File puptcrit/puptcrit.0811, message 397


Date: Sat, 22 Nov 2008 23:13:19 -0800
To: puptcrit-AT-puptcrit.org
Subject: Re: [Puptcrit] The down-side of storytellers


>According to the theories of the great anthropologist Pierre
>Clastres, the origin of the State can be traced, in large part, to
>the spinning of swift boat stories on the part of the
>shaman-become-leader-of-people.  The shaman would seduce part of the
>tribe with stories of a "land without evil", a "land of peace" and
>"of plenty", which only he knew how to reach and which could only be
>attained by following him.  In this land, everybody would have to
>work together, abandoning their tribal ways, under the despotic
>direction of a new "knowing" caste, a caste of priests, who had the
>monopoly of knowledge and the sole ability to organize  large-scale
>agriculture and trade.  It is by the agency (or with the help) of
>these idea, argues Clastres, that we transitioned from "savage
>culture" to the early State society.  And it seems that to this day,
>like good children the the State,  we still spin, and fall prey to,
>the same tales - the tiger will lie down with the lamb, all
>differences will be erased, "altruism" will prevail over
>"selfishness", milk and honey will flow in the rivers, evereything
>will be plentiful and free - if only we subject ourselves to one
>"leader" or another, one "re-education" or another,  one "for our own
>good" or another.  And if the promised land somehow doesn't come on
>this earth, then that must be because the earth is essentially evil,
>but we can certainly look forward to achieving the promised land in
>the (eternal, of course) life-after-life - if only we....

I haven't read Clastres directly, only commentary on his work.  But 
for me, the speculation outlined above isn't demonstrable.  It's a 
vast leap from the tribal shaman to a priest caste, and the idea that 
an organized priest caste preceded and initiated the development of 
the "state" rather than growing as one factor in an agriculture-based 
concentration of resources -- where's the evidence for that?  Nor can 
I think of sources -- perhaps there are some -- for the idea that the 
idea of heaven or other utopias originated on the tribal shamanic 
level, that shamans became "leaders," or that shamans (be they 
prehistoric or present-day) simply make up stories  -- a la Karl Rove 
or the Swift Boat Veterans -- to hoodwink their people.  Shamans are 
integral with their tribe and would generally find themselves tossed 
over a cliff if they pulled this kind of stuff -- primitive people 
are not necessarily stupid people.  If this is part of Clastres' 
thinking, it's basically to discredit Marxist ideas of economic 
causation in the rise of the state, but I don't buy it, unless 
there's a ton of evidence I know nothing about.

Only point in commenting on this is what it says about stories. 
Sometimes, yes, stories seem to pop out of the air, e.g. Joseph Smith 
transcribing angel-given golden tablets, or Mohammed transcribing the 
Koran from psychic dictation.  But in fact stories are only 
crystalizations of narratives that are in the air.  It's a political 
commonplace that you can't make a campaign attack stick unless it 
fits a "narrative" that seems true, so you avoid hitting McCain with 
the Keating scandal because he's established a persona for integrity 
that's too hard to crack.  Why could Kerry be swift-boated?- maybe 
because somewhere there's an instinctive distrust, an old hangover of 
resentment at his anti-war activities, maybe just because he looks 
too Hollywood, I don't know, but in fact it made a good story that a 
lot of people really wanted to believe.

Some stories fly, others die stillborn.  Why is A Christmas Carol an 
incredible moneymaker, while his second Christmas book, The Chimes, 
is nearly unknown today, though in his time it was equally popular? 
We did a stage adaptation of it, and it's been produced three times 
with moderate success, but it's definitely not going to make us rich: 
it's grimmer, even seeing imminent revolution, and it's not about a 
rich man who undergoes a transformation but a man who's the poorest 
of the poor but carries all the social attitudes of the rich.  That's 
not the story we want to hear right now.

So I don't think a slick priest got anywhere by making up a 
pie-in-the-sky heaven with a good story to sell it, without it being 
a story that was already in people's minds, waiting to be told.  The 
storyteller has great power, but only if telling what people already 
believe - just doing it with surprise, originality, sublime poetry or 
dancing girls.  In political theatre, that's called "preaching to the 
choir," but in fact all storytellers preach to the choir.  It's only 
the choir that will listen.

Peace & joy-
Conrad B.




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