In Part 1, I wrote a gonzo ethnography about my experience at a rocket launch in Florida. For Part 2, I will be utilizing historical records, museum didactic text, and astronaut testimony to illustrate that magical and ritualistic practice is heavily engaged with in spaceflight operations. One may speculate that with the extreme emphasis on the (perceived) empiricism of Western science in the realm of outer space affairs, there would be no room for the subjective—let alone magic, ritual, and religion. However, one of the themes that became apparent to me throughout my research is that there exists an enormous amount of mysticism within the field of human spaceflight. Some rituals are performed within the confines of accepted Western religious dogmas, while some fall into the realm of how some anthropologists understand magic and witchcraft. The first mystical component to human spaceflight is what writer Frank White has coined “the overview effect.” The term refers to the spiritual oneness that many astronauts report feeling after reaching outer space and seeing our planet from orbiting altitude, with many developing environmental and social justice viewpoints. Furthermore, many astronauts report that their time in space was filled with spiritual experiences, including temporal shifts, floods of emotion, and feelings of being a part of something larger than themselves. For a recent example, take what astronaut Ron Garan reports in the beginning of his autobiography:
In this post I’m going to be talking a little about aliens. Tibetan ones, specifically. Also, sex magic. Bear with me now. A lot of this may be quite unfamiliar, esoteric territory for Savage Minds readers, but it’s territory that I think is anthropologically interesting. In addition to being an under-appreciated slice of Orientalist history, the Tibetan alien is an exquisitely weird gateway into a number of issues relating to epistemology, ontology, and ‘truth’. The convoluted history of the Tibetan alien opens up a space for thinking about the construction of ‘tradition’ and its relationship to religious practice and experience. It also beams a light on the politics of other-ness, both as they relate to issues of cultural appropriation and personal spiritual transformation.
To begin, let’s travel first to Dharamsala, North India, 1992. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Gina Athena Ulysse in tribute to Karen McCarthy Brown. Gina is an associate professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. She is also a poet, performance artist and multi-media artist. Prof U, as her students call her, is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). She recently completed Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, a collection of post-quake dispatches, essays and meditations written between 2010-2012. Currently, she is developing VooDooDoll, What if Haiti Were a Woman, a performance-installation project. Her writing has been published in Gastronomica, Souls, and Transition.)
News that Karen McCarthy Brown passed away after years of deteriorating illness reached me earlier this month. I kept it to myself. When more official announcement from Drew University–where she was Professor Emerita of anthropology and sociology of religion—showed up on my Facebook feed this past Sunday, I shared it with the following comment:
Reading Karen’s Mama Lola kept me in grad school. Vodou got a human face from her. A tremendous loss, indeed.
When the first email arrived from UCSB’s Claudine Michel who penned the preface to the third edition of Brown’s award-winning ethnography in 2010, I had a flashback to nearly two decades ago. Continue reading
In an effort to cut through a lot of hot air being blown on the internet I recently argued that race (and gender) is a “technology of power.” I would like to follow that up with an argument that belief is best understood as a set of social practices, not as an internally coherent ideological system. This is because a large number of seemingly well-intentioned people on my timeline are arguing something along the lines of “we shouldn’t let Islam of the hook for terrorism.” In my previous post I argued that we should endeavour to engage the best arguments that we disagree with, not those easiest to dismiss. This is one reason I haven’t engaged this particular argument before. At first blush it strikes me as little more than laughable “clash of civilizations” Islamophobia (not that Islamophobia is funny). However, some recent discussions have convinced me that there might be a more anthropological version of this argument which is worth a more serious discussion. This argument has two parts: (1) that we should take people’s ideas seriously, including those of violent extremists, and (2) that we should not erase difference by arguing that all forms of violent extremism are the same (i.e. by arguing that not all, or even most, violent extremists are Muslims). I think few anthropologists would take issue with either point, but in so doing we would still not end up in the same place as those making these arguments.
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Ben Joffe. Ben is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado. He holds a MA from the University of Capetown, and a Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research dissertation grant for the project “White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Renouncers, Institutional Authority, and the Mediation of Charisma in Exile.”]
You know that guy. He talks about ‘Tantric yoga’ in casual conversation. Maybe he has dreadlocks. Maybe he’s shaved his head. He’s definitely not had a beverage with regular milk in it for years. He’s probably white and affluent. He’s probably been to India. And he probably wears Buddhist prayer beads as jewelry.
It’s easy enough to compare this stereotype to the ‘serious’ convert to Buddhism, who though they too may talk about Tantra, sport distinctive hairstyles or be white and affluent, seem at least to wear their prayer beads as more than just a fashion statement. Yet, how easy is it to identify where religious conversion begins and cultural appropriation ends? Continue reading