I just started reading Rebecca Seligman’s Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves. The book is based in her research on mediums in Candomble, fusing ethnographic and medical research techniques to approach an account of mediumship and possession that gives equal weight to physiology, psychology, and cultural context.
Her strong grounding in anthropology shines in her treatment of the material. She excludes most of the spiritual-ontological dimensions of mediumship from the outset, but her argument remains agnostic about them and respectful of the mediums with whom she works. If you think, like me, there is a dense and mysterious reality to spirit, then the book provides some insight into the (double-entendre intended) medium through which that reality manifests in our world.
If you don’t accept a spiritual dimension to the world, the book provides some insight into the mechanism that gives us the illusion that there is such a thing and goes some way toward describing how to make some practical use of that for medical and psychological treatment. If you’re agnostic, like the book is, then away you go.
She develops her account of mediumship from the notion that meaning is anchored in subtle autonomic processes. A medium learns to regulate their autonomic processes through a system of meaning that gives them a better context for understanding their experiences of their body.
She calls this process ‘biolooping’ because the two sides of the process are in dynamic relationship to each other. Meaning inheres in the affective experience of mediums, providing them with a means to regulate their bodily experience. In turn, the changes in their bodily experience allow them to transform the meanings they give to it. It is a sensible, graceful, and attractive hypothesis.
This allows her to make sense of two things she finds in her study of mediums. First, it provides one explanation for why so many mediums seem to suffer from some sort of affliction, either social or medical. The stress of affliction provides the medium with motivation to transform their experience.
Second, it explains why so many mediums score highly on tests evaluating an individual’s capacity to regulate their autonomic response. That capacity to regulate their autonomic response would be part and parcel of the healing transformation of meaning and experience, both making it possible and improving in the process. Opportunity and adaptation in action.
The healing of others done by mediums is thus, in part, the work of providing others with assistance in accessing and manipulating this dynamic autonomic-meaning system. Consider the physicality of some cleansings, the use of images and symbols in healing operations, and all this makes sense.
It also allows her to make sense of what healing means to a medium as opposed to what healing means to a medical doctor (and to many Westerners who have a deeply medicalized conception of health). Mediumistic healing entails improving a person’s health by giving them a horizon of meaning in which to understand and manipulate the distress in which they find themselves. Mediumistic healing operates by strengthening and enriching subjective agency down to the autonomic level.
This is a pleasant counterpoint to the older habit of dismissing mediums as entrapped by superstitions that undermine their agency.
I’m interested in who she does and doesn’t cite. She cites Ioan Lewis (Ecstatic Religion) and Ian Hacking (from whom she borrows and elaborates the term biolooping), but not Terrence Ranger (whose work on cults of affliction would fit well with this book), nor Claudio Naranjo (who has emphasized the autonomic dimensions of spiritual experience for perhaps decades?), nor Rene Girard et al. (whose account of mimesis intersects with her account of ritual entrainment).
Perhaps there are disciplinary boundaries and academic battle lines behind some of that which I am not positioned to appreciate? I don’t have the context to speculate. Not my circus, not my monkeys. While I didn’t expect to see it cited, Seligman’s work here seems like it could be read informatively alongside a monograph like Galina Lindquist’s <i>Conjuring Hope</i>.
But when it comes to how this might apply to my circus, the great family of mediumistic spiritual practitioners? I am cautiously optimistic about how these sorts of shifts in perspective might be useful. The talk of things like biolooping, while a little science fiction condition for my tastes, has the potential to shift our discourse about our history and our future for the better.
It might provide an anchor in the choppy waters of excessive historicism and a bulwark against the winds of abstraction that have begun to cut deeply into the self-understanding of mediums. Biolooping takes the cultural dimensions of spiritual practice out of the books and puts it back in the bodies of living mediums, takes healing out of the coursework model toward which it is veering and back into the intuitive and creative field of a healing session.
At the same time, it might also provide us with a better model for talking about the simultaneous plasticity and specificity of mediumistic traditions that gets beyond the clumsy use of terms like ‘syncretism’ to explain patterns of change and the distribution of specific techniques between communities of work. It describes but it does not proscribe, suggesting a model that would be less open to co-opting mediumistic expertise.
When I say ‘cautiously optimistic,’ though, I mean the caution. Drawing attention to the mechanisms that underly many disparate practices, care needs to be taken to avoid conflating the general mechanism (biolooping) for the practice itself (e.g., initiation and practice of Candomble). The mechanism should help us realize that the specific practices are efficacious in part because they address the concrete and specific circumstances of the medium and clients undertaking them (or are inefficacious or harmful in part because of a mismatch between practice and situation).