Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Subconscious discomforts in culture

In Litteratur, Vitenskap on januar 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm

All cultures have certain unspoken rules or guidelines about our behavior in specific social contexts – this is not controversial. But sometimes, these roles that we play collide. This creates an immense discomfort within ourselves. And what then happens is usually quite embarresing. It can be weird, absurd, crazy, og just sad. We do not know how to behave, and we just react. But why do we react in these specific ways?

Sometimes we are forced into situations that we simply cannot handle. These are recognized by the urge to disappear, to flow through the floor, hoping it is just a dream, or by spontaneous crying. One way of considering these different forms of reactions, is to treat them as specific arguments. Because the reactions as such, however weird or disturbing they might be, normally do help a person out of the situation. If not directly help, they at least develop the situation into something new. This is a much more general definition that what we find within medicine, which is interested in psychosomatic disorders.

Psychosomatic symptoms are visible bodily reactions with psychological causes. What is so characteristic of these reactions is that they seem to emerge automatically. And they cannot be controlled by the person. They hit us, so to say. This is true, but at the same time it is also true that nothing actually hits us. So what happens?


Cultural somatics

One brilliant example we can find in one of the works by Jan Brøgger (1936-2006), a Norwegian psychologist and professor in social anthropology. As a digression; he was the grandson of the Norwegian archaeologist A. W. Brøgger (1884-1951).

Brøgger holds that the forms of the somatic arguments are cultural specific. Each culture invites its participants to its own specific arguments. For instance, the phenomenon called hysteria which was widely spread disorder during the Victorian era. (Supposedly one out of four women in Europe had occasional attacks of hysteria, according to Freud.) Hysteria was the reaction, normally from women, against the oppressive morale of the time (for instance, lack of sexual satisfaction).




In 1970-71 Brøgger did his anthropological fieldwork among the Sidama in Ethiopia. Up until the 70’s the Sidama was characterized as a tribe, with a specific and supposedly unproblematic social hierarchy. But just ten years earlier the first schools were built in the area. Even though very few went to school (and only of them had reached 11th grade), and though what they were taught there did not have an obvious relevance for everyday life, these few were given increased attention within the tribe. For the generation one step above these scholars, this was experienced as stigmatic. 30 year old Dangamo for instance, whose two younger brothers constantly asked him to give up his traditional culture, had problems with this.



Part of the traditional culture was their belief in spirits, or sheitan as the Sidama called them. The sheitan demanded continuous attention and sacrifice. If not, they could cause harm and disease on a family. Dangamo proudly performed these rituals. But during the period of Brøggers fieldwork, Dangamo became increasingly uncertain of his way of life. He stopped the sacrifices, and he started listening more on his brother’s advice.  But the sheitans pressured him. When Dangamo felt the spirits taking his body, his brothers gathered in his home and did readings from the bible.

The impossible situation was between two lifestyles, two cultures. He had yet not learned everything about the traditional way of life, and within this new community his role as a senior was oppressed. But he never openly complained. There was no room for it.

One day he became haunted by one of his sheitans. During the haunting, he attacked his brothers, tried to kill himself, and insulted everyone around him. Even the sheitan spoke through him. After a dramatic exorcism he fell asleep. The next day his behavior was normal, though somewhat resigned and subdued. Similar events occurred later on. Three different men at the same age as Dangamo were also possessed by sheitans. This incident, Brøgger says, is an example of psychosomatic argumentation:

As has been emphasized, our view is not that Dangamo deliberately used the possession in his argumentation about the status and roles, nor that he sought to give his personal crisis a more general relevance. It would be more correct to say that he was driven to this extreme solution, and we assume that the psychological forces behind the choice were subconscious.

The psychological forces were subconscious because this incident was not ‘made to happen’. It was not a deliberate phenomenon. But even though this form of behavior is unexpected, it nonetheless is traceable to specific cultural conditions. A contrasting example comes from Brøggers’ own experience among the Sidama. After six months, he himself experienced a sheitan. It was invisible, but he somehow could perceive its form. It was standing on his shoulders, had a beak, and looked quite frightening. As the other Sidama, Brøgger sought help with a shaman (kalitsja). The shaman explained that he had a spirit, but that this one was unknown to him. He had probably brought it with him from home. Later, after the fieldwork, Brøgger managed to find its origin; it was one of the fantasy figures on Notre Dame in Paris. He had achieved a peak into the perceptual world of the Sidama.

So were the spirits real? Who cares? (Well, I suppose most people do care.) But this is not relevant neither to the question nor the phenomenon itself. These events show how a culture invites its members to customs not only to be internalized the conscious mind, but also to the subconscious. Supposedly, this holds also for our own culture.


Is this your sheitan?



Brøgger, J. 1999: Psykologisk Antropologi. Cappelen.

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