Friday, September 19, 2008

I Guess That I Could Get Crazy Now Baby, Cause We All Got In Tune

A particular area within anthropology that has long been of interest to me is the interaction of individual psychology with elements of culture and social structures. This kind of interaction can be seen in an especially striking form in experiences of spirit possession occurring across a wide variety of cultural settings.

An interview with scholar of Jewish mysticism Rachel Elior about her new book, as noted on the Paleojudaica blog today, discusses a spirit-possession legend specific to Jewish folklore, namely that of the dybbuk. The dybbuk is believed to be the spirit of a deceased man, which enters and takes control of a living person. What is interesting about Elior's analysis of this legend (from what I can gather from the interview excerpt; I have not yet read the book) is her conclusion regarding its social function:

Elior argues that for women, dybbuks could be a means to escape the demands of a confining society. Once possessed by a dybbuk (or at least claiming to be), women were no longer considered responsible for their own actions, and were exempt from arranged marriages and relieved of wifely duties. Thought to be the souls of sinners, these spirits gave a certain degree of power to the powerless, freeing them from the norms of routine life and its conventional ordering.

I find this interesting in light of parallels that can be drawn with the Hauka religious movement, originating in French-colonized Africa, practitioners of which believed themselves to invoke the spiritual identities of colonial officials. Some scholars have theorized that this activity allowed the possessed to reclaim a sense of agency within the disenfranchising context of foreign occupation (further discussion of this and other aspects of Hauka can be found in chapter 3 of Paul Stoller's Sensuous Scholarship).

The use of possession experiences as a means of reclaiming personal or group power in the face of social oppression or disorder appears to recur throughout Western history. The latest installment of the Documents blog's continuing series on possession discusses analyses of the "dancing mania" of the ~14th-18th centuries in such terms:

The dire living conditions of the late Middle Ages - natural disasters, the Black Death, famine, social unrest - made Medieval Europeans seek relief in 'the intoxication of an artificial delirium'.

And of course we have the myth of Dionysus and King Pentheus.

So, in light of this apparent tradition of social resistance through intentionally-induced states of alternate identity, how might we interpret contemporary bacchanals? The participants, as those of the aforementioned historical examples, do not seem to consciously identify as members of a coherent movement against prevailing social conditions:

What’s the point? Well, it’s just an event where a bunch of people can get together to have fun, expend pent-up energy, and meet tons of new people with similar interests.

Yet, from the hippies at Woodstock to the candy-ravers of the 1990s, those who collectively tune in, turn on, and drop out have been repeatedly vilified and condemned by guardians of the normative order. Can a trance-based movement, regardless of intent, effectively call into question an authority simply by forcing its hand, thus revealing its lack of perfect control?

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