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Fertile Disorder

Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern

Kalpana Ram
Copyright Date: 2013
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    Fertile Disorder
    Book Description:

    In her innovative new book, Kalpana Ram reflects on the way spirit possession unsettles some of the foundational assumptions of modernity. What is a human subject under the varied conditions commonly associated with possession? What kind of subjectivity must already be in place to allow such a transformation to occur? How does it alter our understanding of memory and emotion if these assail us in the form of ghosts rather than as attributes of subjective experience? What does it mean to worship deities who are afflictive and capricious, yet bear an intimate relationship to justice? What is a "human" body if it can be taken over by a whole array of entities? What is agency if people can be "claimed" in this manner? What is gender if, while possessed, a woman is a woman no longer?Drawing on spirit possession among women and the rich traditions of subaltern religion in Tamil Nadu, South India, Ram concludes that the basis for constructing an alternative understanding of human agency need not rest on the usual requirements of a fully present consciousness or on the exercise of choice and planning. Instead of relegating possession, ghosts, and demons to the domain of the exotic, Ram uses spirit possession to illuminate ordinary experiences and relationships. In doing so, she uncovers fundamental instabilities that continue to haunt modern formulations of gender, human agency, and political emancipation.Fertile Disorderinterrogates the modern assumptions about gender, agency, and subjectivity that underlie the social improvement projects circulating in Tamil Nadu, assumptions that directly shape people's lives. The book pays particular attention to projects of family planning, development, reform, and emancipation.Combining ethnography with philosophical argument, Ram fashions alternatives to standard post-modernist and post-structuralist formulations. Grounded in decades of fieldwork, ambitious and wide ranging, her work is conceived as a journey that makes incursions into the unfamiliar, then returns us to the familiar. She argues that magic is not a monopoly of any one culture, historical period, or social formation but inhabits modernity-not only in the places, such as cinema and sound recording, where it is commonly looked for, but in "habit" and in aspects of everyday life that have been largely overlooked and shunned.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3778-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book is my sustained response to a puzzlement that has refused to leave me since I began ethnographic research in the early 1980s. Far from losing force, an enigma has remained disturbingly alive. Thinking about it has, in successive stages, slowly shaped my responses to wider issues. Yet until the writing of this book, I have not found the space to consolidate those responses nor to fully acknowledge a persistent source of the shifts in my intellectual outlook.

    So what was this enigma? I encountered it first in the very distinctive culture that belongs to the fishing villages of...

  6. Part I: State Intellectuals and Minor Practices

    • CHAPTER 1 Visible and Invisible Bodies: Rural Women and State Intellectuals
      (pp. 13-41)

      Since my earliest fieldwork in coastal villages of Kanyakumari in the 1980s (Ram 1991b), I have found myself in the thick of all manner of programs and interventions in the lives of villagers, undertaken by professionals of various kinds. Such a sense of being surrounded by programs was no doubt shaped by my own background and dispositions, which mark me as a member of the broad grouping I attempt to characterize in this chapter. From subtle forms of “mutual recognition” that enabled easy access to others from this group, to my own need for certain basic forms of material comfort,...

    • CHAPTER 2 Minor Practices
      (pp. 42-70)

      Living in and moving around Tamil villages affords the middle-class intellectual an opportunity to become aware of phenomena that fall outside the range of what she knows or even quite recognizes. Anthropology has simply systematized and elaborated the kind of reflexivity by which that intellectual, or any sojourner in a foreign land, can compare and contrast new understandings with those familiar to her from her own primary socialization. But this method yields very different results depending onwhereone was socialized. I grew up in India, and my family migrated to Australia when I was fourteen. We made frequent visits...

  7. Part II: Gender, Agency, Justice

    • CHAPTER 3 Possession and the Bride: Emotions, the Elusive Phantom of Social Theory
      (pp. 73-105)

      I met Vijaya in 1983.¹ She was then a young bride. She and her husband, James, lived in a somewhat makeshift fashion with her married sister and the sister’s household in the coastal village of Katalkarai Ūr in Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu. Villagers who knew of my interest in possession referred me to Vijaya since she was known to have been suffering spirit attacks. The following account was pieced together by me on the basis of what I heard from Vijaya, her husband, and James’s sister.

      Vijaya’s first spirit attack had come one year after the death of her father....

    • CHAPTER 4 The Abject Body of Infertility
      (pp. 106-131)

      The material in this chapter is based primarily on my relationship with a woman called Santi, who had experienced possession episodes ever since moving to her affinal village as a young bride. I first became acquainted with her in the early 1980s during my initial period of fieldwork in a coastal fishing village of Kanyakumari District (Ram 1991b). Santi was widely and simply referred to in the village aspēykkāri,or “demon-infested woman.” Her spirit attacks had occurred over so many years that young women of the village recalled seeing her possessed when they were children. They recounted the way...

    • CHAPTER 5 Learning Possession, Becoming Healer
      (pp. 132-156)

      In this chapter I explore a category of women mediums who “heal” while possessed.¹ Such healers, called spirit mediums in the anthropological literature, have been widely noted in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka (Trawick Egnor 1982; Hancock 1999; Kapadia 1995; Obeyesekere 1981; Kapferer 1991).² In introducing these women, I am not confronting the reader with an entirely new category. For they are basically no different from the women we have already encountered. Like Santi and Vijaya, these women have experienced afflictions that are due to spirits.Unlike Santi and Vijaya, however, they go on to act as mediums. It is...

    • CHAPTER 6 Performativity in the Court of the Goddess
      (pp. 157-193)

      Spirit mediums are typically incorporated in anthropological discourse into the general category of “healers.” However, anthropology must also contend with the currents of meaning that are set in motion when the term “healing” is invoked and that carry it swiftly away from the world of rural Tamil spirit mediums. As they circulate today in popular culture, the terms “spirit” and “healing” spontaneously evoke a version of “spirituality” that is abstracted from any particular cultural context, even while they simultaneously accrue cultural capital from invocations of a grounded “indigeneity.” At a recent forum held in Sydney after the screening of an...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Nature of the Complaint
      (pp. 194-222)

      Mediums such as Mary and Mutamma are both agents and instruments in the conduct of a Court of Divine Law. The people who attend them are petitioners. But what is the nature of the complaint? I take the term “complaint” from Wilce’s (1998) fine ethnography of “troubles talk” among rural Bangladeshi women. In particular, I use his distinction between “complaints as symptoms, as reified signs of disease” and complaint as “the social and discursive dynamics of complaining, or troubles telling” (15). However, as we shall see, though complaint is not the reified sign of disease, neither is it purely discursive....

  8. Part III: Revisiting the Projects of Modernity

    • CHAPTER 8 Possession and Social Theory
      (pp. 225-251)

      This book has proceeded as an instance of a classic anthropological gamble. The gamble takes something like the following form: if we unsettle certain underpinnings of a variety of Western scholarly traditions by moving the grounds of investigation to another place, might not that process also shed light on some of the wider, more enduring perplexities that inhabit scholarly and political debates? The fact that such moves usually leave intact many of the defining assumptions of Western scholarship is testimony not to the fruitlessness of the quest but to the fact that cultural and historical traditions cannot simply be discarded...

    • CHAPTER 9 Possession and Emancipatory Politics
      (pp. 252-276)

      In this book I have deliberately refrained from urging readers to view the agency of possession and mediumship as “resistance” to power or as “empowerment,” let alone as a radical liberation from caste, class, and gender relations of power. The reasons for this deliberate restraint can now be explored. The discursive traditions that analyze power have created a hierarchy of agency. Within this hierarchy, the minimum point that can be imagined is the point of resistance to power. But the female medium does not resist. She does not overturn any hierarchy of power relations. If we view her position through...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 277-284)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-304)
  11. Index
    (pp. 305-318)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-323)