The Skeptical Shaman

I woke up this morning thinking about an incident about which I read in my university days. I can’t recall in which book it is retold, but I think it was in cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension. (The Hidden Dimension is, by the way, a great book on the more unconscious aspects of culture, and is an important counterpart to Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, since the persuaders largely work with this “dimension”.  It is also available online. This is also the fundamental ambiguity of “branding”. It does “mirror” in the sense that it makes these hidden aspects of culture more explicit, so you can learn to read advertising in that way — as revealing. But at the same time, it depends on them remaining “hidden” in order for branding to be effective!).

In any case, the incident I’m thinking about happened to, if I recall correctly, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (or perhaps it was Franz Boas) while he was resident amongst an aboriginal tribe on the West Coast.

This anthropologist got to know the Medicine Man or Shaman of the tribe, and the shaman befriended the anthropologist and told him his backstory. As a young man, he had been something of an outsider in his tribe. He was skeptical of shamanism and let everybody know that he thought it was just trickery.

Well, as fate would have it, the existing Medicine Man was getting quite on in years, and needed an apprentice to learn his craft in order to carry on the tradition. And as fate would have it, and as irony does too, he selected as his apprentice this very same skeptical young man. Apparently, being a bit odd or an outsider was a pre-requisite for the job, and the young man met the criterion in that respect. The young man was a bit taken aback by the proposal, and yet he thought it would be a great opportunity to learn and expose the shaman’s tricks.

Eventually, the old Shaman passed on after teaching his replacement everything he knew, and the young man became the tribe’s new Medicine Man, and still cynical about the whole matter. People came to him for relief from some affliction or another, and he performed the proper rituals which he believed were nonsense, but it infallibly resulted in relief for the afflicted nonetheless. This continued on for some time until this once skeptical young man became a Shaman of some fame and renown, noted for his curative powers. His fame as a great Medicine Man spread beyond his tribe and his village, and eventually he came to believe that he was, indeed, a great Medicine Man after all. He had the gift.

Probably the irony of it all was not lost on him. But when I think about that anthropologist’s story, it’s as an example of how Gebser’s “consciousness structures” are not to be considered as evolutionary progressions or “stages”. The skeptical young man was an outsider in his community because he was stamped by the mental consciousness, skeptical of the magical consciousness. And yet, his success as a Shaman became, for him, something inexplicable. It’s an example of the “latency” of the consciousness structures — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational — that may become activated or manifested at any time or place, just as, in post-modernity, the magical and mythical structures are becoming activated today.

Today, Medicine Men and Women are employed in many Canadian hospitals, and are reportedly very effective when dealing with aboriginal patients (less effective with others, apparently). We “understand” the efficacy of this in terms of the placebo (and nocebo) effects — the use of symbol, ritual, and ceremony for mobilising the body’s own recuperative powers. And we also know, or suspect, that the placebo and nocebo effects are implicated in probably the majority of cures (or diseases too), and that much of Western medical practice itself contains elements of the shamanistic in that respect, and are implicated in what we call “bedside manner”. Access to the magical structure of consciousness today comes through understanding the workings of the placebo and nocebo effects.

This becomes especially important in understanding contemporary branding and advertising, or “capitalism 3.0”, as we might call it. It explicity justifies itself in terms of the shamanistic — as working with placebo (or nocebo) effects. “Truth” in advertising as well as “persuasion” have very different meanings in advertising circles than in the regulatory agencies of government, where manufacturers and advertisers must “prove” their claims according to the standards of evidence, proof and truth that belong to the realm of the logico-mathematical or mental-rational consciousness. Brand managers will insist that they work with different standards of “truth”, and in scrutinising that claim it leads to a truth-claim that is rooted in the magical structure of consciousness — the truth of the placebo and nocebo effects. To that extent Huntington’s controversial “clash of civilisations” doctrine actually implies, at a more unconscious level, a clash of consciousness structures.

Most of contemporary “post-modern” social communications and the “public discourse” has very little “rational” content at all (as you may have noticed). The mental consciousness structure is being eclipsed by the return or “irruption” of the magical and mythical, a confusion of competing propagandas for this or that way of life or special pleading of “special interests”. Some do not find this a problem, but exemplary of the rituals and regime of the “free market” in ideas or “free speech” guarantees. But this very promiscuity of competing propagandas for this or that “way of life” or this or that “reason for being” is a constant pressure on consciousness, fracturing, fragmenting, and dissolving it — that is, the mental-rational structure. Most social communications is salesmanship — everybody trying to sell something to everybody else, whether products, ideologies, political candidates, values, ways of life or reasons for being. So, in that sense I speak of the “Adverse” rather than a “Uni-verse”. After all, the contemporary schizophrenia of our universities — which have become “multiversities” — is proof enough of the disintegration of the mental-rational consciousness and of the fracturing of the personality structure of Late Modern Man.

It’s in these conditions, and under these circumstances, that totalitarian solutions for the social question become attractive, and probably will be attempted. And that’s what I’m sensing in things like “holistic branding” or “management of meaning” or “capitalism 3.o” (“marketing 3.0”) — basically the issue of Algis Mickunas’s “technocratic shamanism”.

How to interpret and understand all this without getting too wrapped up, intellectually, with the ontology, epistemology, and metaphysics of technocratic shamanism is my aim in studying all this. Basically, the underlying message of “marketing 3.0” is this: “Get on the bus (and leave the driving to us)” or, to put it more blatantly, “We made you, we own you”.

“We made you, we own you”. After weeks of diving into this mystery called “marketing 3.0”, this is what it basically amounts to — the distillation of its essence. It’s the meaning of what advertisers and branders like to call “mindshare”. “Market share” and “mindshare” are treated interchangeably because what today is called “the market” doesn’t even exist anywhere specific, as in days of old — the agora in Athens, or the High Street in London. That’s because the “market” has become the public consciousness itself , which is why “mindshare” and “marketshare” are treated as synonyms, and corporations often trade in “mindshare”.

The arrogance of the new “managers of meaning” is quite astonishing, in fact. They truly believe that they are the authentic power in the land — shaman kings. The Platonic idea of “the Philosopher King” has been superseded by the shaman king. If it is, indeed, true that “pride goeth before a fall” or that hubris automatically invokes and provokes Nemesis, this is surely the test of it — the test of what Gebser also calls the “immoderate” or “deficient” mode of a consciousness structure. Surely this is the “catastrophe” that Gebser sees currently in preparation.

And it’s not just “truth” and “persuasion” that take on entirely different meanings under the regime of technocratic shamanism and “holistic branding”, but the word “service”. With “brand religion” (or capitalism as a surrogate religion) “service” reverts to its meaning as worship and adoration. “Service” becomes sacramental, ceremonial, and ritual consumption of the brand “meaning”.

The mind reels at the presumptuousness of all this. And yet, it’s made rather explicit in Martin Lindstrom’s programme for “holistic branding” and is implied in the uses of Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology for designing “brand personalities” as icons and “bearers of meaning”, while consumer cults around the archetypes as “brand personalities”, or communities of consumption, are reimagined as congregationalists in the act of worship.

Say it ain’t so!! Surely nobody who is sane falls for this guff! But… is anyone today sane?




8 responses to “The Skeptical Shaman”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I have been reading Claude C. Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising, published in 1923. It apparently sold 8 million copies in its day, and is considered the foundational textbook for the craft of advertising, even though it’s somewhat dated.

    While reading, though, I was taken aback by Hopkins’ use the word “convert” and “advert”. They were somewhat connected in his thinking. A “convert” was an advertissement or a campaign of advertissements that successfully resulted in persuading people to drop some custom or cultural habit (like sporting beards) through “substitution” of some other behaviour deemed desirable by the advertiser (shaving). In effect, this “convert” leads to what is called now “branded behaviour”.

    In that sense, the “convert” isn’t simply about getting someone to switch brands, but to switch customs and habits. If 90% of people made their own pork and beans at home in his time, getting them to drop that to buy brand name pork and beans is a “convert”.

    It’s a surprising (and suggestive) use of the term, and Hopkins has, indeed, drawn out the subtle link between advert and convert.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    The basic premise of marketing 3.0 or capitalism 3.0 or “holistic branding” is this…. that archetypal branding is socially and individually therapeutic, clinical, healing precisely because it is psychiatric and even “spiritual”. And if they happen to win customer loyalty for life, and so a few big bucks in the process, well… even the clinical psychotherapist charges big fees for their healing work.

    This premise — brand culture as therapeutic and as psychotherapeutic — is a very strange one, and it is the premise that needs to be probed and tested. Is it? Consumption rituals are cast as therapeutic psychodramas.

    Or is it sick-making, and all this other stuff just pretense and whitewash to disguise something else? The usual dissembling?

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Thank you Scott for a healthy school in a sick world, collecting visionary icons to prepares for a healthy accommodating environment to help the human chrysalis to grow. I hope it will grow in this dis-verse worldview. One has to be very careful,however, not to be captive to language and to be aware to depend solely on the language of the human direct experience of the universe, the only unifying language across the ages, that is the divine language. Language which plays a prominent role in actually molding the perceptual of the world of the people who use it. When the divine space and time is replaced by the so-called human time and space,the stress sets in. One Sufi Says, come on, brother look high and do not let yourself be besieged by the low. It is always the call for the overall perspective. I come to realize that if one wants to ascend to the mountain of real knowledge, one needs to recall the actual condition that let the aspirer to go so high, to taste the greatest freedom in being in this world and at the same time to feel in the other that is to be caught in the opening of existence and non-existence, where one is no longer expresses his limited view but enters the realm of the spirit where the divine image is played upon the divine mirror. I think we are moving in that direction until truth prevails.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    Yes Scott it is conversion through deception and lie. The frightening aspect is that we do not see any turn in the deteriorating impacts of such disease, on the contrary it is getting worse and worse. One has just to look at the american election to see how deep the advertising disease has sunk. Our Iraqi problem can not be addressed away from the whole global situation. In actuality, if the problems of the domineering culture are not resolved the problems of the subjected culture will continue to stagnate. The Iraqi problem can not be understood out side the publicizing and advertising industry. I am convinced the battle is in the domineering culture and not in the puppet countries. Your blog is one, among many that moves to address problem in their global context and in their integral consciousness fashion. Thank you Scott all corrective movements demand truth, perseverance and patient. We are all working under a watching eye and a hearing ear if only we listen attentively with the intention to feel the presence of all that is.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Actually, addulmonem, it seems that the reason that the branders are turning commodifying the soul and spirituality is precisely because of emergent new consciousness, which they are trying to put in harness — to co-opt. So, Mark and Pearson in The Hero and the Outlaw (which I’ve just finished reading about an hour ago) put it this way —

      “We have an opportunity today to create more commercial messages that connect with the emerging intelligence and consciousness of the times. Such ads grab attention, so they are good for business.”

      So, they’ve noticed that, as they put it “something radically new is afoot”, and they are, I think, trying to co-opt it.

      Of course, it’s very hard to turn the act of buying widgets, gizmos, soaps, shampoos, or golf clubs into an act of deep spiritual meaning. That’s why it seems so often ludicrous, as Mr. Stein notes in his article referenced below “Zen Sells”. I’ll bet that right now, some adman or adwoman, having noted that Rumi is the most popular poet in America (and perhaps Canada and elsewhere too) is scheming about how to design a Rumi or Sufi-themed advert to sell something. I almost regret not having a TV!

      But, I think we have to look at why this is happening, and its happening because they have noticed emergent new intelligence and consciousness, and they are having to adjust their propaganda accordingly — can’t let anyone escape the orbit of consumer capitalism and the corporatocracy! This is, in my reading, exactly why “technocratic shamanism” has become a threat. It’s really the system’s defensive posture.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I would also say that this issue of “holistic branding” does really bring to mind the “false prophets who will mislead many” in the book of Revelation, since what false prophets teach is “truthiness” — they mislead people into the ways of “spiritual materialism”, which is worse than materialism because it is profanation of the spiritual. I believe this to be the meaning of that enigmatic remark of Jesus in the New Testament: “I would that you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will spew you from my mouth”.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    I guess I’ve been out of the loop for some time, since I’ve never owned a television, so a lot of this “markeing 3.0” has escaped my notice. But it didn’t escape the notice of Todd Stein writing in the Zen magazine Shambhala Sun in a good article called “Zen Sells: How Advertising Has Co-opted Spirituality” that addresses this issue back in 1999.

    But even then, Stein didn’t know the half of it. He’s doubtful that it’s organised. But, in fact, it is highly organised.

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