What do long-distance travelers gain from their voyages, especially when faraway lands are regarded as the source of esoteric knowledge? Mary Helms explains how various cultures interpret space and distance in cosmological terms, and why they associate political power with information about strange places, peoples, and things. She assesses the diverse goals of travelers, be they Hindu pilgrims in India, Islamic scholars of West Africa, Navajo traders, or Tlingit chiefs, and discusses the most extensive experience of long-distance contact on recordthat between Europeans and native peoplesand the clash of cultures that arose from conflicting expectations about the "faraway.".
The author describes her work as "especially concerned with the political and ideological contexts or auras within which long-distance interests and activities may be conducted ... Not only exotic materials but also intangible knowledge of distant realms and regions can be politically valuable 'goods,' both for those who have endured the perils of travel and for those sedentary homebodies who are able to acquire such knowledge by indirect means and use it for political advantage."
Originally published in 1988.
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An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance
By Mary W. Helms
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Positions and Problems
In European literature the noble wanderer Ulysses pursues conflicting goals. In Homer's epic, after adventuring into unexplored regions of mystery and magic he simply wants to go home, to return to Penelope and the domestic bliss of a quiet life in Ithaca. In Dante Alighieri's Commedia, however, the hero forever abjures such creature comforts and turns away to sail west, in company with a valiant crew, beyond the portals of the known world, out through the pillars of Hercules into the starry darkness of the unknown Western Sea, driven by restless curiosity to a fatal search for wisdom and experience.
The security of home or the challenge of adventure; the centrality of the axis mundi or the lure of the distant horizon where the arching sky dips down to touch the earth. Both have their appeal and both have drawn men to them. Although many, indeed most, have stayed at home, an inquiring few, like Ulysses, have ventured forth to distant perils, riches, and adventures. This essay is concerned with the symbolic construction of geographical space and particularly geographical distance, with travel and knowledge of distant lands, with long-distance specialists of various sorts who make it their business to go away, perhaps for many months or years, and then, hopefully, return with tangible or intangible rewards, with gems and spices, fine cloth, or glistening feathers, with wondrous tales or closely guarded secrets of the legendary regions they have seen. Finally, this essay considers the widespread association of political "elites" with foreign or distant goods and information. I am especially concerned with the political and ideological contexts or auras within which long-distance interests and activities may be conducted. Not only exotic materials but also intangible knowledge of distant realms and regions can be politically valuable "goods" both for those who have endured the perils of travel and for those sedentary homebodies who are able to acquire such knowledge by indirect means and use it for political advantage.
In discussing these general topics as they relate to nonindustrial societies I am building on several basic assumptions or hypotheses. The first concerns perceptions of geographical space and, more importantly, geographical distance. The second concerns the role played by political-religious elites in exploring and exploiting this distance. The third concerns our anthropological perceptions of the significance and activities of travelers to distant, or at least foreign, lands.
In considering geographical space and distance I am assuming that in traditional societies space and distance are not neutral concepts, but are accorded sociological, political, and especially ideological significance. More specifically, I argue that geographical distance from a given cultural heartland may correspond with supernatural distance from that center; that as one moves away from the axis mundi one moves toward places and people that are increasingly "different" and, therefore, may be regarded as increasingly supernatural, mythical, and powerful, the more distant they are from the heartland. As a corollary I argue that in traditional societies horizontal space and distance may be perceived in sacred or supernatural cosmological terms in much the same way that vertical space and distance from a given sacred center is often perceived in supernatural dimensions and accorded varying degrees of cosmological significance, perhaps being seen as ascending (or descending) and increasingly mystical levels of the universe, perhaps identified as the home of gods, of ancestors, or of good or evil spirits or powers. I posit that just as the sky (heavens) above may seem to curve around and touch, even merge with, the land or sea at the far horizon, so geographically distant places and peoples may be included with celestially distant "locales" and beings in the overall cosmology of a traditional society.
To the extent (and it varies greatly among societies) that geographically distant places, peoples, and experiences are perceived (either at first hand or by some manner of extrapolation) within essentially supernatural or cosmological contexts, then knowledge of, or acquaintance with, geographically distant places, peoples, and things rightfully falls within the domain of political-religious specialists whose job it is to deal with "mysteries." Knowledge of geographically distant phenomena, whether acquired directly or indirectly, may be expected to form part of the corpus of esoteric knowledge controlled by these traditional specialists, even as esoteric knowledge of "vertical" or "other" dimensions of the sacred falls within their domain. Stated somewhat differently, the select few who are either able or expected to become familiar with geographically distant phenomena may be accorded an aura of prestige and awe approaching the same order, if not always the same magnitude, as that accorded political-religious specialists or elites in general. In fact, those with direct experience of such distant matters are themselves likely either to be political-religious specialists or elites (or their agents) or, if derived from other sectors of society, may be accorded comparable honors, though to be sure these rewards may vary in accordance with the nature and context of their foreign experience.
The traditional anthropological approach to distant contacts frequently has been subsumed under the rubrics of long-distance "trade" and "traders." In this study trade is considered as only one of several possible motives for long-distance activities, and long-distance traders are subsumed under the more general concept of "long-distance specialists." In fact, while fully acknowledging the very great importance of long-distance trade and exchange in the political and economic systems of pre-industrial societies great and small, in this study I have chosen to be concerned primarily with political-ideological aspects of long-distance contacts in traditional societies and do not discuss trade per se except as long-distance trade and traders are associated with, or possibly subsumed under, political-ideological matters. In so doing I certainly do not intend to imply as a general tenet that the material dividends or economic contexts of long-distance contacts are in any way secondary or unimportant to cultural processes. I do wish, however, to approach the study of long-distance contacts from a different perspective and, in so doing, to sharpen our awareness of the diversity of underlying contexts, motives, and activities involved in traditional long-distance associations and, therefore, directly relevant to our understanding of the tangible and intangible results of such contacts.
It is important to emphasize that the assumptions outlined above are offered as general guidelines for the ensuing discussion rather than as scientific dictums to be proven or disproven by rigorous method. The ethnographic and ethnohistoric data on which this study rests are rarely so complete for any given society that all of the above "hypotheses" can be examined within a single setting. Rather, bits and pieces of information have been assembled from a wide range of cultures and will be examined and interpreted within the paradigms offered above. In effect, in the following chapters I present a series of essays on several topics that can be generally related in the final perspective, though not often within a single well-documented framework. Using ethnographic illustrations from many areas, I draw attention to various elements or characteristics associated with concepts and activities involving geographical distance under various circumstances. Ultimately, it is hoped, the accumulated weight of diverse pieces of evidence will support the general tenets outlined above.
The incompleteness of the data presented reflect the fact that the questions I am exploring usually have not been directly addressed in ethnographic reports (happily there are a few notable exceptions, e.g., Thornton 1980; Gossen 1974; Overing-Kaplan 1977; Sahlins 1981). Consequently, many data have been accumulated piecemeal from a range of book and journal articles originally written for other reasons. Which is to say that "fieldwork" for this study was conducted in the library stacks, and my information was obtained primarily from the wealth of ethnographic and ethnohistoric data that has accumulated over the last century. Presentation of this material, however, has necessitated its removal from the larger contexts of village studies, regional analyses, or topical reports in which I found it, and in some cases I have undoubtedly introduced distortions or interpretations that the original authors did not include or did not intend. Yet, just as there have yet to be completely adequate solutions to the problem of retaining appropriate context in recording data from geographically located fieldwork, so I see no reason to ignore this body of library material because of problems of quality control. In spite of their incompleteness, the data are rich and fascinating, and presumably were originally compiled and published with the hope that they would be of some future value. The challenge lies not in the data per se, but in our interpretation of them.
In this respect I have chosen to range widely, using illustrative material from any and all ethnographic regions, juxtaposing examples from the Tlingit with evidence from Timbuktu. This approach again may be questioned. Suffice to say that it is my intent to discuss some general points which require ethnographic verification, and that the emphasis is intended to fall primarily on the topics considered rather than on the completeness of the ethnographic record. Here again, although problems of "apples and oranges" undoubtedly will appear to some, I am attempting to seek the middle ground between pure speculation and the extreme rigidity that would be enforced by strict acquiescence to the limitations of the data per se. Such problems are inherent in any attempts to discuss issues cross-culturally or when data are sought from already existing ethnographies.
Finally, I do not intend to imply that peoples in all traditional societies necessarily view geographical distance and long-distance contacts in the cosmological and political-ideological contexts discussed below. Anthropological common sense and the ethnographic record both suggest that there is a great range of relative emphases on the cross-cultural spectrum. Given the uneven nature of available data to date, it seems best to suspend explicit judgment on the degree of universality of this characteristic, at least for the moment.
Distance and Knowledge
Underlying the discussion in the following chapters are certain assumptions concerning the political significance of knowledge and the conceptualization of space and especially of distance that should be briefly reviewed by way of introduction. Let us begin with space and distance. Fundamental to my argument are two assumptions regarding space and distance in traditional society: that space and distance are neither neutral nor homogeneous concepts, and that they are not static concepts. Basically, following Durkheim's recognition of the importance of socially differentiated space, I would concur with Giddens (1979:198–225; see also Pinxten et al. 1983:15–16, 159–60) that space (like time) is a dynamic factor in many aspects of social life and, accordingly, should be considered more seriously in our formulations of social theory. As Thornton discusses at some length (1980:8–13), space is not culturally relevant to only some societies (e.g., civitas) but not to others (e.g., societas); rather "concepts of differentiated space" (e.g., we–they; here–there) underlie many forms of social-territorial relationships. Nor is space simply an aspect of the "environment" in which social activity occurs. On the contrary, space often is an integral element in the nature of that activity and should be considered as such.
In this study, in which geographical aspects of space, particularly geographical distance, receive considerable attention, space is not considered just as an attribute of the physical landscape. Rather, to appreciate the symbolic significance accorded geographical space and distance it is necessary to recognize cognitive concepts of cosmic space, qualities of space as it is perceived to exist in all directions, above, below, and inclusive of the horizontal plane of the earth's surface. Space, in short, is a cultural conceptualization the nature or content of which may vary greatly depending on cultural context. Though definable in many dimensions, space in traditional society is nonetheless rarely considered to be as "vast," as infinite, or seemingly as neutral as are our concepts of the cosmos today. Space as an aspect of traditional "worlds" instead is finite in extent and is socially and cognitively differentiated into qualitatively different aspects, "identified" and filled with points and locations, with social interactions and paths of activity. Space is charged with meaning and differentiations, with mundane familiarities, and with cosmic mysteries. It changes shape and form. Its attributed powers and values, its intimacy or its expanse give significance to actions, people, places, things; make them accessible or render them "distant," make them mundanely commonplace or instill them with foreign exoticism.
This perspective, of course, derives largely not only from Durkheim but also from the seminal work of Mircea Eliade, who, in a series of volumes, explores the symbolic significance of space in considerable detail. As is well known, much of Eliade's focus has been on the concept of the "Center" as the heartland of social and religious models of organized cosmic space and of social and ideological life, and as the focal point for communication with the sacred (Eliade 1969, especially pp. 39–56; see also Smith 1972 for a succinct survey of Eliade's contributions on the subjects of sacred space and also time). Consideration of the Center has also led to questions of accessibility or of "distance." As Eliade has shown, distance as one aspect or quality of space (and of time) is an important variable in actions and attitudes. At its simplest, distance means an interval of separation and the quality of the "not near" or "not here." Beyond that, "distance" and "distant" can convey a range of spatial, temporal, or relational associations. Since, in Eliade's work, "distance" is generally explored within the context of the functions and meaning of the Center, it seems most appropriate to broaden the perspective by also considering the nature of distance as it relates to the "Periphery." Consequently, in this study distance in the context of peripheries of geographical space is the major concern.
Again, as we shall see in more detail, and as a moment's reflection readily suggests, the characteristics that constitute "distance" in such settings are extremely variable; fixed measurement of segmented units, of meters or of miles, is only one of many attributes for determining geographical "distance" (see Deutsch and Isard 1961). Subjective impressions ("it didn't seem far") or amount of time or degree of effort (type of communication or transportation) expended in reaching one's destination, whether "near" or "far," define or qualify even measured units of distance. Nonetheless, though distance may be a relative concept, the qualities attributed to geographical "distance" and to the "overcoming" of distance by time or effort, as well as specific locational attributes of distant phenomena, can confer distinct characteristics on people, things, and experiences associated with geographical distance. The perspectives emphasized in this study rest on the argued assumption that the significance of interchanges of peoples and material goods across geographical distances can be better understood if we know something of the qualities attributed to space and distance in particular situations, or at least appreciate that symbolic qualities of some sort are likely to be attached to concepts of geographical distance and by extension to tangible expressions of experiences with distance.
Excerpted from Ulysses' Sail by Mary W. Helms. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- List of Illustrations, pg. ix
- Preface, pg. xi
- 1. Positions and Problems, pg. 1
- 2. The Cultural Creation of Space and Distance, pg. 20
- 3. The Investigation of Cultural Distance, pg. 66
- 4. The Authority of Distant Knowledge, pg. 131
- 5. Gods or Devils or Only Men, pg. 172
- 6. The Outer Realms of Christendom, pg. 211
- 7. Conclusion, pg. 261
- References, pg. 269
- Index, pg. 293