Ethnographic Sorcery

Ethnographic Sorcery

Ethnographic Sorcery

Ethnographic Sorcery

Synopsis

According to the people of the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique, sorcerers remake the world by asserting the authority of their own imaginative visions of it. While conducting research among these Muedans, anthropologist Harry G. West made a revealing discovery- for many of them, West's efforts to elaborate an ethnographic vision of their world was itself a form of sorcery. In Ethnographic Sorcery, West explores the fascinating issues provoked by this equation.

A key theme of West's research into sorcery is that one sorcerer's claims can be challenged or reversed by other sorcerers. After West's attempt to construct a metaphorical interpretation of Muedan assertions that the lions prowling their villages are fabricated by sorcerers is disputed by his Muedan research collaborators, West realized that ethnography and sorcery indeed have much in common. Rather than abandoning ethnography, West draws inspiration from this connection, arguing that anthropologists, along with the people they study, can scarcely avoid interpreting the world they inhabit, and that we are all, inescapably, ethnographic sorcerers.

Excerpt

Having traveled downstream by canoe, a magician comes ashore to discover the charred remains of a fire god's temple in Jorge Luis Borges's short story “The Circular Ruins” (1970). Though he knows nothing of his own past, he is animated by the desire to achieve “the most arduous task a man [can] undertake, … to mould the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of,” in short, “to dream a man … and insert him into reality.” He dreams a beating heart, “perceiv[ing] it, liv[ing] it, from many distances and many angles.” Over the course of the following year, bit by bit, he gives form to a complete man, into which the fire god breathes life. Following the god's mandate, the magician—all the while haunted by the sense that what is happening has happened before—instructs his progeny in the rites of the fire cult, vacates his memory of all traces of his years of apprenticeship, and sends him off to inhabit an abandoned temple downstream. With the passage of time, the magician hears word from two boatmen traveling upstream of a man who walks on fire without being burned. He remembers being told by the fire god that all but he and fire itself would see his phantom dream-child as flesh and blood. “Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man's dream, what a feeling of humiliation, of vertigo!” he laments. Soon thereafter, the sky grows . . .

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