Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity

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Thomas Karl Alberts
Vitality of Indigenous Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    Ashgate Publishing
    , May
     2015.
     300 pages.
     $119.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472439840.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Often represented as the “oldest religion,” shamanism is what might be regarded as a successful scholarly creation tapping into a romantic desire for a lost “sacred world,” epitomized in the work of Mircea Eliade. Therefore, I welcome a much-needed critical and discursive study that addresses indigenous, ecological, and entrepreneurial activities within the broad category of “shamanism.” What this book is not is an ethnographic study of shamanism or a close study of specific group of shamans. Instead, it focusses on “transnational shamanism discourse” (4), which is both particularized and universalized in modernity. In this impressive study, Alberts distinguishes between shaman, a term derived from Tungus in Northern Siberia, and shamanism, a discourse begun in the eighteenth century and continuing to the present day. Brief case studies are included in each of the main chapters to provide examples of the discourse.

Albert’s approach employs a Foucauldian genealogy of shamanism and historicizes representations of shamans (39). The introduction spends time on the weighty topic of “modernity”—explained using Foucault’s analysis of Kant in the former’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”—highlighting the Enlightenment as an attitude rather than as an event. Alberts links this to the proliferation of shamanism discourses and a longing for what shamans represent (15), alongside the secular-religious distinction that influenced definitions of shamanism (19).

The introduction also summarizes debates over the origin of the term shaman as either North Asian or Indic, and the significance of Eliade’s work promoting shamanism as “techniques of ecstasy.” It is this that allowed for cross-cultural comparisons of shamanic practices and worldviews, universalizing shamanism by identifying it as an object of study or type (31). This in turn allowed for the utilization of “the shaman” in popular works.

The second chapter is an in-depth study of shamanism discourse since the eighteenth century. This is mainly an historical overview of how the term shaman went from Russia to the United States. It traces the discourse about people called shamans, from descriptions of them as charlatans or madmen to nationalist and romantic orientalist ideas, such as in the work of Vasily Radlov, whose work Mircea Eliade drew upon. Alberts labels the appearance of the term in the United States as “emigration,” implying that Russian scholars introduced the term shaman to United States readers, but it seems to be more an adoption of  it to describe Native American figures by scholars already based in the United States.

The next chapter is a clear presentation of indigenism as a political discourse, as it operates in international arenas such as the United Nations, drawn from a nation-state’s right to self-determination. The weakness of this chapter is the narrowness of scholarship. For instance, it could have included the work of religious studies scholars on Native American discourse (e.g., Greg Johnson) and indigenous discourses elsewhere in the world (e.g., Greg Alles).

The chapter on environmentalism looks at antecedents of shamanism discourse in the romantic and transcendentalist movements. Sometimes there is a tendency to provide a “grand narrative” of the discourse on shamanism. Fourteen pages are devoted to an exploration of Michael Harner’s pared-down universalized Core Shamanism, significant to the development of neo-shamanisms in the United States and elsewhere in the last few decades. Although the section highlights charlatanism, I would be interested to know more about how shamanism became popularized as “mastery of spirits” or “techniques of ecstasy” (from Eliade), and then adopted into psychotherapy.

The fifth chapter on neoliberalism considers shamanism in relation to Foucault’s analysis of homo economicus and governmentality (174). This is illustrated by the professionalization of shamans and the proliferation of ideas that led to figures such as sangomas in southern Africa being identified as shamans.

The final chapter, called “Imbrications,” reviews the shaman as a “figuration” that combines, according to Alberts, “an individual figure with the discourse that proceeds from, is imposed upon, and then circles back to that figure, along the way acquiring new valuations that both expand and intensify this figure in relation to practical domains” (229). Alberts also points out that the practical limit is that we as scholars are not separate from the contingencies that give us the possibility to discuss shamanism.

Unfortunately, the writing is inaccessible for those unfamiliar with academic discourses on the subject, so I would not recommend this book to a non-scholarly audience. For example, Alberts (45) wants “to demonstrate the operations of modernity's double-hinge in the articulation of epistemological circumscription and ontological contingency.” Alberts relies throughout on a double-hinge metaphor (derived from Taussig’s “driving wedge” and “slippery fish” metaphors) that does not add anything, but rather obscures the analysis of shamanism as an articulation or discourse. Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity is otherwise an excellent genealogy of shamanism discourse as it operates in indigenism, environmentalism, and neoliberalism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Suzanne Owen is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. 

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Alberts was born and educated in Cape Town, South Africa, where he held various roles at the Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa, University of Cape Town and the Human Sciences Research Council. He completed his PhD at SOAS, University of London.

Keywords: 

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