Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mental Imagery, Transcendence, and Ritual as Cultural Survival by Rebecca Lockyer

‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’ by Richard Noll

In the article ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’, Noll (1995) takes a broad, academic, and cross-cultural approach to mental imagery cultivation. He uses a cultural evolutionary standpoint to argue that mental imagery cultivation is a cultural phenomenon and a human universal ability which is used to ensure the survival of a culture.

Noll (1995:443-444) argues that all societies and cultures throughout time have, and still do, practice vision and mental imagery cultivation. These experiences are ascribed different, yet important, cultural, social, and religious roles and meaning. These ascribed meanings are used by societies and individuals to interpret their different realities. This whole process mimics the organizational processes of the human memory; allowing cultural memory to be continuously enacted in the present and thus ensuring the survival of a culture (Noll 1995:443-444, 449-450).

Noll (1995) makes reference to many different mental imagery cultivation practices from different cultures and time periods; however, he particularly focuses on shamanism as he believes it can provide the best documented examples of mental imagery cultivation (Noll 1995:445). According to Noll (1995) shamans do not alter their state of consciousness in order to reach ‘trances’, instead they simply enhance the visual and mental imagery of the ‘vision’ they are experiencing. This is done by diminishing particular sensory perceptions in order to enhance the vividness of the mental imagery and by controlling and manipulating that image. Through this ‘two-phase process’ shamans experience controlled visions were they enter different worlds or levels and establish contact with and manipulate forces or agencies (Noll 1995:446-449). This ability of the shaman is heavily depended upon by individuals and the wider society so that they may better understand their own social, physical, emotional, religious, and psychological realities (Noll 1995:450).

Noll (1995) draws from an extensive range of academic disciplines and includes historical, anthropological, scientific, experimental, soviet, and psychological literature. However, he is critical of the literature he uses and openly identifies to the reader the theoretical and practical flaws of previous works.

Through his extensive research and understanding, Noll (1995) has successfully explained the cultural phenomenon that he sees is mental imagery cultivation. He has effectively used the mental imagery cultivation of shamanism to portray to the reader its universal, mental, and societal importance to the survival of a culture.

‘Education for Transcendence’ by R. Katz in Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours’ by B. Lee and I. DeVore

Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours is a collaboration of ethnographic works which is aimed to holistically understand the way of life of the !Kung San of Southern Africa. However, only chapter twelve, ‘Education for Transcendence’ by R. Katz, will be critically reviewed for this reflection.

Katz (1976:282) observed that the !Kung San regularly experience heightened states of consciousness which he termed ‘transcendence’. Katz (1976) introduces and critiques many different definitions of ‘transcendence’ from a wide range of literature; however fails to formulate his own definition. This is due to his focus on the experience of ‘transcendence’ and not on a conceptual theory of that experience. As a result, he uses his ethnographic work with the !Kung San to argue that there is a human universal search for an ultimate level of being which is gained through the experience of ‘transcendence’.

Katz (1976) emphasizes two aspects which are extremely important to the !Kung San’s experience of ‘transcendence’ and to the !Kung San culture. These are the contextual framework and educational processes which surround their experience of ‘transcendence’. In collaboration, these aspects allow the !Kung San to express their religious experience, cosmological perspectives, aid in maintaining social cohesion and solidarity, and in the growth and transformation of individuals. This means that the experience of ‘transcendence’ is a means of participating in the !Kung San’s culture and thus ensuring its continuation and survival. In this respect, Katz (1976) is expressing the same cultural evolutionary theory of the survival of a culture as that of Noll (1995).

Although Katz’s (1976) ethnography of the beliefs and practices of ‘transcendence’ of the !Kung San fails to add to the body of academic theory surrounding the experience of ‘transcendence’, he does shed new light on the way that ‘transcendence’ can be viewed from within a culture.

‘Transformation’ in The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities, by T. F. Driver

The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities (Driver 1991) offers an extensive understanding of the nature and transformative power of rituals. Driver (1991) argues that rituals provide three gifts to social life; the establishment of social order, the deepening of communal life, and societal assistance through dynamic social change. It is the latter gift which chapter nine of his book focuses on and which will be the center of this critique.

Driver (1991:166-176) clearly defines his implied meaning when he uses the terms ritual, transformation, magic, and religion; and explains how these four categories are intertwined and enacted to help a society through dynamic social change. He believes that magic is an application of knowledge and that religion is a by-product of magic. The main goal of religion is to transform the human desire of the external world and this is enacted through rituals (Driver 1991:169, 172). These rituals, along with their magical nature, assist individuals and societies through dynamic social change as they have the power to transform subjectivities, ordinary life, and social and natural worlds (Driver 1991:172). In using the term ‘transformation’, Driver (1991:190) refers to a ‘culture-invariant transformation’, the effects of which he has coined ‘social magic’.

Driver (1991) uses academic literature and two case studies from Korea and South Africa to contextualize his argument. The case studies are used to explain the adaptive nature of rituals and their important role within the historical processes of a society. As such, rituals not only fabricate a social world but bring history into the here and now of individuals and societies. This part of his argument can be viewed along side of that of Noll (1995) and of Katz (1976) as he argues that rituals ensure the practice and continuation of a culture and its history. As a result, rituals not only provide assistance but can help ensure the survival of a culture in the face of dynamic social change (Driver 1991:189-191).

Driver (1991) has successfully linked the concepts of ritual, transformation, magic and religion to explain the true nature and transformative power of rituals. His argument is logically portrayed to show that the transformative power of rituals can aid a society in the face of dynamic social change.

Driver, T. F.
1991 The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Katz, R.
1976 Education for Transcendence. In B. Lee and I. DeVore (ed.) Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours, pp 281-301. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Noll, R.
1995 Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism. Current Anthropology 26(4):443-461.

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