Friday, January 15, 2016


Catlin's depiction of an Okipa

When the young adventurers of the Seventies heard anthropologists talk about Sun Lodge torture among the Plains Indians, they could hardly wait to go try it out.  It had been forbidden by authorities on grounds that it encouraged warlike and savage behavior, which made it even more attractive.  Not many reported afterwards, neither about damage nor about spiritual transcendence.  

My premise is that since the prairie people had not learned to ferment alcohol (maybe for lack of sugar sources) nor had they found many hallucinogens beyond peyote (not wet enough environment for mushrooms), they had learned a great deal about auto-theogenic behavior — that is, how to push consciousness out of homeostasis enough to make a person visionary but not quite suicidal.  Thirst, fasting, solitude, pain were their resources -- always available and good training for hard lives.

In recent times publications like VICE, who actively look for edgy stuff, have reported on the practice of “suspension,” basically the same thing as Okipa.  The old Indians used skewers and thongs to tie chest or back flesh to lines so that by prolonged leaning against attachment to a central point (a major tree trunk in the middle of a circle of lesser trunks) the flesh and skin would be torn through.  This capitalized on the body’s reaction to pain and damage with such molecules as serotonin, natural anesthetics, even providing a “high.”  It’s related to the practice of “cutting” oneself in order to find consolation and peace.  A woman once told me about being in a car accident that threw her out onto the highway with grievous damage, but she lay there in great comfort — temporarily, until the “shock” and the natural opioids wore off.

This photo was taken in Moscow, they claim.

Modern suspension stories feature people who are paid to hang someone by using hooks, on the presumption that they have studied this and can do it with relatively safety and effectiveness.  It might be private, for the experience, or public as an exhibition, a freak show.  A whole body of technical and pseudo-technical terminology, technique, and metaphors have grown up around this practice, which justifies itself with Catlin’s painting of a Mandan okipa.  Philosophy that values the primitive, the tough, the excessive and the violent plus political times that are bleak, oppressive, fatalistic, and ascetic offer a context for this practice.  Many of the modern accounts are placed in the great prairie of Eurasia dominated by Russia.

A variation is an intimate group who form a circle or star on their hands and knees, webbed by hooks and connecting lines.  The idea is to pull against each other until the hooks tear through.  The suspensions in the above photo are not supposed to tear away, since the suspended person would fall.  They need help to be lowered and disengaged.  Google lists vids as well as reports.

These practices are related to many other pain-inducing strategies that have been claimed by the sexual category of S and M, for “sado-"  hurting others and “maso-"432 hurting oneself.  I note this only for the few people who don’t already know it.  We throw the terms around carelessly and often with the same craving for the forbidden as wanting to be whipped or fisted. 

I notice not many have been attracted to the tribal coming-of-age practice of forcing the eyeteeth out of the mouths of adolescent boys.  But the popular practice of labiaectomies seem very close to clitoradectomies, which are deplored in polite society.  Photos of these procedures are available on the Internet.  They are not usually included in discussions of pornography, which are assumed to be attractive.

Extreme plastic surgery seems to have become a signal of wealth.  Sometimes in primitive tribes the idea is to become more attractive by flattening the head or stretching the neck or lower lip.  I don’t see why repeated surgeries in order to look like a tiger are any different. The idea of the believer’s circle applies: inside the circle it all seems powerful and real.  Outside the circle it just looks psychotic.

These are not always practices meant to achieve a “high,” but are often meant to indicate a seriousness certified by irreversibility or the achievement of some marker of adulthood or other privileged category.  The traditional idea of “defloration” — breaking the hymen in a person’s first act of intercourse — is now jokingly referred to as “popping your cherry.”  The metaphor gets spread around to a lot of different “first times.”  In general our times seem disrespectful of human flesh.  I note many jokes about cannibalism or immolation on the CSI shows, though the characters sometimes remind each other that human life is meant to be valued.

All of this is a digression from two points I want to make.  The first one is that the Plains Indians had a culture that respected the displacement of ordinary consciousness and even saw it as a source of information about the ordinary world.  It’s not just unique metabolism that makes them vulnerable to the effects of alcohol -- in a parallel to the lack of antibodies making them vulnerable to smallpox.  It’s not just the burdens of stigma and poverty.  It’s also an expectation, an inevitability and jokey acceptance that supports clowning and self-abasement.  But then again a yearning for a mystic transcendence.  Our contemporary concern about harm is missing.

The second matter is that those who looked closely at the list of books on my "shelf" may have been startled to see “Urban Aboriginals” by Geoff Mains.  It is reflection, theory and practice by a man educated in endorphin metabolism and also in forest ecology, which he intelligently understood as related.   He was writing in 1984, early days for the understanding of brains, though one of the best early researchers, Panskepp, is mentioned.  He quotes Charles Tart, who sounds very much like Victor Turner, one of my key anthropological authorities for transcendent experience.  Mains respected systems, communities, and safeguards.  Sometimes he sounds like a member of a BBC-depicted British explorer's club.  I don’t necessarily agree with him, certainly never had his experiences, but want the mental challenge of tearing myself away from cultural assumptions as he did.  

Like the Mandan Okipa,  Mains' work could easily be mis-interpreted and illegitimately proliferated.  In any discussion of bodies, one is soon having to address what is actual flesh and what is virtual theory.  Many people will springboard from that into a kind of mysticism of initiates meant to vault themselves above others.  I don’t know many identified SM people but in my experience the best protection against an unwarranted assumption of superiority due to esoteric practices is the reality and tragedy of actual bodies, real people, trying to survive.  Maybe Catlin should have minded his own business.

Jean Paul Gautier mocking what were meant to be dangerous male harnesser.

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