Archaic Revivals and Shamanism in the Liberal Global Imaginary

February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post was given as a paper for the 2015 Telos Institute Conference on Universal History and the Fate of Humanity at NYU on February 14, 2015.  For those interested in scholarly publishing, the full version of the article is available through the author.  

The shaman has long been a rhetorical figure signaling the manifestations of a Modern European imaginary thematically dedicated to an “evolution” of human religion. Although often conceptually flawed, shamanism(s) still deserve serious academic commentary in the 21st century because the figure itself helps locate where history copulates with myth. The source fueling shamanism as “other” belongs to a tradition of the West, whether or not the West is another outmoded concept. In this traditional imaginary, the shaman figure presents a particular political-theological invention of modernity, signaling pre-liberal and pre-political ways of life. On one hand the shaman enables an assemblage of affective tendencies investing moderns with the hubris of civilized man; on the other, it fuels antimoderns with an ongoing Romantic nostalgia for a Paleolithic Eden sometimes referred to as the Archaic Revival. In 1991, psychedelic outlier Terence McKenna wrote:

[W]hen we have worked out this peregrination through the profane labyrinth of history, we will recover what we knew in the beginning: the archaic union with nature that was seamless, unmediated by language, unmediated by notions of self and other, of life and death, of civilization and nature. These are all dualisms that are temporary and provisional within the labyrinth of history. The Archaic Revival means that all our religions were pale imitations of the Mystery itself. (18)

A return to shamanism was a means for McKenna to instigate such a revival. In 2015, my hope is not only to describe the rhetorical and affective texture through the theme – shamanism as such – but also to articulate a zone of proximity between the rhetorical aspects of discourse on shamanism and porously postsecular subjectivities. In order to do so, I want to critique a theme in discussions about shamanism that encourages archaic revivals as solutions to liberal crises. For this analysis, I will rely on Lauren Berlant’s affect theory and her term, cruel optimism.

Simply speaking, “Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24). For Berlant, cruel optimism signals a post neo-liberal historical present that she articulates as a “happening” rather than an “event.” “One motive for this,” she says, “is to describe the historical present as a back-formation from practices that create a perceptible scene, an atmosphere that can be returned to” (100). I argue here that so-called shamanic practices invoking archaic revivals are objects of cruel optimism, especially for liberal imaginaries, because the archaic revival’s creates a perception of change where non has occurred.

In a postsecular discussion, one that sees a continuity of enchantment existing throughout modernity rather than a steady Weberian disenchantment, avowing shamanism as a continued practice since Paleolithic times does more than merely attempt to preserve specific groups of humans’ cultural practices in a multicultural project; it affectively invokes for liberals a counter-resonance to the hegemonic figures of the “great” religions and appeals to those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. That is, it appeals to those who would claim either a persistent enchantment throughout modernity or the necessity for re-enchantment, archaic or otherwise and unfortunately has little to do with contemporary indigenous populations outside of well-intentioned neo-shamanic efforts to use their income to give to indigenous communities.

More relevant to a liberal imaginary, fairytale expert Jack Zipes has recently asserted that the persistence of fairytale enchantment in Europe and the US arises from modern secularist desires, especially among aristocratic and bourgeois women writers, to code a politics of resistance against overly Christian agendas among French royalty. (PAGE) In his narrative, based on Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene,” enchantment serves secular modernity. Similarly, in The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination, Andrei Znamenski locates the rise of neo-shamanism with the antimodernist countercultural movements during the 1960s, claiming that “[p]recisely because of its antimodern associations which were now defined as virtuous, the expression shamanism became endowed with positive meaning. Thus, from the odd obscurantist, the shaman became the symbol of wisdom and spiritual redemption” (364). However, a shift in the affective relationship to shamanism from modernist ethnocentrism to post 1960s exaltation does not change enough to avoid a cruel optimism that accompanies both scholars like Znamenski and outliers like McKenna.

Among scholars of anthropology there is a wide range of positions concerning the concept of shamanism. ‘Shamanism’ is bound in narratives of secularization and the Enlightenment as well as in pre-existing European conceptions of otherness and ancient conceptions of wildness (See Taussig). 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)

Twenty years later, Thomas Dubois notes 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, has two concluding chapters on “Shamanic Revitalizations” and “Neoshamanism.” Dubois is in agreement with Neil Price’s essay collection, The Archaeology of Shamanism (2001) in its assertion that any inquiry into the history of shamanism, whether modern or premodern, must necessarily be refracted through the lens of contemporary groups’ interests in shamanisms.

The affective relationship in non-scholarly culture makes the situation even more complex. By the end of the 1990s, popular thinkers like Terence McKenna were calling for an “archaic revival” in tribute to Mircea Eliade’s essentializing descriptions of the “techniques of ecstasy” that infuriated anthropologists like Kehoe. As Znamenski notes, “[a]lthough many scholars now believe that the “ecstasy” (altered state) [described by Eliade] is not a necessary attribute of shamanism, for many Western seekers, this is one of the basic pillars of spiritual practice” (viii). Indeed, Terence McKenna, while brilliant in many ways, perpetuated such thinking in regularly in statements such as, “These preliterate cultures have an unbroken tradition of shamanic understanding and ethnomedicine that reaches back to Paleolithic times and beyond” (29). McKenna casts himself as an outlier writer to anthropological discourse (67) while radicalizing Eliade’s thought toward a holographic transcendence of materiality, echoing other thinkers in the early 1990s like Francis Fukuyama who, with completely different politics than McKenna, also claimed the coming end of history. McKenna writes:

All technological history is about producing prototypes of this situation with greater and greater closure toward the ideal, so that airplanes, automobiles, space-shuttles, starships of the nuts-and-bolts, speed-of-light type are, as Mircea Eliade said, “self-transforming images of flight that speak volumes about man’s aspiration to self-transcendence”

Our wish, our salvation, and our only hope is to end the historical crisis by becoming the alien, by ending alienation, by recognizing the alien as the Self…(93)

Neo-shamanism indeed appears to rest upon the opening of liberal subjectivity,

There is an ongoing scientific problem for shamanism accompanying a simple lack of empirical evidence for all of the features of shamanism in archaic societies. For those anthropologists interested in maintaining that shamanism was more than Eliade’s modernist essentialism, a turn to Archaeology was necessary. As Dubois notes, there has been plenty of recent research and vibrant debate over ways to infer cultural practices from artifacts. Neil Price’s Archaeology of Shamanism has loads of examples.

Both in Znamenski’s characterization of Western seekers as well as among anthropologists’ debates, ecstatic experience is often one of the distinguishing features of shamanism. Use of psychedelics or entheogens for consciousness alteration, while not the only consciousness-altering technique, is often in close proximity to shamanism and marks the liberal imaginary’s interest as an ultimately biopolitical question. Advocates from different cultural locations such as Michael Winkelman and Terence McKenna both construct evolutionary arguments for the role of entheogens in human civilization.

Michael Winkelman’s evolutionary rhetoric is steeped in historicizing the biological development of the brain, implicitly suggesting that a biological history of human life since the development of the neocortex might be a better place marker for universal history. Because of this, one can situate Winkelman’s sensibility along with advocates of the wider sense of Anthropocene, dating it to late Paleolithic era. Seductive for arguments about entheogens, Winkelman sees the early use of psychedelics by shamans as catalyzing the higher-order integrative brain processing that distinguishes modern and archaic Homo sapiens. Part of the rationale here is that the development of the human brain benefited from the imaginary situations produced by hallucinations, which built on the reptilian brain’s fight-or-flight responses, explaining the common overlap between psychedelics and paranoia. Psychedelics, according to Winkelman, manifested imaginary structures to map potential situations where humans might be victims, producing the ability to think, reason and plan. He even cites studies where chimpanzees show aversion to psychedelics while humans gravitate toward them. Shamanic use of entheogens in this line of thinking indeed risks becoming a kind of pithecanthropus erectus. Implicitly, the argument asks its audience to remove encultured mistrust of psychedelics, especially since the Nixon administration’s declaration of the so-called “war on drugs,” and reopen research into the health benefits of psychedelics, which may just solve the long debate between enchanted religion and science in a postsecular age.

Winkelman’s biological descriptions are convincing but much of his analysis of shamanism, like Terence McKenna’s, relies on Eliade’s work. His argument about the integrative capacities of psychedelics to produce religiosity in humans is, however, compelling. Indeed, it appears to corroborate the recent ethnographic research of Nicolas Langlitz, published in his book, Neuropsychedelia, which documents the emergence of spiritual and religious discussion in even the most positivistic labs in the United States and Switzerland that have been allowed to do psychedelic research on human subjects.

The cruel optimism here is the idea that entheogens offer access to universalism, that in using them, humans recover ancient shamanic practices that re-invoke our supposed original transcendence over nature by being, not masters over nature, but stewards of it. Such optimism is cruel not just in its perpetuation of modernity’s displaced nostalgia. By appealing to a “better” time as an escape from current crises, such rhetoric seeks to build its own dwelling in the utopic future of the fictional past.

Archaic revivals are cruelly optimistic in their Romantic appeal to a pre-political state of nature. The affective and aesthetic appeal of such optimism can seductively become conflated with a more rigorous and scientifically informed historical orientation based on evolution of the human brain. However, such science, as Winkelman’s work on shamanism exemplifies, risks a dogmatic positivism and a rejection of aesthetics. Recent thinkers of the political theological roots of liberalism, such as Victoria Kahn, have stressed Homo faber, man the maker. Winkelman’s work has implicit affinity with the concept Homo ludens as put forth in Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book of that title, which introduced concepts like the magic circle for Game Studies. Winkelman’s integrated brain may allow for a recovered sense of Homo ludens in debates about shamanism, so long that we keep in mind works like Mina Cheon’s Shamanism + Cyberspace, which in detailing Korean shamanism in the last sixty years points out the many flaws of optimistically believing that shamanic practices are culturally liberating. Attempts to globalize modes of enchantment by appealing to a contested primordial human universal religion cruelly maintain more status quos than liberating solutions.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print

—. “Cruel Optimism.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 17:3. Rhode Island: Brown U, 2006.

Dubois, Thomas A. An Introduction to Shamanism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

—. “Trends in Contemporary Research on Shamanism.” Web. 16 Dec. 2014. < >.

Kehoe, Alice B. “Eliade and Hultkrantz: The European Primitivism Tradition.” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3/4, Special Issue: To Hear the Eagles Cry: Contemporary Themes in Native American Spirituality (Summer – Autumn, 1996), pp. 377-392. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Laird, Peter Fredrick. “Shamanism.” The Encyclopedia of East Asia. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

McKenna, Terence. The Archaic Revival. New York: HarperOne, 1991. Print.

Rush, Jonathan. Entheogens and the Development of Culture.

Shamanism and Islam: Sufism, Healing Rituals and Spirits in the Muslim World. Ed. Thierry Zarcone and Angela Hobart: Switzerland, 2013. Print.

Simons, Oliver. “Theater of Revolution and the Law of Genre – Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken (Die MaBnahme). The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory. 84:4, 327-352. 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <DOI: 10.1080/00168890903291468>.

Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Chicago. U of Chicago P, 1991. Print.

Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairytale. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Znamenski, Anrdei A. The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination. Oxford. Oxford UP, 2007. Print.


Roger Green and Colin Bricker perform at Toad Tavern Thursday, Feb. 19

February 19, 2015 § Leave a comment


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