Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Game of Movement

What do we mean when we call something "alive"? The very word biology means, in Greek, "the study of life," yet despite significant efforts, biologists have never managed to come up with a solid, scientific definition for life. The attempts invariably focus on the criteria for life, and the best shot so far points to homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli and reproduction. Perhaps the pursuit has so far failed because it fundamentally looks in the wrong direction--in seeing the universe as a collection of objects, each defined by its unique characteristics--if "life" indicates not an object but a process, might we have some better luck at figuring out what we mean by it? We could not say "that is alive," but we could say, "that lives."

In Ojibwa, the word "bema.diziwa.d" comes closest to our phrase, "living things," and translates literally as "those who continue in the state of being alive," though we might more accurately gloss it as "those who have power." (Black, 1977) That really just moves the question, though, to what we mean by "power."

Since we talk about roleplaying games here, I should begin with mana. Before it signified a wizard's pool of magical potency in games, it existed as a term in Oceania, and few terms in the world have ever suffered as much abuse. Anthropologists forced it into a linear model of cultural evolution, casting it as an impersonal magical force that pervaded the world, and that magicians could manipulate. They saw this as the most primitive type of religion, eventually giving way to polytheism that concentrated that magical potency in a pantheon of gods, then monotheism which concentrated that power in a single god, and finally, at the apex of cultural evolution, the enlightened, scientific atheist, who understood the truth that the world operated according to impersonal forces. But that theory had more to do with the imagination of Western anthropologists than what Oceanian peoples meant by the term. To them, mana meant potency, or "power." They would describe a skilled craftsman, a capable chief, or a talented hunter as mana-ful. Mana meant something more along the lines of skill, potential, power, or capacity, than anything as mystical or supernatural as the ethnographers dreamed. Certainly, I, too, have greatly abbreviated the full discussion here, and the native concept has many nuances and complications, but I think, in general, I can stand by the statement that mana, in its original sense, has much more to do with the kind of power you'd find in your muscles than the kind of power your level blood elf taps in World of Warcraft.

Closer to home, the concept of "orenda" has a similar history, having at one point seen use almost as often as mana and for much the same purpose. J.N.B. Hewitt's influential 1902 article in American Anthropologist, "Orenda and a Definition of Religion" (Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1902), pp. 33-46) offered the word and its reference to a mystical, impersonal force pervading the world. But Hewitt offers a mistranslation at best; the better term, uki, exists in tension withutkon (sometimes also spelled utgon in English). Hewitt's elevation of "orenda" over utkon fundamentally breaks the traditional Haudenosaunee perspective, which put the two in equal tension. Uki benefitted life, while utkon described the impacts of the Trickster. Too often, when Westerners have noticed both concepts, they have simplified them into a Manichaean good/evil dichotomy. My own understanding seems to put them more in relation as things that promote ecological succession, and things that cut it back. A world of only uki would become a stagnant forest of nothing but towering old trees, while a world of only utkon would look, well, distressingly similar to the world civilization has left us. But a healthy world emerges from the interplay of both forces. Seneca forestry, for instance, often used fire to clear out fields, in a clear wielding of utkon, yet that created forests with varied successional stages, which maximized edge and thus maximized biodiversity.

But I see one process running through Oceanic mana and Haudenosaunee uki and utkon: change. We asked before, what do we mean by "power"? I think this short analysis points us towards a clear answer: the power to change, or the power to move. Oceanic mana seems to take a unitary view of change, while the Haudenosaunee concept of uki and utkon specifies change in one of two directions. No doubt other traditions would see change along other axes; might the Lakota medicine wheel chart change going out to one of the four cardinal directions, for instance? But we fundamentally, always mean change, regardless of the direction of that change. "Those who remain in the state of being alive" means "those who keep changing." To live means to change, constantly, to engage a changing world, to open yourself for the world to change you, and for you to change the world.

Before, I asked about The Fifth World as a game of awareness, but now I see that awareness just means one kind of movement (Noë, 2005; Ingold, 2005). Dan Moonhawk Alford described native modes of perception by pointing to "watching the dancing rather than the dancers — the dancers fade back- into the background as you just describe the rhythms and the motions of what is." Or, according to Alford's account of a conference with American Indians and quantum physicists:

After listening to the physicists and American Indians talk for a few days, it struck me that the way physicists use the term potential, or quantum potential, is nearly identical to the way Native Americans use the term spirit. They all agreed there was something similar going on.

Potential, spirit, life means change and movement. When we stop changing, we stop living. It has such an elegant beauty to it, and it really refocuses my efforts. The Fifth World should focus to become a game of movement.

  • Black, M.B. (1977). Ojibwa power belief system. In Fogelson, R.D. & Adams, R.N. (Eds.) The anthropology of power: ethnographic studies from Asia, Oceania and the New World. New York: Academic Press, pp. 141-151

  • Ingold, T. (2005). Stop, look and listen! Vision, hearing and human movement. In Ingold, T. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. New York: Routledge, pp. 241-287

  • Noë, A. Action in perception. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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