Whence “spirit possession”?

Authored by: Paul Christopher Johnson

The Handbook of Contemporary Animism

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9781844657117
eBook ISBN: 9781315728964
Adobe ISBN: 9781317544500


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Translations that file two compared entities under a third term are like commodities or exchange-value transactions. Here are several examples: “Pani” in Hindi and “water” in English are both local variations of H20 (Chakrabarty 2000: 75); the Australian Aboriginal churinga and a Santería toque are affirmations of community; nineteenth-century slaves’ work-slowdowns in Alabama and the contemporary manufacture of paket-kongo in Haitian Vodou can be compared as subaltern resistance; the fact that a Dinka boy in Africa “has a ghost in his body” (Lienhardt 1957: 58) and that a Thai villager afflicted by a phii paub cries out or laughs loudly and then hides her face (Tambiah 1970: 321) are two members of the class spirit possession. Such translations into artificially constructed third terms are like commodities that repossess the object of study with different properties than those with which they began. It is intriguing to think of theoretical key terms as carrying traces not only of the geographies of their original disembedding, but also of the economic regimes they replicate in the forms of exchange they facilitate, as “factors” (in the word’s original sense of agents of exchange), or currencies. As we will see, this is especially apropos for the case of “possession”, which quite directly links ideas about the body to ideas about property.

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