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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.
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:
"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:

"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"

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.

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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
New Seminars / Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Last post by Huon Wardle on March 20, 2017, 09:56:09 AM »
It is quite a push under current university regimes to find time to participate in any intellectual activity not coded by the university and its wider bureaucracy as useful, so thanks, Marcio, for making the time to respond.

I think John has a good point when he says that the Sci-Fi or Marvel fan etc. may have an equal capacity to bracket the reality of the beings they are dealing with as the anthropologist sometimes has -- the question then becomes why or 'to what end?'. In truth the internet makes these kinds of bracketings much more visible by juxtaposition. Sometimes this causes friction or even rage -- Kellyane Conway's 'alternative facts' for instance, sometimes it passes without comment or with some kind of ambiguation or rhetorical smoothing over. Your reference to Stengers and the idea that the cosmos insists on politics seems ever more relevant in this kind of context of communication.

I wanted to go in two directions. In the 60s Donald Hogg wrote a very intriguing ethnography of a possession cult called Convince in Jamaica. Possession was part of religious ceremonies that were local to Windward Maroons in the Blue Mountains. However, these Maroon ceremonies were also attended by visitors from the capital, Kingston. The visitors talked about their activities as an outing and a 'jollification', i.e. as something ludic or humorous. The same people would attend their own pentecostal churches in town where they themselves might become 'caught' by the holy spirit. Under other circumstances they might perhaps say that Convince was just 'obeah' (witchcraft). Some of the differences were played out linguistically in the different kinds of creole language spoken by the Maroons and the townspeople. So there may be a spectrum of kinds of reality for different people at an event like this and even for the same people at different moments-- e.g. people can complain that a certain person is 'faking it' or disagree about music or ritual procedures and so on.

Going back to politics, we might think of how in ancient Italy, a main aim of warfare was to capture the lares or protective gods of the community under attack, or of how Socrates was accused of failing to acknowledge the gods that Athens acknowledged and instead introducing new deities into the polis.

Both of these cases make me wonder about the connection between the mesopolitics of Candomble and the wider or macropolitics of the Brazilian state. Candomble officiants are also members of a Brazilian public so how do they act in this wider sphere, do they leave their gods at the temple when they go to vote or to the rally? On the other side, I know respected Brazilian logicians who enjoy going to Candomble at the weekend but return to the reality of their job during the week. Sidney Greenfield's book about the mixing of biomedical and spiritist approaches to healing in Brazil springs to mind as another example of the spectrum on which these realities play out. So, going back to Stengers' point that the cosmos insists on politics -- is that not a call to look at how the politics of the cosmos works beyond the temple as much as within it?
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.
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