I never thought that my childhood’s magic would be stolen by a coffee machine. Like many other modern people with little time to waste and much accumulated taste for conspicuous consumption of technology, I tend to start my day with latte or cappuccino produced out of cachet-measured portions of milk and coffee. Nostalgia or decades of cultivated taste do nevertheless dictate the occasional return to cups of Turkish coffee (corrected to ‘Greek’ or even ‘Cypriot coffee’ by the ardent culinary nationalist who refuses to acknowledge that such nominations do not correspond to the produce’s hazy Arabic origins). Humorously, sentiment brings back sediment – and this allows space for a return to the disreputable rituals of fortune telling disowned by the Orthodox Church a long time ago.

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Comment by Rodanthi Tzanelli on January 4, 2014 at 7:14pm

Thanks John - no problems re. the offprints, I got one from our digital library...Look forward to reading the 1995 article.

Comment by John McCreery on January 4, 2014 at 3:32am
Rodanthi, the most relevant of the handful of pieces I published on the Daoist healer material is an article titled "Potential and Effective Meaning in Therapeutic Ritual." I forget the exact citation, but it appeared in a journal called Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry sometime in the late 70s-early 80s. There is also an article titled "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language" that appeared in American Ethnologist in 1995. I still have a few off prints, and if you send me a message with a snail mail address I will be happy to send you one.

The first article turns on two cases. In one the healer is performing an elaborate version of a simple household ritual that involves offerings to parents from a previous life, who are blamed for a colicky baby's crying all night. The elaborations include more complex staging and the invocation of a god to intervene on behalf of those for whom the ritual is performed. I also note that an anthropologist familiar with the history of Daoism in China could add endless additional allusions to his interpretation of the symbolism. But what fraction of these possible meanings were actually effective therapeutically speaking? I don't know the answer. I could only pose the question.

In the second case, a teenaged girl was the target of an exorcism intended to rid her of the demons to whom what her parents saw as misbehavior were attributed. She plainly didn't want to be part of what was going on and wound up being manhandled by her parents and the healer's assistant performing this particular ritual, to force her to play her part. Was this part of expelling the demons? An illegitimate exercise of parental authority? An abuse of traditional healing practice? Again, I couldn't say. I could only report that I was deeply disturbed by what I observed and forced to think again about anthropological theories that assert that healing rituals resolve conflicts and strengthen solidarity among those who participate in them.

Now, as for example yesterday, when I stroll through a shopping mall in Japan and see a young couple consulting with a fortune teller, I find myself wondering, Are they doing this for a lark? Are they scheduling a wedding? Or seriously concerned about their relationship and future together? No way to know without asking, but that would be rude, and how seriously to take answers to a stranger's out of the blue questions would still remain an issue.
Comment by Rodanthi Tzanelli on January 3, 2014 at 3:37pm

Hello John,

thanks for the endorsement - the whole thing actually ties to my work on Slumdog Millionaire on which I completed a book.... but I'm glad that the post intrigued independently from this work too. To respond to your questions (useful to me as they help me think around destiny and interpretative structure globally):

(1) A short answer is both. I met coffee readers from other cultural contexts and the tend to place emphasis on intersubjective interpretation and contextual knowledge - 'signs' usually function as makeshift textbook guidance to validate the reader's credentials. Again, what happens in today's virtual environments is a separate study (the one I want to conduct as offshoot of individualisation processes in global consumption milieus).

(2) There is no way I can answer this without writing a whole chapter, John. My local knowledge, which is fading a bit these days due to detachment from the actual place, suggests that coffee reading may be taken seriously but its credibility never exceeds the performative function of regular female 'get togethers'. It is only beyond this localised context that things get a bit more complex, as I found out the hard way (never mind friendship ties etc). Why intimate relationships don't make much of a difference then I haven't thought about (yet). But the significance of personal crises is a question that might change these equilibria and transform local readers into prophets (alas).

Have you published on your encounter with this Daoist healer? Just curious...medical anthropology isn't my thing at all, but your observations may come close to Giddensian discourse of the cult of individualism or to Kuhn's inflections on paradigm shifts....   

Comment by John McCreery on January 3, 2014 at 3:43am

Rodanthi, this is a beautiful piece. Were I still teaching subjects that included fortunetelling, I would definitely include it among my assignments. Two questions if I may: (1) Could you tell us a bit more about the techné of reading coffee grounds? Is there an explicit (or implicit) classification of patterns to look for, or do the grounds function, in effect, as a Rorschach blob, with the interpretation dependent on the fortuneteller's local knowledge and insight? (2) Could you talk a bit more about the range of possible attitudes toward fortunetelling and where your observations fit into them? I think, at one extreme, of casually reading an astrology column in the daily newspaper, curious but skeptical. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, someone who has encountered a major crisis in their life, a serious illness, business failure, a collapsing relationship, turns to a fortuneteller in hopes of finding an explanation and a possible way forward — the kind of thing that brought clients to the Daoist healer I studied in Taiwan. Where do your coffee reading experiences fit into this range — or go off in another direction entirely?


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