Performing opacity: Initiation and ritual interactions across the ages among the Bassari of Guinea

Laurent Gabail


The article aims to show how ritual efficacy may rely on an intentionally produced, constitutive uncertainty. Drawing on the Bassari male initiation ritual, I argue that the central feature of initiation is not so much the achievement of an ontological transformation, than it is the creation of an unsettling context in which the uninitiated cannot but recognize the complex character of the initiates’ identity. I describe two different devices whereby this is accomplished. The first relies on the donning of masks which enable initiated men to exhibit themselves in an opaque body associated with a highly predictable agency. The second is their presence as ritual tricksters characterized by an unproblematic body and disturbingly erratic behavior. In both cases, ordinary interactive scripts are perturbed. Initiation thus provides initiates with the means of mastering techniques that allow them to appear simultaneously as themselves and as not themselves. In doing so, they convey to the uninitiated the very idea of transformation itself.


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.009