One People, One Blood & Coffee and the Moral Order

One People, One Blood & Coffee and the Moral Order Precis

Tala AlRaheb

In One People, One Blood: Ethiopian – Israelis and the Return to Judaism, Don Seeman creates an ethnography which sheds light on the lived experiences of Ethiopian Israelis, specifically the “Feres Mura” through examining the cultural and political challenges that they face. In fact, Seeman’s book focuses on “the ‘Feres Mura’ experience of three separate but closely related spheres of state policy and bureaucratic practice that impinge upon them in mutually reinforcing ways: state immigration policy, public health practice, and the power of Israel’s religious establishment.” (3-4) Seeman, furthermore, wishes to examine claims of kinship as well as agency in religious transformation with regard to “Feres Mura” that go beyond the question of “Are they Jewish?” (29) Instead, Seeman argues that the “Feres Mura” dilemma is a “moral discourse” (32) and only when we stop reducing it to fit “fixed categories” (32) will we truly understand what is at stake for individuals. In fact, he criticizes individuals and scholars who have inadequately deciphered the dilemma of the “Feres Mura.” He writes, “In most cases, debates have focused on privileged moments of religious change – the moment of apostasy to Christianity or of return to Judaism —that are treated as starkly definitive and binary, either purely religious or completely instrumental.” (206) Therefore, Seeman argues that we cannot separate the “Feres Mura” dilemma from the broader cultural and political context that surrounds it and create orderly patterns of behavior; the choices of agency and religious decisions happen in social situations, not in a vacuum.

Seeman offers the same argument in his article, “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture.” In discussing why Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals often refuse to drink buna, Seeman pushes against framing such practices through cultural or theological patterns since they do not incorporate the disorganized and often confusing ways in which people think and behave every day in the world. Seeman writes,

Recognizing this everyday potential is not at all to detract from the uniqueness of Pentecostal conversion or to deny the importance of distinctive religious and ascetic practices to the emerging conversation about freedom… But it is intended to suggest that our consideration of these specialized practices should be reoriented to an existential and not just ritual or theological register so that continuities with everyday experience might be made more visible and examined across a broader social field. (11).

Thus, Seeman, similar to the point he makes in his book, argues that the choice not to drink buna is undeniably linked to the social context surrounding the individuals. While the case of the “Feres Mura” must be understood in conjunction with “state immigration policy, public health practice, and the power of Israel’s religious establishment” (3-4), the abstention of buna consumption “need[s] to be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting, embodied experience of gender and sexuality.” (10-11)

Throughout his book, Seeman successfully achieves his aim of explaining the “Feres Mura” dilemma within the broader context in which it exists. In fact, not only does Seeman explain the “Feres Mura’ life, he also offers the readers an account of ethnographic research within this specific context. Seeman describes unique challenges for ethnography and leaves us with thought-provoking insights into the field of study.  Similar to Kleinman and Wikan, the question of what is at stake for individuals is at the heart of Seeman’s book. Furthermore, methodologically, Seeman argues that in order to understand the experience of the “Feres Mura”, one must engage in an experience- near approach. Seeman writes, “Experience – near or cultural – phenomenological approach to ethnographic writing presumes that our first obligation is to the thick and detailed description not of culture but of what is at stake for real people in local settings – stakes that are patterned in important ways but never wholly defined by cultural considerations.” (6) Furthermore, Seeman concludes his book with the claim that “participant observation – by which I mean living intimately and in conjunction with strangers… is a necessary condition for the very possibility of understanding.” (209)

Living among individuals and trying to understand what is at stake for them means that we are also translating this understanding to readers who have not lived among those communities. Thus, our research bears ethical implications to the lives of the people we study. Not only are we writing about them, but we ought to think about how our writing influences them as well. Seeman brings our attention to this conundrum by stating, “We are also constrained – in a powerful and morally invigorating way – by the fact that the worlds we describe have lives that continue to grow beyond our texts and, with increasing frequency, to talk back.” (208) That being said, what happens when our interpretation of communities, although partially true, is not able to provide a full description of their experiences and thus does not do complete justice to their lives?

Another methodological challenge that Seeman has encouraged me to consider is the question of insider vs. outsider researcher. In chapter three, Seeman describes Messing’s encounter with the descendants of converts. Messing explains that his knowledge of the kin and his positionality helped form trust with his informant. Seeman, furthermore, writes, “Personal relationships are the very medium of knowledge for anthropology, and there is no reason at all for surprise that the existential position of the researcher – here a Jew, tentatively seeking contact with another Jew – made a crucial difference to what he was able to learn about this topic.” (78) A similar issue is brought up again in chapter six, during an Ethiopian-Israeli protest against racism. Seeman writes,

During the chaos of the demonstration, I mustered the courage to ask one young man with a placard what he meant by invoking the Holocaust, and he told me that for him, this was really a protest against racism. Yet when a persistent foreign journalist who had overheard our conversation began to ask leading questions about racism in Israel, he refused to repeat that assertion. Certain accusations, apparently, were still meant for local ears only. (154)

The two accounts of the interaction between researcher and informants beg several questions. How do we form trusting relationships with our informants? What happens if we cannot create trust with our informants? Is it more favorable to be an insider researcher or an outsider researcher? Who decides what it means to be an insider or an outsider? How does our ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and other factors of our identity as future ethnographers influence our research? Can we truly understand what is at stake for individuals if informants don’t trust us as researchers to reveal to us their experiences? I ruminate on these questions because I believe they bring helpful insights into my future research project and help me reflect on the kind of ethnography in which I’ll be involved.


Wikan/Kleinman and Kleinman (Kimberlain)

In Managing Turbulent Hearts, Unni Wikan writes an account of Balinese culture which advocates for an anthropological turn to lived experience. Wikan argues that there is a discrepancy between the ways in which Balinese life has been depicted in western media and anthropological literature and the ways in which life in Bali is actually lived. Wikan initially set out to build on an existing study undertaken by Geertz, but realized once she arrived that her experience brought to light claims that were different from—and even contradictory to—evidence previously presented by her colleagues. Wikan’s purpose is to decenter anthropology’s tendency to stereotype and overgeneralize which, according to Wikan, has been historically characteristic of the discipline. In order to accomplish this goal, she turns to a theory which is not so concerned with “culture” as it is concerned with people. Wikan states that cultural models like symbols and ideas serve to order people’s lives, but that they are only partially operative in shaping people’s lives. She states, “I argue that the truly significant meanings of symbols, signs, and events are such as propel and constrain people, and thus it is to theirlives one must look to grasp what is entailed.” (Wikan 19). In her turn to “their” lives, she develops certain major themes.

An important aspect of Wikan’s methodology is her attention to the particularities of people’s lives and circumstances. In order to accomplish this, she puts effort in to cultivating relationships and abandoning her own preconceived notions. One of the most salient relationships she cultivates is that with Suriati. While she acknowledges that the data she draws is concerning one particular person’s life and experiences, she hopes that within this particularity various aspects of Balinese life will be illuminated in an “experiential whole” (Wikan 26).

One important theme threaded through Wikan’s work is her attention to what is at stake in the lives of her informants. In Suriati’s case, she notes that from the outside Suriati embodies the Western stereotype of Balinese—graceful, aesthetically-minded, and poised. It is only through Wikan’s prioritization of Suriati’s lived experience that she became contextualized, multivalent, and humanized. She sought to acknowledge the concerns and feeling-thoughts of individuals in their relationships to others as they navigate the world: one which is never organized or seamless. Saliently, Wikan argues that we should take the category of feeling-thinking seriously in place of our own western notion of “experience”. This move, Wikan states, allows us insights into the human condition that cannot be realized unless we choose to abandon, temporarily, our own cultural knowledge.

Kleinman and Kleinman also advocate for a turn to lived experience in their critique of medical anthropology. They argue that both anthropologists and medical professionals participate in a “process of professional transformation” which “trivializes the experience of their subjects” (Kleinman and Kleinman 276). Echoing Wikan, they argue that there are things at stake for people in their lives, and that we should ask what things are at stake in order to advance an ethnography of experience. In their analysis of human suffering, Kleinman and Kleinman present the case of Huang Zhenyi, a survivor of China’s Cultural Revolution. Through this illustration, they seek to argue that “the anthropological tendency to create cultural archetypes out of the always messy and uncertain details of a personal account of illness…is as invalid an interpretation of the human core of suffering as is the biomedical tendency to create a purely biological metaphor for pain.” (Kleinman and Kleinman 280). For the authors, suffering is complex, narrative, and has a multiplicity of meanings. It is not enough to stop at culture or biology, they argue, for “There is something definitively human at the core of experience…that would emerge as universal from cross-cultural translation…if we focused ethnographic descriptions more self-consciously on experience and its modes.” (Kleinman and Kleinman 292).

In comparing these works to the literature we have read in previous weeks, I found many of Wikan’s and the Kleinmans’ arguments refreshing. I agree that the best way to get at a description of the experience of another is not only through their own words, but through their own conceptual frameworks. These works also prompted me to ask questions about the task of ethnography and its implications. Certainly, Wikan holds that overcoming exoticism and creating resonance are central to her task. Her work suggests that she is writing not only for the sake of contributing to the discipline, but that the discipline should not be removed from the moral and political worlds which authors navigate. What happens when ethnography becomes not merely “thick description” but an attempt to un-other? I admire Wikan for her contributions but I also wonder how she is received in the academy at large.

Wikan and Kleinman & Kleinman

Tala AlRaheb

Wikan and Kleinman & Kleinman

Unni Wikan, in her book, Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living, and Arthur and Joan Kleinman, in their article, “Suffering and its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience”, argue for the reevaluation of the traditional anthropological model. They propose this reassessment in response to the work of anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and others, who argue for a “view of culture as webs woven into a coherent structure.” (Wikan, 12) Instead, all three scholars call for the privileging of the complex experiences of individuals as they occur in certain contexts, i.e. an anthropology/ethnography of experience. In critiquing Geertz’s methodology, Wikan writes, “Perhaps a direct approach to the lived significance of other people’s concerns should be granted as much primacy as those other approaches.” (xxiv) Additionally, she states that the aim of the book is to “try and grasp how people actually experience their lives, lives lived according to Balinese ideas, concepts, and conventions. How can we best develop a degree of understanding, a resonance, for the events that happen in Balinese worlds, the meanings they have, and the experiences they induce?” (xxiv) Furthermore, in arguing for an ethnography of experience, Kleinman and Kleinman highlight a question often missed in traditional anthropological models, which is: What is at stake for the individuals we are studying?  They write, “It is our opinion that a contextual focus on experience-near categories for ethnography should begin with the defining characteristic of overbearing practical relevance in the processes and forms of experience.” (277) Wikan incorporates this question in her study of the Balinese, as well.  Failing to incorporate individual experiences in the study of anthropology/ethnography runs the risk of “delegitimating” as well as “dehumanizing” those individuals it seeks to study (Kleinman&Kleinman, 276). Or as Wikan writes in reference to Suriati, “we would come close to reducing her to an automaton: a mere embodiment of “her culture.” (Wikan, 13)

In order to exemplify her point, Wikan begins her book with Suriati’s narrative. Suriati, who is suffering due to her boyfriend’s death, cries herself to sleep at night. Yet, when she leaves the house, “she put[s] on that sparkling shine” and shows no signs of grief (9). What is at stake if Suriati shows signs of grief in public? Suriati fears black magic, and she is also concerned with “health, morality, and self-value.” (Wikan, 50) Wikan, furthermore, stresses that Suriati (and Balinese individuals in general), utilize a process of feeling-thoughts. She writes, “feeling-thoughts are regarded as precisely the choice and responsibility of the person and her closest kin. They are moral acts, truly the structures through which one lives in the world.” (139) Later she states, “A Balinese ethnotheory of feeling-thoughts is thus sustained by (super)natural sanctions. The microcosm of the self is linked with the macrocosm of society and the (super)natural world through a construction of individual emotional expression as a force to shape health or undermine it, make or break social relations…” (144) Thus, feeling-thoughts functions as a type of therapy that helps them cope with their suffering and offers them a way of living. If Wikan was content with the observation of Suriati’s public life and neglected to consider her private life and feeling-thoughts, she would have fallen into the shortcomings of traditional anthropological understandings of Balinese practices as “aesthetic at base.” (192) Wikan, however, did not stumble over these traditional pitfalls. Rather, by paying attention to Suriati’s private life, Wikan was able to refute the “anthropological generalization that the Balinese do not cry at death.” (10)

Similarly, in reporting their case study in China, Kleinman and Kleinman, oppose the conclusion which regards, “emotions in Chinese society as irrelevant to the legitimation of the social order.” (288) To combat this, they examine the “Third Century text, Renwu zhi” which argues that one must balance emotion in the face of suffering in order to remain in control (288). Through an analysis of the text, they delve deeper into personal experiences of suffering and arrive at the conclusion that, “uncontrolled emotional displays threaten one’s position in a world of power.” (288)  As we can see here, the anthropology and ethnography of experience shatter false ideas regarding culture and un-otherize cultures by explaining the process by which individuals choose to display emotion. It makes the individuals being studied more relatable and more human. Reading this book made me realize that I too will be engaging an anthropology and ethnography of experience in studying Christian women in a patriarchal Palestinian society. Therefore, I cannot help but wonder, can the study of experience become too individualistic? Does such a methodology have its limitations?

Nonetheless, through the study of experience, Wikan is able to go beyond the reach of the study of individuals within public spaces. In doing so, she is able to see into their private lives and spaces. Wikan, argues that there is a connection between the public and private spheres within Balinese culture that governs their behavior and makes them choose to “make [their] face look bright and clear.” (51) Without the anthropology of experience, one, like Geertz, would apply Western understanding of the public and private to Balinese culture. Therefore, she argues, “for the abandonment of the public/private dichotomy in the study of Bali and for a general restraint in using the pair as an analytical tool in any cross-cultural study.” (62) Wikan, thus, stresses the need to disregard the Western notion of public/private in order to understand people’s concerns and actions in a certain context and what is at stake for them. Furthermore, in studying both the public and private life, one arrives at the same conclusion that both Wikan and Kleinman come to, which is intersubjectivity. This means that while each experience is unique, it shares certain aspects with regard to feelings and concerns that make them generalizable to others. Wikan writes, “ The complex world of individual concerns, feelings, passions, and fears of Balinese, though private in the sense of being shielded from the scrutiny of strangers, is also essentially shared and intersubjective, hence cultural” (116) Kleinman and Kleinman take the idea of intersubjectivity a bit farther than Wikan and claim that “the intersubjective experience of suffering… is itself a defining characteristic of human conditions in all societies.” (280) Thus, while the anthropology/ ethnography of experience begins with the individuals, it also points to shared cultural and universal experiences.

Thus, the starting point for the scholars is experience. Wikan writes, “I argue, that we should start, methodologically, with people’s compelling concerns as they are evinced through their everyday life experiences.” (Wikan, 47) This necessitates a certain engagement with individuals within a culture that goes beyond participant observation. Wikan, instead, engages in interpersonal interactions and interviews in order to understand the various experiences of her subjects. She writes, “I tried as much as possible to be a friend and sympathetic listener to people. I never used a tape recorder and rarely took notes on the spot. Thus most of the conversations and observations I relate are rendered from memory.” (xxv) Reading this statement elicited several questions for me. What are the possible implications of becoming friends with those we are studying? Do we lose a certain objectivity when the lines between researcher and subject are blurred? Or do we gain more insight into the lives of the individuals we are studying when we take the researcher goggles off, and instead become a part of their daily lives? The second claim in Wikan’s statement was problematic for me. If these interviews were mostly “rendered from memory,” can we truly rely on her analysis of these conversations? Could she have forgotten or misremembered some of the conversations thus leading her to a different conclusion regarding Balinese society? Or did the fact that she was not using a tape recorder, generate a more natural flow of situations, since people did not feel watched by her?

With these questions being raised, however, the method of Wikan clearly achieves her aim of understanding how Balinese live their lives and what is at stake for them when they make their faces bright and clear. She un-others the Balinese to the Western audience and helps us connect with them in order to achieve her final aim which is resonance. She writes, “Resonance thus demands something of both author and reader: a joint effort at feeling-thought; a willingness on the part of both to engage with another world, life, or idea: to use one’s own life experience… to try to grasp the meanings…evoked in the meeting of an experiencing subject with the text; in the next instance, then, to share such understandings with others.” (269) Wikan prompts us to engage with the narratives in the book and understand why a project that begins with experience is essential. How did you interact with the stories and the text? Did you resonate?

** NOTE** Please feel free to also engage any other parts of the book or article you found intriguing in your comments. (Black magic, feeling-thoughts, the contributions of Wikan and Kleinman to medicine and Psychology)



Divinity and Experience

Adam Peeler

Precis of Lienhardt & Geertz

September 19, 2018


Godfrey Lienhardt’s book, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, sets out to explore the cosmological and ritual practices of the Western Dinka tribes of Sudan. Lienhardt gives particular focus to the relationship between Divinities, Clan-Divinities, and the Dinka. The majority of the work attempts to unravel the complex relationships between these Divinities and the different Dinka tribes. Through exploring these relationships Lienhardt shows the interconnectedness in the daily life of the Dinka, the naming of children, origin stories for the world, and the influence of the Divine. Throughout the work, the author examines how the reality of the divine has influenced every aspect of Dinka culture. This is done through the telling of numerous stories and firsthand accounts of Dinka life.

The work is divided into three sections. The first is a brief introduction in which Lienhardt outlines who he is studying and the conditions in which they live. He states, “This study is orientated towards the Western Dinka of the Bahr-al-Ghazal Province of Sudan, and particularly the Rek tribal group, with whom I first learnt the Dinka language” (Lienhardt p. 1). He briefly describes the poverty of this region of the Sudan which lacks stone and iron. The tribes of the Dinka are organized into herding-groups which in their smallest form consists of a man, his children, and their cattle. Several of these groups form a subtribe, and several subtribes form a tribe. He states that tribes range from 1,000 to 25,000 in number (Lienhardt p. 7). The second half of this section gives an overview of cattle in the Dinka experience. He notes that the sacrifice of cattle is the central religious practice of the tribes. Cattle are given prefixes and suffixes to describe them, these additions are primarily based on gender and variations of color (Lienhardt pp. 10-11). Cattle are sacrificed or placed on display to a pantheon of different divinities based on their colorations and children are typically named, or nicknamed, in relation to particular cattle. The author mentions that when boys are deemed men by the tribe they pick a cattle name to define who they are (Lienhardt p. 13).

It seems that part one of the text is Lienhardt’s main focus. In this part, he details the Dinka distinctions between different Divinities, both Free-Divinities and Clan-Divinities, and how said Divinities are encountered in the daily lives of the Dinka. The first section gives an overview of the Divinities. He states, “Dinka religion, then, is a relationship between men and ultra-human Powers encountered by men, between the two parts of a radically divided world” (Lienhardt p. 32). It is within this section that the author gives an account of the creation narrative of the Dinka, while the account varies from region to region they share similarities. Earth and sky were once one, and because of humanity’s choice, the Divine separated from creation (Lienhardt p. 53).

The second section delves into the world of the Free-Divinities. Of the Free-Divinities Lienhardt marks Deng, Garang, Macardit, Abuk as the most important and active of this category (Lienhardt p. 56). He states that these Divinities make their presence known by possessing humans and announcing their presence and through causing illness. The third section explores the Clan-Divinities. These Divinities, as their name suggests, relate to specific tribes and serve as emblems and protectors of said clan. Each tribe has a story on how these Divinities came to be the Clan-Divinity, usually said Divinity assisted an ancestor of the tribe and offered its guidance and protection. While these Divinities serve as emblems, Lienhardt notes that they are more than that (Lienhardt p. 107). For the Dinka the Divinities are real, they interact with the people constantly, they are petitioned to better the lives of the people, to change their circumstances, to intervene when evil is done. This is seen in the fourth section in which Lienhardt states, “To the Dinka, the Powers are known by personal encounters, as living agents influencing their lives for good or evil (Lienhardt p. 147).

The second part of the text focuses on the origins of the Spear-Masters, invocations and prayer, symbolic actions, and a brief section on being buried alive. These sections are much briefer than those of the first section and gives the appearance of being less appealing to Lienhardt. In the second part, he relates the creation stories to the origin of the Spear-Masters (those of highest standing in the priestly system of the Dinka). He gives numerous examples of invocation to the Divinities for their intervention and the symbols of the various tribes. The final section seems mismatched with the rest of the text in which Lienhardt recounts how elderly Spear-Masters willingly choose to be buried alive.

Godfrey Lienhardt’s work sets out to detail the religious practices of the Western Dinka tribes. The work does what it set out to do, but it would seem that Lienhardt was more concerned with a deep understanding of the distinctions between Divinities than an in-depth exploration of how these interactions play out in the day to day life of the Dinka. While he does give numerous stories examining this it feels cursory in light of the work placed on defining the Divinities. In addition to this, the second part of the text seems pained in some sense compared to the first. While invocation and symbols are important one would have hoped for more depth in the examination of these practices.

Clifford Geertz’s work, “Religion as a Cultural Systems” seems to complement Lienhardt’s work. Geertz states that religion is,

A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz p. 96).


Within Lienhardt’s work, it is seen that the relationship between Divinities and the Dinka have formed an order of existence. From sacrificing cattle to naming children after said cattle the reality of the Divinities can be seen in every interaction between the Dinka tribes. The symbols of the fishing spear and the cattle peg hold great power over the tribes. One is expected to respect and cherish one’s father and ancestors with disrespect being an offense that can lead to death. The Dinka fully believe that the Divinities can, and will, possess them. They believe that the Divinities can change one’s circumstances in one way or another if one only makes a sacrifice and ask. While Lienhardt’s work leaves one wanting more of the culture of the Dinka he does give the reader a firm grasp on the reality of the Divinities.

Divine Horsemen:

Précis of Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Aditya Chaturvedi

Maya Deren’s account of Haitian Voudoun tradition results from her own experience of the “reality which had forced” her “to recognize its integrity and to abandon” her “manipulations” (pg.6). In her preface, she admits her inability to comprehend this tradition purely as an artist and subtlety, to me, ascribes it to “the reality that mastered it”. The book, thus, is not a systematic/conventional anthropological or ethnographical study, but, a presentation by the Haitian Voudoun in its own terms. However, throughout the book, she actively responds to possible modern academic engagements with rituals and beliefs of Haitian Voudoun practitioners, and thus, addressing possible criticism that might arise from such engagements.

She begins the book with an introductory note discussing the demography of the practitioners and the general outlook towards these practices from different sections of the Haitian society, making it clear that while the upper and middle classes remain ignorant about them, it is very much a way of living for the peasants. She goes on to explain the fundamental terms and concepts of Voudoun including gross-bon-range, loa, houngan, espirit, and honour. Instead of alienating these concepts from their original context, she presents them before her readers as they are by her interactions with practitioners and her own experiences. Voudoun is based on the premise that the human material body is animated by non-material soul, psyche, or spirit. While the material body decays after the occurrence of death- live and death are just transformative moments to that which is immortal. This individual soul or grow-bon-range is after death, through rituals, raised at higher levels of being – making an ancestor archetype and sometimes a loa too. These loa mount human bodies and this phenomenon are called possession. Gods and humans have a symbiotic relationship in Haitian society- while the former is revered and honoured by the latter, he never forgets that “he was made god by humans” (pg.33). The constellations of loa are reflective of shared Christian and African heritage of Voudoun. Deren brings out complexities of metaphysical assimilation Christian divinity and saints in Voudoun and geographical origins of African loa lucidly.

Deren argues that while Voudoun might seem to be an animistic religion, on close analysis it quite doesn’t fit in the orthodox arrangements of animistic religions. She, then, engages with a category of ‘primitive culture’, loaded with some derogatory connotations, to re-interpret it and argue that what is often understood as ‘mystical’, or a result of unknown/mystical occurrence by Europeans is attributed loa by Haitians (pg. 88&297). It is important to note here that, rather than simply rejecting or presenting them in a ‘reasonable’ way, as might be expected of an academic, she takes indigenous categories and concepts very seriously. This engagement becomes clearer in her discussion of Haitian reliance on loa for healing and their reservations about modern medical facilities. She substantiates her arguments with vivid examples- of La Merci (pg.167) in this case, for instance. In her discussion on possession also, she provides possible ‘modern/logical’ views on it only to prove them unimportant to a Haitian. She writes: “List all those intellectual and moral qualities- vision, inspiration, imagination, – which most distinguish the poet, the philosopher, the scientist; catalogue them, name them, count and differentiate and ‘explain’ their origins their operation, mechanisms, and their motivations. The Haitian will not dispute you …..All that we call to have loa. ” She repeatedly compares religion with magic and argues while the former is for the community, the latter is personal; the rituals of the former are public, of the latter are kept secret and are mysterious; and in the former serviteur is changed while the world changes in Magic. This comparison reflects the assumptions she might have had about the readers who would simply term voudoun rituals ‘magical’, overlooking their deep meanings and effects.

Deren presents Haitian ritualistic dances as meditative practices done for the loa in contrast with secular forms which are more stylized and lay emphasis on acrobatics. The dance controlled by drum-beats in Voudoun rituals is considered is treated as a collective creative endeavour – a way of the negation of the individual self. However, it is not understood in complete denial of the individual genius, rather it is attributed to the collective act or the loa in control of it. She also discusses the presentation and reception of these dance forms out of their ritual context in an industrial culture.

Liminality- ‘in-betweens, neither this nor that, bridges’- seem to be of importance in Voudoun rituals and also emerges as a metaphor for the larger content of the book itself. Deren begins the book by calling myth the “twilight speech” (pg.21), then goes on to discuss elaborate Voudoun rituals involving symbolisms acting as bridges between the two worlds; houngans as the intermediaries between humans and the loa; and finally, before discussing possession properly, she places the readers at the ‘threshold to the unknown’ (pg.247). Some of these concepts are similar to Hindu notions of the potency of liminal spaces and times and their importance in the ritual. She emphasizes the negation of the individual self to possess the loa and impossibility of being the two i.e.the human and the God simultaneously. This is yet another notion found in some South Asian religious traditions including Hinduism. Deren’s book seems very bold and different to me when I compare it with dominant scholarship on India from her time as it would dismiss most of the indigenous categories as ‘irrational’. The last chapter of the book was most impactful to me as Deren almost recreates her experience of losing the ‘self’ to loa, as it were and being transformed, through a very poetic language.

Maya Deren poses a problematic in her introduction when she asks if the scientific or scholarly detachment – which is based on manifold dualities- be even valid as a means to truth in examining the Oriental and African cultures which are” predicated on the notion that the truth can be apprehended only when every cell of  brain and body- the totality of human being- is engaged in the pursuit? (pg.9 ) In the book by recognising the limitations of modern western analytic categories, she challenges their supposed universality across time and space as valid epistemic apparatuses.


Divine Horsemen

Précis of Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Lahronda Little

Divine Horsemen is an unintended ethnographic study of the religion of Voudoun and its practitioners in Haiti. Although Maya Deren’s original intention was to create a film on Haitian dance, the project evolved into a phenomenological study of Voudoun mythology as a communal experience that informs all aspects of life. As an artist, Deren’s approach to the culture did not include anthropological techniques or methodology, per se. But rather, without “professional or intellectual urgency,” Deren wanted to “permit the culture and the myth to emerge gradually in its own terms and its own form.” (Deren, 7) Moreover, Deren makes clear that the purpose of the book is to “delineate the metaphysical principles…in such a way that they may become, for the non-Haitian reader, as real and reasonable as they are to Haitian worshipper.” (Deren, 20) In this way, the personal narratives of the people who practice Voudoun and the collective experiences of the community were privileged as the main source of material for the book. Even in the detailed account of her own encounter with possession, Deren refrains from imposing value or deep interpretation. Instead she chooses to go inward to describe her initial feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment.

Interestingly, Deren does not spend a great deal of time on possession, which is described as “being mounted.” Yet, the esoteric language she employs in her opening chapter and in the last chapter causes one to question whether she was under the influence of a loa or exercising artistic license.

Voudoun, according to Deren is “structured for the controlled development of a man’s gros-bon-ange (soul) and the enforcement of a collective, morality in action.” (Deren, 27) Therefore, “religion” for the Haitian is more of a way of life and must make practical sense given Voudoun’s West African origins; the inclusion of some elements of Catholicism in order to assimilate; and the socio-economic-political constraints of the practitioner.(1) As such, Deren weaves throughout her project the significance of deep ancestral connections and reverence to the loa. It is necessary then to discuss the nature of Voudoun which understands man as a part of  nature; this is a universal concept with cosmological implications. The African ancestors of the Haitians distinguished between “the principle of the thing and the thing itself and remarked that the material objects or phenomena are transitory or destructible and singular, whereas the principles themselves are persistent and pervasive.” (Deren, 88) That is to say that the objects and symbols of Voudoun though essential are not ascribed divinity; it is the principle associated with the object that is the essence of the religion.

The system of Voudoun is carefully depicted to include the loa and their attributes, the geographical origins of loa, and the principles through which they operate. Voudoun practitioners, or serviteurs, understand the loa and other phenomena to be logical and intelligible. The interconnectedness of humanity, nature, and the cosmos demands order in religious practice and in the ways through which the community interacts with one another. Subsequently, Deren takes the time to name the distinctions between religion and magic. All participants of Voudoun act on behalf of the community, and there is an expectation that persons grow and mature in their engagement with the community and the rituals. Contrastly, “magic is an individual action, undertaken because the cosmos is not believed to be benevolent…” (Deren, 76) Those who perform magic do not see themselves as a part of a community. To emphasize her point about Voudoun as a communal experience among communal people, Deren describes her association with Coyote and La Merci who wanted to have a wedding ceremony but could not afford it. The couple refused Deren’s offer to fund their effort due to fear of the community’s perception of them as somehow becoming affluent. The expectation is that they would have the means to support others in the village.(2) Coyote and La Merci illustrate concern for self and others in a way that could easily be interpreted as foolish in other contexts. However, Deren’s association with the Haitian people as ‘learner’ leaves space to tease out the the root of their concerns and also provide help in alternative ways.

Distinctly featured in Voudoun culture is the way in which persons are given care and how Haitians perceive medical doctors. Illnesses are initially treated homeopathically with herbs and other natural substances, since most Haitians have knowledge of certain remedies for common conditions. The houngan (priest), because of his close proximity and intimate relation to the people of his community, provides particular care that intersects religion, health (physical and mental), and discipline. Psychosomatic symptoms are understood as a positive expression that allows the patient to participate in his or her own healing. The houngan engages the loa to determine if there is some breech in the patient’s relationship with the divine; prescribes a ritual to make amends; and makes recommendations that include a medical doctor (when warranted). The houngan, as mediator, takes seriously how the body functions, medical technology, and the loa, and is therefore, not interested in creating boundaries that may potentially be harmful to the individual or the community.

Drumming, dance, and possession by the loa are extraordinary expressions of Voudoun culture. Careful attention is given to depict the sacredness of drumming and the principles conveyed, rather than the person or even the drum itself, “…the sacred form is independent of subject matter, symbolic knowledge, and even degree of skill.” (Deren, p. 227) It is only after the drum is baptized that it is recognized as being sacred. Furthermore, drumming and dancing are acts that serve the loa, not the person through whom the actions are expressed.

Dance as a meditative practice is “principle in action” according to Deren. (p. 240) In her interpretation of dance, Deren posits that the purpose of the dance is to affect the dancer. Through the drums and movement, worship and prayer are expressed which “create a psychic state.” (Deren, p.241)

Deren’s willingness to suspend her initial plans to study Haitian dance lends to what I believe to be a comprehensive account of the people of Haiti who practice Voudoun. Deren’s own social location did not interfere with her ability to establish trust and friendship among the people. The personal nature of the stories she shared cause me to question if she received permission to share those narratives with the public. Also, how did the book and the documentary affect the community? Initially, I was surprised that Deren does not spend a lot of time on dance and possession given her primary interest in the arts. But her inclination to ask questions and lend herself to the experience of Voudoun provided for a much richer body of work that illumined Voudoun as a culture and community, rather than simply a religion.

(1) Deren sites on page 203 that in the initial salutation of two trinities are acknowledged, the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the Voudoun Mystéres, Morts, and Marassa.

(2) Coyote and La Merci’s story also includes an example of psychosomatic symptoms how they are diagnosed, p. 167.