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Ordering-machine: sketchy maps?

Through the process of knowledge assemblage we have created a naturalised space amenable to being mapped; we now equate scientific knowledge with maps.
David Turnbull, Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers

I left off the opening post in this series with the observation that how much of an ordered “magical map” does one actually need to get by in the world? I suspect, that for much of my own practice, its been something more akin to a rough sketch than an a fully-ordered schema. I’m going to continue with some further observations on the concept of the worldview, drawing on the work of Rane Willerslev.

Soul Hunters

In Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (University of California Press 2007) Rane Willerslev highlights a problem with the concept of “worldview” – that it implies that a “body of context-free, propositional knowledge about spiritual beings, their characters and interrelations, lies fully formed inside people’s heads, like a ‘cosmological map’, simply waiting to be applied in particular situations of its practical use.” (p156)

In his discussion of the spirit world of the Yukaghirs, Willerslev refers to the 1926 monograph by Vladimir Jochelson – The Yukaghir and the Yukaghized Tungus. Jochelson produced an extensive taxonomy of spirits composed of two elementary categories – benevolent and evil spirits – each further divided into five hierarchical levels, in which each spirit was allocated a fixed place. Willerslev points out however, that during the course of his fieldwork amongst Yukaghir hunters, he didn’t find anyone who had such an eloborate “knowledge” of spirit beings – rather that “hunters’ notions of spirits seemed mostly vague and confused, and they found it very difficult to put them into any order whatsoever … Although they acknowledged the existence of various kinds of spiritual beings, associated both with locations in the landscape and with animals, they were generally incapable of naming them, either individually or by type.” (p142). He goes on to discuss how there was a wide variety of perspectives on the characteristics of various spirits and their domains, and some ambivalence over whether spirits were benevolent or not – which had been a fairly basic distinction for Jochelson.

Willerslev poses the question that – having found nothing that remotely resembled Jochelson’s description of the Yukaghir pantheon of spirits – there could have been a loss of knowledge due to “acculturation” into the Soviet system? He cites a 1997 study by Krupnik and Vakhtin of the Siberian Yupik (Inuit) which found that knowledge of the spirit world and related ritual practice did not – as they had expected – decrease in direct relationship to the loss of indigenous language or increase in formal schooling. They did find however, that contemporary Yupik recognise fewer spirit beings and had replaced some, formerly spirit-based explanations of ritual practices with secular ones.

However, Willserslev brings up an interesting point about the ethnographic mappings of “traditional” spirit pantheons as performed by Jochelson – that Jochelson basically took various disconnected statements from Yukaghir shamans and – after editing out ambiguities and contradictions – produced an “ideal model” of an indigenous people’s pantheon of spirits – the point being that it is dubious to use such idealised accounts of spirit belief as a basis for evaluating the extent to which spiritual ideas have been “lost” amongst contemporary tribal people. He is also critical of Krupnik and Vahktin’s framing of “indigenous spiritual knowledge” as “intellectual culture”: It explains to people in appropriate and understandable terms how the universe is built. It shows people their place in the world, both physically and spiritually; it deals with birth and death, rationalizes communal and individual success and misfortunes, and regulates human behaviour” (Krupnik and Vahktin, quoted on p146).

This, as Willerslev points out, sounds very like a worldview – a representationalist (“mental model”) view of knowledge. He proposes a very different approach to spiritual knowledge – one that focuses not on perception in terms of conceptual representations, but instead focuses on “the flux of people’s everyday activities”. He begins from the assumption that “practical engagement with things” is the foundation upon which abstract cognition and conceptual representation is premised. He quotes Tim Ingold: “…the forms people build, whether in the imagination or on the ground, arise within the current of their involved activity, in the specific relational contexts of their practical engagement with their surroundings.” (Ingold, 2000: 186).

Willerslev points out that in contemporary Western culture, we make use of various tools (such as computers or cars) without having to know in great detail, how they work. Furthermore, we make use of these tools on a day-to-day basis without having to pay them much attention. For example, when writing on a computer, one does not necessarily explicitly perceive the machine itself, but the act of writing. Amongst the Yukaghir, he says, there is a similar process going on. Yukaghir rituals relate to hunting, and are often carried out “in a matter-of-fact fashion” and rarely “formulated explicitly in conversation” or “reflected upon in the abstract”. He quotes a young hunter, who annoyed by his questions about spirits, said:

It is like the way you use your computer. You write on it, but you do not think about how it actually works. You have told me this yourself. You just need to work on it, not to understand how it works. It is the same with me. I need to do so and so to kill an elk, but I do not think about its deeper meaning, and I do not need to know.

Willserslev comments that Yukaghir hunters do not typically spend time reflecting on the “deeper meanings” of their rituals, nor do they spend time considering the “nature” of the spirit beings they make sacrifices to – the spirits “vanish as objects of attention” as the hunters focus on pragmatic concerns. This way of thinking is frequently found in accounts of indigenous peoples. Willerslav notes that this should not be read as a evidence for a “primitive” mindset which can be contrasted with advanced conceptual thinking for “civilised” societies, but as a “basic way of being”. He points to the presence of this attitude in the daily lives of Westerners as seen through the lens of Schutz in his account of the common-sense world: Man in his daily life is not particularly – and we dare say exceptionally – interested in the clarity of his knowledge, i.e., in full insight into the relations between the elements of his world and the general principles ruling those relations. He is satisfied that well-functioning telephone service is available to him and, normally, does not ask what laws of physics make this functioning possible.” (Schutz, 1971: Willerslev p152).

In this assumption of direct engagement (what Ingold refers to as “the Dwelling Perspective”) Willerslev argues that abstract reflection requires a disengagement from the doing of an activity – and it is in the detachment from an activity that questions such as “why are we doing this ritual?” arise – and that this kind of disengagement is often occasioned by a “shock” of some kind (pace Heidegger) – his example being when the computer on which writing is going to be done fails to turn on:

“When, for instance, my computer continuously fails to turn on, I become aware not only of the computer itself, but also of the network of relations in which its instrumental functioning is embedded. I see the printer with which the computer is connected, as well as the many other pieces of equipment that I use for writing. I may even become painfully aware of my own dependency on all these various objects for the realization of my in-order-to motives of writing.”

(This is a situation that anyone who’s worked in IT desktop support will recognise – although I have to say it seems more usual for people to just cry out “it’s broke” then wander away to get a coffee, leaving the haplass support tech to figure out what actually has gone wrong.)

He discusses an incident wherein a hunter shot an elk, but it got up and walked away – and afterwards, the hunter reflected on “why” an elk that had been offered to him in a dream was “taken back” by the spirit who had offered it to him: “He started to regard spirits not just as an anonymous group, but as seperate beings available for reflection, and he began to seek causes for his failure in their distinctive senses and sensibilities.” (p154). Willerslev stresses that although Yukaghir hunters do sometimes make enquiries into the spirit world – these enquiries are always directed to specific elements of that world – elements that will help them overcome a particular problem. He says that their ideas about the spirit world are not systematic, although the Yukaghirs do say that over time and repeated encounters with particular spirits, people can develop deeper knowledge and relations with selected spirits – that the spirits develop permanent relations only with old people that they have known for years.

Returning the the overall theme of the “worldview” – Willerslev contends that the “worldview” perspective rests on the assumption that the religious representations of a given “culture” are an integrated and consistent set of abstract principles. Integration implies that the ideas held by individuals are connected and consitute a system or cosmology, and consistent implies, as he terms it, a kind of “cultural grammar”.

Willerslev maintains rather, that the idea of an internal “cosmological map” is an “artifact of analytical abstraction”. He says that Yukaghir hunters’ ideas about spirits do not constitute a “corpus of stable conceptual knowledge” but are generated within the contexts of their everyday practical actions – that they emerge out of, and subsist in the flow of the activities themselves. When activities go smoothly, hunters are not aware of spirits as such. It is when things go wrong that hunters will think of the spirits in terms of some kind of ordered system in order to locate the source of the problem – but that when this is done, the hunters only concern themselves with a small corner of the spirit world, and not with its totality. Moreover, that once the hunters have located the causal agency (spirit) disturbing them and have dealt with it appropriately, the spirit is returned to its former anonymity.

I’m going to leave Willerslev’s book for now. Suffice to say that I find his argument fairly compelling, particularly when one considers that the whole notion of the cognitive schema (“mental map”) which has become so pervasive in psychology (and anthropology) is rooted in behaviourist experiments running rats through mazes (Tolman, 1948).

One of the problems of the “worldview perspective” that Willerslev is pointing at is that these analytic taxonomic schemas often don’t deal well with ambiguity and seeming contradictions – which is one reason why I’m wary of such top-down theorising. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one-size-fits-all-explanations schemas often miss out anything which doesn’t “fit” the model. This is a criticism of Eliades’ work on shamanism for instance – see this useful overview by Stephen Beyer.

I’m occasionally asked by people “how” my approach to tantra “fits together” – how one element relates to all the others – and often in such a way that it seems I’m expected to produce a complete system of “how it all works” – usually in terms of some overall schema that they are familiar with, and something that can be quickly bullet-pointed down to “the basics”. Generally, I reply that I don’t know – that I don’t have a complete “big picture” into which it all neatly fits – and probably never will. But its curious that the expectation is there. Frequently, I find that until an issue comes up, I don’t even spend time considering how element a relates to element c as an abstract enterprise – unless, as I say, I’ve found a good reason (for me) for doing so, hence my remarks on “sketch maps” at the end of the previous post.

Sketch maps are both temporary and contingent on a particular set of circumstances, so when for example, someone asks me how to get from London Bridge station to Blackfriars, they’re not going to expect (at least I hope not) a fully-detailed map showing every topological feature of possible interest between the start and the end-point – it’s a rough outline, and one wouldn’t be able to take it to another city and arrive at the same destination. Sketch maps are locally bound, rather than universal in application. Mapping is ubiquitous in modern life – so much so in fact, that as David Turnbull argues (Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, Routledge, 2003, p95) they are “profoundly constitutive of our thinking and our culture.” Turnbull describes the synergy between science and cartography as “total systems of knowledge” – in particular the way maps make claims to be accurate, scientific and authorative – yet at the same time, are highly selective, and rely on schemas of classification, generalisation, and hierarchical arrangements.

It strikes me that this is largely how the dominant esoteric maps in western occultism – the Kabbalah-Tarot complex; Jung’s Individuation process; or Campbell’s “Heroes’ Journey” cycle, for instance – function; that they are “total knowledge systems” into which other “maps” can be slotted (with varying degrees of trimming). This is contingent on the understanding that the other schema that are being incorporated into are themselves “maps” – and are equally transportable and non-local – although I’ve generally found that, for instance, it’s chakras that get subordinated onto the Tree of Life, rather than the other way around. It’s become fairly usual to refer to the “Tree of Life” as a “filing system” or “roadmap”. Israel Regardie, in Foundations of Practical Magic (p59) describes the ultimate object of using the Tree of Life in this way:

“The whole mélange thus serves as a further means of classifying all knowledge. It serves to organise the contents of the mind and to provide a mechanism for unifying all systems of any and every kind. Thus, ultimately, it enables one to reduce all types and kinds of knowledge to unity.”

In the same section, Regardie notes that “By using the Tree of Life as a mathematical structure, a science of comparative religion and mysticism is brought within the bounds of possibility.”

Of course “maps” such as the Tree of Life also involve the notion of progress – of knowing where you are and where you’re going, so to speak, and I will move onto this in due course.


  1. wupidoo
    Posted August 12th 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Yes, excellent, thanks for that.

  2. Gyrus
    Posted August 13th 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic post. More stuff to follow up!

    The idea that abstract “cosmological” thinking only properly kicks in when things go wrong has a strong ring of truth about it. One “exception” that immediately springs to mind is the !Kung approach to healing, which I gather is quite “preventative”. They do their healing dances to ward off illness as well as cure. I wonder how much this approach, which obviously indicates engaging with their “spirits” prior to things going wrong, says about their attitudes in other parts of life, e.g. hunting.

    Another things that strikes me is, obviously there’s a pragmatic aspect to the “embedded” hunter-gatherer attitude to spirits, arising out of the flow of everyday life. But I guess there’s some pragmatism in the abstractions of civilized life. While abstractions have major downsides for direct engagement, they are a kind of software for operating in extremely complex societies. We’re forced into two levels of living if we want to directly engage as well as be part of society. It’s possible with a lot of money (or very little) to verge strongly towards living for the moment, but in doing that you’re coasting along on vast structures maintained by loads of people who are forced to verge more towards the abstractions that society demands.

  3. Alistair Livingston
    Posted August 14th 2010 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Good bit of thought provocation… I am just about to go to bed, but it got me googling away on the ‘Rationality Debate’ in social / cultural anthropology… trouble is that is from my time studying social anthropology at Soas 20 years ago. I found an article which covered the ground

    but it is from 1996… So perhaps the rationality debate has been settled? I guess I will need to install a few academic updates before commenting further.

  4. wupidoo
    Posted August 14th 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Chakras – now there’s a case in point. Best to quickly scan the instructions and have a bash yourself.