Discuss culture and traditions
#25290
This post was prompted by a distinction made in another thread between 'exoticism' on the one hand and 'Facts' on the other. When you spend an extended period of time in West Africa you start to suspect that the two are interwoven in a way that is hard to disentangle.

The excellent book 'Meeting the Invisible Man' explores just this. In a similar vein I would like to present something from personal experience as a thought experiment:

I spent 3 years in West Africa prior to which I came from an academic background in cognitive neuroscience. In short, I was (and am) very sceptical about everything.

The more time I spent there the more I realised that a belief in magic permeated every facet of life, so it was no surprise when my teacher suggested that I visit a marabout to have my hands washed. As I have explained I came from a scientific backgroud and have no belief in magic, but I know that belief can be a powerful cognitive force and so I wondered if belief in the ceremony might actually make it work.

For those unfamiliar with this procedure it involves an austere and reverential ceremony with an old marabout. Arabic incantations are recited and the hands are washed in a special formula prepared by the marabout. You then take a bottle of this tincture away and wash your hands with a small amount of it every day. You may also be required to perform a 'sacrafice'. Far from the gory image that this evokes the reality is more mundane. 'Sacrafice' means giving money to needy people.

Every sports psychologist will tell you how important belief is in creating exceptional performance so I wondered if such ceremonies were ritualised ways of creating powerful beliefs that facilitated performance. If this were indeed the case I wondered if there might be a neuroscientific basis for such an effect.

So, without further ado here is my theory (nb I have no direct evidence either for or against it):

1) The gravity of the ceremony serves to reinforce the importance of the procedure and a belief in its efficacy.

2) By washing the hands every day you are making yourself specifically concious of them with reference to your goal (becoming a better drummer)

3) It is known that learning a physical skill from a young age increases the amount of brain representation associated with that skill. For example, someone who learns braille from a young age will have more brain area in the somatosensory strip associated with the tips of their fingers.

4) Therefore washing one's hands every day in a ceremonial manner might increase the hand's representation in the somatosensory and motor strips.

The upshot of all this was that I did have my hands washed. I let myself be carried by the belief of people around and I managed to suspend my disbelief in the hope that, whatever the mechanism, it might actually work.

So what do you think? Did I make a rational decision or have I romanticised african exoticism?
#25292
Hey Jon,

are you asking a rhetorical question, here? Clearly, you made a rational decision! The whole manner of your description is rational. The opposition of ratio vs. belief is old fashioned and wasn't true from the start. Immanuel Kant did much the same kind of decisions as you did in Africa. The problem in the age of enlightenment was only the power and intolerance of the church. That triggered some hatress of rationalists and the opposition of ratio and belief. Today, we can easily integrate phenomena like those you described into a scientific approach. You demonstrated that just fine.

I would proceed just like you did when asked by a master to go to a marabout. If I couldn't get over my own scepticism, I would do it anyway, even if it was only for my master and the people who would otherwise give up on me. There is still a little conflict in that I would support what I would see as "supperstition", but wheighing this with the duties of being a guest in a foreign culture and the goals I want to achieve, my little support wuold be negligible, I think.
#25300
I did the same, I wear a protection against evil spirits, I washed my hands with herbs, I set fire on herbs in my djembe to let the smoke get out the bad spirits, but I stepped out of the Catholic Church. So there is the exoticism....
#25304
very nice, Jon! and completely rational as Jürgen said.

There's just one thing: the way you and Michel use the term exotism in this thread is not quite correct. You mean myths agains facts/history or as Jürgen says ratio vs. belief.
Exotism is something different.
Greets, D
#25306
you can see the proof for it's existence in the 2 threads:
my spelling was wrong several times, but Jon and Michel knew at least which term I was refering to. d;-)
Still we're not talking about the same concept. I think exoticism is used much more in the domaine of art than in social science in english. In german and french it's the other way around.
The way I use it is more in the sense of the term orientalism after Edward Said.

Greets, D
#25308
Interesting topic, I will throw my 2 pence in (somewhat off topic as usual) .. One of the most interesting cases I have come across that we might lend to the argument is the case of the prosecution in the Special Court for Sierra Leone in relation to war crimes.

One of the defendants was described as an illiterate herbalist and mask dancer.. He was charged partly with mass initiation of fighters into the Civil Defence force a group largely made up of Kamajors (hunters).. He had essentially convinced these people (over 10,000) they were bullet proof.. So here we have a hybrid court refusing to acknowledge the existence of magic, but at the same tame willing to prosecute (He was also accused of various other things).

One of the other hunters stated on several occassions whilst giving evidence that if the court did not believe his powers they were welcome to shoot him.. So here the court dismissed the cultural belief but were unwilling to test it by his standards.

djembeweaver wrote:The gravity of the ceremony serves to reinforce the importance of the procedure and a belief in its efficacy.
There is very interesting work at the moment in relation to post conflict reconciliation, most especially in Rwandan Gacaca courts where country was left to deal with 400,000 + possible assailants. In many cases it is the gravity of the ceremony that creates the possibilities for reconciliation as it were the outward manifestations of grief/guilt at the proceedings that were often more beneficial than trying to claim punitive damages....

Sorry, got to run in mid rant... I'll be back..
#25309
Michel wrote:I love exotientalicism.
Do you mean exorcism? :mrgreen:
Paul wrote:One of the other hunters stated on several occassions whilst giving evidence that if the court did not believe his powers they were welcome to shoot him. So here the court dismissed the cultural belief but were unwilling to test it by his standards.
what a shame. this court is obviously morally guilty of not shooting the guy... :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:
#25310
djembeweaver wrote:my teacher suggested that I visit a marabout to have my hands washed.............I know that belief can be a powerful cognitive force and so I wondered if belief in the ceremony might actually make it work
Did it work?

Were your hands clean after?

:mrgreen:
#25311
Afoba wrote:you can see the proof for it's existence in the 2 threads:
my spelling was wrong several times, but Jon and Michel knew at least which term I was refering to. d;-)
Still we're not talking about the same concept. I think exoticism is used much more in the domaine of art than in social science in english. In german and french it's the other way around.
The way I use it is more in the sense of the term orientalism after Edward Said.
Said and Orientalism: I kind of figured that's what you were meaning by "exoticism." We use the same term over here at times, though "exotic" and "exoticism" aren't 100% the same as what Said meant by the word "orientalism."

The concepts, though - very much the same! (imo, anyway.)

A prime example - to me, at least - is the talk that sometimes surfaces regarding the secrets of the djembe.
#25314
are you asking a rhetorical question, here? Clearly, you made a rational decision!
Hi Jurgen.

Yes the question was largely rhetorical as I know I found a rational solution to my lack of belief. However, I know people who have performed the same ceremony but seem perfectly happy to accept the african mystical explanation. Would they be accused of exoticism I wonder? They seem very sincere.

BTW I understood 'exoticism' to mean a superficial and idealised adoption of another culture's mystical beliefs and practices. I thought I had been accused of that in relation to my comment 'Sometimes you shouldn't let the truth get in the way of a good story'. The important point about the putative 175 year-old drum was that it is very old - sometimes a good story helps create that sense of reverence. I really don't care exactly how old it is.

Paul picked up on some of the paradoxes I was alluding to but the greater paradox is this: If a truth is only true when you believe in it, is it true? Pragmatically speaking if belief creates a more positive outcome than non-belief then choosing to believe would be a rational decision (William James struggled with this paradox). Sometimes a good story can provide a better truth then the facts.

Incidentally, all good scientific theories rely on a good story. The real truth is the raw data...give me the story please!
Did it work?

Were your hands clean after?
The tincture looked disgusting and I had serious misgivings concerning its contents. I like to think it worked though. If nothing else it makes a good story...
#25315
It was your experience anyways not simply a story.
Was this a secret ceremony. Did they ask you to keep it secret?

Nobody asked me if i wanted a secret ceremony to cleanse my evil hands. :evil: My hands were infected a few times cos of the cuts and dust, i wonder would this procedure have helped me.

I remember in Yoff in Dakar being told that the locals hide there ceremonies from whites because they won't believe or understand and probably stand around taking photos.

I can see you disbelieve but in fairness i don't you really get it. If you try to examine every part of african culture like this you can say this is true, this is exoticism. But really when you look at the whole of the belief systems there you see a clearer picture. What special powers has a mask got or a ceremony or a medican man. Well not much in european eyes but plenty in african eyes. You kinda show how a tobab sees african ceremonies and how one respects them.
#25316
It was your experience anyways not simply a story.
It was my story of my experience. It could be told in many different ways.
Was this a secret ceremony. Did they ask you to keep it secret?
No, though they said not to tell anyone that I was using the medicamen. That was a long time ago so I don't feel I've betrayed any trust or anything like that.
I can see you disbelieve but in fairness i don't you really get it. If you try to examine every part of african culture like this you can say this is true, this is exoticism. But really when you look at the whole of the belief systems there you see a clearer picture.

I think you have misunderstood my post. This was exactly my point. Making any kind of black and white distinction is overly-simplistic and 'truth' can be a slippery concept.