Review of the book:
Tobie Nathan, Isabelle Stengers
"Doctors and Sorcerers",
Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 1996
Single Universe - Multiple Universe
Western European and American society is a Single Universe society; this means that there is no belief in worlds parallel to our own.
At a human level, the consequence of this conception of the universe is the solitude of each person.
In psychopathology, the result of this classification produces a series of axioms according to which:
- Folly is a particular illness
- Folly, like all other illnesses resides in the "patient"
- According to psychoanalysis the disorder consists in a manner of thinking that is expressed as neurosis or psychosis
- According to psychopharmacology, illness is determined by chemical-electrical imbalances in the brain.
In this type of society, the mentally ill person is connected to his symptom and identified with it, isolated from other human beings, and left completely alone to face Science, Authority and the State, represented by the therapist, who has the power to classify the illness, unmask the subconscious resistance if the patient, lead him to understand himself and elaborate new and more mature life strategies.
"Indigenous" African societies are multiple universe societies; which means believe in worlds parallel to our own, and the possibility of occasional interference, or vice versa, to be able to create positive connections to these worlds, with the being and forces that live there.
This concept is profoundly different from the religious faith of Westerners, which, even in its different forms, still implies an insurmountable distance between the kingdom of heaven and man. The polytheistic races and the animist religions of the Africans, on the contrary, interpret daily phenomena, which happen in the human kingdom, including psychopathologies, exclusively as the result, often mysterious, of actions made by invisible beings, powerful and sometimes fickle.
Africa and the West: Differences in Therapeutic Approach
This type of vision of the world, completely conditions the way mental illness is approached; in a multiple universe society, mental illness is interpreted as the manifestation of the fact that a spirit, for some reason that needs to be investigated, has taken over a person.
The consequences of this interpretation are the following:
- The first is the fact that the person consulted is not the person who is versed in scientific knowledge, but "he who knows the spirits";
- The second consequence consists in considering the patient not as a person suffering an illness, but as a person who in the familial, tribal, social context has become an unknowing informer of the invisible world, which is good for all those belonging to the group to know.
The patient, therefore, contrary to what happens in Western psychotherapy, is separated from his symptom and connected instead, both to his family and social group, as well as a parallel and invisible world about which, in everyone's interest, it is important to investigate.
The method of "he who knows the secret" in fact does not consist in creating a case history and a diagnosis by questioning or visiting the patient, but by manipulating objects that lead to the invisible universe: sand, shells, sculptures, wooden objects, rosaries, even the Koran, or none of these objects if the healer, thanks to a "gift," is able to "see".
Described below are the different approaches and therapies taken in front of a "hysterical" fainting:
|Single Universe Society||Multiple Universe Society|
|Cause||Illness: Hysteria||Attack by a spirit|
|Etymology||Subconscious sexual impulses||Intentions of the super-natural being|
|Social Moving Force||Holder of rational/scientific knowledge||Holder of hidden knowledge|
|Intervention Philosophy||Lead patient to understand himself and mature||Identify the invisible being and negotiate with him|
|Representation||Obsessed with sex: infantile, backwards||Unknowing informant of the invisible world|
|Therapeutic Behaviour||Humanitarian, curing, assistance or forced hospitalization||Does not take care of the patient but of the spirit|
|Consequences of Intervention||Loss of reference groups, isolation, use of medication||Affiliation with new group, assigned a new social standing|
Psychological illness, therefore, after having undergone the African healer's investigation becomes a sign, a communication hub, and crossroads of multiple overlapping universes.
In this context the therapeutic treatment given moves the interest:
- towards the invisible
- from the individual to the collective
- from that which is fatal to that which can be healed
- towards the creation of a connection that can cross the sick person and interface with multiple universes
Diagnosis and Divination
The scientific approach of Westerners never tries to discover new worlds, but tends to expand its own; consequently, Western people's knowledge is manifested through diagnosis, while African healers use divination. The consequence of divination is the assignment of the subject to a group, not of ill people, but of people who have a certain characteristic and, based on this characteristic, must respect certain rules and restrictions (for example: belong to groups of twins, hippopotamus children, of those who have been in touch with their ancestors....). On the contrary, the Western scientist, through diagnosis disembodies the subject from his universe, from his affections and possible cultural affiliations; he places him in psychopathological categories, which never really create social groups, but simply group individuals on a statistical basis (hysterical, obsessive, schizophrenic...). Most of the complaints from people kept in psychiatric facilities usually revolve around the fact that they do not recognize the group into which they have been assigned by the statistics ("...See? They put me in with the crazy people!").
The Existence of Spirits
In the single universe world, the existence of spirits is a ridiculous idea and scientifically unacceptable. Spirits in fact, possess an irremissible quality: they can only be evoked in a world of multiple universes, because evoking them means admitting that that a second universe exists. And, considering that, establishing connections between multiple universes, offers an extraordinary richness of creative and therapeutic processes, we can therefore affirm that if it is necessary to turn to the spirits to put these creative mechanisms to work, then spirits exist, at least as invisible instruments in therapeutic treatment. Which means that the African healer on one hand exercises creativity, on the other he takes the risk in front of the patient and his social group. These are risks that Western psychiatrists are very careful not to take. Contrarily, scientists of European or American psychopathology:
- claim the existence of an object that only they can see
- create their own instruments to describe that subject
- therefore make the subject opaque to outsiders
- validate the effectiveness of their instrument by themselves
- disqualify the patient, his family and his social environment
- hide behind texts like the DSM without taking responsibility in the first person.
Creativity and Risks
Vice versa, creativity implies taking on risks.
If I proceed with a divination in a multiple universe society, I am personally responsible for the drama of the consciousness.
When I proceed with a diagnosis, the drama is played out on the patient.
Based on what has been said therefore, a new approach by the Western therapist could be suggested, meaning that s/he:
- accepts the taking of personal risk
- frees his or her personal therapeutic creativity
- concentrates his of her attention, not so much on the precise classification of the patient and illnesses, but rather of the description, as refined as possible, of the therapist and the techniques, in order to have operative consequences.
From this derives the acceptance and use of "savage" therapeutic prescriptions, comprehension and the extraordinary therapeutic effectiveness of ritual.
In this job, when working with African patients, it is indispensable to use the patient's mother tongue; and to know each group of invisible spirits and interaction for each group.
For this aim it is very useful to create a multicultural staff, so that each patient can find a reference to his or her culture.
To Think or Believe
In light of this way of thinking, it is possible to get over cultural dichotomy, which divides the world into two types of societies:
- those in which thinking overcomes believing
- those in which believing overcomes thinking.
Naturally, in this prospective, Western society belongs to the former type. Westerners evaluate African rituals as expressions of "beliefs" elaborated with the illusion or being able to dominate the forces of nature.
According to many white therapists, the actions of African healers is only ascribable to:
- magic tricks
- use of hypnosis
- manipulation of beliefs
- seduction, suggestion
- placebo effect
- simple consolation
- subconscious therapy in action.
In sum "magic thoughts", seen however with the meaning of "childish thoughts".
Ritual and Symbol
The multicultural vision examined above, allows us to consider ritual as a negotiation with the powers, "spirits", "non humans".
But ritual contains in itself a theory about the world and an action on the world.
Abandoning the concept of "primitive beliefs", we can therefore consider that every culturally defined action, ritual, sacrifice or offer of protection:
- is actually what it seems to be
- if done properly, is generally efficient as regards to its definition
- is therefore an action that does not need psychoanalytic interpretation.
The observer will only need to reconstruct the thought that is at the origin of the culturally defined action, even if it is a thought that has been acted out.
Once the "thought/belief" dichotomy has been accepted in order to get closer to the African therapeutic method, another concept which is very dear to psychoanalysis must be abandoned, and that is, the concept of symbol.
Western psychopathologists generally disqualify "savage thought", declaring however that they "understand the symbolism".
They think that "savage" people use magical procedures. This happens because they move onto a symbolic level those profound truths that white analysts understand directly, thanks to the capacity of abstraction of civilized thought. And, consequently, those that "believe" only reach the symbol without understanding it, while those who "think scientifically" reach the symbolized object.
But it is actually the concept of "symbol" that impedes the recognition of African thought as an authentic technical system of therapeutic thought.
African and Western Therapies: Consequences
This approach can be increasingly understood, if we concentrate our attention on the consequences deriving from the technical-therapeutic actions of Western scientists and African healers.
In front of a psychological pathology, Westerners usually act two ways:
- psycho pharmaceuticals, that is, synthetic molecules, absorbed by the organism through neural receptors.
Receptors are in a manner of speaking the sense organs of neurons, which in turn constitute the structure of the brain, the brain that is an essential part of the person.
The use of psycho pharmaceuticals therefore assumes that the symptom presented by a person comes from a dysfunction of the brain, or at least that a chemical action in the brain would have some effect on the symptom
- psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, start by presupposing the connection between the symptom and the person and reach the conclusion that the symptom constitutes a type of distinctive mark of that person.
The person, in turn, is identified with the subject, defined as a synthesis of structural elements, which as a whole constitute a sort of organ: the apparatus of the psyche.
This organ, like the brain, has sensory appendices: affection and feelings. The psychoanalytic instrument, destined to stabilize the interactions with this organ always passes through affections (transfer).
For this reason, Freud continuously underlines that there cannot be psychoanalysis without transfer.
Psycho pharmacology and psychoanalysis bring together, or even fuse together, the symptom to the person, and then justify this fusion through logical progression:
- from the sign to the symptom
- from the person to the structure
- from the structure to the receptors (neuron receptors for psychopharmacology, affection for psychoanalysis)
- and finally from the receptors to active products (molecules for one, transfers for the other).
The consequences of this type of action is double:
- the symptom is welded to the person, who is separated from his fellows and inserted into a psychopathological category, object of study on behalf of the "experts"
- pharmaceuticals and psychotherapists can dialogue on to infinity, if only to reciprocally criticize each other, because both, as we have seen, share the same methodological premise .
By making this system function, Westerners believe they are thinking, and, by doing so, disqualify any other form of thought.
According to Westerners, therefore, African healers, since they never give up their "spirits, fetishes, demons and sorcerers" are therefore incapable of scientific thought, but simply express primitive and often picturesque beliefs..
According to Westerners, Africans believe that:
- the world is populated with human being and "non humans"
- "non humans," just like humans are capable of intention
- nature is animated
- by using these forces" you can act even from a distance
- people are not responsible for their destinies
- relationships and exchanges with "non humans" can be made in order to influence them.
However, "savage thought" applied in psychotherapy, with the right methods and contexts, not only works, but is also spread worldwide, notwithstanding all the Western doctors' efforts to combat it.
- disassociate the symptom from the person
- attribute intentionality to the invisible
- interact with the invisible
Let's move on to the examination of the mechanism of "savage thought", and we can note that the first consequence of its application, in the acceptance of the disorder, is always that of disassociating the symptom from the person.
In order to take this therapeutic action, all the "savage thoughts" refer back to the same principle, which is that of attributing intentionality to the invisible and then trying to react with the invisible.
In this context, each event that generates disorders, is provoked by an invisible intention, and no death can therefore be considered natural.
This postulate can in turn be divided into the following observations:
- the principle according to which every event that produces a disorder reveals an invisible intention is, in truth a technical principle
- this principle is destined to generate actions
- it is therefore not a false theory, an empirical intuition, a scientific proto-theory, or an unconsciously applied therapy, but is it is a type of interface between thought and the world, that is, an instrument
- the instrument is not the thought; this remains hidden, condensed into actions, technical actions taken in that moment and never, notwithstanding appearances, in those enounced as esoteric.
The application of this principle always sets off complex sequences that associate four elements:
- observation of the disorder: acceptance of the problem
- postulate on the intentions of the invisible, from which the existence of the healer and his consultation
- clarification of the intention of the invisible, which is achieved through various techniques through divinatory questioning
- adequate response, always aimed at the invisible, meaning the prescription of the healer
This is the most important sequence, often the only sequence that is visible to an observer.
Visible and invisible
It is important to note the fact that, if the visible is questioned, like the Western therapist does, expert medicine will be obtained.
The experts, grouped together by the fact that they share the same theory, will necessarily constitute a united group. And so a medicine of experts is reached, imposed by groups of power who organize themselves in corporational forms (Order of Doctors). The Western therapist is designated by his colleagues and , at the end of a long apprenticeship, is affiliated with the group Therefore, isolation of the sick individual and affiliation of the therapist.
In other words: questioning the visible = expert medicine = constitution of a lay clergy.
If, on the other hand the invisible is questioned, the sick individual will always have a new affiliation; then in the course of periodic ritual ceremonies, those belonging to the affiliation will meet therefore reinforcing their identity.
Individually, African therapists acquire a particular status as those who manage a popular medicine, which is subtle and paradoxical.
If we then analyze the methods of questioning the invisible, we discover that this happens only through complex mechanisms, half sacred, half playful, which are the mechanisms of divination.
The invisible can always be found on the inside of substances with uncertain forms and, water, the sky, the blood of animals, their unpredictable movements, the flight of birds.....
The aim of divination is not to illuminate the hidden visible, as much as establishing the location of the invisible.
If you proceed with a divination, the technique used always supposes the existence of a second universe.
This universe is populated by non human beings with whom only a few categories of people can have contact: children, the insane, and healers.
The latter, in African culture, are defined as special people:
- with "four eyes"
- whose "eyes have been opened" (initiated)
- those "born old"
- those "born with a shirt"
- those born with a physical particularity.
The African system, contrary to the Western system, produces solitary therapists and grouped ill people.
The therapist is and must remain alone: African societies control and impede the formation of "secret societies" o "sorcerer assemblies", in the case in which, notwithstanding the controls, they form anyway, they are disbanded even by force, if necessary.
Basic Concepts of "Savage Thought"
Moving on the to the examination of the conceptual basis of "savage thought", we discover that these cannot be found in theoretical propositions, but in the ways the therapists act, ways that have developed from the application of some grand principles, similar to postulate, that always have a positive consequence from the therapeutic point of view.
The first postulate
considers the existence of supernatural beings that can be placed into categories:
- the gods of the large monotheistic religions (Christians and Muslims)
- the divinities in polytheistic religions
- spirits (protectors of family groups or places)
- the great principles (life, death, family unity ...)
- the organs of the body (as the locations for feelings).
All these supernatural entities, are unknowable by nature. As a consequence, turning to them in a therapeutic process, gives the advantage of being able to blame the unsuccessful therapy, not on the inability of the healer, but on the will of the invisible to remain invisible.
In this system no sick person is incureable...only the entities sometimes remain unknown: the difference is relevant, especially in regards to the curing of the patient.
In the case of an autistic child, for example, it is as if the therapeutic staff said: the child is not mute "by nature" or because of an "illness" because child cannot be mute; instead the child is holding a dialogue in a secret language with an invisible being; if the person can be found who can have a relationship with this invisible being then the child will be healed.
The consequence is that of not classifying a person with an unhappy diagnosis forever and at the same time, leaving the door open for new therapeutic cures and techniques.
The second postulate
highlights the criteria of the intentions of the invisible, admitting the existence of "sorcerers by nature".
According to this theory there are some beings who appear plainly human, but are gifted with an invisible organ for sorcery; the presence of this organ implies the existence of a sort of "second nature".
This organ is sometimes transmitted from the mother, who is also a witch, sometimes it can appear spontaneously in a family tree.
He who has a "second nature" behaves in a well-known way:
- he works at night
- in an invisible manner
- according to supernatural procedures
- it is said that he "eats" his victims, that is he deprives them of their vital substance or the will to work by putting them under a spell of "magic slavery".
African Therapeutic System
In central Africa this concept is the key to the therapeutic system. Curing a patient always consists in making sure that a healer meets the entire family in which the disorder has appeared, and, with their help, identifies the sorcerer who is guilty of the disorder, who then undergoes, according to perfectly coded social procedures, a full fledged trial.
Which means setting off a powerful therapeutic mechanism at a family and social level.
After all, if sorcerers are conceived as only having the appearance of humans, but secretly occupied with attacking the human world, it is almost like they belong to a parasitic race.
Their presence is suspected by certain "reverse" characteristics:
- they voluntarily commit transgressions of taboos (incest, cannibalism ...)
- they tend to band together in anti social groups.
The technical consequence is that, in a world such as this, it is impossible to spontaneously distinguish, without the help of a healer, a sorcerer from a "non-sorcerer".
Since sorcery is conceived as a sort of "second biological nature", the most elementary prudence suggests, to every one, to control their susceptibilities in front of strangers, because giving offence to a sorcerer could provoke the activation of his "second nature" and the nightly devouring of the offender.
Which means, in other words, paying close attention to other people's feelings.
Being forced, and not by moralistic "good feelings" or religious faith, but by a concrete fear of the consequences, to keep into account and respect the feelings of others, is already an approach to the word in a psychological and therapeutic key.
The application of this system constitutes an "obligation to think", something much more powerful than the generic invitation to "love and understand", so popular in Western society.
Obligation to think of which, maybe in a slightly tautological manner, is validated in its effectiveness by applying the following schematic:
- postulate: the disorder is caused by the attack, often nocturnal and subconscious, on the part of a non-human entity who appears to be human (the sorcerer)
- technical response: the healer calls in the suspects, usually all the family members even the distant ones, questions them as if he were a detective, identifies the guilty member (often a family member who hides the fact that he is a sorcerer by nature)
- validation of the procedure ex iuvantibus: if after the guilty member has been identified, the patient heals, it means that the accusation was correct.
Defence Against Sorcerers
To those sorcerers identified as such by the healer and who have confessed, two possibilities are offered:
- The first is: "vomit sorcery", as is said in African languages, that is accepting to be entered into a sort of internship where the sorcerers undergo a new initiation, at the end of which they can become healers.
All this is done by going through paradoxical psychological techniques, because the declared aim is to "close the eyes of the sorcerer", meaning to interrupt his contact with the entities, while in actual fact they are being taught to "see" other sorcerers. In fact, according to a common saying, "only a sorcerer can recognize another sorcerer".
- The second possibility is that of publicly swearing not to attack another victim.
In this context, there have been very few rare cases where the sorcerer is punished physically, this happens for various reasons:
- the sorcerer is the only person who can undo the spell that has been done; therefore it is better he be alive than dead, better an ally of the tribe than an enemy
- he is suspected of being part of a group of sorcerers that could vindicate his death, so all the more reason to keep a live ally;
- he has a relationship with the invisible forces, the "powers of the night" which could be very useful for the tribe.
The cases that end with lynching, only happen in African cities, where the tribal dynamics have been damaged or upset by urbanization, and no processes of post therapeutic regulation have been set up.
Outside of the village of origin, people are unable to structure the transformational process from sorcerer to healer, and so revenge prevails.
The Healer's Techniques
This therapeutic method hardly works with the patient; illness represents an occasion for the community to look for, find and initiate one of the most ambiguous and precious actors: the healer.
In his transformation there is a weaving of complex and profound ties. Instead of isolating a patient, identifying him with his symptom which needs to be removed, he is connected and immersed in extremely deep ties with another member of the tribe, and with his same family, whose dynamics are then influenced.
Questioning of the Invisible
The questioning of the invisible moves along a series of slides:
- from the patient's symptom to the identification of the sorcerer
- from the sorcerer to sorcery
- from sorcery to the ways of avoiding it for the good of the community.
In their technical development, the theories centred around sorcery by nature:
- are real family therapies
- produce unity in the social group by creating extraordinarily efficient interactive mechanisms
- force people to question themselves on overbearing manners, vexations and are therefore a school of social respect
- through intrinsic obligation to always take into consideration the feelings of others, they represent an excellent psychological technique.
Sorcerers "By Technique"
The third postulate of "savage thought"
concentrates on sorcerers "by technique", that is, those that were not born as such, like the sorcerers "by nature", but have learned during a long initiation, the necessary techniques to interact with supernatural beings and produce effects in the human world.
In these cases, sorcery is done through the construction of a "spell-object".
The healer, who is consulted to contrast the effects, will therefore have the duty to:
- identify the personal or family dynamics that are at the base of the sorcery (usually the same sentiments: envy, jealousy, revenger etc.);
- reveal the nature and method of the creation of the spell-object;
- discover who created the object (almost always a family member);
- indicate where such an object has been hidden;
- work to cancel its effect, therefore undo the invisible.
The questioning of the invisible, therefore moves along a series of slides:
- from the patient's symptom to the identification of the malevolent kinsman;
- from the kinsman, to the object containing the spell;
- from locating the spell-object, to the technique of cancelling its effects.
The main interest of this framework is that of technicalizing the therapeutic relationship. One technique has provoked the illness, and another will allow it to be cured.
From the moment that the person accused of having done sorcery, continues to deny having done it, then the counter-technique is generally done by creating an anti-spell-object.
In this theoretical frame we find the concepts that lead to more efficient therapies because:
- they permit the recognition of hidden intentions
- they generate sophisticated counter-techniques
- they establish a complex network of ties with the context: a two-faced network: one aimed at identifying invisible intentions, the other towards the manipulation of concrete elements (anti-spell-objects).
The three postulates examined: divinities, sorcerers by nature, sorcerers by technique, are variously appreciated in the different regions of Africa. The cultures of Western Africa seem to privilege mostly spirits, Central African cultures prefer sorcerers by nature, while those in Northern Africa have a certain preference for sorcerers by technique.
These categories constitute a therapeutic continuum, which is often gone through completely, alternating one category with the other, therefore going through all the shades of the concepts of the invisible and of intentions. It is as if they said: In order to better disassociate the symptom from the person, we have to make these two concepts function at their best so as to disarticulate the illness.
Composition and Characteristics of "Anti-Spell" Objects
Moving on to a detailed study of the nature and function of these object, firstly, we define them as those treatments that in non Western society allow the creation, maintenance, and perpetration of the disjunction of the symptom from the person. This aim is especially manifested considering the "protective objects" (amulets, prayers, sacrifices, etc.), the function of which is explicitly to keep the person as far away as possible from such objects and rites.The use of these treatments, also allows the materialization of the theory of the nature of the disorder, as professed by the community.
In the Western cultural world, in psychiatry, the psycho pharmaceutical is the active object that ties the symptom to the person and materializes the theory according to which mental illness is the fruit of a chemical imbalance in the brain's functions.
Going back to the anti-spell objects of the African peoples, we can find that some are simply constructed, while others, most importantly the antidotes and amulets, are extremely complex, since they are antagonists of equally complex spell-objects. From the ideological point of view, these are an equally constitutive part of the healing system, as much as the objects used in defence. Without forgetting to highlight, also in this case the fact that the amulets belong to the category of things, not symbols.
When examined concretely, anti-spell objects always have a certain set of characteristics:
- they are constituted by a mix of heterogeneous elements
- the constituting elements come from the four reigns of nature: human, animal, vegetable, mineral
- they always have a package and a content
- more often they have a compact nucleus
- they cannot be taken apart without breaking
- they can be "undone" only by a competent healer.
These characteristics, in the African cultural context, can be assimilated to living beings; in fact in the world in which these objects circulate, the properties that define the living are:
- mixture of heterogeneous elements
- opposition of nucleus/package
- possession of a soul-nucleus
- characteristics of not being able to be taken apart.
This makes it so that the magical objects are recognized as living beings; with the consequence that , once made, they continue their lives independently from the person who made them.
If we make a close observation of the technical characteristics of magical objects, we find that:
- they are "alive"
- they are active and independent from their maker and their receiver
- they are used according to "instructions" which are carefully coded
- in talking about remedies, they are medicinally "made to order" and cannot be loaned or donated
- the entire system of thought is contained in the object, which is a symbol only of itself
- the way they are made and used is kept secret.
This irregular combination, actually contains "a tie to thinking"; these objects are first of all a knot of concepts, and it is from this characteristic that their real efficiency comes into play.
These devices are anything but "irrational".
If they are examined without cultural prejudice, they are revealed to be articulated techniques around a system of thought, complex and subtle and especially socially fertile, whose therapeutic function is explained by producing a profound connection of ties among people.
In conclusion, after having noted that:
- in the world there exists an infinite series of efficient therapies,
- these systems are all unyielding to our own,
- they are authentic systems of concepts and not vain "beliefs",
We are lead to believe that an authentic psychopathological science should first of all respect the facts and not worry about just defending an ideology, a doctrine or type of culture.
What's more, the only object of a truly scientific psychopathology is the description, as precise as possible made by therapists about their theories, techniques and instruments, not about their patients.
The Western system, based on symptoms and syndromes is oriented towards defending one single type of clinic, that of the West.
Once we have surpassed this dichotomy, research should start from the analysis, as detailed as possible, of the real techniques used by therapists to then go back to the theories of these techniques, before deriving, maybe one day, functioning models and theoretical objects.