Words, words, words

A few weeks ago, the fam jam (phrase courtesy of Jo – love it) was visiting the Bub (nickname courtesy of Meghan) in St. Louis (name courtesy of The French).

On our way to the delightful and delicious Northwest Coffee Roastery (north and west of what, one might ask), housed in a converted garage, we drove past and then walked through an assemblage of protestors outside of Planned Parenthood. (We drove past because the streets in St. Louis are often one ways going the wrong way — get it together! — and cul-de-sacs to keep out riff raff like ourselves.)

As we parked on the wrong side of a cul-de-sac and exited our vehicle, the assemblage began to walk down the street. The Bub and Mom were already at the coffee shop, but the rest of us were held up by the chanting crowd. When I reported this to my dear mother, my dear father corrected me:

“They were praying.”

“No, the priests leading them were reciting half of the Hail Mary and the crowd was chanting the rest of it.”

“You mean praying.”

“Pretty sure I said chanting.” (I’m not actually that lippy to my dad on a regular basis, but if he wants to protest, I will approve his comment because Free Speech. Also, get your own blog, Dad!)

That wrapped up that little discussion of religion with this recently ordained minister of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, BUT what is interesting for the purposes of Ye Olde Research are the very implications of the words that we use in casual conversation.

I don’t think I would (typically / pre-grad-school-ruining-conversations) give it a second thought if someone said, for example, “The Buddhist monks were chanting.” or “The Wiccans danced around their totally illegal inside the limits of the City of Chicago backyard fire.”

But the incongruity between what is perceived (and discussed) as “prayer” in the Roman Catholic faith and my declaration that the crowd was “chanting” offers an interesting moment to compare such banal sentiments.

Would practicing Buddhists consider their chanting as “prayers?” Would Wiccan celebrants consider their prayers to be “chanting?” Were the Catholic* protestors chanting or praying? Why would the word “chanting” resonate in some contexts and not others?

*I assumed from the priests and the Hail Mary and the being-in-St.-Louis, but they might not have been.

We also went out for Ethiopian food and Chinese food in St. Louis, and RY had the good sense to point out that the former is just “food” in Ethiopia, and the latter is just “food” in China. (Or, as Stuart Hall puts it: “In Calcutta, Indian food is not exotic. It is exotic in Manhattan.”)

There are some great articles (links to Horace Miner’s EXCELLENT “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”) and lesson plans (the one I wanted to link to was about the ritualistic ceremony — complete with what are often considered holy garments in the form of numbered jerseys — football, but I can’t find it!) on this very topic of unsettling the everyday. A few other examples that I would love to see (or curate) in a museum exhibit are flags and totem poles (which is which?).

Among loads of varied meanings, flags can signal belonging, and their misuse is considered a slight (at least in America-land, where burning The Stars and Stripes or turning ’em upside down is a big ole no-no). Sticking with the America-land example, the stars and stripes all have meaning. The flag’s placement on flag poles also sends a message (half-mast for mourning, for example), and the flag’s care is often the responsibility of certain caretakers (like that kid at IMSA who always played the bugle AT DAWN because he HATED EVERYONE ELSE but LOVES AMERICA).

So why is there a national park and museum in Sitka, Alaska, devoted to the layers of meaning in totem poles and their (re)production, but not for flags?

In the words of Walter Percy in “The Loss of the Creature” (circa 1975):

By the most exclusive sort of zoning, the museum exhibit, the park oak tree, is part of an ensemble, a package, which is almost impenetrable to them. The archaeologist who puts his find in a museum so that everyone can see it accomplishes the reverse of his expectations. The result of his action is that no one can see it now but the archaeologist. He would have done better to keep it in his pocket and show it now and then to strangers.

Good thing I am reading up on my Mieke Bal and Roland Barthes so I can try to learn something about all these word choices and latent meanings and Seeing.

Addendum: Praying is something you do with your soul; chanting is something you do with your mouth.

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2 Responses to Words, words, words

  1. Heather says:

    I’ve been making a concerted effort to stop saying “_____ food”. I don’t say “Italian food” or “Greek food” and I’m irritated with myself every time I say “non-white-EXOTIC-region food”.

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