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Monday, 30 March 2009

when the headhunting stops

Sometimes i think i like the anthropology of emotions more than the history of emotions. Perhaps this is just because within anthropology it is possibly easier to come across examples of exotic emotions, of responses that challenge perceptions and provide a thrill of the possibilities that we humans are capable of.

One such example comes from 'The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions', by William M. Reddy though in this case he is describing the work of an anthropologist.

Michelle Rosaldo wrote of the Ilongot people of the Philippines, formerly a tribe of headhunters (the headhunting was only done by the men) whose emotional lives prized the concept of liget which is a sense of anger, heat, energy and envy. This liget provided the motivation to do things like hunt, garden or protect the tribe from attack.

It also was central to young men becoming possessed of the desire to headhunt. This was then harnessed by the elders (also men) and they all went on raiding parties. If successful, the whole tribe (men and women) would break out in joyful celebration, not least in seeing liget fulfilled.

However when Rosaldo went back to the tribe for more fieldwork several years later, she discovered the headhunting had stopped, through a crackdown by the Philippino authorities. In that time, many of the tribe had converted to Christianity and the tribe's emotional norms were becoming much more placid in the absence of liget which could no longer be expressed or fulfilled. Ultimately they hoped the new religion would take away the pain of unrealised liget.

On the surface the tribe had made this massive emotional shift away from one of their core emotional states in a very short period of years. However, when she played a recording back to them of their celebrations of liget (at their request), the tribe became utterly disconsolate and asked her to stop as it grieved them too painfully to hear the joy of their old way of life.

In another incident, Rosaldo spoke of a group of Ilongot Christians playing volleyball during a child's funeral, saying they had no reason to feel grief.

As Reddy points out, the activity of the build up and release of liget was not just a ritual, it was something the Ilongot were fully emotionally engaged in.

These people were not monsters, but they genuinely felt decapitating neighbouring tribespeople's heads was a good thing. they felt good when that liget was fulfilled and released. And yet this was the same feeling they got when they tended their gardens.

That Christianity had helped them move on from headhunting which is a good thing but the loss of their liget had clearly left them bereft.

In their Christian states, they felt no grief, and yet nothing in Christianity tells them not to feel grief. And was their lack of grief unnatural? How could it be, it was what they felt.

But think of the reactions we have to an apparent lack of grief, for example with the Queen's apparent aloofness after the death of Princess Diana.

I am not arguing that Christianity or the authorities did wrong in moving the Ilongot away from headhunting, or that they should have been denied the choice to engage with aspects of the outside world to keep them in some prelapsarian noble savage role for us to study.

Truly the well of human emotions is deep and diverse, and sometimes sits rather uncomfortably beside our notions of morality.

I do think it is worth remembering that our emotions are not always good and true guides in formulating any moral code, as they are capable of making the moral equivalent of black,white and white, black.


Anonymous said...

Nowadays, it is important to have a high level of EQ (emotional quotient) and an ability to control emotions without hurting others. It seems that the Ilongot EQ was quite low in the old days.

scot in exile said...

It may well be the case, though the study doesn't spend as much time talking about compassion in Ilongot society.

It may well be that they had much for those they describe as being within an 'in' group ie the tribe, and not much for an 'out' or 'other' group ie those not in the tribe.

This a challenge that we may do better in some respects and not so well at other times. How often has our own society reduced an 'other' to less than human and acted cruelly or murderously to it?

Which isn't to say we have the same moral standards as the Ilongot, though perhaps the distance is less sometimes than we might like to imagine.

Anonymous said...

I found this article after hearing a piece in liget on NPR. Putting headhunting aside, it seems to me that this burning and complementary outlet of joy is a healthy emotional need that was no longer being satisfied. Gardening couldn't bring the same level of fulfillment as the intense, violent headhunting, and Christianity wasn't doing much in that department either. I suspect liget exists in all of us to some degree.

scot in exile said...

i think you're right about the gardening and the intensity of liget, and i regret conjoining the two.

Thanks for posting after all these years of this post lying quietly unread...

Anonymous said...

Isn't this 'liget' just the same as the mass hysteria when nations/groups etc go to war?

One's own personal suffering and negative emotions suddenly placed onto outside actors - the people showing emotions of anger, sadness (culmination of pent up negative emotions) and joyous (expelling the negative feeling).

I remember clearly the run-up to the Afghanistan invasion and Iraq War. Afghanistan was far more sombre (having actual loss). The soundtrack to the Iraq war seemed to be 'America Fuck Yeah'. Grief has passed but the liget was still there.

Not withstanding the obvious other example (certain German fella), there was the Falklands war in Britain . I suppose Russia in the Ukraine is the latest example. Alongside anger and loss, the excitement was palpable. Revenge is historically shown as cold, not joyous.

scot in exile said...

perhaps it is just anger and hysteria, but their relationship to it is interesting as it seems like something they cherished and celebrated and ritualised, whereas i don't think there were many contexts where we did that in such a regular form.

that said i'm not here to defend it...

Robert Lloyd said...

I also found this after the "Invisibilia" piece.

As an anthropologist, I'm familiar with the basic concept of the raw "stuff" of feeling being "packaged" into different emotions by different cultures.

What I wanted to know more about - that the piece didn't go into - was why the extreme (to my thinking) experience of headhunting, specifically, should be the outcome of liget. OK, you have this feeling... why does the ultimate fulfillment of it have to be cutting off someone's head?

Maybe Rosaldo or another ethnography of the Ilongot goes into it - I don't know.

scot in exile said...

it does seem like they made it into an almost sacred activity, but i don't know enough about it to say that with certainty. I'm not sure if Rosaldo went into the longer history of the practice and it's emotional responses, but i don't remember her doing so.

Connie said...

A few months before I listened to the Invisibilia episode on liget I was driving home after standing in for my sister in her 17 year old dog's euthenasia. Allowing myself to experience the grief I felt and wondering what made it so difficult while also asking for God's help, I believe I spontaneously felt liget. It was an indescribable, powerful, deep, raw, physical pain and I wailed all the way home and felt more peaceful the more I wailed. It helped to explain the behavior that some cultures show in the face of death that I had chalked off as hysterics. I'm thinking the beheading aspect of the tribe's experience of liget is perhaps a substitute, culturally sanctioned expression of the feeling which is aided along by the degree of testosterone in the system. I am not intending to be sexist. From birth my daughter exhibited behaviors that pointed to higher testosterone levels, I called it her yin energy, than her female peers and over the years I watched as she developed masculine behaviors and dropped most of the feminine behaviors she had such as wearing dresses and makeup. So I have striven to understand this difference in men and women for 32 years.
Reading these posts has given me an idea to complete the difficult grieving process from witnessing the natural death of my own 50 lb. beagle mix, Honey, who I was blessed to have with me for almost 18 years and who died on April 1st. I have been "stuck" in the same place which is the moment of her death which was painful to watch because she took not one but 5 agonal breaths. I have cried about her death but never wailed. So thank you Scot in Exile for using the word "sacred." The next time I feel the sadness or pain, I will light a candle, say a prayer and allow the wailing to surface.

scot in exile said...

Thank you for that lovely post, Connie.

Jill said...

I don't think only the hormone testosterone could be involved. When the NPR piece describe the tribes reaction to climbing a hill after someone it sounded very much like adrenaline. So the association of the extreme version of liget and head-hunting is in our culture analogous with sporting. We would say that the adrenaline pumps us up for a game and we celebrate a victory. But most cultures don't punish the losers. However, there is one small analogy in the Premier League football system which is that after the season the bottom three teams are punished by being relegated to the next system down. So not just the victors are celebrated but the losers are punished. This would be liget I think.