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Mystification and Its Symbols
Symbols, Sumptuation, and Mystification
An Overview for College Students
Mystification and Its Symbols (Part 3)
Two related issues are particularly important in studying ancient societies. One is the use of symbols to exalt kings. The other is the monopolization of other people’s labor (or life) as a symbol of one’s power and social position.
Mystification. The use of symbols to exalt kings and to make them seem different from ordinary mortals is a particular case of a more general process that some scholars have called “mystification.” Mystification refers to disguising real power through the use of diversionary cultural symbols that make human social arrangements seem more than human, even cosmologically inevitable.
Two examples are the symbols of kingship among the Nyoro of pre-colonial Uganda and the ancient Egyptians, symbols by which the person of the king is made to seem, if not exactly divine, at least more than human. Among many peoples we also see systems of religious symbols that have the effect of defining certain ritual events as “necessary” because demanded by gods who oversee the welfare of human beings.
Power Over Life. The objects and actions that are used as symbols are many and various. But a recurring theme is the use of scarce goods and other people’s labor. By definition, scarce goods are not available to everybody, and the ability to gain access to them and to use them is therefore a sign of one’s power, making control over scarce goods a more or less natural symbol of power. It is no accident that gold and “precious stones” are used in ritual celebrations of wealth and power around the world, and it is not merely because they are pretty.
The ability to control other people’s labor is also a sign of wealth and power, and it is conveniently symbolized by physical objects that are the fruit of spectacular amounts of human labor either to manufacture (such as fine embroidery, sculptures, or pyramids) or to locate (such as gold or gems) or to transport (such as cedars from Lebanon or marble from Italy). We of course think of the famous temples and palaces of antiquity, but a recent example is the “House of the People” (Casa Poporului) built by the Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in Bucharest. Specifications for the immense building (which included a throne room for Ceaucescu himself) required that carpets and draperies be hand woven in Romania, that floors be of Romanian marble, and that ceilings be decorated in Romanian gold leaf. Hand weaving and marble and gold leaf clearly were intended to demonstrate the state’s total power over Romanian labor and resources. (Click me.)
Slavery & Human Sacrifice. In archaic societies one symbol of great power over other people is slavery. An even more powerful symbol is the right to take human life at will. In many societies (especially Bronze Age empires) we find these practices institutionalized and associated with government or upper-class mystification. We see human sacrifice as an important part of the mystification of government process among the Aztecs, for example, who practiced it at a scale unknown elsewhere. Part of what makes the modern world “modern” is the gradual reduction in these extreme processes of mystification and sumptuation. (We don’t do human sacrifice any more.) But the mix of politics, social class, and dramatic symbols of legitimacy are still with us.
Both mystification and sumptuation are fundamental symbolic processes sustaining social order in non-foraging societies. Although it is convenient to illustrate them with extreme examples, and although they help us to understand these examples, the two processes lurk behind much of life in most societies throughout recorded history.
By David K. Jordan
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, UCSD
Demanding state wages for household work
"Those who demanded state wages for housework sought two things. First, to make wifely love visible as productive work. Second, to uncover for women the leverage that workers have in their potential to strike. ‘To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it,’ wrote Italian feminist Silvia Federici, ‘because the demand for a wage makes our work visible … both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity.’ This was feminism designed not to increase individual compensation, but to reveal and create power while undoing sex roles in all realms of life."
Sarah Leonard, “The Fairer Sex”, Jacobin magazine
About all the questioning: “Is this feminist?” and “what is feminism?”
Can be big questions, but can also be just this succinct
Check out the article
Capitalist crisis in a nutshell