The Social Life of Spirits
edited by Ruy Blanes and Diana Espírito Santo
University of Chicago Press, 2013
Cloth: 978-0-226-08163-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-08177-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-08180-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.001.0001


Spirits can be haunters, informants, possessors, and transformers of the living, but more than anything anthropologists have understood them as representations of something else—symbols that articulate facets of human experience in much the same way works of art do. The Social Life of Spirits challenges this notion. By stripping symbolism from the way we think about the spirit world, the contributors of this book uncover a livelier, more diverse environment of entities—with their own histories, motivations, and social interactions—providing a new understanding of spirits not as symbols, but as agents.
The contributors tour the spiritual globe—the globe of nonthings—in essays on topics ranging from the Holy Ghost in southern Africa to spirits of the “people of the streets” in Rio de Janeiro to dragons and magic in Britain. Avoiding a reliance on religion and belief systems to explain the significance of spirits, they reimagine spirits in a rich network of social trajectories, ultimately arguing for a new ontological ground upon which to examine the intangible world and its interactions with the tangible one. 


Ruy Blanes is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Bergen and associate researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences in Lisbon. He is coeditor of Encounters of Body and Soul in Contemporary Religious Practices: Anthropological Reflections. He lives in Bergen, Norway. Diana Espírito Santo is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Research Center in Anthropology at the New University of Lisbon. She lives in Lisbon, Portugal.   


The Social Life of Spirits makes the argument of the ‘social life of things’ go full circle, cogently arguing that immaterial spirits, just like material things, should be approached as social beings with a life and trajectory. Going beyond beliefs or representations, it proposes to describe spirits through their effects, asking how are spirits made to happen and what do they make happen. This is a brilliant book.”
— Roger Sansi, University of London

“This is a great volume of essays, a real testament to the subtleties that emerge out of empirical research—even when on something so ostensibly ‘un-empirical’ as spirits. It makes signal contributions to classic and contemporary debates on presence, evidence, mediation, and materiality that have animated the anthropology of religion ever since E. B. Tylor’s Victorian heyday.”
— Matthew Engelke, London School of Economics and Political Science

“What might the world look like if it were to contain all of those things—‘entities’—that are meant, in one way or another, not to exist? How might an anthropology of ‘non-entities’—spirits, dreams, histories, ethers, utopias—proceed without doing violence to its objects’ peculiar manners of (non-)disclosure? A vertiginous exercise in anthropological ‘abduction’—thinking backwards, from effects to plausible causes—this book grounds conceptions of the ineffable in a meticulous survey of its traces, on people, in moments, at places. More than just a ‘social life of spirits,’ the volume offers us glimpses of the irreducibly spiritual life of the social.”
— Martin Holbraad, University College London

“Opens the intangible and spiritual to new and profitable considerations in terms of fieldwork, statistics, and the many insights made available by general anthropological reflection.”
— Catholic Library World


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0001
[Pragmatism, Entities, Agency, Effects, Epistemology, Senses, Evidence]
What are we dealing with when we speak of entities, spiritual or otherwise, and what are their 'boundaries'? What exactly do we mean by effects? How are they measured, or ascertained? Where do they happen? And what do they reveal about the limits of empiricism? In this introduction, the aim is to identify some of the problems and dividends associated with assuming (invisible, intangible) entities as objects of research, as well as delve into its antecedents in anthropology. This chapter also articulates the two main objectives of the book. By tracing the conditions by which such entities have effects, and by exploring crucial dimensions of definition and narrativization involved in processes of recognition and legitimation - and thus, the sanctioning of their social life - the aim, firstly, is to sideline concerns with conceptual bounding and instead attend to the production of the 'indexicalities' (Keane 2007) that allow them to 'come into being' as objects, scientific (Daston 2000) or otherwise. The second aim is based on a critical reflection on the kinds of problems generated by an epistemology of the senses, both in terms of how we generally think through and about empiria, materiality and evidence in our practices as anthropologists and persons, and in terms of the scope of the senses as producers of knowledge. The more general assumption here is that entities can reside outside as well as inside this sensorial scope by virtue of the traces, symptoms, and effects they socially and materially engender. (pages 1 - 32)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0002
[Pentecostalism, Holy Spirit, Ontology, Morphology, Mobility, Spatial diffusion, Socio-spiritual communities]
Anthropological studies on pneumatic churches oscillate between a fascination with the emphasis in these churches on the located immanence of the Divine and the observation that pneumatic forms of Christianity have turned into a religious movement of global proportions. However, neither the suggestion that Pentecostalism's expansion should not be explained solely with reference to external circumstances but also with regard to its internal characteristics nor the emergent interest by anthropologists in Christian pneumatology has led to a detailed assessment of the ways how Pentecostal ideas concerning the ontology of the Holy Spirit influences the spatial diffusion of pneumatic churches. This chapter is an attempt to fill this research gap in relation to Pentecostal Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa by, firstly, paying specific attention to the multifarious ways in which the Holy Spirit is here experienced to locate itself in and move through space, and secondly, in this way exploring the formation of what is termed "socio-spiritual communities," that is, religious communities constituted by human beings and their interactions with spiritual entities. (pages 33 - 51)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0003
[Mongolia, Ghosts, Invisible, Narratives, Phenomenology]
This chapter draws on Mongolian herders' stories of their own encounters with "ghosts" (suns, chotgor), and highlights the specific narrative techniques by which people describe their sudden perception of what is otherwise known as "invisible things" (uzegdehgui yum). Ghosts, it is argued, are better defined by their specific regime of communication--i.e. the conditions in which they might become perceptible to some people--than by their ontological properties--i.e. the conditions in which they are thought to exist. Indeed, while herders tend to doubt the existence of ghosts in general, they readily admit that certain particular sensations undoubtedly shake one's sense of dwelling, hinting that the world, to paraphrase Merleau Ponty, might not always be what we see. Expanding on this idea, this chapter proposes to envisage ghost' mode of existence through the prism of their mode of manifestation. (pages 52 - 68)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0004
[Gran Chaco, Toba people, Notion of person, Body, Shamanism]
This article examines how indigenous people of the Argentinean Chaco relate to a series of non-human entities (shamanic companions, dead people, 'owners' of the species, etc.). Far from considering them as 'spirits' or 'Gods,' the Toba people conceive them as persons (shiyaxaua) that coexist with human people. The social life and the corporal aptitudes of non-human entities are some of the attributes qualifying them as real persons. This text explores the coexistence between humans and non-human beings by analyzing the effects that non-human entities produce in space, in the human body and shamanic subjectivity. (pages 69 - 92)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0005
[Afro-Brazilian religions, Narrative, Performative, Sociality, Excess]
Across the city of Rio de Janeiro, spirits of pretos-velhos -- "old black folk" and of the povo da rua -- "people of the streets," respond to the call of ritual songs to commingle with those who seek their help in solving the mundane and the extraordinary problems of everyday life. Partially told, partially heard stories tell about the lives and deaths of the spirits, about their doings and undoings, and evoke their present and their past, inevitably imbricating in a continuous relation the lives of the spirits and that of their followers. Storied bits dispersed in the otherwise unremarked proliferation of conversation, piled up in distracted listenings, this myriad of stories are embedded in a local poetics in which the spirits are at once object and subject of this narration. To take the sociality in which these entities are implicated as our ethnographic object demands an engagement with its unfolding in the midst of this tension filled process of social enunciation. The cultural poetics of the object itself requires that we replace the epistemological distance of representation by an attention to the very performativity that sets the real in motion and inscribes the undeletable traces of the spirits onto the world. (pages 93 - 107)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0006
[Invisibility, Enchanted beings, Amazon, Potency]
This chapter examines the social and historical lives of some entities that play a role in the world of Amazonian ribeirinhos (river dwellers) in the state of Para, Brazil. How have certain visible and invisible forms acquired, and continue to hold, special significance over time? The main entities to be analyzed relate to the watery environment: the river, which is a massive physical force in these people's lives, and is also the home of certain spiritual beings, encantados (especially the enchanted dolphin) who live there in a kingdom full of luxury and pleasure (the encante). Water, and its special nature, offer some important ways of thinking about agency and intangibility. The value of a thing is not dependent on its material form, but in its power and ability to transform, affect others, enchant and offer protection. What is revealed in this new perspective is a distinctly Amazonian river dwellers non-anthropocentric view of the world. The human is caught in a web-like pattern of relations between forces of potency located in certain visible and invisible forms, and the social universe of everyday goings on. (pages 108 - 125)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0007
[Narrative, Imagination, Agency, Materiality, Sensation, Semiosis, Santería, Spiritism]
In Cuban folk religions, spirits manifest agency in the world through materializations in human bodies and other objects and locations, including more ephemeral physical forms like speech. Religious practitioners cultivate sensitivity to the signs of spirit presence, in part through practices including speech by, with, and about spirits. This chapter proposes that biographical narratives about particular spirits involve both signs of spirit agency and signs about spirit agency. Recognizing spirit presence requires perspicience, knowing awareness, that religious practitioners achieve by weaving together signs and sensations of spirit presence with information and stories about spirits. A consideration of the "social life of entities" in Cuban folk religion must attend to both kinds of circuits. The chapter presents a case study to explore how the narration of entangled autobiographical narratives and spirit biographies mobilizes realms of imaginative possibility, including the possibility of spirit materializations, that have consequences for the social trajectories of spirits and religious practitioners alike. (pages 126 - 156)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0008
[Language, Identity, Agency, Encantaria, Maranhao, Afro-Brazilian religions]
This text examines the social relations of Joao da Mata--an entity of the "Paje dos Negros" and "Tambor de Mina" religions of Northeastern Brazil--and those of his family. These entities come down to earth to dance and to play, and occasionally, to effect cures. Based on ongoing fieldresearch work in Occidental Maranhao, carried out between 1995 and 2005, and subsequently between 2008 and 2010, this chapter seeks a characterization of the social life of these spiritual entities through their corporeal and musical language, that is, through the dances and discourses practiced by (and not for) this encantado, as well as by his spirit family members. By performing musical chants, the mediums ('cavalos') bring the encantado to earth and, dancing, materialize his existence in what becomes an agentive dialogue between those of the 'there' (entities, encantados) and those of 'here," pointing, as Ingold (2000) observes, to the importance of language and words in the transmission and acknowledgement of identity, as well as in the creation of memories. (pages 157 - 178)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0009
[Afro-American religions, Spiritism, Slavery, Syncretism]
The protagonist of this text is a Caboclo, an Amerindian entity that inhabits the spiritual territories of what is known as Umbanda (in Brazil) and whose manifestations are combined, in many accounts, with the religion's origins. The aim of the text is to trace this entity's spiritual biography, with recourse to the diverse narratives that tell of its material existence and current characteristics, and entails an exploration of the various histories and geographies through which the Caboclo's own identity modulates. This search also obliges us to situate and characterize Umbanda at the confluence of paths laid by Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism and Orixa cults. Dialogue is thus sought with Roger Bastide and Lorand Matory, with the intention of characterizing Umbanda's spiritual economy and the place of certain entities within it; a starting point that leads to the attempt to trace the lives--that includes the life of a Catholic preacher condemned by the Holy Inquisition--of the Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas (Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads). (pages 179 - 197)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0010
[Magic, Magical, Consciousness, Analogical, Synchrony, Imagination, Imaginal, Alterity, Mind, Subjectivity, Emotion]
Anthropology has had a long and, at times, problematic relationship with magic and entities of otherness commonly understood as spirit communications. A major objection for some has been the issue of the anthropologist 'going native,' with a supposed fine line between taking the native's point of view and the anthropologist fully experiencing the subjective emotional aspects of magic. However, this chapter argues that an examination of magical consciousness, as a quasi-universal reflexive and intuitive perspective, requires the anthropologist to engage fully with non-material entities. Working toward a sustained epistemology of imaginal alterity, the anthropologist's direct communication with different realities is explored experimentally with the aim of bringing together different forms of knowledge to analyze magic as a human attribute of mind. (pages 198 - 217)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226081809.003.0011
[Historicism, Spirit possession, Evidence, Indexicality, Personhood]
Ever since the emergence of modern forms of historicism in the course of the nineteenth century, historical knowledge has become premised on the dual assumption of an objectively given past distanced from the present across measurable, irreversible time, and the potential for its recovery through an evidentiary regime that transforms aspects of the phenomenologically given world (objects, texts, photographs, etc.) into indexically conceived signs or traces of the past. By the same token, the semiotic ideology underlying contemporary historiography rules out non-indexically mediated types of evidence, however morally plausible these may come to appear to specific communities of interpretation, and consigns them to the realm of the non-historical. In confronting the conceptual guarantees of the "past" cultivated by contemporary Western historicism with the appearance of spirits of the dead in Afro-Cuban religious praxis, this essay seeks to explore the extent to which modern academic historical praxis and Afro-Cuban ritual evocations of the past can be commensurated. (pages 218 - 240)