The Red Wind of Memory: A Review of Susan Kenyon’s ‘Slaves and Spirits of Central Sudan’ (2012)

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I thought I would re-post a review that I wrote some months ago of anthropologist Susan Kenyon’s 2012 longitudinal study of zar possession practices in Central Sudan, Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar. A slightly edited version of this review appeared in print in Anthropology News, and was also featured on the periodical’s website. Since the online review appears to no longer be accessible, I am re-sharing it here so people more people read it and learn about zar and Susan’s book.

Zar spirits and ‘healing cult’ phenomena are compelling for many reasons. Zar is distinctly transnational in both its cosmological scope and actual practice, yet it is also tied to specific regional histories and experiences, to very specific lives and biographies. With its layered and cosmopolitan spirit cosmologies, zar possession reveals beautifully how history lives in the body, how legacies of colonialism and violence, of upheaval and encounters with the culturally other, are intimate, living presences that may come as afflictions but also as lovers, friends, helpers, and teachers in disguise. Zar provides material for the study of religious pluralism, it presents rich examples of the tense back-and-forths between affliction and accommodation, oppression and opportunity that have fascinated and challenged anthropologists (and well, everyone else) for generations. Zar’s particular approach to placating and accommodating spirits is a distinctly gendered phenomenon. Zar has been described both as a women’s ‘cult of affliction’ and as a form of women’s resistance, an empowering spiritual club for women and gender misfits (or in the language of more contemporary, internet-assisted identity politics maybe, for ‘femmes’) which sits at times parallel and at times perpendicularly to mainstream Islam and its institutions Continue reading

Tibet, the Role Playing Game: Table-top Anthropologies and Competing Knowledge Jurisdictions

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When I was a kid growing up in pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa it wasn’t easy to study occultism.

To be sure, South Africa is a country filled with professional and semi-professional sorcerers, but it is also a nation whose white supremacist government for a long time directly funded a special ‘Occult-Related Crimes Unit’ attached to the national police force. This unit, which was founded in 1992 and which was supposedly officially disbanded/absorbed in 2006 (but which is in fact still operating in various capacities)  was guided for the most part by the expertise and priorities of white, Afrikaner Christian investigators. Working under the auspices of the state, pastors with police training, criminology degrees and a measure of knowledge about local black South African ‘customs and traditions’ investigated South Africa’s dark and criminal occult underbelly. While the existence of witch-lynching and so-called ‘muthi killings’ – ritual murders conducted to ostensibly secure human parts for sale in criminal magical economies and use in rituals – served as the primary justification for state-spending on the Unit, the majority of the Unit’s time appears to have been spent on locating and routing out ‘cells’ of adult and teenage Satanists, and assisting especially young South Africans who had been afflicted by demons and other Satanic forces. Continue reading

How my Dad got Worms: Academic Karma, and Wondering what Anthropology is even good for

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When I was about 12 years old my Dad got worms. He got a lot of them, and it ended up being quite awkward. He didn’t get them in his guts, though, but in a washing machine.

I had forgotten all about this episode in my Dad’s and mine own life until just now, when I was talking to a friend of mine on Facebook, Austin Coppock, about animism and the difference between Continue reading

On Weird Cultural Beliefs, Anthropologists’ Wizard-envy, and the Skeptical Native

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“Apparently there’s virtually nothing, no matter how obviously crazy, a contemporary academic can’t get away with if they find some way to attribute it to Gilles Deleuze. (And in this case the authors themselves admit the link is fairly tenuous.)”

So, I finally got around to reading anarchist theorist, anthropologist, and public intellectual David Graeber’s recent piece in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, that looks at one of the sexiest, most trending topics in Cultural Anthropology right now, the ‘Ontological Turn’, and specifically how this trend has influenced debates about how anthropologists should go about studying and interpreting magic.

When I first came across OT theories as an anthropology student in Cape Town in 2007/2008, I happened to be conducting fieldwork on neo-Pagans and their understandings of what it meant to identify as ‘witches’ in South Africa, where not everybody thinks of witchcraft as a benign revival of pre-Christian nature-worship. When I read cutting-edge OT theory, I thought to myself Continue reading