Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Storyjammer's Journey

Arnold van Gennep worked as an ethnographer and folklorist at the turn of the last century in France. He gets credit for founding folklore as a field in that country, but most today remember him for his 1909 work, Rites of Passage. In it, van Gennep described three phases to any rite of passage:
  1. Separation. This phase focuses on the end of the participant's old life and identity, sometimes put in terms as extreme as the death of their old self.
  2. Liminality. Separated from the old life but not yet initiated into the new life, the participant enters a delicate liminal state, neither this nor that. This amiguity and plenipotential makes the participant powerful, giving them the power to achieve the initiation required.
  3. Re-incorporation. In the final phase, the participant re-enters normal society in her new life, and relieves recognition and acknowledgment in the new identity.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell introduced what some have called "the hero's journey" or "the monomyth," a basic, archetypal template that, Campbell argues, all heroic tales follow. In the book, Campbell summarizes this template: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Campbell identifies three stages in the hero's journey—departure, initiation, and return—and further details many of the various sub-themes and archetypes involved in each (for example, "the call to adventure" and "refusing the call" under departure), which occur often, but not always.

The similarity of Campbell's monomyth to van Gennep's rites of passage does not happen accidentally. Campbell studied van Gennep and relied on his work to describe the stages of the hero's journey, making the story of any hero the story of our own rites of passage. The separation from the old life becomes the hero's call to adventure; the adventures of the hero becomes the experience of liminality; and the re-integration following becomes the hero's return.

In Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, Rane Willerslev offers a different template for them both. Like Ingold, Willerslev "takes animism seriously," refusing to take the "easy answer" of metaphor or myth, and thus conclude that every traditional person has either lied to us, or has severe psychological problems. Instead, Willerslev looks for the roots of animism in the lived experience of people.

For the Yukaghirs, hunting means seducing an elk to give itself up, and that requires a process of mimicry, entering a liminal state where the hunter becomes not elk, but also not not elk. The difference proves crucial in both directions—a perfectly identical elk would have no power over the prey to kill it, but such an identical performance would also mean a hunter had lost touch with his humanity, and would become lost to elkhood forever.

To perform this dangerous dance, hunters must first isolate themselves from the normal human community. They must expunge the smells of humans, particularly women and children, and the smells of sex. They must also abandon normal human language. Hunters must not speak of killing animals directly, lest the animals overhear; so instead, they must speak a ritualized and indirect hunting language. For the Yukaghirs, speech and scent mark critical identifiers of their humanity, but in order to succeed, hunters must leave those things behind, separating themselves from their humanity.

The liminal space Willerslev describes—a space where every animal perceives itself as human—reminded me a great deal of Calvin Luther Martin's description of the world just past the skin of the earth in Way of the Human Being, which had in turn reminded me strongly of the stories of Faerie in Ireland and other Celtic countries. In this liminal space, profound things happen. Power comes from one's moments spent here. Most basic of all, here the dance of seduction becomes possible, and the Yukaghirs can kill their prey and feed their people.

The return plays an important part as well, precisely because the hunter has no guarantee of it. Willerslev relates the story of the "wild men" who remain lost in that liminal state, the ultimate anti-social creatures, they walk on two legs like people, but grow fur all over them like animals. The description reminded me of stories of Bigfoot, and even moreso, Pat Murphy's short story, "In the Abode of the Snows." Willerslev describes storytelling among hunters as a humanizing activity, precisely this last part of re-integration, giving the hunter a chance to become human again.

So, the hero's journey and the rite of passage, in this light, seem to spring from a much more basic source: the experience of the hunt itself.

Naturally, all of these things reminded me of storyjamming. Willem Larsen introduced the notion of using "warm-up games" used in improvisational theater in his articles for the College of Mythic Cartography, "Warming up and Working with Energy" (I, II). Since then, we've both worked on ways to weave these more tightly into the experience of play itself, rather than leave them so seemingly extraneous. I can personally vouch for the separating experience of these warm-up games. They push me towards a very different frame of mind, separating me from my normal day lucidity, and priming me to not censor myself, to reach for eloquence, and to allow the story to flow through me.

With that separation, I can much more easily see story as something to discover, rather than something that I "make up." The separation of these "warm-ups" moves us into a liminal state, a shared imagining, where we can track, stalk, and seduce the story together in the jam itself.

This, to me, raises an interesting question that I'll return to in tomorrow's post: where do you find the storyjamming equivalent of re-integration?


Willem said...

I've thought about this lately, and I may have a glimmer of an idea.

I use the ORID debrief method to debrief just about any activity; after the completion of a summer camp, workshop, or some piece of work.

I ask everybody:

"What did you Observe? What physical, factual events, did you smell/hear/taste/see/feel?"

"What Reflections did you have? What did you feel, emotionally, how did you respond to what happened?"

"What Implications do you see? What patterns, what meanings, emerge from what happened and how you reacted?"

"What Decisions will you make? How will you change your behavior, or the environment, because of the patterns/meanings/implications of what happened and how you felt?"

So still storytelling, but highly reflective and humanistic, and weaving a person back into their surroundings.

Besides which, I don't think we talk about the import of our storyjams enough; where certain images come from, if someone crossed a line during the session, etc.

Anyway: one model of a re-integration.

vulpinoid said...

This is good stuff.

I'm really going to have to start looking into the methods of shamanism for the game project that I've been working on for the past six months. I'll be watching the next few posts with interest.