Man as Ox

August 9, 2008

Myth and Enlightenment among the Nuer

A few years before the Dialectic of Enlightenment was published E E Evans-Pritchard brought out his description of the life of the Nuer – a collection of tribes living in the Sudan. It is an interesting reference point in a reconsideration of the mythic pole of the dialectic of the Enlightenment.

Evans-Pritchard, who had spent long periods with the Nuer in the mid 1930s, described a pastoral culture that was remarkable for its obsession with cattle, and when people talk about commodity fetishism or any other modern fetishism it is worth remembering the ox fetishism of the Nuer. He says that the Nuer were often morose, but at the mention of an ox that changed completely and they began speaking with enthusiasm (p38). He also confesses: “I used sometimes to despair that I never discussed anything with the young men but live stock and girls, and even the subject of girls led inevitably to that of cattle.” (p19) Although game in the area was abundant, they had little interest in hunting, preferring instead to devote their energies to caring for herds of cattle, leaving the dairy work to women and the responsibility for herding to men. A family’s herd was its pride and its treasure and all the significant stages of life were marked by the transfer or sacrifice of cattle. They even preferred to be called by the names of their favorite oxen.

Evans-Pritchard vividly describes what he calls the symbiotic relationship between the Nuer and their cattle and the intimacy of that relationship:

“They build byres, kindle fires and clean kraals (pens) for their animals’ comfort; move villages to camps, from camp to camp, and from camps back to villages, for their health; defy wild beasts for their protection; and fashion ornaments for their adornment… and compose songs about them.”

The Nuer “drink the milk and blood of the oxen, sleep on ox hides beside fires of burning ox dung. They cover their bodies, dress their hair and clean their teeth with the ashes of cattle dung, and eat their food with spoons made from their horns.” They also “wash their hands and faces in the urine of the cattle.” And while the oxen are being milked they will sit contemplating them and admiring them because “no sight fills a Nuer with contentment and pride as his oxen.” (p37)

This intimacy begins from the earliest stages of childhood. Children that can still only crawl have the kraal (pen) as their playground “and they are generally smeared with dung in which they roll and tumble.”(p38)

Although the oxen were periodically killed for food it was considered shameful to kill one solely to satisfy hunger, unless there was a famine. There had to be a proper excuse to sacrifice an animal – there had to be a ceremony or at least a spirit to be honoured.

And after reading Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Nuer in the 1930s I am left wondering how that description could fit into Adorno’s dialectic of the Enlightenment. Perhaps the question is: In what sense is this mythic world already Enlightenment? In other words: what is its rational content?

There are many insights that could be grouped together and called the wisdom of the Nuer – things such as the techniques they developed for dealing with the plagues of mosquitoes in the wet season. But this is not something that Adorno would say is of philosophical interest. Instead of particular insights and pieces of wisdom Adorno is more interested in the nature of subjectivity. In relation to this it is the identification between people and animals that is the most interesting. The Nuer subject sees himself in the ox. The wish that his friends call him by the name of his favorite ox is especially significant. Of course there is absolutely no philosophical understanding of what is going on here but it is important that consciousness sees itself in the object.

The identification here is not one that could be summed up by the proposition: “We are all animals.” It is an identification that involves the emotions and that puts the individual into an affective relationship with a particular ox, not with oxen or animals in general – with the mere idea of oxen or animals. There is here a unity – a belonging together – of the subject and object that needs to be remembered and juxtaposed to the later rupture.

According to A&H the (unredeemed) Enlightenment denigrated the mythic consiousciousness for its anthropomorphism – the projection onto nature of the subjective.(DofE p6) But for Adorno this critique, while not wrong, ignores the unity of the subject and object in the mythic world, which is a thing of immense value.

Is the Nuer view, though, anthropomorphic? Doubtless it has many anthropomorphic elements, but they standout less than the oxomorphism in their self-understanding. It is not so much that they see the world in terms that are too human, but that they undertand themselves in terms that are so very oxen.

Fear seems to play a significant role in A&H’s historical account – a reading of the primitive past that apparently owes something to Vico. Horkheimer had written the following in an earlier work: “According to him [Vico], myth emerged as a reaction of fear to overpowering natural forces. Humans project their own essence onto nature, that is, natural forces appear to them from the beginning as living beings wholly similar to themselves, except that they are stronger…” But in the society described by Evans-Pritchard there is little trace of a fear of overwhelming natural forces even though life in Sudan can hardly have been easy.


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