Bataille self-identifies as a proletarian, by contrast with Nietzsche’s aristocratic self-identification. For him, “religion” invokes a mantra of destruction. One destroys the surplus provided by the Capitalist system whenever one is not working to reproduce that system. This everyday destruction of the commodity (through use), and of oneself (through festivals, including drinking) is the enjoyment of God on the last day of the week, having invented everything. Nietzsche saw “God” in the human consciousness and its capacity to create. Bataille adds a Marxist twist and sees “God” in his capacity to DESTROY.
Much of Bataille’s writing urges us toward a retraining of the Superego for nonconformity in the face of servitude and slavery. Transgression is not for its own sake, nor to indulge whims and desire. It involves a reorientation towards the world on the basis of one’s individual strength to do that which was previously forbidden for one to do.
Destruction is transgressive and therefore freedom-inspiring. It is undertaken between the individual and himself (formerly his society’s mores, that have been introjected as Superego). There is much at stake here — much to lose. But every gain is an improvement in the range and power of one’s will. The territory that one ultimately conquers is one’s self. (That is a beginning.)
Nietzsche has a similarly defiant relationship to his Superego. Zarathustra desires to break the law tables of “the good and the just”. Such principled destruction also requires transgression of the Christian value judgements that had commanded European society. These values would probably have been internalised by his intended readers, meaning that, in a way, to destroy the value judgements of the “good and the just” meant destroying themselves, and recreating themselves anew:
It is not your sin-it is your self-satisfaction that crieth unto heaven; your very sparingness in sin crieth unto heaven!
Where is the lightning to lick you with its tongue? Where is the frenzy with which ye should be inoculated?
Lo, I teach you the Superman: he is that lightning, he is that frenzy!-NIETZSCHE, ZARATHUSTRA
Whereas Nietzsche self-identifies as an aristocrat and wants to overcome his limitations, Bataille sets the stage for revolution.
Bataille ‘s writing suggests to me that if we establish a direct relationship with terror, we will be able to resist the imposition of terror from the outside. Alternatively, not to face the terror of life is to remain intoxicated by false assurances as to our ability to escape our own demise. We all die. Also, when we are afraid, we find out what we’re really made of — what we are prepared to hold onto, and what we are willing to discard.
Marechera concurs by his rejection of the rest of humanity, to be alone with his own terror:
Nothing but blows and kicks
Greet the friendly eye of thought
Which bloodied muddied shakes the dust
To all humanity
And discovers terror the totem of truth.
Key to Bion’s work is the idea that people need to express what would become a “nameless dread” if it were to stay outside of the field of society and specifically, socially rendered intelligibility. Bion’s is a dualistic model of the mind, just as Lacan‘s is, but there is much more of a direct metaphysical continuity between Bion’s “unconscious” and the articulate, socially structured mind, than there is with regard to Lacan’s viewpoint.
For Bion, the unconscious is experiential reality that hasn’t been articulated. Indeed, the unconscious can never be fully articulated because it is multidimensional** (has, in effect, more dimensions to it than we can simultaneously process with our rational minds). Articulation, therefore, is always a process of simplifying (indeed, oversimplifying for the sake of managing) that which is irreducibly complex. From my reading of Lacan, there is a complete transition from the prearticulate level of the infant’s experience of the world, to the articulate social interpretation of the experience. His is a more complete mind-body dualism — dividing the rational from the irrational aspects of experience, in a way that is designed to be practically impossible and thus makes place for the Catholicism of “sin” as an automatic part of the human experience, since we must all fall short of the Ideal.
But for Bion, the unconscious is the damming up of experiential reality, and the work to be done is in the further interpretation — the actually simplifying — of memory, to make it manageable, and to reduce the feeling of “nameless dread” (as it were, by giving the dread a name and a social context and meaning). The naming of the “nameless dread” is the social contextualisation of it by means of an objectively recognised form (in words). This is like opening the floodgates to allow the water to go through the wall of the dam. *
But we can see the role of the artist in all of this — to convert nameless dread into something that is socially meaningful. Thus the interpretive movement between the “paranoid-schizoid position” of disintegrated self and inarticulate experience, towards the “depressive position” (of simplified and linguistically reduced meanings, which, nonetheless “make sense” socially).
The Bion model is also shamanistic: the subject mediates between the multidimensional space of the unconscious field (in some senses the “spirit world”) and everyday, limited three-dimensional reality, which can be articulated and can be expressed rationally.
One might add to this understanding Bataillle’s perspective. So long as one does not express oneself in language, one keeps hold of the unbroken whole of experiential reality: this splinters as one speaks of it.
Bataille takes his understanding of the nature of subjective experience and its oftentimes antagonistic relationship to language from Nietzsche, who says:
Ultimately, what does it mean to be ignoble?—Words are sound signals for ideas, but ideas are more or less firm image signs for sensations which return frequently and occur together, for groups of sensations. To understand each other, it is not yet sufficient that people use the same words; they must use the same words also for the same form of inner experiences; ultimately they must hold their experience in common with each other. That’s why human beings belonging to a single people understand each other better among themselves than associations of different peoples, even when they themselves use the same language; or rather, when human beings have lived together for a long time under similar conditions (climate, soil, danger, needs, work), then something arises out of that which “understands itself,” a people. In all souls, a similar number of frequently repeating experiences have won the upper hand over those which come more rarely; people understand each other on the basis of the former, quickly and with ever-increasing speed—the history of language is the history of a process of abbreviation. On the basis of this rapid understanding, people bind with one another, closely and with ever-increasing closeness. The greater the danger, the greater the need quickly and easily to come to agreement over what needs to be done; not to misunderstand each other when in danger is what people simply cannot do without in their interactions. With every friendship or love affair people still make this test: nothing of that sort lasts as soon as people reach the point where, with the same words, one of the two feels, means, senses, wishes, or fears something different from the other one. (The fear of the “eternal misunderstanding”: that is the benevolent genius which so often prevents people of different sexes from over-hasty unions, to which their senses and hearts urge them—and not some Schopenhauerish “genius of the species”!—). Which groups of sensations within the soul wake up most rapidly, seize the word, give the order—that decides about the whole rank ordering of its values, that finally determines its tables of goods. The assessments of value in a man reveal something about the structure of his soul and where it looks for its conditions of life, its essential needs. Now, assume that need has always brought together only such people as could indicate with similar signs similar needs, similar experiences, then it would generally turn out that the easy ability to communicate need, that is, in the last analysis, familiarity with only average and common experiences, must have been the most powerful of all the forces which have so far determined things among human beings. People who are more similar and more ordinary were and always have been at an advantage; the more exceptional, more refined, rarer, and more difficult to understand easily remain isolated; in their isolation they are subject to accidents and rarely propagate themselves. People have to summon up huge counter-forces to cross this natural, all-too-natural progressus in simile [advance into similarity], the further training of human beings into what’s similar, ordinary, average, herd-like—into what’s common. [emphasis mine]
*Actually this analogy is mine. Bion’s is that the mother of the infant initially is the one who acts to “contain” or hold the inarticulate emotions of the child, and thus she gives social form and shape to them. My analogy focuses on this “nameless dread” as if it were to occur outside of a defined social context, whereas Bion shows the way this “nameless dread” is generally diverted towards becoming meaningful social content.
The shamanistic view is different from the psychoanalytic view that holds that psychological projection is an anomalous attitude of reprobates. In terms of shamanism, absolutely everything one sees, hears or encounters is a projection. Neurology makes it clear that perception is a function of the brain’s incorporation and rearrangement of data. According to Atul Gawande:
The information we take in from our ears and eyes is not the same as what we experience. The brain takes a huge amount of information from the senses and then rearranges it in such a way that a human being can gain advantage from it. We see what makes sense to us, often by adding to incomplete information by producing information from memory, so that we often encounter precisely what we expect to see. We are the creators of our own realities.
To go a step further, we don’t visually experience the far sides of the color spectrum that beetles and bats may do. But, had we the needs and desires of insects, our brains would have learned to give us a different range of information. We would have learned to sense a far wider spectrum including infra-red and ultra-violet. Becoming aware of these light waves perhaps does not serve us as humans, since this may not give an advantage in indicating food or sudden danger.
Humans and beetles inhabiting the same space will nonetheless experience different qualities to their environments. What comes to the foreground and what pales into insignificance will not be the same aspects of the terrain. A friend tells me that on taking LSD one hears all the background noises to life that would ordinarily be filtered from awareness.
To have the benefit of vision enables us to navigate our human worlds effectively as humans. A parallel world may exist for other species. Each takes from the sensory environment what will nourish it in terms of what it is. Taking in too much of reality would obstruct us in our normal activities. We do well to leave a lot unnoticed.
On the basis of being separate peoples and cultures, we also automatically impose filtering mechanisms. I see what I need to see to nourish myself according to my particular needs, desires and capabilities. I am convinced that others who enter the same environments would not see or experience the same network of meanings that are available to me. I switch off when confronted with young children, for instance. I can’t focus on them and my brain attempts to block them out. I’m learning to notice social tensions, but they don’t intrinsically interest me, so they are about the last thing I recognize when I enter a new environment.
When I began my life in Australia I didn’t “see” social relationships — only natural ones. When I began a new job many years ago, I didn’t “see” institutional relationships. I saw only postmodernist metaphysics, by virtue of which I had been trained to see the world. I began reading Marecheralater and had to get rid of a lot of postmodernist assumptions to understand him.
Contemporary humans get to move through their environments by throwing off one reality to enter another. Shamanism enhances the process of gaining knowledge of our worlds by encouraging us to switch off from what we think we know, which is just a neurological projection however useful. We can’t enter another environment so long as we are certain of what we know. This is only possible by entering a state of uncertainty. As Bataille says of Nietzsche, out of this striking moment of dissolution a philosophy is born:
Let no one doubt for an instant! One has truly not heard a single word of Nietzsche’s unless one has lived this signal dissolution in totality; without it, this philosophy is a mere labyrinth of contradictions, and worse; the pretext for lying by omission (if, like the fascists, one isolates passages for purposes which negate the rest of the work).
In terms of what I have described of shamanism, Nietzsche’s way of writing, whether intentionally or not, actually invites a radical rewriting of consciousness on the basis of a fundamental dissolution of reality. By means of such shamanistic reworking, one’s existing projection gets dissolved and is replaced by another, superior reality. This would be a result of including a different network of memories in one’s perspectives. This adjustment in seeing, however, leads to handling life more effectively.
1. Shamanistic usages of language
Shamanisms learn to speak very indirectly about reality. As Georges Bataille points out in his Unfinished System of Nonknowledge verbal communication sets itself at odds with the physical body and its vicissitudes. To communicate completely, one does not communicate with language, but non-linguistically. “We feel each other through our wounds,” he said, thus suggesting shamanic access to another dimension of knowledge, not through suffering as such, but through the internalization of knowledge as a result of wounding. To draw a distinction here between two levels of communication is vital.
Crude psychoanalytic interpretations would tend to make out the shaman to be one who whines about wounding whilst justifying false ways of seeing the world, to make himself feel better. So, psychoanalysts may set out to defeat what it sees as a competing system of interpretation of the world, by distorting its claims. The willful nature of this misunderstanding is obvious because it does not distinguish between a wound and the person who has it. Whereas psychoanalytic distortions would have the wound seem to speak for and on behalf of itself, in shamanism, the shaman masterfully speaks on behalf of his wounds and furthermore uses his incidental wounding and the understanding it brings to heal others.
In the case of Bataille’s form of shamanism, the “wounds” are the sexual organs, which he considered a wound to language itself, as a system that aims to be closed and complete, capable of accounting for everything and making all of reality seem rational. The physicality of the body itself prevents the formal dimensions of language to close the circle of meaning, in terms of giving a full account of everything in the world.
This suspicion of language is expressed in all forms of shamanism, which attempt to address the problems associated with the body in a more direct way than via language. To the end of addressing the body and not the mind, language may be “twisted” so that the shamanic seer can use it to “look around corners”. Marechera uses this expression in The Black Insider, where he criticizes logical formulations for degrading the more human dimensions of reality.
The tyranny of straightforward things is more oppressive and more degrading than such idle monstrosities as life and death, apartheid and beer drinking, a stamp album and Jew-baiting. One plus one equals two is so irrefutably straightforward that the unborn child can see that even if man was wiped off the face of the earth one plus one would always and forever-equal two.
The “unborn child” is one who cannot yet speak, who can be readily victimized by narrow forms of logic that would easily be able to erase humanity. The “unborn child” is also the non-rational state of the shamanistic seer. Huge aspects of reality are more readily observable when one has learned not to depend on language.
2. When shamans work with “energy fields”, they are referring to the ability one needs to have to defend oneself against projective identification. This term has gained meaning in psychoanalysis as implying that someone has injected their own needs and values into another person to get them to play a particular function on their behalf. These functions are to express emotional attitudes that area already in another person but which he doesn’t have the confidence or the courage to express.
Shamans work to develop a strong “energy vest” for the one who has become ill, to enable her to resist future attempts to control her. A shaman’s incantations are sung to create a sense of wholeness about identity, defined as integral bodily sensations. Future assaults against the integral wholeness of the victim will from now on be understood by her in terms of what they are, and not being unconsciously accommodated.
Having developed a sense of energy fields, one is cured, since one now understands when one’s own energy field has been violated. Should a “dart” be fired in one’s direction, one can choose to ignore it, or to return the dart to the original owner. There is nothing mysterious about the fact that darts and energy fields exist, except for the terminology. The means by which assaults take place, as well as their psychological meanings, can be accounted for in the earlier mentioned term of projective identification.
Shamans take knowledge of energy fields a step further than others do in psychoanalysis, however. An advanced shaman will conduct effective ideological warfare by observing another’s energy field and sending “darts” into the field of another to disrupt their mental ability to work. It was said that shamans used to lob mountains at each other.
Temporary physical injury and blindness are essential to a shaman, for they ultimately enable him or her to see better.
Shamanic injuries lead to a compulsion to cross a bridge from one side of consciousness into another and in effect to join two opposing levels of consciousness together. Traditionally, shamans seek to retain the injurious darts in their bodies in order to keep hold of magic power. Whereas shamanic injury leads to a darkening of normative perceptions, it enhances others. Blindness forces one to rely on senses other than vision. Needing to function without sight or health, one develops aspects of one’s awareness that would otherwise never be developed. Nietzsche is typical in this pattern, as is his 20th Century French protégé, Georges Bataille. The result is a “double vision”, whereby two levels of reality can be compared and data extracted from combining their vectors in much the same way as the brain combines information from the left eye and the right eye to produce a third level of consciousness — depth perception.
In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes:
Even my eye trouble, which at times approached dangerously near blinding, was only an effect [of general exhaustion] and not a cause; for, with every improvement of my general bodily health came a corresponding increase in my power of vision. An all too long series of years meant recovery to me. But, sad to say, it also meant relapse, breakdown, periods of decadence. After this, need I say that I am experienced in questions of decadence? I know them inside and out. Even that filigree art of apprehension and comprehension in general, that feeling for nuances, that psychology of “seeing what is around the comer,” and whatever else I may be able to do, was first learnt then, and is the specific gift of that period during which everything in me was subtilized-observation itself, together with all the organs of observation. To view healthier concepts and values from the standpoint of the sick, and conversely to view the secret work of the instinct of decadence out of the abundance and self-confidence of a rich life-this has been my principal experience, what I have been longest trained in. If in anything at all, it was in this that I became a master. To-day my hand is skillful; it has the knack of reversing perspectives: the first reason perhaps why a Transvaluation of all Values has been possible to me alone. (2)
Just a bit later on, he says:
This double series of experiences, this means of access to two worlds that seem so far asunder, finds an exact reflection in my own nature-I have an alter ego: I have a “second” sight, as well as a first. Perhaps I even have a third sight. The very nature of my origin allowed me an outlook transcending merely local, merely national and limited horizons; it cost me no effort to be a “good European.” (3) [emphasis added]
As we can see, the representation of “two worlds” of consciousness that have to be bridged by virtue of a necessity stemming from sickness leads to the sense of having a “third sight” — implicitly a mystical level of vision.
Contrast the use that a shaman can make out of his constitutional blindness with the normative blindness of the one who sees only one world, that being the vision circumscribed by the felt necessity to conform:
One used to fly by vision and now one flies by radar — blindly, as it were. That is the destiny of women within patriarchal societies – to have to rely upon a set of “civilising” values. That way, their navigation systems can always be jammed if they become too vocal. Women who have been “translated” into beings with now ‘ Civilized’ as opposed to Natural demeanours, have been taught to rely only upon those forms of communication that have been narrowly defined as “sensible” according to expectations which are starched, formal and conservative. How does one live within patriarchal society as a woman? Blindly, and disregarding of one’s own experiences, lest they puzzle and derange one enough that one finally takes action. Women are born to be castrated, according to some.
Next: Bataille’s non-knowledge as a form of shamanism
The capacity for intellectual shamanism is based on having superfluous energy to spend on exploring inner, psychological dimensions. The prerequisite for engagement puts intellectual shamanism at odds with many, perhaps most, other philosophies of life that demand one’s time and commitment in other ways. Even holding other implicit philosophies, such as a prevalent one of our age — biological determinism — moves one several steps away from understanding how intellectual shamanism is expressed. Those whose purpose in life is sex and reproduction will not find anything of value in this paradigm.
Somebody whose life is guided and determined by biological imperatives would experience intellectual shamanism as only threatening to take them away from their allotted tasks. A typical misunderstanding I have found in those who read Nietzsche is in the idea that one can use one’s reading as a means to gain the kind of “wisdom” that would enable one to fully express one’s innate biological urges. Yet, the desire to move in a direction that fulfills one’s needs as a creature of one’s biology is exactly opposed to the desire to further one’s knowledge about subjectivity and inner worlds. To follow a biological deterministic path requires a calm and yielding disposition. Any emotion or sensation that is not in this vein is a threat to one’s determined destiny.
By contrast, with regard to shamanism a lot of actions may be done and a lot of words spent, which have no biological purpose whatsoever. The meaning of looking into one’s inner worlds is not to lament anything, but simply to look around at one’s leisure. There is nothing to win or lose here, in terms of any sense of necessary or inevitable destinies. One has all the time in the world to waste and no purpose to achieve except that intrinsic to looking. One can scream and shout all one likes. This is actually encouraged.
At the same time, those in a hurry to take things in the opposite direction will, of course, not find anything here.
In much of my experience, I haven’t been a “valid human being” at all. I think that is the starting point for shamanic initiation — where one recognizes that one is not a valid human being in some sense. Then one loses one’s humanity and regains it — that is the definition of initiation.
You have to enter non-being. Then, that kind of sticks with you, and you don’t employ moral categories so readily. There are no longer any ““valid human beings”, just the totality of human experience, for better or worse.
A “valid human being”, for instance, is a moral category implying person-hood, with all that this entails according to people’s trained or educated notions as to what differentiates people from each other. So, on the basis of my education and training concerning “validity” I may come to certain conclusions about the kind of person who is valid, what characteristics they have, how they conduct themselves, their ontological status (as being redeemed by “God” or by morality, or by virtue of the state granting them their “rights”) or what have you. So, I’ll have a certain image of that person, perhaps very distinct, or perhaps rather fuzzy. In any case, I’ve created a categorical demarcation as to what constitutes validity in a human being.
This logically and practically also implies that I have it in the back of my mind as to what would make a human being “invalid”. So, maybe that kind of person would be immoral, evil, strange, not my color of skin, or whatever. In any case, I’ve set up a mental barrier that mediates my experience of the world on the basis of categories of “valid” or “invalid”.
For instance, like a certain male feminist writer does, I might mentally erect a category of oppressed people who have great validity as human beings. On the basis of that, I’d start to show great indulgence and forbearance in relation to these oppressed people. It may happen, though, that mediation of reality through defining a category of oppressed (versus less oppressed or not oppressed) means I can’t experience the shades of grey that make up the world as it actually is. There’s too much mediation of reality and not enough direct experience of it. That’s what moral categorizing does.
By contrast, entering non-being means we can open our minds a bit more, after we are not afraid of losing some structure and entering the void.
The meaning of amoralism, according to Nietzsche and Bataille is to become wilder, stronger in oneself, more independent and less tame. This is not a moral injunction that everybody has to do it. You can try it or not attempt it. It’s not even an issue of having the power of free choice. One can be seduced into trying shamanism, or one can avoid it. There are no transcendental principles governing this choice.
NOTE: Nietzsche’s amoralism is viewed most commonly as lauding the rights of the oppressors to oppressor whomever they please. But that view assumes a very morally delimiting perspective, as it makes it out that he was maintaining a moral position on who gets to oppress who. He isn’t.
Bataille’s dalliances with prostitutes have also been criticized for their immorality. But that was precisely the point of Bataille’s actions, to slip out of the grasp of morality.
Thirdly, the idea of renouncing judgement on people would need to acquire a moral motivation since it is a categorical distinction — i.e. that it is a good idea to renounce judgement on others.
Shamanism is not about establishing a moral position but about exploring a psychological void where making moral distinctions has not yet become automatic for you.
Bataille had certain ideas about the parts of us that don’t fit into the Western social machinery. In particular, he thought these were decline, deterioration, degeneration, body refuse and non-verbal aspects of expression, such as laughter and tears. So he kept trying to reacquaint us with those aspects. On a serious note, his extremely odd views have helped me a great deal, because aging and deterioration used to frighten me. Now I see them as totally part of life. One does not understand what one has and its relative value, unless one juxtaposes it against its loss. The fact that we will lose our lives gives being alive its value. Failing to understand this, we would walk around like robots, moving from one state of being to another (life to death) but without the capacity for reflection.
The magical allure that is undoubtably present in Nietzsche’s writing is shamanistic. It is that which enables him to play the pied piper and to attract a following. Yet the shamanistic mode of logic — although present — is not as deep as it ought to be, were one to be truly faithful to the principles of shamanism. In precise terms: although the notion of plasticity of identity and self transformation is trumpeted, the degree of plasticity that is potentially available in each human being is portrayed as being much more limited than actually it is. Whereas changing genders is the ultimate expression of the logic of shamanism, Nietzsche’s views that the gender roles ought to be fundamentally unassailable is directly in line with the logic of patriarchal priests throughout the ages.
And yet he uses shamanistic structures of thought — which have a natural voluptuousness and sense of joyful celebration of the here and now — to sell us on this gloomy patriarchal priest’s ideas.
This is the contradiction within Nietzsche’s work. Shamanism would totally free its initiates the constraints imposed by guilt, if not from guilt itself — but Nietzsche wants a certain amount of freedom to be permitted, and no more.
He is like a wine merchant who has decided that his product isn’t going far enough — and so he dilutes his wine with methylated spirits.
But methylated spirits — the priestly complex — is actually poison. Specifically, it is a poison in the eyes of this particular wine merchant.
So how did he go wrong — to mix in so much priestly doom and gloom into what were, and ought to have been, liberating ideas for his time?
UPDATED: Nietzsche once wrote, “Apart from the church, we too love the poison [of ascetic ideas].”
It seems that both Nietzsche and Bataille mixed their knowledge with a certain amount of religiosity — poison — in order to reach the widest possible audience.
Bataille gets his lessons from language and the danger of too much consciousness from Nietzsche.
The shaman sees both sides of the psychological coin — the advantages pertaining to the early world of paranoid-schizoid consciousness, and those that pertain to the adult state of rationality.
Bataille’s approach, like all shamanistic approaches, seeks to draw dialectic of communication between the two.
In the paranoid-schizoid state, there are only singularities, with nothing else sufficiently resembling each event enough to acquire the label of being “the same”. It is with this awareness in mind that Bataille rails against the limitations of the “I” that is adopted when we take up language.
The logic of language, which is the inductive method of knowing, makes him seem (to himself) to be one out of all too many human entities who have been linguistically reduced to conceptually simplified forms, rather than the singularity that he knows he is. He finds this “I” to be servile and lacking in the sovereignty that comes from being a singularity — a thoroughly individual self.
Bataille, however, is also keen to use language (the other way of formulating reality) effectively, to convey, if possible, this sense of lack he feels in having to imply that his identity is general and universalisable.
He also expects to fail in his attempt to bridge the two worlds that divide our self-identity, to the degree that we, as readers, lack the capacity to take in a point of view that does not depend on language.
Marechera’s Black Sunlight maintains knowledge of the two different modes of being, building a bridge between the paranoid-schizoid position and language.
Thus Black Sunlight expresses a shamanistic position that sees reality as having two very different sides to it.
I’ve virtually read every book in the house. That would be about 800 books. Mike had his collection, which he shipped over from the US in sea bags. I also accumulated mine, particularly as I wrote my PhD.
Mike’s books consist of heavy historical tomes describing and analyzing the nature of communism in the 20th Century and its shortfalls. My books tend to be by Nietzsche, Bataille, Marechera and assorted other African writers who give a historical context to my thesis. Mike’s literary interests include the Beat Poets and texts by classical Greek and Roman authors. My interests are more contemporary, although I don’t read literature these days. I stopped reading literature after Black Sunlight blew my mind. Now I rarely read theory, either.
Theory has always held a fascination for me, but now I think I’ve reached it’s outer limits. In truth, I felt that I was suffering from all the G-force I could take from theory as I approached the completion of my thesis. I was applying my version of theory to go beyond my limits, opposing my own superego with all the force my mind could muster. My emotions began to shatter as I made headway into the stratosphere. My emotions and my will power became counter to each other. I could barely keep it together as the external shell of the shuttle of my being began to quake.
Part of the reason was de Sade. I say this now with some degree of certainty, having pulled his tome of collected works off the shelf. I’d had to do battle with his elements in Nietzsche and Bataille, by trying to formulate a different attitude and solution, as per my “intellectual shamanism” than the woman-hating that the Nietzschean chain supplies. Immersing oneself in the intellectual logic of woman-hating writers in order to understand them, and then attempting the difficult task of self-extrication from their zeitgeist, with a surge of woman-hating trolls forever on one’s back was not easy. I determined, finally, that Marechera did have more insight into the psychological repercussions of woman-hating than either of these earlier authors. In “The Alley”, a short play, he portrayed how wartime contempt for women made the self-image of the soldier as a valiant protector of women and children into a farce.
Marechera has a kind of combativeness that uses psychological insights in order to overthrow attitudes he finds contemptible. Hierarchical domination is precisely disliked. One must be honest about one’s psychological states and not pretend that they are other than they seem to be, otherwise one does not face the fact that war inflicts trauma that requires healing. Of course, the use of psychologically informed political tactics is not new, for they also form a large part of Bataille’s writing. His predominant trope of facing death, for instance, is a double-edged sword, intended to push individuals to more extreme limits, beyond the circumscribing limits of bourgeois morality. In Nietzsche’s writing, he offered that the noble elements of European culture were those most accepting of the need to sacrifice themselves; that is, those for whom “the preaching of death was most at home”. The other edge of the sword is that the subjugated classes would become ungovernable if they effectively (in my terms) “shamanized” and had strange visions. They could overcome their fear of death and therefore fear no punishment for their behavour.
If Nietzsche was defender of the aristocracy, Bataille wanted revolution for the working class. Marechera was in some ways more extreme than either of these writers, more aligned with the lumpen proletariat, at least in terms of choice of lifestyle (vagrancy, petty crime). For all that, Marechera was more deeply shamanistic in his insights — that is, more aware of the degree to which psychology can be used to manipulate political perceptions. He was also a master of disguises in his own way. He thought that one could simply become what one imagined being, for instance a Fleet Street photographer (you just need to wear a number of cameras around your neck and pass yourself off as one).
Marechera was also the least sadistic of the chain of writers. He had no stake in maintaining any form of social hierarchy whatsoever, so there was no need to try to distort perceptions in any way. He just had to show up the aspects of the psychologies of groups that they were trying to hide. For instance, the cost of going to war is that one must live with the knowledge of what war does to women.
Although the European writers mentioned are sadistic, Marechera’s writing isn’t, at least it’s far from being so at bottom. Despite this, his style finds its place in a historical continuum with Bataille’s perspectives. That is, he uses politically motivated psychological writing in a surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness form. His writing has the effect of making one feel like one has entered a privileged realm where one is aware of the glorious fragility of life and its sacred nature.
Even if you are atheistic, you can be in awe of what it means to live and breathe and have existence — life may be being squeezed out of you, but you are still here, to watch it and record it. At this most reductive level, which is where Marechera takes you, there is the quintessence of life.
Such is the author’s shamanistic propensity, that we can eschew sadism from our psychological vocabularies, and still be sure to have adventures and dare ourselves. Read, for instance, Black Sunlight.
I’m reading Nietzsche’s ANTICHRIST again. I find it perfectly logical. What can make a difference is the perspective of the reader. It takes a while to develop the capacity to read it without the lens of contemporary ideologies. I remember being very much enmeshed in some of the contemporary era ideologies that were invented to smash the left. You were either on the side of “civilization” or against it. This kind of reading distorts Nietzsche’s writing so that instead of making logical points, he seems to be taking sides in a political struggle. To read Nietzsche as making psychological observations, not political ones, gives coherence and intelligibility to his whole approach.
When I consider his opposition to the anarchists, I can reflect from the standpoint of today that I have met many left wingers who seem emotionally weak. I’ve also met their equivalents on the right. Nietzsche thought that the disruptive people, who looked to undermine society, were intent to undermine a structure which they could not enjoy anyway, due to their dependent natures. It wasn’t the society that had something wrong with it, but these agitators themselves did. Psychologically speaking, I have found this is often true. It doesn’t work to condemn all agitators as weak personalities, though, because to generalize in that way is only possible by invoking metaphysical — that is theological — principles. That’s exactly what Nietzsche’s writing wants to avoid. Rather it seems one should exercise intellectual caution and view everyone on their own merits.
From my point of view, I find Nietzsche’s commentary on those who want to overthrow the established order to have incredibly complex ramifications. Consider that I had barely become an adult, when my own established order was completely overthrown. Almost nothing remained, except for a small core of agitators for the extreme right and another skeleton group taking refuge in denial within the protective bubbles of their Christian ideologies. For me, life itself, in almost every sense that I had known it, had been completely overturned:
Let no one doubt for an instant! One has truly not heard a single word of Nietzsche’s unless one has lived this signal dissolution in totality; without it, this philosophy is a mere labyrinth of contradictions, and worse; the pretext for lying by omission (if, like the fascists, one isolates passages for purposes which
negate the rest of the work).[“will to chance,” Bataille]
I immediately saw through the ideological, defensive response, and I only considered the alternative — the hive of right-wing agitators — when the aggressive people of the left had begun attacking me too much. Primitive emotional responses are common when a defeated enemy (me) is in your grasp. They’re also common when the prior rulers realize they have been defeated and seek to take revenge for their humiliation. I’ve experienced this aggression from both sides of politics. Both have seen me, somehow, as their enemy — someone whom they need to pick on to score points, or prove themselves worthy of their particular political ideologies.
The primitive components of our brains are preoccupied with setting invisible boundaries that are defined by social inclusion or exclusion is . Nationalism, sexism, racism and all other forms of social identity rely on this primeval mechanism of division and exclusion.
We can’t directly fight these aspects of our thinking, since they are part of our way of structuring the social realm. This part includes certain members socially by exclusion and scapegoating. “Projective identification” creates negative identities by scapegoating, whereby those who are perceived to be outsiders of the group are made out to represent the kinds of qualities the group doesn’t want to own as part of its identity.
Fear and pride predominate at this level of consciousness.
Identity politics, which attempts to make us address our “privilege” has failed on every level. It has only led to infighting within the left, which has created a gigantic gap for those who are better organized on the right to perpetuate their agendas. This they have done ever since the eighties, so that American society is effectively dominated by an extreme right-wing agenda.
Leftist identity politics is just like its right-wing counterpart. It is wrong-headed because we cannot attack a part of our own humanity without failing. It is better to understand the workings of the primitive brain and use our knowledge to become more fully human, and not fight it as snooty moralistic ascetics.
Few people are aware that our brains create basic boundary divisions at an unconscious level. More specifically, most people take the divisions they meet in the world as natural and logical. Ethical groups all have essential qualities. Zionists are crazed and wrong and Palestinians are noble. That’s just how they seem to our naked eye. Or, vice versa: school teachers are leaching off our system and business men are here to help. That, too, is visible to the naked eye, if one is brought up with the “right” forms of conditioning — that is if one has a pure, religious heart and fears the economic bust.
Just as being aware that the sun rises in the morning is not the same as commanding it to rise, being aware how the mind creates divisions does not mean that one applauds them.
For instance, much has been suggested, in the past, that Georges Bataille, who engaged with the psychology of fascism and understood the psychological states involved in it, must necessarily be a “left fascist” himself. After all, why study something, unless one in fact is the object one is studying? If one is not lifting up the sun with one’s eyelids, why claim that the sun actually exists?
I have Michael Richardson to thank for pointing me to Georges Bataille’s shamanism, at least in the sense that Richardson conceives that Bataille’s emphasis on “facing death” was shamanistic and that it was Bataille’s intent to cure himself via this method.
Another trope of shamanism is boundary crossing:
[S]hamans are men in some cultures, either men or women in others, and biologically male transvestites in still others. Some Inuit cultures are especially well-known for their association of shamanism with cross-dressing. If we wish to think about this in terms of symbolic classification, it seems quite logical that crossing one symbolic boundary, that between the sexes, should be made to “stand for” another symbolic boundary-crossing, the bridging of the gap between humans and the supernatural. [David Hicks, quoted by University of Waterloo]
Whereas I’ve heard it mentioned, in a class at university, that Georges Bataille engaged in cross-dressing, to learn about the other side of consciousness he was repressing, I have been unable to trace any written references to this effect. That is to my regret, for it makes entirely logical sense that Bataille would have engaged in this kind of experience, given his other shamanistic proclivities (documented by me elsewhere).
Dambudzo Marechera, whose writing I’ve also pointed out as being shamanistic, was a quintessential boundary crosser:
Hell is crossing the railway line
In dark mood on a dark night
This railway line would have been between differently segregated parts of town, in racially segregated Rhodesia.
Crossing boundaries gives us access to experiences we have earlier avoided, but without being aware of our avoidance thanks to the operation of the primitive parts of our human brains.
Shamanistic crossings thus undo the boundary-making that our lizard brains have formulated. Transgression breaks through the code of primitive thinking, and expands our minds.
There’s nothing necessarily primitive about breaking down primitive unconscious processes, even though the means themselves may seem strange and dangerous to us. “Watch out!” Primitive lizard brain warns us. “Boundaries of identity are there to preserve you. Breaking them down will be dangerous to your health!”
Still, the shaman must be master of the lower mind: This isn’t fascism, this is the denial of fascism; its undoing.
Bataille’s conception of sacrifice makes clear his own view of the overwrought nature of the human condition — at least as he and Lacan experienced it in 20th Century France. Conforming is always a concession to impersonality, in both Bataille and Lacan. Conforming preserves the bourgeois person. The cost is impersonality; the benefit is preservation of oneself via creature comforts, bourgeois status and (impersonal) identity. The practical opposite to this norm of bourgeois conformity is personal self-actualisation. Herein is the Nietzschean paradox (and it also depicts what I call “intellectual shamanism”). To self-actualize is to give up the benefits of self-preservation:
I love him who reserveth no share of spirit for himself, but wanteth to be wholly the spirit of his virtue: thus walketh he as spirit over the bridge. (Nietzsche)
Bataille takes up a Nietzschean perspective when he associates self-actualization with sacrifice. He is also Freudian (and was used by Lacan to develop his perspectives), for he views sacrifice in terms of psychological deviance, on the basis of one’s circumstances being untenable (the need to represent impersonality in the workplace leads to an opposite, reactive attitude, once one has time to oneself). In his essay in book form, Theory of Religion, Bataille portrays the worker in a state of destructive reverie. Bourgeois form and sobriety are sacrificed to despair. This structurally determined polarization of the worker’s consciousness is between the profane (one’s experience of work) and the sacred (one’s experience of free time, expressed as a frenzy of destructiveness.) Free time and money to spend purely to satisfy one’s appetites are the worker’s accursed share.
The Freudian influence on Bataille renders this reading of the worker and his behavior as pathological — although, like Lacan thought, necessarily so. Civilization is not experienced by organic and instinctively driven human beings as a natural condition, thus it necessarily produces its discontents. Bataille’s point is that society structures the psyche of the worker in terms of polarizing his consciousness, so that it swings between conformity and destructiveness. Bataille’s views are also Marxist.
Nietzsche’s views are not at all Marxist in any way. He expresses his views in terms of evolutionary proposals. He expresses his ideas in terms of Darwinism.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an OVER-GOING and a DOWN-GOING.
This is a tragic view of the world — that in order for humanity to make progress beyond its apelike origins, many who aspire to do something great will fall along the way and not meet their goals. Their failures, however, are necessary, because they offer the basis for others to learn and thus succeed.
Thus for Nietzsche, sacrifice for the benefit of humanity is achieved by those who attempt — (and perhaps fail) — to self-actualize: a “down-going” is also an “over-going”. A failure to do all that one had wanted to is nonetheless also transcendence of humanity’s existing ape-like condition. One advances human evolution through one’s attempts. One sacrifices oneself to the future of humanity, rather than sacrificing the future of humanity to one’s self to the degree that one departs from the script of an impersonal conformist who wants everything to stay just the same.
Bataille is a Western thinker, who he has a bit of the Catholic tradition in him, too. It isn’t easy to explain transgression, but it has to do with one’s relationship with one’s Superego. Bataille likens it to “sinning”. To try to give you some idea, if one just conforms with what one has been taught to do, since childhood, one can be very moral, but one does not encounter the sacred. To have a fresh encounter with the sacred one has to go against the grain of what one has been taught is right since childhood. It’s not a matter of going against one’s conditioned ethics on principle, or in the abstract. To the contrary, what one is really doing is challenging one’s limitations. It can be very easy to be “good” in a passive sense. But there is a kind of goodness that transcends this passive sense of being good. By being “bad” (that is, using active, rather than passive energy), one goes beyond all earlier, naïve conceptions of goodness — especially goodness as passive compliance to one’s authorities and their demands. One discovers a different way of looking at the world. The experience that allows the world to open up to you more than before is related to the sacred.
He says, “I have failed to convey my sense of non-knowledge all the previous times I’ve tried to explain it and I will fail this time, too.”
You’ve got to love the French and their sense of irony. There is nothing French without irony.
As I said, this kind of irony makes some non-French people very angry and also very suspicious. “What is he trying to do? Is he a crypto-fascist?” they murmur under their breaths.
The corrective to Nietzsche‘s self-sacrifice via elitism or “transcendence” is of course Georges Bataille, who is clearly of the left and addresses the problems of modernity as a closer contemporary to you or I.
The problem of bourgeois society IS the reification of the ego — that is, the assumption that a concept of oneself defines one’s actual identity I think that liberals in general cannot understand a critique from someone of my bent, who takes up the Nietzschean tradition. They imagine that it would be impossible not to reify the ego or to avoid doing so would mean to denigrate (perhaps even to disintegrate) the ego. This is typical bourgeois black or white thinking.
One cannot develop actual subjectivity unless one sacrifices the aggrandizement of the bourgeois ego. Yet the (only apparent rather than actual) sacrifice does not lead to nothing or negation, although that is the danger and the threat that Bataille’s writing announces.
What shamanistic systems do that moralistic systems do not is to put you into a relationship with yourself. Moralistic systems are actually designed to avoid this, since they are constructed in order to prevent you from succumbing to harm/danger, but one cannot learn anything in relation to oneself without risking oneself.
You solitary one, you go the way of the creator: you will create a god for yourself out of your seven devils! You solitary one, you go the way of the lover: you love yourself, and on that account you despise yourself, as only the lover can despise. The lover wants to create because he despises! What does he know of love who has not despised that which he loved! With your love and with your creating go into your solitude, my brother; only much later will justice limp after you. With my tears, go into your solitude, my brother. I love him who seeks to create beyond himself, and thus perishes. [Nietzsche/Zarathustra (emphasis mine).]
Common to both Nietzsche and Bataille is the following paradoxical understanding of human nature and philosophical dialectic: conventional moral systems have a preservative effect on humanity, but at the cost of truth as well as at the cost of creative self actualisation. Not to seek to preserve oneself is, by contrast, the way to individual self-actualisation, but at the cost of admitting self-destruction.
Since power is predominantly masculine in Western culture, Freud could codify women’s desire for power as “penis envy”. In any case, the desire for transcendence is the desire to be more (and, ultimately, different) from what one is.
That is why making libido connect not with transcendence but, instead, with immanence (as Bataille –whom Wolin mistakenly casts as a “left fascist” does) is potentially destructive of any hierarchical social order.
But perhaps I am reading too much into the mainly psychological musings of Bataille?
My proposition is that unless we can risk departing from a narrow-minded positive view of ourselves, to wrestle with confusion and self-doubt, we are unable to grow in knowledge and power. To throw oneself fully into such a risky enterprise is what I term “intellectual shamanism”.
If postmodernism is not a program for the future, then those who teach its ideas ought to be extremely aware of this. The future ought not to be left in the hands of those who do have a program for it, such as those on the extreme right.
What is good about Nietzsche is his injunction to “live dangerously”. Bataille, who in turn proclaims “I am Nietzsche” suggests that we depart from what we know into a realm of experience where nothing is decided. Bataille’s injunction, although mystical sounding, was for people to break out of the impasse made up of ideology and convention.
Postmodernism, although having links with Nietzschean “perspectivism” is devoid of the logic of the overall Nietzschean project, which was to create a different kind of human being for the future. It kids itself that it is revolutionary, whilst remaining in a Prufrockian bubble, separated from the realm of experience:
“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?”
By contrast, shamanism has the nerve to want to experience the “thing in itself”. This is impossible, according to Kant. But it is this very impossibility that is attractive and which somehow gives shamanistic practitioners their sense of meaning. There is a wish to explore “the abyss” and if necessary become wrecked within this void.
The spirit of shamanism and the spirit of postmodernism are almost opposite. The first is incautious, audacious and foolhardy. The second is accepting of convention, timid, and often moralising.
Our quintessential problem is the way that the idea of “woman” as as such has been encoded, culturally and psychologically, by patriarchal systems. A lot of our rhetorical fire is absolutely wasted, just because of the reflex that patriarchy reproduces in people, that “woman = irrationality”.
Feminists can take a lot of time pointing out that woman are being treated badly, that our treatment is extremely irrational, but ultimately what registers in people’s minds is that the object, woman as such, is an irrational object, and hence that it is not logically possible to treat an irrational object in a rational way.
The reason patriarchies encode “woman = irrationality” is because of the relationship that males have with their sex drives. They must often experience the need to repress their sexuality in order to embrace “reason”. From this, comes the feeling that sexuality is opposed to reason. Equating “woman” as such with one’s sexual feelings is a small leap for most men, leading them to the patriarchal conclusion that “woman” and “reason” are diametrically opposed.
Protest as we will, our criticisms fall on deaf ears. Those men who are imbued with patriarchal values and perspectives already implicitly understand that women are not treated in a rational or reasonable fashion. But they also take if for granted that it is simply not possible to do so, given the formula: woman = irrationality/my sex drive.
Of course, the principle works in the opposite direction, too: men who treat their sex drive as an irrational part of themselves will have difficulty finding willing sex partners or enjoying sex.
The Icarian complex involves a determination to reach the heights through moral transcendence. It is not a complex if it is balanced with an ability to stay “down to earth”, or to return there. If not, however, it is very much a part of patriarchal religious measures. Let me try to explain how.
One edifice of patriarchal ideology is the always indirectly stated notion on the part of a patriarchal male that “women are responsible for my thought processes.” As a structure of thought, patriarchal thinking always that it remains itself forever impure because of this tacit premise: the patriarch asserts: “My masculinity would be more pure, more virile, if women were not interfering in my thought processes. Only then would the world really see what I have to offer to it — my magnificence!”
Patriarchal cultures therefore seek to purge, to cleanse, patriarchal society of this putative, insidious “woman influence”.
Various methods are tried, some with greater success at eliminating women than other methods have been. Shaming women, forcing them to cover up, treating them as if they were intellectual infants, killing them because one feels “shame” as a result of their attracting dishonour, forcing them into the house and into silence — all such methods are supposed to release the transcendental male spirit, so that we can see it once and for all.
Despite his often ferocious methods of trying to disentangle himself from his necessary social and historical contingency, which the patriarchal male associates with “femininity”, he is unable to purify himself using his chosen methods. He wants to fly up above the contamination of the fleshly body, but he is heading for a shock. This is because his impurity does not come from women, but from the his own mind, which projects non-transcendent aspects of experience outward and downward and appears to see them as if they came from there. The insidious influences of life that lead to his sense of “impurity”come from himself alone.