Relocating Mainland Southeast Asia in Spirit Possession Studies
29th November 2019
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)
54 Boulevard Raspail – 75006 PARIS
Salle 737 (7eme etage / Coté A)
9:30 – Welcome coffee
9:45-11:15 Discussant: Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière
Missing Dead and categories of possession.
Oscar Salemink – Searching for the Missing Dead in Vietnam.
Paul Christensen –Why there are Spirits of the War in Vietnam but not in Cambodia?
11:30-13:00 Discussant: Erick White
Southeast Asian Possession Complex
Guido Sprenger – Vampires, witches and shamans: Decentered personhood in Northern Laos
Benjamin Baumann – Animist Collectivity: Outlining the Social Ontology of Thailand’s Possession Complex.
Paul Sorrentino – Whose religion are the Four Palaces? Genealogies of a pantheon
14:30-16:00 Discussant: Peter Jackson
Reimagining spirit possession in Southeast Asian Modernity
Niklas Foxeus – Dispensing with Mediators: A Hybrid and Individualistic Form of Non-Professional Spirit Possession within Burmese Prosperity Buddhism.
Kazuo Fukuura – Ontology, Historicity, and ‘Multiple Modernities’: Examples of Spirit Worship and Mediumship in Chiengmai, Northern Thailand.
Irene Stengs – Oneiric Encounters. Material Doubling, the Invisible Present and Matters of Possession in Northern Thailand.
* * *
“ L’énigme de cette histoire est la possibilité d’un discours sur la possession.”
M. de Certeau, La Possession de Loudun, 1970.
“Spirit possession” is one of the founding anthropological categories according to Paul Christopher Johnson. He believes the concept emerged at the crossroads of the formation of European ideas on people as a kind of property and of the geographical encounters that produced the slavery system. In an attempt to attend to the material economy of spirit possession, Johnson develops an argument according to which persons as belongings and bodies without will have produced the matrix from which this particular form of the spirit’s presence in the human world emerged. However, similarly to most literature on this subject, Johnson and his authors’ efforts deal with the African and Afro-Atlantic genealogy of spirit possession. By contrast, studies on shamanism, which is grounded on a different phenomenology of the spiritual, were first mainly concerned with Siberian and Amerindian worlds, leaving one to think that these main categories of spiritual manifestations, which came to displace the old “animism”, were determined according to their regional specificities.
While striking features of spirit possession are found all over mainland Southeast Asia, in a variety of configurations – together with disseminated forms of shamanism –, one hardly comes across any allusions to it in the general literature on the matter. Southeast Asia is not alone in this regard. Gilles Tarabout in his “Prologue” to a volume dedicated to spirit possession in South Asia made a similar remark about the marginalization of the Indian sub-continent in thematic anthropological literature. Reasons for this lack of interest in large geographical expanses of the international prevalence of spirit possession phenomena in academic studies may well originate in the particular genealogy of the anthropological concept highlighted by Johnson. They may also have been reinforced in the case of Southeast Asia by the particular way in which the production of colonial knowledge on the region – in line with the binary oppositions between center and periphery, lowland and upland, state and village societies – has been fragmented between the orientalist and the anthropological approaches and between diverse academic traditions. To add to this state of affairs, the Cold War period has caused in the region dramatic political ruptures and the closure of a large part of it to field research leading to around a quarter of century of disruption in the collection of data – with the noticeable exception of Thailand. As a result, the pervasiveness of spirit possession across the region and its resilience in the process of modern globalization has long been ignored by religious studies scholars and anthropologists alike.
Georges Condominas drew the first regional synthesis in a 1976 paper in which he tested the distinction between shamanism and spirit possession that had then only recently been formulated by Luc De Heusch. In this paper, he proposed a general characterization of spirit possession in the region based on a conception of the person as formed by a plurality of souls and according to which a plurality of spirits were usually manifested in succession, in public rituals, in a hierarchical order. Institutional spirit possession was present at all levels of social organization (lineages, villages and polities) to serve various functionalities (therapeutic, of general prosperity or of maintenance of territorial integrity). Overall it was most often embedded in complex religious configurations, often dominated by Buddhism.
Research on forms of spiritual presence in Southeast Asian societies was only resumed in the nineties, after the reopening to field research that followed the end of the Cold War and the opening to the market economy and relative liberalization of authoritarian regimes. While the previous period had been one of disruption of local or supra-local ritual practices in many parts of the region, the new context of development and of globalization also saw an amazing resurgence of the spiritual in contemporary and urban contexts.
Such a resurgence was able to refute the then well received prospect of “world disenchantment” and to foster a wealth of anthropological works on new prosperity cults in the region, following the important analysis of the Comaroffs’ in this domain and further building on Eisenstadt’s concept of “multiple modernities”. A number of edited books came out that were not necessarily focused on spirit possession per se but more on the explanation of the vitality of the spiritual in Southeast Asian modernity. On the whole, they show that rather than erasing religion, modernity has changed the nature of religious expressions in the region, towards more systematization of doctrines and organizations. These studies have also shown an apparent increase in “magical” cults, at least a growth in spirit possession cults, often embedded in modernity.
Besides the fact that, in Southeast Asia, many of the new prosperity cults were based, directly or not, on existing forms of spirit possession, the latter have also experienced during the same period of time remarkable revivals (Vietnam), reframing (Thailand), or expansions (Myanmar). New ethnographies of spirit possession have appeared during this period although very few efforts of synthesis at the regional level have been attempted. Laurel Kendall’s characterization of East Asian spirit mediumship in Karen Fjelstadt and Nguyen Thi Hien’s Possessed by the spirits (2006) deserves to be mentioned in this regard. As a specialist of Korean shamanism, she draws a profile of Southeast Asian spirit mediumship as being based on asymmetrical relationships between humans and powerful entities.
Recent developments of anthropological theory, particularly what has become known as the “ontological turn”, have introduced still another paradigm in the conversation on the spiritual presence in Southeast Asian worlds. Central in this regard are Kaj Arhem and Guido Sprenger in Southeast Asian animism in context (2016). They borrow Philip Descola’s rehabilitation of the old concept of “animism” to qualify Amazonian non-modern ontologies in which all beings are credited with subjectivity and agency and they transpose it to Southeast Asia with the aim to reframe “regional discussion on Southeast Asian cosmology and religion”. However, while Amazonian animism is horizontal, egalitarian and concerns mainly the relations between humans and wild animals, Southeast Asian cosmologies concern primarily the relations between humans and spirits (invisible others) and in contrast are vertical and hierarchical.
Some contributors of Arhem and Sprenger’s volume adopt “hierarchical animism” to accommodate more readily this case. However, the use of the label “animism” in its Descolian framing of four main ontologies probably deserves further debate and elaboration if it is to be analytically productive in the mainland Southeast Asian context. Detailed empirical studies of configurations allowing the manifestation of spirits in the area are first required in order to qualify in its own terms what appears as a regional “spirit possession complex”.
Mainland Southeast Asia in Sprit Possession Studies aims to foster the
discussion on various case studies collected by Peter Jackson and Bénédicte
Brac de la Perrière in the coming edited volume A World Ever More Enchanted in order to situate and qualify them
more precisely, comparatively and in spirit possession studies. We also
encourage the participation of scholars in the field that may not have
contributed to this book but may bring in the discussion their own case
 See his edited book, Spirited Things. The work of “possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions (2014).
 About the classical distinction between shamanism and spirit possession, see Luc De Heusch’s paper in Pourquoi l’épouser, 1971. While debated, this distinction still accounts usefully for major differences between these two forms of manifesting the spiritual in human worlds.
 In J. Assayag and G. Tarabout, La possession en Asie du Sud. Parole, corps, territoire (1999).
 « Quelques aspects du chamanisme et des cultes de possession en Asie du Sud-Est et dans le monde insulindien » in L’autre et l’ailleurs. Mélanges offerts à Roger Bastide, J. Poirier et F. Raveau, 1976 :215-232.
 See for instance how Pattana Kitiarsa’s edited book Religious Commodifications in Asia (2011) applies the idea of prosperity cults to Southeast Asia as proposed by Peter Jackson (1999).
 See among the main publications Asian Visions of Authority edited by Charles Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacre in 1994; Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser Engaging the Spirit World (2011) andVolker Gottowik’s Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia (2014). Niels Bubandt and Martjin van Beek Varieties of Secularism in Asia (2012) and Peter Van der Veer’s The Modern Spirit of Asia (2014) examined in their own ways the intricate relations of spiritualism and nationalism in Asia as a result of the encounter with Western modernity. See also Erick White “Contemporary Buddhism and Magic” in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism (2017).