The Transcendental Social

Three interesting things regarding the brain and how we tell stories:

The Transcendental Social: A Denmark study that found that praying to God activated regions of the brain associated with talking to a friend, reinforcing a theory linking religious faith to theory of mind, the idea that our capacity to imagine the intentions and thoughts of other beings was a defining cognitive evolution. In other words, our capacity for empathy may have led directly to our capacity for faith.

This led anthropologist Maurice Bloch to coin the term Transcendental Social:

Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch calls the “transcendental social” to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental social also allows humans to follow the idealised codes of conduct associated with religion.

“What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination,” Bloch writes.

“One can be a member of a transcendental group, or a nation, even though one never comes in contact with the other members of it,” says Bloch. Moreover, the composition of such groups, “whether they are clans or nations, may equally include the living and the dead.”

It’s not a big leap to imagine how theatre connects to the ideas above: the evolutionary need to live in the imagination as a means to develop empathy and balance individual desires within a social framework lives in the practice of theatre. The Transcendental Social may be a direct result of the cognitive evolution of what Arlene Goldbard calls Imaginative Empathy, and an essential part of the relationship of democracy and theatre.

Twitter and the Global Brain: Dean Pomerleau wrote a fascinating article about how Twitter is beginning to mirror the way our brains create meaning. Basically, the way synapses develop relationships is similar to how tweeting, retweeting and following moves information through Twitter. Dean suggests ways that Twitter could mirror our brains even more, reaching a semi-autonomy that would lead to something approaching a global consciousness.

This is an imaginative world, the Transcendental Social, on an enormous scale, with information moving and relationships developing organically in real time. However, this world lacks the Presence of theatre, and it is an open question if true Imaginative Empathy is possible without presence. This may be the essential question theatre needs to ask if it is to survive in a future where connection and story are only a click away.

The Baboon Skull: Michael Finkel’s article for National Geographic about the Hadza of Tanzania gives us one possible answer. The Hadza are one of the few remaining true hunter-gatherer societies left. They practice no agriculture, have few possessions, they don’t have wedding ceremonies or funerals, they don’t practice any codified religion, they don’t celebrate birthdays; they hunt four to six hours a day, and spend the rest in relative autonomy, in stark comparison with our over scheduled lives of social obligations (the article makes clear their challenges, though, trying to avoid romantic notions of what is a difficult existence).

But they do have theatre, and it is undoubtedly a theatre of Presence. Here is an edited account of Michael’s version of a story told after a successful baboon hunt – read the whole thing here:

With the baboon skull still in the fire, Onwas rises to his feet and claps his hands and begins to speak. It’s a giraffe-hunting story—Onwas’s favorite kind…Onwas elongates his neck and moves around on all fours when he’s playing the part of the giraffe. He jumps and ducks and pantomimes shooting a bow when he’s illustrating his own role. Arrows whoosh. Beasts roar. Children run to the fire and stand around, listening intently; this is their schooling. The story ends with a dead giraffe—and as a finale, a call and response.

“Am I a man?” asks Onwas, holding out his hands.

“Yes!” shouts the group. “You are a man.”

“Am I a man?” asks Onwas again, louder.

“Yes!” shouts the group, their voices also louder. “You are a man!”

Onwas then reaches into the fire and pulls out the skull. He hacks it open, like a coconut, exposing the brains, which have been boiling for a good hour inside the skull. They look like ramen noodles, yellowish white, lightly steaming. He holds the skull out, and the men, including myself, surge forward and stick our fingers inside the skull and scoop up a handful of brains and slurp them down. With this, the night, at last, comes to an end.

It is always dangerous to infer too much about a different culture, particularly from a second hand account. But the article does remind me of the importance of Presence to story, how it passes on the essential meaning of experience, how often our theatre fails to thrust forward that baboon’s skull, and how exciting it is when that call and response reminds us what it means to be human.

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