Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cucumber, Ox, Sign and Substitution

In copying an article for inter-library loan, I stumbled upon a hilarious article.
Here are the first two paragraphs:

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Ralf Norrman:

A Note on the Cucumber-Sacrifice among the Nuer

In Nuer Religion Evans-Pritchard relates in detail how the Nuer, who normally - or at least ideally - sacrifice an ox, will sometimes sacrifice a cucumber instead, if an ox is not available. When a cucumber is substituted for an ox the sacrificial ceremony is nevertheless carried out as if the cucumber were an ox, and the fruit is spoken of as "the ox" (or, strictly speaking, "the cow", yang, which is the standard term on such occasions).

I believe that Evans-Pritchard's analysis of the mechanism of signification involved in the custom gives a valuable insight into this type of phenomenon. I wish to make a further contribution to the picture of Nuer sacrifice by considering briefly one specific detail in the sacrificial ceremony, namely the nature of the cucumber as a sign. My thesis is that the cucumber is an intrinsically appropriate symbol in the context; that it has natural suitability for its role as a sacrificial victim, specifically as a substitute for an ox - and ultimately, above all, as a substitute for the life (or lives) of the sacrificer(s).


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Consider the double substitution going on in these two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, the Nuer substitute a cucumber for an ox. In the second paragraph, a scholar substitutes a sign for a cucumber.

Which substitution is more deceptive? I imagine that the Nuer, a group of tribes from Ethiopia and Sudan, understand that the cucumber is not actually an ox much more than the scholar understands that the cucumber is not in fact an abstract academic conception of signs and signification.

Which substitution helps its own tribe more? The sentence, "I believe that Evans-Pritchard's analysis of the mechanism of signification involved in the custom gives a valuable insight into this type of phenomenon" speaks for itself. I propose that the Nuer have a more immediate grasp of substitution and signification than the scholar, at least in so far as the scholar believes he has offered us new insight while in fact he has translated the Nuer sacrifice into academic-speak and done little else. If everything is a sign (thanks a lot, Saussure) the author is not offering us much of a thesis, signification, or sacrifice.