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Fertile Disorder

Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern

Kalpana Ram

Publication Year: 2013

In her innovative new book, Kalpana Ram reflects on the way spirit possession unsettles some of the foundational assumptions of modernity. What is a human subject under the varied conditions commonly associated with possession? What kind of subjectivity must already be in place to allow such a transformation to occur? How does it alter our understanding of memory and emotion if these assail us in the form of ghosts rather than as attributes of subjective experience? What does it mean to worship deities who are afflictive and capricious, yet bear an intimate relationship to justice? What is a "human" body if it can be taken over by a whole array of entities? What is agency if people can be "claimed" in this manner? What is gender if, while possessed, a woman is a woman no longer?

Drawing on spirit possession among women and the rich traditions of subaltern religion in Tamil Nadu, South India, Ram concludes that the basis for constructing an alternative understanding of human agency need not rest on the usual requirements of a fully present consciousness or on the exercise of choice and planning. Instead of relegating possession, ghosts, and demons to the domain of the exotic, Ram uses spirit possession to illuminate ordinary experiences and relationships. In doing so, she uncovers fundamental instabilities that continue to haunt modern formulations of gender, human agency, and political emancipation. Fertile Disorder interrogates the modern assumptions about gender, agency, and subjectivity that underlie the social improvement projects circulating in Tamil Nadu, assumptions that directly shape people’s lives. The book pays particular attention to projects of family planning, development, reform, and emancipation.

Combining ethnography with philosophical argument, Ram fashions alternatives to standard post-modernist and post-structuralist formulations. Grounded in decades of fieldwork, ambitious and wide ranging, her work is conceived as a journey that makes incursions into the unfamiliar, then returns us to the familiar. She argues that magic is not a monopoly of any one culture, historical period, or social formation but inhabits modernity—not only in the places, such as cinema and sound recording, where it is commonly looked for, but in "habit" and in aspects of everyday life that have been largely overlooked and shunned.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-xi

I savor the moment when I can thank all the people who have contributed their enthusiasm, suggestions, warmth, and institutional support to this project over the years. In one case, all these qualities coincided with the pleasures of sharing, for a brief time, fieldwork. I begin by thanking Stella. I lived with Stella,...

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xiii-15

have used the Tamil Lexicon as the basis for transliterating Tamil words into English orthography with appropriate diacritical marks. There is a strong demarcation between spoken and written Tamil, or “low” and “high” Tamil. There are also marked political and practical distinctions between the more...

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pp. 1-10

This book is my sustained response to a puzzlement that has refused to leave me since I began ethnographic research in the early 1980s. Far from losing force, an enigma has remained disturbingly alive. Thinking about it has, in successive stages, slowly shaped my responses to wider issues. Yet...

Part I: State Intellectuals and Minor Practices

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pp. 11-27

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Chapter 1. Visible and Invisible Bodies: Rural Women and State Intellectuals

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pp. 13-41

Since my earliest fieldwork in coastal villages of Kanyakumari in the 1980s (Ram 1991b), I have found myself in the thick of all manner of programs and interventions in the lives of villagers, undertaken by professionals of various kinds. Such a sense of being surrounded by programs was no doubt...

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Chapter 2. Minor Practices

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pp. 42-69

Living in and moving around Tamil villages affords the middle-class intellectual an opportunity to become aware of phenomena that fall outside the range of what she knows or even quite recognizes. Anthropology has simply systematized and elaborated the kind of reflexivity by which that intellectual...

Part II: Gender, Agency, Justice

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pp. 71-87

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Chapter 3. Possession and the Bride: Emotions, the Elusive Phantom of Social Theory

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pp. 73-105

I met Vijaya in 1983.1 She was then a young bride. She and her husband, James, lived in a somewhat makeshift fashion with her married sister and the sister’s household in the coastal village of Katalkarai Ūr in Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu. Villagers who knew of my interest in possession referred...

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Chapter 4. The Abject Body of Infertility

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pp. 106-131

The material in this chapter is based primarily on my relationship with a woman called Santi, who had experienced possession episodes ever since moving to her affinal village as a young bride. I first became acquainted with her in the early 1980s during my initial period of fieldwork in a coastal fishing...

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Chapter 5. Learning Possession, Becoming Healer

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pp. 132-156

In this chapter I explore a category of women mediums who “heal” while possessed.1 Such healers, called spirit mediums in the anthropological literature, have been widely noted in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka (Trawick Egnor 1982; Hancock 1999; Kapadia 1995; Obeyesekere 1981; Kapferer 1991).2 In...

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Chapter 6. Performativity in the Court of the Goddess

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pp. 157-193

Spirit mediums are typically incorporated in anthropological discourse into the general category of “healers.” However, anthropology must also contend with the currents of meaning that are set in motion when the term “healing” is invoked and that carry it swiftly away from the world of rural...

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Chapter 7. The Nature of the Complaint

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pp. 194-221

Mediums such as Mary and Mutamma are both agents and instruments in the conduct of a Court of Divine Law. The people who attend them are petitioners. But what is the nature of the complaint? I take the term “complaint” from Wilce’s (1998) fine ethnography of “troubles talk” among rural Bangladeshi...

Part III: Revisiting the Projects of Modernity

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pp. 223-239

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Chapter 8. Possession and Social Theory

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pp. 225-251

This book has proceeded as an instance of a classic anthropological gamble. The gamble takes something like the following form: if we unsettle certain underpinnings of a variety of Western scholarly traditions by moving the grounds of investigation to another place, might not that process also shed...

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Chapter 9. Possession and Emancipatory Politics

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pp. 252-276

In this book I have deliberately refrained from urging readers to view the agency of possession and mediumship as “resistance” to power or as “empowerment,” let alone as a radical liberation from caste, class, and gender relations of power. The reasons for this deliberate restraint can now be...


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pp. 277-284


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pp. 285-303


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pp. 305-317

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837785
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836306

Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Spirit possession -- India -- Tamil Nadu -- Case studies.
  • Rural women -- Religious life -- India -- Tamil Nadu -- Case studies.
  • Folk religion -- India -- Tamil Nadu.
  • Family planning -- Government policy -- India -- Tamil Nadu.
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