Accepted paper:

Uncanny encounters with elephants that "know all" in Assam, North-East India


Paul Keil (Czech Academy of Sciences)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores when a sense of wonder can arise within human-elephant entanglements in Assam, North East India. When elephants engage humans unexpectedly, perceiving their hidden intentions, this encounter can reveal the hidden moral character of individuals, both human and elephant.

Paper long abstract:

Wonder can arise from the dissolution of difference as well as in response to alterity that is encountered at the limits of our explanatory frameworks. Nonhuman animals are "good to think with" about wonder: as unstable ontological categories they have capacities that are constantly being redefined and overlapping with human abilities. Further, they have access to a world through a subjectivity that partially escapes our grasp and with senses radically different to our own. As agents, animals also open up wonder in the world: they can seemingly participate in and have knowledge of human affairs that defy our expectations. In rural Assam, North East India, I was told that "elephants know all", and are able to perceive the hidden thoughts and feelings of humans, even from great distances. Considered by many to be incarnations of the deity Ganesh, elephants will occasionally cross paths with people, specifically targeting them to damage their property or even kill them. Their unusual behaviour is attributed to the animal having knowledge that the person had bad intentions towards elephants, or occasionally acting in retribution for a moral transgression. This presentation illustrates how the sense of the uncanny and wonder can arise in these encounters, and reveal the hidden moral character of individuals, both human and elephant. I argue that in order to understand wonder of animals in other cultures, we need to attend to the limits of western thought about animals, where categories can be unstable.

panel Rel01
The social formation of wonder