shamanism

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Mar 1 2010 22:17
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A monkey in Africa was seen dancing around a fire...

Heard a 15th-century song from France on Radio 3 last Thursday (25th Feb at 9:36am) - J'ai vu le loop, le renard chanter - 'I saw the wolf, the fox and the hare carousing; I saw them unseen, and I joined in singing with them and I led the dance'. The tune is supposedly a parody of the 13th-century plainchant, the Dies Irae ('Day of Wrath'), describing the Day of Judgment, also part of the traditional Catholic liturgy for All Souls' Day (November 2nd - just after Hallowe'en). The Dies Irae has been quoted, musically, many times down the centuries - in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (the witches' sabbath bit), Britten's War Requiem, Gounod's opera, Faust, Liszt's Dante Symphony, Totentanz('Dance of Death'), etc. Back to the French song, it does seem to have shamanistic connotations (communing with animals, and so on), perhaps Emma Wilby's Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic can shed light on it, when I get it. Will report back on that...if anyone's interested.

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Mar 30 2012 21:53

I never met Prince Charles, but I will certainly admit to a very long-standing interest in cabala and shamans. Quite a few on this board will not be surprised to hear this.

I initially thought that keth er might be the 'Critical Kabbalist' who in 2008 (I think) put my old 1987 'pamphlet' Everything's Relative: comedy, cabala, communism online here:

http://criticalkabbalist.wordpress.com/2008/04/17/everything%E2%80%99s-relative-comedy-cabbala-communism/

But keth er said it wasn't him and advised me to look into the Practical Historian.

I am working on an improved version, but not so much a pamphlet this time.

As for shamanism, you can now read The Decadence of the Shamans online here, with a recent introduction:

http://radicalanthropologygroup.org/new/Publications.html

http://www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/old/pub_decadence.pdf

The Radical Anthropology Group is currently discussing Chris Knight’s proposal to reprint the shaman booklet as a RAG publication. Some in the group think that the approach to and conceptions of primitive communism argued for in the booklet differ in some quite important ways from what seems to be the general theoretical framework of the group, (in a nutshell, the theory of the sex-strike defended in Knight’s Blood Relations). Chris himself, however, is more in favour of publishing the essay in order to develop a wider debate.

But in any case I have been invited to present the booklet at the end of the summer term of the RAG evening class.

Quite a few very interesting topics here:


An Evening Class Introduction to Anthropology:
Evolution, Archaeology and History
Summer Term Syllabus 2012

April 17 Early human kinship was matrilineal Chris Knight
April 24 The evolution of monogamy in primates and humans Kit Opie
May 1 Divine Kingship in England and Africa
Chris Knight and Camilla Power
May 8 Jesus of Nazareth in Anthropological Perspective Chris Knight
May 15 Blood sacrifice and the Hunter’s ‘Own Kill’ rule Chris Knight
May 22 Noam Chomsky’s ‘Cognitive Revolution’ Chris Knight
May 29 The origins of symbolic culture in Africa Ian Watts
June 5 The Stonehenge Lying Machine Lionel Sims
June 12 Avebury: From Pillar to Post Lionel Sims
June 19 Anthropology and Activism Ragnhild Frend Dale
June 26 How the West was Lost: the role of feasting, monumentality and astronomy in the Neolithic transition Fabio Silva
July 3 The Decadence of the Shamans Alan Cohen
July 10 Annual General Meeting

All lectures held at the St Martinʼs Community Centre
43 Carol St, London NW1 0HT (2 minutes from Camden Town tube)
Tuesday evenings, 6.15–9.00 pm.
radicalanthropologygroup.org

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Apr 8 2012 14:33

I have tinkered a bit since the version of the introduction mentioned in my previous post. This is the most up to date version:

THE DECADENCE OF THE SHAMANS:
REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS ON

This text was delivered as a paper to an academic gathering held in Helsinki in May 1990: the International Association for the History of Religion regional conference on northern and circumpolar religions. It was then published as a booklet by Unpopular Books in London, a print run that has long been exhausted. Inevitably, there are numerous elements in the essay that I would have approached differently if I were writing on the same themes today. The text was written almost as a manifesto or set of theses, and many points that might be better formulated as questions or areas for further study have the appearance of definitive statements. On the other hand, bold affirmations can also have the beneficial effect of stimulating a confrontation of ideas that can lead eventually to a more developed synthesis.

Take the question of alienation, which is a central theme of the text. Marx’s theory of alienation is anything but complete, based as it is on a number of intriguing fragments scattered through different parts of his work. The text takes a rather definite standpoint on the origins of mankind’s alienation, but this in no way precludes the widest theoretical debate on this problem, bringing together not only the work of Marx and those who have followed him but also the contributions of anthropology, psychology, the history of religions and other disciplines.

On a different, but related point: in the years since the text was written, I have become more aware of some of the pitfalls involved in raising a discussion about ‘mysticism’ and altered states of consciousness, whether in academic circles or among those who see themselves as part of the revolutionary movement. Unless one takes very good care in stating exactly where one stands, it is very easy to open yourself to the charge that you have fallen into idealism, religious apologetics, new ageism or the romanticising of early human society. And while these charges are often themselves reflection of an attachment to mechanical forms of materialism or a vulgar empiricism, there are good reasons not to dismiss the danger that the very process of investigating the realms of the mystical can lead to concessions to irrationalism and the ‘occult’, which are increasingly ubiquitous products of the social decomposition which surround us on all sides.

The text leans heavily on the theories of Freud, and at the time of writing it I was not fully aware of the level of animosity which his ideas can provoke, not only among schools of psychology and philosophy which reflect the prevailing academic orthodoxies, but even among authentic revolutionaries. I remain as convinced as ever that the fundamental questions posed by Freud are an essential component of any discussion about human nature and its future flowering, but I am also more aware that convincing many others of this is a task that has only just begun.

I also hope that my own knowledge of what might be termed anthropological questions has not stood still since 1990. In the last couple of decades there has been an increased insistence among a number of anthropologists and archaeologists on the seminal importance of shamanic experience and traditions in understanding the very origins of human culture, for example through the studies of Palaeolithic cave paintings and rock drawings by David Lewis-Williams and others. Any future studies of shamanism on my part would certainly have to take account of the debates sparked off by these studies. So too, if I were to investigate more deeply the real material conditions of man in the earliest human societies – and thus the subjective experiences and ideological forms engendered by those conditions – I would have to take into account the whole controversy initiated by Marshall Sahlins and his argument that the palaeolithic hunter gatherers lived in the original ‘affluent society’ rather than being constantly faced with the struggle for immediate survival (1).

I have also become more aware that there have been some serious efforts among a minority of anthropologists to examine the validity of the marxist concept of primitive communism (2), and I have begun to familiarise myself with some of this work. Alain Testart’s Le communisme primitif, published in 1985, has the merit of raising the problem of what we mean by primitive communism as a mode of production, as an ensemble of social relations, focusing particularly on traditional Australian aborigine society. The school of anthropology around Chris Knight has, in my opinion, gone much further than Testart in considering the positive attributes of primitive communist society, developing the idea that this social formation emerged as the result of a ‘human revolution’ in which the female of the species played a leading role (3).

Knight’s theory of human origins, like Engels’, stresses the immense step forward represented by the transition from ape to man: where Engels (and Marx) focused on the particular role of productive labour in the generation of a specifically human consciousness, capable of planning forward and transforming the natural environment, Knight looks into the social context in which this specifically human form of labour might have emerged, in particular, the combination of the females aimed at convincing the males to forgo the immediate product of the hunt and bring it back to the collective. This aspect of the ‘sexual question’ – the actual social relations between men and women in the first human societies - is hardly dealt with at all in the text, to some extent because it was insufficiently investigated by Freud himself.

The text that follows, however, is addressed above all to the ‘other side’ of the emergence of humanity: what Freud was referring to when he wrote that the conflict between the sexual drive and the necessity for self-preservation “may perhaps only occur in human beings, and on that account neurosis may, generally speaking, constitute their prerogative over the animals” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, London 1973, p. 463); or the problem that Marx poses when he confronts us with the phenomenon of man’s alienation, particularly when he wrote that “estranged labour tears from (man) his species life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over the animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken away from him” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). There are of course those who argue that in all his writings about alienation, Marx is talking about something specific to capitalist society, but for me the problem of alienation is far more deeply rooted and has to be approached against the background of the whole of human history, as I hope to argue in future contributions. But I am as certain as ever that the study of shamanism and its various historical descendents (yoga, Zen and other ‘mystical’ traditions) can offer us priceless insights into human nature conceived as a dialectical totality, in which an advance into human self-awareness can also be a fall into self-alienation.

In trying to draw the parallel between the ecstatic states undergone by the shamans and the inspiration of poets and other artists, the text cites a passage from Trotsky’s autobiography, where he writes about the experience of living through a revolution. Defining inspiration as “the creative union of the conscious with the unconscious”, Trotsky calls revolution “the inspired frenzy of history”, in which the most rigorously rational thought and discussion fuse together with long-repressed instincts, “the power of scent inherited from animal forebears”, to produce a new creative synthesis (My Life, 1929, chapter 29, p. 348-9).

It is my contention that, in primitive communist society, human beings were, even if in a mystified and semi-conscious manner, aware of this disjuncture (in fact, this inner conflict) between the waking ego and the realm of the instincts; aware that becoming human had impaired the sense-awareness enjoyed by their animal ancestors. And I argue that the people of this epoch deliberately cultivated states of inspiration precisely because they felt the need to heal this conflict and regain the powers “inherited from animal forebears”. The shaman, the “man of high degree” (to use the phrase coined by the Australian anthropologist AP Elkin), was given a particular mandate to pursue this quest; and at its furthest boundaries, the experiences encountered along that road provide us with a glimpse of what mankind’s relationship with the cosmos might be in a fully communist society.

In his Literature and Revolution, written in 1924, Trotsky argues explicitly that the effort to master the unconscious would be central to the activity of such a society:

Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo Sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the socialist organisation of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub soil. Is it not self evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction?”

This reference to “psycho-physical training” is particularly intriguing. Whether or not Trotsky himself had any knowledge of traditional meditative techniques like yoga, there is clearly a congruence between his vision of future explorations of the psyche and the methods and goals of yoga, which, in Mircea Eliade’s words, also held that “the subconscious can be known, mastered, and conquered” (Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton, 1969).

The Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga, like Trotsky, has bequeathed to us some audacious speculations about the ‘subjective’ content of the higher phases of communism; and here again there seems to be a definite convergence between what he calls man’s authentic “species-consciousness” and descriptions of the ecstatic union with the world searched for in the various traditions of meditation which have their roots in shamanism.

In his comments on Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Bordiga was particularly insistent that this fully developed human consciousness was only possible

“once we have left behind the millennia-old deception of the lone individual facing the natural world, stupidly called ‘external’ by the philosophers. External to what? External to the ‘I’, this supreme deficiency' but we can no longer say external to the human species, because the species man is internal to nature, part of the physical world.”

And he goes on to say:

“in this powerful text, object and subject becomes, like man and nature, one and the same thing. We can even say that everything becomes object: man as a subject ‘against nature’ disappears, along with the illusion of a separate ego.” (‘Tables immuables de la théorie communiste de parti’, written in 1959 and published in Bordiga et la passion du communisme. edited by J Camatte, Spartacus editions 1972, my translation).

In the writings of Knight and others who take the problem of primitive communism seriously, collective rituals and mythical re-enactments are examined principally as moments in which social cohesion is reinforced and celebrated – a cohesion which is still genuinely human because it is not designed to mask any underlying class exploitation. But a consideration of the ‘inner’ states of consciousness which were undoubtedly a central goal of these rituals is not at odds with an examination of their social function. On the contrary, both are aspects of the same quest for unity – unity between human beings, and between human beings and nature within and without. The communism of the future will not be weighed down by the mythological projections which tended to dominate man in early human society. But it will surely seek to relearn and assimilate, on a yet higher level, all that our ancient ancestors did achieve in the real conquest of the mind.

Notes:
(1) Cf Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, 1974

(2) The term ‘primitive’ applied to early forms of human society can be seen as offensive and demeaning, rather like the term ‘savage’ which also appears in the work of Max, Engels and others. I have retained the term ‘primitive communism’ throughout the text because this conveys a definite theoretical concept. However I have made changes to the original text which greatly reduce the use of the term ‘primitive’, substituting words like ‘archaic’, ‘traditional’, ‘tribal’ etc. These are the only changes to the 1990 text.

(3) See in particular Chris Knight, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Yale University Press, 1991

jameswalsh
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Apr 12 2012 02:19

I'm into shamenism and my ancestors say Chris Knight is a silly christ christaian knight tilting at windmills. He's far more dislikeable than Ian Bone. But Ian likes him because he likes anyone who likes him.

His theory is balls. But at least he understands it's a bit about empathy- even if he has rather wakey self denile and egotist empathy. But I expect he's good at spelling. Human parrots always are too.

My ancestors would have had him thrown in a lake to see if he was a witch. Shamanism is about getting into the thought processes of others and deviating from signs from the animals and nature- humans included. The human revolution comes about women choicing the mates that a decent rugged and thinking society need them to choose. It's about women having the brains confidence and social status to be able to hazard a guess what genes they hight be getting and how that would work out with the world. It's about people recognising the world is round, you can pass culture on, good or bad that gravity works- which you have to except the sun is at the centre of the universe- it's about being able to except what you thought was wrong- and what often taught you as a child is and or was wrong often enough. It's about people having a world of imagination and giving a shit for the next generation rather than aggrandising themselves in the present.

He comes from a fucked up generation of spoilt babies and socialpaths and general shitbags.

Black Badger
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Apr 12 2012 02:55

I think (hope) you mean divining rather than deviating.

jameswalsh
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Apr 12 2012 17:02

Thanx - I did mean Divining- my spelling isn't too ho,t specially the spelling of my shaman spirits!

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Apr 14 2012 18:40

James: can you explain why you think Chris Knight's theory can be dismissed as 'balls'?

jameswalsh
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Apr 15 2012 22:43

It puts social before any material change.

Apart from the obverious sillyness of it all. How was this sex strike to be organised on a continental level?

All the advances and changes that be observed he claims to have come about my some sex reserval - can be better explained by the apdaption and exploration of fire.

jameswalsh
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Apr 16 2012 00:22

ps.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k6Yo_qKvhc

While listening to this, my shamanic spirits told me – having chris knight talk about such stuff a low priest of academic who hasn't done his field result. My shamanic speakers usually have a good rant it's about parrots who are good at remembering spellings and punctuation academia and not saying anything that really threats the status quo- a clue being in the word 'state' and state institutions- and the truth doesn't matter how ever you spell. Their right ranters. All the best folk where in the 17th C and probably throughout English history- academia does not like such people.

We might as well have priests telling us about Shaman, Druids and the like . Mind you the left puts up with a load of state mandarin sorts telling the about Marx and socialism.

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Apr 16 2012 12:45

putting social before material change: but isn't that the difference between dialectical and mechanical materialism? In other words, as Marx put it, men (and women...) enter into definite social relations which allow the development of their productive powers, and when these social relations enter into conflict with the productive forces that they themselves have set in motion, there begins an epoch of social revolution....history is made by human beings, not the productive forces in abstract.

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Apr 17 2012 10:16

But Chris Knight wants to put that conciouness before a definite social relationship has developed to explian a definite social relationshion being formed. He is placing that in the epoch of evolution and a social revolution before a society has developed. It's the logic of Mao- and look how that ended.

He puts a developed group conciounes of some complexity as the root ocause of a social order lackin conciouness as the root of early society- he needs a society to inevnt a lower order of it. It would be like saying - i exist- so invented the egg and the sprem- it's a completly backwards way of looking at the world. Why can't he except that society and lanuage came out of the need to cooperate nhunting, gathering and using fire I don't know. His theories say a lot about him and not about evolution and what is a natural state of being human.

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Apr 17 2012 19:58

As I understand it, Knight is trying to develop Engels' observation that the first forms of struggle in human societies (and perhaps proto-human societies)are based on the sexual division of labour. And the observations of previous anthropologists, like Briffault, who argued that the female of the species must have played a key role in the development of the social cooperation you mention. I don't find these notions outrageous. As regards the question of the origins of human consciousness and social organisation, I am not sure I grasp your distinction, because the relationship between the two can only be dialectical.

Any thoughts on The Decadence of the Shamans? There may in any case be some important differences between the approach to primitive communism it puts forward, and Knight's theory. Since these are questions partly lost in the deeps of time, an open mind is more than ever needed here....

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Apr 17 2012 20:07

If anyone wants a quick intro to the ideas of the radical anthropology group being discussed here Camilla Power and Chris Knight appeared on the circled a radio show a few weeks back. Link: http://thecircleda.com/2011/12/10/show-27-22-11-2011-radical-anthropology-with-camilla-power-chris-knight/

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Apr 17 2012 21:27

He wants to stick the development of lanuage on it. Something Engles was smart enough not to do. But I bet Engles new more about Darwinism and animals than Chris Knight.

Chris Knight is also one of the most pompiopus little pricks I've ever met. And i've met a lot- specially in the left and anarchist scene and he is amongst the least likable- poor qualifiation for being antropolagist.

I'm reading 'http://www.erowid.org/library/books/forbidden_sacraments.shtml'

A little Roman Greek centric in my opinion- I might suggest the orgins of the author is the root cause of that- and he seems to miss the odd thing. But good and interesting. But I've got a way to go, it's a bit of a slow read.

Haven't heard of 'The Decadence of the Shamans?'

I'll read it latter, as all you have to put to do is put the title in google to get a copy smile

But me and traffic warden had a run in and an arsehole neibour is harassing a friend by banging on the walls- so going to do some thinking about hittite voodoo and freak their little brains- Have suggested by friend take an eye for an eye approach and put up a sign about doing unto others and sticking some voodoo dolls around the place in sight.

I don't want to follow a link with someone pondificating who does not like the awkward questions back. He's a quack the left and acemdia is full of them.

ernie
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Apr 24 2012 18:56

A very interesting discussion. However, I am left feeling some what mystified by the idea put forwards by Alf about the link between Marx and mystificism or why the Kabbalah should be treat with more serious than other religious tracts. It is 30 years since I read it but from what I remember it was not different to most other religious texts I was reading at the time, apart from the fact it was "trendy" due to its links with occultism. I have spent many years trying to understand what the link is but apart from some vague efforts to link Marx to Boheme by Goldener,and a brief look at some book pertaining to make this link I still do not understand why we should seek to find some root of Marxism in mysticism. I am convinced that Marx would not have seen such a link. Other comrades must have similar questions. May be Alf or another comrade could explain to me why we should see some value in making such a link or seeking a root? And if that root is important was it a weakness of the workers movement that it has not been developed before? What does it bring to our understanding of Marxism?

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Apr 24 2012 22:02

I think Ernie is raising two different questions. The first is the specific link, direct or not, between kabbalah and Marx via Boehme and Hegel (and of course links do not exclude radical breaks). But the more important question is whether the mystical traditions (and Kabbalah is a tradition comprising many different currents rather than a particular text) that run from shamanism and yoga to Zen, Kabbalah, sufism and the rest tell us anything at all about what a fully realised human being looks like. On this point, I think there is a great deal in Marx, especially his early writings about communism, which shed light on the question, whether or not Marx himself was conscious of any continuity between his vision of communism and some characteristic experiences previously associated with the mystical traditions. And I do think that the workers' movement, and anthropology in general, has, for one reason or another, generally underestimated the significance of this dimension of human experience

ernie
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Apr 25 2012 19:56

Ok I think I am getting close to understanding this. Reading the introduction to the Shaman pamphlet has allowed me to see
the difficult and perilous path one's enters upon if you seek to apply a Marxist critique of these historical expressions of the development of human society. It is difficult not only for the person trying to apply the method but for those who may have concerns about the possible pitfulls for those involved in this scientific investigation. Marxism is about going to the roots of questions, but some of these roots are harder to expose than others.

jameswalsh
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Apr 27 2012 14:41

In Marx's time, a lot less was known about the spread of humanity and human history from the ice age and how that could contrabute to human history was at a very early stage. Marx had hardly anything to go in comprasion to us. And he was rather busy dealing with ecoonics and day to day stuff.

Materialist dioletecs is about a method not about slavishly following Marx. Slavishly following Marx is turning the fellow on his head!

II'm busy reading 3 books at the moment one on the Gnostic gosels from the Dead Sea Scrolls not discovered til 1948. A 100 years excactly after the communist Manifesto as it happens.

baboon
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Apr 27 2012 17:51

Nevertheless I think that Marx still had it right. Which I don't think Chris Knight has.

This post is on an earlier point made by jameswalsh when he states that Knight hasn't understood Darwin. I agree with him.

I don't deny the importance of menstruation in tribal societies and in myth. Ethnographic evidence is full of it and the 3-D expression of it is writ large in the 30,000 year-old Chauvet cave. But the idea that 70-100,000 years ago, the origins of culture was born from a sex-strike by women, predicated on tidal movements, ovarian synchrony and phases of the moon, I find distinctly unsatisfying. The idea of the woman staying at home, putting her make-up on, plotting and scheming against the absent males is something of an unedifying premise for a social revolution.

My position is that of Trotsky in "Culture and Socialism": "But from the moment that man seperated himself from the animal kingdom - and this happened approximately when he first grasped primitive tools of stone and wood and armed the organs of his body with them - from that time there began the creation and accumulation of culture, that is, all kinds of knowledge and skills in the struggle with nature and the subjugation of nature".
Fundamentally, this is the position of Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Pannekoek, Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Lewis Henry Morgan. As far as I understand it today, the post-Australopithicine transition for the development of society and culture - defended by those above - is a minority view. The idea of an approximate 100,000 year-old development is the majority view including that of Knight - if not necessarily for the reasons that he states.

Reading "Blood Relations", one can see that it is not only peppered with misunderstandings about Darwin's position, it also falls into constant expressions of social Darwinism, ie, the perversion of the descent of man by the bourgeoisie with ideas of "man the animal", "law of the jungle", "dog eat dog". This is what Knight serves up throughout. For him Darwin's theory was "the laws of individualistic competitition" whereas Darwin showed the basis of society to be the formidable strength of the animal instincts for preservation of the whole, the strength of materal instincts and an inbuilt morality that developed from that. For Knight, men are just bloodthirsty fighting animals. Tools are not the basis for production (this idea for Knight is "anti-woman") but weapons for men to smash each other over the head with - he even poses that this could be the reason for the development of a thick layer of skull! Man the numbskull, man the bonehead. He conflates aggression, Darwin and baboon society with the same anti-woman crap unable to take in research that sees baboon society as matriarchal par excellence.

It's not clear how Knight sees the development of society before the sex-strike sorted everything out relatively recently. He seems dismissive of what went before as the example of the Acheulean hand-axe shows. He takes a snap-shot of this and sees it as a crude, unchanging weapon, which is contradicted by the archaelogical evidence. Firstly, there's evidence of diversity (China) and there's loads of evidence of development and refinement throughout. Collectively, he argues, there's no need for an all-purpose tool and that the axes, such as they existed, would be an individual expression, a closely guarded secret. This is in line with Knight's view of the role of individualism in the development of society and doesn't explain the vast numbers of these tools found in deposits from very early on in the Homo development. Further archaeological contradictions to his position come written in stone at Boxgrove half-a-million years ago. At the scene of a kill, there's clear evidence of cooperation - not individuals running off with the meat and the butchering tools themselves are shaped so that the blood runs away from the hands and the body. This contradicts his view of the blood-soaked individual hunter. Around the same time, the Acheulean axe was developing into a thing of beauty - "exquisite" is how some describe it. For me this underlines the further development of society, symbolism, culture and possibly ritual.

There's some good stuff in Knight's writings, some of it very good. But it's a pity he's nailed on this position which, for me, actually underestimates the special role of womanhood in the development of the species.

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Apr 30 2012 16:00

Enough about Chris Knight already. Or rather, we can come back to him later. What about following Ernie's lead and commenting on the new introduction to The Decadence of the Shamans, or the text itself?

baboon
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Apr 30 2012 17:21

Time Alf, time. The intro's above. Can you provide a link to the text itself? Cheers.

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Apr 30 2012 18:23

It's up there already, but:

http://www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/old/pub_decadence.pdf

ernie
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May 2 2012 10:39

Alf, I do not understand your point about Chris Knight! In the introduction you defend his theory, so surely Baboon's critique of him is very relevant to any discussion of the introduction?

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May 2 2012 18:40

I am interested in his theory and think it should be seriously considered. I wouldn't say I defend it, certainly not in toto, and I think there are certainly some key differences between his approach and the one I took in the shamanism booklet. So for the moment I would prefer the discussion to be about what I have argued in the booklet rather than about Chris Knight's 'sex-strike' theory.

baboon
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May 31 2012 17:21

These few comments on “The Decadence of the Shamans” by AC will be necessarily restricted by a lack of reading of many of the works referenced but are an attempt to move the discussion along. This is a positive text in my opinion that reaffirms and opens new doors on the questions of consciousness and alienation.

I think that one element showing the universality of the shamanistic experience, like the development of ceramics, metallurgy and agriculture, ritual and sedentism, is its independent development over the globe; ie, it fulfils and responds to a basic human need. The similarities between the expressions of shamanism across continents, through peoples that have never met, show it to be part of an eminently collective experience of humanity. AC draws on this with Freud's view of the telepathic being the “original, archaic method of communication between individuals”, which he goes on to say become more developed “with the help of signals which are picked up by the sense organs”. Chris Stringer in “The Origins of Our Species” has an interesting point on this regarding one difference between us and our distant (animal) ancestors whose outer covering of the eyeball, the sclera, is dark brown in colour: “But humans have an enlarged, unpigmented and therefore white sclera, which means we can detect where other people are looking; equally, they can detect where we are looking. This must have evolved as part of the development of our social signalling, enabling us to 'mind-read' each other (this idea has a name: the cooperative eye hypothesis!). Similarly, many domestic dogs have an accentuated white sclera compared with their wild wolf ancestors, which perhaps evolved to augment the close social relationship between dogs and humans”.

I haven't read the work of Marshall Sahline, mentioned by Alf, on the “affluent society” of hunter-gatherers, but I think that from some studies we can see that for some period or periods over pre-history that there was not scarcity and rather than a simple struggle for survival, primitive communism could well have flourished with plenty of shelter, clothing, food, leisure and “play” time. Such periods would have been favourable not only to cooperation but also to the development of consciousness, ritual and belief systems. As with the text (and the general gist of the discussion above), I don't want to idealize this state of things and agree that here mankind is still dominated by external or natural forces and thus suffers from “a primitive form of alienation” and the “limits of the tribe and the gentes”, the latter being both positive and negative forms in the overall process of becoming. Even in a period of “enough”, these “comforting chains” are, as Marx said, still chains and they mean that mankind is not at all in a position to make its own history and to therefore be truly liberated. I agree with the text in this sense and I think that it makes clear that Freud also subscribes to the view of the “comfortable chains” in respect of primitive man and to some extent “the way back being the way forward”.

One problem we face, though much less so than in Marx's time (as james points out above), is making an analysis over the sheer time scale of human prehistory. As an aside, just this week there were two announcements of recent finds that push back human endeavour a bit further, with both pointing to possible shamanistic interpretations: one is the rock art in Abri Castanet site in south west France of at least 37000 years ago and the other is the finds at Geissenklosterle on the Danube of personal ornaments, art, mythical images and musical instruments, that go back possibly forty-five thousand years. The break with, the qualitative leap from, the animal kingdom and the move towards self-consciousness, self-awareness, as the text says, takes mankind into an alien world that's undoubtedly fraught with dangers. This is just part of the period of “nature developing into man”. In the post-Australopithicine transition, say a period of some 1.8 to 0.6 million years ago, tools remained more or less uniform suggesting that society was unchanging. Though this period is often mocked by some anthropologists, this is an incredible period of mankind both in its length of time and the stability that it demonstrates. There must have been fire over this time, or at least a good amount of it, There's convincing evidence for its controlled use in the Late Lower and Early Middle Palaeolithic (Monnier et al, 1994, Klein & Edgar, 2002. 156-7). Clear evidence of conscious-altering shamanistic rituals are mentioned in the discussion above with Lewis-Williams (see also Winkelman, 2002) and its extremely unlikely that these emerged fully-formed. Matt Rossano in “The archaeology of consciousness” points to the presence of consciousness altering rituals in the mid to late Middle Palaeolithic (Balter 2000, Hayden 2003, 108-115; Minkel 2006). Rossano goes on to say how these rituals would have offered a fitness advantage which were sustained and absorbed over many millennia. On the importance of fire Rossano is clear both in relation to the dramatic shaman rituals around it and the positive effects on the mind of ecstatic emotion and social bonding. Over the long run the social and health benefits would have been immense for those that willingly became involved and it's possible that certain genetic developments took place in this respect.

From the EPM, AC points out the profound contradiction of “man's unique ability to purposefully plan his activities” being changed by the need to store up goods for tomorrow, continued anxiety and “an inability to live life in the present tense”. I agree with this but think that primitive communism, ie, a part of hunter-gatherer society, mitigated the worst effects with the development of tools and labour, cooperation and morality; comforting chains maybe but very necessary ones. And the Neanderthal species seemed to have lived life more in the “remembered present” but this species was even more atomised and alienated to the point of extinction. At the same time the Upper Palaeolithic rock art of Sapiens appears to be an ultimately doomed attempt to maintain a spiritual link with the animal kingdom. And even here there's possibly evidence of rivalries and tensions growing between shamans with defacements and replacements of particular images. But the point about “storing up goods” remains and from agriculture (another rise and fall) it develops into the “final triumph of alienation” through the “fall” of civilisation, deepening through that period and finding its apogee – or rather its depth - in the capitalist system. This is what humanity has to climb out from.

The importance of myth also underlines the “trapping” of mankind in a sort of animal/man limbo. But the leap from the animal kingdom had to be made, was made, and early man's attempts to recreate his nature through myth, ritual and the power of the ancestors represented both the negative and positive developments at the same time. Within this we see both the individualism of the shaman within the tribe and also as the “servant of the community” (AC). I've used the term “religion” rather loosely in the discussion above but agree with AC that it really appears after the decay of shamanistic beliefs – that were an expression of primitive communism – in order to justify the stamp of oppression of the ruling classes that emerged out of civilisation. And again today it's the elements of religion that also represent the decomposition of capitalism and its fundamental irrationality. I also agree about the dangers of “new age shamanism” which also represents a sign of decomposition and a “flight” into irrationality.

I absolutely support the positive affirmation of the work of Lewis Henry Morgan and the importance of the latter and his analysis of the development of primitive communism to the revolutionary perspective as expounded by Rosa Luxemburg here. I think that shamanism is certainly a representative, an expression of this primitive communism and I was disappointed to read the archaeologist David S. Whitely's conclusion in his book (2209) that it is the result of physical maladies and mental aberrations. But if the bourgeoisie pours scorn – one way or the other – on mankind's past and its development, then I think that elements of the ruling class will continue to seriously investigate the elements of Altered States of Consciousness and “out of body experiences” as the Pentagon has been doing for some time. There's some really good stuff about consciousness in the text; the conscious possession of a previous time, “a timeless time” and the paradoxical state of being 'taken over' by something other (“regarding the friendship with animals”) while still acting in a conscious manner. I believe that this is well demonstrated in Upper Palaeolithic cave art and AC gives plenty of references and examples of the contradictions that mankind is held in and that it must go beyond. It would be wrong to say that there's a 'project” of humanity but there's no denying that there's been a progression. Not the linear progression that the bourgeoisie vaunts in order to justify its dictatorship, but a climb upwards that always seem to contain a fall at the same time. Only communism can solve this contradiction and how it goes towards this is expressed by AC in a great quote by Trotsky from “My Life” on the inspirational conscious state as it affects and effects the masses in a revolutionary movement. This sums up many elements from Trotsky's great work on the history of the Russian revolution.

Yes, there was an oppressive sense to the primitive community but I don't think that it was each against all as implied somewhere in the text. Certainly mankind was unable to transform the world and from necessary weakness it turned aspirations into myth and dream-time – a backward view in the scope of the heights that he has to reach. In this vision free activity and the full development of the individual can take place along with the abolition of alienation that takes us beyond myth and dream-time. This need is to re-connect man and nature through states of consciousness altered through mass activity and beyond.

On the new introduction: my position on Chris Knight's sex-strike “revolution” is clear above – it's a partial and miserable perspective. I don't like his traducing of Darwin in the book defending this position. One thought that occurs to me is the contribution that Darwin and Wallace made to the whole question of the development of consciousness throughout the period of primitive humanity.

jameswalsh
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Jun 4 2012 04:26

we've been living the peroid (pun intended) of the sex strike for the last 40 years. That idiot CK has got as much the wrong way round as seems pssoiable.

ps- i wish i had punched his lights out when i met him.

baboon
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Jun 4 2012 11:19

james, I don't think that it's useful to talk about punching anybody's lights out especially when they are trying to put forward a communist perspective on palaeoanthropology. This in my opinion includes CK's sex-strike arguments and much other good work besides.

On a point you raised earlier about the enormous advances in anthropology since Marx's time, I would very much agree. The last hundred odd years, the last 30, even the last 5 years has seen great strides. But as a total of all the advances, I would argue that in great generality they underline the perspectives laid out by Marx, Engels and other revolutionary elements in relation to pre-history as well as the central theses of Darwin and Wallace.

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Alf
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Jun 10 2012 20:49

Baboon, many thanks for your very considered response. i will come back to it soon. In any case, i am thinking about how to present The Decadence of the Shamans at the Radical Anthropology Group meeting on July 3rd, where I will have to face quite a few substantial criticisms, which I will also elaborate on.

Is anyone thinking of coming to this?

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Alf
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Jun 10 2012 22:08

I agree also with baboon's response to James. I have many fundamental disagreements with Chris Knight on the level of general politics, and also perhaps some important ones on anthropological questions, but i also think that his work and the work of other anthropologists that he is cooperating with are a serious attempt to "underline the perspectives laid out by Marx, Engels and other revolutionary elements in relation to pre-history as well as the central theses of Darwin and Wallace".

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Alf
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Jun 17 2012 21:47

One of the themes that baboon draws out from the booklet (and it is certainly a central one) is the problem of the dialectic of history: the rise and fall of modes of production, but also the recognition that a rise can also be a fall. There was a critical review of the text not long after it was published - I think by someone in Wildcat during their final, anti-civilisation stage. It looks like Red Hughes published it in his Against Sleep and Nightmare journal but I may be wrong. In any case, the issue of whether it's possible to talk about any progressive development in human history was the main thing they focused on. I also think this will come up in the discussion at the Radical Anthropology group on 3 July, in particular, around the problem of whether it is accurate or useful to talk about alienation in early primitive communist society.

http://web.archive.org/web/20041227180038/http://www.againstsleepandnightmare.com/wildcat/w17-shamanism.html
Also published here:

http://a-albionic.com/topic/46#.T94eRBeJclE