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 ([email protected]). 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: [email protected], project coordinator Ella Vihervuori ([email protected]) and Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, the person in charge of the project ([email protected]).
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

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

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; ). 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:, 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

Our Bokonon is dead

After two years, just a week ago, I returned to my research village on Mono river, to a valley that separates two countries, Togo and Benin. I had heard sad news from the villagers and I was prepared to meet them after the death of their Bokonon. What I encountered was a different atmosphere in the village, as if there was literally less life: fewer people and as if they had lost something of their vitality.

A Bokonon, or Babalawo in Yoruba languages, is a spiritual person capable of contacting divinity, namely Fa, the oracle of the four main gods – and through them, is able to receive an oracle message also from 256 other divinities. In the cosmology of the southern bay of the Guinean gulf, both the Yoruban and the South-Beninese myths address Fa, which has a crucial meaning both as an oracle and as a conciliator between divine powers, but also as a bridge between sacred and profane, life and death.

Yet, in practical village life, Fa consultations most frequently dealt with illness and cure. This is why I was in close contact with the Bokonon and had several discussions with him. He knew all the herbs that can be of use for several purposes. Also quite practical issues, such as disputes between people, insults and minor crimes were addressed through him to Fa and discussed by him with other divinities. In mundane village life, he was also very much the first-hand aid of the young village chief. In this way, also the Bokonon was a mediator between the mundane and the divine world.

The Bokonon died in December and the mourning rituals are not yet completed. He is buried under the floor of his office. This is what the Fa instructed the villagers to do in a ceremony performed soon after his death. The floor provides a huge and thick cement cover for his body. “In this way he is still in his office”, it was said to me. The clay house with the office is now empty, and it is like a big tomb in the middle of the village.

He is dead but he is still with us, people say. He is present, but as a protector of the villagers he is absent. This is precisely the question that interests me the most. How to understand the simultaneous presence and absence?  This is the way people in this area understand the boundary between life and death also more generally. People who die become ancestors. As ancestors they go on living with living people with only one exception; they are not visible to us. “They can see us” and “Their time is the opposite of ours. Their waking hours start at the sunset and at sunrise they go to sleep”. When people drink sodabi,  local grappa made out of palm wine, they always throw the first drink to the floor, to the ancestors, but not after the sunset, because “they are already with us”.

The ancestors are an active part of human life, sometimes more active than in their lived life and at least they possess more social power. If they have been bad persons in “this life”, they perhaps go on doing the same as ancestors. In Catholicism, the other local cosmology in this area, it is always possible to pray for the dead. However, this is not the case with the local traditional belief system. The ancestors communicate with people in dreams, and they can give warnings and signs of future threat.  However, the intertwining of life and death is even more “existential”.  Ancestral possession is an important domain of the thanksgiving rituals. By possessing religious adepts in the ritual, the ancestors are able to speak through the possessed body about the future of local life.  Rebirth is still a highly important domain of the intertwining of life and death. With every birth, an ancestor is being reborn. Who he or she is, is again a question the Fa can answer in the birth ritual ceremony.

The Bokonon is dead. Life goes on in poverty and in dryness that has lasted for more than a year. People lack resources and the ones they used to have before the dry season started were minimal. When people possess almost nothing, protection against all odds is the only act that can be carried out with success. Although the Bokonon is with us as an ancestor, he is also badly needed as a living person.

Written by Marja-Liisa Honkasalo

KUMMA – A new research network is founded

Mind and the Other -project has founded a new research network, the purpose of which is to study experiences and conceptions concerning the afterlife, the so-called supernatural, and extraordinary or parallel realities.

In Finnish, the research network is called KUMMA-network. The word kumma can be translated as curious, strange or bizarre. The name reflects the peculiar and unexpected nature of the phenomena studied by the network members that do not quite fit into the existing categories of the study of the human mind.

People experiencing curious and unexplainable phenomena seem to be excluded from the major institutions such as medicine and religion. Fortunately, there are general practitioners and priests, who are willing to discuss these phenomena with the people who experience them and offer support without stigmatization. This is, however, not the case with everyone working in medical or religious organizations. Stigmatization and exclusion still exist.

The network’s first research seminar was held at the University of Turku in 10-11 December, 2013. Speakers were invited from the universities of Turku, Helsinki, Tampere and Stockholm. The speakers came from various disciplinary backgrounds, including folkloristics, comparative religion, social psychology, psychiatry and theology.

The major theme of the seminar was to examine the attitudes of the most important social institutions dealing with kumma, such as medical and religious organizations and science. The keynote speakers were the professor of general medicine Paula Vainiomäki from the University of Turku and pastor Pasi Jaakkola from Turku and Kaarina Parish Union. Their commentators were the professor of psychiatry Jyrki Korkeila and a doctor of theology Kai Alhanen from the University of Turku.

Other topics that were discussed in the seminar included e.g. folkloristic perspectives on studying supernatural experience narratives, trajectories of post-secularism, supernatural experiences and the philosophy of science, conceptions of afterlife and women’s communication with the deceased in pre-industrial Karelia and how people who have supernatural experiences make their experiences meaningful and significant.

In future, the network will gather together regularly to discuss research themes, methodologies and concepts relevant to this field of study. The next meeting will be held in May 2014. The major themes of the second meeting are fiction, popular culture, creativity and imagination.

The founding members of the KUMMA -research network are:

Marja-Liisa Honkasalo (University of Turku), Kaarina Koski (University of Turku), Kirsi Kanerva (University of Turku), Susanne Ådahl (University of Helsinki), Kai Alhanen (University of Turku), Jyrki Korkeila (University of Turku), Kirsi Hänninen (University of Turku), Pasi Enges (University of Turku), Jaakko Närvä (University of Helsinki), Eila Stepanova (University of Helsinki), Marja-Liisa Keinänen (University of Stockholm), Jeena Rancken (University of Tampere) and Peter Nynäs (Åbo Akademi University).

Attending to subjugated knowledge

Already during the first month that this project was running numerous letters and emails were received from individuals who wanted to share their borderline experiences with us. More than 60 letters or messages have to date been sent to the project. The sheer amount of material that has arrived, without prompting, was totally unexpected. Some texts have been short vignettes, others up to 50 hand written pages. Many of these messages conclude with a note of thanks to the project that research is finally being done on this issue. When mentioning the subject of this research project to neighbours, relatives and friends, more often than not, they will mention that someone they know or they themselves have had experiences of this nature. It is as if the flood gates have been opened. Much of this knowledge has already been silenced in families or simply never told due to the teller fearing stigmatisation. Valuable experiences have been lost; often swept aside as the ravings of mad people. And, indeed, one of the aims of this interdisciplinary project is to empirically collect, employ and investigate knowledge and theories on the human mind that have been overlooked. These spontaneously sent in stories attests to the fact that conducting research on this issue is long overdue and of vital importance for our understanding of the human mind.

 Previous historical and cross-cultural research indicates that various cultures maintain diverse theories about the human mind and that this is knowledge that is still largely excluded from investigation within modern sciences. This is knowledge that matters to those individuals that have atypical, supernatural experiences, but often, in the world of science, knowledge of this nature lacks evidence to back up the claim that it is real.  The core question is; who has the authority to define what is legitimate? Why are certain types of evidence or knowledge considered more legitimate than others?

 The exclusion of knowledge from below is what Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: the birth of a prison (1975) calls subjugated knowledge. Shortly defined it is; ‘local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges’ that are considered to be ‘beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity’. Power is realised and knowledge is placed in a subordinate position through discourses. There is a tug-of-war between discourses; they interact with each other, but also influence who can speak, what can be said and when it can be said.  Certain discourses dominate over others because they favour versions of social reality that justify existing social structures and power relations. Foucault (1975) reminds us that those in society, who validate what is true and what is false, are given a great amount of authority. The danger is that it may lead to the production of alleged truths.

 Why, then, do we need to listen to the out-of-the-ordinary experiences of ordinary people? The answer simply is because they lack the power to place their concerns on the agenda in a world where positivistic scientific evidence has an increasingly hegemonic position. As researchers we can validate their knowledge and aid them in taking part in the co-production of knowledge.  How to go about this? The starting point is an open mind and curiosity regarding phenomena that seem to lack a clear scientific definition. Besides, the lack of a scientific definition does not diminish the degree of truth. To those who have these extraordinary experiences they are real and true.

 The need to tell one’s story points to how there is a body of information out there to be tapped, recorded and seriously discussed. Is it not high time we take these experiences into consideration? We believe they can make valuable contributions to our knowledge of the mind and of how human consciousness works. From an ethical standpoint it will, thus, become necessary to negotiate what counts as evidence.

Written by Susanne Ådahl


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