The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gluttony as a By-Product

Kay has again requested that other bloggers produce entries based around one of the seven deadly sins. This week, the sin is gluttony.

I am having difficulty writing this entry. First off, I don’t think that gluttony as we tend to conceptualize it in the modern U.S. is very interesting, nor do I think it’s particularly deadly or sinful except in its most extreme cases. Certainly, I could try to tie gluttony in to something that I see as more interesting, such as the development of consumer culture, but that really seems to fall more in line with greed, a different sin altogether. I suppose that I could discuss my current attempt to improve my own diet and get down to a healthier weight, but, well, I’m not interested in turning this blog into a some sort of pseudo-Weight Watchers testimonial or an unfunny attempt at a Kathy comic strip (the writer of Kathy already produces enough of those).

Instead, I think I’ll talk about the fact that gluttony – consumption to the point of waste – though considered a sin by the western world (although many of us engage in it, provided we have the means), may be not an end or “sin” in of itself, but rather a byproduct of something bigger.

Sound strange? Well strap in, boy-o, we’re about to go on an anthropological journey.

A common ceremony among prehistoric and Protohistoric* peoples is the potlatch. The potlatch is a huge festival held between people from different villages. The festival typically includes a huge feast and the giving of gifts, often amazingly expensive but fairly useless gifts, as well as the production of huge amounts of food. The leaders of a village would call in favors from people within their own villages as well as people from outside of their village, often incurring great debt that would then have to be paid off. In some versions, gifts were not given, but rather good were destroyed for the visitors to see. Regardless of whether gifts are given or goods are destroyed, the basic message is the same: “Hey, look at me, I’m a big powerful guy who can afford to give you gifts/destroy lots of stuff! And, hey, since I did it for your benefit, you’re now in debt to me, mofo!”

…and it is generally agreed that being a guest at such an event puts you in debt to the event’s organizer. The typical way to pay off such a debt is to hold another event and invite the group that you are in debt to. Of course, you want to make your event even bigger, and invite others as well, to get more people in your debt, but this means that you have to mobilize your community, make deals, and often borrow in order to do this. Before long, everyone is in debt to everyone, and everyone feels like they are owed something by everyone. Internecine warfare tends to break out over not being invited to an event or not being given access to goods before or after an event. So, one needs allies to deal with conflicts, and you gain allies through many avenues, but one is throwing a potlatch and inviting them….and it goes ‘round and ‘round in circles.

And the unnecessary giving or destruction of the goods is itself simply a means to a social/political end, and end that quite possibly everyone would be better off without, but that is now so ingrained in the culture that it can’t be safely removed* – anyone who chooses not to participate will find themselves isolated and vulnerable – a bad situation in a hunter-gather/early farmer world of cyclical resource stress and accompanying conflict.

And the goods that are being over-consumed for these festivals are themselves simply being manipulated by people who themselves are simply being manipulated by the political system in which they live (hmmm, you know, I think there’s a lesson in there for us). Gluttony becomes a side-effect of a social and political system aimed at getting others in your debt and trying to stay as much as possible out of debt to others.

*Ya’ know, sort of like the credit system in the U.S. and Europe.


Kay said...

“Before long, everyone is in debt to everyone, and everyone feels like they are owed something by everyone.”

Nothing like the current economic crisis. Nothing at all….

Anonymous said...

The guy who eats everything in the larder when the whole tribe is starving is the best example of a glutton, in my book. It's over-indulgence in a time of scarcity.

With that definition, food doesn't even have to be involved. Sure, Rush Limbaugh is fat, but he is a glutton for the attention and worship of Republicans or anyone else, for that matter. His own brand of celebrity is like an event horizon for attention, sucking in loathing or praise in like measure. Hoarding or destroying hope in a time of national despair sounds like a kind of gluttony to me. I guess the next question is whether or not hope is a finite resource that has to be managed.

Kay said...

Moturtle... you should write a "glutton" post :)

Raven said...

Interesting and well written. We are a crazy species. You have kind of destroyed my more romantic vision of the potlatch, though. Sorry I was so late reading.