ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

The ambiguous objects of hospitality: material ethics, houses and dangerous guests
Location Wills G32; Arch & Anth LT2
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 14:30


Giovanni da Col (SOAS)
Matei Candea (University of Cambridge)
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Short Abstract

By foregrounding the materiality of hospitality, this panel reconsiders classic themes in the anthropology of hospitality such as the inherent ambivalence of the guest-host relation and the tendency of hospitality practices to replicate across scale.

Long Abstract

Our panel invites both archaeologists and anthropologists to reconsider the notion of hospitality in their research. As a key social form for mediating relations with a potentially dangerous 'Other', hospitality is central to making ethics visible in many socio-cultural settings. Hospitality is enabled not just by symbolic structures of reciprocity and patronage but by the physical transaction of things and the situated inhabitation/exploitation of places.

By focusing on the materiality of hospitality, this panel revisits:

Ambivalence: from the mundane (houses, thresholds, mining sites) to the extraordinary (gemstones, ghosts, poison) the objects of hospitality are always 'objectiles', object-events which threaten to collapse into their opposites and elicit magical or paranoid responses: food may turn into poison, homes into prisons, mines or archaeological sites into graves, ores into cursed wealth and guests into parasites. How can anthropologists track and theorise such moments of transformation? What of acts of hospitality which turn people themselves into things, usable, exploitable assets, indexes of other intentionalities?

Scale: If houses, as Levi-Strauss argued, are topological entities which can unite theoretically incompatible principles of relatedness, what happens when the language of hospitality connects houses to 'containing' entities on other scales, villages, nations, or 'homelands', when guests and hosts come to stand for collective entities, immigrant communities, miners plumbing the entrails of the land, armies, corporations and states. How are such scale shifts managed and how are connections made between entities which have their own distinct materialities? Is hospitality, thus extended, a holographic metaphor, or a reconfigured assemblage?

Discussant: Michael Herzfeld

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Breaking hospitality apart: what bad hosts and bad guests tell us about sovereignty

Author: Andrew Shryock (University of Michigan)


Hospitality is shaped by political and moral concerns, but cannot be reduced to either. It tends to transcend ethical systems, flourishing beyond its own rules, in a realm of excess, exposure, and risk. Among Bedouin populations in Jordan, the pleasures and anxieties of hospitality are expressed architecturally, in interactional styles, and in the use and display of special objects: food, drink, utensils, décor. Over the last 300 years, these hospitality assemblages have been used to establish the sovereignty of social groups of different sorts and sizes, ranging from families to villages, tribal groups, and states. In each case, sovereignty is manifest in the ability to act as host, and new consolidations of power are often explained (critically or supportively) in stories of hospitality gone wrong. Focusing on several historical episodes of political incorporation and erasure, I will show how the breaking apart of hospitality assemblages - of existing arrangements of space, material objects, and interactive styles - is key to how shifts in Balga political systems were accomplished in the past and how they are remembered by Bedouin today. Why do bad hosts and bad guests play this crucial role in local historical accounts? To answer this question, I will refer, as Bedouin do, to sovereign spaces that no longer exist; their physical traces, and their missing features, reveal much of the political economy that sustained them. They also tell us why the moment of hospitality is such a potent link between moral and political domains.

Caught in the net of magic. Hospitality, dangers and magic powders in Panamá

Author: Margherita Margiotti Fortis (Durham University)


Recent ethnographies on kinship studies in Lowland South America describe on how the relation between parents/children is equated to that of host/guests and how quotidian practices turn guest/strangers/children into kinspersons. What if kinship is created through the use of magical means? This paper offers an ethnographic account to think through the ambivalence of host/guest relations, the host being a Kuna family in village of Okopsukkun (San Blas Archipelago, Panamá) and the guest an anthropologist, caught in the net of magic. This ethnographic paper discusses how the Kuna use magic to overcome the ontological hostility immanent to the relations between hosts/visitors. How are guests turned into kin through magic as children are made humans through daily practices? And what if the guest is an anthropologist? Starting from a personal case where I was caught into magic - and for this reason keen to provide gifts to my hosts - I explore how the San Blas Kuna conceive blood relations as the product of 'umbilical cord relations' (mudup), characterized by sentiments of memory, generosity and sorrow for other kin, induced through quotidian practices as well as, rapidly, through magic. This paper shows that relations between hosts and guests are analogous to relations between parents and newborns, hosted in the womb or in the house of their matrilateral grandparents. It shows that kinship or host/guest relations can be made through magic - thus cosmology as well as quotidian practices may be well an issue to be considered to understand kinship.

Being a guest in the realm of death: symbolic death rituals and the materiality of Thai Buddhist funeral culture

Author: Patrice Ladwig (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity )


A long-standing, but until recently rather esoteric practice in Thai Buddhism is based on the belief that by undergoing a symbolic death ritual one to get rid of bad luck (khro), or even negative karma. By 'sleeping' in a coffin, or simply by being covered with a white cloth usually used for corpses, and undergoing a ritual that emulates parts of a 'real' funeral, people are hoping to overcome and prevent bad luck. This ritual - only performed in a few temples and contested by more orthodox monks - has recently gained popularity, was the topic of a successful Thai horror movie and has been the subject of ongoing media attention in Thailand and abroad. By looking at the connection between the materiality of the coffin and the white cloth as markers of the entrance into a space of death, this presentation shall conceptualize the insertion of the subject into this space as a guest-host relationship. Coffin and cloth here act as containing, but at the same time separating material entities deriving their power from a long history in Theravada Buddhist thought. By being a temporary guest in the realm of death, the ritual draws its power from ambivalence, disjunction and dislocation: attached bad luck, or spirits that have invaded the subject, can be 'cheated' and expelled by this symbolic death.

Making guests: the transformative substances of hospitality in Manggarai, eastern Indonesia

Author: Catherine Allerton (London School of Economics)


In Manggarai, eastern Indonesia, the everyday sharing of foodstuffs between kin and neighbours is on a continuum with acts of hospitality that constitute a partial payment to wage labourers, the formal reception of affines at alliance events, and the feeding of ancestors and other spirits at rituals. In all these instances, the temporary formalisation of relationships is effected through the provision of substances such as palm wine, betel nut and meat, as well as the speaking of words that render such substances efficacious. In this paper, I consider hospitality practices that self-consciously 'make guests' (pandé meka) and that thereby enable the transaction of money, women and spiritual protection. I focus on three key performances of hospitality - payments for work, alliance events and ancestral rituals - and argue that these all involve the temporary activation of specific relationships through the provision of palm wine, betel nut and cooked food. I describe how such performance events are surrounded by passionate and mixed emotions: laughter, ribaldry, fear, embarrassment, contempt and worry. I suggest that these intense emotions - such as the extreme offence taken by the most minor lapse of perfect hospitality - can be partly explained by the ambivalence felt in Manggarai towards waged work, the problematic necessity of acquiring affines, and the anxiety surrounding connections with an unseen realm.

The experimental hut: hospitable vectors

Author: Ann Kelly (King's College London)


Because their hosts tend to sleep indoors, Anopheles gambiae are highly domestic. During the 1940s in East Africa, British researchers built mud-walled, thatched-roofed huts with exit-traps fitted over the windows to model malaria transmission at population and ecosystem scales. Designed as an intermediary between the field and the laboratory, experimental hut architecture consists of ingeniously assembled inscription devises. Screened verandas, exit traps, entry baffles, raised foundations and concrete moats render the biting patterns of mosquitoes visible; local materials, built-in structural imperfections, and villagers paid to spend the night ensure the huts' representative authority. The experimental huts provide a frame to forecast the 'typical'.

Focusing on a series of experimental huts recently constructed in south-west Tanzania, this paper explores the kinds of hospitalities elicited by the home turned laboratory. From the colonial period and the advent of DDT to independence and the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges, the experimental hut has yoked international research to state governance and public health policy to domestic praxis. This paper suggests how configured experimentally, dwelling provides a framework to put science in its place: it analyzes how 'the home' spatially integrates the empirical relations of scrutiny with the epidemiological relations under scrutiny. Exploring how the huts configure the intractable guest-host relation that exists between the human and non-human, this paper describes malaria control as hospitable vectors drawn between man, mosquito and science.

Between protector and predator, the ethical status of the dog among the Dörwöd Mongols

Author: Bernard Charlier (Cambridge University)


According to Kant, all that is human, every man has a right to hospitality (1795). So, every stranger is human. But the non-human, the animal, for example, is excluded. No dog at home, then? And, what if the stranger is rejected in the non-human? Kant's universal, human hospitality questions political, ethnical and ethical difficulties of actual hospitality. I would like to consider hospitality through the analysis of the ethical status of the dog in Western Mongolia. How can its spatial and alimentary proximity to men and wolves meet the notion of "hostipitality"? The dog is never entirely domesticated. Its wolf like nature imprisons it in that space in-between where the porosity of the opposites constitutes him: protection- predation, humanity-animality, interiority-exteriority, domesticated-wild, good/bad fortune. Might the dog's relegation to the outer space, (though, next to the yurt), reveal the herder's incapacity to conceive the stranger-intruder the same way as himself? Or, rather, what side of the dog does the herder refuse to see in himself?

Spirits, hosts, archaeologists and incomers: binding obligations at household and clan hearths in Southern Siberia

Author: Joseph Long (University of Aberdeen)


Among the Western Buriats of Pribaikal'e analogical patterns of reciprocity can be observed in ritualized hospitality practices in the home and annual rites of offering made at the ancestral homeland. On different scales corporeal and incorporeal persons are bound into reciprocal relations through formalized sharing of meat, milk products and vodka at both household hearths and 'clan hearths'. In larger rites the guest-host relationship is ambiguous with master spirits of place designated 'khoziain', the same title as a head of household, though the rites are described as 'hosting' the ancestors.

Many clan rites take place on sacred mountains, several of which are home to ancient pre-Mongol petroglyphs. The local Buriat population acknowledge through offering rites the spirits of those predecessors in their homeland. Archaeological excavations have consequently been a source of vexation for local shamanists who believe that the sprits will be disturbed.

A recent alliance has been formed, however, between local elders and archaeologists in trying to gain state protection for the sacred mountain of Mankhai from the illegal slate mining that has destroyed many of the petroglyphs.

While local shamans engage in statist discourses over the preservation of sites, archaeologists increasingly participate in offering rites. These different place-making discourses and practices problematize and redefine who are 'masters' of the land, who are bound to the land in reciprocal relations with its 'masters', and what kind of incomers might be defined as dangerous to the material constituion of sacred sites and practices of 'binding'.

Cohabitation and exile: a case of hospitality on a Greek island during the civil war of 1946-1949

Author: Elena Mamoulaki (Durham University)


In my Ph.D. thesis I study the cohabitation of two groups of people, political exiles and locals, during the civil war of 1946-1949, on the Greek island of Icaria. While the experience of exile was common in this period in Greece, the case of Icaria was distinct in that it involved the cohabitation of local and exile communities. In a period of just a few months, more than 12.000 political exiles were sent by the government to Icaria, which at that point had only 8.000 inhabitants, without any provisions for housing, medical care and sometimes even food supplies. Since there were no prisons or concentration camps on the island, the exiles stayed for almost two years in the houses of the locals.

In this paper, I will discuss how this cohabitation was made possible and how what was originally intended by the government to be a way of confining or imprisoning the exiles eventually became the basis for fruitful relationships of hospitality. I will examine the social values and mechanisms that managed to transform the extraordinary situation of internal exile in such a way that today, the local community asserts its identity through the memorialization of that past experience of solidarity and hospitality. Furthermore, this paper will consider the different ways in which both locals and exiles acted as representatives of their communities, looking at how hospitality was practiced not among individuals but between the two groups that managed to create identities as host and guest on a broader, collective level.