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Ethnography of the Invisible

During the 13th biennial conference of European Association of Social Anthropologists in Tallinn, Estonia Marja-Liisa Honkasalo and Susanne Ådahl of the Mind and Other project, together with Vibeke Steffen of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen co-convened a panel on “the Ethnography of the Invisible”. The purpose of the panel was to open up a discussion on how to study ’the invisible´ on theoretical and methodological levels; how to understand the concept of truth; and, why the emic notion of kumma is an important tool for rethinking anthropological theory and knowledge. The Finnish term ’ kumma’, which means ’weird’, ’liminal’, ’abject’ and is etymologically linked with the word for ghost, kummitus, has been adopted from earlier discussions we have had within the Mind and Other project (please refer to the previous blog post on this subject; https://mindandother.com/2014/01/27/kumma/ ). For the purposes of the panel and more broadly within our Mind and Other project the ‘invisible’ has been used as a working notion. Like so many other notions linked to the otherworldly realm, the notion of the ‘invisible’ is imprecise and we are struggling with how to define it. During the panel there was, unfortunately not enough time to discuss how we would like to develop this notion.

The panelists presented on a wide variety of ethnographically informed questions that linked in with the notion of the invisible (see this link for further information on themes and panelists: http://www.easaonline.org/downloads/conferences/easa2014/easa2014_programme.pdf, go to page 172). These can be summarised as a number of main problems:

  • The (epistemological) problem of knowing.

How can we know that the ’invisible’ exists? A necessary companion to both perception and belief is uncertainty, and it should not be viewed in opposition to belief or non-belief, but rather as something that contributes synchronically to the specific nature and practice of the ‘act of believing’. This ’act of believing’ can be captured by an action that frequently is preceded by or intertwined with emotion. A central and important point in the experience of the invisible is the ambiguity that marks perception, experience and modes of knowing – or programs of truth. In this regard ambiguity is precisely what challenges the main epistemological assumptions of knowledge and action made in the social sciences.

Knowing in relation to the limits of language; How it is possible to understand the boundary experience of the Other (without having any own experience of this nature as a reference point) as these boundary experiences are not conveyed through language?

What are the limits of getting proper knowledge (e.g. by resonance, by searching for similarities) and of making sense of something totally unfamiliar, of kumma, that which is ’radically other’ in the other’s experience?

  • The problem of linking invisibility to the human mind (or consciousness). In western science (psychology and philosophy of mind) the definition of the mind includes a sharp boundary between inside and outside. In several of her articles, Tanya Luhrman (latest here 2011) addresses this question by emphasizing that in the Euro-American modern theory of mind, people treat the mind as if there is, in effect, a clear boundary between what is in the mind, and what is in the world. Entities in the world, supernatural or otherwise, do not enter the mind, and thoughts do not leave the mind to act upon the world. The assertion that they do is seen as a symptom of mental illness. The theory of the porousness of the human mind is, though, used in contemporary contexts, for example in the realm of neuro-security (and more specifically the widely applied military strategy of ‘neo-cortical warfare). Although we speak of clear mind-world boundaries there are nonetheless areas where a blurring of these boundaries is visible.
  • The issue of Ethics in research. A strong critical point directed at anthropological theory and epistemology came up during our panel discussions. Because it is not possible to use a relativist stance when analysing phenomena that are ‘invisible’, and the other strategy – to explain them away – isn’t proper either, how do we write about these phenomena when our anthropological tool kit is insufficient?

A central theme that explicitly appeared in a number of the papers was that of radical otherness/alterity and the possibilities that ontographic research offers. In the discussions some of those present wanted to broaden the ‘ontological’ approach beyond what is being discussed at this moment in scientific research. Both a culturalist stance and scientifically based attempts to explain invisible phenomena away provide heavily biased results. Doing ethnographic research on the ”invisible” requires us to think of otherness through the meaning that it really exists. In addition to the new ”ontological turn” in anthropology (radical) alterity is a theme that is widely discussed in other philosophies too. It has, for example previously been theorised in the phenomenology of Schutz (multiple realities), phenomenology of the body (embodiment, Merleau-Ponty), and the philosophy of von Uexkull (parallel worlds). Contemporary philosophical contributions of use to this discussion are those presented in the work of feminist theorist Karen Barad.

One important task ahead of us is to find and create bridges between constructionist and ontological approaches. This requires intellectual legwork in the form of going through these philosophical discussions and putting them in dialogue with the theoretical approaches of the ontological turn, thus offering a fresh contribution to ontography.


Written by Marja-Liisa Honkasalo and Susanne Ådahl

Alternative spiritualities in Finland

From the 1960’s onwards there has been an upsurge of alternative religions in the West. Categories such as new religious movements (NRM) and New Age are well known in contemporary academic discourses and frequently used also in common language. These movements have forced academics to reconsider their conceptions about the place of religion in the modern western culture. In contrast to previous theories of secularization, it has been argued that instead of becoming less religious, the West might just be witnessing a wide transition from traditional religion into new modes of religiosity. Perhaps, in the light of this new understanding, we should even begin to talk about a “post-secular” culture.

The situation is similar in contemporary Finland. There is definitely a large and constantly evolving alternative religious milieu that shapes our religious landscape towards ever increasing pluralization. Post-modern (and maybe post-secular) individuals are searching new spiritual meaning in their lives, and this quest often takes them far from mainstream religious institutions. Moreover, these institutions are often criticized for being too restrictive and, significantly, not spiritual enough. In this individualized religion, formal collectivity and external authorities (such as Church and the Bible) have been replaced by the individual’s own spiritual intuition and inner experience, which are considered the most trustworthy and pure way to reach the higher realms of existence.

It is common that these individuals seek to distance themselves from traditional religiosity, preferring to call themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious”, and draw strongly from modern scientific discourses instead. They often consider their beliefs scientifically valid and use scientific terminology in describing their experiences. This kind of synthesis is, however, nothing new: it was one of the main themes in modern spiritualism and occultism that emerged in the second half of the 19th century, and these movements in turn have their roots in various “esoteric” traditions that have populated European thought and imagination since the Renaissance. During the last couple of decades there has been an increasing academic interest in these movements, especially in the field of Western Esotericism that rose between the history of ideas and religious studies during the 1990’s.

This contemporary milieu of alternative spiritualities is an important context also in the Mind and the Other research project. More precisely, as I have argued in the study I conducted last summer while working as an intern in the project, it can be seen as the larger background against which the messages received by the project (see previous post in this blog by Susanne Ådahl) can be understood. Ideas, experiences and practices that are presented in these messages can often be very clearly tracked down to this milieu. I highlighted especially three currents that I considered as the three main historical components of this milieu in Finland: theosophy, modern spiritualism and parapsychology. Together, these currents have provided most of the key ideas, beliefs and practices into the reservoir from which contemporary spiritual seekers draw when building their individual spiritual identities and worldviews. I analyzed this eclectic “reservoir” by using Christopher Partridge’s theory of “the occulture” (see The Re-enchantment of the West I-II, 2004/2005) and, following his analysis, emphasized the significance of popular culture and social media in the construction of new spiritualities. Overall, I presented this alternative religious milieu as a dynamic and ever-changing landscape, not restrained by traditional institutions and external authorities.

One of the most interesting aspects of Partridge’s analysis is his claim that this milieu – or occulture – is no more limited only to the margins of western society. The occulture has started to “sacralize” even the mainstream institutions of this society, such as medicine, in often ambiguous and subtle ways. However, Partridge does not claim that we are returning to an explicitly religious society similar to premodern Europe. Instead, he wants us to notice that religious worldviews have not vanished from our modern culture but are rather making themselves relevant in new ways by transforming their appearance and functions. These important processes should not go unnoticed in academic research.

Written by Juuso Järvenpää


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