The pendulum swings

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Todd Sanders. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.029


The pendulum swings

Todd SANDERS, University of Toronto

Comment on Bubandt, Nils. 2014. The empty seashell: Witchcraft and doubt on an Indonesian island. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

If anthropologists value long conversations, then few of those conversations have proved longer or more valuable than the one on witchcraft. Since the publication of Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande (1937), and even before, anthropologists have found witchcraft—to borrow Lévi-Strauss’s felicitous phrase—good to think with. But only rarely has this thinking been just about witchcraft. Quite the contrary. Thinking about witchcraft has usually meant thinking about big, pressing questions of the day, both within and beyond the discipline. Thus while Evans-Pritchard’s landmark book worked through Zande particularities, a large part of its appeal, then and now, comes from its careful working out of both a sociology of knowledge and a politics of witchcraft suspicion and accusation. The book spoke, and still speaks, to diverse projects that similarly aim to think through the mental and material, ideal and real, symbolic and social, theory and practice, culture and society: all concepts and concerns that undergird classical social theory and that have much longer lineages in Euro-American thought.

One conspicuous feature of this long conversation on witchcraft has been its regular historical swings between broadly philosophical and sociological concerns. The sociological is perhaps best exemplified by the mid-twentieth-century Manchester School; they carefully documented the social and political transformations that African witchcraft accusations occasioned, while raising larger questions about how best to understand social and historical change. Decades later, in the so-called rationality debate, grand philosophical questions reigned supreme as anthropologists and philosophers used witchcraft to consider what rationality is and who has it, how one knows, whose yardstick decides, and so on. Then, in the 1990s, broadly sociological concerns regained ascendency in “the modernity of witchcraft” [494]scholarship (for an overview see Moore and Sanders 2001). Such oscillations have proved as productive as they have predictable, in part because they rarely return the conversation to its precise point of departure. Witchcraft scholarship has swung between poles that themselves move with the times, enabling novel revisits of earlier projects and problématiques and the development of new ones along the way.

Nils Bubandt’s (2014) book, The empty seashell: Witchcraft and doubt on an Indonesian island, provides an ambitious, theoretically-sophisticated, ethnographically-rich intervention into this long conversation—and a firm nudge toward the philosophical pole. Like others before it, this intervention does not simply resuscitate concerns of yore. It builds on and in key respects exceeds them, in this case drawing inspiration from psychoanalytic theory and poststructural philosophy.


Bubandt has a problem: belief. More precisely, and in Latourian terms, he has a problem with Modern scholars who believe that Others believe. These Moderns include Evans-Pritchard, of course, who is well known for his belief in Zande belief. But they also include most contemporary anthropologists of witchcraft, who “remain wedded to the paradigm that witchcraft is a form of belief” (Bubandt 2014: 11). So what’s wrong with belief? For starters, to speak of belief is to conjure implicitly or explicitly belief ’s loyal companion, knowledge. This age-old philosophical duo, in turn, invites other troublesome dualisms: nonmoderns have the certainty of belief, while Moderns have skepticism and knowledge. What’s more, belief is “built on an ‘epistemology of presence’ in which witchcraft is assumed to be unproblematically ‘real’ or ‘there’ to those who ‘believe in it’” (12). The problem, Bubandt tells us, is that none of these assumptions or positions provides adequate theoretical purchase over witchcraft in Buli, or possibly anywhere else. Witchcraft is a different beast. To understand it, we need new analytics and ways of thinking.

Cue Derrida’s aporia. This is “the inherent instability of all systems of meaning, the ‘blind spots’ of any metaphysical argument” (Bubandt 2014: 36). In Buli, Bubandt proffers, the witch (gua) “is the embodiment of a ‘blind spot’ in this sense, an invisibility before which meaning and existential certainty fragment at every level: morally, spiritually, corporeally, socially, epistemologically, and historically” (36). Witchcraft in Buli is aporetic because “it represents a nonviability, an impasse, that allows no proper path for understanding, emotional comfort, or experience, and therefore continually produces perplexity and doubt as its main condition of being-hidden” (37). Kristeva’s notion of “abjection” provides theoretical backup. “The gua is an abject being because it violates the boundaries of the body in significant ways”; it produces horror because it is “[a] ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me.” The gua is “an ‘isolate,’ a faceless entity unto itself” (121). For Bubandt, then, “the abject” and especially the aporia capture something fundamental about witchcraft that other analytics and analysts miss: its relentless uncertainty, its inscrutability, its unsolvable paradoxes. Anthropologists’ belief in belief has led them to domesticate, downplay, and ultimately disregard such fundamentals. To understand witchcraft, we must banish our belief in belief.

Bubandt has put his finger on an important point: the need to move beyond belief. For in spite of repeated anthropological critiques of the concept (Good 1994; [495]Latour 1993; Lindquist and Coleman 2008; Needham 1972; Ruel 1997), “belief” has proved remarkably resilient within the discipline. This is not only true of introductory textbooks, which tirelessly tell us that witchcraft is a belief that others have and that anthropologists study. It is true of many other anthropological writings, too, where belief too often creeps in, uninvited and unnoticed, only to derail analyses before they begin. The persistence of belief in anthropology has much to do with the fact that belief and its conceptual counterpart, knowledge, feature centrally in the Euro-American imagination. Better disciplinary instincts aside, it has proved exceedingly difficult to escape their ambit.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that many contemporary anthropologists of witchcraft have struggled with and against belief, and have developed diverse strategies to overcome it. Some have proposed new analytics—say, witchcraft discourses (Geschiere 1997), occult economies (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999), or occult cosmologies (Sanders and West 2003)—that effectively sidestep belief and its problems. Such analytics level the epistemological playing field, enabling symmetrical comparisons and analogies between ostensibly nonmodern and modern knowledges. In this way anthropologists have spoken profitably of witchdoctors and spin doctors, structural adjustment, global markets and conspiracy theorists, pyramid schemes, satanic child abuse, and witchcraft in a single breath without ever asking who “believes” and who “knows.” The analytics render the question meaningless.

One bonus of such approaches is the attention they demand to witchcraft’s others: modernity, magic, science, religion, and so on. Though these others have always been part of the long conversation, they have sometimes been allowed to lurk silently in the background. Not any more. Some, myself included, have thus found it productive to swap foreground and background and dwell extensively, or exclusively, on the Moderns. This means interrogating Moderns’ belief that Others believe, as Bubandt, following Latour, insists we must (e.g., Sanders 2003; Sanders and West 2003). It also means shifting the register from belief/knowledge concerns to knowledge practices: a move that shifts analytic attention from purified categories to the messy processes that produce them. Not only does this permit Moderns and nonmoderns into the same analytic frame, enable new questions, and obviate old ones about belief versus knowledge; it also allows anthropologists to revisit witchcraft—implicitly or explicitly—via other thriving conversations across the social sciences about the production of modern knowledge, science, expertise, morality, policy, and more (Hall and Sanders 2015; Sanders and Hall 2014, 2015). While this move has worked wonders in reverse—science studies scholars routinely find inspiration in Evans-Pritchard’s writings on witchcraft—surprisingly few anthropologists have attempted to enter broader social science conversations about witchcraft’s others. They should. “Witchcraft” would never look the same again. And anthropology’s problem of belief might well vanish.


To move beyond belief, Bubandt charts a different course, enticing anthropology’s long conversation toward the philosophical pole in general and Derrida’s aporia in particular. Because this move brings both promise and potential problems, it’s worth reflecting on both.

One of the aporia’s strengths is its ability to produce certain types of symmetry by reversing common dualisms. For exporting the aporia from Western [496]metaphysics to an Indonesian village effectively undoes one dubious equation: that Moderns have theory, metaphysics, rationality, and skepticism while nonmoderns (only) have practice, belief, irrationality, and certainty. The aporia turns things around, inviting readers to reconsider Moderns’ supposed certainties, and to imagine Buli witchcraft as a set of intense, all-encompassing, doubt-filled philosophical reflections on every aspect of Buli life. A Buli epistemology of guessing and metaphysics of doubt come alive through the aporia. “In Buli, witchcraft is the object of an explicit and self-conscious philosophy of uncertainty that seeks to grapple with the epistemological, ontological, and reflexive aporia of witchcraft” (Bubandt 2014: 42). The people of Buli can—and patently do—philosophize alongside the best in the West. In Bubandt’s capable hands, the aporia allows readers to see how.

Yet while insisting on us/other symmetry is essential, insisting it be evinced through witchcraft is not, and complicates the aporia’s potential career as world traveller. Consider the Africanist literature, for example, which paints a rather different picture to Bubandt’s. While “Buli people agonize over the aporias of witchcraft, explicitly and on an almost daily basis” (2014: 46), many Africans do not. Indeed, scholars since Evans-Pritchard have suggested that African witchcraft, while ubiquitous, is mundane and episodically irksome; when problems arise, responses are more pragmatic than philosophical. Such differences between Buli and African witchcraft are everywhere in evidence, and are not due simply to analysts’ differing interests. Buli myths, for instance, “try to come to terms with some of the questions about the gua that become acutely relevant in every witchcraft illness and accusation—questions such as the following: Why do people become gua, and how? Who may potentially become a gua? What drives their attacks, and how does one protect oneself against them?” (72). However, in my experience with witchcraft illness and accusation in Tanzania, such lofty questions rarely weigh heavily on people’s minds. Instead, through sporadic divination sessions, witchcraft trials, and everyday gossip, people tend to dwell on more practical matters: Who is the witch causing this illness or stopping the rain in our village? How do I stop him or her? What must I do to protect myself against this witch? Other Africanists working across the continent regularly report similar or identical concerns.

This does not of course mean that Africans cannot theorize or philosophize, or that their lives are governed by (mere) practical logics. That would be nonsense. What it does mean is that for many Africans witchcraft is not the place for intense metaphysical speculation or introspection, which often occurs elsewhere. Under such conditions, the aporia runs the risk of turning witchcraft into others’ metaphysics even when it isn’t, and of transforming our interlocutours into para-philosophers in spite of themselves. One of the aporia’s greatest strengths in Buli may prove its greatest weakness elsewhere.

Even so, for Buli and places like it, the aporia does crucial work: it forges one possible pathway beyond belief. It does so by tirelessly returning readers to questions of doubt, irresolvable paradoxes, and existential uncertainties, themes that Bubandt skillfully traces through every aspect of Buli life. It would I think be quite impossible to come away from this fine book believing that witchcraft could somehow be explained or analytically tamed by “belief.” Doubt, rather, is the name of the game.

At first glance, dwelling on the doubts, ambivalences, and uncertainties that witchcraft entails seems little different to what many contemporary scholars including Ashforth, Comaroff and Comaroff, Geschiere, Niehaus, West, and I have been [497]doing all along. But there is a difference, and an important one. For Bubandt argues that past and present scholars have “domesticated” witchcraft by insisting it “explain”; that witchcraft studies has “tried to obviate the paradoxes and the inaccessibility of witchcraft in an attempt to reclaim solid epistemological ground” (Bubandt 2014: 61). The philosophical, one might say, has been domesticated and pressed into service of the sociological. Bubandt wants something different: to insist on “the impossibility of translating the experience of witchcraft into soothing explanations” (41), for “uncertainty is—as it always was—the last truth about witchcraft in Buli” (235). Witchcraft “explains” nothing; it only gestures to the inexplicable. As an aporia, it remains a world apart, simultaneously there and not-there, commanding “constant attention and work, even though this work is always already impossible” (38). For Bubandt, the aporia refuses analytic closure and eschews explanation.

This is an intriguing move, and one that guards against the worst excesses of sociological reductionism. But pushing sharply toward the philosophical pole, and denying explanation of any kind, raises other knotty questions. One is whether description without explanation is ever possible, and if not, whether the aporia might itself constitute a form of analytic domestication and explanation. Another is whether too much aporia disables analysts from asking pressing questions of the sociological sort, about, say, witchcraft and sociohistorical change. Witchcraft concerns, speculations, and accusations do not, after all, remain constant but ebb and flow through time. Some want to ask why. Yet answers are unlikely to emerge from the idea that the aporia of witchcraft is an inscrutable part of the human condition. To be sure, Bubandt knows this, and does not push the aporia to this analytically debilitating extreme. On the contrary, he does an exemplary job texturing and grounding Buli witchcraft in real historical, social, economic, and political contexts, and also does enough sociologizing en route to avoid this problem. The caution is for others who might deploy the aporia.


All told, The empty seashell is a rare gift to witchcraft studies, one that deserves a prominent place in one of anthropology’s longest of conversations. Bringing poststructural thought to bear on the topic yields dividends; and the aporia in particular provides one possible way to overcome anthropology’s lingering problem of belief. For these reasons, the book invites us to imagine other projects that push poststructural insights even further, some of which are already well underway. What, for example, might an ethnography of witchcraft look like that attends less to “witchcraft” and “modernity” and their relation than to the processes that produce and purify them? And what might we learn about “witchcraft” by dwelling on the Moderns’ knowledge practices—including anthropological knowledge practices—that are intimately implicated in witchcraft’s production? Finally, rather than pushing our Euro-American pendulum between sociological and philosophical poles, might it be possible to chart alternate courses built on other metaphysics and analytics? Must the pendulum swing?


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Todd Sanders
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto
19 Russell Street
Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2S2