Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern

Article excerpt

Review of Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern by Kalpana Ram, University of Hawaii Press, 2013. 336 pp., $70 (cloth).

Fertile Disorder proceeds as a provocative "anthropological gamble" (p. 225) by unsettling a variety of dominant understandings about subjectivity, agency, and consciousness, which have been inherited from, and perpetuated by, Western scholarly traditions, without claiming to be yet another instance of "anthropology as reflexive 'cultural critique'" (p. 226). It interrogates conventional (Enlightenment-based) assumptions implicated in postcolonial Indian "projects of modernity" that have marginalized social practices like spirit possession in order to show that the existential possibilities which possession dramatizes are not "as remote from our experience of 'advanced' modernity as we may suppose" (p. 100). Through the cultural lens of spirit possession as experienced and practiced by Hindu and Christian women living in rural Tamil Nadu, south India, Fertile Disorder breaks innovative ground in the fertile field of possession studies. In its masterful integration of social theory, political philosophy, phenomenological philosophy, performance theory, and feminist theory, Fertile Disorder cracks opens a new epistemological space in which possession, which Ram represents as a "minor practice" (de Certeau), no longer requires discursive colonization in order to teach scholars (and Indian state intellectuals) something important, even quotidian, about what it means to be a human in the world. At every turn, Fertile Disorder resists locating spirit possession within a Western episteme, which "has carved up the field in which possession occurs" (p. 64), and which equates the person with a "self-enclosed, relentlessly conscious, and knowing subject" (86). As Ram asks, if we stop viewing an epistemologically grounded consciousness as de facto evidence of authentic human subjectivity, can spirit possession illuminate agency within the context of a destabilized consciousness? If so, what kind of agency would possession spotlight? Finally, how might the agency that presents itself in the purportedly unfamiliar world of spirit possession compare to the agency that is often experienced in the more familiar practices of human life?

Each of the book's nine chapters reconceptualizes agency by (re)contextualizing spirit possession within the framework of moral justice. That is, sundered moral relationships characterized by perceptions of a breakdown of concern and care in intimate dyadic partnerships become a powerful site for making sense of the "spirit troubles" that interrupt and accompany the lives of rural Tamil women at significant junctures in the female life cycle. To that extent, Fertile Disorder crafts a sophisticated analytical model of spirit possession and generates hypotheses that "bring the 'exotic' and the 'familiar' into a shared framework" (p. 226; italics in original). It contributes a fresh and compelling perspective to familiar scholarly (and Indian state) discourses on spirit possession and is written not only engagingly but also in a way that scholars and students (undergraduate and graduate) will appreciate. Fertile Disorder casts a wide theoretical net and will appeal to scholars and students of anthropology, development studies, sociology, religious studies, psychology, gender and women's studies, and global and area studies.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, consisting of chapters 1 and 2, introduces the cultural context of rural Tamil Nadu and the local and regional histories that have shaped and been shaped by spirit possession as it exists and operates within that context; the research methods Ram employed in the field; and the theoretical models she uses to analyze possession as illustrative of de Certeau's idea of a "minor practice" in postcolonial south India. Based on over three decades of ethnographic fieldwork that began in the early 1980s and was carried out in the predominantly Catholic coastal fishing villages of Kanyakumari district, and, from the l990s onward, in the agricultural communities of Dalit Hindus in the township of Chengalpattu (near Chennai), Ram describes the relationships she has been able to create and sustain over an extended period of time with Hindu and Christian women who have experienced possession. …

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