Sunday, July 24, 2011

Witchcraft, the Exceptional, and the Ordinary

Pieter Geschiere presenting at JWTC 2011

In his presentation, Peter Geschiere attempted to describe the sudden resurgence in anthropological interest in witchcraft in Africa since the mid-1990s. Since 1994, he suggested, hardly any book has been written on Africa that has not discussed witchcraft in some way. Thus, he argues, we must stand back and ask what exactly anthropologists are doing with this concept these days, and why the term has become so loaded with significance.

The most striking element of what we could call the ‘New Witchcraft Studies’ is, in Geschiere’s estimation, the looseness of the central concept of ‘witchcraft.’ He sees this fluidity as coincidental with the larger ‘post-modernist tide’ in anthropology, and with an increasing emphasis on more discursive modes of understanding and documenting social forms. The looseness/fluidity of the concept, he suggests, is both its central element and the most difficult challenge in studying the notion of ‘witchcraft’: “The diffuseness of the discourse seems to be the secret of its resilience.”

Geschiere began his presentation by drawing out what to him was one of the most intriguing themes of the workshop: the poetic entanglement of the everyday and the exceptional, the line between normalcy and the exception. How do people, he asked, live with a crisis that seems to carry on indefinitely. What about when the rupture carries on, rather than constituting a final moment, a break? Doesn’t this inherently undo the notion of the crisis? What does it mean when crisis becomes the permanent state, when the exceptional becomes the everyday? Can we live continually in a state of rupture?

Anthropologists have tended to approach witchcraft as part of the ‘extraordinary,’ a moment of crisis, but, Geschiere suggests, witchcraft is for many people, like the crisis, “very much a part of everyday life.” As one of his colleagues in Cameroon stated, “Il faut vivre avec son sorcier.” So the challenge for us, Geschiere suggests, is to understand witchcraft as quotidian. How does it change our perspective to see it as part of everyday life, of all social relations? Such a view of witchcraft might qualify also what is written on the notion of crisis in Africa. The crisis, like witchcraft, is often understood as pure panic, but in fact people still manage to go one with their everyday life.

When he began his fieldwork in the 1970s, Geschiere noted, he had come to Cameroon to study politics, and had explicitly intended to stay away from the ‘anthropological hobby horses’ of witchcraft and kinship. People, however, kept talking about power and politics as being centrally about witchcraft, and eventually he realized that he must address the subject. In my own more recent research, I experienced a similar process. I came to my research area aiming to look at the operations of global policies and programmes in the local realm, but instead found myself studying the intricacies of social relations based around notions of kinship, of intimacy and trust. Similarly, in account of patterns of care within families, notions of the occult played an underlying role in people’s explanations of social processes.

Geschiere’s argument, following on the presentation by Wendy Brown on religion, politics, and the secular, prompted me to think about the old structural-functionalist divisions within anthropology, which attempted to bound spaces of political life, religion, economy, and family. These divisions have long between refuted. Anthropologists today acknowledge the impossibility of bounding life into such discrete spheres. Similarly, it seems impossible to bound something called “witchcraft” as separate from broader questions of intimacy and trust.

For Geschiere, the central element in the understanding of witchcraft as part of the quotidian is the link between witchcraft and the intimate—an attack from close by, the ‘dark side of kinship’—which thereby also raises the problem of trust. By exploring the link between witchcraft and intimacy, Geschiere is able to problematize some anthropologists’ equation of home, community, trust and reciprocity. Sahlins’ classical model of ‘concentric circles’ suggested that intimacy was equated with reciprocity and with trust. A similar assertion has been taken up within neoliberal development projects, which often appeal to notions of kinship and ‘community’ to justify their programs. This reductive notion obscures the ways in which intimacy is tied not only to trust, but to suspicion, doubt, and jealousy. It is important nonetheless, Geschiere suggests, to see the link between witchcraft an intimacy as precarious and fluid link. The link between witchcraft and kinship is ever more contested as people move further and further from family spaces.

Centrally, witchcraft can be understood as part of a larger ordering of the social world. Rather than a sign of the exceptional, it can be read as a mode of understanding and diagnosing social relations and structures of power. Witchcraft is also, as the brief film clip from Cameroon showed us, one of the few languages in which power structures can be inverted, in which a younger person can attack an older person.

In this sense, witchcraft can be also be understood as a sign of a general disruption in the social order, as folded into larger processes of violence and the decline of the family. In his 2005 book, Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy, Adam Ashforth suggests we think more broadly about a concern with ‘spiritual insecurity,’ which he links explicitly to other forms of social insecurity—violence, poverty, inequality. Though one can take issue with the boundaries of such notions as the ‘spiritual,’ the ‘occult,’ witchcraft, it seems that the key is to more broadly about the dangers associated with forms of intimacy—violence, disease, dispossession—in what we might call the ‘neoliberal’ moment, and with witchcraft as a signifier of these dangers. In this way, we are also able to begin to “desenclaver l’Afrique,” as Mbembe calls it, to show that notions such as ‘witchcraft’ are not unique to Africa, but are rather signs of more general complexities in processes of intimacy, jealousy, and alienation in the face of what Geschiere describes as the “capriciousness of new inequalities and the vagaries of the world market.”

Lindsey Reynolds, Johns Hopkins University