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Joined: 29-07-05
Jun 19 2012 22:33

I've read the text of Richard Tate criticising the Decadence of the Shamans linked by Alf above and a few comments.

First of all, with what we know now, I think it a mistake to see the same level of society over the whole course of pre-history and not see that this period had a whole range of development. The early appearance of tool-making Homo would have had much adversity to deal with and I imagine that this period was one of a struggle for life to just to establish the (different) species. While production of the basics would have been essential, this was also a period of organisation and solidarity and the development of consciousness. Even with the absence of fire these humans were not cowering in the shadows but already some of them were making their way out of Africa and into Asia nearly two million years ago. The tools of these peoples stayed the same for a million years suggesting a very slow development which I doubt took place in a situation of abundance. This is a very particular period of our history which had its own, somewhat obscure to us, stories. If there were primitive communism here it would be a form of primitive, primitive communism where the necessity was “the first act of production is reproduction” and sticking together.

I think that the basis for primitive communism was laid in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago where all the main attributes of modern homo were being assembled. Notwithstanding what's gone before, this is a major progression that's well validated in the archaeological evidence. Richard Tate, polemicising against another in his text, doesn't like the idea of “exchange” in prehistory, because of its corrupting dangers apparently. But the exchange of ornaments was taking place over distances in Africa nearly a quarter of a million years ago and there seems no doubt that it further reinforced society and its productive development. I'd say that the period of primitive communism was from homo sapien hunter-gatherer societies a long way back in Africa, societies which continued to advance both within Africa and through the excursion(s) of the Recent African Origins up until the period at the end of the Palaeolithic and the beginnings of sedentism. Some fifteen thousand years ago. The whole period would have lasted dozens of thousands of years and I think that shamanism would have been an important factor throughout this developing society. The archaeological evidence confirms that the more these peoples travelled, met up and even interbred with other species, that this too was a period of advance and developments, including advances and developments in consciousness. Fusion and fission Chris Stringer calls it.

But for all its “wealth”, for all its playtime, this society is still mystified, alienated and limited by the boundaries of the tribe. Herein lies the decadence of the shaman. There's a restlessness in this settled “satisfied” community because otherwise how can you possibly understand the appearance of agriculture? Richard Tate talks as if we condone the crimes of civilisation in the name of the overall progress of civilisation. But saying that class society must eventually resolve itself by the action of a revolutionary class with a future doesn't mean condoning any crime at all – on the contrary. Tate's crime is to get too wrapped up in the comforting chains of hunter-gatherer society.

Before agriculture, before civilisation, we get in the epipalaeolithic, some thirteen thousand years ago, hunter-gatherers building the most beautiful stone temples in Gobleki Tepe, Nevali Cori, etc. And, considering the finely worked engraving and designs, showing various “signs” that recall shamanistic experiences, none of this was done under the lash. It's the same for many other areas of the globe with sendentism and more solid expressions of art and labour which appear universally but independent of the other. Settlement then farming. Why do this? Why give up those comforting chains? From a position of relative luxury and a life of leisure somewhat, why go to hard, back-breaking, disease-ridden work? It's an advance, a progression and it can't be denied looking at the history of mankind. It's not unilinear, nor preordained and there have been setbacks even before our species came out of Africa but there's been a progression towards the possibility of the self-fulfilment of mankind. That agriculture and animal domestication provided a surplus and this in turn reinforced the priesthoods, patriarchy and generated a ruling class with its civilisation is one more occasion of the rise and fall happening within history. I think that the overall move of mankind has been a progression to be able at least to pose very profound questions of further advances.

Joined: 8-02-10
Jun 29 2012 04:14

Religion and ritual is a means of expressing the contents of the unconscious. If there's any part of archaic culture that should be revived, its the classless structure of their spirtiuality, I think that instututions like the catholic church formed to control and limit exploration of the psyche to keep people in rigid, predictable patterns, which is convenient for kings and lords. It used to be that we communed directly with nature and the unconscious, but now were told we have to have a priest or a pastor be the middle man for us. I think this basic outlook we've been engrained with in organized religion, that someone from above has to mediate for us lowly peasants has conditioned us into accepting all forms of hierarchical subjugation, whether it be statistic, capitalistic, or feudalistic. In other words, "You can't find God without your priest" leads to "You can't live without your politicians, your boss, or your master".

Alf's picture
Joined: 6-07-05
Mar 21 2013 08:56

new posh printed edition of The Decadence of the Shamans, published by the Radical Anthropology Group (but with cash forked out by me), with the new intro and improved lay-out and illustrations. Available on Amazon for £6.50 plus £2.80 delivery, or PM me to discuss terms.....