In ethnology, trance is generally described as a technique of externalization: In the state of trance, the possessed can separate themselves from unwanted forces (of diseases, say, or spirits). They are thus relieved from their suffering not through introspection, but by confronting these forces as external or “foreign” powers.

The trance practices of non-Western societies were omnipresent in ethnological research in the 1970s, and the market for popular scientific literature on shamanism was booming as well. Therefore, is it not necessary to interpret this obsessive preoccupation with the trance practices of “others” as a form of possession on the part of the West? Is it not to say that a collective “ethnological cult,” in which non-Western trance practices play the role of a separated and externalized entity, is not also one dissociated from the (collective) Western subject? But if so, with what suffering, with what threatening forces did this generation of ethnologists – including Hubert Fichte who, despite all his criticism, always aspired to belong to the sphere of academic Ethnology – enter into negotiation?

Fichte’s fascination with trance was ambivalent. On the one hand, he saw it as an independent form of psychotherapy and part of a “resistant” system of the psyche that allowed African Americans to survive slavery. For Fichte, Voodoo was the historical driving force of the Haitian Revolution and still contained the promise of a future non-Western, non-Marxist revolutionary movement. And even though he was rather skeptical about the rituals of Western contemporary society, especially about the so-called “expansion of consciousness” cults, he was clearly fascinated by the hallucinogenic effects of herbs and plants.

In the 1970s, he published various “ethnobotanical” studies in the journal Ethnomedizin, edited by his academic mentor, the Hamburg ethnologist Joachim Sterly (1926–2001). Ethnomedizin was a reform-oriented journal that was critical of positivism and traditional science and which focused on non-Western medical practices, but also recognizably took up the “psychoboom” of the 1970s. Many of the articles in the seven volumes of the journal were devoted to personality change through trance practices and the mind-altering effects of (ritual) drugs.

Fichte’s contributions dealt with, among other things, a Haitian herbal remedy, which Leonore Mau apparently used successfully against frontal sinusitis; the hallucinogenic influence of larches, which he had eaten accidently together with Mau; or the intoxicating effect of a magic potion from the Brazilian Candomblé, which Fichte and Mau had also tested in self-experimentation.

Fichte regarded ritual intoxication and the ecstasy of trance as well as the shaman flight as universal anthropological practice and thus as a counterpart, if not as a better form of the LSD trip. Additionally, throughout his work, he was concerned with the possibility of a “liberation of the psychic,” as he was to formulate shortly afterwards in his lecture, “Ketzerische Bemerkungen für eine neue Wissenschaft vom Menschen” (“Heretical Remarks Concerning a New Science of Men”, also published in Ethnomedizin). However, he had considerable doubts about whether hallucinogenic substances could lead to this liberation. On the contrary, Fichte repeatedly suspected that in African American religions, with the help of substance-induced trance practices, there is “a kind of brainwashing […] carried out,” in order to “extinguish consciousness” and subject the initiates to the religious system.[1]

In his ethnomedical article on the effects of the Candomblé potion “Abó,” the author speculates that “in many societies the same means are used to condition man in his environment” and to “break” the consciousness of the individual. Furthermore, in his observations on the political situation in Brazil and the countries of the Caribbean, he depicts African American trance cults as henchmen of reactionary political regimes. In 1972, in the two-part report “Ein Geschwür bedeckt das Land” (“A Blight Covers the Country”) for the German news magazine Der Spiegel on the scandalous living conditions in Brazil, the poverty, and unbearable misery of the Brazilian people, Fichte criticizes the political entanglements of the Candomblé religion:

[…] it seems to me that the oppressors of Brazil have long realized that they have no better ally than the priesthood of Afro-Brazilian mixed cults, which not only extinguish every spark of critical consciousness, but are capable of breaking human consciousness entirely.[2]

In some of the other political texts he wrote in the 1970s, Fichte discussed similarly problematic connections between politics and religion with regard to Haitian Voodoo cults, which the regime of Haitian dictator François Duvalier abused and instrumentalized. Peter Braun rightly draws attention to the fact that Fichte later gives up his reservations about African American religions, moving on to underlining their cultural and aesthetic individuality.[3] However, the topos of “brainwashing” can still be found in Fichte’s descriptions of trance rituals in the mid-1980s.

This ambivalent relationship to trance is less surprising given the popularity and prevalence of a specific “discourse of control” in the 1970s. Essentially, the widespread behaviorist concept of “conditioning” to which Fichte refers in his reflections on trance is based on the idea that human consciousness can be “extinguished” and completely “reconfigured” with the help of hypnosis techniques, behavioral training, or chemical substances. This same concept also assumes that these methods of “brainwashing” can serve both the purposes of individual emancipation through the “expansion of consciousness” or political repression through manipulating “mind control.”

During the Cold War, however, the horrific vision of “conditioning” was predominant, picturing a self-alienated subject trapped in total capitalist delusion, manipulated, monitored, or “remote-controlled” by powerful regimes and their secret services. This was a fear fueled by various US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations and experiments with psychoactive substances, of which the public gradually became aware in the early 1970s. Around this time, the topos of “brainwashing” had long been a central motif in popular culture, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 to Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (see also Peter Braun’s blog post “Salvador de Bahia”).

At the same time, left-wing intellectuals accused behaviorism of not being a theory, but rather a technology of “conditioning,” that is, not an analytical instrument for describing human behavior, but an ideological weapon used by the totalitarian “state apparatus.” Fichte, too, believed in the omnipresence of state control and the power of intelligence agencies.  His feelings of insecurity and threat would even culminate in episodes of paranoia – such as feeling politically persecuted in Brazil, or would surface in a belief in conspiracy theories – such as when he suspected the discovery of the HI-virus to be a CIA propaganda campaign.

Of course, the fear of systematically carried-out secret service operations, especially during the Cold War, was not just a fantasy. It is well-known that the US-American government both endorsed and initiated numerous South and Central American political upheavals, among others in Chile – a particularly shocking experience for Fichte who admired and supported Salvador Allende. Fichte’s analysis of the political situations of the South and Central American countries he was traveling around, however, is based on a notion of totalitarianism that doesn’t discriminate between different regimes: he regarded political violence of all colors, even in Marxist revolutionary movements, as “totalitarian = ‘fascist.’”

His Spiegel report as well was based on the suspicion that there were fascist powers at work in Brazil. Although it is true that fascist tendencies can be diagnosed in Brazilian politics, today unfortunately just as in the 1970s, Fichte clearly was overgeneralizing. He did not just point out that the Nixon administration as well as the Federal Republic of Germany were supporting the dictatorial regime of the military dictatorship economically, by building a Volkswagen plant in Brazil and setting up a bilateral nuclear agreement, for example. He also actually suggested in the subtitle of his report, “Fear and Misery of the Brazilian Republic” – borrowing from the title of Bertolt Brecht’s play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich – the structural similarities and ongoing continuities between Brazilian politics in the 1970s and the political situation in Germany during the “Third Reich.” He more or less explicitly claims that the Brazilian military dictatorship was nothing but a new version of National Socialism and that Germany, through its policy in Brazil, was well on its way to repeating its own history. In solidarity with the miserable and deprived, he depicts the Brazilian people as not only victims of direct state terror, but also indoctrinated by the regime’s propaganda machine that systematically sedates its citizens with bread and circuses: that is, with public football matches and dull television. For Fichte, Candomblé trance cults were part of this political “brainwashing.” However, at the same time, by equating Brazil and Nazi Germany, Fichte conversely implies that National Socialism had also been a state of collective trance or “brainwashing.” He thus suggests a fatal misinterpretation, which, by the way, is already laid out in Brecht’s Fear and Misery, which ignores the fact that the majority of the German population was enthusiastic about National Socialism and agreed to the system willingly and without political pressure.

Beside Fichte’s shortcomings, it becomes clear that his theories on “brainwashing” were not just about Afro-Brazilian trance rituals and their political instrumentalization – they obviously also dealt with the “political trances” in Germany. Yet, for Fichte, perhaps even more disturbing than the historical (National Socialist) “trances” of the Germans were the “trances” of his present. For doesn’t his criticism of the “brainwashing” in Afro-American trance practices reflect, above all, the widespread feeling of other tendencies of directedness and alienation – through the delusions of global capitalism, the authoritarian state apparatus, the constraints of the bourgeois society, and the haunting ghosts of National Socialism – which were plaguing his entire generation? Trance, as mentioned at the beginning of this text, can externalize inner suffering. It seems, therefore, that this preoccupation with the trance practices of the “others” enabled Fichte, and more generally German Ethnology in the 1970s, to withstand the suffering brought by these feelings of alienation.