Comprehension and Creation: The Process of WorldMaking in Joanna Overing’s “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds”

It is a question of how worlds are made.  For every incompatibility of worldview between a Western researcher and an indigenous informant, and between every logical incommensurability of facts or reasoning one to the other, we see at the crux of the impasse a failure – perhaps counter-intuitively more often on the part of the Western viewpoint – to anticipate and apprehend the very process of world-making that underlies the frames of reference in which both participants find themselves uniquely situated.  It is this question that Joanna Overing approaches in her article “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds”, effectively making use of certain epistemological and ontological arguments as put forward in Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking.  By approaching the question of world-making in general, and then addressing the shaman (or ruwang in the terms of the Piaroa) as a “’world maker’, a creator of knowledge (Overing 604)” in particular, Overing is able to neatly dismantle crucial aspects of the perennial debate over the nature of certain kinds of ‘metaphoric’ or ‘symbolic’ language often utilized by indigenous peoples, and reframe them in terms of Goodman’s “process of knowing (Overing 605).”  This is not a small step, for knowing as a process of world creation is the very essence of shamanic – and indeed, all – world-making, lending itself to a potent reformulation of the dialogues of contradiction between otherwise incompatible ‘world versions’.  This reformulation provides a means by which incompatibility between world versions, as well as the mechanism of contradiction and incoherence within individual world versions, might be understood and ultimately resolved.  Perhaps more powerfully though, this reformulation allows us to re-interrogate the nature of what we can call ‘truth’, subjecting its measure no longer to its coincidence with an impossible-to-ascertain external referent – or “bedrock of reality (Overing 610)” – but instead recognizing that, as Overing says of Goodman’s argument, “A statement is true, and a description or representation right, for a world it fits (Overing 606).”  When ‘truth’ is freed from an insistence upon a single, unitary basis in some external and seemingly unattainable ‘reality’, we find ourselves in the unique position to confront one of the most long-standing contradictions between a Western, materialist-positivist worldview, and at least one particular aspect of those of many, if not most, indigenous cultures: the notion of the reality of spirit.

“If worlds are as much made as found, so also knowing is as much remaking as reporting… Comprehension and creation go on together (Goodman, in Overing 602).”  Overing’s quotation of Goodman establishes the centrality of this theme: knowing is a process of world making.  While it is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt a reduplication of either Goodman or Overing’s fully expressed arguments on the nature of such world-making as an epistemological and ontological process, a perhaps reductively abbreviated expression of the main points will facilitate the furthering of the present discourse.  In effect, it can be persuasively argued that speaking of any single, unitary external reality is impossible, inasmuch as such discussion is forced, by the nature of descriptive language in general, to find itself positioned within a particular frame of reference.  Indeed, Overing surmises from Goodman’s arguments that “One cannot say what something is without a frame of reference (Overing 605).”  If identity, and thereby truth, cannot be disentangled from the frames of reference by which it is purported to be known, then identity, and truth itself, can only be discussed in terms of the system of reference that has produced it.  What this allows then, for the anthropologist working in context of shamanic knowledge, is to engage in an appreciation of a multiplicity of frames of reference, or ‘world versions’ that compose and comprise the multifaceted worldview of an indigenous informant, treating the expressions of this worldview no longer as simply ‘poetic’ and ‘metaphorical’ – if not ultimately beholden to logic – but rather as cogent statements about a multiplicity of world versions “already at hand (Overing 606),” and able to be used as the source-stuff of newly creative acts.

It is these newly creative acts that we are most interested in when we speak of shamanic activity, perhaps most readily exemplified in acts of curing.  As Overing says, “Each successful cure was considered to be an original act (602)” by the Piaroa with whom she worked.  The idea expressed here is one based on a shaman’s powerful knowledge of multiple world versions, worlds composed of relationships and correspondences that, when emphasized, de-emphasized, omitted, or appended in novel ways, produce new world versions that allow for a given illness to be contextualized in terms of both ‘before time’ and ‘today time’, as Overing describes them.  This contextualization and re-ordering is, itself, powerful, inasmuch as knowledge of these systems and their manipulation is power.  The shaman – or ruwang – has power over an illness or disease when and if he or she can ‘rightly’ (within a world version, or a newly constructed world version) establish the nature, origins, correspondences, and relationships of creatures, beings, or entities that have associations with or ‘ownership of’ the specific illness.  This idea reminds distinctly of Graham Townsley’s discussion of Yaminahua shamans, and their utilization of a “densely metaphoric (Townsley, in Narby 269)” curing language, described as “language twisting-twisting (Townsley, in Narby 270).”  Yaminahua shamans state that “’twisted language brings me close but not too close – with normal words I would crash into things – with twisted ones I circle around them – I can see them clearly.’ (Townsley, in Narby 270).”  Townsley discusses the nature of a shamanic cure by stating that “It is interesting in this context that the only thing named by direct, as opposed to ‘twisted’ language is the woman’s body itself at the moment in which, precisely, the images of the song are intended to physically ‘crash’ into it, effecting the real cure (Townsley, in Narby 271).”  Though Townsley does not take his understanding of this ‘densely metaphoric’ language in the direction that Overing does via Goodman’s argument, the mechanism of curing can be seen to have a kind of resonance.  It is the constructions of the words – and via the words, worlds, and the contextualizing of illness within them – that effect the cure.  Shamanic power is again a manifestation of a unique and peculiar kind of knowledge-in-practice.

Goodman’s system as delineated by Overing describes both the production of knowledge, and the ascertainment of ‘truth’ for a given world version.  However, the kind of “relativism” that Goodman’s hypothesis may at least arguably represent is not without a number of potential difficulties for application.  As soon as more than one world version exists, it is almost certain that the ‘truth-values’ produced by one will find themselves in conflict with the ‘truth-values’ of another.  Differing ontological structures and their attendant procedures for understanding the world or worlds will almost inevitably generate certain arrangements of knowledge that are simply incommunicable and incommensurable with the arrangements of others, despite the fact that the much the same process of world making took place at the outset for each – as Overing states, “the process of worldmaking… followed in the West and in the jungle are much akin to one another.  The scientist… and shaman-curer are ‘doing much the same thing’ in their construction of versions of worlds (603).”  When these arrangements of knowledge find themselves in seeming contradiction or conflict, a Western investigator – his or her conception of the world bounded by scientific or positivist principles – will almost certainly be at a loss for a mechanism of reconciliation.  The idea of a unitary, external reality is an assumption so fundamental to a scientific/positivist worldview that it is, in the general case, unlikely to even be held up as one to be questioned.  Nevertheless, if we follow Goodman’s argument in Overing’s explication, many conflicts and contradictions between different systems of understanding may be quietly and easily resolved.  The simple idea that there are a multiplicity of simultaneously existing, even conflicting, worlds and that “there is no solid bedrock of reality to which we can turn to assess world versions (Overing 605)” relieves the existential pressure of answering which ‘world version’ is more ‘right’ or ‘true’.  Conflict and contrast between systems is resolved by an allowance for a multiplicity of worlds, existing simultaneously, the description of each of which is not dependent on the complicity of any other system of description.

What is dangerous, however, is the ease with which a principle such as this kind of ‘multiplicity of worlds’ can lead to an anarchism of ontologies.  A world version, when constructed from facets, aspects, and elements of other world versions, must produce a self-coherent descriptive system able to ‘fit’ the experience of phenomena to the structure and processes implied by the ontology itself.  This is to say that not all newly constructed world versions, nor all actions taken, explanations given, or understandings formed within a given world version, can be said to be as ‘right’ as any other.  Crucially, there must be a means by which contradiction and incoherence may be measured, especially internally to a given world version.  Goodman describes this in terms of ‘fit’, by which he seems to mean the degree to which phenomena or experience can be meaningfully situated within an expression of reality or world version (Overing 606).  Overing gives an example of a novice shaman whose song, lacking the technical complexity and metaphorical depth – and thereby the prophylactic and healing power – of a master shaman, was deemed ‘wrong’ instead of ‘right’, despite having ostensibly been sung about the same mythical events (615).  In this case, by failing to make a new world in terms of those “already at hand (Overing 606)” in ways powerful enough to include a density of metaphor and symbol drawn from both ‘before time’ and ‘today time’, the novice shaman produced a song that simply ‘did not fit’ correctly or effectively into the multiplicity of world versions in existence, and was not, thereby, capable of generating a new world version, either.  By having failed to know, the novice shaman failed to create, rendering his cure ineffective.

In his or her songs, chants, rituals, myths, and ecstatic experiences, a shaman’s world-making cannot not be considered as merely abstract imaginations, something akin to a flight of fancy or an elaboration of some distinctive fiction.  These are not fictive worlds, and as such, typically Western ideas of ‘imagination’ simply do not apply.  What is most central is the recognition that shamans are, in fact, creating real worlds, inasmuch as these worlds are, according to Goodman’s argument, as epistemologically or ontologically valid as any Western or scientific world version.  The idea of a ‘bedrock’ or externally referential reality from which the versions can be said to ultimately spring must perforce be abandoned, given that we cannot perceive, communicate, or understand beyond the bounds of a particular frame of reference.  In light of this, the power of the shaman might be stated as the ability to move within and between these frames of reference, to turn them to his own ends, and in so-doing, form-by-framing new worlds from other worlds “already at hand (Overing 606).”

Such a notion insists that we take Edith Turner’s assertion that “there is spirit stuff (Turner, in Harvey 146)” far more seriously than we might otherwise feel compelled to.  It is one thing to say that, from a certain perspective, perhaps there are ways of understanding the world in which ‘spirit stuff’ seems to be a plausible hypothesis, all the while implying that such a perspective or world-view has no empirical reality.  It is quite another, however, to admit and follow through to the logical extent of Goodman’s ideas.  If all worlds are addressable only in terms of their points of reference, to which no ‘bedrock’ can be referenced for a final or ultimate test of some external reality, and if ‘truth’ is little more than “’what the tests test’ (Goodman, in Overing 617)”, then any powerfully descriptive and self-coherent world version must be taken as seriously as any other.  There is no objective stance by which to compare, judge, and determine the rightness or wrongness of one or the other world version without engendering the conflict of yet a third viewpoint.  It is then, following this reasoning, no longer acceptable merely to acknowledge the agnostic ‘possibility’ of an indigenous experience of a nominal ‘spirit’, but rather manifest as a kind of mandate to evaluate and experience these worldviews as closely and fully as possible, taking seriously indigenous notions of ‘spirit’.  Such world versions have no less worthy claim to a shape and structuring of reality than any other – whatever a modern, Western, rational-positivist mindset might otherwise insist upon – and as such must be treated seriously, with all of the ontological earth-shaking they may in fact imply.  Indeed, Turner asserts that

Mainline anthropologists have studiedly ignored the central matter of this kind of information – central in the people’s own view – and only used the material as if it were metaphor or symbol, not reality, commenting that such and such ‘metaphor’ is congruent with the function, structure, or psychological mindset of the society.  Clearly, this is a laudable endeavor as far as it goes.  But the neglect of the central material savors our old bete noire, intellectual imperialism.

(Turner, in Harvey 148)

Overing’s work as it builds on Goodman’s hypothesis of world-making affords anthropologists a singular opportunity to get beyond some of the more fundamental impasses between a Western worldview and those of indigenous peoples.  By introducing a philosophic relativism that still maintains a kind of stubborn insistence on the capacity to measure ‘truth’ within a given world version, Overing provides a bridge between a Western conception of a unitary world, structured according to logically “sequential links (Overing 611),” and alternate conceptions of a multiplicity of worlds, bound or ordered by other principles, including those of morality and mythic correspondence.  Such a bridge is built, however, on relativistic suggestions that unsettle much of the complacency of the Western worldview, showing it to be structured around the idea of “a world fixed and found (Goodman, in Overing 603)”, which simply cannot be said to be in evidence.  The implications of such a theory, both for the expanded possibilities of understanding, and for the very ontologies by which we shape our lives, cannot be overstated.

Works Cited

Overing, Joanna. “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds: Nelson Goodman in the Amazon.” Man 25.4 (1990): 602-19. Print.

Narby, Jeremy, and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001. Print.

Harvey, Graham. Shamanism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.