Rethinking spirit possession

Vlad Naumescu (Central European University)
Arnaud Halloy (University of Nice Sophia Antipolis)
Start time:
28 August, 2008 at 11:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel explores spirit possession in the light of recent research in cognitive sciences. Our empirically-driven questions are: how can we make sense of an experience which is entirely subjective and social in the same time? Which theoretical and methodological approaches could grasp the ways in which possession is actually learned and transmitted?

Long abstract:

Spirit possession is an extreme way of knowing the 'other' by embodying it; the kind of 'first-hand' religious experience, in William James' terms, which still provokes great interest among anthropologists. While in some societies spirit possession and trance have been considered as favorite means of expression for marginalized and oppressed, in others, cultivated by religious experts, they form the core of the local religion. In spite of the variety of possession cults and practices around the world there are strong similarities in the possession experience. In this panel we intend to bring together cases of spirit possession from various religious traditions, from Christianity to Brazilian Candomblé, in search of its underlying characteristics. Our interest is to explore the processes through which this human experience becomes religious or dissociative (disorder), as negotiated between cultural frames and individual insight. For this, we will focus on processes of 'learning possession' and the successful transmission of representations related to spirit possession. Although much has been written about it, few anthropologists addressed possession as a mode of knowledge or a mode of attending to the world. In this panel we intend to pursue this direction further in the light of recent research in cognitive sciences. We are interested, among others, in the role of cognition and imagination in creating an experience of dissociation and in the role of emotions as somatic markers for 'recognizing' possession.