ncmuch (p01649@PSILINK.COM)
Mon, 7 Nov 1994 23:43:03 -0500

Scott Holmes wrote:
> Today's (11/2/94) LA Times has an article on Reinhold Messner. For
>those of you who've never heard of him, he is often considered the world's
>"greatest" mountaineer. As an introduction he was the first to climb
>Mt. Everest solo and without supplemental oxygen, and was the first
>to climb all of the world's peaks over 8,000 meters usually alone and
>always without oxygen. He never uses bolts, either.
> Anyway, he describes himself as a schizophrenic and considers the condition
>as helpful in what he does. I'm curious about what anthropologists, ]
>particularly those of you experienced with shamanistic cultures think about
>his ideas.
> Here is a section of the article:

[quotation deleted]

First, I would agree with Todd Nims' observation that the phenomena
described are not in themselves sufficient to warrant a "diagnosis" of
schizophrenia, though I also realize that some Western therapists as
well as laypersons make this kind of mistake.

More to the point, I have been doing some work on instances in which
other cultures consider as special talents, mental phenomena that ours
generally considers aberration. I have also considered the kinds of
criteria that might distinguish an "aberration" from a special
"talent". I have included two excerpts from forthcoming publications,
which might interest you in that regard. I would also refer you to a
recent book by Indian psychoanalyst and cultural psychologist, Sudhir
Kakar: The Analyst and the Mystic. U. of Chicago Press. 1991. Here
are the excerpts from my own work. Comments welcome, of course.

Excerpt from forthcoming paper: Cultural Psychology and Indigenous
Knowledge: Symbol, Context and the (Re)Construction of Meaning in
N. C. Much
Georgetown University

Forthcoming R. Harre, J. Smith and L. Van Langenhove (Eds.)
Rethinking Psychology, Volume I: The Discursive Mind.
London: Sage Press

. . . . .

The author (with M. Mahapatra, 1992) recently spoke with a
Brahman temple priest and yogin in India who told us that he had
stood on one leg (in a yogic balancing posture) in a Goddess temple
for thirty-seven days in order to achieve a vision of the Goddess,
in order to verify certain instructions he was given in an earlier
in a spontaneous dream. He achieved his vision -- and his
verification. He acted upon it. His action succeeded in obtaining
his material objective. There were eye witnesses to his standing
in the temple and his later walk to a distant town, and his
obtaining a sacred object by entering a well at the ashram of yogin
there, and more. Several other people also recounted to us a
similar story about this man. This story is almost unintelligible
to many Americans, since most do not possess the contexts of
cultural meaning to make sense of it. Although the action sequence
described may seem almost illogical in terms of Western goals-means
scripts, they make perfect sense in causal contexts that are widely
shared and accepted locally. Local skeptics are less inclined to
doubt that a particular feat of this type is possible, than to
doubt a particular individual's claim to it. The local situation
is perhaps similar to the case of extraordinarily talented athletes
and artists (e.g. gymnasts, ballet dancers), whose feats seem in a
sense `miraculous' to persons with only ordinary skills. Few
people are capable, but others `know', see and believe that some
It is not difficult to come up with facile explanations for
what are to ourselves, exotic skills and experiences (e.g. they are
`nothing but' -- pathology, social drama, communicative idioms, or
the hyper-development of "primitive" -- i.e. childlike -- ways of
knowing and experiencing, etc.); but these solutions have not done
enough to illuminate the range of human experience or the human
potential for functioning and for acquiring culturally taught
skills of kinds that North Americans have not much cultivated or
recognized -- including skills of creative imagery (e.g. eidetic
images), mysticism, and trance, which may represent something like
therapeutic and/or aesthetic achievements (Kakar 1982, 1992;
Obeyesekere 1981; Sheikh & Sheikh 1989).
Accomplishments of these kinds are indeed cultural
performances (Singer, 1972), linked to local symbolic idioms. But
these performances and idioms also point to underlying experiences
at the personal level, and to the personal capabilities for
generating the experience as well as expressing these in
disciplined, culturally acknowledged and appreciated forms. They
represent skills linked not only to personal propensities but to
local expert systems, skills achieved through a course of training
and practice involving the social transmission of knowledge.
The possibilities of such productions are linked, in general
to cultural affordances for certain kinds of learning and
experience. Social scientists (e.g. Shweder & Sullivan 1993,
Harr , 1992) seem increasingly to appreciate Gibson's (1979)
concept of affordances as a metaphor for the potentials inherent in
a culture and its particular symbol systems, social structures,
institutions and practices. Roughly speaking, affordance refers to
the range of phenomena capable of being generated by some
combination of an object world and an instrument of measurement or
perception (such as the human eye or a specific scientific
instrument of measurement). As a simple illustration of different
affordances, photographic films and the retina of the human eye
`afford' different though related images of a common object world.
The human retina, for example, does not distinguish infrared
radiation. But infrared film does distinguish and record it. The
retina of the eye and the photographic emulsion of infrared film
admit different versions of reality. The film will record a
`reality' not perceptible to the eye; a representation can be made
visible to the eye when a photographic print of the infrared
negative is made.
Metaphorically speaking, a cultural symbol system, a local
ideology, an ontology or theory of what is `real', acts as an
instrument (the common metaphor is that of a lens) through which
people perceive, understand and construct events of the natural and
social world. Some cultural lenses notice or pick up things that
others do not. It is typical of the materialist-objectivist
metaphysics underlying most mainstream psychologies of North
America, that they afford only two or three possibilities to the
yogin's or ecstatic's accounts, viz. `false', `erroneous' or
`pathological'. South Asian culture affords other interpretations,
e.g. `virtuosity'. But the current North American account does not
even exhaust the possibilities available within its own
understandings of reality, if it would only make use of them. To
attempt a reasonable (if incomplete) translation, it might be said
that ecstatics and other South Asian yogins train in biofeedback
practices based upon indigenous models of the body and nervous
system, and visual maps that aid them in the cultivation of focused
attention and eidetic imagery; they have elaborated these skills
far beyond what is known to the West, and they also consider them
a source of valid information about a portion of objective reality,
even though -- like infrared radiation -- it is not something
perceptible visible to the naked eye (or untrained mind).
The cultural potentials for developing skills and executing
performances of this kind are linked to indigenous theories of
psychology, physiology, and, more broadly, theories of the
constitution of the person as a psycho-physical complex (Kakar
1982, Keyes & Daniel 1983, Marriott 1990, Much & Harr , 1993;
Sheikh & Sheikh 1989, Wierzbicka 1986, 1990), and local ontology
and metaphysics -- that is, theories about what can be true. Yogic
and ecstatic skills, and accompanying ritual skills, like other
complex skills, involve intensive social learning. A person needs
the right talents and the right connections. Someone else has to
teach a person how to do it. The society of ascetic ecstatic in
Sri Lankan, and more generally of yogins throughout South Asia, is
just that -- a community (both widespread and local) of persons
with shared interests, social connections with one another, and a
lot of insider's knowledge about certain topics. The requisite
techniques and lifestyles are learned through formal or informal
apprenticeships, sometimes within the family.
Kakar (1992), a Western trained Indian psychoanalyst, argues
that Hindu mystical states (and those of the notable but
increasingly rare Western professional mystics) have been typically
interpreted as pathological by clinicians, but are reasonably re-
interpreted as a creative form of imagination, related to artistic
and literary production, where the mystical focus of attention on
an object of creative imagination, (and the concomitant speech and
behavior) is regarded as a valid aesthetic expression (as writing
a novel or making a painting is in the West), but one which
recognized, taught and cultivated more freely in some cultures than
in others.

. . . .

Excerpt from From: Becoming the Mother: The Semiotic Arts of
Transformation of a Divine Possession Oracle.

Nancy C. Much, Georgetown University and Manamohan Mahapatra,
Government College, Phulbani, Orissa, India

Forthcoming in P. Stearns and R. Harre, (Eds.)
Rethinking Psychology, Volume III: Practicing Psychology
London: Sage Press

In this chapter we have discussed aspects of personal and
social psychology that belong traditionally to the psychological
conception of `personality'. Personality theory in its various
forms, includes concepts such as temperament and disposition,
characteristic patterns of feeling, thinking and response and their
articulation with the social world, and transient `states' of
consciousness or awareness, broadly speaking, moments of knowing
and perceiving. Such moments are `states' of the organism in the
sense that they are set apart as having a distinct bounded focus
and duration; but are dynamic rather than static conditions of the
organism. For example, feelings and emotions such as anger,
attraction and fear can be considered psychic states or states of
awareness. They have subjective as well as biological and
behavioral components. Robert Levy's essay "Emotion, Knowing and
Culture" (1984) is especially recommended for a discussion of the
relationships between feeling, knowing, awareness in emotions.
It is not within the intended scope of this chapter to review
and analyze Western personality concepts and theories. Let it
suffice to say that personality constructs at present are
controversial in Western academic psychology, clinical and
anthropological psychiatry and appear to be undergoing radical re-
conceptualizations within several distinct traditions, including
trait and individual difference theory, theories of emotions, post-
Freudian psychodynamic theory, cultural psychology, and biological
psychiatry (Kakar, 1981, 1990, 1992; Klein, 1981, 1988, Klein &
Rabkin 1981; Kramer, 1993; Lutz, 1988, Lutz & White, 1986; Mischel,
1968; Obeyesekere, 1981, 1991; Roland, 1988; Rosaldo, 1980, 1984;
Shweder, 1977, 1979; Shweder & D'Andrade 1980, Shweder & Bourne, E.
J. 1982, Shweder & Miller, 1985; Wolf, 1988).
We therefore limit ourselves here to using the term
`personality' in the most general and commonsense way: to indicate
simply that in our own local culture there is a roughly shared
terminology for describing our sense that we ourselves and others
have patterned ways of knowing, feeling, perceiving and responding,
and that these patterns seem to vary across persons, situations and
perhaps cultures. From these patterns of communicated subjectivity
we also sometimes infer psychic `structure' and psychic
`organization'. Perhaps, as suggested by the experientialist
psychology of M. Johnson (1987), these are metaphorical constructs
derived from our more the concrete experiences of the structure and
organization of our bodies. We might add here that Indian
ethnopsychology also has of representations of subjectivity that
are continuous with its representations of the organization of the
body; these employ central metaphors somewhat different from our
own, metaphors focusing upon dynamic fluidity (e.g. humors),
"osmotic" transactions between person and environment (see Kakar,
1982, Marriott, 1990).
How much of the conceptual groundwork for our observations of
personal patterning and continuity is constructed by the cultural
categories of the ethno-psychology we grow up with, is here left as
an open question (but see Shweder, 1979; Shweder & Bourne, 1982;
Shweder & Miller, 1985).
There is a long-standing academic controversy concerning
whether, to what extent and in what ways personality organization
is variable across cultures and what kinds of socio-cultural
contingencies personality development responds to. Some classic
and still current conceptualizations of these questions can be
found in the works of psychological anthropologists such as R.
LeVine (LeVine, 1973; 1990; LeVine & Miller, 1988), R. Levy (Levy,
1973, 1984), Sapir (1949, 1986) Spiro (Kilborne & Langess, 1987;
Spiro, 1984) B. Whiting and J. W. M. Whiting (Whiting & Child,
1953; Whiting & Whiting, 1975; Whiting, 1977; Whiting, 1980;
Whiting & Edwards, 1988; Whiting, 1990, 1992). These views in
general recognize both universality in developmental potential, and
developmental responsiveness to culture-specific contingencies.

. . . .

Here we focus briefly upon the idea that personality forms or
components could be regarded as skills for purposes of comparative
analysis (including differences across persons and across
cultures). This conceptions emphasizes the idea that features of
personality function to articulate the organism with the object
environment. The object environment is social -- animate and
inanimate, but always communicative or symbolic and meaning-laden.
Different cultures and various social systems within them,
emphasize and privilege rather different personality skills.
Among the striking findings of comparative studies in cultural
psychology are observations of patterns of response and behavior
that are considered aberrant or anathema in Western ethno-
psychology but seem to be normative, adaptive, or especially
skillful in other cultures. Varieties of shamanism, mysticism and
trance are especially well-known examples (e.g. Kakar, 1982,
Mumford, 1989; Obeyesekere, 1981, Tambiah, 1985 and many others,
have studied these personal skills in cultural context). Other
examples include Rosaldo's (1980, 1984) work on the dynamics of
envy/rage and cooperation/achievement among the Ilongot, Kakar's
(1981) work on the developmental patterning of intimacy,
individuation, and gender identity in North India, and Herdt's
(1982, 1987) work on masculine gender socialization and universal
stage-specific mandatory homosexuality among Sambia males.
All of these studies and others like these point to the fact
that certain personality patterns that have by and large been
considered aberrant in modern Western psychology, are allowed for,
expected, or especially admired in other local ethno-psychologies,
or in other historical periods of Western culture.

. . . .

In a similar vein, as Kakar (1981, 1984, 1990), Obeyesekere
(1980, 1992) and others have criticized Western ethnocentric
personality theories for a bias that repeatedly concluded that non-
Western peoples are less robust by Western standards of ego
development, are poorer at reality testing and generally closer to
the regressive or pathological end of the developmental spectrum.
These cultural psychologists and others have also shown that
coherent and enriching revisions of the basic theories can result
from revising those theories to accommodate the phenomena of other
cultures without pathologizing them.
We suggest that from the point of view of a social and
cultural psychology, personality patterns -- dispositions, patterns
of knowing and feeling, awareness and response -- are aptly
considered skills. A neonate enters the social world with a
certain range of potentials, some universal or widely shared,
others particular to a subset of individuals. The social
cultivation of some of these potentials may be universally
mandatory for survival (Geertz, 1973). But many others may be
cultivated or not, depending in part upon existing cultural
contexts for learning, knowing and performing. In one culture the
conceptual and social resources for cultivating certain varieties
of human potential (e.g. eidetic imagery, trance states, dreaming)
may be scarce. Related skills may not be considered important and
the insistence upon personal expression of such skills may be
considered aberrant, in part because there are few or no
legitimated cultural institutions for cultivating them in well
organized and socially productive forms. Comparative observations
of other cultures illustrate that it is a real possibility that
certain of our culturally defined aberrations could be talents in
disguise, found in forms that are organized, disciplined and
controlled, well-integrated with social institutions and
interpersonal relationships, and articulated with cultural goals.
It is already amply evident that cultures value and train for
different personality skills, emotive/expressive and social-
relational skills (Heelas and Locke 1981; Lutz, 1988; Lutz & White,
1986; Roland 1988; Rosaldo, 1980, 1984; Schwartz, White, & Lutz,
1992; Tambiah, 1985). Seemingly, some kinds of potential abilities
and skills are irrelevant to the values of some cultures (e.g.
contemporary Western culture), do not articulate well with cultural
values and goals, are not encouraged, and so are associated with
aberrance and appear primarily in disorganized and dis-integrating
forms -- because they are not generally institutionalized or
cultivated as productive, creative behaviors. A salient case of
contrast is presented by the various contemplative, mystical and
ecstatic skills valued, taught and cultivated in South Asia but
ignored and generally pathologized by mainstream contemporary
Western society. The pathologized and marginalized potentials of
one culture may be recognized talents, and so developed into
socially and personally adaptive skills, in cultural contexts where
these skills are accepted, where they can be cultivated in well-
organized institutional forms of these are known and cultivated,
and where they are integrated with local social structures and
cultural goals. If our own theoretical psychology is to be a
genuine transcultural psychology, it will benefit substantially
from the contributions of other indigenous psychologies that offer
possibilities for knowing and experiencing that have not yet been
accounted for by our mainstream psychology -- as yet still an
indigenous theory studying itself.

Nancy C. Much, Ph.D.
Bethesda, MD