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137 People and Ideas Travel Together: Tambiah’s Approach to Ritual and Cosmology in Brazil Mariza Peirano Chances and Odds The first time I read Tambiah’s work was in 1973, in a masters seminar on symbolism held by Peter Silverwood-Cope at the Universidade de Brasília.At that time, Tambiah’s article “The Magical Power of Words” (1968b) had recently been published in the journal Man, and “Form and Meaning of Magical Acts” (1973), still in manuscript form while the seminar met, would be available in print later that year.When the fieldwork of Edmund Leach’s students in the Vaupés region of Colombia came to an end, Christine and Steve Hugh-Jones headed back to England, but Peter Silverwood-Cope decided to move to Brazil. As an enthusiastic admirer of Tambiah, both as a scholar and on a personal level, he introduced his students at the Universidade de Brasília to Tambiah’s ideas. The purpose of this personal introduction is to set the record straight regarding how Tambiah’s work landed in Brazil more than three decades ago: it occurred by means of the mere casual fact that Leach had a keen student teaching in Brasília (of all places in Brazil). By another coincidence, some years later, in 1976, as a second-year F5920.indb 137 F5920.indb 137 12/17/12 3:00:44 PM 12/17/12 3:00:44 PM 138 Mariza Peirano graduate student at Harvard, I was thrilled to come across Tambi (as his students and friends called him), who had recently transferred from the University of Chicago to teach there. In fact, in those days of slow communication, I had believed him to be far away, in England. Of course, Tambiah’s strong influence in Brazil nowadays does not result only from chance involving former students, though this is indeed a significant part of it. After all, people and ideas travel together. But a more sociological explanation is also in order. The question becomes this: how is it that, despite Tambiah’s main ethnographic interest being located geographically, culturally, and ideologically very distant from Brazil, his work has been so significant for many anthropologists in Brazil? I offer here some short answers. Anthropology in Brazil A powerful feature of the practice and teaching of anthropology in Brazil lies in the fact that we tend not to separate ethnography from theory. In general, this means that a monograph is read for its ethnographic evidence and for its theoretical framework, both dimensions fused together. Of course, this is how classical monographs are (or were) also read in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, in graduate seminars usually titled “History and Theory” or the like. But in Brazil this practice is generally extended to contemporary monographs—that is, present-day ethnographies are read and evaluated as possible new Argonauts of the Western Pacific, not because of a particular interest in Melanesia, but rather for the theoretical claims made by Malinowski by way of the Trobrianders. Thus, in the same vein, Tambiah’s Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationist Conflict and Collective Violence in South Asia (1996a) is read not for a special interest in South Asia, nor for an exclusive concern with collective violence. It is read for its innovative approach to riots as rituals and the cosmological implications of that approach; for the new analytical tools Tambiah provides; and also, because nation-building is a continuous concern in Brazil, for its powerful portrayal of the (difficult) experience of the nation-state project outside Europe. In this perspective, we may say that although theory and ethnography tend to be inseparable in Brazil , the first encompasses the second. A question then immediately surfaces: why this theoretical eagerness ? Not unlike in other places, the modernization project of the 1930s in Brazil included the institutionalization of the social sciences F5920.indb 138 F5920.indb 138 12/17/12 3:00:44 PM 12/17/12 3:00:44 PM Tambiah’s Approach to Ritual and Cosmology in Brazil 139 for at least a twofold purpose: to prepare new political leaders to govern the country on a solid democratic basis, and to attain levels of scholarly excellence so as to allow communication with the world academic centers on an equal basis. Theory thus became a (noble) path to many ends: a modern political elite needed fine analysis to unveil what was supposed to be “Brazilian social reality,” and, in due course...


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