The Righting of Passage
Perceptions of Change After Modernity
A. David Napier
"An intellectual treat and a pleasure to read. Any scholar interested in the modern and postmodern, the self and the other, as well as medical issues will find it provocative and fascinating. A splendid book for launching discussions on these subjects."—Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Today, much theory in the social sciences assumes that the acceptance of experience as inevitably unruly means that it is characterized by constant change and even by chaos. In such a world, we are told, the unordered qualities of daily living create so much uncertainty that identity itself becomes unstable. But this view, David Napier argues, begs a fundamental question: if contemporary life is as flexible and unstructured as, for example, postmodernists maintain, and we, in turn, are products of such a world, how might any of us order our thinking enough to recognize what is meaningful in life, let alone describe our experiences in ways that might have meaning for others?
If we are truly the products of modernity, Napier says, we must either accept our inability to structure and shape our own sensations or, alternately, argue for some form of humanism that sees a struggling, existential self living unsettled within its unstructured environment. Were either circumstance universally the case, the world would, of course, be a rather different place; for there would be no shared literature called "postmodern," and there would be no one to dissect such experience for us: no authors with coherent identities, no theories that could be communicated, no books bought or read, no university departments dedicated to the industry of chaos. In short, there would be no ordered space for interpersonal understanding in such a world. This is the premise that informs The Righting of Passage.
In this challenging book Napier offers a novel argument that accounts for diffuse and flexible notions of the self while also illustrating how a coherent, communicating self persists amid such apparent instability. This he does by arguing something entirely counterintuitive to both modernist and postmodernist positions—namely, that modernity's increasing separation of embodiment from meaning not only slows down human transformation but attenuates human growth by encouraging us to perceive risk as largely pathological. Today, the combined forces of stress management, depth psychology, therapeutic writing, dislocated meaning, and of institutional conformity work together to produce a reduction—not a proliferation—of change in human life.
A. David Napier is Professor of Anthropology at Middlebury College. His previous books include The Age of Immunology: Conceiving a Future in an Alienating World, Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology, and Masks, Transformation, and Paradox.