Any discussion / comments on the below topic would be appreciated:
The ontological turn - new ethnographic approaches, theories and analysis of spirit mediumship, shamanism, religious ritual and discarnate phenomena.
(Photo: Taoist spirit medium in Singapore self-mortifying as it is held that when possessed by a deity, the spirit medium's blood carries the deity's power)
Ethnographic research into spirit-mediumship, shamanism, witchcraft and religious phenomena has undergone a paradigmatic shift reflective of the ontological turn in contemporary anthropology, new research giving recognition to the role of spirits and to the spiritual power of objects in religious practices. New ethnographic research methods and theoretical approaches are therefore developing to integrate emic ontological spiritual worlds into the broader scope of normative etic analysis.
Fiona Bowie has suggested that “Western academic approaches often rely on the juxtaposition between “our” rational and “their” irrational belief systems, and attempt to “explain away” or ignore emic interpretations with a subsequent loss of semantic density”, and suggests “adopting an emic interpretive lens in order to arrive at a “thick description” that does not shy away from aspects of experience outside the ethnographer’s Weltanschauung (world view)”. Such approaches remove the monopoly on sacred, spiritual and religious knowledge held by religious specialists as emic understandings and knowledge are increasingly integrated into ethnographic research and anthropological analysis. This disseminates into the public sphere through anthropological publications, conferences, and through new social media.
This panel would like to invite potential participants to explore dimensions of the privatization, revelation and dissemination of religious and spiritual knowledge through evolving ethnographic research methodologies and analyses based on previous or on-going research in any region of the world. Topics of specific interest include:
1. Spirit-mediumship and spirit possession
3. Religious ritual / magic
4. Religious / spiritual belief systems
6. Contemporary witchcraft
7. Spirit power and material culture
Fabian, this proposal interest me, not least because during my dissertation fieldwork in Taiwan I was the apprentice to a Taoist huat-su (Mandarin, fa-shi, 法师). That was back in 1969-71. I returned to Taiwan in 1976-77. It was during that stay that I collected the text of a ritual called in Hokkien ce ngokui (controlling or propitiating the five ghosts), which I analyzed in detail in my article "Negotiating with demons: the uses of magical language." American Ethnologist, Vol 22, No.1, February 1995.
In that article I finesse the issue raised by the ontological turn as follows,
I start with a working assumption, nicely stated by Erving Goffman, that applies as well to the presentation of self in ritual as it does to everyday life:
"When an individual plays a part he implicitly request his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be [The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959:17]."
I assume, then, that the healer is doing, in fact, what he seems to be doing: negotiating with demons. He is neither charlatan, preacher, nor pedagogue; nor is he an actor performing a play that he and others know to be fiction. He is what he says he is: a magician, trying to achieve a certain effect in the he knows best, by magic. This leads me to my larger agenda, the implications of what he says for one of our discipline's oldest conundrums: the magical force or efficacy attributed to magical words.
I say "finesse" deliberately. I chose to avoid metaphysical commitments. I refused to embrace either the "thin" scientific approach that attempts to explain away what the text says and what the healer is doing as he speaks it or the, it seems to me, excessively "thick" approach that assumes that spirits, the Five Ghosts and the god evoked as part of the exorcism, are actually present. It suffices, I still believe, for anthropologists to take Confucius' advice that while a gentleman behaves in ritual as if the spirits are present, he does not concern himself with the question of whether they actually exist or not. That participants in ritual believe in their presence is sufficient reason to analyze what they do, taking into account their beliefs.
I do not, however, claim to be a know-it-all. I am happy to entertain the idea that the ontological turn has implications that go beyond this modest methodological move. Could you, perhaps, give us a hint of what those implications might be?
Thank you for your reply to my post. First allow me to apologize for my laxness in replying. I have been, metaphorically speaking, up to my eyeballs in fieldwork in Malaysia, though, admittedly, that is a poor excuse.
I would love to have seen Taiwan back then in the 60s and 70s - I didn't get there myself until 1989. It is still my favorite place that I have visited, even though it has changed drastically since my first visit. I wonder what you would make f it now?
Regarding your ideas, they are fascinating. I will download your paper in the new year, and give it a read. As for the ontological turn, the expression was first used in the introduction to 'Thinking through things' (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1844720713?keywords=holbraad&...) and the introduction explains the ontological turn far better than I can. Also worth reading, and free from the journal HAU. They had an entire issue on the ontological turn in 2014 which can be downloaded here: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/issue/archive
Particular authors to look out for include Holbraad, Pedersen, Descola, Laidlaw, Viveiros de Castro and Horton.
The best reply I can give you as a direct answer though would be to look at your Confucian approach, i.e., "for anthropologists to take Confucius' advice that while a gentleman behaves in ritual as if the spirits are present, he does not concern himself with the question of whether they actually exist or not. That participants in ritual believe in their presence is sufficient reason to analyze what they do, taking into account their beliefs". The ontological approach may in comparison may analyze how spirits exist, in what forms, and what world views are necessary for them to exist in the forms that they take. Another approach would to look at your ethnographic material 'recursively' (a term coined by Holbraad) meaning to conceptualize objects, entities and so forth based not on previous anthropological models (relativism /representationalism ), but from the ethnography itself.
In the meanwhile, I think your work sounds fascinating, and I would encourage you to enter an abstract for the IUAES panel.
I look forward to reading your paper, and wish you all the very best for 2016.