Author Topic: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé  (Read 4934 times)

Offline marciogoldman

  • New Member
  • Posts: 3
  • nickname/fullname
    • View Profile
Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #15 on: March 23, 2017, 03:39:03 PM »
"How will 'we don't know' change our research?" That’s the real question, isn’t it? I am not sure - it is an experiment - but I think it can change it a lot.

At least it can make us think twice before saying that people possessed by spirits "in fact" are sick, or "actually" are compensating for their low social status, or "actually" are manipulating, and so on. That is, it can help us to decolonize anthropology a little bit.

I do not think my position resembles that of Graeber. I have the impression, without being sure, that his discomfort with ontology is limited to the ontology of others, while ours is very well. I do not feel comfortable with either, except, as Abraham Heinemann has pointed out, insofar as they affect the world. And of course Azande witchcraft and spiritual possession affect the world but not always the way we imagine or want. And by ontology, we can see, anthropologists mean very very different things…

In fact, my position is that of Malinowski, excluding his delusions about a "scientific theory of culture." "Follow the native" as far as we can, translate what we learn so that others can access it (here is where our conceptual languages come into play), elaborate "ethnographic theories." It is in this sense that I think that Stengers' cosmopolitical proposal (increasingly used as a "cosmopolitical theory" by anthropologists) has an essential role.

Offline Huon Wardle

  • OAC Team
  • OAC Member
  • *
  • Posts: 14
  • nickname/fullname
    • View Profile
Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #16 on: March 24, 2017, 10:31:18 AM »
Thanks again Marcio. I like the idea of an experimental 'I don't know' that can be used to foreground various combinations of ontological clarity and semantic obscurity or alternatively semantic clarity and ontological obscurity. This reminds me a little of Gluckman's notion that there may be a necessary kind of 'naivety' that comes with the need for ethnographic 'compression' ('Closed Systems, Open Minds')[/size]. Now I look at it again, I also have some doubts about Graeber's notion that his Malagasy informants saying 'I don't know', and his own 'I don't know', form something to 'talk about' a sort of common sense ground. The claim is intriguing but has not solved the question: everyone seems to be on the 'same page', there appears to be semantic and ontological clarity, but is there?

[/size]It makes me think on the one hand of the people I am familiar with in Jamaica who say 'I don't believe in Obeah' but do not mean by this that 'Obeah is not real' (which might have once been my first guess at a translation). Contrastingly I have often heard people say 'I don't believe in God, I know God'. This time 'believe' suggests 'not knowing for sure' whereas 'I know God' seems to underline rhetorically and semantically the absolute clarity of the ontological knowledge involved. But this cannot be transferred to 'I don't believe in Obeah' because 'believe' here means something like 'it has no efficacy when directed at me'.

[/size]Now I think of another situation I have written about where a friend of mine, Jeanette, hears the voices of spirits. She is in no doubt about the ontological characteristics of these spirit voices--they come at certain times of day, speak in certain tones of voice and so on. She does not absolutely know what they want. She does sometimes question her own sanity,--whether her knowledge is that of a notionally sane person. She equally does view herself as specially chosen to receive these spirit voices. So one sees a person sometimes committing strongly, sometimes doubting or ambiguating, sometimes strongly rejecting certain framings of knowing and so on.

I liked this comment of Avi's:
[/size]Hence what is of interest is not coherently describing 'a culture', nor attributing special others with radical alterity per se, but looking at the incoherency between people, their ideas, and between anthropologist and people, as from that one can start to recognise how 'unknowns' manifest themselves in people's cosmologies. And do so as part of negotiating, dominating, possessing, serving for/with the interests of living humans i.e. cosmopolitics. [/size]
Hence what is of interest is not coherently describing 'a culture', nor attributing special others with radical alterity per se, but looking at the incoherency between people, their ideas, and between anthropologist and people, as from that one can start to recognise how 'unknowns' manifest themselves in people's cosmologies. And do so as part of negotiating, dominating, possessing, serving for/with the interests of living humans i.e. cosmopolitics.



[/size]More a comment than a question, Marcio, but intended to indicate how suggestive I have found your discussion.
« Last Edit: March 24, 2017, 11:39:00 AM by Huon Wardle »

Offline John McCreery

  • OAC Team
  • OAC Member
  • *
  • Posts: 10
  • nickname/fullname
    • View Profile
Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #17 on: March 25, 2017, 02:37:42 AM »
"How will 'we don't know' change our research?" That’s the real question, isn’t it? I am not sure - it is an experiment - but I think it can change it a lot.


As I think about how "It can change a lot," I remember William James' distinction between living and dead ideas. One possibility is that the change will reflect a shift away from the monotheistic, Judaeo-Christian cosmology from which so much of classic anthropological theory is derived. I recall that when I was in graduate school in the 1960s the most exciting advocates of symbolic anthropology were Victor Turner and Mary Douglas. Douglas was a practicing Catholic and Turner a convert from Communism to Catholicism. Max Gluckman was an Orthodox Jew. I myself was raised in a pious Lutheran family. My Oedipal rebellion involved first analytic philosophy and then anthropology. These are, of course, only suggestive examples, but they raise the question how many of our anthropological ancestors were raised in monotheistic traditions in which the existence of God and necessity for belief in One God were not only live but hot-button issues. This context made formulating answers to the problem "How could they possibly believe that?"central in theoretical debates of the kind documented by Evans-Pritchard in Theories of Primitive Religion. The answers might take an intellectualism, psychological or sociological turn, but the sheer impossibility of taking seriously shamans, monks, priests and others who take for granted the existence of spiritual beings and forces was everyone's underlying assumption.

What now, however, that theological questions are mostly dead to most people and certainly, it seems, to most anthropologists. Is it possible to envision a path forward that takes the perspectives of those whose religions anthropologists study seriously without falling into a kind of cultural solipsism. The only way forward that I can imagine is to take their ideas neither more nor less seriously than those of my fellow anthropologists, to read and think generously while retaining the scientist's skepticism toward all received ideas.

That leaves me, it seems to me, agreeing very much with the scientific perspective that Avi advocates.

Offline John McCreery

  • OAC Team
  • OAC Member
  • *
  • Posts: 10
  • nickname/fullname
    • View Profile
Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #18 on: March 26, 2017, 09:43:34 AM »
Returning to my last post, I see a missing point that is much on my mind. Let us agree that no one here is happy with dismissive "explanations" of possession that attempt to explain away possession as an artifact of sociological factors or mental illness. Let us not, however, be too quick to be equally dismissive with regard to the thinking of our intellectual ancestors. We can, following the scientific approach that Avi describes, treat their theories as models that, while demonstrably inadequate, nonetheless suggest important lines for research.

Consider, for example, the simplistic Durkheimian view that spirits embody the the societies and social categories of which they are avatars. In the study of Chinese religion, an early model proposed by Stephen Feuchtwang suggests that in Chinese popular religion spirits can be divided into three broad categories: gods, ghosts and ancestors (all of whom, by the way, may be involved in possession). Subsequent research by Robert Weller points out that in both myth and iconography gods may display demonic characteristics and behave more like ghosts than embodiments of social order. It has also been noted that the popular pantheon includes female deities, a particularly interesting point since the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy on which the pantheon is supposed to be modeled included no women. We can also add the fact that if pantheon is modeled on the imperial bureaucracy, that model has not existed in the form displayed in god statues and temples for more than a century. These facts raise all sorts of interesting questions about the actual relationships of spirits to social structure. That the old model is inadequate cannot be denied. That new and better models can be developed also cannot be denied. To use the flaws in the earlier model as an excuse to retreat altogether from examining the relationship of social organization to belief and behavior would be, I suggest, misguided.

Offline Huon Wardle

  • OAC Team
  • OAC Member
  • *
  • Posts: 14
  • nickname/fullname
    • View Profile
Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #19 on: March 28, 2017, 09:17:45 AM »



That, I think wraps up the seminar.


Many thanks, Marcio, for opening this piece for discussion--particularly under the slightly experimental situation that is the new OAC. From this side we look forward to further developments. Thanks to all who participated.