Kumman varjo – an article on the uncanny

9789524954075-196x300Gaudeamus recently published a book called Mielen salat (2016) that centers on the different aspects of the human mind. In the book researchers from different fields of study discuss new ways to research and interpret the mind.

The publication is a product of The Academy of Finland Programme The Human Mind, which consists of 22 different research projects including ours, the Mind and the Other.

For this publication Marja-Liisa Honkasalo has written an article called Kumman varjo that addresses researching the supernatural, or as we call it, the uncanny. Honkasalo argues that the uncanny is something that we cannot see but which leaves a permanent mark or better yet, a shadow on the people that encounter the phenomena.

The book and the article are written in Finnish. You can download a scanned copy of  professor Honkasalo’s article below.

The article as pdf: honkasalo-kumman-varjo
For more information on the book click here.

Photos from the conference

Our three-day conference Wild or Domesticated? Uncanny in Historical and Contemporary perspectives to mind was held last week as we heard keynotes from Tanya Luhrmann, Simo Knuuttila and Diana Espírito Santo.

The conference week was inspiring, enlightening and filled with interesting speeches and new encounters. Thank you all for participating in the event.

Here are some uncanny pictures of the conference.

Watch a live stream of our conference

Our conference Wild or Domesticated: Uncanny in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives to Mind starts tomorrow in The House of Science and Letters.

The opening words and the keynote lectures will be streamed live on Youtube.

You can stream the event live on the following links:

Tue 20.9. 09.30 – 12.00

Wed 21.9. 10.30 – 12.00

Thu 22.9. 10.30 – 12.00

For more information, please see the homepage of the conference.

At the boundaries of the mind: Introducing our forthcoming anthology

The research project Mind and the Other, funded by the Academy of Finland, is proud to introduce Mielen rajoilla. Nykypäivän kummat kokemukset, a multidisciplinary collection of articles in Finnish. The title roughly translates to At the boundaries of the mind. Uncanny experiences in the present day. The collection is a bold opening in the research of the uncanny as it examines and discusses the experiences of Finnish people that transcend the everyday life.

The basis of the publication is the spontaneous letter material the research project received from the public after initial media exposure. The letters depict for instance encounters with angels, spirit guides and the deceased, precognition and out-of-body experiences.

Through these letters we examine how uncanny experiences impact the people who live through them, how they interpret the phenomena and search for meaning in them. The focus of the collection will also be turned on the surrounding cultural landscape that has little or no tolerance for this type of otherness. The aim of the book is to shed light on the phenomenon and to dispel the negative preconceptions surrounding it.

The writers of the articles represent many different branches of science, from medical anthropology to cultural history and psychiatry. They approach the subject matter through their own scientific background but also through a shared multidisciplinary theoretical approach. In this book we use the term uncanny to address the phenomena that earlier research has described as supernatural, paranormal and otherworldly. We do not make truth claims about these experiences but see them strictly as phenomena that differ from the mainstream of modern ontology. In the realm of the uncanny there lies a vast scale of phenomena and experiences that can be sensitive and stigmatizing for an individual to share with the public.

The book is a scientific presentation that is divided into four parts. It starts as a source-based examination on the basic notions of the uncanny as it introduces the foundations of the research. In the first part we portray, in a scientific manner, the uncanny experiences and the situations where people have had them.

In the second part we focus on the sensory phenomenology of the experiences and on the emotional side of the phenomena. These articles approach the subject through a theoretical apparatus from, for instance, the fields of affective science, anthropology of the senses and embodied phenomenology.

In the third part we delve into the endeavors of the people who have encountered the uncanny to find meaningful explanations to their experiences. Through a historical and cultural perspective we analyze the different attitudes and modes of interpretation individuals have grown to rely on and, at times, suffer from. Our approach is both understanding and emancipatory as we try to shed light on the stigmatizing effects of uncanny experiences and unravel the different factors behind those effects.

In the final part we introduce different points of view on how to examine uncanny experiences as a feature of the human mind that can be a burden but also a resource. We formulate new theoretical concepts to better our understanding of the uncanny and construct a methodological approach to examine the uncanny in a network of social and material actions and the phenomenon’s bodily and emotional connections to the human mind.

Mielen rajoilla. Nykypäivän kummat kokemukset is intended for both the general public and researchers interested in the uncanny.
The collection will be published in the upcoming months.

The everyday presence of nonhumans and being a human in relations

Indigenous Amazonian socio-philosophies typically consider that plants and animals share a similar humanity, intentionality, and rationality with people. Nonhuman elements are regarded as integral to human social and bodily realities – and consequently history. Controlled interactions between nonhuman and human subjects are necessary in order to (re)produce life, knowledge, guidance, and fertility. In Amazonian indigenous thought, beings come into existence through relations that are about transformation, exchange, and incorporation. Even certain objects contribute to the production of persons.

For Philippe Descola Amazonian thinking is “animism” and one form of ontology, and it contrasts to the naturalism that is typical of Euro-American thinking, in which “nature” is objectified and externalized. Comparative research between Amazonian indigenous and Euro-American societies also provides opportunities to deconstruct phenomena categorized as uncanny (kumma, in Finnish).

Many other fields of science have likewise added important fuel to a constructive criticism of persistent human / nonhuman, subject / object, and culture / nature dichotomies. The agency of animals, landscapes, and even objects has been addressed beyond Amazonian anthropology in a number of fields: by Donna Haraway, for example, who has discussed knowing subjects; from a general perspective in studies regarding the rights of animals, multispecies, interspecies; and in the posthumanist approach in which humans are not positioned above other forms of life. As a result, terms such as “supernatural” or “belief”, once widely used in the social and human sciences, are increasingly being problematized.

The understanding that humans are regarded as subjects produced in interactive relations with other forms of life, provides both a novel foundation and a motivation for studying evidence and evidential knowledge. In Amazonian lived experience nonhuman agents (animals, plants, ancestors, meteorological entities) play crucial roles in learning processes and knowledge-production, and consequently enable life for humans. Examining the knowledge received through these sources, usually via audio and visual perceptions, has supplied new data on the sources and validity of knowledge more broadly. In my research, combining understanding of the ontology and epistemology of Amazonian indigenous people has also offered a view to understanding the human mind in general. In fact, while sounds and visualization operate as a crucial part of knowledge-production in indigenous Amazonian lived worlds, they are also crucial in creative and art work in Western / Euro-American society.

Written by Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen

CFP: Wild or Domesticated – Uncanny in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives to Mind

An interdisciplinary conference organized by Mind and the Other Research Project
Helsinki, Finland (The House of Science and Letters)
September 20-22, 2016
Keynote speakers:
Professor Tanya Luhrmann, University of Stanford
Professor Simo Knuuttila, University of Helsinki
Assistant professor Diana Espirito Santo, The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile

Uncanny experiences, the search for the inexplicable, or the belief in supernatural beings or universal energies trigger disputes about at least ontology, rationality, sanity, and the limits of the mind. Modern Western society is for the most part characterized by principles such as rationality and efficiency. Quoting Max Weber, these ideas comprise the leading forces of modern society and science. However, what several scholars in religious studies currently call post-secularism has given rise to new spiritual tendencies and movements in society. These post-secular tendencies have brought about something that several authors term ‘re-enchantment’: new spirituality and uncanny experiences are perhaps more than ever a part of Western everyday life. Some scholars define the situation as a crisis of rationality, whereas others again accentuate the recurrent nature of historical phenomena, pointing to recurring waves of thought stretching from the Ancient past to the present. Still others claim that in practice the rational and the uncanny are intertwined in a new mode. In historical and ethnographic explorations the uncanny can be understood, not as a boundary between rational and its “outside”, but as an element of connection and compromise between them practiced by ordinary people and practices of institutions, such as modern medicine and science.

Promising discussions are put forward along the ontological approach, based on the actor-network studies. Nonetheless, at least in the Finnish society, supernatural or uncanny experiences are still generally considered abnormal or at least something to hide or to feel ashamed of. People with uncanny experiences are prone to be categorized as deviant and to become heavily stigmatized.

In this conference we argue that the boundary between normal and pathological is socially and culturally made, and several social institutions such as science, medicine and religion play remarkable roles in this making. We ask if the very notion of the human mind, as it is defined in the current scientific discussions, is too narrow to capture phenomena and experiences which are important to people.

We invite papers, which discuss the broad problem area of the uncanny. Topics for papers may include but are not limited to:

• Cross-cultural approaches to the study of human mind
• Problems and new approaches to “evidence”
• The cultural construction of normality and abnormality
• The questions about “reality” and belief
• The crisis of rationalism and the changing relationship between rationality and magic
• Historical approaches to the irrational in science and philosophy
• Science and technology approaches to alterity
• Discussions of front line research – e.g. hearing voices, spirit writing
• Contesting discourses and narratives of reality and ontology
• Challenging the boundaries between life and death

There are five listed conference workshops where participants are welcome to submit their paper abstracts directly. Please see the listed workshops here.
In case you don’t find a suitable workshop for your paper, you may also send your abstract to conference organizers (wildordomesticated@gmail.com). Your paper will then be assigned to a workshop created by the organizers. This applies also to those papers that don’t fit into the listed workshops.
Deadline for paper abstracts (max 400 words): March 15, 2016
Notification of acceptance of paper abstracts: April 15, 2016
Specifications for paper abstract format:
Abstracts may be in word or RTF format and should contain the following information and in this order
1. Author(s) (in bold)
2. Affiliation as you would like it to appear in the conference programme
3. Email address
4. Abstract title (in bold)
5. Abstract text
6. Up to 10 key words
All papers accepted for and presented at the conference must be in English.
More info: wildordomesticated@gmail.com, project coordinator Ella Vihervuori (ella.vihervuori@utu.fi) and Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, the person in charge of the project (marja-liisa.honkasalo@utu.fi).
For further information about the conference, please see also the conference page.
Organizer: Research Project “Mind and the Other”, University of Turku (funded by the Academy of Finland)

Intrusions of the ‘Supernatural’ – Porous Bodies and Minds in Medieval Iceland

Featured imageAccording to the medieval 13th and 14th-century Icelandic conceptions of emotion, emotions were physical in nature and they were regarded as movements of the mind. The mind itself existed within the body and it was often considered to be situated in the breast and associated with the heart.

It was not only relationships and communication with the living people in one’s social environment that were expected to propel movements of the mind. Also the uncanny could be involved: operations of what most saga scholars have called ‘supernatural’ powers and beings could make the mind move. From medieval Icelandic perspective, the body and the mind that existed within the body were porous: supernatural forces could penetrate the boundaries of the body through eyes, mouth and other body openings. For instance, strong-willed people who had magical skills – such as smiths, people with other special skills or witches – could affect other people’s minds and emotions and, consequently, also their psychophysical condition.

Thought of a malevolent witch, for instance, were thought to be transmitted through wind. Such wind could penetrate the minds of others, e.g. through nose or mouth. As a consequence, an emotion-like reaction such as emotion, pain or illness could follow. In the 13th and 14th-century Icelandic Family sagas (Íslendingasögur), for instance, the upspring and experience of guilt that was associated with the recognition of moral responsibility could be represented through eye pain that was inflicted upon the experiencer in dream by the strong-willed human being or a supernatural being whom the experiencer had betrayed or insulted. The person suffering from eye pain could recover, if he ’atoned for his sins’ and made amendments. In other case, the eye pain that was regarded as a kind of supernatural ‘shot’ could result in the eyes bursting out, and finally: death. Traces of beliefs concerning similar supernatural ‘shots’ have been discovered also in earlier Anglo-Saxon material (Hall) as well as in later Scandinavian folklore (Lid).

Medieval Icelandic folk theory of emotion was not thoroughly thought of or unambiguous doctrine, however. Conceptions of the essence, origin and operation of emotions varied. The essence of emotions could also be considered material and be preserved in the heart. Anger, in particular, was considered to be a kind of energy and substance that could reside in the breast. As the amount of anger in the breast grew, the consequences of this were portrayed in the sagas as somatic changes: the body of the angry person became swollen.

Anger was also considered to be a kind of life power and energy. If a person died angry, the anger was expected to remain in the corpse. In such cases anger could reanimate the corpse and the deceased could return out of its own will to harass the living, not as an ethereal ghost but as a physical reanimated corpse. Such people had usually been known for their strong will already when they were still alive. In medieval Icelandic thinking, the mind of such strong-willed people could continue to exist after death. As a consequence, the deceased were considered conscious of what was going on around them and could react to things that had happened after their death. When they appeared, they elicited fear, especially in people who were regarded as weak. In fact, ‘supernatural’ beings, such as the restless dead, were expected to appear especially in such social environments where somebody had broken norms or betrayed someone, or the social equilibrium was shaken in some other manner.

One option to protect oneself against the supernatural forces was to live and act according to the norms and expectations of the society. It was good for people’s wellbeing if they could control themselves. Some emotions, such as fear, made people vulnerable to supernatural influences, since the body boundaries of a frightened person were thought to open. According to medieval Icelandic thinking, only those people who were mentally strong enough could keep their body boundaries intact and resist the external influences. Experiencing the supernatural and uncanny was ordinary, but being affected by the supernatural was considered a weakness.

The example of eye pain mentioned above also suggests that in Íslendingasögur movements of the mind were discussed in ways that do not immediately open up to modern readers and researchers. The inner state of a human being was not described directly. Only what could be seen by one’s own eyes was depicted, such as somatic changes, or heard by one’s ears when people spoke or composed poetry. The first expression is, therefore, that Íslendingasögur contain only few emotions. However, saga writers did have alternative ways to discuss and portray emotional atmospheres in various situations. Although the restless dead and the supernatural agents that caused eye pain were part of the social reality of medieval Icelanders (and all or at least many believed in their existence) they were also understood as alternative discourses or emotions – ways to discuss the inner state of people that could not be perceived through senses.

For example, in Íslendingasögur it is sometimes told of men who had a bad relationship with their father and for this reason lacked their approval, blessing and both mental and material support. In the medieval Icelandic context, losing or lacking the support of one’s father and male kinsmen was a serious drawback. The individual’s wellbeing and success was dependant on the networks that he had succeeded in gaining through kinship and marriages. These networks were his shelter and life insurance and guaranteed that even after death his honour would remain and his descendants would prosper. Clashes and conflicts with significant male relatives and especially the father was an occurrence that indicated destabilization of social order. In such situations the social status of an individual became indeterminate, i.e. he drifted into a socially liminal space, in which he was still his father’s son, but lacking the father’s support.

Although we could expect that this situation affected also the person’s emotional life, in sagas it is not implied at any instance that there would be some emotional turmoil. It is not told in what kind of mood the person was or what was going on inside the man’s and his father’s mind, what they felt and what they thought. We can read of their actions or things they leave undone and discussions in which their disagreements are put into words. The deeds of the conflicting parties are not psychologized, and the use of emotional words is nearly nonexistent. Later we may be told, however, how the son encounters a malevolent restless dead and is forced to wrestle with it until he is able to decapitate the corpse. After the event the man may continue his life, now known to have accomplished a heroic deed and respected by his community. Or, if things turn out worse for him, the restless dead succeeds in laying his evil eye on him before the decapitation, and as a consequence, the saga recites that the man was known to have been a man of misfortune and being constantly afraid of the dark where he could always see the horrible eyes of the cadaver that had moved his mind – i.e. that had frightened him – so enormously.

Even in the example above the restless dead would be liminal beings that were encountered in darkness, at nights, in winter, in foggy conditions, in caves and mounds – in spaces and situations when the vision of people was expected to be somehow impaired. However, although the restless dead did not directly reflect the inner state of the man who was in a socially liminal position, they were part of it – like tokens of the presence of something that could not be seen in broad daylight but was there, being simultaneously absent, something that belonged to the past like the deeds done but preserved in memory, and thus present in thoughts. The restless dead were in liminal spaces, dead but alive. They were the past in the present and objects that the man in a socially liminal space needed to encounter and destroy, in order to attain equilibrium and to prosper as a member of the society. If unsuccessful, the man was haunted by the look of the past for the rest of his life.

Written by Kirsi Kanerva


The PhD thesis Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1300) by Kirsi Kanerva was publicly examined in the University of Turku in January 31, 2015.


Hall, Alaric. 2005. Getting Shot of Elves – Healing, Witchcraft and Fairies in the Scottish Witchcraft Trials. Folklore 116:19–36.

Hall, Alaric. 2007. Elves in Anglo-Saxon England – Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity. Woodbridge. (Anglo-Saxon Studies 8).

Lid, Nils 1921: Um finnskot og alvskot – Eit umråde av norsk sjukdomsmagi. Maal og Minne, pp. 37–66.


Order the dissertation from UTUshop

Read the electronic publication in Doria (articles not included)

Images of Afterlife – Interdisciplinary conference (October 22–24, 2014)

On October 22-24, 2014 at the University of Turku the research project Mind and the Other organized an interdisciplinary conference called Images of Afterflife. As the leader of the project, Professor Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, noted in her opening words, images, beliefs and representations of the afterlife are rich and manifold: they reflect cultural norms, values, fears and hopes. Although the modern western society has been defined as secular, there appears to be more and more choices available for those interested in religious and spiritual movements in our present day world. Researchers speak about post-secular culture, in which legitimized religious representations of afterlife now co-exist with other alternative beliefs that originate from various cultural sources. The aim of the Images of Afterlife conference was to bring together scholars from various disciplines and offer them an opportunity to discuss these beliefs that have existed in different historical and cultural contexts and the change and continuity in them.

Around 80 participants attended the event representing a wide array of nationalities as well as academic disciplines, enabling fruitful interdisciplinary discussions on the conference theme. Many interesting papers (54 in all), as well as four keynote lectures and fascinating ideas were presented in the conference. It is impossible to summarize all the interesting strands of the discussion, but below are some points that were found to be particularly relevant to the theme of the Mind and Other project: interaction with agents in multiple realities.

The first keynote lecture was given by Professor Tony Walter (Death Studies) from the University of Bath. In his lecture he spoke of how people in the western world have, to an increasing degree, started to view their deceased loved as angels. This is especially so if the deceased person has been a baby, a child, a youth or a grand/parental figure. According to Tony Walter one explanation for this is that grieving survivors in cases like this may live an additional 50 years, placing them in a totally different position than those mourners who have lost a spouse at the age of 80. Angels are beings that enable the phenomenon of continuing bonds because they possess agency and have wings with which to fly from the otherworld to this world.

The second keynote by Professor Altti Kuusamo (Art History) from the University of Turku focused on how the otherwise invisible angel was made visible in seventeenth-century art. As Kuusamo showed, angels that originally related to and even intermingled with the figure of Fortuna, depictions of Amor and messengers of victory in Ancient Roman sculpture, were often portrayed as men, acquiring the role of active agents by the seventeenth century. Since the Middle Ages everyone was supposed to have a guardian angel, but even before this time some good persons could actually become angels after death. Another role of angels was to civilize children, which is an interesting notion considering the liminal status of angels as beings that are ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner) the material and the spiritual. This has interesting implications for other liminal figures in history; the dead that return have, for instance, in many cultures been considered agents that were partially responsible for the social order. The deceased could return if social norms had been broken, inappropriate actions were taken, or forbidden (and often liminal) territories had been entered (Koski; Kanerva).

Whereas the liminal figure in the past was concerned especially with issues of a collective nature, Tony Walter suggested in his keynote lecture that in the modern world the emphasis is on the wish of the survivors to maintain continuing bonds with the deceased loved ones. The fact that the dead have always been among us was illustrated by several historically, archaeologically and anthropologically oriented papers discussing the issue in different cultural and historical contexts. In many cases the bond between the dead and the living exists because the living want it to be so; they need memories, rituals and objects as they mourn, remember and continue to live on after their loved ones have passed on.

This seems to be ever more so in the modern world, whereas in traditional cultures and in the past it has been widely accepted that the dead and ancestors can sometimes return also against the wishes of the living or despite them, as was shown in many of the papers presented in the parallel sessions. Depending on the cultural norms and beliefs, disfigured or disabled people, or those who committed suicide, have been either expected to return or thought to be incapable of doing this for various reasons. There has been an expectation that ancestors live on and continue to be present in various otherworldly spaces, including places in the vicinity of the dwelling places of the living, such as in mountains and various other parts of nature. They may also become guardian spirits of the living. Existence of the dead is not always made materially or visibly known, but can be experienced by other senses, or the presence is manifested through other material means that relate to our memories.

Sometimes the presence of the dead has been experienced as unpleasant. To prevent the dead from returning, swords and knifes have been positioned on the throats of the deceased and stones have been piled up on the corpses to hinder them from leaving the graves, laments have been uttered to show the deceased the way to the otherworld and charms have been incanted, corpses have been burned, pierced with spears and buried in specific places or outside human habitation. The role of the corpse appears to be central here; in many cultures the corpse has not been considered harmful or benevolent merely on the basis of it becoming reanimated, but the dead body as such was seen as dangerous. Sometimes body parts have been used also for magical practices, including healing.

In other contexts the existence of the corpse is essential to the successful continuation of the mourning process. This was a central point in Professor Laura Huttunen’s (anthropology, University of Tampere) emotionally loaded keynote lecture in which she discussed the grief and memories of the Bosniacs whose sons, brothers, fathers and husbands were murdered as a result of the ethnic cleansing process in Bosnia in the 1990s. The mourning relatives can find no peace, even twenty years after the disappearance of the men, because the corpses are missing and proper burial rituals cannot be performed. The bonds between the disappeared and the living remain disturbed due to the ambiguous status of the disappeared person – is he dead or alive, and where is the body buried?

Many conference papers took up the issue of how, in many cultures, the living expect the deceased to be aware of what is going on around them; they may obey human laws, but they may likewise be insulted and deceived, or contacted through spiritualistic means to enable the living to know how they are feeling and what they think. Throughout the history of humankind people have interacted with the otherworld and its agents, actively or passively. The conference papers strengthened the hypothesis of the Mind and the Other project that in the course of history images of afterlife and beliefs concerning posthumous existence have varied. What appears to be a shared aspect, however, is the conception that the deceased have minds that are capable of desiring, having beliefs, pretending, and interacting with the living.

Tony Walter pointed out that speaking of the deceased as angels is not necessarily always a manifestation of a belief, but could be a manner of speaking of the dead; a discourse of its own. Although mourners may create vernacular beliefs in this manner, a researcher naturally searches for parallels in other cultural and historical settings, alternative discourses, including artistic ones. Is there, for instance, a connection between how the invisible is represented and made visible in art and how liminal figures are used in everyday discourse to share and express emotionally loaded thoughts? The papers that discussed artistic representations illustrated how the abstract, invisible, nonverbal and scary is aesthetisized, defamiliarized, expressed in symbolic terms or through bodily gestures, and intended to be perceived by senses other than vision. Sometimes the invisible is not made visible but audible; for instance in Michelangelo Frammartino’s film Le Quattro Volte the soul is represented as a blow of wind. This notion is also fascinating because the roots of this manner of representation reach far out in history; the ‘soul’ as breath (and manifested also often as wind) has been a common belief in many cultures.

Professor Jussi Kotkavirta (Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä) spoke on the last conference day about the incapacity to experience being dead. According to him, if we try to do this we automatically switch to the second or third person perspective. From a psychoanalytical point of view this is a human defense mechanism; we cannot think of ourselves as dead, of having no identity. Kotkavirta’s claim is very interesting in the light of the human tendency to see the dead as agents who can feel, think, remember and have a mind, as suggested by various papers.

My warmest thanks to all the participants in the conference for interesting discussions and sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!

The program of the conference and book of abstracts can be downloaded at http://imagesofafterlife.wordpress.com/program/

Written by Kirsi Kanerva


Kanerva, Kirsi. 2011. The Role of the Dead in Medieval Iceland: A Case Study of Eyrbyggja saga. Collegium Medievale 24: 23–49.

Kanerva, Kirsi. Forthcoming. Restless Dead or Peaceful Cadavers. Preparations for Death in Medieval Iceland. Preparing for Death [in Medieval Europe], ed. Anu Lahtinen & Mia Korpiola.

Koski, Kaarina. 2011. Kuoleman voimat. Kirkonväki suomalaisessa uskomusperinteessä. [The Powers of Death. Church-väki in Finnish Folk Belief Tradition]. SKS Toimituksia, 1313. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Turner, Victor W. 1985 [1964]. Betwixt and between. The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, ed. Arthur C. Lehmann & James E. Myers. Palo Alto (CA): Mayfield, 46–55.

Conference: Images of Afterlife 22.-24.10.2014

The research project Mind and the Other organizes an international and interdisciplinary conference called Images of Afterlife. The conference will be held at the University of Turku this week, starting on Wednesday, October 22nd. The registration to the conference has already ended, but the keynote lectures are open to all listeners, welcome!

More information about the conference is available on the website www.imagesofafterlife.wordpress.com

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