On Shamanism: Upcoming and in Progress

December 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Telos 2015 Conference Paper: “Archaic Revivals and Shamanism in the Liberal Global Imaginary”

A long-running undercurrent of Romanticism, imagining itself as inheritor of the

Greco-Roman civilization, merges ancient pastoral aesthetics with modern, alienated nostalgia for a return to nature or to the “pre-political.” With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, postcolonialism, and postsecularism the concept of “rights” has taken an increasingly positive turn. Earlier conceptions of “freedom from” increasingly become “freedom to.” Liberal flourishing, especially since the 1960s, manifests in exorcising the right to transgress various borders and identities. The rhetorics of sustainability and ecocriticism, which often reflect Romantic engagements with “nature,” potentially mask their own entrenchment within the force of history by pining for a wider conception of “the human.” This is enormously seductive in popular entertainment. Thus, thinkers like Terence McKenna have advocated an “Archaic Revival” and a return to shamanic culture as anodyne for the trials of globalization. Fusing with recent research on neuroscience and psychedelics, the figure of the shaman as border-crosser arises as a locus of desire for postsecular and transhuman subjectivities. This paper attempts to tease out what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism” inherent in the variety of historical narratives – humanistic, Darwinian, and biopolitical – that accompany recent “Western” attempts (in a long line of them) to overcome history itself by focusing on the figure of the Shaman in popular and Anthropological discourses. Based on the work of Michael Taussig and Mina Cheon, my aim is to shed light on the Affective place of the Shaman as it relates to Agamben’s “Archaelology of Glory” in talk of globalization.

In progress…

That the shaman is a figure signaling the manifestations of a longstanding European imaginary is by no means new information, but a continuing potency of the source fueling this imaginary still deserves commentary as a location where history deteriorates into myth, where circumstances and events become narratives. To say this is not to treat myth pejoratively, and while there may be some overlap in commentary, my attempt here is not meant as simply a critique of popular culture. The source of this imaginary, I believe, is something that precedes the modern concepts of liberalism and the great debate between the ancients and the moderns. A longer historical view is necessary.

Sneering at the “new-agey” idea of the shaman as its own historical construct is counterproductive because linear, one-way conceptions of appropriations of indigenous cultures by colonizers are insufficient for the complexities surrounding the continuing domination of people by western ideologies. Scholars have a wide range of positions concerning the very concept of shamanism. Historically, however, the concept (though originating with Avvakum’s Siberian exile from Russia in the 17th century and thus signaling the political theological entrenchment of shamanism from the start) is embedded within Romanticism and risks over-determination due to a reliance on liberal subjectivity as the invention of modernity. That practices categorized as ‘shamanic’ precede the classic anthropological attempts to provide a transcultural analysis of human behavior is not doubted; they are just harder to analyze. However, ‘shamanism’ is also clearly bound in narratives of secularization and the Enlightenment as well as in pre-existing European conceptions of otherness and ancient conceptions of wildness.

To briefly track some of the recent scholarly discussion concerning shamanism, we can begin with Alice B. Kehoe’s work, which during the 1990s excoriated the flawed academic legacies of Mircea Eliade and Ade Hultkrantz on shamanism. Kehoe writes:

The European Enlightenment academic legacy that formed Eliade and Hultkrantz appropriated American Indians to roles already hoary in Herodotus’ time. Contemporary scholars [in the early 1990s] of comparative religion, as well as anthropologists, have generally moved past the Enlightenment myth and modus operandi. (388)

And yet, the rhetoric of “outdated” conceptions going back to Herodotus relies on a progressively positivistic notion. Twenty years later, Thomas Dubois has noted a professional explosion in the study of ‘shamanisms’ in the plural as a way to resist atemporal and culture-transcending notions:

Today, in the year 2010, one can see that the trends [in the study of shamanism] have only continued to grow in importance, with valuable research ongoing within a number of different theoretical frameworks and a marked increase in scholarly and popular publication venues, including new presses and journals and a bourgeoning internet presence for shamanic topics. (100)

Dubois’s Introduction to Shamanism, published by Cambridge University Press in 2009, includes two concluding chapters on “Shamanic Revitalizations” and “Neoshamanism.”

By the end of the 1990s, popular thinkers like Terence McKenna were calling for an “archaic revival” in tribute to Mircea Eliade’s description of the “techniques of ecstasy” common to many shamans. And while a close reading of Eliade’s book warrants no totalizing rejection of his work, no matter how flawed – he has plenty of qualifiers and does not seem nearly as hubristic as his detractors claim – he does seem hell-bent on carving out a syncretic and essentialized idea of shamanism from a developmental perspective of human civilization and religion. The ongoing scientific problem is simply a lack of empirical evidence for all of the features of shamanism in archaic societies. Archaeological evidence, even when promising, is largely inconclusive in terms of cultural practice. As Dubois notes, there has been plenty of recent archaeological research and vibrant debate over ways to infer cultural practices from artifacts. Neil Price’s Archaeology of Shamanism has loads of examples and stresses that current studies of shamanisms cannot ignore the interests of (re)emergent pagan religions. Entheogen usage for consciousness alteration is often at the heart of such debates, and advocates such as Michael Winkelman and Terence McKenna have constructed evolutionary arguments for the role of entheogens in human civilization while John A. Rush’s Entheogens and the Development of Culture continues to track mythological criticisms and the evidence for embedded practices of entheogen use in Western classics. It is the evolutionary argument that I want to focus on here, however, and my approach will be of a rhetorical enquiry into the place of shamanism in the liberal imagination. If we are to take a broad view of human history, the question of consciousness development makes more complex the traditional Western association of civilization with the monotheistic states of the Middle East and the foundation of Greek philosophy and politics. It widens the concept of Logos to include mystical attributes and allows the tracking of fascinations with the irrational and the process of “othering” in western cultures. Shamanism as a modern construct is the location of deep-seated desire manifestation.

Shamanism as a location of desire in terms of neoshamanism[1] is essentially nostalgic. As Michael Taussig has shown in Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, the eruption of the shamanic vocation in the colonies imported the European idea of the “wild man” to the “new world.” Wildness, according to Taussig,

Raises the specter of the death of the symbolic function itself. It is the spirit of the unknown and the disorderly, loose in the forest encircling the city and the sown land, disrupting the conventions upon which meaning and the shaping function of images rest. Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage and a grinding articulation between signifier and signified. Wildness makes of these connections spaces of darkness and light in which objects stare out in their mottled nakedness while signifiers float by. Wildness is the death space of signification. (219)

The violence of signification, of substitution, introduces the construction of the abatement of wildness with the arrival of narrative. History would be ancillary here and need not be tied to narration, since myths may also employ narration but operate differently from history.

To see the myth in the natural and the real in magic, to demythologize history and to reenchant its reified representation; that is a first step. To reproduce the natural and the real without this recognition may be to fasten ever more firmly the hold over the mythic. (Tuassig 10)

Much more to come…but this book is wonderful and remains powerful and under-discussed by Anthropologists:


[1] See Dubois’s discussion of the variants of ‘neoshamism’

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