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  • The Law of Possession: Ritual, Healing, and the Secular State ed. by William S. Sax and Helene Basu
  • Raquel Romberg

William S. Sax, Helene Basu, Raquel Romberg, possession, healing, comparative possession, political magic, magic and law, exorcism

william s. sax and helene basu, eds. The Law of Possession: Ritual, Healing, and the Secular State. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 272.

This is an exciting, well organized and written volume about the controversial, unresolved, and often unexpected interconnection between possession, healing, and the law in contemporary India, Africa, and China. It shows that rationalization processes expected of "modern" states are seldom complete and thus might be of influence on some but not all sections of the population in contemporary societies. Contributors-editors William Sax and Helene Basu deftly tied together this collection of chapters with a clear, compelling argument that systematically questions the inevitable and all-encompassing disenchantment and secularization processes expected of modern societies. Social and cultural anthropology, mental health, history, and religion are represented in this interdisciplinary and crosscultural volume, which includes five chapters about India, two about East Africa, and one about China. These very choices turn the exploration of the main theme of this volume into a powerful exercise. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume from the very start.

The introduction lays out the volume's main argument in clear, concise, and learned ways, framing its main themes within larger socio-historical questions that open up the usually more esoteric and isolated investigations of possession and ritual healing to broader discussions related to development, secularism, social justice, public policy, the modern self, and global nongovernmental organizations, among others. Political, social, and development theories as well as state practices sustained largely by the disenchantment thesis are questioned and tested by the richly compelling, empirical realities depicted in this collection; they poke, by and large, into the monolithic argumentation of classic modernity theories with the possibilities of "multiple," "alternative," and "non-modern" modernities suggested by Eisenstadt, Gaonkar, and Latour respectively.

Against classic theories of modernity that have portrayed the so-called [End Page 135] "purification" processes of the state or the administrative separation between, religion, law, and medicine as inevitable, this volume points to current coeval situations in which such processes have been completed, others in which they are ongoing and contested, and still others in which they have not yet taken place. These options inform the three sections of the volume: Disintegration, Purification, and Integration.

In the first section, the chapter by Helene Basu tells an amazing ethnographic and historical story about a counterworld ruled by African Sufi (Sidi) "jungle saints" who rule over transcendental law courts by means of trials by ordeal and lead healing and retribution processes via possession trance, providing alternative spaces of justice and morality for those poor communities who inhabit the periphery. Basu argues that the logic of these alternative spaces of judgment (the practices of which have been adapted in the 1980s in response to state intervention) should be understood as providing resources embedded in the morality and specific needs of marginalized communities that enable solutions to everyday problems against the "arbitrariness marking the developmental state" (34). The second chapter in this section, by Arne Steinforth, traces the contradictions and conundrums behind the convoluted relationships between the principles informing legal pluralism, the (colonial) Witchcraft Act, and spirit agency in Malawi over several decades, particularly the ways in which they have served the agendas of various groups. Most interestingly, Steinforth addresses the inherent contradiction in implementing anti-witchcraft laws that avow at the same time that witchcraft should be punished and that it doesn't exist, which is augmented by the unavailability of court appropriate forms of evidence against witchcraft at the national level. And yet, he points out, a large part of the population (of various social classes) claims that witchcraft is real and thus calls for new measures to eradicate it. Here is where the status of witchfinders becomes controversial: they are punishable by the Witchcraft Act that defines them as "witches," and non-punishable by traditional courts that define them as "healers." The last chapter in the Disintegration section is by Dominic Steavu...


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