Five Books on Possession, Music, Language, and History

Remains of Ritual emphasizes, again and again, how gorovodu and religions like it are musical more than discursive. Friedson attempts to get at that through phenomenological tools, but he also works hard to give voice to gorovodu onits own terms. Reading through it right now, I’m struck by what makes music so central to this form of religiosity.

Dancing, singing, beating out a rhythm, form an integrated and integrating space into which people and spirits are capable of projecting themselves. What Friedson manages to do is point out how other aspects of this religious complex are ‘musical’ in these ways, how sacrifice, possession, and divination enter into this integrated and integrating space. He does so in a way that doesn’t privilege or fetishize one over the other, that makes them ‘musical’ elements within the complex, sometimes rising to the foreground sometimes receding to the background.

This focus on musicality also preserves the integrity of this ritual world, addressing its tendency toward bricolage without losing itself in it. In classic phenomenological fashion, it allows Friedson to attend to its complexity without reducing the world to ‘external’ factors to which it simply responds (e.g., religion as merely expressive of sociocultural relations).

It is so easy to zoom in on what seems most exotic (possession!) to the detriment of the world that gives it depth and meaning. Even where possession is absent, we can see how the lineaments of possession are preserved and remain a potential to be activated. Friedson has a better vocabulary for getting at this than I do, but the point remains that it is never the vocabulary that really gets at it, just like having the lyrics of the sing doesn’t get you to an appreciation of music.

It set me to thinking about what other books get at this complex, because even though possession is not a key part of my practice, this ritual world(ing) plays a role in how I undertake my work. I can’t think of any other book that grasps its musicality as well as Friedson, but there are others that illuminate other dimensions of the ritual world. Here, somewhat arbitrarily, are four more. None of these are remotely how-to books, they are books to think with, books to illuminate. If more indirect, I think also more durable in their utility. Lanterns to see by, not fake food to fill empty bellies.

(1) Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo by Judy Rosenthal. Rosenthal’s work takes her through some terrain that overlaps with Friedson’s (she did her fieldwork in Togo, Friedson in Ghana), but she leans more toward a Lacanian that phenomenological viewpoint. Like Friedson, though, she lets the world of her informants rise up through her own interpretive framework.

(2) The Red Fez: Art and Spirit Possession in Africa by Lawrence Kramer. Kramer dives into a close examination of mimesis, of the role played by mimicry in how these practices constitute the material world in which their rites take place.

(3) Trance and Modernity in the Southern Caribbean: African and Hindu Popular Religions in Trinidad and Tobago by Keith E. McNeal. McNeal stands further outside his subjects than the previous authors, but gains some useful historical perspective thereby. Of especial interest to me in relationship to this list is the way in which his historical sensibility allows us to see this musicality coming into conflict with the more textual dimensions of transnational modernity.

(4) Black Critics and Kings: Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society by Andrew Apter. This text winds up the set because one of Apter’s great insights lies in his appreciation of what happens when this musicality becomes a constitutive element of a community’s access to textual material. Apter discovers in the seeming simplicity of legends and myths a rich and polyvocal network of shifting meanings, of alternative and parallel interpretations playing out alongside charged religio-political rituals. What happens, in other words, when discourse becomes musical?

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