Uncertainty and the performance of unmasking and revelation: spiritual power and healing dramas in Puerto Rican brujería
(Tel Aviv University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper examines the ethnography of uncertainty and the skillful performance of revelation and proof in Puerto Rican brujería (witch-healing), suggesting that uncertainty not only constitutes the very nature of this vernacular religion and the charisma of its practitioners, but also shapes the sensuous dramas of its divination, magic, and healing rituals.
Paper long abstract:
When brujos (witch-healers) reveal during consultations that it's not they who speak when they deliver the messages of the spirits, or when they unmask unsuspecting clients waiting to be consulted for being skeptical about the efficacy of magic, they are skillfully performing the theatricality of revelation and proof, tackling the cravings for certainty that the secrecy of magic elicits. This paper examines the ethnography of uncertainty in Puerto Rican brujería, suggesting that uncertainty not only constitutes the very nature of this vernacular religion, but also shapes the sensuous dramas of its divination, magic and healing rituals, as well as informs the charismatic basis of the spiritual power of brujos. Theoretical ruminations about performativity, charisma, belief, and skepticism will complement ethnographic vignettes that illustrate those ambiguous intersubjective ritual spaces in which the suspension of disbelief has been threatened by doubt and faith has managed to coexist with skepticism. Engaging Malinowski's assertion abut the monotonous, boring nature of magic rituals, this essay argues that the obsessively repetitive mimetic corporeal aesthetics exposed as manifestations of the otherwise concealed world of spirits during divination, possession, and the performance of magic works could be viewed as diagnostics of the relentless need for proof, for repetitive acts of revelation and corroboration in light of the lingering doubts, opacity, and fragility of consultations. In the context of brujería and other vernacular religions that lack a theological center or organization, such technologies and poetics of ritual revelation and proof become essential to their ethics, affectivity, and effectiveness.
Dealing with doubts, putting to test: the importance of uncertainty in vernacular religion