- The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island by Nils Bubandt
If you ever find a nautilus shell on the beach of Buli, a village on the Indonesian island of Halmahera, you’d better not pick it up. Should you find [End Page 146] a live nautilus inside it, you would be a gua, a cannibal witch. And even an empty seashell, with its absent, but simultaneously potentially present nautilus, would indicate the dreaded possibility that you may be a gua. This ontologically tricky character of witchcraft and its concomitant epistemological uncertainty are at the core of Nils Bubandt’s remarkable book on witchcraft and doubt, a book that is bound to transfigure anthropological approaches to witchcraft.
Many earlier accounts of witchcraft have argued that witchcraft provides reflections on the ambivalences and crevices of social orders, that it offers explanations and certainty, and that it is unproblematically real for those who believe in it. In contrast, Bubandt argues that Buli witchcraft is from the outset fraught with doubt, inaccessibility, and uncertainty. Indeed, witchcraft is an experiential aporia, an endless doubt that is embedded in shifting historical and political conditions, but that nevertheless endures as a general fact of life. And while conventional anthropological approaches to witchcraft see it as an attempted solution to the malcontents of modernity, Bubandt argues that the people of Buli seek modernity to get rid of witchcraft.
A gua is a witch that possesses a host body and uses that body to fly and prey on other people. The gua attacks the body of its victims, specifically the genitals, which are the seat of breath and life; their shadows, which are their consciousness; and their livers, which are where emotions are located. But this all-too-corporeal aspect of witchcraft only accounts for part of its character. For a gua is also entirely disembodied, faceless, and totally inaccessible to human sensibility. This paradoxical character of the gua is a source of its horror, but its destructive powers become even more horrific with the close ties in Buli thought between the body and the social world. Houses, boats, social organization, and marriage negotiations are all modeled on the body, so the corporeal disintegration of the victim becomes a virtual destruction of the world as well.
How to avoid, then, becoming a victim or a gua oneself? The answer may seem simple: performing ritual exchanges and sharing food properly, following customary tradition, and acting morally. But here’s the catch: witchcraft hides in the very dynamics of these practices. The tactics through which people get others to share and exchange with them require careful balancing not to turn into witchlike behavior. The potential for witchcraft is part and parcel of the very constitution of sociality itself. And moreover, one never knows if one is a gua oneself. Doubt and uncertainty are thus at the core of Buli witchcraft.
For the people of Buli, this seemingly never-ending predicament has far from made them hopeless. Rather, they have through history actively sought [End Page 147] solutions to it. As Bubandt demonstrates with elegance, however, all of these solutions have tended to reproduce the existential doubts of witchcraft. The gua reappear continuously in new disguises. In the late 1800s, Buli animists saw Christianity with its message of resurrection as a potential provider of an animist paradise in which the dead would be brought back to life and witchcraft eradicated. But the animists were soon disappointed with Christianity’s failure to deliver. And the lies, thefts, and adultery that became associated with Christianity mimicked those of gua. With Christianity, then, witches roamed more than ever. Likewise, the state-led development and modernization program New Order (mid-late 1900s) promised the ending of witchcraft. But modernity never seemed to materialize, and witchcraft was not eradicated. Indeed, state authorities’ attacks on tradition and witchcraft just seemed to give gua more social reality, and the demonization of what used to be protective spirits deprived the Buli people of remedies against gua attacks. New hopes for modernity...