EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution

(P092)

Destiny, fate, predestination: ethnographies of changing forms of political and intimate life

Location M-213
Date and Start Time 02 August, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Alice Elliot (UCL) email
Laura Menin (University of Milano Bicocca) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

What qualities, efficacies and affordances are accorded to destiny, in a world marked by increasing imaginative possibilities and uncertain futures? The panel traces ethnographic conceptions of 'destiny', 'fate', and 'predestination' in contemporary forms of political and intimate life.

Long Abstract

Notions of 'destiny', along with their complex relations with ideas of personal agency and freedom, are pervasive in people's everyday lives and existential quests in many ethnographic settings, as well as being at the core of numerous theological traditions. Yet, anthropology has often left the concept of destiny as the hazy background for its ethnographic and theoretical discussions. This panel aims to reconstitute destiny as ethnographic object in its own right, unpacking the fundamental role it plays in political and intimate transformations in a world of increasing imaginative possibilities and uncertain futures.

What qualities and efficacies are accorded to destiny, both in mundane routines and historical upheavals? How is destiny related to conceptions of 'chance' and 'luck'? How are political and personal transformations, desires, and life-trajectories imagined and actualised when transcendent and immanent forces mingle with human agency? These questions forcefully arise at a historical moment marked by increasingly restrictive migration policies, severe economic crisis, revolutions and political unrest, when the contrast between attempts to effect change and the experience of being part of a chain of events beyond one's power, becomes acutely poignant.

Attending to ethnographic specificities and ambivalences, the panel aims to redraw destiny's salience in contemporary forms of political and intimate life, developing novel avenues for its ethnographic theorisation. We welcome ethnographic contributions tracing different conceptions and affordances accorded to destiny in different social contexts and religious traditions, particularly at significant focal events (marriage, migration, illness) and historical conjunctures (financial crisis, political turmoil).

Discussant: Martin Fotta (Goethe-Universität)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

"It wasn't written by Allah": gendered migration, neoliberalism, and moral anxieties in Central Morocco

Author: Laura Menin (University of Milano Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

I trace Atiqa's story and the ways she mobilises the notion of 'destiny' to interpret the failure of her migratory plans. My goal is to illuminate the complexities and anxieties that the encounter with transnational migration, neoliberalism and the Islamic revival has triggered in Central Morocco.

Long Abstract

This paper traces the vicissitudes of Atiqa, a young woman from a rural region in Central Morocco with transnational connections to Italy and Spain. University graduated and unemployed, Atiqa arranges a mariage blanc (an unconsummated marriage for visa advantage) to reach her brother in Spain and search for a better future. In the wake of the unforeseen events that crumble her migratory plans, Atiqa falls in a psychological state of 'absence', losing control over her mind, her body, and her voice. Only Quranic recitation and her bodily submission to God enable the recovery of her soul. Atiqa's therapeutic path coalesces with her 'return' to Islamic discipline, against the backdrop of the increased influence of the 'Islamic revival' in Morocco. Telling 'what happened' before and after her failed migration, Atiqa resorts to the Islamic notion of 'destiny' to rationalise in a 'coherent narrative' the chains of events that triggered her illness, which she comes to interpret as the consequence of her arrogant transgression of the divine law and her challenge to her predestined future. In order to grasp her understanding of 'future', 'subjectivity' and 'human agency' beneath God's will, I engage with a 'religious imagination' that circulate through satellite TV, religious associations and everyday discourses. By situating Atiqa's story in the interstices between present and future, visible and invisible, I suggest that the notion of 'destiny' reveals the complexities and anxieties that the encounter with transnational migration, neoliberalism and the 'Islamic revival' has triggered in Central Morocco.

A fate beyond homeland: Israelis and Palestinians sans frontières

Author: Arpan Roy (Johns Hopkins University)  email

Short Abstract

Israel/Palestine constitutes a moiety, in the strict anthropological sense, but a possible intersubjective discourse in this moiety is locked within the doxa of the Israel/Palestine field. An odyssey to another doxa - another mode of living with other chances and serendipity - unlocks it.

Long Abstract

In the saga of the Israel/Palestine, it could be said that the main protagonist is the land itself. In a conflict that is inescapably about space and one's rootedness to it, the homeland dictates all possible discourses of the actors engaged with it. Using Pierre Bourdieu's theory of a field of doxa, an anthropological attempt to structure the regulation of all permissible and impermissible discourse in a society, no less than prophecy in biblical tradition or the oracle in Greek drama, my essay investigates two case studies of Israeli Jew/Palestinian Arab interactions outside the field of Israel/Palestine. What discursive possibilities do other doxas present? In both cases, the foreign doxa draws the subject away from a solipsistic view of Israel/Palestine and towards what Michael Taussig refers to as a view that is 'in the midst of the world...to exchange standing above the fray, the God position.' My essay puts forward two theories: One, that a possible intersubjective discourse is locked within the doxa of the Israel/Palestine field, which I treat as a moiety. An odyssey to another doxa, and serendipitous encounters with individuals and collective consciousnesses within it, unlocks it. Two, that anthropology's struggle to determine what is possible and impossible is in fact the same struggle as that of biblical and classical traditions in attempting to resolve the limits of human agency in the material world.

Fate and luck in the marketplace: strategies and perceptions of entrepreneurial success among Vietnamese small-scale traders

Author: Kirsten Endres (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines the interlinkages between the economic sphere and ideas of fate and luck in the Vietnamese marketplace by analyzing how Vietnamese small-scale traders narratively construct their success in the marketplace as part of a person’s fate decreed by heaven.

Long Abstract

The Vietnamese 'bazaar economy' is largely dominated by small-scale traders for whom capital is in short supply, prices (as well as taxes and laws) are negotiable, and profits depend on chance and rather than on entrepreneurial skills. Whereas small-traders don't deny that one needs to work hard in order to be prosper, the ways in which economic success is conceptually framed reveal that discipline, rational calculation, and personal skills are very much downplayed. Instead, a person's propensity for trade and the wealth generated by it are narratively constructed as part of a person's fate decreed by heaven. Moreover, a trader's success in business is referred to as lộc - a key concept that relates to good luck, fate-fortune, and divine benevolence. Lộc may be secured by moral virtue, enhanced by ritual practice, reciprocated in ritual exchange, distributed among kin, and transferred to future generations.

Drawing on six months of fieldwork, this paper first examines the everyday economic strategies employed by Kinh (ethnic majority) market vendors in order to avoid risks and sell their wares profitably. Second, I investigate how entrepreneurial success is perceived (and challenged) within the wider framework of social and moral norms, beliefs, sentiments and attitudes that inform trade-related practices. I argue that an analysis of the complex web of interlinkages between the economic sphere and the forces of fate and luck may bring fruitful insights to our understanding of local economic practices and dynamics, the moral implications of wealth, and ideas about value creation and human agency.

The work of fate and fortune: the (in)efficacy of (non)human agency in West African livelihoods

Author: Paolo Gaibazzi (Zentrum Moderner Orient-Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the nexus between work, fate and fortune in the Gambia and in West Africa at large. By assessing the practical implications of destiny-related notions for an ethic of work, it critically reflects on the lure of fate and fortune in the so-called neoliberal age of capitalism.

Long Abstract

Notions of fate and fortune have increasingly assumed centre stage in the worldwide capitalist economy, whether in speculative finance or in popular forms of consumption like lotteries and gambling. Some authors, like Jean and John Comaroff (1999, 2000), view the growing economic significance of these phenomena as an epitome of the power of abstraction and messianic character of neoliberalism. Thus, caught between the chimera of sudden enrichment and abject poverty, the dispossessed in the global south are said to resort to magical means as well as to discourses of luck, chance and predestination to explain and control processes of accumulation that are beyond their grasp. Additionally, such 'occult' ways of making sense and generating wealth downplay the input of labour. However penetrating in several respects, these insights fail the test of ethnographic scrutiny in several others. The paper draws on research on multifarious livelihoods in Muslim Gambia, and comparatively on West African case studies, to show fate and fortune to be long-standing features in the making of livelihoods in what have been typically both volatile and auspicious economies, and in particular in regulating work as a specific kind of human agency. While, on the one hand, chance, luck and predestination seemingly lie beyond human control, on the other, they probe people's effort, vitality and ethical conduct. The paper thus shows how understanding this interplay between human and non-human agencies sheds light on the appeal of destiny and luck in the present (neoliberal) moment.

On freedom, destiny, and consequences: ethnographic theory from Egypt during a stormy season

Author: Samuli Schielke (Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO))  email

Short Abstract

In a life that is hopeful but also ambiguous, frustrating, and unpredictable - how can one have existential power over one's situation? Or is such power only God's? Reflections by Egyptians about destiny and freedom provide a theory about acting in a world that is not of one's own making.

Long Abstract

In a life guided but not determined by grand schemes such as following Muhammad's message, searching for a life in better material conditions, longing for romantic love, and demanding political change - a life that is hopeful but also confusing, frustrating, and ambivalent - how can one have existential power over one's situation? Or is such power only God's? Drawing on the way my Egyptian interlocutors have addressed these questions, but locating the argument in a wider context, I address three important problematics that have emerged in the lives of Egyptians before and during the stormy season of the revolution: freedom, which is an important emic category but not necessarily linked with autonomy; destiny, which is a crucial part of a Muslim lifeworld but rather understudied; and unintended consequences for which we do not yet have a satisfactory anthropological theory. Taking up the reflection of my interlocutors about these issues, I try to show that theirs is a theory that can offer us a better understanding about searching for spaces of action while reckoning with the inevitable.

On predestination and irreverence in a Moroccan emigrant town

Author: Alice Elliot (UCL)  email

Short Abstract

Tracing how young Moroccan women frame seemingly irreverent practices such as the use of make-up and encounters with emigrant men about town as ways to actively participate in their divine destiny, the paper develops a notion of predestination that propels, and compels, mundane action

Long Abstract

This paper speaks to the complex ethnographic conjuncture between theological imagination and everyday action. Drawing on my fieldwork in rural Central Morocco with young unmarried women, I trace the peculiar place the idea of Islamic predestination occupies in the actions the women perform on and through the self to actualize their conjugal futures. By tracing the cultivation of bodily techniques surrounding young women's search for their destined husbands, I tease out how the idea of a divinely predetermined future is not just a cardinal background for action, but itself a form of action with specific performative qualities. I aim to show, in particular, how the theological concept of predestination is actualized through what could be classified as irreverent practices, such as the knowledgeable use of make-up and encounters with emigrant men about town. Destiny, in this way, becomes not only a powerful 'grand scheme' providing the hazy contours to daily life, but also something that surfaces, in a thoroughly Weberian way, through the most mundane of actions.

Exploring possible futures through horoscope reading

Author: Soumhya Venkatesan (Manchester University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on the widespread practice of reading horoscopes in Hindu India as a way of identifying particular life paths. Based on ethnography in south India, the paper suggests that consulting astrologers enables parents to contemplate potentially risky futures for their children, particularly girls.

Long Abstract

Horoscopes have long been consulted in India to decide on the right choice of a marriage partner by parents of marriageable children. However, horoscopes are increasingly being consulted to make other kinds of decision including whether to let a girl pursue tertiary education, go for a particular career etc. I suggest that this is happening because of the expensive and risky commitment implied by tertiary education and also the desire to seek an authoritative legitimisation to let a sexually mature girl follow her desires to study or work. For this, however, the choice of astrologer is important. Destiny and fate are here intertwined with the choice to seek out a particular astrologer and therefore open to manipulation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.