Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fifth World Magic: Etic & Emic

Anthropologists talk about the differences between etic and emic perspectives. The perspectives of outsiders looking in on a society, we call emic perspectives, while the perspectives of insiders about their own society, we call etic perspectives. The Fifth World game aims to immerse players in an animistic world, so etic perspectives reign supreme. But we, the players, have an emic perspective of the Fifth World. Bridging that divide poses the main design challenge of the Fifth World. Let's take a look at this with one of the most difficult points to really "get": magic.

We think of magic as almost the opposite of reality. We refer to magic "tricks." We call them "illusions." We see a coin pulled out from behind someone's ear, but we call it a "trick," because the magician had the coin in his hand. But as I wrote before when I tried to define animism, animists believe their senses. No one ever came along to tell them that they shouldn't; since their senses provide them with the only experience they have, and because they inhabit a universe of verbs and relationships, the idea of pursuing an "objective" truth simply doesn't come up. The magician pulled a coin from behind the boy's ear. We saw it. Explaining the sleight of hand just explains how they worked the magic; it doesn't change what we all saw. Nothing ever could.

One of the authors who most inspired me in this project, whom I've already quoted several times, began as a magician. David Abram visited many animist societies, to study their medicinal practices. They accepted his sleight of hand as having some magic, and taught him some of theirs in return. The Spell of the Sensuous brought together those experiences, along with phenomenology (Abram has trained as a professor of philosophy), to begin to come to what animism, and magic, really means. In an interview with Scott London, he explained:

London: Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?

Abram: That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.

We don't believe in magic, so we don't experience it. But consider these possibilities...

  1. Spells. Humans can talk to animals. We do it all the time. Hunters mimic bird calls and animal calls, and we can understand those calls, too. Some animist languages learn new words from animals and birds. In Koyukon, birds really do speak, because their calls have become meaningful words in Koyukon, and because those words have the same meanings as the bird calls, the birds do not simply speak gibberish, either. Koyukon can carry on conversations with birds, rather easily. Singing spells often amounts to no more than this. At other times, such "power songs" harmonize with the environment. Any two rhythms played at the same time tend to harmonize, so by repeating the song, it harmonizes with the rhythm of the world around you, and the rest of you harmonizes with the the song you sing--so your entire body moves in time with the rhythms of wind, water, animals, etc. around you. That can allow for some clearly magical feats of dexterity and luck as you move at the precisely perfect moment, no? And then, some songs might even play with the function of the human brain itself. Chanting "om" vibrates the skull in just the right way to activate a particular corner of the brain. Other frequencies, other rhythms, have other effects.
  2. Trance, Entheogens, Dreams and Shapeshifting. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the power of "thin slicing." Hunter-gatherers spend their lives gathering enormous, expert knowledge about the land they live in. If the people in Gladwell's book play a cognitive kazoo, then these rituals put on a full, neurotheological symphony honed by thousands of years of shamanic tradition. Rather than occuring as an accident, animists have developed traditions to actively cultivate this potential. A shaman experiences a trance of going into the wild, meeting Deer, and asking how many his tribe can take in the autumn. We might understand this, etically, as a means of accessing his capacity for "thin slicing," his mind putting a recognizable image to voice the knowledge he's pieced together unconsciously from wide-ranging observation, knowing subconsciously how well the deer herd has done over the year, and how many kills that can safely translate into. But more importantly, how does that relate to the shaman? Does that mean he didn't meet Deer, or have you simply focused on the minutiae of how he met Deer? To understand feral humans requires a shift in your thinking; you cannot think of this shaman as an ignorant savage who simply doesn't know as much about the neurological function underlying his experience as you do. You could explain this to him, and he really wouldn't care that much; remember, he also thinks you act like a bit of a fool for spending so much time focusing on such silly details, rather than believing in your own experience.


Andrew Jensen said...

I think this is a very important point for your game. I feel that, to some degree, all magic in the game should be able to be explained away by a Cartesian fuddy-duddy as tricks, placebo effect, and coincidence. Not that many would do so, but the idea here is that magic has always been with us. To allow magic that would be so overwhelmingly magical as to convince a misplaced scientist would undermine this premise, IMO.

Jason Godesky said...

You've got it. The Fifth World has a silent theme, silent because it doesn't play a part for the characters, but rather, for the players: the theme of paradise lost and regained. The magic system plays into that. Wild humans and feral humans both describe the land they live in as paradise, but we live in those same lands, and they certainly don't look like paradise to us. I really want the game to bring home the point that it becomes paradise because you have a healthy relationship to it. You have magic because you learn to trust your senses, and so on. That moment when it all clicks into place, and you see that world around you for the first time, well it changed my life, and everything in this game aims to create that moment.

But you can't just preach that, either. It has to come from the emergent play, not from the book telling you about it. So, you could call the Fifth World a very low-magic setting, because all of the magic fits things we could explain away as ingenious mind hacks or tricks of perception or illusion. And that means that magic users don't go into combat hurling big fireballs; rather, they oversee rituals that themselves could take up a significant chunk of game time. But you've got it precisely. The question becomes, how do you accomplish that?

Willem said...

Well, I think a true Cartesian fuddy-duddy WOULD explain fireballs away as a trick or a coincidence (st. elmo's fire, anyone?).

A lot of amazing stuff goes on in this world, that the mechanistic mind has to work pretty hard to deny, but in the end one can obscure more easily than illuminate.

I would discourage focusing on cutting away 'overwhelmingly magical' phenomena. I guess I don't even know what this means, really.

Willem said...

As far as 'how to do it', I support the 'story' mechanic itself. Why would you cast spells any different from asking someone's father for his daughter's hand in marriage? You'd sweeten the deal, put up a good front, make yourself as appealing as possible, catch him at the right moment...

All assuming you'd accomplished the same with the daughter first...

So each 'spell', or really, request, becomes a conversation, where you pony up relationship investment, and the more out-of-character the request for the relative to agree to, the higher the stakes.

You could have different relationships too...

Blue Jay could show up purposely to offer himself as a 'magic power' guide for the really high-stakes requests, but you have an intimate relationship to high-mountain Aspen that amounts to no more than never getting lost, or always having water, or simply, nurturing requests.

So different relationships can offer themselves in different aspects on the Wise Compass...a North offering may offer spirit journey power, a South offering may offer the nitty gritty of surviving harsh environments, the East may offer...

I don't know. babble.

matt said...

hat you're saying really makes sense Willem, I agree that spells should be about relationships too, give and take, it kind of fits the whole mythos and system. In these terms, spells aren't things you do, but favors from others. Then again, does that damage the whole explanability of the magic phenomenon, or does it just complement the emic perspectives with etic ones? I don't know, just putting the question out there.

I also like your idea of associating different gifts with different points of the compass, and it has given me an idea of something that might work for character stats. This isn't fully fleshed out becuase I just thought of it, but here goes.

What if each direction on the compass represented a different type of quality your character could have, and then you could devote relationship points to increasing your relationship or bond to that quality, instead of the traditional idea of simply increasing the quality itself. These areas would represent the traits your character has within them, but they can be more or less in touch with these traits depending on what they do.

For instance, east is often associated with fire, and fire with will, so in the east you could build your relationship with a will oriented quality such as endurance or persuasion, or determination, or spiritual strength.

As alternative, you could just have one standard trait at each direction instead of a personalized trait for each character. These could be the breath, flesh, word, breath and luck mentioned by Jason earlier, or they could be something like body(similar to traditional strength, dexterity), mind(standard intelligence type stuff), connection(to do with empathy, understanding, reading people, persuading people), and spirit/will(to do with interactions in the spirit world and things dealing life force/energy).

I think that these could work to balance the outer relationship system with an inner one. I agree completely that everything we do is a series of interaction, but we do still have some traits, even if they only come as emergent properties of the system that we are. We have relationships and struggles within ourselves as well as outside.

Jason Godesky said...

A lot of animists have myths about an ancient time when humans and animals could talk easily to each other. (It probably means something that in Judeo-Christian mythology, this becomes a story about humans and other humans talking easily to each other.) But, while we certainly can marvel at how animists talk to animals at all, I think it seems clear that they still have an easier time talking to other humans. A "spell" simply means a song, like a bird song, or an icaro (see "Woven Songs of the Amazon" [Warning: PDF]). Such spells do communicate with other-than-human persons, but we still don't really speak their language natively. We can memorize and recite formulaic, ritual invocations, but nuanced communication remains difficult (but not impossible). But what you say still holds true, Willem; the spell still simply asks a favor, in a formalized, ritualized manner. It simply limits specific things you might thus ask for.

And yes, that absolutely means that spells come from specific relationships. Blue Jay has to teach you the specific Blue Jay spells, and they still get their power from your relationship with Blue Jay.


On the subject of "inner" workings--if you have the time, I highly recommend Joe Sheridan and Roronhiakewen "He Clears the Sky" Dan Longboat's article, " The Haudenosaunee Imagination and the Ecology of the Sacred" [Warning: PDF].

This article weighs cultural perspectives about imagination’s location and function as the exclusive domain of human cognition in conventional theories of educational development and developmental psychology. From a Haudenosaunee or Mohawk perspective,we notice that minds colonized by these assertions concerning the universality of imagination’s origins and functions are contributing dimensions to larger conceits maintained by anthropocentrically biased cultures. Cultures colonized by these conceits tautologically confirm the interior sources of their intelligence. Minds colonized by such conceits think and conceive ofthemselves in this grammar ofpossessive individualism. Onkwehonwe (unassimilated, traditional Haudenosaunee), in contrast, regard
any assumption concerning the existence of autonomous, anthropogenic minds to be
aberrations that violate the unity, interrelation, and reciprocity between language and
psychology, landscape and mind. The ecology of traditional Haudenosaunee territory possesses sentience that is manifest in the consciousness of that territory, and that same consciousness is formalized in and as Haudenosaunee consciousness. Of course, other beings manifest that consciousness in their literature of tracks, chirrups, and loon calls.

Onkwehonwe mind everything because everything minds Onkwehonwe.

You see this in a lot of other animist beliefs, as well. Imagination, intelligence, emotion, these things do not exist inside a human skull. They exist as part of the landscape. Humans breathe them in. We experience intelligence, emotion, imagination, etc., because we participate in them as functions of the land. We do not create them ourselves. This will make an important, if tricky, point to get across in the game.

Willem said...

I feel of two minds about the conversation with animals, plants, relatives, etc.

The myth about the animals once talking to humans doesn't refer to a point in history, but rather a point in consciousness. It refers to the mythic place (the dream time) where they still speak to you, right now, if you will go there.

So I see the 'speed bump' to talking to them in a more nuanced way as one of willingness to "go there", rather than knowing spells. Do you know what I mean? I see 'spells' more as agreeing to follow instructions from wild relatives to prove your willingness to keep up your relationship. "Sing this song, and I'll come", means more "sing this song, and I know you'll listen to what I have to say, unlike most arrogant unhearing humans". In my experience anyway, and in the native lore I've heard. So this returns us back to the everyday nature of "going there", to the place/time where animals still speak to us.

For example, in a dream, or in a waking dream, or in a moment of power, one can 'go there' and speak with them and ask things. This slops over into 'human time' I think in the sense that one still empathizes with the animals, and 'speaks'/'listens' to them, but you often have much of the nuance missing, though more for the human ear. I suspect often the wild family 'hears' just fine, but either doesn't have time (need to feed themselves/complete their business), don't trust the human (and therefore don't listen to the message), or listen but know the human won't hear the response.

I kinda rushed this - sorry if it seems jumbled. I need to scoot off the computer!

Jason Godesky said...

Good point, Willem. Though I've noticed the recurring notion that power means having a multiplicity of perspectives. Shapeshifting doesn't express power, it gives power. Spirits have power because they have a different perspective. They don't live like humans; they live like, well, birds, or trees, or storms, or rocks, or whatever else.

(Great example, by the way: "Das Rad")

So, doesn't the flip-side of that also mean that other-than-human persons have other perspectives, and that those perspectives can make communication difficult? Their perceptions, values, and logic differ from ours. We have a gulf in our experience that creates difficulty for communication (and thus, one reason why a multitude of perspectives veritably means power).

I certainly see your point, Willem, but it also raises a question for me--do you think most wild humans act quite so arrogantly? If not, then why do we find these rituals among wild people?

Willem said...

I have a succinct response, and a longer response. I wanted to erase the long one but you might appreciate it.

In short: the human ability to "go there" doesn't signify the human tendency to want to "go there". Quite the opposite: most wild humans behave as arrogantly and selfishly as we do. So the other-than-human wild peoples give us rituals to remind and cement the bond with them.

Longer response: I too have heard many times the notion that power means having a multiplicity of perspectives. Shapeshifting *does* give power.

But it also hurts, which explains why we don't do it. We can far more easily understand our own motives, and trust them, than someone else's. We risk every time we act upon trust. Which explains why we have to earn it, with wild relations as well as with other humans. And why we can break it just as easily as creating it (more easily!).

The difference between us and creation, for the most part, comes down to their greater capacity/willingness to enter mythic time. They can hear us more easily than we can hear them, as a quotidian rule. A rock understands the tree far more easily than we understand either of them, because they never 'stopped' talking to each other, they just stopped talking to humans. Only humans have exited mythic time to dwell in verbal space, because of the adaptive advantage it gave us. But we have to constantly balance that out.

Wild humans act arrogantly *all the time*. Constantly. And the shamans help to sort it out, constantly, as intermediaries. Therefore why just because Jay trusts you, doesn't mean Mountain will - you personally earned Jay's respect, and proof of willingness to respect him, whereas Mountain, she sees you all the time ignorantly scrambling up and down her without so much as an "excuse me".

So you get this pattern of who you've rebuffed (often without knowing), and who've you've decided to relate as a person (because of your individual nature).

A positive relationship with one deer, may inspire the deer to give you a 'magic password' to tell other deer you don't know, so they'll recognize your fraternity with their kind.

Jason Godesky said...

That makes a lot of sense. Thanks, Willem, that really puts it together.