Anthropology of the Spirit

As is well known, during the past couple of decades the anthropology of the body has been very big in the discipline. AAAs sessions organized around this theme reliably signalled prestigious institutional affiliations, funky eyewear, and willfully peculiar shoes that manage silently to show up other choices of footwear as hopelessly plebeian. Were there, across this time, AAA sessions devoted to the anthropology of the spirit, it is not impossible to suppose they were marked by para-academic institutional affiliations, ethnic apparel of indeterminate origin, applause at odd moments, and a general air of obstreperous befuddlement.

My impression is that things have now changed, mostly in response to the rise of discourses of “spirituality” (be they fundamentalist or New Age) in the contemporary context. In class today I gave a “Magic, Science, and Religion” lecture that I self-consciously designed to not risk trodding on any pious/conservative toes, only to have a heated dispute break out in the western quadrant of the lecture hall about the relationship of neopaganism and Wicca to science. It wouldn’t give me so much pause if it weren’t the second time in my short teaching career it has happened; the first being in an intro anthro course when a scheduled “discussion of witchcraft” was taken by some students to mean a discussion of witchcraft: black, white, and how to tell the difference. What I felt, in both contexts, was utterly unprepared to do anything with the turn of events other than to ask that we bracket the debate and return to “what anthropology has to say about this topic”.

At any rate, I’ve found myself pondering the fact that one of the most appealing aspects of the “anthropology of the body” framework is that it enjoins a kind of critical engagement that includes the critical-engager: everybody’s got a body, and it is surprising and interesting to learn about how the taken-for-grantedness of that body is historically/socially/culturally constructed. But not everybody has a spirit. Certainly the critical literature with which I am familiar more or less moves from the stance “people who think they have spirits do so in the following historically/socially/culturally constructed ways”.

The most inclusive stance possible within this framework is a kind of agnostic addendum: “people who think they have spirits (and maybe they do) do so…”

I don’t know. It feels like a problem but maybe it’s just yet another sign that I belong in the “obstreperous befuddlement” rather than the “cool shoes” camp of the discipline.

11 thoughts on “Anthropology of the Spirit

  1. well, it fits along the divide of “opposite of the body” — you’ve got body/mind and flesh/spirit.

    the difference that I see — to be quite stupid about it — is that even when we argue about “theories of mind” or “theories of the body” as a basic premise we assume everybody has got one of each of those things. But spirit?

  2. On what grounds do we assume everybody has a mind? If we’re talking about different theories of mind, or different cultural constructions of a set of phenomena we agree to call “mind,” then I’d think the comparative exercise would tend to reveal an aporia about the nature of mind, or, alternatively, allow us to definitively state once and for all exactly what a mind is. I don’t truly know what a mind is so I couldn’t speak to that. Is a mind that which produces binary oppositions? I would worry about confusing artefacts of consciousness with generative capacities–only the latter is something I’d want to say that I have. The rest is baggage. Yet I can’t rightly say I don’t have baggage. It’s simply not what I mean when I talk about having a mind–hypothetically, of course.

    I think it would be a useful to describe a difference between intellect and spirit, especially if you say that everybody knows they have a mind but not everybody knows they have a spirit. How else can you be sure that there isn’t some issue of misidentification at play, allowing different labels to be applied to phenomena that are essentially of the same nature?

    Are the different senses of the word Geist an example of polysemy, a broad kind of generality, or something else?

    And what is the difference between being embodied and being in the flesh? Two senses of the here and now, the temporal. A metaphysical dilemma, or just two different ways of talking about the same thing? Beats me.

  3. Well, if you want to engage the anthropology of the spirit through, e.g. Voodoo, Voudoun, Candomble, Santaria and their various West African roots, you pretty much have to get there through the body, no? Shamanistic flight, possession, those sorts of things all involve bodies in motion, drugs in the brain and body, and so forth.

  4. Mr. Yak: my concern is labelling “spirit” as a variant of “mind” replicates the same move of “some people think they have a spirit … but of course what they really have is a mind that they label ‘spirit'”.

    Bill Benzon: same concern, really. Your suggestion seems to me to come down to “some people think they are having spiritual experiences… but of course what they are really having is altered bodily states”.

  5. Why not think of the body as a microcosm, inhabited by thousands of gods (some versions of Taoism), of body and spirit as material and ethereal manifestations of the same humoral elements (Ayurvedic medicine, perhaps), or a Gundam fighting machine in which different pilots can take the controls? Or think of a self/spirit/soul as a digital record that can be transmitted through hyperspace, recorded in small storage units and “re-sleeved” in new bodies (the premise of SF writer Richard Morgan’s new “Altered Carbon” series)?

    One lesson demonstrably clear from ethnographic and historical record is that human beings conceptualize what we call “body,” “mind,” or “spirit” in a huge variety of ways and that simply assuming that our categories have a privileged relationship to “reality” is both arrogant and probably wrong.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to first observe that certain phenomena, e.g., a person’s beginning to tremble in an apparently uncontrollable manner, ceasing to interact “normally” with others, and then beginning to behave in certain conventionally stereotyped but “non-normal” ways, are reported from around the world.

    The next step would be to ask the locals, people who share some sort of collective identity with the individual in question, what is going on. Here an acute observer may note that several interpretations are available. David Jordan, for example, notes in his study of Chinese folk religion in a village in central Taiwan that the sorts of signs described start a debate about their significance that includes four options: (1) possession by a god, (2) possession by a ghost, (3) insane or (4) faking. Possession by a god is confirmed both by physical tests, primarily indifference to the pain of beating oneself bloody with spiked balls or swords or sticking metal skewers through various parts of the body and the medium’s ability to provide what seems to be sound advice and perform acts (drawing charms using the medium’s blood as ink, for example) that appear to be efficacious. In contrast to gods, ghosts can’t stand the pain and respond to exorcisms (including offerings and/or threats) that restore the possessed to normal behavior. Wild behavior that conforms to neither the god nor ghost paradigm is regarded as insane. Finally, fakery must also be ruled out. Being accepted as a medium is, as reported in other places, typically a major improvement in status and a new source of income. Taiwanese peassants are no fools and realize full well that the individual acting like a medium may, in fact, be a charlatan. (There is, in fact, as I have written elsewhere, no contradiction at all between a firm conviction that most people who claim special powers are faking and the hope that there are people who really have such powers if only one knew how to find them.)

    Further case studies may then reveal recurring patterns in the social dramas in which various interpretations are deployed, some are blocked from consideration (government officials, for example, may in their official capacities regard belief in gods and ghosts as superstition and exclude all possibilities but insanity and fakery), and others confirmed to the satisfaction of those who must continue to live and interact with the individual whose behavior occasions the debate.

    It is, I believe, entirely likely that comparing such studies from around the world may reveal recurring patterns of more than local interest. I find, for example, that when I read Richard Stoller’s Fusion of Worlds the details of belief and behavior among the Songhay differ from those of the Chinese mediums and magicians with whom I worked in Taiwan. Still, the overall texture and structure of the world that Stoller describes seems very familiar. There is, for example, the same fragmentation of ritual knowledge, with different people knowing different bits and masters sharing only bits of what they know with disciples and that at irregular intervals over long periods of time, a process of intermittent reinforcement that helps to bind disciples to their masters. There are the same professional jealousies and claims that competitors are either ignorant or evil.

    The lesson I take from all this is that remarks like “think of the body as a radio receiver” are only of interest as suggesting new avenues to explore. As explanations they have no more/or less standing than “The recurrent pain in your left arm is caused by your childless sister who died with no children to worship her. Set up a shrine for her and the pain will go away.” The same is true, of course, for “body,” “mind,” and “spirit” themselves.

  6. Mickey Hart, Drumming at the Edge of Magic

    Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance

    Steven Freidson, Dancing Prohpets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing

    Michael James Winkelman, Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico Religious Practitioners

    Benny Shanon, The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience

    My review of Shanon:

    Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology by James L. Pearson. AltaMira Press, 2002; ISBN: 0759101558

    My review of Pearson:

  7. An anecdote from my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture:

    This is a story about me and three other musicians. Led by Ade Knowles, we were rehearsing a piece based on Ghanian musical principles. Each of us had a bell with two or three heads on it—the bells were of Ghanian manufacture. Ade assigned three of us simple interlocking rhythms to play and then improvised over the interlocking parts. Once the music got going, melodies would emerge which no one was playing. The successive tones one heard as a melody came first from one bell then another and another. No person was playing that melody; it arose from cohesions in the shifting pattern of tones played by the ensemble. Depending on the patterns he played, Ade could direct the tonal stream perceived as the melody, but the tones he played weren’t necessarily the melody tones. Rather, they served to direct the melodic cohesions from place to place.

    Ocassionally, something quite remarkable would happen. When we were really locked together in animated playing we could hear relatively high-pitched tones that no one was playing. That is, while each bell had a pitch tendency (these bells were not precisely tuned), these particular high tones did not match the pitch tendency of any bell. The tones were distinct, but not ones that any of us appeared to be playing.

    These tones only appeared when we were in the state of relaxation conducive to intense playing, a groove, if you will—a groove I could certainly feel as a “buzz” in my body. Without the relaxation, no emergent tones and melodies. According to Ade, that’s how it always is. The “magic” of the bell happens only when the musicians are in a groove. My friend Jon Barlow tells me that a similar phenomenon is familiar to people who gather together and chant long tones in unison. When the chanting is going well, and only then, the chanters hear distinct and relatively high-pitched tones that seem to be located near the room’s ceiling.

    I don’t know how to explain these magic tones. The literature on musical acoustics does talk of various types of subjective tones, but they are quite unlike the ones we heard.[ ] If the bell tones are subjective, the same subjective mechanisms must have been operating in all four of us, for we each heard them. I suspect, however, that those tones were not subjective, and that they would register on a suitable recording.

    There is also the question of just what caused these tones in the first place. I think they resulted from an extra degree of precision brought about by shifting into a more animated mode of playing, but that is only a guess. In any case the phenomenon is irreducibly social. We each played our individual parts and we all heard everything. Those “magic” tones are only the most palpable token of the social nature of our music.

    * * * * *

    I’ve got a pile of such and similar stories, from various sources. Some considerably more, some less dramatic. Here’s one from Leonard Bernstein (I can supply the citation if you wish):

    I don’t know whether any of you have experienced that but it’s what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you’ve studied him so intently, that it’s as though you’ve written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.

    I always know when such a thing has happened because it takes me so long to come back. It takes four or five minutes to know what city I’m in, who the orchestra is, who are the people making all that noise behind me, who am I? It’s a very great experience and it doesn’t happen often enough. Ideally it should happen every time, but it happens about as often in conducting as in any other department where you lose ego. Schopenhauer said that music was the only art in which this could happen and that art was the only area of life in which it could happen. Schopenhauer was wrong. It can happen in religious ecstasy or meditation. It can happen in orgasm when you are with someone you love.

    * * * * *

    Maya Deren wrote a terrific book about her experiences in Haiti, Divine Horsemen. She joined a voudoun cult and knows a different version of possession from Leonard Bernstein’s version.

    And then there are all those store-front churchs in America. The ladies with the big hats and waving the white handkerchiefs, they too know about feeling the spirit.

  8. We know that we have felt the magic and that some call it “spirit.” Others might call it satori. I recall a moment. I was a freshman in college, taking judo to fulfill a physical education requirement. I wasn’t very good.

    One day, I was paired with someone who was bigger than me, faster than me, and several belts more advanced than me. I just gave up. I stepped up, took hold of his gi, shut my eyes, relaxed totally…And the next thing I knew he was flying over my shoulder.

    Utterly unexpected. Utterly magic.

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