[NB] Shaman: a snapshot in the life of a word

“Anonymous writers were the norm, frequently German, Swedish, or Danish captives; among them, by the second half of the seventeenth century, ‘shaman,’ ‘saaman,’ and ‘shaitan’ were established as indigenous terms, applied to all groups living past the Ural Mountains. Later ethnographers would suggest that the term ‘shaman’ was specifically of ‘Tungus origin,’ but in the mid-seventeenth century the Tungus were…not a distinct ethnic tribe…. Judging from the historical evidence, the word itself is a generic label of Slavic origin via German transcription with negative connotations.”—Silvia Tomášková, The Wayward Shaman: The Prehistory of an Idea (77–78)

So, yeah, this word that has now become a tense spot in the dialogue around appropriating indigenous discourse, may very likely have had its origins in the imperial effort to catalog the margins of Russia. I’m not saying the dialogue around appropriation doesn’t matter, but it does suggest something funny that we have gotten tangled up in a word rather in the history or present circumstances of a people and a practice. Or, that we twist ourselves in knots to avoid appropriating a word while living the ins and outs of our days on the appropriation of their land and labor.

Does the concern over a word really help us or other people? Or does it slow us down, isolate us, divide us up so that we can’t communicate so easily with each other? While we need to have good definitions on the ground, I suspect that language policing benefits empire first and foremost.

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[NB] Tradition is Always Plural

I guess I’m still chewing on the tradition and appropriation bone, but there is one more reason that I am suspicious of people getting up in arms about appropriating ‘traditions’ on the internet. The people doing the policing often work hard to firm up the borders of the tradition they are policing, pushing the ‘tradition’ into increasingly dogmatic directions.

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[NB] Experience-first language

A long time ago now, I was discussing an article by Toshihiko Izutsu with a group of friends. I can’t recall the specific article at this remove (it was one found in Creation and the Timeless Order of Things), but it was one of his discussions of mystical experiences in Sufi literature. Over the course of the article, he made the comparison between descriptions of musical experience and descriptions of mystical experiences, highlighting how they are both resistant to direct description.

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By Theft and By Gift

I believe it was in Difference & Repetition that Deleuze specified that the foundation of any system of exchange was not exchange at all, but theft and gift. This fits into his broader argument in that text regarding the derivative nature of systems of equivalence and representation. Those are deep waters, beyond the scope of a blog to plumb, but I want to focus on that bit about theft and gift in regards to a discussion of spiritual syncretism and appropriation.

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Culturally Specific Spiritual Work?

So, first, there is this post that seems to be making the rounds, especially the specifics of “David’s” experience. The there is having David Gordon White’s bits about sinister yogis going through my head (he makes the point in miniature in his book on Patanjali). There is the recent post over at enfolding.org about therapy and mindfulness. The story of David, the experiences with mindfulness as part of disruptive reform program, and the history of revolutionary yogis, opens onto a broader discussion of adopting practices from other cultures. There is a common narrative about these that I think we ought to undercut.

That narrative kicks up around the occult scenes in the face of stories like that of David. There is more than a little ethnic Romanticism at the foundations of  self-identified ‘Western’ occultism (both among ‘magical’ and ‘religious’ strands). When confronted by these stories about the dangers of spiritual work, it manifests as otherwise sensible people muttering gnomic warnings or patting themselves on the back about how careful they are engaging with ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ cultural practices to which ‘Westerners’ aren’t well-suited.

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Above the Veil and Appropriation

Various iterations of this post have been bumping around my drafts folder for a bit and after my last post where I complained a little about the popular use of ‘culture’ I feel like it is time to work the draft into a proper post. I want to talk a little about truth, teachings, culture, and appropriation.

This begins for me with W. E. B. DuBois and his observation about the nature of the color line. While he was keenly aware of its reality and the necessity to confront it in its many manifestations, he was also clear that the color line was something of a lie. Or, to quote Leonard Cohen, that it was “real, but it ain’t exactly there.” One of the most important challenges that we can mount against the color line is an assault on that reality and an effort to realize the “there” that is actually there.

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