The fetish of connectivity

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    Introduction

    When a person uses pen and paper to give form to his ideas, this can be understood as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world that are themselves minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason (Clark 2008 : xxvi). This is what Andy Clark writes in Supersizing the Mind , his most recent work on the extended mind thesis, which he formulated with fellow philosopher David Charmers more than a decade ago (1998). For Clark and Charmers and other proponents of an externalist model of human cogni-tion, much thinking amounts to an embodied or distributed mental process in which the human mind-brain is augmented by material artefacts or cognitive scaffolds, like note-books, mnemonic tools and religious talismans (see Clark and Chalmers 1998 ; Clark 2008 ; Hutchins 1995 ; Mithen 1996, Day 2004 ).

    Some years ago, this model of human cognition inspired me to write a paper on Shamanist Ontologies and Extended Cognition in Northern Mongolia for the volume Thinking Through Things (2007). My aims were interdisciplinary: I wanted to explore what seemed like an obvious theoretical connection between, on the one hand, the aforementioned writings on distributed cognition and, on the other, the anthropological literature on distributed person in Melanesia and beyond (Strathern 1988 ; Wagner 1991; Gell 1998 ). After all, as Charmers (2008: xiv) notes in a recent paper, it is natural to ask whether the extended mind thesis might itself be extended. What about extended desires, extended reasoning, extended perception, extended imagination, and extended emotions?. Talismans of Thought, as my article is called, was an attempt to argue in support of such a double extension of what might count as a distributed mind in a given cultural context. Apart from showing how certain Mongolian shamanic artefacts provide crucial external cognitive scaffolding that renders religious cognition computationally [p]ossible (Day 2004 : 113), I also wanted to show how these talismans allow for people to be constituted as specific kinds of persons through these things. People, I thus concluded, are not only thinking through things. They also come to be through them. (Pedersen 2007 : 162).

    However, this begs a question or indeed set of questions (of the sort that tend to come up with a few years of hindsight). For what happens in those situations in which people do not want to think through things? Surely, there are people out there in the world who do not want their

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    The fetish of connectivity Morten Axel Pedersen

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  • Morten Axel Pedersen

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    1thoughts extended to things, and who spend a lot of energy avoiding their minds becoming distributed into the world. Further, even when artefacts are being used in religious practices, as is the case in many animist or shamanic contexts around the world, this is not always done simply with a view to enhancing peoples obligations towards, or enhancing their beliefs in, spiritual phenomena, but also in order to reduce their attachment to them.

    The fact that these kinds of questions are not high on the agenda of extended mind scholars suggests that they, like many social scientists, have fallen victim to what might be called the fetish of connectivity. The title of Clarks latest book is telling in this respect. For if the use of certain artefacts is posited to be all about supersizing the mind and therein give human cognition its distinctive power, character, and charm (Clark 2008 : 108), then it appears to be given beforehand that connections must be inherently Good Things: that the more the mind can extend itself into the world (without losing its integrated nature, including basic trust in its various tools of think-ing), the better it is. My aim in this chapter is to challenge the interpretive possibility of limitless-ness (Strathern 1996 : 531) that underwrites this fetish of connectivity. Although many anthropologists focus on practices that bring the cosmos into closer proximity with itself by facilitating ever less distance between subjects and objects, and ever more closeness between subjects, my aim in this chapter is to explore creative cuts that expose dormant cracks in the fabric of worlds by triggering capacities within persons and things for self-differentiation. Could it be that, by critically examining the fondness for connections and closeness that seem to be shared by so many phenomenologists, externalists and other students of relatedness, a new post-relational theoretical space could be laid bare? (Pedersen 2012 ).

    Based on a revisit to my ethnography on Northern Mongolian shamanism, I begin by showing that the magical gown worn by shamans while possessed by their spirit involves a labour of division that curtails the same spirits capacity for influencing both shamans and their clients outside ritual contexts. I then turn to the more specific question of creative cutting by showing how, in practices of wood chopping and other seemingly violent acts of material detachment, the world becomes relationally reorchestrated in particular ways. In doing so, I critically examine the impoverished relational ontology upon which the fetish of connectivity rests and, in the same process, also sketch the contours of a theoretical alternative that takes the labour of division seriously as a creative activity.

    Shamanism without shamans

    The Darhads, who numbered 21,558 individuals according to the 2010 national survey, are a Mongolian-speaking group of pastoralists, hunters and village dwellers who inhabit the far northwestern corner of Mongolias Hvsgl Province, in what is a highly remote, mountainous and forested region situated 1000 km away from the national capital of Ulaanbaatar and 200 km away from the provincial capital, Mrn. The Darhads originate from a mixture of clan group-ings, only some of whom were Mongolian in cultural and linguistic terms, whereas the rest were Tuvinian, Turkic and Tungus of origin (Badamhatan 1986 : 2425, 4163; Sandschejew 1930 ). Today, these clans ( ovog, yas ) are largely defunct in sociological and economical terms, although people still make reference to them, particularly in the context of possession rites and other shamanic contexts, as I describe below.

    It is no coincidence that Shishged Valley is the only region in Mongolia where Darhads are in a majority. For a period of nearly two hundred years, and possibly longer, the Shishged region constituted the main territory of the Darhad Ih Shav, a Buddhist ecclesiastical estate belonging to the office of the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the leading reincarnation (or Living Buddha) of prerevolutionary Mongolias Lamaist church (Badamhatan 1986 : 2426; Bawden 1986 : 6880).

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    1 It was the workings of this estate that rendered the Darhads into an ethnic group of ecclesiastical subjects ( shabinar ) corresponding to a specific territory of land, and it was this ecclesiastical estate that served to firmly establish the Buddhist religion in the Shishged region (Pedersen 2011 : 115147). Thus, in addition to the submission of the shamanic institution to clan law (Hamayon 1994 : 83), Darhad shamans were also made subject to the Buddhist laws of an ecclesiastical estate. This did not happen without a fight. Darhad lore is full of narratives about the conflicts between Buddhist lamas and local shamans ( b ). Although the Buddhist church never succeeded in annihilating shamanism from Darhad traditions (as in many places elsewhere in Mongolia [Heissig 1980 ; Humphrey 1994 ]), the presence of pre-socialist Mongolias biggest Buddhist ecclesiastical estate in the Shishged did have the effect of pushing the shamans and their objects of worship further towards and into the taiga . Thus, the genius loci of most Darhad shamanic spirits ( ongod ) are today found in or around the edge of the taiga , whereas, on the other hand, its flat steppe zone is dominated by Buddhist (or Buddhist-influenced) spiritual entities, such as mountain spirits ( gazryn ezed ).

    After Mongolias communist-led revolution in 1921, and the death of the eighth and last Jebtsundamba Khutuktu in 1924, the Shishged region was made subject to a series of socialist reforms that steadily undermined the position of the Buddhist church. In 1938, as part of the communists final showdown with the Buddhist church, the Shishged regions monasteries were demolished, and the monks ( lamas ) were killed, imprisoned or otherwise immobilized. Darhad shamanism fared marginally better during socialism. Of course, like the other occult specialists who were active in those years, the shamans were forced to practice outside official contexts to avoid political repercussions from the authorities, repercussions that could range from public denouncement over the loss of social rights (like assess to high school or university for ones

    Figure 17.1 Shaman Tree ( bgiin mod ), site of ongod worship. Photograph by Morten Axel Pedersen

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    1children) to, in the more extreme instances, imprisonment or even (in the 1930s) execution. Still, shamanic ceremonies were performed in the secret ( nuutgai ) throughout the period, just as sha-mans were consulted for divinatory and other purposes that did not require full-blown rituals in which the shaman is possessed by shamanic spirits (Pedersen 2011 : 108112).

    From 1956 and onwards, the Shishgeds population was offered voluntary membership of two newly established collective farms ( negdel ) (and, from 1985, a state farm as well), and these socialist institutions eventually came to organize practically all aspects of political and eco-nomical life. In 198990, with the collapse of state communism, and with the subsequent intro-duction of a market economy and various democratic reforms, the institutional framework of Mongolias planned economy was wiped away (Bruun and Odgaard 1996 ; Rossabi 2005 ). During the early 1990s, most livestock and other collective assets from the former negdels were privatized and, faced with a nationwide economical crisis and a rapidly deteriorating infrastruc-ture, most Darhad households reverted to a substance economy based on nomadic pastoralism as well as a variety of supplementary economic activities, such as hunting and berry foraging (Pedersen 2011 : 2029).

    Darhad shamanism has been a topic of significant scholarship since the early twentieth cen-tury (Badamhatan 1986 , 15794; Dulam 1992 ; Diszegi 1961 , 1963 ; Prev 1999; Sandschejew 1930 , 4165). I was therefore more than a little disappointed, when I first began fieldwork in Northern Mongolia in the late 1990s, to hear people telling me that there were hardly any genuine Darhad shamans ( jinhene Darhad b ) left. Instead, as I was eventually to learn, the seminomadic community in which I conducted my fieldwork was full of half shamans ( hagas b ): a distinctly post-socialist cohort of men and women in their thirties, who, because of a shortage of shaman teachers ( b bagch ) caused by several generations of repressive state socialism, were stuck in the process of becoming shamans for lack of the necessary esoteric knowledge and sacred objects to complete their metamorphosis.

    The problem about these potential shamans, as one might refer to them, was that their pres-ence was perceived to signal a more general occult awakening in the community, whereby sha-manic spirits, which had largely left people alone during the state socialist era, had increasingly begun interfering in peoples lives with the advent of liberal democracy and the age of the market ( zah zeeliin ye ). Thus, people found themselves in the paradoxical situation in which, at the same time as the shamans had largely disappeared, the spirits had come back. Above all, it was the annoying and dangerous abundance of potential shamans in the community that sparked the fear that too many shamanic spirits were on the loose, and that too little knowledge and skill were available to rein in this occult excess.

    In fact, as I describe in more detail in my recent monograph Not Quite Shamans (Pedersen 2011 ), if there was one common thing that was on peoples minds all over Northern Mongolia in the late 1990s, it was how to establish a safe distance between themselves and the omnipresent spirits. With the advent of transition, people found themselves exposed to a violent intrusion of invisible spirit souls, energies and forces, which, for seventy years of socialism, had hovered only in the shadowy margins of self, household, community and nation (2011: 4753. As one Darhad man told me, it was as if all sorts of uninvited guests crashed the gates of the households hashaa (compound), forcing him and his family to engage with all sorts of spiritual entities that he had never quite believed ( itgeh ) in, let alone shown any real interest in knowing ( medeh ) about.

    Far from trying to establish more connections with the shamanic spirits, my Darhad Mongolian interlocutors seemed more concerned about how to best avoid them. For it was only by identifying ways of cutting, curtailing and severing a perceived overabundance of occult connections (as opposed to celebrating an imagined treasure of spiritual relatedness) that the

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    1 relentless flow of spirit metamorphoses and shamanic affects (including worries about the pres-ence of spirits) could be slowed down and, perhaps, managed. Yet, the paradox was that the people who alone were considered to be able to fulfil this role (namely the shamans) were not present in the community anymore.

    The labour of division

    All this begs a question: how do the genuine shamans (a handful of whom could be found in a neighbouring community 100 km to the north of my main field site) go about managing the spirits? What methods...