Consider the following classification of animals from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:
Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
A modern Western taxonomist would never create such categories. There would be no subjective views (“fabulous”) or personal references (“belonging to the Emperor”). Rather, every entry would have the stamp of the scientific method: the capacity to be replicated by trained minds according to shared rules for experimentation and taxonomy.
One way to think of these differences might be in terms of progress and the advancement of Civilization. But personally, I have a hard time thinking of a society as “advanced” or “civilized” when it destroys the planet that sustains it.
Another way of understanding their differences might start by querying why Western science has historically devalued subjective perspectives and the emotions.
Subjective experience is not easily controlled. Minds have to be continually trained and self-reflexively monitored (some might say colonized) in order for people to engage in repetitive behaviors, to consistently think the same kinds of thoughts, and to mute emotional expression. (Others might call this “specialization.”) Leaving minds to freely develop threatens social systems that are dependent on prediction and control for desired outcomes (rather than dependent on, say, adaptation to circumstances).
Juxtaposing the mindsets of the imagined Chinese sage and Western taxonomist has me thinking of the trickster. The mythical trickster is a boundary breaker who challenges social norms, confuses the sacred with the profane, and thus is often portrayed as a destructive force. But trickster energy also comes forth at crossroads in our lives and when fate heads us in unforeseen directions. Trickster teaches us to accept uncertainty, if not embrace it.
We desperately need trickster energy. Without the trickster, our present capitalistic system will likely devour the planet. Science can’t provide a way out of this mess. Science has its hands full managing its own unpredicted consequences, such as antibiotic-resistant superbugs, acidic oceans, and nuclear waste. Does it really have the energy and resources to also manage our subjective experiences? (Could this be another reason psychopharmacology has become the primary response to psychological suffering?) Biopower is an ideology well past its prime.
Although trickster energy is typically associated with destruction, what happens in a society like ours for which violence and environmental degradation are the banal order of things? Isn’t destruction just more of the same, not really challenging anything at all?
In this world, is trickster energy reversed, like a Tarot card turned upside down? Rather than a violent force, would trickster energy be contemplative, peaceful, and considerate of others? Could unleashing trickster energy lead to life-altering acts of kindness and world-changing environmental conservation??!!
If my logic is correct, in a destructive and devouring world, trickster energy becomes conscientious and aware, much like Indigenous knowledges — the very wisdom perceptive enough to initially identify trickster energy and incorporate the inevitability of change in their social systems.
The following video, produced by First Peoples Worldwide, simplifies the differences between Western thought and Indigenous knowledge, showing how one approach destroys the planet and makes people sick from competition, while the other approach preserves environments and grows through interdependence and community.
Could Indigenous knowledge really function like trickster energy, overturning the order of things, resulting in a world based on sustainability, connection, and free minds? I think so. But if not convinced, check out the short animated film below on the evolution of Man. Granted, it’s a parody of selfish accumulation gone mad. Yet if we keep things as they are, we likely will face a maddening end. Even trickster energy would be at risk of extinction. There simply wouldn’t be anything left to destroy or any new directions to take.
Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House.
Rabinow, Paul. 1984. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).