Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Preconquest Consciousness

Recognition of Emotion

Such an open life shapes awareness of emotions, which was seen in their responses to a standardized set of photographs of basic emotions. Individuals from the most isolated regions became highly agitated when shown photographs of anger. Some went dumb, others became tongue-tied, many trembled, some perspired profusely or looked wildly about. Those from remotest hamlets reacted most dramatically. Not just confounded, they were fearful too. It was an astonishing and gripping spectacle.

In those isolated hamlets of the south emotions such as anger, if inadvertently induced by rough-and-tumble play, quickly faded in the ambiance of constant empathetic rapport and tactile stimulation. Getting angry among confreres was like one hand getting angry with the other. So they were not accustomed to full-blown expressions of negative emotions. When confronted with our photographs of full-blown anger, many were stunned, frightened, and disoriented. Even in photographs not intended to show anger, they sometimes noticed subtle traces that are so common in the West that they are not even considered anger there.

They had other reasons to be frightened of negative emotions. They had no formal social structure, therefore no stable social safety net to hold them all together when affect-rapport gave way. When it did, as in the 'time-oftroubles: they were bereft, existentially desolated.

Collapse of Preconquest Consciousness

The time-of-troubles in New Guinea was regional. In smaller preconquest isolates such disorders were sometimes confined to single tiny islands, even villages, even segments of the village population (e.g., teenagers often seemed particularly susceptible). Nonetheless in all cases the subtlest affect exchanges faded first with intuitive rapport going into irreversible collapse much later.

After loss of intuitive rapport, the sensually empathetic instincts governing sociosensual nurture became cruder and were less often on-the-mark. In large regions a grand cultural amnesia sometimes accompanied this collapse. Whole populations would forget even recent past events and make gross factual errors in reporting them. In some cases they even forgot what type and style of garments they had worn a few years earlier or (in New Guinea) that they had been using stone axes and eating their dead close relatives a few years back. Initially I thought they were dissimulating in an effort to ingratiate or appear up-to-date, but rejected this thought almost immediately. They were simply too unassuming and open in other respects for such a theory to hold up. And when I showed photographs I'd taken a few years earlier, they would brighten up, laugh, and eagerly call their friends as they excitedly began relating their reviving recollections.

The periods of anomie sometimes alternated with spates of wild excitement leading to a strange mixture of excess and restraint.19 It was during such disorders that abstract concepts of rights, property, and possession began emerging. So did formal names for people, groups, and places. These were then used argumentatively in defense of rights, property, and possessions. Negative emotions were applied to strengthen argument. Eventually they became structural aspects of society. As the art of political manipulation emerged, the selfless unity that seemed so firm and self-repairing in their isolated enclaves vanished like a summer breeze as a truth-based type of consciousness gave way to one that lied to live.

A similar type of turmoil and transformation began occurring on small islands in the eastern Sea of Andaman somewhat after the Vietnam War.

South East Asia was then rapidly developing economically, and the dazzling scenery, fine beaches, and crystal waters of many of those islands attracted an explosively abrupt tourism trade. As it gathered pace, the intuitive rapport that was still extant on many islands first began to waver, then to oscillate. In some cases a half-way house adjustment would occur, and then another, both without serious psychological disability. However, in cases of accelerated change, a whirlwind psychological debility would sometimes suddenly break loose. The following, abstracted from my field notes, is a firsthand description of one such case:

I'm out, back from the Andaman where I've just been through an experience I'll not soon forget. Only by pure chance did I happen to be there when their extraordinary intuitive mentality gave up the ghost right in front of me, in an inconceivable overwhelming week. I'm almost wrecked myself, in a strange anomie from having gone through that at too close a range, and from staying up all night too many times to try to understand just what was going on. I never was much good at keeping research distance, always feeling more could be learned close in. And I'd come straight into the Andaman from two months of tantric philosophical inquiry in a Tibetan monastery. Perhaps that tuned awareness up a notch too much.

There really was no way to have predicted that, just after I arrived, the acute phase of their ancient culture's death would start. To speak abstractly of the death of a way-of-life is a simple thing to do. To experience it is quite another thing. I've seen nothing in the lore of anthropology that might prepare one for the speed by which it can occur, or for the overwhelming psychic onslaughts it throws out. Nor does my profession forewarn of those communicable paroxysms that hover in the air which, without warning, strike down with overwhelming force, when a culture's mind gives way.

Yet this is just what happened when the traditional rapport of those islands was undone, when the subtle sensibility of each to one another was abruptly seared away in a sudden unpredicted, unprecedented, uncognated whirlwind. In a single crucial week a spirit that all the world would want, not just for themselves but for all others, was lost, one that had taken millennia to create. It was suddenly just gone.

Epidemic sleeplessness, frenzied dance throughout the night, reddening burned-out eyes getting narrower and more vacant as the days and nights wore on, dysphasias of various sorts, sudden mini-epidemics of spontaneous estrangement, lacunae in perception, hyperkinesis, loss of sensuality, collapse of love, impotence, bewildered frantic looks like those on buffalo in India just as they're clubbed to death; 14 year olds (and others) collapsing on the beach, under houses, on the pier, in beached boats as well as those tied up at the dock, here and there,into wee hours of the morn, even on through dawn, in acute inebriation or exhaustion. Such was the general scene that week, a week that no imagination could have forewarned, the week in which the subtle sociosensual glue of the island's traditional way-of-life became unstuck.

To pass through the disintegrating social enclaves was to undergo a rain of psychic blows, a pelting shower of harrowing awarenesses that raised goose flesh of unexpected types on different epidermal sites along with other kinds of crawlings of flesh and skin. There were sudden rushes, both cold and hot, down the head and chest and across the neck, even in the legs and feet. And deep inside, often near the solar plexus, or around heart, or in the head or throat, new indescribable sensations would spontaneously arise, leave one at a loss or deeply disconcerted.

Such came and then diffused away as one passed by different people. Sensations would abruptly wash in across the consciousness, trigger moods of awe, or of sinking, sometimes of extraordinary love, sometimes utter horror. From time-to-time nonspecific elemental impulses arose just to run or dance, to throw oneself about, to move. All these could be induced and made to fade and then come back, just by passing through some specific group, departing, and then returning, or by coming near a single friend, moving off and coming back. That this was possible so astonished me that I checked and checked and checked again.

Such awarenesses, repeatedly experienced, heap up within the brain. Eventually the accumulation left me almost as sleepless and night-kinetic as they had become. I did discover that with body motion, mind becomes less preoccupied within itself, therefore less distressed. With kinetic frenzy mind-honor lessens very much. But it left them exhausted during the day, somnambulant, somewhat zombie-like. When night returned, the cycle would re-begin, as if those nocturnal hours, when they would otherwise be sleeping, were the time of greatest stress.

Though the overt frenzied movements could be observed by anyone, the psychic states that so powerfully impelled them were not easily detectable to outsiders. It seemed as if one had to have some personal rapport within the lifeway before the mental anguish could be sensed. Then it would loom, sometimes overwhelm. One Westerner looking casually on said, 'How exotic to see these uneducated types staying up throughout the night, dancing strangely, relating to each other in nonproductive ways. This place must be an anthropological paradise: Tourists happening on the scene thought it a fillip to their holiday. Intimacy and affection seem prerequisite to connecting with these inner surges of human psyche, even overwhelming ones.

Eventually I retreated, mentally exhausted, cognitively benumbed, emotionally wrung out. I tried to thwart that siege (when I finally recognized it for what it really was) by getting key people out. A useless foolish gambit; for no one would leave the spot, as if they were welded to it, as if it held some precious thing they very greatly loved, which they neither would nor could abandon.

When the mental death had run its course, when what had been was gone, the people (physically still quite alive) no longer had their memory of the intuitive rapport that held them rapturously together just the week before, could no longer link along those subtle mental pathways. What had filled their lives had vanished. The teensters started playing at (and then adopting) the rude, antagonistic, ego-grasping styles of the encroaching modern world, modeled after films and then TV. Oldsters retreated into houses, lost their affinity to youngsters, who then turned more to one another, sometimes squabbling (which did not occur before).

It seems astonishing that the inner energy of such passings is so undetectable to minds not some way linked to the inner harmonies and ardors of the place. Research-distance yields abstractions like 'going amok,' which could have been easily applied that week, or 'revitalizing movement,' which also could have been (in a perverse kind of way). It seems that only by some mental coalescence with the local lifeway can one access its deeper psychic passions, not just those of adolescence, but graver ones like those which for a time were released in inconceivable profusion, when the collective subtle mind of the islands, built up over eons, was snuffed out.

- full text here

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link -this made me think of a book by Richard Nisbett 'The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... And Why' (Free Press; 2003). Nisbett's thesis is that Asian (by which he means Chinese) and Western cultures have developed different systems of 'logic', and challenges the traditional hegemony of analytic epistemologies. His style is unfortunate at times, but an interesting thesis.