Trust and moral passion, poetics and practical criticism

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Richard Werbner. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.031


Trust and moral passion, poetics and practical criticism

Comparative analysis

Richard WERBNER, University of Manchester

Response to HAU Book Symposium on Werbner, Richard. 2015. Divination’s grasp: African encounters with the almost said. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

This symposium brings HAU readers into the company of outstanding ethnographers whose work—Frederick Klaits (2010) on moral passion in Botswana’s time of AIDS, David Coplan (1994) on the poetics of Sotho migrants’ songs in South Africa, and Sónia Silva (2011) on the creativity in basket divination by Angolan refugees in Zambia—has been path-finding for my own work in Divination’s grasp (Werbner 2015). Their generous reviews strengthen an important claim we all make as ethnographers. Our claim is comparative: that we pursue broad, theoretically informed interests through open, crosscultural discovery of likeness along with difference in the worlds of others. Hence the turns in this HAU return of my ethnography: because each reviewer grasps it comparatively from a distinctive vantage ground, the object of our dialogue, Divination’s grasp, surprises even me, its author. Even more encouraging is the need for its sequel, now in hand and tentatively titled, “Moral imaginaries: From Freud’s couch to the Africa of empathy and sympathy” (for preliminary reflections, see Werbner 2014, n.d.).

I find also that the comparative ethnographic challenge in this symposium tempts me to make a simple wish. Prosthetic ritual endows diviners in many parts of Africa with a double-voiced capacity. Consuming the diaphragm of another creature, commonly a specially cooked cock, is perceived to give the Central and Southern African diviner the ability to speak with another’s voice, as well as his own. If I had my wish—to become double-voiced—I would speak to the reviewers [434]in turn with a more ambient resonance, the better to pitch their fresh perceptions to and against each other.

With this wish as in practice at best an ideal, I want to address at least one comparative issue for each reviewer, Klaits, Coplan, and Silva, in that order, and my hope is to spell out how taken together they broaden and deepen Divination’s grasp. Further, my intent is to introduce a “tensive discourse,” which my work in hand advances. By a “tensive discourse,” I mean one that carries forward Paul Ricoeur’s dialectical approach. Ricoeur introduces it to illuminate the opposed yet complementary relations between psychoanalysis and phenomenology: “the meaning of each is clarified by the meaning of further [component] figures or categories” (Ricoeur 1970: 342). Through a series of reflective steps, Ricoeur’s dialectical exploration of difference tries to grasp an interrelation ever on the horizon, somewhat beyond reach.

Of all the reviewers, Klaits is remarkably the insider. His fine command of idioms in Tswana lets him alert readers, as I did not, to the meanings of “grasping” (in Setswana, go tshwara), which “help us rethink some aspects of our analytical languages and comparative frameworks.” Klaits elucidates the reach of “grasping” to a fusion of the somatic and the moral imagination. On this basis, Klaits discerns an absence. Nowhere in Divination’s grasp are Tswapong or Tswana terms and ideas of trust made explicit. They are missing even from the index. In a book about encounters with “the almost said,” the ethnographer circles, almost hypnotically, round the engagement with doubt in questioning as to whether a person or thing is good, truthful, or reliable—in Tswana, tshepa, ikanya, and in the missing English word: trust. Klaits is right, and by neglect, I am wrong.

The challenge Klaits advances is to proceed from the vernacular idioms to an encompassing discourse, which includes Peter Geschiere’s wide-ranging exploration in “Witchcraft, intimacy and trust” (2013). His book appeared, unread by me, while my book was making its difficult years of uphill, demanding progress into print. However, there is a good thing about that, I am happy to say. Given Geschiere’s stimulation, especially in his regard for Freud and Simmel on “the suspension of doubt” in trust, we are at an opportune moment for reanalysis and debate. The time has come to think again about our own intellectual legacy in the light of diviners’ practice with small things and poetry. We reach even beyond the suspension of doubt to problems of the suspension in doubt. For Coplan as well as Klaits this takes us to issues of comparison with Freudian psychoanalysis along with Western psychiatry.

For too long, the critique of Freud on meaning and language, on the superabundance of his written exegesis of free association, on his theorizing of the uncanny, has distracted our attention from the customary in Freud’s actual practice. My own approach in the sequel to Divination’s grasp will enter into the everyday little world of his psychoanalytic suite in Vienna. It is in order to illuminate, somewhat from a diviner’s perspective, at least three things: The first is Freud’s creative theatrics, around some 2,500 small things, mainly grave-robbed figures from ancient Egypt. Visually dazzling, always with a gaze in their own eyes, these memorabilia brought back, from the dead to the living, Freud’s overwhelming concern for the archaic, for the peril of sedimentation; that is, for active retrogression in what Freud held to be our universally shared human archaeology. The second is his arousal of [435]synesthesia in his patients’ experience by rewarding them with addictive, sensuous smoke and appealing props, such as his velvety, luxurious Persian rugs with primordial scenes. Finally, the third represents his involvement with his patients in artful, transformative performance on a stage elaborately designed around himself and his own problematic subjectivity, never resolved in a complete analysis, but ever in doubt (and perhaps also, the subject of doubt by others). And it was a characteristically playful stage, having a back-drop of Jewish jokes and puns, half-hidden behind Freud’s own back, though apparent to the reclining patient, and written like dreams and cuneiform (which Freud studied at the British Museum) in coded images (Werbner n.d.).

If we grasp all this in the Tswana way of grasping, as Klaits would encourage us to try doing with our own moral imagination, we come up against something that unmistakably moves and worries Coplan. Few doubt that Freud’s vision is profoundly pessimistic. But what vision prevails in wisdom divination, and how are we to appreciate that in comparative terms? Poisonous pessimism shocks us in Coplan’s rendition of the landmark monograph, Witchcraft and a life in the new South Africa, by Isak Niehaus (2012), which serves the comparison Coplan draws. This study makes “horrific but fascinating” reading because it sensationalizes “a hell of terror, sickness, and death at forty-one in the handbasket of the occult.” Given this fascination, Coplan hints at something similar in Lesotho and other African communities where, in Camus’ phrase, “Hell is other people.” Nevertheless, in a rare account of diviners’ engagement in pilgrimage in southern Africa, Coplan documents something positive, perhaps an expression of optimism, also, in diviners’ extraordinary fostering of radical ecumenism through cooperation with visionary prophets, Christian healers, and traditional healers, all of whom, together, venerate their ancestors at shared shrines (Coplan 2003).

Klaits seems painfully aware of that pessimism in his very sensitive account of “the moral terrain of love, jealousy, care and scorn” (2010: 7) among Christians in Botswana. They wanted him to say as much as possible about love, but he found he had to say a great deal about envy, lefufa, while making us understand an ethos, common in Botswana, which calls for civility and decorum. Perhaps even for these Christians, “Hell is other people,” but if the devil is the diviner—and their church does forbid divination—then he is hardly the source active in generating among them the “suspicion, mistrust, fear and ill-feeling” that Coplan recognizes among many other Africans.

The problem is one that Silva too takes very seriously in her own study of divination, where she asks a diviner

why he felt compassion for people whom he did not know personally or socially; was he not just doing his work, anyway? First he agreed with me just to be polite, then he explained that he and they were both sufferers, caught up in the same ruthless world, trying to do their best. (Silva 2011: 80)

Allowing for the diviner’s personal perception of his human bond of shared suffering, Silva is reluctant to take that at face value. Instead, she goes on to argue for her own view that minimizes the relative importance of compassion in divination: “Basket divination, however, is not about the feeling and practice of compassion. Basket divination is about ritual efficacy, ontological shifts, truthful knowledge, [436]and coping: four things that intrinsically are neither good nor bad” (Silva 2011: 80–81).

So what is the answer to Coplan’s worry? Or rather, what is my own argument about pessimism or optimism in wisdom divination and about the diviner’s influence, malignant or otherwise?

A diviner plays many parts, I argue. To document and analyze how a diviner does so, I devote two chapters to the caseload of my mentor Moatlhodi. In the first, “Family Séances: Rhetoric, Deliberations and Decisions,” I follow this diviner’s practice with his own family throughout a long series of their family quarrels, and I include his divinations for his own personal affairs. My conclusion is this, and I quote at length to set in relief the contrast to the more sensational portrayal of the occult terrorist in South Africa:

Perhaps the most striking outcome was not the spread of odd rumors or even shouted complaints about witchcraft, or even the deflection of accusation beyond the family to outsiders or others at a distance, but the stoic effort to fend off the dead, Again and again, the dead were asked not to trouble the living and to be assuaged by the pious ritual for blowing water. There were continual reminders of the obligation for care among kin, re-enforced by the rehearsal of their concern for petty and forgivable faults, rather than malicious acts of envy or greed. The séances navigated a fine course between the ambivalences and the obligations of close kin. (Werbner 2015: 168)

The second chapter, “Cosmic and Personal Understandings: Diviners, Headmen, Strangers,” presents a further contrast. Again, I summarize my view of how the moral peril facing a client was clarified:

Usually, it was enough to authorize treatment for the protection of the patient’s whole body or goods against witchcraft and for undoing the traps in the way of the patient’s well-being and prosperity. Often, the approach to witchcraft was less muted, less oblique than in the family cases, but there were none of their challenging moments of open argumentation about counter-possibilities with citations from familiar exegesis and shared poetics. Each séance with a stranger, however, was not ordinarily an occasion for closure. What the patient and/or client went away with was the invitation to return, after success in good fortune, and be endowed with powerful capacity, usually from a goat, from the vital substances of an offering they would bring the diviner. The consultation was the beginning, not the end of a prescribed course of recovery of well-being under the diviner’s guidance. (Werbner 2015: 179)

Here I must make a confession, and it bears on Silva’s doubts about my claim that in Divination’s grasp my approach fully abandons an old dynamic or clarity paradigm, which as it happens, she still finds helpful in her fine account of basket divination. In my earlier work—along with Michael Jackson (1989) and David Parkin (1991)— the paradigm I recognized in divination represented a passage from confusion to understanding, from “baffling complexity to intelligible complexity” (Werbner 1989: 59–60). I confess that the more I read, reread, and reflected uneasily about many wisdom divination cases and at least half-a-dozen diviners’ comments and [437]clients’ post-séance retrospection, the less useful I found this paradigm. Admittedly, in Jackson’s version of the paradigm, the divinatory move is closer to what I now grasp: Jackson sees a move in a path toward a “clearing” as a tentative moment, “a break in a journey—to take stock, to get my bearings” (1989: 1).

When Silva herself takes up the paradigm in her monograph, she is tempted to say, “the divinatory journey begins with mystery, uncertainty and passivity, and it progresses gradually toward revelation, certainty, and resoluteness” (Silva 2011: 129). Against that view of a journey from obscurity to clarity, remarkably, is the way a diviner tells it as a journey that sometimes strays, turns back on itself, risks stumbling, halts at new discoveries, has to keep a fast (possibly too fast) pace, and proverbially exposes participants to the danger of ending up exposed in an open plain (Silva 2011: 128–29). With her informant, Silva takes us well beyond the “Twenty Questions” comparison that captivated Victor Turner in his educated guess about divination, in the absence of observed séances (Turner 1975). More significantly, we might well ask whether the obscurity-to-clarity paradigm is sensitive enough to the diviner’s own account. Further, Silva’s actual séance record documents what I suggest is “ a locational rhetoric of a highly orderly kind from the very start without initial confusion” (Werbner 2015: 293). Only after the diviner verbally recreates a cosmic journey from far to near, calling upon great dignitaries and tracking down to familiar objects at home with the client, does he turn to the icons in his divining basket. With these shaken bits and through their silent language of things, he tracks back and forth, while he engages in call and response with his client. Hence my revisionist argument: the old paradigm, poor even from diviners’ own perceptions, is too certain and yet not a model for highly methodical, deliberate, and carefully designed practice; it is too easy in closure and thus fails to appreciate truth-on-balance, as well as irresolution in the face of ever ongoing retrospection after séances.

There is a second debate that Silva opens for comparative analysis. Very broadly, she reconsiders my view of a spectrum in modes of divination across Africa, which in part I offer in order to locate Tswapong wisdom divination as a variation relative to a good number of other modes. For Silva’s purposes, a useful comparative approach would recognize a spectrum from divination that is word-rich, in one sense or another, to modes that stress moments of wordlessness, as in the West African examples I give (Werbner 2015: 298). Silva’s preference is understandable. Silva seeks to rescue basket divination from being boxed up as if it were so much about objects that there is neither convention nor creativity in its rhetoric, despite the fact that it persuades through highly stylized language, proverbs, gnomic pronouncements, and cosmic allusions. Seen in between the wordless and the word-rich, basket divination turns out to be a hybrid of the silent language of things and the rich rhetoric. But the question is this: Might Silva herself be boxing basket divination in, understating the hybridity, and thus underestimating the significance of her contribution as an advance beyond Victor Turner’s? After all, Angolan diviners do not put all their trust merely in one basket. Instead, they play off highly distinctive devices, in turn, over the course of a divination. One device is a binary switch, having alternative colors, which registers opposites. Another device mirrors not alternatives but fluid states, ripples as fleeting images in a bottle or pool of water. A diviner calls it a thermometer. It allows for moments of meditation, the silent inward reflection between the microdramatic displays of the small things in the [438]basket with commentary in rhetoric or plain speech: “Using each device provides its own clue, insight or qualifying check” (Werbner 2015: 293).

I suggest, and perhaps Silva would agree, that the knowledge practices involved over the course of a séance presume that truth is highly elusive, to be known not absolutely but only on balance.

Where I would continue to differ with Silva, however, is in my view that we need an approach to comparison that distinguishes between competence in any rhetoric or conventional speech and the oral archiving, criticism, and interpretation of highly fixed texts, in particular the praise poetry of wisdom divination. One reason for a strong regard for the highly textual divination is historical, though speculative. Highly textual modes are most prominent in the areas of north, west, and east Africa that for many centuries have been in contact with Arabs and their textual mode of divination (Abimbola 1976; Bascom 1969; Brenner 2000; Maupoil 1943; Peel 2001; Vérin and Rajaonarimanana 1991). Some scholars—including most prominently Bernard Maupoil (1943), Wim van Binsbergen (1995, 1996) and Louis Brenner (2000)—argue that Muslim divination has not merely been an influence but an origin for much African divination. Brenner traces a long history of Muslim divination: it spread from origins in the ninth or tenth century, it reached much of the Mediterranean and parts of Asia by the fourteenth century, and it prevailed in Africa from the sixteenth or at least the eighteenth century in every region of the continent where by then Muslims had arrived (Brenner 2000: 49–52).

The second reason takes us from history to literary criticism. For once poetry commands our attention in the understanding of divination, we are drawn into issues of poetics that dare ethnographers to engage with literary critics (for the quickening of interest in this engagement, see Guyer 2013, 2014). Unlike the first speculative reason for our special interest in the highly textual divination, which I footnote too briefly in Divination’s grasp (2015: 218, notes 1, 3), the second reason is basic, and its challenging importance—to appreciate the aesthetics and acrobatic stylistics of divinatory verse—looms large in my work, including a forthcoming article on “The poetics of wisdom divination: Renewing the moral imagination” (Werbner 2017). In his insightful comparison of text-based modes of divination, David Zeitlyn makes this point: “The textual criticism of diviners is significantly different from that of literary criticism in Western academic traditions” (Zeitlyn 2001: 231). How and why that has to be true is a critical problem in itself. Here I want to say that I have found it a labor of many years to work out a good form of literary criticism for an oral literature, the archaic verse in wisdom divination, and I adopt the label “practical criticism” in the hope that this form is appropriate for the poetics of closely textual practice in my ethnography yet recognizably and admittedly not the same as diviner’s indigenous literary criticism, some of which I present as “exegesis.” Among our reviewers, Coplan is the one who pioneers in exploring the issues of oral literary criticism. Here he reminds readers of chiasmus, that complex, dynamic figure of speech—it flips between two parts—which significantly affords divination moments for the suspension of certainty about appearance. I much welcome his call for the readers, encountering my practical criticism, to go first and directly to the texts and performances. In immediate and, indeed, obedient response, I want to offer this praise poetry in which a fetus is overheard talking with one who saw it sleeping in its mother’s womb:[439]

The fetus of thunder, I cannot be handled.
If handled, I slip from the hands.
If eaten, I slip from the mouth.
If cuddled, I slip between the thighs.

Through practical criticism, I unpack and appreciate this example of chiasmus and compare its surprising force in praise poetry with its familiar closure in popular narrative, particularly in the light of Jackson’s seminal insights into chiasmus in narratives by Kuranko of northeastern Sierra Leone (Jackson 1998: 62; Werbner 2015: 54–56). Where the narrative reaches a conclusion, the poetry suspends it, “It is as if to offer for thought and experience a spiral in which one holds one’s breath, wondering: Is truth escaping?” (Werbner 2015: 56). Jackson’s own poetry elicits this, remarks Jane Guyer, “The poetic voice evokes the sense of suspension in stillness” (2013). Suspension in disquiet is more active in the praise poetry of divination, I suggest. “To suspend doubt,” rightly argues Klaits in his critique of Geschiere’s approach to trust, “would be to forestall the impulse to question.” And without appearing to do that, I want to offer my recognition of the true spirit of surprise in this HAU exchange.

The generous criticism in these reviews of my book leads me to believe that the almost said has indeed brought us together, thankfully, in a very open-ended exchange of understandings on the way to further unexplored critical questions of practice in divination and ethnography.


I wish to thank the Association for Africanist Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association for the award—an Honorable Mention for the 2016 Elliott B. Skinner Prize—for Divination’s grasp.


Abimbola, Wande. 1976. Ifa. Ibadan: Oxford University Press.

Bascom, William. 1969. Ifa Divination. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Binsbergen, Wim van. 1995. “Four tablet divination as trans-regional medical technology in southern Africa.” Journal of Religion in Africa 25 (2): 114–40.

———. 1996. “Regional and historical connections of four tablet divination in southern Africa.” Journal of Religion in Africa 26 (1): 2–29.

Brenner, Louis 2000. “Muslim divination and the history of religion of Sub-Saharan Africa.” In Insight and Artistry in African Divination, edited by John Pemberton III, 45–62. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Coplan, David B. 1994. In the time of cannibals. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand Press.[440]

———. 2003. “Land from the ancestors: Popular religious pilgrimage along the South Africa-Lesotho Border.” Journal of Southern African Studies 29 (4): 976–93.

Geschiere, Peter. 2013. Witchcraft, intimacy, and trust: Africa in comparison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guyer, Jane I. 2013. “The quickening of the unknown: Epistemologies of Surprise in Anthropology.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 283–307.

———. 2014. “On poetry and positivism: ‘The quickening of the unknown.’” In The locations of African literature: Humanists and social scientists in dialogue, edited by Eileen Julien and Biodun Jeyifo. Trenton: Africa World Press.

Jackson, Michael. 1989. Paths towards a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic enquiry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Klaits, Frederick. 2010. Death in a church of life: Moral passion during Botswana’s time of AIDS. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Maupoil, Bernard. 1943. La géomancie a l’ancienne Cote des esclaves. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.

Niehaus, Isak. 2012. Witchcraft and a life in the new South Africa. Cambridge: International African Institute.

Parkin, David. 1991. “Simultaneity and sequencing in the oracular speech of Kenyan diviners.” In African divination systems: Ways of knowing, edited by Philip M. Peek, 173–91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peel, John. 2000. Religious encounter and the making of the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1970. Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Silva, Sónia. 2011. Along an African border: Angolan refugees and their divination baskets. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Turner, Victor. 1975. Revelation and divination in Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Vérin, Pierre, and Narivelo Rajaonarimanana. 1991. “Divination in Madagascar: The Antemoro case and the diffusion of divination.” In African divination systems: Ways of knowing, edited by Philip M. Peek, 53–68. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Werbner, Richard. 2014. “Empathy and sympathy: Reflexivity in Christian charismatic filmmaking.” Archiva di Etnografia 1 (2): 24–46.

———. 2015. Divination’s grasp: African encounters with the almost said. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 2017. “The poetics of wisdom divination: Renewing the moral imagination.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24 (1): 1–21.

———. n.d. “From Freud’s couch to the diviner’s lots.” Unpublished manuscript.

Zeitlyn, David. 2001. “Finding meaning in the text: The process of interpretation in text-based divination.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7 (2): 225–40.[441]


Richard Werbner
Social Anthropology
School of Social Sciences
Arthur Lewis Building
University of Manchester
Manchesster M13 9PL
United Kingdom