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The Trickster as an Anthropological Figure

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 4023 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Select one anthropological based concept discussed in the course that you think is important for social theory

The figure of the trickster is most commonly connected to mythology or folklore in many cultural traditions. In many different cultures and across many different times in history, the trickster has become a reoccurring character in many of the tales and stories within mythology and folklore. The trickster, however, is not one single figure, there are numerous tricksters with similar characteristics (Szakolczai, and Thomassen, 2019). Some common characteristics of the trickster include scheming and devious who takes advantage of sharpness in order to survive. Although the trickster figure has many different attributes, the character is somewhat a contradiction of itself, they use deception and dishonesty to progress their activities, tricksters are rarely the victims of their individual schemes, and are presented as absurdly stupide. They are keen to benefit from the innocence or naivety of others, and they sometimes put themselves in a position that they will be confronted about their mischiefs. Tricksters are inherently tough and so they can prevail over any situations they put themselves in or find themselves in. Thus…’the trickster who is both shrewd and silly, both the prankster and the laughing stock is a consummately ambiguous character who embodies all manner of contradiction’ (Stookey, 2004:179). Trickster tales are mentioned in numerous mythological tales spanning from north to south and west to east cultures and civilizations, for example, the spider in Africa, in Native America the Coyote and the raven are among the most famous and in South America Breb Rabbit or Loki the Norse Gods in Iceland (Lemming and Page, 1999, Bassil-Morozow, 2017).

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The trickster is not confined to the disciplines of mythology or folklore it is used in other disciplines and by many academics. For example, for Carl Jung, who was predominantly a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst but also contributed to the disciplines of anthropology and so on, the trickster was one of the four archetypes. From his perspective these archetypes are part of the collective unconscious. To draw a logic conclusion of archetypes we must use tales, religions, artwork, legends, etc. Jung framed archetypes as ubiquitous, images and anachronistic motifs that one obtains from the collective unconscious which can influence human instinct and behavior (Stevens, 2006). Karl Kerenyi, whose expertise focused on classical philology, saw the trickster as a character who could produce something out of destruction. In mythology, through their recklessness and impractical ways the trickster has the ability to pass through an existing period and destroy what was there and create a new order (Bassil- Morozow, 2015). However, for the purpose of this essay I will focus on the trickster as an anthropological figure. Firstly I will discuss anthropologist Paul Radin and discuss how he has contributed to anthropology and the trickster. I will then briefly discuss the relationship between anthropology and social theory. Subsequently I will discuss another anthropological concept, which is liminality, in order to illustrate how the trickster figure is important for social theory and thinking. Lastly I will discuss characteristics of a trickster that is essential to understanding contemporary life by using the example of communism examined by Horvath and Thomassen.

Significant to the discipline of anthropology and one that cannot be ignored is that of Paul Radin. Although Radin has been ignored in social theory and other disciplines, he’s work on cultural anthropology has not gone unnoticed, insofar that he has helped influence and form the discipline a great deal (Szakolczai, and Thomassen, 2019). Radin’s perspective on societies and its inhabitants was that all societies consisted of individuals with different inclinations or what he called different “psychological types” and that “Primitive societies” simply cannot be depicted as an undifferentiated mass of individuals suppressed by the collective forces of society – the image of an alleged “pre-modern worldview” (ibid 2019:126-127). The conceptualization of the trickster figure from Radins perspective is built on three main identifications. The trickster is not only important in that the figure has been present throughout history but the trickster has played a significant role the in how the history of the world is shaped. From Radins point of view the trickster is “the dominant actor in the mythologies of all primitive peoples” (Dhavamony, 1973:153). The trickster’s position can often be distorted because the trickster has the ability to transform cultures and also be the champion or cultural hero in different cultures. Radins second recognition of the trickster is that the character of the trickster is not fixed to the historical societies, primitive cultures or religions. His argument is that the trickster belongs to all religious beliefs and faith from past to modern day and in particular of the major world religions, “are modes of priestly systematizations of certain practices and experiences that are to be rooted in and filtered through the trickster” (Szakolczai and Thomassen, 2019:131). Radins last recognition of the trickster is that he identified within himself characteristics of the trickster and from this Radin found it difficult to carry on building his work on ‘a trickster vision of the world’ (ibid: 132). In Radins 1955 book The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology he discusses his analysis of the Winnebago myths. Foundational to the book is the Winnebago Trickster cycle which covers numerous tales of the trickster. The tales of the cycles include the trickster becoming the chief of a village unjust way. The trickster has become so angry with his he cannot control his temper and destroy nearly everything in his way, furthermore his supporters have left him. Another tale tells how the trickster sexually is central to the figure. The trickster uses his reproductive organs to gain the attention of young women while they swim or when the trickster fooled a village by disguising himself as a women and has intercourse with the chief’s son after marrying him but the his intention as to steal food from the village for the winter months ahead. These tales are only brief and a tiny fraction of the Winnebago trickster cycle but they all tell interesting things about the trickster and his characteristics (Radin, 1956).                                                                                    So, how is the anthropological concept of the trickster important in social theory? Firstly we need discuss the relationship between anthropology and social theory. Thomassen (2013) argues that there needs to a renewed dialogue between anthropology and social theory. Thomassen (2013) suggests that anthropology and social theory have had a lengthy relationship which can be observed as far back as the time of the classical sociologists for example Marx, Durkheim, Habermas and so on. Thomassen proposes that anthropology has functioned as the “other’’ in different domains of social theory which has seen the classical sociologists “engaged in a hopeless project of positing ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ society as the opposite of modernity” (Thomassen, 2013: 188). Additionally, in order to understand discussions surrounding modernity and the present within social theory we must return to the past and study primitive times which has not received much consideration. Some of the central anthropologists that have contributed to social theory and the development of modernity within the discipline they include Victor Turner, Arnold Van Gennep, among others. In the example of Marx and Engles, they used primitive societies to analysis “primitive communism” which was based on anthropological concepts. Marx and Engels perspective on primitive communism suggested that it was “an undifferentiated group of people living freely together without centralized power or private property” (Thomassen, 2013:191). With the combination of anthropological concepts and ethnography, Engels set out to draw comparison on old social orders and the new ones that were beginning to emerge and progress. Additionally, Thomassen (2013:191) suggests, that Marx and Engels operated from the perception that the primitives of the modern embodied the historic civilizations. From this analysis the basis of the primitives was there to function “as an ideal image of the teleological end station of evolution”. A simplified outcome of this analysis is that the contemporary social order in some shape or form grew from everything it is not – “The primitives were made to represent everything that moderns were not” (ibid). Furthermore, Durkheim also employed anthropology which was central to his concept on organic and mechanical solidarity and religion.                                                                                                                                                                         In order to discuss how the anthropological concept of the trickster is important in social theory we need to visit another anthropological concept that is significant in social theory which is liminality. Although this essay is concerning the trickster it would be difficult to attempt to explain the trickster’s importance and how it is important in social thinking without discussing liminality briefly. Liminality, along with other anthropological concepts, is the foundation of social life and it was Arnold Van Gennep who first coined the term during the 20th century. According to Arnold Van Gennep within every civilization the practice of “ritual passages” observed a period of transition. Furthermore, he suggested that when these periods of transition occurred there was a ‘”universal tripartite form” (Thomassen, 2009, 2013:197) which is comprised of separation, transition and incorporation. The first stage of separation observes the closure of the former state of things and the creation of a new social order. The middle stage is known as the liminal stage. This liminal period is evident as many conditions and happenings take place such as pain, prohibitions, unpredictability, ambiguity, etc. The final stage of the tripartite form is a stage where recovery takes places. Social, political and economic communities who may have gone through this transition, restore themselves and return to a “relatively stable, well-define position in the total society” (Bassil-Morozow, 2017: 86 cited in Turner, 1979: 16). Along with Van Gennep, Victor Turner is another anthropologist associated with the concept of liminality. Building on Van Gennep’s concept during the 1960’s, Turner’s concept of liminality focused on the Ndembu religions and rituals but then shifted his analysis of liminality towards a more comprehensive and relative observation of changes in the social order and rituals (Thomassen, 2009, 2013). Liminality or liminal periods can be reached out to allude to an extensive breakdown of social order or unexpected disasters in the most fundamental portrayals of the world in bigger social settings, “involving new dynamics between the order-maintaining and order-transforming symbolic forces unfolding within political history” (Thomassen, 2013: 198). The concept of liminality is not an individual concept, it is complex and is weak in explaining any of its consequences or outcomes. Liminality is a domain of possibility where occurrences and positions and reality are driven in several different paths. Thus, liminality can push social theory in new ways (Thomassen, 2013).As we know liminal moments are important to understanding social theory, social structures and social change and when these liminal moments occur we see the trickster figure appear. The trickster remains a liminal creature as it inhabits the outer limits of society. It demonstrates that societies are in a constant state of developing or becoming (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). Turner (2007:89) suggests that Liminal spaces “are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, and ceremonial”. Even though there are liminal stages that mold different stages of progress throughout transitional periods, there is additionally an understood stability of awareness at either end. Tricksters tests this stability by demonstrating that liminal states do not really end. The other point to make here is ambiguity. Ambiguity is significant when discussing the trickster and liminality. According to Szakolczai, and Thomassen 2019 cited in Radin (1972: 147–50) tricksters are ambivalent and ambiguous because they are intangible, mysterious and elusive, to the extent that people within the local population cannot decide whether they trickster is someone they enjoy or like because they may not be able to understand them or their motives and also if the trickster is someone who brings a positivity or negativity to their community. The trickster is also well recognized for being a shapeshifter, regularly transforming their appearances, transforming into several different types of animals and figures and who can alter their sex (Bassil-Morozow, 2015). The entirety of these attributes elusiveness, mysteriousness and shapeshifter are “problematic in themselves for a boundary marker, but rendered worse by the amorality of the trickster. Being not simply ‘beyond good and evil’ in the sense of avoiding excessive absolutes”. However, having little or no respect for any moral principles or values echo’s the trickster’s survival response to the social. (Arapad, 2019: 136 cited in Guenther 1999: 48; Stephenson 2000: 193, 7). Salinas (2013:151 cited in Turner 2007:89) brings forward Turners argument that ambiguity and liminality are closely integrated. The characteristics that belong to liminality or liminal people are effectively ambivalent, as this state and people sneak past the system of orders that ordinarily find states and positions in social space. Tricksters are simply such liminal characters. Not exclusively does their equivocalness permit them entry through various states and positions, their state of being in constant liminality tends to hold them open to risk or chance. Chance is characteristic for liminal states where ordinary structure is never again respected but at the same time, being more light-hearted and more open to risk, they are considerably more liable to be rebellious, knowingly or unexpectedly presenting distinctive structures that may form into genuine alternatives in contrast to the current state. Chance is as essential to liminality as it is to the Trickster’s devious operations. The Trickster’s artful controls of risk or chance can be among its most incendiary practices (Salinas, 2013).

Another characteristic of the trickster is its talent in testing our language and language practices. This sort of challenge may be a universal scheme of the trickster in testing cultural and traditional norms. According to Grádinaru (2012: 87) “the trickster assumes the role of deity of the blasphemous language. He/she/it not only does the unthinkable, but also speaks the unspeakable”. As we have learned, tricksters are almost always present at times of social and political change and certainly are operating within this social change – tricksters are an important entity in social foundations and are deeply embedded within them. The trickster rarely appears but it will never vanish. It has a place with a specific culture, yet in a similar time it attempts to undermine that very culture. It produces a kind of radical discourse that challenges the principal dialog in that culture. The trickster does not present us with one single discourse, but rather it is the prospect of that discourse, moreover, the continuous probability of the undermining discourse. This alternate speech emerges in times of social, cultural and political change. Old meanings are dead and new ones are born, new discourses are given expression and we see the emergence of new languages and opinions, beliefs, and concepts which can become influential and fascinating to civilization. Grádinaru (2012) suggest that the trickster chooses to change meanings within social spaces because this is the framework people employ when they want to be part of and exist within the social setting. “To assign meanings to sentences, things, events, social ties is to open yourself to the possibility of sociality. Whatever is meaningless is important only when it challenges what we know about meaningful/and what we judge as being meaningful… It looks as though the trickster was created in order to ensure the pass from one type of social situation to the other” (ibid: 87). This explanation of linguistic practices in the trickster and the trickster logics mentioned throughout this essay and the concept of liminality, leads me on to the point of the contemporary state and the trickster.

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The trickster is useful in illustrating liminal moments in history and how trickster logics are central to those moments. Weber suggested that in times of political or social unfolding we see an emergence of charismatic leaders but Thomassen (2013) suggest that Weber was unable to identify any charismatic leader who had a menacing agenda. Weber was correct in his suggestion but the leaders that he suggested were emerging, who were modest, respectful and so on, were quite the opposite of the other political leaders that were beginning to emerge. These types of ‘other’ political leaders are tricksters and Agnes Hovarth and Bjørn Thomassen (2008) use the case of communism to illustrate how communism emerged in a liminal period through trickster logics and through the linguistics practices that I mentioned above. Their example of the communist party as a liminal period driven by trickster logics is characterized by political speeches that were given by the Hungarian communist politician Mátyás Rákosi subsequently after World War 2. This political communication, according to Horvath and Thomassen (2008: 14 cited in Horvath 2000) “shared liminal condition” with the public as the meanings and ideas behind these communications were set to remind people of their vulnerability and the vulnerability of others. Not only did the speeches deliver these types of messages, they also promised “relief from the pressures of worry and concern by substituting it with their own version of vigilance that is centralised and mechanical, and where the communists can serve as guides”(ibid: 16 cited in Horvath 2000). The way in which the communist case can be explained as period of liminality is through Horvath and Thomassen (2008) suggestion that the communist regime, although it had an established military that could uphold the beliefs and idea of the communists leader, it could not operate in daily social life and and mobilize citizen toward this party, therefore, as we are aware liminal moments occur in out of the ordinary situations or outside of everyday life. However, what had to drive this regime into a liminal space was down to a number of methods and trickeries accomplished by an oppressive leader. The trickster logics sent the state into an era of ambiguity, elusiveness and anticipation, moreover, “rituals of sacrifice” were fundamental in the tricks of the regime, propelling the masses into a transitional hole (ibid: 16). This transitional uncertainty is founded on Rákosi’s linguistics practices. His use of language, terms and expressions were put forward to lay audiences and because of this unfamiliarity and obscure domain, they somehow were drawn to him and his logics. Hovarth and Thomassen (2008: 17) state that this is achieved by the “revaluation of values”. Primarily through the admiration of pain and misery and furthermore “the propelling of self-conscious marginalised outcasts, driven by hatred and resentment, into the role of guides in liminality”. The trickster in the liminal state has the ability to create new identities and alter ones position in the social realm. The latter trick was that while the communists regime needed to stress their identity among their position as the outcast and the common condition of the populace after the war, they needed to provide two distinct sorts of motives which consisted of the standard efforts of a state to reestablish itself, the sound endeavor at restoring social disorders within the political domian, and the attempts by the communists to fulfill their own interest for acknowledgement that had previously turned endless because of many years of suppression.The former trick was to create identities from the consolation of the people because of their mutual transitional positions, here they had utilized the strategy for separation. By focusing on the contrast between the identity set up between the communists party and the group of onlookers, and the others, the resisters – everyone who contradicted to the communists party and what it stood for, they had now created an ‘us’ and ‘them’ within their regime.The reformation of a new a social order and the formation of new identities needed new techniques or tricks. Horvath and Thomassen (2008: 18) suggest that the regime employed the trick of “flirting”. This entailed the organized “teasing” of this populace with an intrinsic condition of pleasure and delight, and gratifying them with outlandish admirations, “as a crucial type of mental coding”. The trickster’s technique is critical for the communist’s reformation that prevailed in the revision of morals and norms, “liberating energy from giving up of care of one’s own fate, changing the deformed caricature into the admired, lifting up the miserable into the successful, and thus creating the communist world” (ibid: 18).


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