WHY NEO-SHAMANISM? WHY NOW? BECAUSE IT'S "REAL"
ITOH Toshiharu: In this, the last in the series of talk sessions related to the Portable Sacred Grounds--Telepresence World exhibition, I'd like to focus on the topic of "Neo-Shamanism."
Shamanism is, of course, thought to be a certain cultural complex/accumulation of associations which revolve around the personage of the spiritualist, or medium--something which posits a source of mystery and power which lurks deep in the human psyche. He is known by many names: "shaman," "medicine man," "sorcerer," "magician," and so on. ELIADE's definition positions the shaman as similar to the physician. He is the healer of the afflicted. Like all sorcerers, he is a worker of miracles. And yet, the shaman alone is considered a worthy guide for the soul.
One might imagine that in modern times, with the urgent rationalization of our lifestyles and advances in western science, the practice of shamanism would be endangered. But in fact, shamanism seems merely to be mutating, and migrating to new ground. Especially in the worlds of music and the arts, we're seeing the reach of the shamanism even in the most unlikely places.
NAKAZAWA Shin'ichi wrote in his essay "Telepresence--Telephones, Dreams and Other Spiritualistic Media" [Göthe's Ears, Kawade Shobo Shinsha] that "the telephone is an extraordinarily mysterious invention, a technical realization of telepresence--telepresence being something which alters human perceptions of time and space--which in the process opens passages to worlds that differ from reality." Before the invention of the telephone, people got their telepresence from the shaman. He would go into a trance, encounter the spirit world, and perform the job of carrier--bringing voices of people in faraway places and other phenomena back to those present. Having posited the shaman as a pioneer of telepresence phenomena before, I would first like to ask ShinŐichi to speak about the potential for this "new shamanism," and his views on the relationship between shamanism and telepresence.
NAKAZAWA Shin'ichi: The title of this exhibition is "Portable Sacred Grounds." This is a provocative distinction. Sacred grounds are typically not moveable, though they are an anomaly--being in this world, while not necessarily of it. Thus we have the pilgrimage to the sacred ground, the place where, like in Alice's "Wonderland," things are not quite as they seem. Most sacred grounds are in rough terrain, where geological strata are protruding out from the earth, creating a peculiar atmosphere, as another world suddenly shows its face. The place has magnetism, and as people enter it and interact with it, their perception of distance, and understanding of the world undergoes a certain transformation.
Telepresence is also a phenomenon where things are not quite as they seem. That which should not be here, is. Also, when the telephone was first invented, the interface was shaped not unlike a mouth, through which distant voices would come whispering across the ether, and completing the illusion of the "other." The sense of distance between one person and another, this heretofore immutable separation, was suddenly minimized. It was at once technical and symbolic victory, a new era with a new perceptual realm and a new realm of mystical experience.
In the countryside where I was raised we had a storehouse in which we kept a large taiko drum for ceremonial occasions. I used to love to beat on this drum. After I'd sounded that first wondrous boom, something within my body started to resonate. Then I'd hit it again. And as I'd get going, I only needed to continue playing it for the world around me to seem like it was fading away. I was aware that once you listen to the boom boom booming of the drum, or the clang clang clanging of the European church bells, the human psyche turns inwards. This is why I think that I can understand why people slip into a trance when they see the shaman pounding on the drums, and why such drums are considered a spiritual medium. It's because setting a rhythm to a space, and beating it and making the place jump makes the senses switch over to the psychic interior. And when you do this, strangely enough, the sense of distance vanishes.
A sense of distance isn't something which you enumerate, neither is it a specific physical expanse. It is something which appears inside, from which the intensity is then accumulated. In short, it is an intensive (rather than extensive) expanse, neither distance itself, nor a specific quality or quantity. In the system which is a human being, the visual nerves apprehend the external world, and reconstruct it within the cerebrum, and a sense of distance is born, from which we then extrapolate the means of quantifying volume. And yet in the world of the human interior, the original remains an "intensive expanse." There is no distance or volume, simply a feeling of intensity. It is something extremely abstract, like a flow within human beings, which has neither the properties of time nor space, just an expanse of something which contains accumulated energy, seeking release.
This tendency was typified in the shaman's art, and those capable of mastering it were able to not only travel more lucidly within their own interior, but at the same time bring the relationship between human beings and geological formations--two seemingly unrelated phenomena--into play. Apparently the shaman becomes able to experience a condition where these two things become one in his interior, feel them there trespassing each other.
Such techniques have been in development since Paleolithic times, but at first, they were pretty rough. The shaman used to have to go to places where there were carbon dioxide vapors leaking into the atmosphere, and breathe them until he got dizzy to go into his trances. (laughs) From there things continued to be refined, and they became able to extract essences of plants and minerals capable of inducing special states of awareness, or learning about the transcendent powers of drum rhythms. People were talking to rocks, becoming one with the flora, things from faraway places were known to appear as though the distance had been transcended. Thus, by the Neolithic period, shamanistic culture was in full flower.
These knowledges were suppressed by most organized religions (the worst of which was Christianity). And the reason for this is that shamanism is not a religion, it is the step before religion. However, pre-religious knowledge managed to sneak through to the present in some rare cultures. The powers of telepresence among the Australian aborigines, for example, is truly splendid. It still exists to some extent among Native American peoples . . . even in Japan we can still find vestiges of it.
So why now? Why neo-shamanism? Not because of some nostalgic impulse nor new-found interest in the occult, but because it is a very real problem. Mathematics, for example, is no longer just about calculating numbers and measuring quantities. It is becoming able to act upon, and develop operations for a new set of issues, and I would posit that these are issues which concern "intensive expanse." It is no longer the classical world of weights and measures, but the slow gradual arrival of methodologies for touching upon the intensive expanse within human beings. We are beginning to see a qualitative shift in the way history perceives magic and sorcery, these massive vestiges of early human culture, that religions originally proclaimed as "barbaric" and tried to bury away.
And this, of course, means that organized religion, too, needs to metamorphose into something new . . . into a "super-religion," as it were, something which opens human awareness to things beyond what contemporary religion covers. Science and technology need no longer be the object of religion's enmity. Rather the opposite, in that new technologies are opening up these new super-religious spaces. The alpha of pre-religion is meeting the omega of post-religion. This is not a rhetorical convenience, but rather what I believe is happening, somehow strangely being focused towards the millennium.
ITOH: In your essay "Telepresence," you point out that with the picturephone we lose the mysterious space of the telephone--that the sense of distance is emphasized in the usurpation of the "intensive expanse" which you just spoke of.
NAKAZAWA: This is in some ways related to the secret of music as well. I mean, is there any medium/art form as mysterious and powerful as music? If I was asked to choose between the graphic arts and the musical, I'd keep the latter. And the reason is that it is more primitive. At once both the most primitive and the most futuristic. It is the single form of expression most clearly directed towards human intensive expanse.