Monday 1 September 2014

Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds

Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds
A great review of this book, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke. Published in Paranthropology Vol.5:3

Dr. William Rowlandson reviews 'Talking With the Spirits' in the latest issue of Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal:

"What exemplary method. These ethnographic studies are informed and informative with a quality that demonstrates deep participation, curiosity and reflective observation. This is the value of the ethnographic method, as not one of the contributors is deflected by that most vexing and persistent of terms – ontology – a term reflected in a child asking ‘but are fairies real.’ Even the more scientific accounts, such as Chapter Ten, report on the field of study without spinning off into concerns about who and where these medium-encountered spirits really are. These are questions, I feel, that often entertain or befuddle at the expense of direct experience.
I am dazzled at the close relationship these authors have with their material. The realities described are as they are, how they are; and critical observation carries no judgment. This is ethnographic research at its best – involvement, sympathy, consideration and reflection. So when Fiona Bowie asks, amidst other important questions, ‘Can we find an approach that retains academic rigour while also admitting that not all reality is immediately apprehensible and visible?’ (20), the answer is a resounding yes! Here is the fruit of that approach. This is why ontological ruminations can be a deflection, as they can serve to keep the anomalous anomalous, to keep certain experiences at arm’s length until their location and status can be fixed. There is a welcome sense of normalcy within these essays. This is how things are in Montreal, reports Deirdre Meintel. This is how they are in Brazil, say Bettina Schmidt and the authors of Chapter Ten. Jack Hunter examines the work of the Bristol Spirit Lodge, and demonstrates the unsensational yet sensational presence of mediumship practices in the UK. Charles Emmons draws on decades of profound experiential research in practices of ancestor-worship, mediumship and domestic daimons both in Hong Kong (and China) and the US. David Luke asks some pressing questions about mediumship and possession within shamanic entheogenic practices, especially ayahuasca. Other chapters reflect other contexts, traditions and cultures.

My attention, to be fair, is drawn to Chapter Six, Diana Espirito Santo’s embodied research into Cuba’s santos, as this is an area of which I have more experience than the contexts of the other chapters. (I work in Hispanic Studies, as a cubanista). This chapter is so rich, covering history, tradition, practices and ceremonies, and, compellingly, the ethics and politics of the Afro-Cuban religious cultures. She addresses the complex and sensitive questions of spiritual practices, mediumship and mental health, and the role of mediumship from a healing, curative, perspective.

One thing that seems to surprise visitors to Cuba’s santerĂ­a, palo and espiritista traditions is the day-to-day, domestic, turbulent and often spiteful nature of the dealings with the muertos and the santos. It is an integral part of the busy, noisy, overcrowded life of Havana, and a dead uncle can still be as much of a pain in death as he was in life. Many santos demand rum, candy and tobacco. Mediumship is often gossip and political squabble. There is nothing anomalous about it, unless you arrive with the understanding that such a standard aspect of life is somehow illegitimate. ‘We would be missing the point,’ she argues, ‘if we ignored the fact that for mediums, spirits are nothing if not social creatures, made real via their materialization in the world, among the living, and through the living’ (200).

Diana concludes her chapter with a sentiment appropriate for the book as a whole. Communication is an act of will, the result of engagement. This is as true between me and my neighbour as it is between me and mis muertos. Relationships may begin spontaneously but they require investment, and, as Jung would aver, greater involvement with the many selves within ourselves is an act of empowerment. ‘Only when acted upon, materialized, acknowledged, and socialized, do spirits begin to exist for their mediums; until then, they are merely untapped potentialities – shadows of selves’ (202), she writes.

This book does precisely that."

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