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Messages - John McCreery

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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.

"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.

Thanks, Huon.  Note to Avi: This is one of those things that seems obvious once you know about it but isn't at first glance. I've been suffering a similar tic when logging on and seeing "join seminar," when I have already joined it. In both cases, I mention again the title of a great book on Web design: Don't Make Me Think.

Returning to the topic at hand. I see in the video I shared a complexity similar to that embodied in Huon's urban visitors to Maroon territory. In complex societies, we are likely to discover a full range of religious attitudes, from unshakeable faith to cynical rejection. As anthropologists, or so it seems to me, we need to acknowledge and explain the full range of possibilities active in the situations we describe.

I will try to type the URL again. Does our site lack a facility for adding links to text?


I like your "we don't know" instead of "we know they don't exist." My next question would be a pragmatic one. How will "we don't know" change our research?

Turning, then, to  the relationship between traditional and cinematic cosmologies, I offer the following, hoping that I have typed the URL correctly:

Here we see a production video for an HBO movie in which the actress playing a spirit medium is coached for the part by an actual medium, who also serves as her spiritual body guard. I wonder if others are seeing similar confluences of tradition and cinematic fiction in other parts of the world.

Huon, thanks for the compliment. I can see, however, that I wasn't clear. I wasn't asserting that Marvel movie fans, etc., have "an equal capacity" for bracketing. What I have in mind is a cinematic literacy that involves close analysis of visual and other detail treated, as a topic in its own right while the ontological status of superheroes, villains, and fools goes undiscussed. This type of analysis seems to come natural to my daughter (now forty) and younger people, for whom digital technologies have made issues like scripting, scene composition and lighting, once only of concern to specialists, topics for casual conversation.

Marco, I am glad that you like the citation from Confucius.  You write,

"are we ready to proceed like them? Being part of the knowledge process without the need to worry about the existence “out there” of what we speak and through which we speak."

Whose knowledge process are we talking about? To me respect for those involved in the events in which we participate does not imply that we confine ourselves to the process employed by other participants. To be openly skeptical, cynical or condescending is not our role, but given our professional training and role as anthropologists, our process cannot be the same as theirs. We should certainly not assume that the experiences we share with them are only illusions, masks for power, or symptoms of mental illness. But we have plenty of other questions to deal with as we try to account in detail for the language, gesture, setting, costuming, and casting in the social dramas we examine.

This may be an area in which younger anthropologists, who grow up with science fiction and fantasy in TV, movies and interactive games, are better equipped than those in our generation. I think of young colleagues who avidly discuss details of the latest Iron Man or Batman movie and have no interest at all in whether these characters actually exist.


Following up on what Huon and Justin have said, if the premise of the paper is that conventional Western views of politics as involving only humans is a problem, why not change it? Or, alternatively, look for ways to interpret what you have experienced that bracket that assumption and put it aside? 

The latter is the approach I used in a paper called "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language," published in american ethnologist in 1995. Following Irving Goffman's advice in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, I wrote of the Daoist healer performing an exorcism in Taiwan that I would treat him as neither actor, preacher or charlatan but simply accord him the right to be be seen as someone going seriously about what he seemed to be doing, attempting to solve a problem in the best way he knew how, by magic. That made it possible to analyze his words in terms of several then current theories of magical language, as performative utterance, dramatic performance, and rhetorical use of formality to assert authority, without debating whether or not the reality of the god and ghosts involved in the ritual. In retrospect, I see myself doing what Confucius recommends in the Analects, when he says that a gentleman participates in the rites sincerely, as if the spirits are there, but does not concern himself with whether or not they actually exist.

Serendipitously, I came across this discussion after spending much of this afternoon composing questions about chapters 1 and 2 of Sam Ladner (2014),Practical Ethnography, which I am using as a textbook for the course on Business Anthropology that I am teaching this spring as a visiting professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Having asserted that ethnography looks for meaningful details, Ladner goes on to assert that meaning resides in the intersection of identity and cultural context. Now I am wondering how this approach might or might not fit analysis of "authoritarian personality." As identity or cultural context or meaning at their intersection.

More specifically re Fromm's argument I wonder if the "weight" he is can be measured in the number of shock troops ready to put their bodies on the line for their cause.

Discussions / Re: Opening a seminar and... How Does All This Work?
« on: March 06, 2017, 01:17:08 PM »
OK. I got myself registered. Started over from zero since I missed or mislaid the activation email. No I will click on a button and follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole.

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