EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W065)

Occult economies in Asia: malevolent magic and supernatural aggressions

Location S302
Date and Start Time 13 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Zoe Headley (CNRS-CEIAS) email
Gabriele Alex (University of Tuebingen) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

In many parts of Asia, sorcery is a way of dealing with uncertainty and disquiet whilst producing them at the same time. This panel interrogates issues of representation, purpose, technique and implementation of sorcery in Asia, to offer new understandings of personhood, morality and social change.

Long Abstract

Though the study of economies of the occult is a relatively marginal field of enquiry among anthropologists working on contemporary Asia, most will have noticed the presence of one form or another of malevolent magic and supernatural aggressions in their field. Addressing the issue of sorcery, and related occult categories, is particularly appropriate to this conference as it emerges specifically in a context of anxiety, uncertainty and instability whether in situations of illness, misfortune or conflict and social tensions, at times when one seeks to regain agency (both as a victim or a perpetrator of the occult). This panel proposes to examine occult economies in Asia through several frames: cursing and curing, rumors and accusations, personal revenge and supernatural justice.

The contributions can address, among others, the following issues: the persistence of sorcery as an aetiological category in the context of growing allopathic hegemony and the place of counter-sorcery practices among available therapeutic recourses; the strategic values of recourse to the occult in situations of social tension or open conflict, the social status of clients of the occult and the nature of the relationship to their victims (kin, birth group, colleagues, etc…); contemporary case studies of accusations of witchcraft as a meta-commentary of the anxiety and disruption caused by social change, the existence or absence of judiciary action and media attention; the material and technical aspects of the implementation of supernatural aggressions, representations of efficiency and typologies of supernatural aggressions; the nature and quality of anxiety and uncertainty associated with the occult.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

At the Intersection between Exorcism and Sorcery in a Burmese Esoteric Congregation: How to Give Moral Sanction to Destructive Rituals

Author: Niklas Foxeus (ERG, Stockholm University)  email
Mail All Authors

Short Abstract

In an esoteric congregation in Burma, founded in 1950s by a person believed to be the world emperor, the members perform destructive rituals in which the boundary between exorcism and sorcery seems to be blurred. The aim of this paper is to discuss the issue of how to define such boundaries.

Long Abstract

In the period following the achievement of independence in 1948, Burma was plagued not only by civil war and general socio-political turmoil but - as many Burmese believed - also by violent attacks from evil spirits, sorcerers, and witches. Besides these disturbances, a Burmese esoteric congregation viewed western ideologies, politicians, wrong religions and their adherents, and a variety of remnants of the colonial era as targets that should be eliminated by its destructive exorcism rituals, with the aim of purging the world and universe at large from dangers to save Buddhism from extinction.

Due to the intention of protecting Buddhism from dangers and hostile forces, the members consider the destructive exorcism rituals to be morally justified. Such rituals could, moreover, be regarded as effective means to alleviate social tensions in a situation marked by anxiety and instability under the military dictatorship, as well as providing the members with a sense of empowerment in the face of perceived dangers to themselves as individuals and a community, and to their religion, nation, and traditions.

The esoteric congregation's ritual violence seems to make the boundary between exorcism and sorcery somewhat ambiguous. The aim of this paper, based on fieldwork in Burma, is to discuss - on the basis of Burmese notions of exorcism and sorcery - how to define the boundary between morally justified and immoral ritual violence.

Magic at the Margins

Author: Carolina Holgersson Ivarsson (School of Global Studies)  email
Mail All Authors

Short Abstract

This contribution seek to examine magical action in relation to radical uncertainty and restricted agency in a (post)disaster context.

Long Abstract

This contribution presents ethnographic material examining the radical uncertainty and disquiet that followed the wake of the tsunami in Sri Lanka 2004. The disaster was a critical event that in a matter of minutes shattered lives and everything familiar. Besides survival and covering basic needs social, moral and existential anxieties and dilemmas called for solutions. I propose that affected people with limited means of influencing their dire situation in the protracted reconstruction phase resorted to magical action in order to transform experiences of random disorderliness, hopelessness and vulnerability into some amount of predictability, control and meaning. Failures to balance the distribution of aid feed into a pre-existing atmosphere of distrust, in the state, local authorities, monks and aid organisations; it spawned jealousy and faded hopes. Practices of manipulating luck became an important arena of hope (even if it in some ways also produced uncertainty). People drew from a rich repertoire of local beliefs and rituals to explain and divert misfortune and create prosperity and good luck. The focus in this particular paper will be to explore a proposed uncertainty-restricted agency-magical action 'link'. But I also want to make clear that magical action is a supplement to practical activity, not a substitute for it (Michel Jackson 2005), and a largely mundane and rational pursuit. In this case it is employed to deal with an aggravated sense of anxiety springing from the experience of loss of control and difficulty to grasp a floating social and moral landscape.

Fear and Loathing in the Laotian Highlands

Author: Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg University)  email
Mail All Authors

Short Abstract

Among Rmeet in Laos, proong are said to live as ordinary villagers by day and blood-sucking half-humans by night. What does this tell us about concepts of humanity and sociality, when social spaces harbour the inversion of the social?

Long Abstract

Concepts of destructive and dangerous, yet person-like beings point to an unsettledness of the sociality of humans. The ambivalence which they represent is heightened if these beings shift between roles, being ordinary members of society in one context and dangerous monsters in another. This paper elaborates upon the proong in upland Laos, a category of people who turn into half-humans at night, eating corpses and sucking life out of sick persons and newborn children. Villagers of the Rmeet acknowledge that some of their neighbours might be proong, however today this hardly ever leads to open accusations or banishment. For most of the time, their existence is made intelligible by stories and precautionary measures, but the identities of local proong remain undetermined. This paper explores how the social and the non-social person emerge as a whole, how frightening ambivalences and concepts of social order are related to each other and how social space might harbour the inversion of the social.

In the land of Pii Poob and Pii Grasueh: how malevolent magic epitomizes Khmerness in contemporary Thailand

Author: Benjamin Baumann (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)  email
Mail All Authors

Short Abstract

Exploring how Khmer speaking villagers in Thailand think about local forms of malevolent magic, as well as describing some of the related ritual practices, I will argue that the ambiguous characteristics of two malevolent spirits, mirror and epitomize the ambiguity of Khmerness in contemporary Thailand.

Long Abstract

From magic tattoos to love potions and malevolent spirits, Thai popular discourse intimately links the socio-cultural category Khmer to magical practices. Although stigmatized as deviations from the imagined orthodoxy of a state sponsored Theravada Buddhism, these practices nevertheless represent sources of great spiritual potency and are seen as indigenous traditions. Linking the present with a past known for the omnipresence of supernatural powers, Khmer magic commonly evokes feelings of fear and respect, while simultaneously being sought for in various contexts. Ranging from politicians to prostitutes, members of all strata of contemporary Thai society engage in magical practices, whereby the extraordinary power of Khmer magic is commonly agreed upon.

This paper aims at exploring how the intimate relationship of Khmerness and magic inflicts upon processes of socio-cultural identification in Thailand's lower Northeast, a region where approximately one million people speak a local Khmer dialect as mother tongue. Exploring how villagers in Buriram province think about local forms of magic, spirits, and witchcraft, as well as describing some of the related ritual practices and their popular religious foundations, I will argue that the ambiguous characteristics that two malevolent spirits display in local discourse, mirror and epitomize the ambiguity associated with being a Khmer speaker in contemporary Thailand. Furthermore, I will show that popular religious concepts like spirits and witchcraft continue to represent reference points for interpreting misfortune and illness and supernatural agency continues to be a driving force in social group formation, despite the fundamental transformations of village life caused by globalization.

Invisible disorders: sorcery and misfortune among East Javanese sex-workers in Bali (Indonesia).

Author: Matteo Carlo Alcano (Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca)  email
Mail All Authors

Short Abstract

This paper examines the use of sorcery and other malevolent magic in the context of antagonist gangs of East Javanese sex-workers in Bali. It explores the ideas of misfortune and illness and calls for a reconsideration of East Javanese sociality and social stability, as suggested in recent scholarship.

Long Abstract

Sorcery and malevolent magic have been largely unexplored in the study of Southeast Asian societies, with few notable exceptions. For instance scholarship on East Javanese societies has long instisted on positive norms of stability, sociality and mutual support rather than on interpersonal conflict and supernatural harmful attacks, as Retsikas (2010) has brilliantly underscored. This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork in Bali and examines the use of black magic among East Javanese male sex-workers. Javanese male sex-workers in Bali are grouped up in complex networks of youth gangs, who strive for the control of the sex-market. In a context of identitary uncertainty, work precarity and great competitiveness, black magic and other violent manifestations are a means to establish control over space and territory and assert supremacy over antagonistic gang members. Particularly, sorcery is much sought after to cause misfortune and illness, a perishment of another person's body. Spells and attacks can cause new HIV infections and insomnia-related symptoms and represent a significant danger for a person's bodily capital. This papers illustrates the dynamics of street warfare and malevolent practices and calls for a reconsideration of Javanese male sociality in the light of frequent - albeit less evident - episodes of social instability and social tension.

« No witch, no village » : the therapeutic role of sorcery (and countersorcery) in Arakan (Burma)

Author: Céline Coderey (IRSEA (Marseille))  email
Mail All Authors

Short Abstract

Based on my fieldworks in Arakan (Burma), my paper focuses on the important role played by sorcery for the inhabitants of that area. It aims to show that the persistence of sorcery largely relies on the fact that it allows the handling of anxiety and incertitude at various levels : therapeutic, social, psychological, religious.

Long Abstract

Based on my fieldworks in Arakan (Burma), my paper shows the important role played by sorcery for the inhabitants of that area. This importance is attested by two facts : 1. Sorcerers are a cause of misfortune and illness which is often put forward; 2. Many individuals act as « anti-sorcerers », i. e. as exorcists. Villagers often have recourse to them in order to be protected or freed from sorcery aggressions.

The persistence of sorcery largely relies on the fact that it allows the handling of anxiety and incertitude at various levels : therapeutic, social, psychological, religious.

First, sorcery represents an important component of therapeutic itineraries, which is more and more true as the availability and the efficacy of medical care are largely insufficient especially in the field of mental health. In other terms, it gives a sense to and provides a way to act on symptoms that cant be handle by other means.

Second, sorcery provides an instrument of social control because it legitimizes the temporary rebellion of oppressed individuals as well as the strengthening of destabilized social relationships. Moreover, sorcery allows the handling of anxiety and incertitude arising in a competitive context, by acting as an instrument of social manipulation as well as a mean of fate control.

Finally, by embodying the Bad, the Impure ad the Disorder, sorcery provides - through the fight that is taken against it - a mean to restore and strengthen the Good, the Pure, the Order and, by doing so, the hegemony of Buddhism representing them.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.