If people don’t know themselves, can they inhabit an ontology?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Webb Keane. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.031


If people don’t know themselves, can they inhabit an ontology?

Webb KEANE, University of Michigan

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

The empty seashell (2014) challenges a key pair of assumptions underlying everything from old concepts of culture to new brands of “ontology.” The first assumption is that people in close-knit communities inhabit cosmologies that are pretty much coherent, self-consistent, and subject to consensus. The second is that such people understand the cosmologies they inhabit, and that some of them can explain those cosmologies to the ethnographer. The word “doubt” in the subtitle of this book together with “aporia” throughout the text, signal Bubandt’s argument against both assumptions. For people in the eastern Indonesian village of Buli, he tells us, are obsessed with gua (witches), about whom, however, their ideas remain deeply, disturbingly, uncertain. By refusing to eliminate this uncertainty, Bubandt aims first to challenge the functionalist idea that witchcraft ideas serve above all to explain things, and second, to criticize the way anthropologists have thought about “belief.” In discussing these, I will also point to the implications for some current ways of talking about “ontology,” although this is not Bubandt’s primary concern.

Returning us to one of the classic topoi in our discipline, Bubandt pits his account against two key moments in anthropological thinking about witchcraft. The first, of course, is Evans-Pritchard’s depiction of the Azande. As many of us were taught, saying that it was mere chance that a termite-ridden granary chose to collapse just when I happened to be napping beneath it remains unsatisfying; to blame an occult force renders the hazards of life comprehensible. Some version of this cognitive-functionalist argument has remained dominant to this day. And for good reason—for [506]one thing, it has been foundational to the antiracist insistence on the universality of the human mind. The second moment arises at the end of the twentieth century, stimulated by the flourishing of witchcraft accusations in parts of Africa where they might be expected to wither away as Christianity, capitalism, and new forms of governance triumph. To explain this, Jean and John Comaroff (e.g., 2002) and others have interpreted contemporary witchcraft beliefs as a symbolic response to political economic distress or to the arbitrary acts of authority: they help people make sense of a world in which, for instance, some neighbors suddenly prosper for no apparent reason while their kin and neighbors do not. This sort of ideology-critique tends to treat witchcraft beliefs as pointing toward a political truth that is, however, conveyed through a mistaken, or at best, metaphorical grasp of its target. As Bubandt points out, the structure of this argument remains just as functionalist as Evans-Pritchard’s. Yet some kind of functionalism seems virtually baked into the very idea of “explanation” in social science, so how can we avoid it without ending up seeming to have understood nothing? A major agenda of this book is to provide an alternative that is both wary of explanation, yet cannot be dismissed as mere “epistemological hypochondria”—or at least not hypochondria on the part of the ethnographer. For Bubandt has no reason to worry about his own ethnographic authority, which is exemplary—if there’s any hypochondria in question, it belongs to the people of Buli

This is one of the most well-grounded ethnographies I have read recently. Bubandt’s detailed ethnographic knowledge and obvious intimacy, depth, and sheer duration of his personal relations in Buli gives his book two strengths that are crucial to any effort to get at people’s subjectivities, their sense of reality, or their “ontology.” In particular, he doesn’t just rely on interviews or other explicit representations, nor does he confine himself to what a few especially articulate indigenous metaphysicians have told him. Instead he can draw from the entire breadth of everyday (and not so everyday) activities: he’s been a full participant in the most ordinary practical endeavors as well as the most occult, he has listened to people’s conversations among themselves (not just discourse addressed to, and shaped by, him) and he has been responsive to their emotional responses to events—including their efforts to protect him against gua.

But this book isn’t just an exercise in conveying subjectivities; it also takes the long view (as far as the somewhat limited record in this region allows). Bubandt’s sense of history is critical to his antifunctionalist argument. Looking at three periods since the late nineteenth century, he makes his most original and interesting argument, that witchcraft is not an attempt to explain, comment on, or otherwise cope with the problems posed by colonialism and Christianity, the authoritarian New Order regime (1966–1998), or the resource extractive capitalism that is now hitting the area full force. Rather, the people of Buli have been attracted to each of these forces in turn with hopes that they would put an end to witchcraft, and they have ended up being disappointed by each in turn once it became apparent that witchcraft was not vanquished. In summary, the heart of Bubandt’s historical thesis is this: Witchcraft does not serve to deal with the problem of modernity; rather, people of Buli hope that modernity will deal with the problem of witchcraft. The argument is compelling made, and I find myself largely persuaded.

Bubandt’s antifunctionalist argument emerges out of the second, and most ambitious, of his major themes. He wants to replace the language of “belief” in witches [507]with that of “doubt” and “aporia,” which he defines in roughly Derridean terms as “an experiential conundrum that has no resolution and that cannot be determined, categorized, or placed within a meaningful order. Aporia marks an impassable situation, where understanding and the will to knowledge fail” (2014: 6).

Like witches in many places, gua are driven by greed to violate the core ethical norms of social existence (an observation that can easily lead to the social functionalist assertion that belief in witchcraft reinforces social norms—an obvious move that Bubandt tends more to avoid than refute). Gua act unpredictably and without a clear sense of motivation. In Buli, they are especially horrifying because they are always people close to their victims: fellow villagers, neighbors, and family. Worse yet, you might yourself turn out to be a gua without knowing it.

As Bubandt summarizes his interpretation, gua reveal “the limits of the senses, the fragility of corporeal existence, the opacity of the human mind, the impossibility of exchange and conviviality, the lies of the Christian church, the failures of state promises, and the witchcraft nature of technology” (2014: 241). Here we can see some of the complexity and expansiveness of what he calls “aporia.” It encompasses the existential fact of the body’s illness and mortality, the cognitive unavailability of other people’s intentions and thoughts, the sociological dilemmas posed by the inherent risks of social interaction, as well as the ethnographically specific history of local hopes that they can be overcome. This casts a very wide net. Although the overall picture Bubandt gives us is convincing, we may wonder whether “aporia” can carry the full weight that net is asked to haul in.

Drawing on Latour, among others, Bubandt wields the concept of aporia against the notion that “we” are marked by the skepticism that is distinctive of our modernity. By contrast, others, both past and present, are immersed in credulity, unquestioningly steeped in their society’s worldviews, cultures, cosmologies, or “ontologies.” Notice there are two aspects to this claim: that supposed nonmoderns were (and are) total believers, and that in any given community, they all believed the same things. But as Clifford Geertz (1973) hinted half a century ago, even the most pious society harbors its village atheist. To this I would add that every community gives rise to half beliefs, occasional beliefs, confused beliefs, contradictory beliefs, fingers-crossed beliefs, and sheer indifference to the whole business.

But what is this “belief” against which Bubandt defines doubt? He tends to treat it as something that is fully coherent, wholly and unquestioningly adhered to, and readily put into words. In short, it bears a striking resemblance to the religious creed of a scriptural religion (or some current versions of “ontology”). But that sets the bar very high indeed. If that is our model of belief, then almost no one has any beliefs except, perhaps, for the sort of people we are prone to call fanatics. And no one in Buli is in the business of offering the ethnographer a totalizing depiction of his or her cosmology. Although there are plenty of myths, they don’t form a single system—but that is what you might expect, if you don’t have theologians and metaphysicians who make it their business to impose order—an “ontology” if you will—on the rest of us, immersed as we are in our unruly experiences and undisciplined knowledge.

A looser definition of “belief” might be more consistent with the evidence Bubandt gives us. For instance, he refers to a policeman who at one moment firmly asserts that gua don’t exist, and a moment later starts to gossip about a neighbor [508]who was one (2014: 154): to be untroubled by such apparent contradictions seems to be quite normal in any moral system. And people in Buli themselves sometimes use the language of belief. They wonder whether the police believe in gua (42); in what seems to be whistling in the dark, one man suggests that it’s all just a superstitious belief (185); and a woman remarks, “believing what people say is difficult, but not believing it is difficult too” (55). Although Bubandt emphasizes people’s doubts, his book is full of their positive assertions about gua. His interlocutors have quite specific things to say about how gua operate and what their effects are, the insatiable greed that drives them, when to summon healers and what procedures they will follow; they can even tell you which birds the gua sound like. They know that if you find a nautilus shell that still has the animal inside, it means you yourself are a gua. Moreover, despite the darkness and mystery with which gua are shrouded, when looking around at their neighbors, “most individuals in Buli would be able to point to at least a handful of possible gua at any given time” (4). Bubandt himself has gathered an extraordinary number of specific cases of gua attacks. So what exactly is so distinctive about the doubts surrounding gua?

First, there is the sheer emotional intensity involved. People may know things about gua in general, but as a potential component of one’s own specific experience—just exactly who might turn out to be a gua, just what might provoke them, and so forth—uncertainty seems to produce an enormous amount of anxiety. In other words, what one does or does not know is hardly a neutral matter. Second, there is the existential aspect of this doubt, the link between gua and the unknowable dimensions of life more generally, ranging from misfortune’s roll-of-the-dice to the occlusion of other people’s motives, intentions, and desires. But most disturbing is the lack of self-knowledge. It is this to which the book’s title alludes: you could innocently pick up a nautilus shell and—bang!—discover you too are a gua. Because you can never be certain that you are not a gua, and you must perpetually guard against leading others to suspect you are, you should disavow whatever knowledge you might have about them. Thus doubt is doubled: more than the opacity of others, one is opaque even to oneself.

The result is to give a tone to sociality that I recognize from my own fieldwork on Sumba, several hundred miles to the southwest of Buli: an enormous sense of wariness when interacting with others. The sense of caution is objectified in the concept of “custom.” Custom provides a guide to proper behavior toward others, so that you both display your own innocence and avoid provoking resentments that might invite gua attacks by others. But custom can never be failsafe, and, as I have suggested in Sumba, it implicitly refers to the risk of failure (Keane 1997). The world always eludes one’s attempts to make it fit the norms and rules. Moreover, by enforcing social interactions even when one might wish to avoid them, custom itself becomes another opportunity for gua to act. The result is what we might call the aporia of sociality.

Aporia seems to offer a solution to the anthropological problem of how to explain without explaining away. But have we replaced turtles all the way down with doubts all the way down? The volume’s sheer ethnographic thickness suggests some limits to its own key concept. For the very existence of the word “gua” gives people in Buli something to point at when they confront misfortune and mystery. We can see it in their words and actions. Given a disaster and suspecting the work of gua, you can turn to divination; if that confirms that gua are at fault, you should summon a healer. [509]Although the concept of gua may not provide people with a fully coherent cosmological system to which they can give unhesitating adherence, nor does it solve any problems for them, it does seem to provide a basic cover term, and in this sense, to objectify, a situation that might otherwise elude one’s grasp and be unrecognizable altogether. Gua seems to be a way to name one’s dread without putting an end to it.

For some aspects of life in Buli, however, the word aporia is quite apposite. These include the doubtful nature of self-knowledge and the irresolvable paradoxes of social existence. What gua seem to bring into view is something that’s always there: the aporetic character of life with others. If you’re stingy, secretive, or unsociable, you might be a gua—but so too if you’re overly generous, for then you might be protesting too much (Bubandt 2014: 205). All of these worries would go away, if only you could eliminate other people and the self-awareness that knowing they have an evaluative perspective on you affords.

If I’m reading Bubandt correctly, then, the idea of gua thematizes certain aspects of intersubjective life in a way that makes those aspects more visible and available for talking about, without promising any resolution—since, after all, they are unavoidable. These aren’t just existential questions; they are ethical ones. Gua aren’t, for instance, behind every death, but they certainly lurk behind bad deaths. Bad deaths evoke thoughts of others’ grudges. The possibility of provoking grudges is built in to the give-and-take of ordinary life: since even the most abundant gifts are limited, every act of giving entails a provocation of someone’s unsatisfied desire. Ethical judgment sharpens the paradoxical nature of social existence. The demands of exchange, or even of ordinary conversation, force you to see yourself as others see you, and to anticipate their judgments about what they see. The idea of gua links these fundamental processes to the fatality of flesh. This produces the uncomfortable quality of life on Buli that Bubandt calls “an ethics of caution,” something many anthropologists have seen elsewhere. The gua, it would seem, gestures toward the moral character of mortality itself.


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

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2002. “Alien-Nation: Zombies, immigrants, and millennial capitalism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 101 (4): 779–805.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Religion as a cultural system.” In The interpretation of cultures, 87–125. New York: Basic Books.

Keane, Webb. 1997. Signs of recognition: Powers and hazards of representation in an Indonesian society. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Webb Keane
Dept. of Anthropology
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1085 South University Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1107