Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Reluctant Muslims: Embodied Hegemony and Moral Resistance in a Giriama Spirit Possession Complex

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Reluctant Muslims: Embodied Hegemony and Moral Resistance in a Giriama Spirit Possession Complex

Article excerpt

Spirit possession has had many scholarly interpreters, and as Michael Lambek (1981: 5) has pointed out, most of the early literature on possession focused on its possible causes or functions. These accounts tended to explain possession as a reflection of psychiatric disturbance (Heusch 1971; Devereux 1970; Ward 1980), a form of conflict management providing therapeutic resolution of social tensions (Crapanzano 1973; Firth 1967), or as an instrumental strategy used by subaltern groups to achieve redress (Lewis 1971). According to Boddy, however, in recent years there has been a turn away from such 'master narratives' (1994: 414), with much emphasis now on the understanding of possession as a multiple and context-dependent form of imaginative or embodied experience.

In the last twenty years in particular, some of the most penetrating accounts of possession have been those which treat it as a 'coherent symbolic system' situated in a 'wider context of meaning' (Lambek 1981: 5, 60) or as a creative, polysemic practice (Masquelier 2001: 124-5). For example, Brown's ethnography of possession in a Vodou community documents the multiple roles that Vodou spirits can play as they 'mirror the full range of possibilities inherent in the particular slice of life over which they preside' (1991: 6). Lambek suggests that spirit possession may be variously construed as a system of social communication (Lambek 1981) and as 'a form of knowledge, a knowing how, a knowing who, and a knowing as' (Lambek 1993: 338). Others such as Boddy (1989), Masquelier (2001), and Rosenthal (1998) have emphasized the capacity of possession to generate 'shifting, contested, and at times contradictory' meanings (Masquelier 2001: 124-5; see also Boddy 1989: 8).

Clearly, then, reductionism and strict functionalism no longer dominate analyses of possession, and many scholars recognize its plural potential. But despite the diversity of these approaches, a good deal of recent literature on possession is none the less dominated by a particular theoretical perspective. I.M. Lewis's reading of possession as a response to oppression has endured for over three decades, and has merged with the more recent emphasis on symbolic interpretations. The result has been to treat possession as a meaning-laden response to power, often taking the form of counter-hegemonic commentary. In fact, despite Boddy's own remark about fading 'master narratives', she observes in the same review essay that the view of possession as 'an embodied critique of colonial, national, or global hegemonies' is 'widely held' (1994: 419). Indeed, scholars such as Comaroff (1985), Lan (1985), Ong (1988), and Stoller (1984) have treated possession as a means of articulating and energizing opposition to Western incursions, capitalism, and other oppressive forces. While many recent works treat possession with a good deal more richness than it has been accorded in the past, Boddy contends that 'most would agree that possession cults are or have become historically sensitive modes of cultural resistance' (1994: 419).

A good deal of ethnographic work suggests that in some contexts possession does indeed embody opposition, ranging from indirect critique of the status quo to outright parody of dominant groups. The problem, then, is how to reconcile the current turn against so-called master narratives with the assumptions about resistance which seem to underpin so much of this work on possession. What is offered here is an account of one particular form of expression which is very prevalent among the Giriama people of coastal Kenya. This case does not seem to fit the paradigm of resistance. On the contrary, I read it as a somatic instantiation and partial recapitulation of a pervasive local system of oppressive meanings. While I do not wish to underplay the richness of Giriama possession as a lived experience and a semiotically creative practice, I am deliberately narrowing my focus here to matters of 'power', 'hegemony', and 'resistance'. …

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