Ghost Dancing in the New Millenium

Via BoingBoing comes Paul Saffo’s article on “The Ghost Dances” of the modern world. Using the historical Ghost Dance as a template, Saffo explores the myriad movements rising on all sides of the political and technological spectrum attempting to wrest control of people’s lives and communities from forces that have grown out of local control.

[It’s] dark history has made the Ghost Dance an anthropological shorthand for any millennial movement preaching a rejection of alien novelties and a return to traditional ways. The Ghost Dance is very much alive today. The global rise of religious fundamentalism is pure Ghost Dance, be it Islamic fundamentalists pining for a return to the Caliphate, Jewish fundamentalists battling moderate secularism, or Christian fundamentalists preaching an imminent Second Coming. The current opposition to evolutionary theory is an indelible example of the Ghost Dancing phenomenon. From this opposition has arisen “creation science,” a deeply contradictory belief system that attempts to use scientific method to discredit scientific theory to prove the literal truth of the Biblical version of creation.

Although I might question the device of an “anthropological shorthand” that generalizes and dehistoricizes a very specific complex of ideas — especially when anthropologists already have a general name for such movements (“revitalization movements”) — I think there is something useful in Saffo’s comparison, notably his recognition that such movements are never about a pure “return to the past” but are, rather, an attempt to “rescue” the past and re-deploy it to create a more satisfying present and future.

The Ghost Dance and it’s political-spiritual cousins are distinctly modern phenomena, in both their goals and their methodologies. As Saffo writes, “Embracing coveted portions of what one opposes in the service of returning an old order is a signature of the Ghost Dance.” Thus we have nuclear technology, the Internet, and the modern transportation system drafted into service in the interest of restoring the social order — even when the desired social order is Muhammad in Medina, the Jerusalem of the Second Temple, pre-contact North America, or even the New Primitivists’ pre-agricultural nomadism. Rather than rejecting modernity outright, these movements often accept the best aspects of modernity (though the definition of which aspects are “best” can vary widely) while rejecting the aspects that minimize individual human dignity (itself a very “modern” idea) or threaten the possibility of community/communion/communitas. That advancing the interests of the individual while protecting the sense of collective identity are often contradictory is only one of many contradictions that not only shape but motivate the modern Ghost Dancer.

The downside of Saffo’s comparison is that it tends to limit our responses. The original Ghost Dance was a response to very real pressures faced by American Indians at the end of the 19th century — yet the implications of the movement were threatening enough to the social order of the day that the Dance was banned and ultimately the movement destroyed, with much new suffering and bloodshed in the process. The labelling of modern reviatalization movements suggests only two avenues of response: either we destroy them, as we did in the late 1800s, or we watch them fade away. Today’s Ghost Dancers have vastly more leverage than the Native Americans of the American frontier — a handful of men with box cutters can embroil the entire world in conflict. The idea that we can destroy every instance of resistance to a growing techno-political world order is foolish — especially when more and more of us are finding ourselves on the other side of the techno-political divide. Without addressing the concerns underlying these movements, it seems unlikely that they will fade away, either — new movements will pop up as other movements run out of steam, because the alternative for most people is simply too grisly to endure for long. So far, the threat posed by the most extreme and most heavily armed of the modern Ghost Dancers has made any consideration of the issues they are responding to seem impossible, even treasonous, making it likely that these movements will continue to exist.

In a Durkheimian sense, though, perhaps the existence of Ghost Dancers is a necessary part of modernity itself, acting as a check on the worst excesses of the modern regime. For the average person in today’s world, these movements form the boundaries of human expression, lighthouses and buoys marking out the rocky coasts and allowing the rest of us to tack a more or less safe route through dangerous waters. Like Durkheim’s suicides, it may be that society produces its own discontents — that they are, indeed, the most modern among us.

10 thoughts on “Ghost Dancing in the New Millenium

  1. “Embracing coveted portions of what one opposes in the service of returning an old order” doesn’t seem to me to be a very felicitous characterization of revitalization movements since often (although not in every case) it is not the technologies of the present social order that are being opposed. Speaking of a context with which I’m familiar, Christian fundamentalists are adept at utilizing the Internet and other recent communication technologies to promote the morality associated with a certain interpretation of the Scriptures and with an imagined reconstruction of various historical eras. It isn’t the technology most Christian fundamentalists object to, but the divergence of the present social order in the US from a partially imagined historical moral construct. To what extent recent technologies are a product of current communally accepted values and whether the utilization of these technologies by revitalization movements are inherently inconsistent are other questions.

  2. I don’t really see it as a contradiction, because I think that “anti-modern” movements are not about modernity per se, but about the effect that some aspects of modernity has on some members of society. But technology is a part of modernity, and it is at least a significant aspect of many of the debates — e.g. the way the media prevents parents from controlling the influences their children are exposed to. WHat I think is interesting in this connection is how certain aspects of modernity, including technology, get “utilitized” (not “utilized”) — that is, are exempted from the lsit of negative influences on the grounds that “they are just tools” — while other elements get constructed as ideological. For instance, in the US right now, there are people pushing for stronger regulations on things like video games, the Internet, and comic books — some people would like to see at least some games or types of games banned outright! — than we have on *guns*! The rationale, for many, is that guns are “just tools”, while video games are actively ideological in their influence. Now, I don’t want to assert that guns, or video games, should or should not be strongly regulated; rather, I find the selection process itself interesting.

  3. Ghost Dancer,

    While I have a lot of admiration for the 19th c. Ghost Dancers, the movement was decidedly *not* opposed to violence, nor particularly tolerant — remember, Ghost Dancers donned bullet-proof shirts to wear into battle as they fought their war to purge the Europeans from North America. This is not a judgement of the morality or necessity of anyone’s actions. My point above was mainly that a lot of modern fundamentalism arises from the same kinds of frustrations that the Ghost Dance arose from — people witnessing their culture, whatever it may be, under attack by forces well outside their immediate sphere of control.

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  5. in native earth based society and through great change i guess this reliagon was about regaining lost ways and about strength of spirit. due to losing land and tradition this appears to be one way of reclaiming ones power by using the spiral of energy to quell the dominant controllers.

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