The Overweening Generalist is largely about people who like to read fat, weighty "difficult" books - or thin, profound ones - and how I/They/We stand in relation to the hyper-acceleration of digital social-media-tized culture. It is not a neo-Luddite attack on digital media; it is an attempt to negotiate with it, and to subtly make claims for the role of generalist intellectual types in the scheme of things.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The Placebo Effect and Anthropology
My idiosyncratic survey so far of years of reading cultural anthropology tells me the field is sort of a mess, but it's where I live: totally thrilling intellectually and filled with endless epistemological brouhahas, High Weirdness, an ill-defined scope that I find charming, and chicanery among the natives towards the First World intellectuals who are studying them that seemingly knows no end. There's a lot of darkness too. Jeez, when you find out what Colin Turnbull was really up to with the Ik...and all that Yanomami stuff. If you ever get a chance, watch the documentary Secrets of the Tribe, directed by Jose Padilha. It's tempting to look at all the Yanomamo material from Chagnon to now, and say it would be a good way to model the possibilities inherent, of the species we call homo sapiens, were They to come into contact with some more technologically advanced Beings that truly meant no harm, but...
But I won't.
A Yanomamo tribesman. Pic probably taken by
I love the complexity of wildest ethnographic endeavor into Deepest Darkest (even driving five miles away from the university and living with crack dealers for a year) and the sheer audacity of it: if we can just rough it, move in with that wandering band society that lives in the rain forest which still seems to live a High Neolithic lifestyle, figure out their language by pointing at objects and writing stuff down, and just hanging out with them, taking notes, doing their drugs, eating, dancing and hunting game with them for a year or so...we'll write an ethnography and tell the First World who these people are, and maybe learn something about ourselves.
Endlessly ballsy. And yet...
That turned out to be quite naive, but I have had numerous thrills reading ethnographies and, the Walter Mitty type that I am, imagining I'm along for the ride, and let's just "bracket" the idea that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is at work on a macro-level when we try to "study" other peoples. Let's "bracket" the knowledge that the natives will tend to lie to you, pull your leg, and bullshit you. (Margaret Mead fell for a lot of it with the Samoans, it appears, but still: read her!)
Robert Anton Wilson loved to talk about the power of word-magick and belief, and how this worked in the entire nervous system. If a shaman knew that you knew that if he pointed the Death Bone at you, you were finished: no one could survive that! But you had to have fucked up pretty bad to get the local shaman to point the death bone at you; far better to go into exile and see if the tribe over yonder hill will accept you. Bring in a bride price if you can and you just have to leave your tribe. But if exile was too terrifying, and the tribe demanded it, the shaman would get rid of you by pointing the Death Bone at you, and of course, this means you're finished. You'll soon be a goner. And guys did die when the shaman pointed the Death Bone at them. Why? Belief in the Death Bone.
Levi-Strauss in the field, 1930s, Brazil
Now, I have read a lot of stories about seemingly supernatural powers of certain shamans. But the best I've ever read was in Claude Levi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology.
In the early 20th century there was a Canadian Indian (First Nation-person) named Quesalid, who was pretty worldly. He thought shamanism was bullshit. But being a bright young native intellectual, he decided to go undercover and see how the bullshit worked, so he apprenticed himself to a shaman and learned all kinds of...sleight of hand. Magic tricks. He learned to jam some down feathers in his mouth, bite his lip enough so that the blood would mix with the down, then, attending a sick person, go into the act of furiously sucking on the body of the sick person, putting on a real wing-ding of an act, and then dramatically spitting out the bloody feathers: the source of the illness! It was tough work, but I have located the source of your sickness and extracted it! Here! Look at it in my hand! You'll be better soon! Everyone around is blown away by your "powers." If you're good at putting on the Show...
Most impressed by your act is the sick person. Why? Because they do get better. Quesalid had once been summoned by a very sick person's family; someone had dreamed of him as their "savior." He performed his act. They got better. Quesalid was flummoxed.
So Quesalid went on to a long career as a shaman. He was still skeptical about his fellow shamans, though. Why? Levi-Strauss didn't know, and this was as interesting to him as it is to you and me. He wrote that Quesalid takes pride in his work, practices his techniques with great attention to detail, and thinks the bloody feathers technique is superior to other shamanic schools' techniques of healing. "He seems to have completely lost sight of the fallaciousness of the technique that he so disparaged at the beginning."