restricted access The Oracle in the City: Beliefs, Practices, and Symbolic Geographies
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The Oracle in the City:
Beliefs, Practices, and Symbolic Geographies

A migratory or metaphorical city is thus insinuated into the living text of the planned and legible city.

—Michel de Certeau

Today, the category of the other has become confused.

—Marc Augé

Along with the process of cultural globalization, there have emerged various tribalisms, through which many social actors are rediscovering their sense of life and activating mechanisms of identity and memory. At the moment when the idea of the national is diminishing because of the new political and economic order of the free market, violent manifestations of racism have increased, and so has the defense of the "proper." Advances in technology are making unsuspected things possible: time and space—long thought to be irreducible—are bending to human understanding through virtual universes. A world in which there is already secular competence in defining the social meanings of life is seeing offers of salvation, healing, and happiness arising from all sides. Old and new magico-religious practices are setting themselves in opposition to Western rationalism, presently in crisis. Today, at the end of the millennium, belief is being established as something more than a crutch to help people bear uncertainty.

The necessary discussion of the aspects, beyond the economic, that are rapidly reconfiguring societies in a globalized and fragmented world demands an analysis that does not rely on apocalyptic images or succumb to domesticating promises of development at the cost of social bonds. This analysis must be situated around the subjectivity of social actors, since, as Anthony Giddens has pointed out, "in forging their own identities, without regard to the local character of specific circumstances, individuals intervene in social forces, whose consequences and implications take on a universal character as individuals directly influence them."1 [End Page 35]

The (New) Management of Belief

Recent changes in the world are reformulating the relationship between the local and the global. Processes of interconnection are accelerating; the speed and ubiquity of information are linked to the paradoxical and (worrisome) resurgence of certain fundamentalisms; there is an increase in intolerance and blind violence in the cities of the Americas. All these shifts demand to be considered by asking what has happened to fear and hope as mechanisms of social control.

We live in a context of change and risk, in a space of continuous informational flows. But the characteristic that perhaps best defines the closing of the millennium is the everyday experience of uncertainty—uncertainty driven by urban social practices.

A few dates will serve to indicate how belief is far from being circumscribed within one sector of society or explained, above all, by a lack of education. Nor is belief limited to the ignorant, innocent, or hysterical behavior of some. For example, in Mexico, there are currently more than 1,200 religious denominations. Every day in the newspaper there are announcements promoting magical solutions to earthly problems. Listings for psychics, telephone fortune-telling services, and tarot readings fill pages and pages of the phone book. There is a constant stream of astrological institutes and organizations devoted to paranormal phenomena, which offer not only services but also formal instruction in different fields of the esoteric. The expansion and diversification of so-called alternative medicine constitutes an extensive repertory of solutions that mix traditional knowledges with the "new age": aromatherapy, crystal therapy, Bach flower remedies, and, most recently, urine therapy have gone far beyond the more conservative homeopathy. The striking and increasing pronouncements of traditional centers of ritual pilgrimage are raising doubts about secular rationalism.

One might also cite the national survey Los mexicanos de los noventa (Mexicans in the 1990s), which gathered information on culture and politics in Mexico.2 According to 25 percent of men and 28 percent of women, the settling of the most difficult problems depends only on God; 88 percent of Mexicans between eighteen and thirty-five would ask a favor of the Virgin of Guadalupe or of some saint (this rises to 94 percent for those older than fifty-one); 54 percent of Mexicans believe in fate, 38 percent in hell, and 26 percent in ritual protection. Forcing us...