounts rather boring; they interested me in so far as they were full of holes. I always assumed when you see hesitation, confu­sion, tension, ambiguity, when people seemed to want to talk about something and not to want to talk about it at the same time, that this is was the surest sign there was something important going on. It was usually easier to explore such territory with women. Women may have regularly deferred to men as the authoritative voices for representing the community, but as often as not, they would push the men on stage only to subvert their message as soon as they were done with it. Even the old woman who took me to her son to narrate vil­lage history ended up interrupting him, as soon as he was drawing to a close, to tell the story of a notorious local witch -- completely shattering the image of solidarity he had just done his best to convey, and causing much consterna­tion among the assembled menfolk. Things like this happened again and again. At times it seemed to take on an almost ritualized cast. In the end, I came to conclusion that it was this very process -- men building up the placid surfaces that women would then mischievously puncture and expose -- that history and moral discourse really consisted of. The object only existed when it had been halfway ripped apart. ...

"Many argue that all societies distinguish between a public sphere identified especially with men, and domestic sphere, identified especially with women; and that one way that women are suppressed is by being denied full access to the public arena. Bloch argues [Madagascar] is no exception. But one extension of the ritualized nature of public discourse in [Madagascar] is that -- as I have already pointed out at some length -- authoritative men tend to avoid displays or references to conflict, so that it is especially women who voice it, just as it is especially women who are publicly critical of established verities."   


David Graeber


Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar


Indiana University Press


Copyright 2007 by David Rolfe Graeber


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