Gradhiva - Revue d'anthropologie et d'histoire des arts
The spectacle of the possessed
Is a possessed person an actor or a madman? This is the alternative that Roger Bastide, Michel Leiris and Alfred Métraux attempted to go beyond, in their generation. In fact, these three anthropologists reject the psychiatric approach to possession, whereby the trance is viewed as a psychopathological state or an uncontrolled liberation of impulses; instead, they all concur to different degrees with the mimetic aspect of possession. By 1938, Leiris was anticipating developments concerning the 'vestiaire de personnalités' which led to the publication of La possession et ses aspects théâtraux chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar. Bastide for his part, argued for the true nature of possession - which can be authentic without being pathological- in his book Le Candomblé de Bahia. For him, mimetic action pointed to degeneracy rather than religious vitality. as for Métraux, who wrote a great book called Le Vaudou haïtien, in which he vacillates between an empathy that nourished his tendency to credit the reality of possession and an ironic Voltarian approach that considered it mere charlatanism.
This debate can be revived today in new terms, for two reasons at least; the first being of an epistemological nature, since the social sciences of today are no longer what they were in 1950; there is a lot more ethnographic data available today and theories have been revisited, and recently new trends have appeared and developed, especially with regard to cognitive and pragmatic approaches, to gender studies, and performance studies, as well as literary theory. The second reason is linked to transformations within the contemporary world, which the cults of spirit possession have not avoided. The tendency towards showmanship, the marketing of cultures, the acceleration and dissemination of electronic communication are processes that characterise modernity and which have had remarkable effects on endorcism rituals. Consequently, we proposed revisiting the anthropology of spirit possession in different places: Mayotte, Brazil, Morocco and Argentina. It will be seen that spirit possession in these places sometimes turns into a global spectacle.