Lindquist, G. (2001) 'Transforming Signs. Iconicity and Indexicality in Russian Healing and Magic', in Ethnos, Vol 66, 2: 181 - 206.
[This article describes the operations of Russian magic healing, which might seem a bit far from the normal concerns of Leisure Studies. However, it also features the use of Peirceian semiotics in order to understand what is actually going on. Very basically, once a punter can be persuaded to accept a particular vocabulary to describe the afflictions which require healing, the magi can then locate that vocabulary in a particular system of meaning. Goffman, in his book on mental illness (Stigma) suggests that a successful 'career' for a mental patient depends upon a similar process -- the person first has accept that s/he is mentally ill, and that voices in head or whatever are actually to be understood as symptoms of a recognised mental illness. Once that has been accepted, physicians can then proceed to 'heal' the condition in their familiar way. Anyone stubborn enough to insist that voices in the head really are spirits whispering to a chosen subject cannot be cured. This study features spiritualism instead of psychiatry, but the mechanism seems very similar. Leisure students might try the analysis on recreational spiritualism, ghost or UFO hunting, or other leisure pursuits.]
[A typical session with a Magus is described, where the punter comes to agree that she has been cursed, and that this explains her recent feelings of illness. The Magus then agrees to find a cure, 181 - 82]. Peirceian semiotics works with a triad of Object [sign], Representamen [signifier] and Interpretant. This model, unlike French semiotics, allows for the active role of an interpreter -- the Interpretant is located in the consciousness of the interpreter, and is a differnet sign offering a meaning for the first sign, by making it equivalent to something else that is known, or by subsuming the first sign under a more developed or general one. The more general one can take the form of a shared 'cultural template' (183), which provides enough shared understanding for communication to occur. However, there is enough variation for multiple meanings to be produced, and personal understanding to be developed as well, engendering a proces of externalising personal meanings and then being able to share and discuss them with others-- this is semiosis for Peirce.
Healing can be understood as a matter of symbolic transformation, which produces changes in symbolic reality and in the self. The symbolic reality of healing signs is allegedly located 'in bio-energy healing with hands' (184). In this way, interpretation can take the form of acts not just texts. Following Peirce again, these signs are both iconic and indexical [roughly, relating to a particular Object and standing for some lengthier process].
Peirce distinguishes three types of signs in fact -- icons, indexes and symbols. Icons indicate some shared quality, as when a realist portrait represents iconically its subject ( same colour eyes etc) . A blueprint 'is an iconic representation of the building' (184). Indexes, on the other hand, refer to some deeper relation or process -- a photograph indexes the actual mechanisms involved in taking a picture. 'Dark clouds on the sky are an indexical sign of coming rain' (185). As the example of a realistic photograph indicates, signs can be both iconic and indexical. In another [startling] example, 'a lock of hair is an indexical sign of the person to whom it once belonged... But it can also be regarded as the owner's iconic representation, since the person's biological substance... is contained in the organic material' (185). Signs which are both iconic and indexical are crucial in magic -- something is taken which represents the whole (indexicality), then sympathetic magic works on that object, assuming that it shares some quality with the whole (iconicity). Thus photographs, nails, hair, blood can be used to work magic. The qualities of these objects can be deciphered to tell something about the person to whom they belong, even if this is not actually spelled out but felt as an emotional state. It is this involvement of the emotional that helps make the process 'subjectively real' (185). [Then objects are manipulated to affect the cure].
Magic and healing has always been a part of the cultural sphere in Russia, and Magi even open clinics or salons. Magi offer to fix love relationships, improve other social relationships, deal with alcohol and substance addiction, or bring luck in business. Magical healers, by contrast, need to have studied in biomedical institutions, and offer to treat officially named illnesses and diseases. However, the distinction can be blurred. The real differences lie in diagnostic procedures -- patients simply tell their story to Magi, but are medically diagnosed by healers.
[Examples are given of the typical afflictions that lead Russians to consult Magi -- vague feelings of pain and powerlessness, for example, diagnosed as resulting from imbalances of energy, 187-88]. What is really happening is that during the conversation, 'the client's predicament... [is reformulated]... in the language of the typology of afflictions' (188). This language is widely shared. The Magi works by assuming that some 'bio-energy field' has been disturbed and needs to be reorganised [pretty familiar language in the UK as well]. Disturbances can even be partly genetic. Negative energies take different forms and are given different terms -- such as being affected by 'the evil eye' (189). Nastier forms include 'a persistent, directed intention to hurt you', say by a rival (189). In Russian magic, is not necessary to identify the aggressor, and, indeed, the problem may not be caused by actual persons at all but by a more general ill ease. Such disturbances produce a range of problems from depression to actual business failures or physical diseases -- in Russian culture an inability for a woman to get married may be seen as a particular affliction [and a short case-study ensues, 191 - 92]. Chronic loneliness, or long runs of bad luck can also be seen as variants of disturbance caused by curses, sometimes curses of distant kin.
Some more modern Magi use terms borrowed from genetics or even computer programming to further describe the effects of these curses. The signs used also refer to particular social conditions, such as when early Soviet overcrowding leads to a term for demonic possession as 'coercive indwelling' (193), an encroachment on personal space. Other names have been developed by Magi, although they are also known to lay people. Individual Magi also use their own idiosyncratic terms -- in the example on 193, a particular Magi claims to see disturbance as 'a little scarf of bad luck'. [This scarf clogs and entangles but can be removed].
These examples all indicate the importance of giving the affliction a name. The client then visualises their condition in a particular way, and the Magi can then offer treatment to remove the disturbing object, often using 'an arsenal of spells and ritual actions' (194). Failure often leads to other Magi being sought. Magi will also offer informal counselling and business advice to accompany the treatment. This naming and talking produces 'changes in the patient's consciousness that can lead towards betterment' (194).
In Peirceian terms, semiosis has taken place. The various metaphors employed -- curses, energy and the rest -- are seen as Representamina [plural of Representamen], whose objects are the feelings of the clients. In Russian healing, specific or pragmatic objects play the role of Representamina (in other cultures, it might be a ritual performance). Feelings are concretised, and this helps the client develop an image of their suffering. This sign then becomes connected or interpreted as an index of a much broader experience than just the personal. The object is seen to cause the trouble. However, the objects are also iconic -- a 'crown of celibacy' can be taken away, disturbing 'dirt' can be cleaned off, clinging objects can be removed. Russian healing is not just a matter of interpreting texts, however but acting and intervening. Signs do not gain the power from being inserted into texts, but by (re)presenting directly [that is, they have to be iconic as well as indexical].
Magical signs are also virtual; subjects experience them as real, while outside observers take a more objective stance. By naming the affliction, punters can understand what has happened, and can be given a concrete object 'to fight and get rid of' (196). The whole process is pragmatic as in Peirce's terms -- it is designed to have a bearing on actual conduct.
The actual processes of magical manipulation are not discussed in detail here. However, the activities of Magi involve using a whole range of further presentational and pragmatic signs -- far more so than the activities of healers, which tend to be confined to simple hand gestures. Magi exploit the double qualities of indexical and iconic signs much more effectively.
[Some observations of Russian healers then ensue, 197 - 201.] Healing involves a great deal of medical equipment. Particular assumptions include a view that bodies generate 'subtle electromagnetic currents' which can be used in the form of diagnosis, often with the assistance of a computer which constructs a coloured graphic -- again a combination of indexical and iconic signs. Changes in the graphics, before and after treatment, are seen as the only conclusive sign that healing has taken place. In this case, the condition is given the name of a medical disease, which is then translated into a visual image, so that semiosis can take place. Healing goes on as a practice 'within this semiotic domain' (200). The necessary 'narrative of healing' is supported by visual imagery, medical speech and practice. It is not important that any participant actually knows why treatment works, although often vague notions of fields or unknown forces are mentioned.
Healing can include a number of optional activities, from acupuncture to psychotherapy, but the core of it involves the manipulation of bio-energy by passing hands over the body and detecting various vibrations or radiations, experiencing heat or dark colours. A 'most expressive gesture or presentation, a masterful pantomime [that is, a mime rather than a knockabout vulgar comedy as we Brits understand it]' ensues (202). Lindquist was treated herself, and reported feelings of heat under the healing hands. Gestures can mimic physical manipulations -- smoothing, levelling, plucking out foreign bodies in a 'gestural mimesis' (202). These also depend on iconic representations of the affected organs -- healers 'see' these organs, apparently. Gestures then mimic what would be done with actual organs. The overall effect is 'to create a complex virtual reality' (203). Healers bolster this reality by the use of tests or computer graphics. Apparently, success rates are sufficient to sustain the business, and any failures can be rationalised away.
The whole pantomime is iconic. Both patient and healer 'enter virtually into the reality' (203). Gestures help both to simulate reality. What counts is 'not a cognitive belief but a perceptual experience' (204), an experience that the patient 'would have had, had he encountered this situation fully embodied in real life' (204). The pantomime identifies the essence of the problem and then fixes it.
So, magical diagnosis involves semiotics process of naming. Signs are both iconic and indexical, and the claim is that they can be physically manipulated or removed by the Magus. Objects can be manipulated as if they were physical ones, as in the pantomime above. Interpreters do not gain cognitive insight, but rather an emotional and subjective experience -- it is this that can transform the self, as when people get better. Cultural conventions are required in order to understand the meaning of the signs, for both patient and healer or magus.
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