Is it the glue of society?
The New Mindscape #8–1.
In the essays of The New Mindscape #7–1, 7–2, 7–3 and 7–4, I talked about animism, about an enchanted world, and about how people communicate with what they imagine to be conscious beings out there in the world. At the core of every society are myths and rituals; and at the core of mythology and ritual — even when people are not aware of it — is communication with the invisible forces or beings of an enchanted world. This involves empowering and communicating with the imaginations and objects of consciousness about non-human beings.
There are times when peoples’ mindscape shifts away from the state of ordinary reality and consciousness, and is transformed into another state, in which people experience themselves communicating with these other beings and forces. During these states, which are called liminal, individuals become transformed in their path of life, and groups become reaffirmed and consolidated.
The liminal state is enhanced through the enacted movements and rhythms of the body. This is exemplified by ritualised gestures and rhythmic perceptions, which can never be fully described or explained — such as dance, music, and ritual. Enacting these movements shapes the mindscape in specific ways, in which there is potentially no distinction between the subject and object of consciousness — the dance and the body-mind of the performer become one and the same.
Here, I will discuss the social dimensions of living in an enchanted world, by considering the role of ritual, which a key concept in the anthropology of religion. In the film Avatar, we have a fictional depiction of an animist tribal society, in which the Na’vi communicate with other beings. Yet, the Na’vi do not communicate with those other beings simply as individuals. When do they have the most powerful communication with the spiritual being in the film? Towards the end of the film, all of the Na’vi people join in unison in a large ritual around the Tree of Souls, through which they communicate with the ancestral force.
In an animist society, communication with the animated beings is largely conducted through ritual. In other words, people don’t walk around alone and talk to the forest, to the animals or to the plants. Instead, they ritualise their communication with the other beings, and often do so collectively. The ritual creates an individual and collectively shared mindscape in which the non-human objects of consciousness are set up and communicated with, as if it were a theatrical play.
Let’s consider the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert in South Africa and Botswana, who have been extensively studied by anthropologists since the 1950s. In their rites of passage, these people entered a real physical trance. They underwent a real transformation of their bodily experience, so that they became physically different. And they did so not only at the level of individual experience, but also at the level of collective social structure.
This is a film of a ritual dance, called “N/un Chai,” among the !Kung tribe of Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa in the 1950s. According to the film description, “Tchai is the word used by Ju/’hoansi to describe getting together to dance and sing; n/um can be translated as medicine, or supernatural potency.
In the 1950’s, when this film was shot, Ju/’hoansi gathered for “medicine dances” often, usually at night, and sometimes such dances lasted until dawn. In this film, women sit on the ground, clapping and singing and occasionally dancing a round or two, while men circle around them, singing and stamping rhythms with their feet.
The songs are wordless but named: “rain,” “sun,” “honey,” “giraffe,” and other “strong things.” The strength of the songs is their n/um, or medicine, thought to be a gift from the great god. N/um is also in the fire, and even more so in the “owners of medicine,” or healers. Most Ju/’hoan men would practice as healers at some point in their lives, and in this film we see several men in various stages of trance. A light trance gradually deepens, as the medicine grows “hot,” and eventually some men will shriek and run about, falling on hot coals, entering the state Ju/’hoansi call “half-death.” The film opens with a brief introduction to the role of n/um tchai in healing and in warding off evil, followed by scenes from one all-night dance. The dance begins with a social gathering and becomes increasingly intense as the night wears on, finally concluding at dawn.
In the film on the !Kung, you see their method of communication with a divine power, which they called O!ung. This power was used to heal the ill. These people consider that there are evil spirits, similar to Chinese traditional beliefs. Therefore, if somebody was ill or suffered bad luck, they considered that those evil spirits had shot invisible arrows at them. When someone in the tribe was ill, people would start this ritual dance. After dancing for a while, some of the men enter a trance, and lay their hands on the sick people; they consider that the trance is a sign that the divine power has descended on them, and they then transfer this power to the sick person, driving away the arrows of the evil spirits. Through this dance, they channel the O!ung force to remove the invisible arrows and bring back health to those people.
Emile Durkheim, a founding father of both sociology and anthropology, wrote in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life about this kind of ritual, which he considered to be the basic form of religion. If we look at the most ancient or “primitive” societies, we are likely to find these kinds of rituals. For Durkheim, these types of rituals gave rise to organised human society; it is through them that society forms, reproduces and strengthens itself.
Durkheim talked about the feeling of “collective effervescence” produced by intense group rituals. The rhythmic coordination of bodies forms a higher-order, social body; thus Durkheim concluded that such rituals are the foundation of organized social life. And, he claimed, the power and energy experienced by the participants, are the origins of the sense of a transcendent reality, what we call the “sacred” or the “divine”.
The !Kung, for example, were hunters and gatherers. Most of the time, they were dispersed all over the place in small groups, gathering plants to eat or hunting animals. It is when they had this kind of ritual that everybody came together. They were so perfectly synchronised in these movements that society became one body at that moment — the entire community literally became one synchronised body.
Most of you celebrate the Chinese New Year, or festivals such as Diwali, Eid or Christmas. You have family gatherings during that festival. You meet many family members and relatives during this period, whom you don’t see the rest of the year. There are relatives that you will only see in important festivals or holidays. Sometimes, they are relatives you don’t personally like. If it were not because of these important festivals, you would never go and see them.
We are certainly attached to our family and believe them to be important to us. But actually, we don’t necessarily have personal affinities with them; indeed, we may have rivalries with some of them, or get along with some of them very poorly. If we were allowed to simply see our relatives on a voluntary basis, without being forced to during rituals and festivals, the extended family would probably disappear. And when we think about the happiness of the family, we often think about happy moments like the Chinese New Year, when the atmosphere is joyful and full of energy. It is precisely this kind of events that create a lot of the happiness which we associate with family.
Durkheim argued that without rituals, families and societies would not sustain themselves as long-lasting institutions. Durkheim considered that through these rituals, the people actually worship society itself. For example, for the !Kung people, the divine power comes down as they engage in the ritual. All religious rituals involve connecting with this power. It is the worship of that power that glues members of the group together.
The !Kung don’t dance simply because they love dancing, or being in each other’s company. It’s about connecting with or worshipping a power or a god. For Durkheim, it is actually the congregating around that god that makes society. When people get together for the ritual and get so excited, they literally feel a certain power, which Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’ — so full of energy and excitement. As the Chinese say, it’s renao 熱鬧 — hot and noisy. Durkheim argued that the primitive people thought this energy was a supernatural power — the power of the gods; whereas, in fact, it is the power of society, the excitement generated when the community comes together for the ritual. But the people worship this social energy in the form of a god, or totem. Thus society worships itself through ritual.
What happens is a good example of Sartre’s magic, at a collective level. The god or totem is an object of consciousness that is shared by all members of the group. Through the ritual, all members of the group engage with the same object of consciousness at the same time, in a coordinated fashion. They empower the object of consciousness, and attribute the energy of the gathering to the object of consciousness. Thus, the object of consciousness — the god — exerts magical power over the members of the group.
Chinese religion is an apt illustration of Durkheim’s point. If a Chinese god is considered to be very powerful, Chinese people may say the god is very ‘ling’ 靈, i.e. it has strong spiritual power. How can people judge whether the god is powerful (ling) or not? One way is based on the popularity of the god’s temple — the more worshippers there are, the more powerful the god is considered to be. On the other hand, if there are not many worshippers going to a temple, people may think that the god in the temple is not very powerful (ling). Therefore, the Chinese temple is a very good illustration of Durkheim’s point. The more social energy there is, the more powerful the god; the less social energy there is, the less powerful the god.
On the other hand, the worship of these gods can’t be attributed only to the power of society. The cult of most Chinese gods does not start with large crowds — it usually starts with some unusual occurrence, and with one person experiencing the ling of a spirit and starting to burn incense for that spirit at a certain spot. Then a few others do so too, and they experience the ling through healing or other good fortune. Only later do many people come to worship and build a temple at that spot. At the beginning, it is not “society worshipping itself”.
In the case of the !Kung rituals, what the dancers experience is also more than the power of society — they literally enter into a trance. Something happens to their state of consciousness, as well as to their bodily state. They enter what is called an “altered state of consciousness” — their perception changes, and they become different from their normal state. Their mindscape is completely altered.
What kind of transformation is going on during this kind of rituals? During these rituals, the individual mindscape is transformed into a collective mindscape, and this collective mindscape puts the individual and the group within a broader imagined cosmic or divine order. One the one hand, they are transformed by aligning their mindscape with the imagined cosmic order. At the same time, by taking part in the ritual, people bond with the social group literally and physically; they become incorporated into the social body.
This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.