Thursday, August 19, 2004


The Isthmus interviewed Prof. Neil Whitehead in their most recent issue: They provide the transcript here. He's an anthropologist who has written several books on Amazonia, one of which includes his experiences with the "assault sorcery" called kanaima (a particularly vicious kind of murder).

The writer tried to focus the article on the idea that these sorts of things are "intensely spiritual," but the transcript is less wacky. Usually.

Q: To what degree does kanaimà resist academic inquiry? It seems like a very difficult thing to truly know. In your sections on the historical observers, the colonials, the missionaries who badly misinterpreted or mistranslated -- is it something that is going to be ultimately knowable?

WHITEHEAD: Well, I must say that's a very interesting question and my answer is that I think while nothing human is ultimately unknowable, I think that as with anything that concerns the spiritual, the magical, the facts of the case are always going to be less than adequate or sufficient for those who insist on positivist kinds of explanation or empirical kinds of explanation. Because we are in the realm of the invisible and the immaterial and just as in the matter of any other religious truth there is a sense that things are ultimately unknowable. However, I would also add that I think kanaimà as a practice has purposely made itself elusive and difficult because it is something that has survived 100, 150 years of a kind of persecution and attempts by various outsiders to reform and change people. And that may have made it more violent in its own way, that in itself may have encouraged kanaimà to be even more violent, more hidden, more underground, but as with all human mysteries, there are some things we just cannot know. And I don't think kanaimà in that sense is any more challenging than Islam or Christian mysticism or the Jim Jones cult, you know. Lots goes down, and there are some things we cannot know as academics. There are some realities you cannot intersect. You know, I think the question is a good one, but I want to be careful not to give the impression that this is more unknowable than other things like kanaimà, and there are other things like kanaimà.

Ok, that's sensible, though not for the reasons he states. It is not a matter of things being ultimately unknowable, as of them not being amenable to mechanistic/scientific analysis. And he has some reasonable insights:

On the subject of witchcraft or sorcery, this is global, because what we're seeing across the globe is a resurgence of traditional forms of violence principally. Look at those two Wisconsin missionaries. Who were they shot down by? They were killed not because they were Americans but because they were missionaries. Now, this is important. In other words, they were killed explicitly for the reasons of witchcraft, darkness, secrecy. It's the shamanic warfare which is going on there. It's that aspect. You know, we look at Sierra Leone, right? Rwanda. We all try and read it as Nazi genocide. What we're missing is what is actually driving these people, and these are not motivations with which we are culturally familiar at all. And they are strongly located in the realm of traditional categories. Ideas of the dark and violent nature of all power, including political. So we are looking at a postcolonial culture of witchcraft. Which is why my essay is on the shamanic state. I'm arguing -- we're arguing, not just scholars in South America but Africa too -- that the modernity of witchcraft is located in the postcolonial nature of political regimes. And after all, as you know from reading kanaimà, it was the colonial regime itself that told everyone that hey, witchcraft is the place you can resist us.

But he loses his detachment to political correctness:

Q: It's hard to look at this material, whether in workshops or seminars or on the page. Do the spectacular aspects of shamanism and warfare, sorcery, dark sorcery obscure the profound nature of it?

WHITEHEAD: Absolutely. I think you've got it in a nutshell. That's exactly what I think happened with kanaimà. You know, people are entranced, I think I say in the book, the colonial mind was entranced by kanaimà. But it was exactly that which meant that it failed to perceive, just as is the case with radical Islam, the profound spiritual meaning of this violence. I mean it, you know? I mean, what we're missing with Osama, what we're missing with Hamas, we've got to get our heads out of whatever we think. These are spiritual acts for them. So I do think this is also a way in which the West undermines, distracts and devalues these kinds of violent performances, by seeing them as nothing but criminal or insane.... It's an important thing to perceive here. But it's the very extremity of the violence that forces our attention. You know, 200 people in a rail station, 3,000 people in the trade towers. But you know, we didn't listen when they said it nicely. You know, if we had listened, there'd be no basis for what they do. Why is it people got on with that? Because we have so manifestly not lived up to what we said. So, you know, it doesn't say they're not evil, bad or mad, but what makes a 20-year-old, a 28-year-old woman with two kids blow herself to bits?

"If we had listened, there'd be no basis for what they do" is, of course, so much PC rubbish. But so is the implicit assumption that to understand all is to forgive all. Just because an act is "a spiritual act" doesn't make it good. The writer seems to like the idea that things can be unknowable spiritual acts, and punches up that point several times. And you'd think that history would have told people something, that racist ideologies can tie in with religion and make slaughter "a spiritual act" to feed your ancestors, or bring glory to the sacred emperor, or bring good fortune from Odin.

Is it the fragmentation of knowledge, or the denigration of any but the most recent ideas, that leads to such profound ignorance? Or is it deliberate?

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