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Old College Paper on Anthropology’s Purpose

I became interested in Anthropology through the works of Carlos Castaneda and Terence McKenna, and other similar authors that mainstream anthropologists would never claim as their own. It was my interest in what is usually called shamanism or sorcery that eventually lead me to majoring in Anthropology and thinking rationally about the occult. Now after three years of Anthropology classes, I have gotten to explore a variety of approaches to many different anthropological questions, but I still can’t help but feel that it is all the same question. Anthropology’s approach to religion has been particularly useful in formulating my thoughts about reality, and I feel the strength in the discipline is in its descriptive power and its potential to get at the meaning behind systems of thought by relating them to a holistic understanding of reality.

Modern science distinguishes itself from its religious and alchemic roots by its adoption of a metaphysical system of a kind of reductionism. There are many fundamental assumptions that are vital to this system, some of which are coming into question as our scientists probe deeper into the structure of our world. The near absence of teleology in modern science has been a reaction against the abstract rationalism of the Greek and Scholastic philosophy that gave birth to our modern science. What cannot be demonstrated as fact is inadmissible as proof in modern science. Yet the whole belief that the diversity of irreducible facts could be harmonized into a rational order arose not out of empirical observation, but belief in an order and purpose of nature. It interesting that despite this modern reaction against abstraction, the role of induction is still vital to the scientific process. Induction is an abstraction from a certain observed phenomenon that assumes temporal invariance. It assumes that if conditions remain the same, a given procedure will always produce the same result. This assumption has had great success in furthering our understanding of all the conserved quantities and symmetries in nature, but this assumption must be understood as an approximation employed for methodological convenience. For the majority of science such philosophical conjectures are of little practical importance, because the amount of abstraction is small for everyday mechanics; but for Anthropology and any other attempt at holistic enterprise, the abstraction becomes the primary methodological tool. The difference is in one case we are organizing parts, and in the other we are looking for meaning in the organization. The meaning of organization cannot be understood or justified by the mere sum of its parts. The study of organization cannot be separated from the phenomenon of mind and so requires teleology.

It is my belief that mind is a fundamental property of the universe, and that it directs nature at all levels of organization. Mind is the primary abstraction, and that abstraction forms any and every temporal event. It is not necessary to attack or defend the modern view that teleology is merely a product of the observer. There is no way to prove it one-way or the other without observing. All that is relevant is that we observe order, and because we observe it both spatially and sequentially, that order becomes meaningful. Sequential order demands temporal variance, and that variance demands a symbolic relationship with spatial form to organize the sequence. Spatial form, on the other hand, demands temporal persistence. This relationship between the temporal, subjective sequence and its objectification of the spatial world forms all organization. But since this relationship is neither here nor there, it is open-ended, always in the process of being defined. It is this idea I think Levi-Strauss was getting at through most of his work. In direct contrast to the relativism that has dominated Anthropology since, he wanted desperately to make it known that there is a law. The law does not dictate what happens, only the way it happens. It is language, the essential structure in every mind underneath the variety of its many manifestations. It is a formula for creation, not an almighty creator, but a process that makes sure that creators understand their creations.

We have created culture and it needs to be understood. Anthropology was originally conceived with pretty much this question in mind, but has since moved away from its original holistic purpose. It is a system much like any other, and has obeyed the law of entropy, falling into greater specialization and mere categorization. Such is the lesson of life, evolve or fall apart. Without central organization, without purpose, there is no growth, and without growth there is only decay. Evolution has a purpose; it is purpose, intent. It is a chance for freedom in the face of the cold fate of entropy. It is not something that can ever be explicit because it is open ended. Any closed system you simply observe (if such a thing were possible), can only move towards disorder, it’s required by entropy. Objective reality is that “other” at cross-purposes with any subjective one, it wants you involved, but you need to evolve. The anthropologist is strained by the paradox of negotiating between two worlds; not wanting to lose his own perspective but also wanting to become a member in the system he is studying. These two trajectories require each other because they are both part of a single relationship. That communication is the only reality; everything else is an abstraction. In reality there is no subject/object division. Anthropology has been struggling with this paradox for years, despite the fact that it has been treading on very old ground that other cultures have thought about for centuries. Nonetheless, I feel it is necessary to frame anthropological work within a framework that can better negotiate the paradoxes of holistic science.

A real understanding of the “Other” can sometimes seem like just a dream, but I think it is this dream that validates all speculations on culture. With all the paradoxes that come with such speculations it is easy to see why Anthropology has become more of an attempt to understand others and explore the interactions between cultures, at the expense of such lofty goals of a real conception of the Other. It may seem obvious that it means different things to different people. In Levi-Strauss’s terms, this is only the content; it is the way the other is constructed, and therefore the way reality is created, that is the real object of study. As the physical scientist look for order in the relationships of nature, the social scientist look for order in the relationships of people. According to Durkheim the social order originates in nature, so it is a natural realm, only differing in complexity. He saw social science and the study of religion as a way to decode some essential collective representation at the base of human understanding. Where as Levi-Strauss compared the mythological base of different cultural systems to find that base structure, Durkheim looked to what he considered to be the simplest and most representative form of human understanding in the religion of simple societies. He considered Totemism as the original religion that represented man’s initial confrontation and objectification of the other. I think Levi-Strauss was critical of this approach because religion was one of man’s reactions to society. The real question is about the underlying structure of the human mind that caused the various representations and cultural systems we find throughout the world. They both agree that this object is rooted in social interactions, but where Durkheim was looking for a collective archetype that society and religion have grown out of; Levi-Strauss thought any static representation would be merely an example of the deeper, primal mode of abstraction.

I see similarities here to Evans Pritchard who saw the anthropologist as studying the other as a way to find out about the self. Both Levi-Strauss and Evans Pritchard seem to think that what is important is the way each of us takes what is “there” and transforms it into “here”. I think this is an important and valuable approach to anthropology. It seems to imply that we only study “others” to find about the self. Pritchard wants to understand western distinctions by situating them and comparing them to primitive religion. I think Evans Pritchard’s writings on sorcery prove the value of this kind of approach rather ironically. Not just in Anthropology but also in life, we learn about our own biased constructions by their reflections in other people. I see it all the time; people accuse others of doing exactly what they do. Part of what we see in others is a reflection of our self. Pritchard thinks that in sorcery/witchcraft, people fail to make certain obvious distinctions, and do not question their own rather contradictory beliefs. I think Pritchard is seeing his own inability to make certain paradoxical connections reflected in the Azande’s “failure” to make certain distinctions, not to mention his own disregard for his rather biased constructions. Instead of trying to understand some obscure notion of a concrete western notion of the self by studying some impersonal other, he could have seen the real phenomenon behind magic.

I don’t think it is an accident that anthropologists have had a kind of obsession with the occult; what they do, or what they ideally hope to do, is very similar to shamanism. What makes someone a shaman is that they have “died” in a metaphorical sense. A shaman gives up his personal self to become a kind of abstract representation of the whole, whether it is the whole tribe or the whole of civilized society. The “other” for a shaman is his ally, his double; a reflection of him that he draws power from. He must first tackle his own very personal demons before he can become a representation of the impersonal and abstract. When he does get his head turned towards the abstract, his “other” becomes the “other”. This gives him the power to mediate between two worlds. Both the personal and impersonal universes become reflections of each other, and he has to keep them lined up in order to retain his own cohesion as a representation of both. He is a shaman by virtue of not making the distinctions that characterize self and other, for his self is the “other” in its general abstract form. By pursuing his own dreams and visions he enters into that “other” world. The world of magic is the epitome of the foreign system that anthropologists always look to understand. It is the world of the unconscious where all power, and reality emanate from. Thoughts control the universe and belief makes reality. The shaman however is no ordinary witch. He enters that world but with no personal motives, only abstract fantasies. Like in Peter Geschiere’s study of the Maka, there is a distinction between the nkong, who is the healer, and other individuals who deal with the occult force, which the Maka call djambe. One might say that the shaman has his head tuned around. He has passed through the looking glass, and no longer wants to use the impersonal force to affect reality, but uses reality to affect the abstract. Although he can perform magic he does so only for impersonal reasons. This is why the shaman is a healer. In terms that Geschiere uses to describe the Maka, I would say that the shaman is a kind of leveling force. He represents the impersonal force of nature that balances out the accumulative force of ego and hierarchy. By his connection with the abstract he makes sure that the social order maintains its equality as a reflection of the natural order.

The figure of the shaman needs to be central to the Anthropology of Religion, if it is to hope for any comparative or holistic conclusions. I don’t think it is a matter of personal opinion either; any approach to understanding the other needs to be grounded in the dynamics of sorcery, for the relationship and power dynamics between descriptions of reality is what the “other” world is all about. Perhaps Boas’s approach is acceptable because he does not entertain any fantasies of an easy translation from one system to another. As much as I resent cultural relativism, Boas at least realizes the difficulty in really understanding the other. As opposed to Geertz and other similar anthropologists, who think you can waltz into a culture, learn some of the language and gain some real understanding of them, Boas puts emphasis on the whole process a certain culture went through in order to become what they are at present. He realized that the interpretation is a reflection of the translation. Geertz seems to fall into a common anthropological fallacy. The whole idea that membership in a foreign system is strictly a matter of that translation is absurd. It takes a lifetime to gain full membership in foreign systems, and I have doubts that one can ever really gain the type of emic understanding that a native has. Once we have learned our first language, it is impossible to ever really let go of all the categories that exist in the unconscious, that that first system created. I am not suggesting, of course, that we should ignore other cultures and different ways of seeing the world. The fundamental purpose of abstraction, or should I say the abstract’s fundamental purpose for creating reality is to be used. “One” created the “other” to explore and understand what it was made of. The relationship between them is the way reality is used for the purpose of the abstract. What Levi-Strauss saw as the law in the mind of man is really the law that creates the whole universe. It is responsible for the simplest organization. It has evolved along side the whole span of time, destined become the perfect tool. It is language, the eternal relationship that we abstract from into self and other, and it is here to be used.

Social science has the potential to be the shaman for the whole of modern civilization. Science has split off into factions in order to get all the details from so many areas. This was necessary to fill in the gaps that mysticism and the over abstractions of early science over looked. But now as all the details are being filled in all the many branches of science, their needs to be a creative element, some dream to weave it all together and relate all the details back to the abstract. Information is not knowledge unless it has purpose. What has civilization’s forays into the extremes shown us about the middle? The extremes and the details define one reality that we all have been separated from by the hierarchy of civilization. Like Marx would say, our capitalist society does not reflect natural human society. It reflects the hierarchy of ego and the politics of hidden powers. We all really live in that “other” world, we just can’t see it because we have been deliberately separated from it by those who are in control of not just the means of production, but also more importantly, the means of communication. We no longer have a living connection to the meanings of our words. The connection between signifier and the signified is a guarded secret by those in power who feed off the characters they create out of real people who don’t have access to the unconscious. There is a purpose and a direction that organizes our society, and directs our progress; it is just unconscious to most people. Science merely validates its own premises, reinforcing the hierarchical organization that directs its research. Since science has a large influence on the way we distinguish between truth and fantasy, one could see how it could serve to liberate humanity from economic and mental slavery. Anthropology especially is valuable because it deliberately searches for difference. Sociology and other related fields that study civilization don’t confront difference like Anthropology has traditionally done. The whole human experience has a potential to become liberated, if only we could collectively, through some universal language that was not limited by a separation between sign and thing, understand the equivalence of difference. Using paradoxical logic, (i.e. opposites are equal), Anthropology can explore the extreme difference both in people and the wealth of different systems of other science to further our understanding of the law. Perhaps history has been a necessary illusion to explore, in order to gain more than a metaphorical understanding of reality and is possibly the final phase in evolution that will deliver us into the total freedom of self-organization, as co-creators of the universe.