Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation


Derrida: The Gift of Death

Gaines: http://blackartistsretreat.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Reconsidering-Metaphor.pdf

San Art


"Far from a general view of life, the art focuses on a particular part of San experience: the spirit world journeys and experiences of San shamans. Thus we see many features from the all important trance dance, the venue in which the shamans gained access to the spirit world. We see dancers with antelope hooves showing that they have taken on antelope power, just as San shamans describe in the Kalahari today. Then, we see shamans climbing up the so-called ‘threads of light’ that connect to the sky-world. We see trance flight.

To show their experiences, the artists also used visual metaphors such as showing shamans ‘underwater’ and ‘dead’. These capture aspects of how it feels to be in trance.

The artists also show their actions in the spirit world, such as their capturing of the rain animal, their activation of potency for use in healing or in fighting off enemies or dangerous forces.

But, the art was far from just a record of spirit journeys. Powerful substances such as eland blood were put into the paints so to make each image a reservoir of potency. As each generation of artists painted or engraved layer upon layer of art on the rock surfaces they were creating potent spiritual places."



"Movement between the material and spirit realms in the San cosmos is achieved by shamans or ‘medicine people’ . These ritual specialists are believed to have the power to alter the weather, heal the sick and to control the movements of animals. Shamans enter a state of trance (or altered state of consciousness) by intense dancing, audio-driving and hyperventilation. Unlike many other hunter-gatherer societies around the world, they do not rely on the ingestion of hallucinogens. Shamans—both male and female—harness spiritual potency by dancing around the campfire while women clap ‘medicine songs’; in this way the shamans are transported to the spirit world.

Shamanic (or trance) dances, as well as individual elements of the dances, are depicted in the art. Human figures, for example, are often in a bending-forward posture. Today San shamans in the Kalahari say that, as potency boils in their stomachs, their muscles contract and they bend forward, often requiring the aid of one or two ‘dancing sticks’. Sometimes when this happens shamans suffer nosebleeds. The San believe that the smearing of nasal blood on people keeps sickness away.

Fundamentally, the art presents the shamans’ privileged view of the trance dance and of the spirit world to which they are transported. This ‘shaman’s eye’ view explains why there are so many ‘non-real’ images in the art. In addition to spirits leaving the top of people’s heads, sickness expelled through a ‘hole’ in the back of a shaman’s neck, and malevolent spirits of the dead encountered in the underworld, there are also numerous depictions of therianthropes (part-human, part-animal figures; see photo 3/5 in the Image Database), ‘flying’ bucks (antelope) and other unusual creatures. San art—like much hunter-gatherer rock art throughout the world—is about the ‘re-creation’ of shamans’ visions of the spirit world. In fact, the paintings were considered powerful ‘things in themselves’. Inherently potent blood was often used as a binder to adhere the pigments (e.g., ochre, clay, charcoal) to the rock face."


" images that were depicted that related to the different stages of trance: iconics, construals; and iconics and entoptics and even placement of the art on the rock surface, e.g. a human figure or animal being painted as if it is going into the rock surface, or coming out of it – the rock surface being symbolic of a veil between the physical and supernatural world

For the sake of clarity the metaphor for trance as depicted in the Rosetta-panel, namely death, needs to be expanded upon. The San say a shaman "dies" the moment he enters a trance. Trance is sometimes called a "half-death". This metaphor for death refers to the similarities between a dying antelope (especially an eland) and the conduct of the shaman during an altered state of consciousness. Both tremble severely, have blood coming from their noses, bow their heads downwards, sweat profusely, contract in spasms and fall down in a state of unconsciousness. These attributes are clearly depicted in the Rosetta Panel of Game Pass Shelter. In the panel a therianthrope (motif combining both animal and human features) can be seen clutching onto the tail of a dying eland. The therianthrope mimics the actions of the eland. When an eland dies its hair stands erect and in the Rosetta panel both the hair of the eland and the therianthrope stands erect. In the panel the eland has its head lowered and is stumbling, with its hind legs crossed. This is duplicated in the motif of the therianthrope, whose legs are also crossed.

The Rosetta Panel contains key elements that allowed researchers to "break the code" concerning symbolism in San rock art: here both the San shamans and dying elands experience the same thing. Next to the shaman holding the tail of the dying eland, is another shaman in a bent forward position its arms stretched out to the back. This depiction correlates with a stage during a trance dance when the shaman enters an altered state of consciousness, where he will find himself experiencing spasms in his stomach when magical potency starts to "boil" in his stomach. The potency travels up his spine and later explodes at the back of his neck. This process is so painful that the shaman may bend forward and later fall unconscious. Sometimes shamans are depicted leaning on dancing sticks when the potency starts to boil in their stomachs. They are then portrayed as "walking on all fours" just as an antelope, in this position they are transported to a semi-animal, semi-human state of being, in order to create a bridge between the physical and spiritual world. This implied that the shaman died in this world and entered the spirit world where he could fulfil his functions as ritual specialist. These principles have been applied to shamanistic interpretations elsewhere in the world."