Accepted Paper:

"Possession" and anthropology's containment of a crisis in categories  


Kalpana Ram (Macquarie University)

Paper short abstract:

Possession should occasion a challenge to the fundamental ontologies of social sciences: what it means to be a 'person', to have a body, a mind, to be "culturally constituted". If we let in emotion and temporality into modifying our account of possession, how do we modify anthropology's ontology?

Paper long abstract:

This paper gathers up and addresses some of my long standing concerns with the wider implications of 'possession' for anthropology, for the social sciences more generally, and, speaking to the wider themes of the conference, even for emancipatory political struggles of the twentieth century insofar as they invoke a particular notion of agency.

Possession, if taken seriously, challenges all manner of rationalist 'explanations' as a model of what social science's mode of operation ought to be.However, even more profoundly, possession occasions or should occasion, a challenge to fundamental ontologies employed in the social sciences in assuming what it means to be a 'person', to have a body, to have a mind, or even what it means to be "culturally constituted". The paper will argue that it is not simply a matter of allowing 'possession' to interrogate ontologies implicit in the human sciences. Many of the Meanings around 'cultural construction' and 'embodiment' rely implicitly on an understanding derived from an unexamined notion of possession as the 'occupation' of a body that is vessel-like. This paper takes the opportunity presented by the panel's interest in re-examining possession and the specific role of emotion and learning in possession in order to ask: how might a better account of 'possession', one that lets in emotion and temporality, potentially modify the ontologies and epistemologies at work in anthropology?

Panel W094
Rethinking spirit possession