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October 5th, 2007

more ideas, what else (bibliography to follow on request) [Oct. 5th, 2007|09:24 am]
I know my “Don’t mind me, I’m only visiting this planet” air becomes annoying (I’ve suppressed, for now, yesterday's particularly annoying 1500-word free-association, to see if I can bring it under better control), but I meander most because I remain struck by how difficult it is to keep the whole human story entirely in focus, especially when one is approaching it via one of the academic disciplines. (Truly great novels come closer to adequacy when it comes to conceptual multifariousness, but only in terms of the segments of the universe to which the novel draws our attention.)

It helps to realize that my introductory graduate seminars were devoted to the various disciplines in terms of their prejudices and limitations. It was taken for granted that in order to understand anything, we would have to filter anthropology through psychology and vice versa, treat sociology as a subdiscipline of biology and judiciously ponder phenomenology’s assertion that it was possible to set aside out own belief systems, while bearing in mind the emphatic assertions of the Frankfurt School (and the different assertions of the poststructuralists) that no such leaping out of one’s ideological skin was ever possible.

This was how I was taught to approach the history of religions, though Santa cruz was using similar tools to evolve its History of Consciousness program that later became more conventionally beholden to the discipline of cultural studies.

But picking up Marina Warner’s introduction to the 17th century text The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies brings home the difficulties of creating an ecology of imagination…in the proper meaning of “ecology,” the study of how the various components of a complex natural system interact with and influence one another.

Actually, it was just Warner’s citation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s remark that the Irish tended to tell the tales of the charming deeds of the fairy folk, while the Scots were given to recounting tales of their mischief, that set me off on pondering physical environments, cultural structures taught to the children, and psychological predilections within dominant populations.

You can tickle all this out of Wade Davis’ Light at the End of the world if you work at it. He pretty much asserts that populations are adaptive to their environments in tens of thousands of creative ways, but not infinitely adaptive; time is a required component, and free choice. Forcible modernization along lines determined by well-meaning bureaucrats or rapacious extractors of natural resources tends to produce the same result in traditional societies that it does in cubicle dwellers in global corporations: moroseness, alcoholism, and a search for as many meaningless distractions as possible from the full implications of one’s dead-end condition. But Davis touches on the same dynamic within fully traditional societies, though he doesn’t dwell upon it: All that cultural creativity takes place within a harsh environment that kills off certain personality types entirely slots others into less than ideal functional niches, and excludes whole populations that never do get the hang of operating within this particular system. The last-named are either wiped out by the competition or move on to more amenable climates.

The sociobiologists are good at noting how the particular distributions of personality types might come about, but pay insufficient attention to how wide a variation is possible within the types that are then inflected by the types of imagination within which they are educated. Anthropologists are too wedded to functionality to notice how completely dysfunctional so many aspects of any given culture end up being. And most people who do not earn their living by teaching these subjects are too busy functioning within their own version of daily survival to do more than delight in the variousness of imaginative strategies or take umbrage t the unacceptable habits of those irritating other people.

The Secret Commonwealth is Robert Kirk’s marvelous 17th-century piece of scholarly boundary-crossing ( Kirk was a folklorist clergyman after Wade Davis’ own heart, inclined to recount the imaginative universe of his parishioners without dismissing of judging it overmuch from his own perspective) . Kirk apparently balances on that phenomenological edge of believing and not-believing or doing both and neither at once that Davis recommends when it comes to our own imagining of how Amazonian pharmacology might have evolved. The two narratives are not structurally equivalent—it is far easier to sit by the fire and make up tales about the intermediate realm if the intermediate realm doesn’t involve the ingestion of consciousness-altering substances, though the Scots and Irish were good at the production of consciousness-altering substances of their own. But in terms of capacities of mind, it may be easier to believe in an endless wrestling with empirically observed phenomena decidedly out of the ordinary when it comes to the tales examined by this particular seventh son (I haven’t yet read a word of Kirk’s own narrative, so will not speculate).

Davis cites an anthropologist who reproves evolutionary accounts of trial-and-error as the method by which Amazonian tribes arrived at the difficult combinations of psychoactive plants that produce specialized states of vision,. It becomes easier, he says, just to accept the locals’ own assertion that the plants talk to them.

Assuming that the plants don’t talk (a possibility which I would not dismiss out of hand despite never having experienced such a thing), it still becomes possible to imagine the equivalent of our own basement tinkerers with chemistry sets. Endless generations of the bored and curious really did ingest everything there was to ingest laying out twenty-five different chunks of vine and chewing them and smoking them in various combinations. Every time some guy collapsed and died, the survivors would note, “Don’t do that.” And eventually, maybe, an intuitive capacity developed that allowed for the discovery of productive but far from obvious combinations much more rapidly. The plant wasn’t literally saying, “Hey, dummy, over here,” except when the practitioner was under the influence, but the sudden aesthetic arrest bv a particular shade of green and shape of twisted leaf would have been sufficient to equate to a voice calling in the wilderness.

It is more controversial to draw parallels between not very theoretically minded tinkerers—the makers of ultimately useful objects arrived at through a process of experimentation—and a culture’s equivalent of theoretical physicists. Some situations seem to create a predominance of the former type and fewer examples of the latter.

It would take me too far afield to ponder the long history of the disparagement of societies as being wedded to practice and not given to theory, or vice versa. But there do seem to be cultures in which a proportionately smaller number of people express a curiosity about the further reaches of what their own society has managed to find out about the world, and this can’t be entirely accounted for by physical deprivation, educational strategies, or economic pressures. Once again we seem to have a necessary mix of factors that it is difficult to keep in mind simultaneously or to balance without engaging in admiration or condescension that derives from one’s own situation.

This last was inspired by a remark by V. S. Naipaul about what History is (quoted by Marina Warner in Phantasmagoria), but that leads off into an implicit debate between Derek Walcott and Naipaul about History and the nations of the Caribbean, and I’d rather not go there in this post.
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