The Lack of and Craving for Deep-Safe-Spaces in Modernity

Science intends to look for and offer understanding/options for at least man-made, if not natural, human suffering.

However we (westernized) social scientists do have, looking closely at our (public) time/money investments the last hundred years, a bad track record.

We have not been able to offer proper and soothening understandings of what is happening in collective ‘ethnic/religious’ violence and killings all over the world. Even less on the tremendous sexual/physical violence against women and children by, most of the time totally out of control, adult males. Let alone solutions.

It is even worse. To speak/write on this collective failure of anthropology (and of social science) is a collective & persistent taboo among scholars in academic systems.

However this taboo, on not acknowledging this massive lack of understanding, is cracking relatively rapidly since three decades due to stepping up of scholars, especially women, of colour.

In anthropology there are persistent traditions of decolonizing anthropology, of feminist anthropology and of native anthropologists/philosophers pioneered mostly by by women.

Predominantly senior female writers-philosophers-anthropologists, like Peggy McIntosh (1988),  Kimberly Crenshaw (1989) Luce Irigaray, McGoldrick (1995) Barbara Ehrenreich, Helen Fisher, Ellen Dissanayake, Unni Wikan, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Edith Turner who build upon numerous male anthropologists,  are offering new understanings by tapping into ancient (biological & non-western) solutions for contemporary personal, family, community, systemic violence and environmental problems.

The Craving for deep-safe places is endemic in European societies. A  reocurring theme of a ‘paradise lost‘ which has to be regained. Already Rousseau was expressing the blessings of ‘natural man‘. My scientific field of anthropology is densily populated with longings for far-away societies where living is easy and well-being is all over the place. (Sahlins Original Affluent Society 1966).

Vine Deloria jr.,  a Oglala-Souix from Pine Zidge USA and a lawyer/writer/activist, wrote in his ‘We Talk, You Listen‘ (1970):

Tribal society is of such a nature that one must experience it from the inside. It is holistic, and logical analysis will only return you to your starting premise none the wiser for the trip. Being inside a tribal universe is so comfortable and reasonable that it acts like a narcotic. When you are forced outside the tribal context you become alienated, irritable, and lonely. In desperation you long to return to the tribe if only to preserve you sanity.

In these times (2016) we humans, especially westerners, have, in ten or more generations as women and men for ourselves and for our children, slowly developed a collective amnesia how to co-create deep-safe spaces. In these spaces, according to these academic clan mothers, we can find collective joy, experience deep-belonging, let go of our troubles and transform our burdens.

A reviewer of ‘Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy’ (Edith Turner 2012) writes on deep-safe-spaces:

Liminal moments, intense feelings of belonging and the temporary absence of the usual rigid social order have an uneasy history when it comes to argumentative, theoretical approaches. Victor Turner’s notion of communitas gains its strong legacy precisely because it aims to grasp such spontaneous, inarticulate phenomena in their ephemerality without forcing them into strict, context-alien explanations. (Vonnak 2013)

Already in 1992 Edith Turner (Experiencing Ritual) meticulously anayzed her revisiting a healing ritual among the African Ndembu (Zambia) and created an ‘operative’ (beyond performative) anthropology of ritual she and her late husband had already experienced during their fieldwork among the Ndembu in the 50’s of the last century.

It is time to deliver an old promise of social science to overview, select and recombine ‘pragmatic’ insights from intersectional perspectives of male-female, low-high class, black-white, old-young, homo-hetero-transgender scholars.

Anthropologist Victor Turner knew and quoted anthropologist Gregory Bateson. We do not know if the last knew the former but no citation can be found in Bateson’s work on Turner. Combining their work with the contributions of the the female scholars above above we may conclude that what Bateson puzzled on the ‘Naven’ ritual in Iatmul (New Guinean) culture had been solved already by Turner in 1969.

But both could not fully see, and not believe, what they were observing and grasping the importance for western forms of alienation, urban (adolescent) feelings of ‘is this all there is’ and ‘feeling out of place’. Young men (and women), as I experienced in numerous occasions in my ten year clinical fieldwork in psychiatry, are craving for ‘deep-safe-spaces’. (see 2015 Bekkum Co-creating Transitional Spaces). For more than a century Emile Durkheim’s claim still stands: ‘the more fragmented a society …the higher the rates of suicide’ (and other kinds of troubles). This sounds like man-made suffering.

In effective rituals indigenous peoples (First Nations) co-create (deep-safe) ‘transtional/liminal spaces‘, already for thousands of years, in which they enter together ‘communitas‘ and revisit their individual-collective memories to understand/heal and transform burdens of today. Our collective amnesia to enter these healing and transformative can be turned around into collective remembering. This is not a (western) rational enterprise. On the contrary. To enter transitional spaces during ritual this kind of rationality has to be lowered to a very tiny level. Most Europeans are brought up/socialized with deep anxieties to let go (collectively) of their rationalities. The unacknowledged core value: without our cognition/ratio we tend to become animals. But we are social animals and entering transitional  spaces is re-entering our animal paradise to experience how it was when we didn’t have to think but only act intuitively.

The lack of and craving for deep-safe spaces is expressed in the different conceptions developed to grasp what has ben lost in modernity. Durkheim spoke of collective effervescence, Moreno of Tele in dramatherapy (Johnson 2009, 399), Csikszentmihalyi of flow, and Victor Turner (1969) & Edith Turner of communitas (2012).

Gregory Bateson, in his ethnography of a boys’ initiation ritual Naven (1935), tried to understand how this event re-organized female-male worlds during ‘ritual spaces‘ in Iatmul (New Guinean) communities.

Colin Turnbull describes the  Molimo (male) ritual of the Mbuti people in Congo, Africa in his The Forest People (1962/2000).

Kenneth Read describes in the The High Valley  (New Guinea) a collective boys’ initiation ritual with transitional (transformative) spaces (1965).

Renate Devisch in his Weaving the Threads of Life (1993) too wrote an splendid ethnography in which the ”active ingredients”, deep-safe spaces as core ingredient, become visible and tangible.

Paul Spencer describes in The Maasai of Matapato: a study of rituals of rebellion (1988) the tough initiation ritual of the Moran (age-group of unmarried young men) of the Maasai people in Kenia, Africa.

Brad Keeney opens up his own experiences with the Kalahari Bushmen (Southern Africa) in several books and this paper on ‘Dancing N/om‘ (2012).

Next to these these descriptions offers anthropology, for curious westerners, a vast reservoir of ethnographies of ritual. Common, most of the time unacknowledged, denominatorof these ethnographies is co-creating (collective) deep-safe, re-solidarizing, reviving, restabilizing, transformative spaces.

The last en years, as a clinical-systemic anthropologist cooperating closely with senior transcultural system/familyn therapists, we are able to recreate and co-create with the families we work with and our student groups we co-educate deep-safe (transitional) spaces. See chapter Handbook Cultural Psychiatry, ‘Bekkum et. al. RITUALS AND PROTECTIVE WRAPPING IN PSYCHIATRY‘ (2010 translated from Dutch).