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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.
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"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.
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New Seminars / Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Last post by Huon Wardle 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.
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"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.
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New Seminars / Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Last post by Avi on March 23, 2017, 01:58:00 PM »

Couple people noted:
Quote
"what kind of methodological or pragmatic difference this 'I don't know' will make to fieldwork experience and analysis."?


I guess I am going to stick to my epistemological guns here, despite Marcio's noting it being an ontological question at hand:


When considering this question myself in light of Marcio's paper I think of a context more familiar to myself, that of 'science'. To me science (at least physics, chemistry and to more often than not biology) has always been a process of developing models of how something 'is working or makes sense. The efficacy of those models is in their ability to enable the user to actually leverage or harness that 'something' toward some aim. Hence the classic example being the Newtonian model of gravity versus Einsteins relative theory of gravity, and then the development of the 'graviton' model. None of these models are wrong, they just enable different scales and depths of leverage.


My point in outlining this simple story which I am sure everyone here knows, is that it is when one claims certain models of evolutionary theory, or theories of gravity are reality, as many people do today, that is when we come up against the archivist's progressive and totalising approach to knowledge. Rather than what I loved originally in the idea of science, which is that you are never right, that it is not about recording reality in such an archive, as permanent knowledge is not the goal. The actual goal being whether or not your model or 'cosmology' actually had some leverage on the world.


Therefore it is not a question of whether Azande witchcraft (or Bahian Candomble possession, though I do not mean to suggest they belong in the same category as one is about living people and the other it seems dead people which suggest something very different) is real, but whether and how the study, practice, testing etc of it actually allows one leverage in the world. BUT ALSO on the condition that we also deny any reality to something called an atom in the ontological sense. Simply because an atom is a model for leveraging either (a) unknown ontological reality or (b) and epistomological way to know something about the ontology of matter or (c) there is no ontology.


Which brings me to one of my favourite conversations on this topic, that being the one arising out of Graeber's and De Castro in HAU:


Quote
"Perhaps the one expression I heard the most, when people talked about spirits, was simply “I don’t know.” Spirits were inherently unknowable. (The spirits that possessed mediums were ultimately unknowable as well.) I ended up concluding this lack of knowledge was not incidental; it was foundational. To put it bluntly, while Ontological Turn would encourage me to privilege the fact that I will never fully understand Malagasy conceptions as to act as if those conceptions were simply determinant of reality, I decided to privilege the fact that my Malagasy interlocutors insisted they did not understand reality either; that nobody ever will be able to understand the world completely, and that this gives us something to talk about. It also gives us the opportunity to unsettle one another’s ideas in a way that might prove genuinely dialogic"
https://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau5.2.003/1978


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.


Just as STS demonstrates how science is full of cosmopolitics that let certain unknown's manifest themselves, where some people believe them to be real in a fixed and factual sense, and where some like myself do not inhabit such a world of fixed understanding. But perhaps most interesting at a macro-political scale, is how the dynamics encapsulated by such ideas as the anthropocene, transhumanism etc. point to a situation in which matter itself (I would argue always has been but anyway) is not a fixed reality but wrapped up in cosmopolitics. Just presently this is arguably a cosmopolitics of domination (hence Anthropocene) rather than negotiation, and thus perhaps we might learn something from the negotiatory politics of Bahian Candomble.


Excuse the somewhat rambly style of the thoughts this conversation has provoked, but as a last somewhat metaphorical note, perhaps something can be learned from how Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has been methodologically incorporated in our world and in Physics. Where the proposition is that 'reality' is 'uncertain', but can be partially knowable in the moment of testing/leveraging it. I am not sure whether I agree there is even a spooky quantum ontology that we can only partially epistemologically know, or whether the very cosmopolitics of epistemologies in itself generates new epistemologies that we mistake for ontologies. I use epistemology in a very broad sense, e.g. a rock can have some epistemological relationship to another rock absent of humans. But now I truly am rambling.


In short I look forward to what is meant by Stenger's Cosmopolitics as perhaps I misuse it too generally above and have missed some nuance.







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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.
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New Seminars / Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Last post by Huon Wardle on March 22, 2017, 09:25:02 AM »



Yes, again I am thinking along John's line when he asks what kind of methodological or pragmatic difference this 'I don't know' will make to fieldwork experience and analysis. Similarly where will this particular kind of 'I don't know' sit in the organisation of a description and analysis.


My field has been the anglophone Caribbean so I tend to see the issue of 'reality' in creolised terms -- creole language and symbol takes in a complexly contoured continuum. There may be a spectrum of 'I don't knows' that come into play situationally rather as there can be many kinds of green-blue. I mentioned the urban visitors to Maroon territory talking about possession rites there as a 'jollification'. To me this is itself one kind of 'I don't know' couched in a respectable term which nonetheless indexes fundamental ambiguity. I often hear Jamaican friends say 'I don't believe in Obeah(witchcraft)' but they don't mean that they discredit the 'reality' of Obeah tout court they mean that in their current subjective situation  Obeah cannot harm them, though it can still harm.

Recently in Jamaica, cheap DVDs of Nigerian soap operas became popular, these often involve sorcerers, love magic and so on, all of which are easily incorporated into the creole complex as dramatisations of 'obeah'.

Which makes me think of Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood;

"There is a straight ladder from the atom to the grain of sand, and the only real mystery is the missing rung. Below it, particle physics. Above it, classical physics. But in between, metaphysics."

John, the tab with a globe does links.
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I will try to type the URL again. Does our site lack a facility for adding links to text?

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Marco,

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.
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Dear John and Huon

Once again many thanks for your comments.

I was thinking about our own processes of knowledge. My point is not to “bracket the reality of the beings they are dealing with” but to practice anthropology with a “we don’t know” background instead of the usual “we know they don’t exist” or even “we know they do exist”. I do not think Iron Man or Batman “exist” in this sense because they are made to not exist. Of course, they exist in a sense, or they exist to people interested on them but I believe the divinities and other spirits my friends in Candomble live with are a totally different issue. The usual relativistic position (bracketing truth) does not work here.

Huon raises again difficult questions. I know a lot of people, generally white, that connect to Candomble as my 12-year nephew connect to Iron Man or Batman. I am not very interested on them but on the people to whom orishas and other entities are part of their lives. Now, the second question is, are they part of their lives all the time and everywhere? They do not seem to think so. Someone told me spirits are too busy to worry about everything we do, as politics for example. Of course some people connect politics and Candomble, especially politicians looking for supernatural help to be elected or to eliminate a rival, or an ambitious practician needing some money. I am not saying experience in Candomble does not affect the way people think and sometimes live politics. But most people most of time think politics must be kept apart and I am trying not to go to fast to make politics the base of Candomble. After all we cannot forget that historically it is or became a religion “against the State”.
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