markets and technology and Shamanism

Tue, 07 Jan 1997 15:39:24 +0000
MA&NG Jones (

Daniel Foss wrote (Mon, 06 Jan 97 13:59:10 CST):

>Meanwhile, for example, the agricultural tools
described in the
>General Handbook of Agriculture and
Sericulture, published
>under Mongol rule, were still in use six hundred
years later.

Perhaps because to an Asian poetry and prayer
made more sense than science and technology, in
conditions of epidemic disease and Mongol

I have been reviewing your debates last year on
the WSN list with great interest. I am sure you
are right to reprioritise the epidemiological
factors helping catalyse or arrest change and
eventually making Europe the core. Have you
given much thought to the psychological as well
as economic feedback loops of plague? I have
just finished writing a book about 13th century
Mongolia and become increasingly interested in
the Sino-Mongolian-Tibetan approach to death
(the way one does!). Plague produces
melancholy. Cf. the fugal mood of John Donne's
poetry in plague-ridden 16th C England. But in a
Europe whose collective mind is integrated to the
cosmos along an axis of personal salvation and
resurrection, fatalism and passivity in the face of
one's friends and one's own imminent demise is
not so likely a response to epidemics as in a
society which has made a certain breakthrough in
understanding the nature of gnosis and the
possibility that correct preparation may produce
nirvana or at least a higher state of being after
(and through the psychophysical process of)
death (or one may be thrown lower, if mistakes
in the process of dying are made). Plague
accelerated inherent opposite tendencies in each
world-view. If I lived in Europe I might see my
own survival while half the people around me
died as a business opportunity or the chance of
emigrating to the city, abandoning my servile
status and getting a decent wage, or inventing the
water-mill etc. But if I was a Mongol or Tibetan
I might prefer to spin my prayer wheel harder
and concentrate more on that magic moment
when I pass through the gate of death. I would
want to avoid metempsychosis and achieve
nirvana. And I would believe it possible. Such a
consolation would however be inconceivable to a
backward European.

For the Tibetan-Mongols had managed through
the fusion of Bon and Buddhism to preserve a
long-established and well-developed shamanic
tradition, which had some success in penetrating
the process of dying -- as our contemporary
physics, biology and pharmacology of near-death
experiences proves they had, but which can never
be done within Christianity since the very idea of
personal salvation is inimical to gnosis as the goal
of life/death, and anyway mystics were burnt.
Shamanic flight obviously penetrated some
bourne still spiritually inaccessible to most of us,
but we have at least the confirmation offered by
science that the shamans who came back knew
what they were talking about: the experiences the
literature monotonously describes conform
exactly to current neurophysiological and
anecdotal descriptions of near-death experiences.
This depth of knowldege must have given
ordinary people faced with choices about using
the time they had left, additional confidence in
the general Daoist-Hindu-Buddhist credo of
surrender of self, acknowledgement that this life
is one of suffering and striving and the strongly-
held belief that death itself is *under certain
conditions* (mainly determined by arduous
Tantric preparation for the actual ordeal of
dying) the gateway to a preferred condition. It is
seductive -- seeing one's foreshortened and
mortal life as just a period for preparation. Why
bother racking your brains to invent labour-
saving devices? There is nothing of interest to us
on earth.

Nevertheless no-one denies that Consciousness-
for-Itself, Nirvana, Thought-without-a-subject,
the dark-light of the third stage after death, et
cetera, is actually just a fancy way of talking
about personal oblivion.

Perhaps the whole European psychotic,
dissociated-sensibility thing is just a detour we
have all had to make to get us to the point where
the evident transcending and extirpation of non-
teleological DNA-based evolution, for all life
forms as well as ours, and the imminent
(historically-speaking, I do not think in terms of
the mayfly quality of personal mortality) ending
of the anthropomorphic nature of our existence -
- the imminent somersault in the priority-
relationship between the heretofore transient
ontogene and the phylogenetic continuum of
which it is the vehicle -- the obvious fact that we
mayflies are about to take over evolution (in
historical, not even geological time -- an
unbelievably rapid process millions of times
faster even than the blip which extinguished
dinosaurs and inaugurated the Cenozoic era) and
endow evolution with teleological intent (or
perhaps we may only succed in extinguishing life)
-- all implies the reinvention of ourselves as God,
as the Consciousness with no external subject
which the Asian way prefigured.

We Euro-molochs have been beavering away at
our instrumental tasks without noticing the really
important things around us and now Presto! we
leapfrogged the whole game and deconstructed
gnosis (British Telecom actually have a research
group called Soul Capture, which figures out
downloading our memories onto chips).

I much enjoy your stuff. I got engrossed in
Wallerstein/Frank/Braudel twenty years ago (via
Marcuse et al, then via a Capital-reading-group)
-- then gave up on its eclecticism. I started
reading Cassirer, Sohn-Rethel and other post-
Kantians and rethinking Marxism. Then I went to
Russia and buggered about while the place
collapsed. Now I've come back and begun
picking up the threads, I see that things have
moved on. Not as much as they might perhaps,
but a long way. Good. But the World Systems
model has to make one more giant leap, to
achieve the status of world religion.

Mark Jones