Accepted Paper:

The moment of uncertainty and the purpose of the witch-hunt   


Knut Rio (University of Bergen)

Paper short abstract:

Witch-hunts are current in the contemporary world, in contexts of changing relations of production, new forms of Christianity and reformulations of the nation-state. I propose that witch-killing is an act that reaches into a space of uncertainty. The paper is based on recent material from Vanuatu in Central Melanesia.

Paper long abstract:

I understand the existence of the witch in Vanuatu to be on a different plane of reality than the everyday activities that people engage in. Witches do not have a stable existence in the realm of the living, but they rather emerge and take personalized shape when called into being by feelings of jealousy and anger in close relations. In this way the witch cannot be pinned down to being defined and recognized as an individual agent, but holds an intermediary position, by wedging into relationships that have gone wrong.

Underlying my argument is the idea that witches are in certain societies of crucial importance due to their transformative function and character. These are societies that operate with relations between life and death, man and animal, subject and object as more or less continuous states. Categories of the human world are broken down, shifted around or changing place. We can maybe simplify this into a pattern; and say that whereas witchcraft in these societies is about bursting out, invading, merging and overtaking categories of social life, the witch-hunt is about violently putting them back into place. In this essay I am particularly interested in these ontologies of openness and uncertainty - that also operate a crucial control towards the realm from which life arises and which also harbours death. The crucial point is to tear the analysis loose from explanations that delegate the witch hunt to a realm of politics and interpersonal conflict.

Panel W053
Shifting ontologies and contingent agencies