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Book Review


West, Harry G. Ethnographic Sorcery (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 132 pp, $14.00.
     We meet anthropologist Harry West in his enigmatic Preface as he ponders a short story from Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths (1970) and imagines how "dreaming a man and inserting him into reality" might solve the epistemological paradox he has encountered within his study of sorcery. Ethnographic Sorcery is difficult to characterize. An inspired contribution to philosophical anthropology, cleanly and elegantly phrased, it is also a valuable theoretical contribution to the historiography of four critical time periods within Mozambican culture: precolonial, colonial, early socialist independence, and contemporary neoliberal. West's focus is the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique. While some historians (e.g., Kathleen Sheldon, "Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique," African Affairs 105 no. 421 [2006], 658-660) question whether "Makonde" rather than "Muedans" might be a more appropriate name for the people of the plateau, West chose the latter. Shifts in identity which are an ongoing process of liberation politics make no name truly adequate.

      West's narrative traces a dawning personal realization over more than fifteen years of fieldwork that many of his Muedan friends and co-researchers "conceived of the ethnographer's way of seeing things—the attempt to gain an interpretive ascendancy over a complex and confounding world—as a form of sorcery." He concludes that we [humans] are all inescapably ethnographic sorcerers in a world made and remade by those who elaborate interpretive visions of it and by those who contest these visions with their own.

      The book is exceptionally compact, with 15 short chapters (comprising a total of just 93 pages), endnotes (16 pages), references (17 pages), and an index (4 pages). West's writing is anything but dry. Chapters are poetically titled, and each opens in the middle of a conversation or other lively slice from his fieldwork. The very shortness of the chapters creates a sense of ongoing drama. Muedan characters perform upon and subtly transform (perform sorcery upon) stages that constitute West's analytical awareness. His frames move from perspectives of symbol, to metaphor, to performance process art, and finally into what Greg Urban (Metaphysical Community: The Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect, 1996) has called the thing-like quality of discourse "that makes circulation (and hence culture) possible" (xiii).

      Ethnographic Sorcery is very nearly an epilogue to West's Kupilikulu: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique (2005). Possibly the two books should be read concurrently for one to truly appreciate the significance of the contribution West makes to historiography. In Kupilikulu, sorcery is the sometimes overt, sometimes forbidden, and sometimes taken-for-granted subtext of power within the struggle for an effective, workable liberation body politic. As West explains:

On the Mueda Plateau, it is said that sorcerers feed on the well-being of their rivals, neighbors, and/or kin. By rendering themselves invisible, they transcend the world inhabited by ordinary people, producing and inhabiting an invisible realm from which they gain powerful perspective on the visible—a platform from which to elaborate and bring to fruition ghastly visions of carnage that feed their insatiable appetites. These acts, however, do not go unchallenged. Responsible figures of authority, including healers, lineage councilors, settlement heads, and even contemporary village presidents, are also said to be capable of entering into the invisible realm of sorcery. Acting as "sorcerers of construction," they transcend not only the world inhabited by ordinary Muedans but also that of "sorcerers of ruin," fixing the latter in their gaze, monitoring and controlling sorcerers' activities, unmaking sorcerers' acts, and remaking the world in accordance with their own visions of a world reordered. . .and so the game of one-upmanship, comprising transcendent maneuvers that Muedans gloss with the verb kupilikulu (to invert, reverse, to overturn, to negate, to annul, to undo), continues in perpetuity. [2007:x]

      The platform from which launches West's own eventual "inversion and remaking" of ethnography into sorcery is the intellectual heritage of symbolic anthropology prominent at the University of Chicago during the 1960s and early 1970s. In the first chapter, he describes a 1994 experience in a Mozambican provincial capital in which he is asked by FRELIMO to train researchers at the Cultural Heritage Archives (ARPAC) in Pemba who are unable to "move beyond" cataloguing to a "scientific socialist" interpretation and analysis of whatever informants tell them. He begins with Victor Turner's idea that anthropologists such as himself, "and such as they [the Muedans]—might see and interpret a ritual event unencumbered by the 'interests' and 'sentiments' that impair [the native's] understanding of the total situation" (The Forest of Symbols, 1967).

      He chooses the local example of a "sorcery lion" to make his point. Sorcerers are believed able to create a spirit lion, to enter it, and to cross into the physical as a real lion that devours and mauls people. West suggests to his students/co-researchers that "the lion" (abstractly) symbolizes both dangerous predator and regal protector but also a deep ambivalence about the workings of power in the social world—power "necessary to produce and secure the common good and. . .as ever-present threat to the community's many members." (4) The response from his audience is silence and nervous fidgeting, until one man softly poses that "These lions that you talk about. . .they aren't symbols—they are real." And the room erupts in shouts of agreement.

      Here, Kupilikulu as a companion text would add to students' understanding of power and of the savvy analytical skills and political astuteness of West's Muedan co-researchers who are, in some cases, members of FRELIMO. Not so many years earlier these very same men had cast anthropologists as agents of a colonial science, and healers/sorcerers as purveyors of "obscurantism." The current government has reached a philosophical accommodation with sorcery as a deeply embedded discourse that embodies and makes possible local control by government officials who are themselves again the sorcerers.

      The treatment of discourse is one of the strongest features of the book. As both West and the Muedans come to agree, the language and knowledge of sorcery—even as descriptive narrative—is sorcery. Here lies a teaching opportunity to develop classroom discourse to encompass "big history" and a sacred religious text such as the Bible or Koran which focuses upon the sanctity of The Word. By avoiding essentialist conclusions about what Muedan sorcery is or is not, West invites readers into the idea that any discourse community is the enactment of rhetorical art via verbal metaphor, the sole purpose of which is to transcend the "gap" between unlike entities (e.g., belief and scientific reality).

      Midway through the book, West recounts the undoing (kupilikulu) of his own near-fatal illness and the experience of finding himself inserted into a Muedan sorcerer's "dream." "Instead of trying to 'get things into perspective' by finding a place from which to observe the social landscape—including the terrain of sorcery—from the outside, as Jackson (Paths toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry, 1989:8) has put it, I found myself trying to comprehend and engage [create discourse] with the Muedan world of sorcery from a perspectival space within it created for me by my own yakulaula [healer/sorcerer]." West's experience could be the frame from which students create a transdisciplinary discourse on what it might mean to "believe in sorcery," drawing not only from West's fieldwork but from Borges, historical narratives of the struggle for liberation in Mozambique, and their own experiences with the construction of multiple realities and identities on the internet.

      West's sense of epistemological paradox flows from Greg Urban's positioning of discourse as being both about the world (words as the bearers of truth, meanings, statements) and in the world as actionable "things." Where the Chicago school more or less stops with the proposition that beliefs constitute important metaphors for talking about historical events and social realities—West pushes on to whether the gap-jumping property of metaphor, which he treats as neither scientifically true nor false, might constitute the means of sorcery. He follows Cassirer, who suggests that symbolic forms "are not imitations, but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension" (Language and Myth, 1946:8). Rather than contradicting science, West suggests that Muedan sorcery "prompts us to ask, not if Muedan sorcerers and the lions that they make (or that they become) are 'real' or 'illusory,' but instead to what kind of reality they belong." (47) Perhaps too predictably, he beats himself up along the way for almost falling into the trap of Turner's logic—"that Muedans failed to recognize their own symbols (or metaphors); that they mistook allegories for identities (a charge, incidentally, commonly leveled against conspiracy theorists [see Harry G. West and Todd Sanders, eds., Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographic Studies of Suspicion in the New World Order, 2003] . . .)—had me asserting, with echoes of colonial condescension, that Muedans deceived themselves; had me arguing, in the tone of revolutionary socialism, that their understanding of the world in which they lived was a form of 'false consciousness' ." (38)

      West concludes that "Muedans . . . knew well what some critics of anthropology have been unable to grasp, namely, that any engagement with the world requires both the formulation of a vision (or "interpretation") and attempts to persuade one's fellows to conform to that vision (or to accept that interpretation)—even as that vision (or interpretation) is subjected to perpetual contestation and constant transformation. (Those who do not articulate authoritative visions of the world are relegated, as Muedans often said, to sit at home and pick fleas from their feet.)" (84) In its omission, this book raises the hugely important ethical and epistemological question faced by anthropology as a discipline and by individual anthropologists—especially as regards participation in the military, the war economy, and liberation movements: how do we position our own claims to knowledge alongside other "expert" discourses?


Bethe Hagens
Goddard College and Walden University


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