The Occult and Uncanny: Governing

Adam Ashforth
University of Michigan

Bruce Grant
New York University

December 3, 2:30 - 5:00 PM
Room 56-114
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Mary Steedly
Anthropology, Harvard

Mark Auslander
Anthropology, Brandeis

Erica James
Manduhai Buyandelger
Graham Jones

All seminar meetings are free and open to the public — no registration is required.

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Adam Ashforth — Spiritual Insecurity in the Democratic State: A Relational Realist Approach

The promise of security from harm for its citizens, coupled with the entitlement to seek justice in response to harm, is a foundation of legitimacy in modern states. For people living in a world with witches, sorcerers, demons, evil spirits, and other invisible powers, however, state institutions offer little in the way of justice and security in the face of malevolence. This paper examines recent efforts by communities in rural Malawi to secure themselves from bloodsuckers rumored to be working for the state president to provide blood for foreign white Satanists. It outlines a relational realist framework for analyzing spiritual insecurity and shows how the politics of everyday relations with invisible forces shape practices of politics and government at the level of the state, with particular implications for democratic governance.

Adam Ashforth teaches in the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of three books, including Madumo, a Man Bewitched (Chicago, 2000) and Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa (Chicago, 2005). He is currently working with a group of Malawians who have been chronicling everyday responses to the AIDS epidemic since the turn of the century.

Bruce Grant — Shrines and Sovereigns: Competing Modes of Governance and its Limits in the Former Soviet Union

Through interviews and archival readings, this paper follows the social life of a religious shrine in rural Azerbaijan over the twentieth century. Founded to honor a regionally famous Muslim holy man from Arabia, this small, rather commonplace mausoleum, and the community of faithful that serve it, have passed from ignominy to heroism, and back to ignominy again across changing political economies. Retrospective accounts of the shrine’s life under Soviet rule offer a telling window onto larger questions of how average citizens in the Soviet countryside perceived socialist rule itself. By exploring practices and beliefs around the site, I show how accounts of mystical mobilities, miraculous rebel leaders, and the "near-death" experience of religion under Soviet power shed light on competing logics of autonomy, governance, and sovereignty in this long-contested world area.

Bruce Grant teaches anthropology at New York University. He is the author of two books — In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas (Princeton 1995) and The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus (Cornell 2009) — as well as co-editor of the recently released Russia Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke 2010). He serves as President-Elect of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

This session of the Sensing the Unseen seminar is complete. A podcast of this session can be found here, or download MP3 files of this session from the links below: