Dec. 2, 1998
Is Order The Narcotoc Of Our Time?
During Thanksgiving vacation my mom and brother put together yet another jigsaw puzzle, this time a three-dimensional model of Camelot. They have a knack for it; it is only a matter of time before they have created a beautiful scene out of a kaleidoscopic jumble of image fragments. I have never much cared for the problem-solving aspect of jigsaw puzzles, but I can understand the desire to organize, to make order out of chaos. Cliché as it may be, this order-creation is one of the basic human drives - not just for the obsessive compulsive, but for everyone who participates in the social creation of reality. We need order to make sense of the world - we look for patterns, connections, tabs to fit into the cut-outs that will eventually come together to give us a picture of where we are, who we are. Yet is this realistic? Without letting that question chase its own tail too much (the realism of "reality"), the assumption that the orderly way is the best way is perhaps the least accurate when it comes to human attempts at conceiving reality. Our desire for order is fed by the simplicity it gives to our models of the world, which can lead to over-simplification, and from there any number of dangers. Anthropology, which is in the business of examining cultures and the realities they manufacture, has the ability to see human folly caused by the narcotic haze of order.
Fear is one of the great results of disorder. Since the beginning of time it has drawn us to constructs like mythology as a way of imposing synthetic sense on the world - we fear what we do not understand. When we believe whole-heartedly that the world makes sense, any breaking of this belief upsets our footing, and from there it is easy to tumble. The power of fear is rendered in all its horrible splendor in Michael Taussig's book, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. As colonists enter the dark jungles of the Congo and the Amazon they wrestle with the chaos of the jungle. "There is a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness of all this jungle." (p. 79) If there is an order there, it is not theirs, and they are made weak and desperate by their desire for sense (which I will use as a synonym for order). They even undermine themselves and their native set of rules, confusing the rooted jungle for an animated beast, turning object to subject. This is understandable, given the realities of the giant jungle ecology, but by seeing it this way they gave it power. "And we have become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order." (p. 79)
Once they had given in to this fear, their civilized world-views dismantled by the shadow-beasts of the jungle, they lost sight of what we would call sense. On their plantations they committed incredible atrocities involving torture and apparently random murder. They created a space of terror in order to control the natives that worked for them - by not giving any rhyme-or-reason to the doling out of pain, they manufactured a fear much like they had themselves experienced! When accounts of this reached home, people were apt to be skeptical, not believing that "civilized" humans could be capable of such acts. The stories "[bred] skepticism no less than fear and revulsion" (p. 35) - fear in those who could not understand them. It stands to reason that the colonists themselves did not understand what they were doing - "One wanders away. One is lost. And being lost from oneself, it would appear, is the worst of all. Then on panics." (p. 80) They were in a situation where their own fear was in charge, fear of the wild-ness of the jungle they had passed through and which had given birth to the beasts they were desperate to control. We can say that the colonists were just trying to apply order, justified by their own fear, but here there seems to be a blurring of the difference between reason and rationalization. Because the jungle could attack them at any time, they would attack first.
The colonists had no choice because they left no space for disorder in their world. All that we are taught in the institutions of civilization tells us that there is an underlying order in everything. The scientific understanding of the world requires it. If there is no direct causality or reason for a thing, it has no place in the secular world at large. Claude Levi-Strauss would have us living in a world of binary pairs - rational and emotion, good and evil - the perfect structure to create order. We have a need to make sense of things, and for the most part it does us a great service, allowing us to conceive of new technologies and ways to further conceptualize the world. We author grand myths such as capitalism and Christianity around our need for order. Yet there are blades of grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, there are earthquakes, and the occasional mountain lion roams the streets of suburbia. The wild is out there, and it challenges our need for order. The point of all this is that our structures are, in a way, quite artificial because they do not represent the world as it is. They are useful to us inasmuch as they give us stable ground to move around on, but they set us up for confusion.
If we are to pick an institution of civilization that depends on order, one would be history. As branched and lengthy as any past may be, it follows a certain line from a clear origin. It is not so much the imperturbability of facts in history that interests me as much as the assumed purity of these origins, the springs from which well the powers of legitimacy and solidity. Taussig addresses this by showing us how origins are not necessarily as uninfluenced as we would hope. In Mimesis and Alterity he gives account after account of the borrowing of images and ideas that happens whenever two bodies of thought are allowed to press closely together. If a tradition grows from some element of a culture, i.e. the use of wooden figurines in healing ceremonies based on belief in the capturing and controlling of spirits, then it fits into the local history, providing a linear order from past to present. When, however, these figurines acquire the form of Europeans that made contact with the native Cuna people, we scratch our heads at the imitation. Where is the order in that? Granted, there is a history that was sprung from the meeting of the two peoples, but that the Cuna should adopt a pre-formed element of another culture, one with its own past, disrupts our sensibilities. We draw power from a purity of origin, knowing the order in which a thing formed, yet they draw power from utilizing only the surface of that thing. To us it does not make sense that one culture can borrow something and give it potency without a history. History is sacred, it is the keeper of rules for order, and we depend on it to make sense of our world.
Social analysis provides little room for cultural borrowing. After all, intellectual investigation insists on linear thought and logic if it is to go from one end of an argument to the other. Any contamination by disorder and the argument may fall apart - it impedes understanding. We believe so strongly in order that we will relegate moments of disorder to the back shelf so that we do not have to deal with them. Did the colonists really torture people like that? Did the Cuna really make a wooden McArthur? We can not brush aside the realities of the world, yet it is difficult to present disorder as an element of reality. What is ironic is that, in the process of portraying other cultures, anthropologists have a tendency to take what would be orderly in the foreign culture and turn it upside-down, "ordering meaning into a disordered, passive... text - so as to "permit" the release of a new meaning rescued from the blockage of disorder." (Shamanism, p. 390) Local order is misconstrued as disorder because it is not our order.
Academics are not the only ones struggling to make sense of the world - shamans are also the creators of sense and order. A patient goes to a shaman looking for an explanation, cure, for a personal illness or environmental trouble. The shaman in turn takes the jumbled facts at hand and constructs a reality that the patient can believe in. "Two skills are given particularly high value among Kuna ritual specialists: a thorough knowledge of the features of the spirit world, and an ability to articulate this knowledge in a coherent, comprehensive, and pleasing manner." (Chapin, in Taussig's Mimesis, p. 106) The secret here is the word "pleasing" - the portrayal of the spirit world must make sense if it is to be effectual, otherwise it will not be believed. The local order must be preserved, and the shaman has the job of translating elements of the spirit world into facts, the vocabulary of history, for the order-seeking patient. Here the creation of order, or the restoration in the faith in order, saves a person from fear. This may explain why some colonists would go to shamans to be given a sense of order, strange resassurance from someone who is in a way an element of the disordered jungle.
From reading Taussig's books you would think that he had abandoned entirely the need for order in a convincing argument. Yet he is successful, which questions our devote faith in order. His writing style jumps from story to story, adding dashes of poetry and strings of long technical words with equal profusion. While this seeming disconnectedness can be confusing, it also shows that an argument can be successful without having a step-wise structure. He presents a montage of ideas that all circle around a given idea, much the same way as the human brain works. Our thoughts flit and waddle, moving in disjointed and overlapping paths which are difficult to separate. They encode our life experience in a big writhing jumble, and we connect with the rest of the world with this behind our eyes. Our minds are the epitome of disorder, so it is ironic that that is the last place we want disorder to be.
BibliographyLevi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Transl. Claire Jacobsen. Basic Books, 1967, chapters 9 & 10.
Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
-----. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Routledge, 1993.