March 21, 2020

Is There Life Beyond Paradigm?


A few weeks ago I was asked by an anthropology institute connected with UNAM, the national university in Mexico City, to give a seminar on an anthropology topic of my choosing. Two faculty members and I had breakfast together to discuss it, and decided on May as the best time for the event. Nice guys. Then, of course, I never heard back from them, as the coronavirus descended and public gatherings were to be avoided. (The school may currently be in shutdown mode, for all I know.) In the meantime, I had written my little 'conferencita' as an introduction to the proposed seminar.

I'm posting it here, as a break from the virus, the collapse of America, the disintegration of capitalism, and all of our usual discussion material. What could be more unrelated to these topics than witchcraft? I'm guessing my colleagues won't mind, since (1)Who knows when UNAM will be back in action, and whether the seminar will still be on? (2)I was, of course, going to give this talk in Spanish; the text below is the original English version, and (3)This blog, although the greatest in the universe, remains completely off the radar screen, so very few people are going to see this post. I do hope that absolves me of 'leaking' the lecture in advance. Meanwhile, Wafers get a sneak preview. Here goes:

Most people like stories, so I thought that today I would tell you one. This story has the added advantage of being true. Many years ago, a British sociologist by the name of Max Marwick moved to Northern Rhodesia, or what we now call Zambia, whose tribal people, the Cewa, practiced a form of witchcraft. In keeping with academic criteria, Marwick didn't believe that these magical beliefs had any basis in objective physical reality. These criteria dictated that the anthropologist's job was to study these beliefs from the outside, as it were; to learn what the major beliefs or practices were and try to figure out why these tribespeople believed them. And so he rented or purchased--I can't recall exactly how it was arranged--a grass hut in the village, and settled in for a year of research, i.e., observation.

There was, however, just one particular problem with this arrangement: Marwick wasn't able to sleep. When he subsequently wrote this story up, he called it "The Case of the Dancing Owls." Every night a flock of owls would gather on the ceiling of his hut and hoot and jump around. In England, one would simply call an exterminator to remove the owls. But this was not England, and the Cewa certainly didn't have any exterminators. In addition, Marwick wanted to try a native solution, not a Western one, so he paid a visit to the local sorcerer. The suggested remedy was hardly one he expected. The sorcerer asked him if, prior to leaving England, there had been any disturbance in his family relations. It turned out that there was: Marwick had had a rather acrimonious argument with one of his uncles, which left him feeling depressed and guilty. The sorcerer recommended some medicines, to rub into his skin, and added that he should write his uncle and mend that relationship. "Then," he said, "the owls will leave you in peace." As you might imagine, Marwick did neither.

And here we come to the issue of conflicting epistemologies. Marwick regarded this advice as absurd. What possible relationship could there be, he thought, between his conflict with his uncle and the owls "dancing" on the ceiling? Rather than try the sorcerer's remedies, he chose to spend his entire time in the village living with noisy owls that wouldn't let him sleep. But if we switch out of a Western scientific epistemology, to that of African sorcery, a different picture emerges. African systems of causality place great emphasis on social relations, and the Cewa attribute negative events to disturbances in those relations. As with cats in 17th-century New England, owls are regarded as witches' "familiars"--animals with supernatural powers that do the work of sorcerers or malevolent agents. The sorcerer whom Marwick consulted believed that his uncle sent the owls to disturb his sleep, in retaliation for the bitter argument they had. Hence the logical remedy to the situation was to heal that relationship, after which the owls would depart. What was obvious to the Cewa was essentially crazy to the Western-trained sociologist.

So that's the end of the story, although it does raise some interesting questions:

1. Leaving the issue of the sorcerer's medicines aside, did Marwick not write his uncle because this suggested causal connection was ridiculous, in his view, or because it might actually work?

2. What would have happened if Marwick had written his uncle, repaired the relationship, and the owls disappeared?

3. Marwick saw himself as a social scientist, and the heart of science is empirical testing. But his reaction--a priori rejection of the theory--was hardly a demonstration of scientific experimentation. After all, he could have tested the theory, but instead he refused to do it. Not the best example of scientific procedure, or curiosity, it seems to me.

4. Note that Marwick was willing to cast an anthropological eye on the Cewa, but apparently had no interest in casting such an eye on his own culture. We Westerners have the truth, is the idea, so we observe and record the "strange" behavior of "primitive" cultures. It never occurs to us that, say, Australian aborigines probably regard white Anglo culture as weird, if not actually insane. (In fact, the deliberate ignoring of social relations might properly be regarded as toxic. Let me add that this is why I left the United States 13 years ago.) As one enlightened sociologist once quipped, "There is more sociology in a department of sociology than there is in the rest of the world."

Let me suggest that Western science, although it obviously contains much that is objectively true, also has holes in it. No paradigm is a perfect description of reality; that's just not possible. And once you insist that your own paradigm is perfect, you have entered the world of religion, i.e. of unquestioning belief. Science can be made into a religion like any other paradigm, and it was Marwick's. I suspect that if he had written his uncle and the owls then went away, he would have had a nervous breakdown. His world would no longer have made sense to him, and as a result he would have no way to orient himself in the world--and no way of knowing who he was, anymore. Mystery and miracles were just not part of his world view.

Personally, I don't find the uncle-owl connection all that mysterious, if we are willing to credit what we call "pre-science"--magic, witchcraft, alchemy, astrology, numerology, and so on--with some degree of validity. The medieval and Renaissance magical tradition was based on what was known as the Theory of Correspondences, which said that the world was interconnected: that everything was related to everything else. In fact, this theory has been resurrected in the field of holistic medicine and certain branches of environmental science, and it is also the ethical basis of Buddhism. Birds, for example, start to twitch, to behave differently just before an earthquake hits. This is well known, especially in rural communities. Similarly, they can probably detect disturbances in human beings. Marwick was emotionally miserable; he was walking around with a load of guilt because of his break with his uncle, and the owls picked up on this "vibration," this disturbed energy. I have no doubt that had he written his uncle and eased his soul, the owls would have flown away.

The Theory of Correspondences has another name: action-at-a-distance, and it is actually not that far removed from modern science. Isaac Newton's deepest intellectual attachment was to alchemy, and he wrote thousands of unpublished pages on the subject. The British economist John Maynard Keynes, who discovered these pages, declared that Sir Isaac was "the last of the magicians"; and it was alchemy that gave Newton the notion of action-at-a-distance, which became the basis of his Law of Universal Gravitation. Without alchemy, we could never have put a man on the moon. The Theory of Correspondences, like the Law of Universal Gravitation, is based on the notion of invisible influence, and this is why the sorcerer told Marwick to write his uncle. But Marwick couldn't do it, because a positive result would have blown his mental categories. Had he regarded modern science as one possible view of reality, this would not have happened. But for him, science was IT--was religion--and thus he was trapped. Better noisy owls and insomnia than a reasonable belief in invisible forces. To quote the British poet W.H. Auden, "We would rather be ruined than changed." Depressing thought.

Two points I'd like to make in conclusion, and to open the floor to a general discussion:

1. I don't know if it's true, but someone told me that the most often quoted phrase on the Internet is from my book Coming to Our Senses: "An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you." Is it not possible to cultivate some distance--say, 2 millimeters--between who we are and what we believe? This could be the beginning of world peace, when you think about it.

2. The reason that we turn ideas into ideologies, which is to say into mythologies and religions, is that we are afraid of the outside world. And there is, of course, much to be afraid of. So we latch on to various belief-systems, whether sacred or secular, to give ourselves the illusion of security. But as all paradigms--including modern science--are necessarily incomplete, this ultimately will not work. There is, however, a way out: to accept insecurity and incompleteness as inescapable; as central to the human condition.

Easier said than done.

(c)Morris Berman, 2020