ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P16)

The 'evidence' of death: necrographic accounts on death perspectives

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 3
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Anastasios Panagiotopoulos (CRIA-Universidade Nova de Lisboa) email
Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) email
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Summary

This panel is interested in bringing together different ethnographic examples in which death or the dead exhibit an intense kind of presence. Are there any unique 'death' points of view articulated and in what way? How are biographies harnessed by those of the dead? What is the 'evidence' of death?

Long Abstract

The Scottish Enlightenment, being part of an emerging modern empiricist tradition, hosted lively debates on morality, science and religion and the origins, causes and evidence of the claims concerning them. The nascent humanistic sciences (then called 'moral philosophy') encompassed all such issues. For instance, evidence was sought in order to argue for or against the existence of God or mortality versus immortality. It would be wrong to view the Scottish Enlightenment as a period of rigidly formulated unanimous convictions about the world. Rather, it was critical enquiry and the search for empirical evidence as an epistemological stance that would support different, even contrasting, views about the world. In the previous example, both mortality and immortality were defended or refuted by recourse to evidence. 'One epistemology, many ontologies', to paraphrase Viveiros de Castro.

Broadly inspired by this kind of empiricist epistemology, this panel is interested in ethnographic contexts where death (as past, present or future) and the dead occupy significant spaces and moments, exhibit dynamic subjectivity; even articulacy in formulating unique points of view. What is the affective and visceral 'evidence' of death and the dead? Seeing death as exceeding 'its Durkheimian boundedness' (Straight 2006), what is the process of exchange of perspectives between life (or the living) and death (or the dead)? How do biographies (both individual and collective) form and are formed by 'necrographies'? If there is an intense kind of communication and interaction between life and death, what is it exactly that sets them apart and/or unites them?

Discussant: C. Nadia Seremetakis (University of the Peloponnese) and Magnus Course (University of Edinburgh)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The bioanimacy of the corpse

Author: Beth Conklin (Vanderbilt University)  email

Summary

This paper explores how cultures in Amazonia, Asia, and elsewhere orient mourners' subjective experiences through mortuary rituals structured around close encounters with corpses and visceral, sensory evidence of death.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how cultures in Amazonia, Asia, and elsewhere orient mourners' subjective experiences through mortuary rituals structured around close encounters with the corpse and visceral evidences of death. The tangible realities of biological bodies touched, smelled, and tasted as they are transformed through decay and decomposition are fertile material deployed in tandem with symbolic systems that work on multiple levels of psychological, social, and bodily experience. Anthropology's tendency to treat the ritual management of death as an intellectual and psychological process misses powerful, sensory dimensions that are central to experiences of the living, suggesting avenues to rethink death rites including cannibalism, cremation, secondary burial.

Searching for evidence: the identifications and reburials of missing persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Author: Laura Huttunen (University of Tampere)  email

Summary

In this presentation, I read the question of the missing persons and the practices of reburial and remembrance of the identified in Bosnia through the concept of liminality, suggesting that gaining evidence of death allows for ritual closure for families and rites of status reversal in the public realm.

Long Abstract

The war in Bosnia- Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 created a great number of dead victims of violence, but also a peculiar group: 30 000 missing persons, whose whereabouts and destiny were not known as the war ended. In many cases, there was no 'evidence' of death even if, as time went by, there was a growing certainty that the majority of those missing would be dead. The finding of mass graves in Northern and Eastern Bosnia and the process of identification of the victims produced 'evidence' of death, and subsequently, turned missing persons into dead citizens. At the same time, this particular kind of evidence of death and this intensive presence of the dead are feeding into the lives of the living in many ways. In this presentation, I read the missing and the identified dead victims in Bosnia through the concept of liminality. For family members, such evidence gained through identification creates possibilities for closing the ritual cycle and ending the threatening liminality. In the public rituals of reburial and remembrance in Bosnia, the horrible liminality and lack of evidence of individual identity in mass graves is translated into another kind of liminality - a liminality that allows for status reversal of the dead victims in the political discourses of post-war Bosnia. There is, however, a tension between the individual or familial understanding of the 'evidence' of death and the public and politicized uses of the same evidence.

An "enlightened" threshold to the afterlife and this life: spiritism and the dead in a Puerto Rican neoliberal context

Author: Raquel Romberg (Tel Aviv University)  email

Summary

This paper explores ethnographically and theoretically the visceral and affective modes in which the dead and enlightened spirits interact with mortals in Puerto Rican popular Spiritism divination, healing, and possession rituals in the context of neoliberal ideologies of self-improvement.

Long Abstract

Rather than an inevitable and final end, death has been conceived in some societies at various periods of human history as a passage or threshold to another, often higher, realm of existence. This passage has been imagined in many cases as the transformation of spirited matter into dematerialized spirit that may manifest itself again in the material world. Scientific Spiritism is one such theory, established in the nineteenth century among French progressive elites in the context of scientific and social positivism and evolutionism. Imported to Puerto Rico and other Spanish colonies, it became enmeshed not only with other religious practices originating in Africa but also with new postcolonial existential dilemmas. In this paper, I propose to explore how the basic tenets informing the hierarchical world of the dead and the spirits of light and their relations to mortals have been reshaped and given new meanings in the everyday practices of Puerto Rican popular Spiritism. Ethnographic evidence—textual and photographic—will identify the various modes in which the dead and spirits manifest themselves in contemporary divination, healing, and possession rituals and account for the affective and visceral presence of the dead sometimes in convivial, sometimes in exploitative interaction with mortals. Further theorizing will engage the implications of enlightened necrographic theories and practices in contemporary Puerto Rican popular Spiritism, especially with regard to the vitality of previous Enlightened Spiritist philosophies in late modernity within the context of neoliberal self-fashioning ideologies of material and spiritual self-improvement.

Where the dead lives: the construction of death and the dead within the funeral circuits in Brazil

Author: Marcos Andrade Neves (UFRGS)  email

Summary

The paper describes the process of construction of death and the dead within different institutional instances of the funeral circuits in Brazil. A dynamic in which the dead has agency through the imposition of a moral presence, being capable of taking part in negotiations and influencing decisions.

Long Abstract

"Car la Mort, dans une société, il faut bien qu'elle soit quelque part," wrote Roland Barthes. If we accept Barthes' premise and look for the place of death, then we must consider the possibility of finding not a specific place, but a set of constantly moving mediations. Conducted in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, the ethnographic research presented by this paper describes the dynamics within this set of mediations, which not only pervades different institutional and economic instances, but also shapes the construction process of death and of the dead person through a physical intervention on the body as well as through the creation of a specific memory. Death is thus more than the mere destitution of a life: it is the institution of a new state, it means becoming something else. A new set of papers are in order as much as the transposition of the legal status. The funeral circuits are hence acting upon the construction of this new state while simultaneously acknowledging the dead person's presence through the imposition of a moral and corporeal presence. The dead person, not being a locus of passivity, displays his/hers agency by setting behavioral guidelines in dealings concerning his/hers funeral arrangements, as well as by influencing choices and decisions through his/hers presence within the aforementioned dynamics.

From dialogues with the dead to the unknowability of death

Author: Piers Vitebsky (University of Cambridge)  email

Summary

Among the Sora of Tribal India, the familiarity, intimacy and negotiation of shamanic dialogues with the dead are becoming replaced by more authoritarian genres of prayer, sermon, and devotion to divine figures such as Jesus and Krishna, thereby rendering the state of the dead unknowable.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses a drastic change among the Sora of Orissa (Tribal India) since I first lived with them in 1975. In Dialogues with the dead (Cambridge 1993), I analysed a distinctive non-literate 'tribal' cosmology which was characterised by open-ended negotiation between the living and the dead, communicating through female shamans in trance. The dead caused illness and death by transferring their suffering on to the living, thereby creating an analogy between the biographies of the attacker and of the victim. The living responded defensively by talking the dead over many years into a progressively less dangerous subjective state.

However, as younger Sora enter the literate world of school and the national space of party politics, they are becoming either Baptist Christians or fundamentalist Hindus. Between them, these mutually hostile paths towards 'modernity' squeeze out the shamanist worldview of their elders (JRAI 2008: 243-61). I shall explore the shift from robust family banter with the dead to respectful monologic forms of prayer, (male) sermon, and authoritative written texts. These new religions direct spiritual intensity away from ancestors toward gods instead. The ancestors become hungry and lonely but powerless to harm or protest, and the old fear to die because they anticipate being neglected. Krishna elicits a new kind of ecstatic (and nationalistic) devotion, while Jesus redeems the young from the new concept of sin. But both now make it impossible to engage with the dead or feel pity for them, since they render the realm of death itself unknowable and unexplorable.

The Santa Muerte: magic and material culture in the cemeteries of a megalopolis

Author: Marcel Reyes-Cortez (Goldsmiths)  email

Summary

This paper will look at how practitioners of magic and followers of the Santa Muerte form different types of social meanings and will explore further how objects and photographs facilitate the communion between the living, the dead and the ánima.

Long Abstract

This paper explores why the cemetery is a magnet for social, cultural and religious interaction by investigating the practices and activities of the materialisation and objectification of the dead inside and outside its boundaries. This includes the life histories of its workers, mourners and daily visitors. My assertion is that the spaces of the dead, such as the cemeteries of Mexico City, are clear examples of dynamically active memory-making sites. In these the dead are revered daily, socialised and memorialised through a combination of secular and religious contemporary funerary practices, material culture such as objects, photographs, and the daily interaction between the living and the ánima. One such example is the regular use and practice of magic in the cemetery and regular visits made by non-mourners who are perceived to be witches and followers of the Santa Muerte. It also investigates how the diverse uses of material objects have been embraced to carry out such activities in Panteón San Rafael.

Supported by the evidence presented in this paper, I suggest that the embracing of material culture in the cemeteries provides and creates a space for multiple layers of memory facilitating and bridging the communion between the living, the dead and the ánima. I will also explore further how mourners' religious and secular experiences, practices and activities, including the widespread embracing of material and visual culture, play an active and dynamic role in contemporary funerary rituals and social memory dedicated to the dead in the cemeteries of a megalopolis.

Even the path you walk is painful: death and grief in Samburu

Author: Bilinda Straight (Western Michigan University)  email

Summary

The mundanest of things profoundly evoke memory and the haunting effects of loss on individual human beings. Cross-culturally, the dead may also inhabit or become these objects and places, potentially hazardously as well as beneficially, as I examine for Samburu livestock herders in northern Kenya.

Long Abstract

Many of us are familiar with Lacan's reinterpretation of Freud by which death becomes the first fetish. As the (anglo) child practices the now-you-see-her (mother), now-you-don't game to pass the time, s/he comes to rely on the substitution rather than the (mother's) presence, and loss comes to be inscribed in the child's subconscious. Moreover, as the child pronounces the sounds that will command the plaything to appear or disappear, s/he learns the language that signals absence, killing the 'thing' in a move that both associates language with absence—of toys and mothers—and establishes what it has taken some philosophers centuries to know—that the name and the thing are not one. Within this European theoretical tradition, the mundanest of things profoundly evoke memory and the haunting effects of loss on individual human beings. In many instances cross-culturally, the power of things and also places goes beyond memorialization: The dead inhabit or become these objects and places, potentially hazardously as well as beneficially. I examine these themes through a case study of Samburu livestock herders in northern Kenya with whom I have worked since 1992.

Spirits two steps removed: the transcending of the dead in a contemporary Brazilian religious movement

Author: Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)  email

Summary

This paper explores some new theological developments in the 20th century Brazilian spirit mediumship tradition of Umbanda, and their dividends for a conceptualization of the agency of the dead.

Long Abstract

This paper explores new theological developments in the 20th century Brazilian spirit mediumship tradition of Umbanda, and their dividends for a conceptualization of the dead. Umbanda is typically seen to deal with archetypal figures such as spirits of African slaves and native Brazilians. In dominant anthropological discourse these spirits are interpreted as mediators between a national historical consciousness and particular human experience; as vehicles for signs. In these accounts, the only "perspective" of the dead is "nation", by way of representation. By contrast, São Paulo´s Umbanda Sagrada movement proposes a world of the dead that imagines and acts upon itself, including through the articulation of its own modes of representation. This cosmos reveals itself plastically - as aware of itself and its capacity for categorical and thus symbolic shifts sensitive to the vicissitudes of the nation that apprehends them. The spirits here are doubly removed from the "perspectives" of the merely dead, namely, because they appropriate "culture" (nation, history, ideas of its dead) as the raw material with which to fashion their appearances as such. In other words, the Umbanda "dead" are versions of other, often ineffable, perspectives. This new theorization has as one of its consequences the de-coupling of cosmos from nation, as well as a rejection of the idea that Umbanda uncritically reifies a stratifying Brazilian imaginary. Among other things, these Umbandists resist a sociologization of the perspectives of their spirits by posing the ontologically creative, and thus ultimately recursive, nature of their own categories.

Biographies and necrographies at the crossroads: the articulation of affinity between the living and the dead in Cuba

Author: Anastasios Panagiotopoulos (CRIA-Universidade Nova de Lisboa)  email

Summary

This paper offers an account of the very peculiar articulacy that the dead in Cuba may exhibit and how this creates a kind of affinity with the living.

Long Abstract

In Cuba, despite official discourses, the dead may display an intense kind of articulacy, most commonly through talented mediums. This very peculiar kind of articulacy focuses on biographical elements, concerning both those of the dead while in life and of those living individuals that the dead get 'attached' to by way of affinity. In their extremely transformative state of being, the articulacy of the dead is a crucial element of how the living build their own destiny and biography and how spirits of the dead slowly transform into and become ones. Drawing from Wilerslev's rendition of perspectivism, I attempt to show that the perspectives and biographies of the dead (their necrographies, as I call them) point to a necessary and dialectical relation between partial identifications and partial differentiations with the biographies of their living 'affines'.

The silent detournment: "flexible graves" in the city of the living

Author: C. Nadia Seremetakis (University of the Peloponnese)  email

Summary

This paper analyzes the gradual multiplication of post-secular, noninstitutional, informalized “flexible graves” in Greek urban streets via theorists like E. Wolf, G. Agamben, Ph. Aries, De Certeau, and N.Thrift.

Long Abstract

In the era of globalization, the increasingly porous boundaries between nations and cultures, and of fragmentation of national, cultural and ethnic identities, Greek culture has been characterized by an emphasis on permanent structures, museums and public statuary, that safeguard institutional memory. This emphasis though, during the recent European socio-economic crisis and the increasing violence that turned urban Greek environment chaotic, has been coupled by a gradual multiplication of post-secular, noninstitutional, informalized "flexible graves" in Greek urban streets. These are miniature church-like constructions featuring the name and picture of the individual dead who "left his/her last breath"(usually in a car accident) on that spot of the street, and they are regularly tended and ornamented by the deceased's family. They have multiplied imperceptibly—defying all state interventions and spatial surveillance particularly with intensification of policing due to anti-austerity protests—(re)claiming a space for the dead and domestic history in the privatized urbanscape of the living. This paper discusses this "new" evidence of public death in everyday Greek life and culture by rethinking Eric Wolf's idea of the sacrilization of the Mediterranean domestic space as a sanctuary space, Giorgio Agamben's notion of the profanation of restrictive institutional semiologies, Philip Aries's privatization of the dead, De Certeau's pedestrian speech acts, the Situationist model of detournement (remediation and rescripting and remapping of urban space), and Niger Thrift's urging for a spatial politics of affect .

(Presentation includes visual material).

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This panel is closed to new paper proposals.