Chapter 9 (pt.2)
THE AUTHORITY OF ANCESTORS
What Is Subject to Authority? Everything, at least in ideology. Ancestors are "the main ideological bulwark of the kinship system (1945, p. 33) and "kinship relations ... plays a vital part in the organization of all the activities that make up and maintain the social system (1949a, p. 340). Kinship relations cannot be reduced to the economic, religious or any other category of activities; they are 'axiomatic', in Fortes term (cf. 1945, p. 249 and 1949a, p. 346). The notion is an important one. It should be clear that Fortes is not (as more simplistic functionalists have sometimes been accused and guilty of doing) arguing that kinship exists because it is 'functional'. He is arguing that it exists, and that certain functions follow on its operation. It exists as primary in and a priori to individual and collective action. It is inasmuch as it organizes the 'system' that it is 'functional' for the system.
Authority among the living comes only by "transmission and assumed devolution from ancestors" (1961, p. 187). This universal authority of ancestors is only over a given population for each one:
The ancestors acknowledged in a given situation are primarily only those who are exclusive to the worshipping group and therefore distinguish that group unequivocally from collateral and coordinate groups of of a like sort, who have remoter ascendants in common with them, and worship jointly with them in situations of common concern. (1965a, p. 123)
All facets and all variations of life are subject to ritual sanctions within the general framework of ancestral authority (1945, p. 144). A man may become the victim of his ancestors (a woman of hers and her husband's) for a wide range of faults not necessarily his own or under his control. There is always a loophole, and the system is impregnable. Men are not able to judge such mystical wrongs for themselves (1959, p. 35). They are thus not matters for human retribution. "The community is neutral" (1949a, p. 180). Let us look first at the relation of ancestors to issues of fate and chance, and then at the way in which ancestral authority is brought to bear on social relations.
With regard to the former, the actions of ancestors are to be known only in retrospect (1959, p. 10). The attribution of ancestral explanations is more than a cognitively or emotionally gratifying enterprise, however. The explanations offered after deaths and other misfortunes are significant comments on social relations and community affairs (1945, p. 256). Material causes are contingent on mystical agencies of selection -- ancestors (1959, p. 31). The situation could be likened to that described in the Freudian concept of 'overdetermination'. Events occur for natural causes and because people are guilty. As with guilty self-examination, the faults are there; one has only to look. So it is that chance events can, when coupled with ancestral explanations, become occasions for the manifestations and maintenance of a "social conscience". The ancestors are more than unpredictable (1945, p. 145); they are always right. The ideological system, at least, is closed.
The Popperian 'closed and open' distinction that found its way into anthropology through Horton (1967) is inaccurate only in its assumption of a too considerable extent of rationality in 'open' society. Rationality, as we have suggested, is inadequate. So is openness. This is true of the closure and openness of economies as well as cosmologies. The issue in either case is one of the immanence of change, the extent to which a social organization may be self-sufficient. Contradictory group interests and social demands are characteristic of all social organizations. The Tallensi have a strong social order despite this. Mechanisms for the resolution of conflicts and the recurrent working out of contradictions under controlled circumstances are crucial. Among these mechanisms are many of the operations of ancestral authority. Issues that cross or otherwise implicate social boundaries are matters for ancestral authority. These are of two kinds: those which directly involve social actors of contrasting identities (that is, involve them in their contrasting identities), and those which involve collective interests in opposition to partial interests.
Both of these types of situation are structured in terms of the inclusive hierarchy of ancestors (and the corporations that they imply). One of the basic rules of this representation is given in the aphorism "as you are towards each other so are the spirits of your ancestors towards one another" (1945, p. 98). The ancestors represent this amity and conflict of social units in part through their relevance or irrelevance. Thus, two groups acting together are under the authority of a single ancestor; he who includes them both and no one else. A split in this group which pits two sub-corporations against each other brings two different ancestors into the fore, those which uniquely define the segments of the larger unit. But amity may also be represented without loss of distinction, indeed through distinction, on ritual occasions as various parties participate as the descendants of their respective ancestors. The whole is a necessarily differentiated unity. Its segments may compete, but as long as its unity is recognized in a common ancestor, it is not broken by the battles.
However deep a breach may be, the dissidents never repudiate membership of the larger unit, for this would be tantamount to repudiating the ancestors. The ancestor cult is the supreme sanction of lineage and clan solidarity. (1945, p. 244)
This statement should actually be taken to apply only to the largest (and perhaps the smallest) corporations. Corporations of the intermediate levels do, in pressing claims to more senior status, renounce their common membership in other intermediate level lineages. The basic principle still remains largely true. The ancestors are the language and sanction of both solidarity and distinction. One expression of the 'common interests' theme in ancestral authority is the collective ownership of sacrifices. As we have noted, the food of sacrifices is distributed in prescribed patterns along the lines of agnatic and cognatic kinship. It also usually comes from many relatives, either with or without the creation of a debt. Some sacrifices result from the common liability of the lineage to ancestral malevolence or justice. Others more directly relate to well-being already manifested:
Certain sacrifices to the lineage ancestors are obligatory on every man of advanced years. They are both a sign of gratitude to the ancestors and a symbol of the common interests of the whole lineage in the giver's welfare and possessions. (1945, p. 228)
The solidarity and distinction which lineage ancestors represent (and help produce) is among corporate groups. Distinction, thus, is always that of one group, as a unit, from others of like level and/or from its solidarity with these in a larger corporation. But ancestors also give voice to the distinction of social individuals. They do this, furthermore, in such a way that a person's very individuality implies his social obligations and bonds. One of the primary mechanisms of this is the institution of 'Prenatal Destiny' (see chapter 5). In this, ancestors are seen as responsible for the innate social potential of individuals. Each person has a distinct Prenatal Destiny and a distinct set of Destiny ancestors. These thus represent his individuality, but they only express themselves in complaints about his social failings:
What is symbolized in the notion of evil Prenatal Destiny is, therefore, a failure in the relationship of belonging to society, for the Tallensi, means family, lineage, and kin. (1959, p. 42)
This is the aspect of ancestral authority which Gluckman had earlier stressed.
The ancestral cult is a mechanism by which kinship bonds are affirmed . . . and hierarchy of society expressed. In this the ancestral cult is, like much ritual, a form of mnemonic, legally prescribed actions which vividly express social relationships. (1937, p. 129)
Although Fortes has emphasized that this is more than just a mnemonic (1959, p. 19), he is clearly in accord:
There is the jural componant of status in one's lineage and locus in the web of kinship, acquired by birth, through one's parents, and forming an element in the continuity of the social structure through time. The ritual imprimatur for this is the conception of the ancestors as sovereign and eternal, mirroring the total system of kinship and descent which is seen as an everlasting and fixed framework for the individual's social existence. (1959, p. 40)
This "fixed framework" as represented by the ancestors not only shapes the individual's relationships with others; it forces and provides the patterns for collective decisions. Unlike the system of authority by age which Kopytoff asserts to be the norm of Suku organization (1971, see esp. example p. 132), ancestral authority leaves no living person with the authority to act in isolation on behalf of a corporation. Divination and other modes of relation to ancestors are means of representing the collectivity, even though various persons may have disproportionate voice in that collectivity. The heads of segments may have more voice than others in the affairs of the higher order lineages. But beyond the effective minimal lineage, no living persons holds final authority: the lineage ancestor has "the last word" (1959, p. 33). This means that only an essentially 'public' process may arrive at an authoritative decision. Even were each headman able to represent his segment absolutely and without challenge, this would limit the centralization of power to an oligarchy of sorts. Formally, at least, every headman of any given level has equal access to the salient ancestor of the level above, the level of their commonality.
The continuity of this system across levels (that is, essentially, through the statically viewed generations) is also important. Fortes has characterized ancestor worship as "in essence the ritualization of filial piety" (1959, p. 18). Among other things, this means that the criteria of enfranchisement are integral with the processes of decision-making. A man seriously violating the norm of filial piety would not only
lay himself open to immediate punishment by the ancestors; he would, indeed, be unable to participate in the life of the community since he could not act for himself in ritual or jural affairs. (1949a, p. 218)
A man can be a member of the ritual and jural communities only through his descent. In other words, he can only be politically enfranchised in and through his relations to his ancestors. As we noted above, the ancestors are primarily concerned with his relations to their other descendants. Those matters which are subject to ancestral authority may be briefly described as those involved in the perpetuation of the social order. The fullness of this is, in essence, all the routes through which the influence of authority could return on itself in the paths of influence discussed in the last chapter.
How Does Authority Last? We have suggested the ways in which ancestral authority is self perpetuating, but let us expand this statement briefly, and then note finally its relation to the other variables in our model of social order. The main way in which ancestral authority is perpetuated has been discussed under the rubric of 'monism'. By organizational monism we have referred to the extent to which a single principle underlies an entire order. The principle in the Tale case is agnatic descent. More accurately, perhaps, we could say that the principle is kinship, of which agnatic descent is the core. But non-agnatic ties are never 'axiomatic' in Fortes terms; they never exist on their own, outside the recognition of contractual elements. Still, cognatic relations are binding in significant degree, and the social order would be less without them. They provide a counterpole to the organizational monism and they proliferate the ties it would provide. But they never contradict it. There is never a question of the one succeeding to the place of the other. Every structural characteristics of Tale society is rooted in agnatic kinship.
The role of ancestors in this system is partly 'religious' (a meaning generally only diffuse and connotative) as Fortes describes it above, and partly that of a "calculus of the lineage system" (1945, p. 33) but it is more than these terms usually imply. It is more also than just "an ideological bulwark" (op. cit.). Ancestral authority is the basic premise of Tale social order. This may be what Fortes means by 'religious', probably is what he means by "fundamental moral axiom" (1945, p. 249), but that phrase he applies to 'lineage solidarity', not to ancestral authority. Lineage solidarity is not, however the key to the whole system, rather just a part of it. Only the authority of ancestors is central to, implies all of, the other elements of the social organization. Even such basic economic issues as land tenure are organized through referent to the ancestors. All of the same 'values' of lineage solidarity would not have the same effect without the specific organization and decisional methodology imposed by the authority of ancestors.
I do not think that Fortes at any point contradicts this, nor would I expect him to disagree with it, but he lays the emphases in different ways. Firstly, he simply speaks more generally, of the entire system of kinship, rather than attempting to argue a case for ancestral authority as central to the systematicity of kinship. The systematicity is taken more as given. The second difference in viewpoint relates to this. Fortes treats of kinship in terms of relations, primarily, in his general discussions. He gives considerable information on and analysis of its extension in time, but when it comes to the general statement, this is left out in favour of 'structure'. I would change part of the emphasis from kinship to descent. It is descent, the passing on of kinship relations through generation(s), which seems to me most crucially characteristic of Tale social order. It is with descent that identities are formed, and it is the continual formation, not the mere existence of social order which is most important.
Viewed in this way, succession is seen to be an important aspect of kinship, of ancestral authority. What senior individuals and lineage heads have is a greater weight in the constitution of "public opinion". This, and a certain amount of prestige, is what they acquire by succession. Thus the second half of this statement is more accurate than the first:
Succession ensures that authority and right do not die with the bodily demise of men who have them. Descent ensures that the matrix of social relations remains more or less constant through the passage of generations. (1965a, p. 139)
It is the peculiar genius of the Tale ancestral system that only dead men have ultimate authority and right. The exceptions to this are all narrowly circumscribed: the authority of fathers over their sons (and to a lesser extent their grandchildren). Authority and right do not die because they are never simply characteristics of the living. As characteristics of ancestors they are directly characteristics of the social organization.
Succession is still of vital important in the maintenance of Tale social order. The principle of agnatic descent governs almost all successions, thus maintaining an established order. Even on occasions on which there are disputes, these must, as we have seen, be carried out in terms of patrilineality and corporate identity. It is by corporations that succession takes place. Headmen had their positions while alive only as representatives of their corporations; relations among corporations may thus remain relatively stable through substitution even though the internal relations of one are upset.
The universal operation of the principle of patrilineal descent is vital. It is this which ensures the continuity of the system of ancestral authority, and through it of social relations more generally. The morality of kinship, the multiplexity of social relations, the commonality of situation definitions, and the length and sociation of planning are all crucially organized by the patrilineal principle. They are the products of the pervasiveness of descent:
From the standpoint of the individual, all the norms and conditions that govern his social behaviour fall within a single, syncretic frame of reference; and kinship forms the baseline from which this frame of reference is projected. This is a consequence of the syncretic structure of Tale society, based as it is on genealogical connexion. The alinement of individuals and groups for all social purposes follows genealogical lines; with few exceptions, social relations always have a genealogical coefficient. And because they have a common foundation in the genealogical structure of the society, Tale institutions interlock with one another in a consistent scheme. For the same reason Tale social relations do not fall into distinct categories with only adventitious connexions between them. Economic relations serve jural, political, and religious ends as well; political relations are at the same time religious relations; jural rights and duties are aspects of economic, religious, and political bonds. (1949a, p. 13)
The key to this genealogical system is the authority of differentiated ancestors. The social order depends on the range of mutual implication of social relations and the coinciding contingencies of social action. Through genealogical connections tradition and morality find their immediate representations in Tale social order.
Basic Contradictions: a conclusion of sorts
In dime stores and bus stations
people speak of situations,
draw conclusions on the wall.
The central results of this study should already be apparent. The peripheral conclusions which one might draw are many, and are by and large left to the reader. I shall elaborate one of them here, however. This is the crucial idea that what we call society is characterized by, indeed built from, basic contradictions. I should have thought this notion inescapable were escapes not so obvious and prevalent.
To hold the 'irresolvability' of society is a stoic sort of statement, much like the key to Freud's psychology. The conflicting drives and desires which he saw warring in the psyche, doing battle unto death, have been lost or softened in modern psychology. So too have the Hegelian contradictions which moved thinkers like Marx disappeared in the modern 'science of society'. One can read Marx in many ways, and textual accuracy has in many instances been more curse than boon to scholarship and speculative thought. I, for one, should like to hold to a picture of a stoic Marx, a Marx never deceived for long about the essentiality of conflict as opposed to the artifactuality of its forms. The picture is given well in this phraseology of Mao's:
The history of mankind is one of continuous development from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. This process is never-ending. (n.d., cited from 1967, p. 203)
Whatever one's picture of Marx, it seems to me clear that society, like psyche, is characterized by basic conflicts between security and risk, individuality and community, continuity and change.
The impact of these contradictions is to produce a varying social problematic. That is, under some circumstances the major social issue may be achievement of freedom; under other circumstances avoiding alienation and seeking community may be more urgent. This I think is a large part of what is behind the picture of endless waves rising and falling which is found in many of the epic philosophies of history -- those of Toynbee, Spengler, Sorokin, and others. We live today on the alienation, the disintegration side of one of the larger waves. Perhaps it began in the era of the industrial revolution, perhaps earlier with the reformation, perhaps the enlightenment was the key. By looking at our model of social order some of the gains and losses, costs and benefits of historical changes become apparent. The very scope of modern civilization is the result of sacrifices of security and community in countless settings. It is easy for us to see how much we would be stifled in Tale society. We can readily sympathize with those who broke the bonds of social and intellectual slavery in the decline of feudal Europe. But as we begin to pay more in alienation and economic anarchy for the liberties they won, it becomes easier to sympathize with those who strive for one sort of community or another. We find the writers of the 'anti-enlightenment' worth reading. Whether our feelings go more to Owen and New Lanark, to Saint-Simon's curiously conservative workers' reform movement, or to Marx's more theoretically comprehensive and disciplined communism, we extend ourselves toward reactions against the liberties that have changed their nature. This is the great historical lesson: things are not the same. Even phenomena which themselves remain the same, in different ages have different social import.
So, too, is this an anthropological lesson. Curiously, the studies of continuity ad studies of change unite in an emphasis on the 'fit' of things. Or not so curiously. 'The way social things are', as sociology has sometimes claimed the right to name its topic of study, is a phrase without a real predicate. How much more is learned by inquiring how things change, or stay the same, or differ. What a difference a transitive verb makes.
The reader of this thesis will have gained at least some detailed understanding of the authority of ancestors among the Tallensi. Hopefully he or she will also have gained some rough -- or perhaps clearer -- ideas about the complex activity of maintaining or losing social order.
Who Has Authority? - What is Subject to Authority? - How Does Authority Last? - Conclusion: BASIC CONTRADICTIONS