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Society for Benedict is nothing short of a diagnosis of schizophrenia made by one culture upon another, or, as the case may be, upon its own historical periods. “The normal Kwakiutl rivalry contest,” she notes, “would only be understood as madness in Zuni, and the traditional Zuni indifference to dominance and the humiliation of others would be the fatuousness of a simpleton in a man of noble family on the Northwest Coast” (275). In the opening and closing pages of Patterns of Culture, Benedict dismantles the notion of the absolute institution and the individual. Making a strong case for a strong version of cultural relativism, Benedict argues toward a substantivist notion of culture and attempts to grasp its movements independently of biological inheritances (14). Culture, she argues, selects “some segment of the arc of possible human behavior” (24, 254). This choice of words, (‘arc of possible human behavior’), inasmuch as it treats potentials as existing (even if within some abstract arc), and treats human forms as selectable (as if layed out on a table) rather than as always emergent, does not seem to accurately represent Benedict’s stance or her evidence. Rather, her data supports a more dynamic epistemology forcefully felt when, to‘select just one instance, she problematizes the tendency toward the anthropomorphizing of cultural institutions. 


“Warfare is not the expression of the instinct of pugnacity. Man’s pugnacity is so small a hint in the human equipment that it may not be given any expression in inter-tribal relations. When it is institutionalized, the form it takes follows other grooves of thought than those implied in the original impulse. Pugnacity is no more than the touch to the ball of custom, a touch also that may be withheld” (35-36).


By keeping warfare and pugnacity analytically at arms length from one another, Benedict certifies her commitment to the particularity of institutional and organizational ‘structures,’ which, rather than harking back to a cognitive model, account for their own cultural logic.

Benedict’s epistemological stance is framed around The Nietzschian

opposition of the Dionysian and the Apollonian types. The Apollonian “keeps the middle of the road, stays within the known map, does not meddle with disruptive psychological states” (79). Dionysian, on the other hand, pursues his values through, “escape from the boundaries imposed upon him by his five senses, to break through into another order of experience” (79). He is characterized by his striving for ecstasy, his loosing of control and his becoming “rapt into another state of existence” (175).  The Dionysian is a celebratory mood of madness and frenzy, and ultimately aims toward an annihilation of the self. It is, as represented in the Kwakiutl dance song, “The gift of the spirit that destroys man’s reason” (176). For Benedict, the Zuni, the Kwakutl were Dionysian through and through.  “his dance was that of a frenzied addict enamoured of the ‘food’ that was held before him, a prepared corpse carried on the outstretched arms of a woman” (178). And yet the Dionysian is not simply a mad man or someone who flouts tradition outright, or even at all:


The very repugnance which the Kwakiutl felt toward the act of eating human flesh made it for them a fitting expression of the Dionysian virtue that lies in the terrible and the forbidden (179)


The destructiveness of the Dionysian, thus, is not directly linked to subjective pleasure, but is more akin to a drive.  It is the very fact that there is a morality to be transcended (e.g., moral repugnance) that gives the Dionysian urge meaning in the first place, but it is also this that makes the urge always something dark and terrible that one enters into despite the community and despite oneself. What is a bit disturbing in her analysis is that other than the few instances like this one here, those customs and behaviors that fall under the rubric of Dionysian and Apollonian are quite predictable in their nature, and do not offer many opportunities to question the boundaries of these concepts themselves. Cannibalism, passionate suicide, biting, killing, scalping, laughing; these are all, unsurprisingly, Dionysian qualities.  One wonders what Benedict’s stake was in passing over seemingly fitting terms such as ‘frenetic’ or ‘passionate’ for her and instead invoking Nietzsche?  One wonders about this because bringing in Nietzsche and his terms means bringing his whole analytical frame in The Birth of Tragedy to bear on Benedict’s project. For Nietzsche, the Dyonysian and the Apollonian are analytically distinguished in the early and the late Greeks, not simply for the sake of distinction, but rather because of the interwovenness of the two in Dynonysian art; the annihilation of the individual (the Dyonysian urge) through music, and the Apollonian appearance of order, the individual does not become crushed by his freedom, experiences both the universal, and the particular. It might be interesting to ask (but not now,) how one might read Benedict against Nietzche…