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Modes of Presence of Invisible Forces in the Himalayas

Our project aims to contribute to the renewal of the study of possession phenomena (including shamanism) based on the study of presence procedures of invisible powers, including different material forms (artefacts, natural manifestations) but also certain forms of recitals, ritual or not, as well as particular interactional configurations. This project is comparative and strives to shed light on the variations and transformations of these processes in Himalayan societies.

One of the questions that has pervaded the history of anthropology is that of the state of reality that anthropologists, who are not supposed to believe in spirits, can assign to these invisible forces. To not take this order of reality seriously is to risk not understanding the actions of human beings who engage in this system of beliefs on a daily basis, or even to condemn them, to subject them to a primitive credulity. The first attempts to systematically reflect on these phenomena in anthropology only retained the action of specialized ritual, shaman or possessed, as analytical criteria, neglecting invisible forces. Other authors, in contrast, accorded these invisible forces a transcendent existence, in the manner of Mircea Eliade who saw in the traveling of the shaman a mystical ascension (Eliade, M. 1968). Other authors have proposed to attribute the same status of reality to spirits as that attributed to humans. Let’s emphasize that the existence of spirits is not without meeting a certain scepticism within even the societies where these religious practices are commonly adopted. How can we report on the complex play of agencies at play of the possessed without adhering to these beliefs, or inversely, without emptying them of meaning?

In the wake of a renewed interest in the study of material culture, the ontological status of objects involved in ritual situations has become a central theme of contemporary anthropology. These objects are no longer considered in a symbolic or semantic perspective like signs whose referent would be exterior to them and which would not exist only as passive elements in a network of meanings/significations. They are analysed through a pragmatist perspective, that is to say in situation, as to understand in what measure they can have their unique ability, or even their own social life. This approach has the advantage of nearing closer to the practices of the loyal who interact with these objects becoming, or if not these subjects becoming, at the very least agents. We must highlight that this approach questions not only the dichotomy between subject and object but also that between materiality and spirituality. Understood in the gesturality that gives it sense, the taking into account of objects enables a return onto the humans that manipulate them, their conferment an agency, the container or the leader, each one to their manner, according to whether they are shamans, possessed, or seculars. What reveals the vital shaman accessories on the conception of his person? And the empty sanctuary of certain possessed of whom the antechamber is full of anthropomorphic figurines on that of the possessed? How can multiple articles necessary to the progression of a possession session oracular see their objective nature transformed to become actors of divination? How can we understand understand that a divinity can acquire an identity of a person with his subjectivity and his emotions across its palanquin even more than across his medium?



ANR (2014-2018)



Project managers : Anne de SALES (LESC-CNRS) and Marie LECOMTE-TILOUINE (LAS-CNRS)
Mambers : David ANDOLFATTO (PhD student in archeology at Paris-Sorbonne), Franck BERNEDE (independant researcher, Centre d’Etudes Himalayennes), Daniela BERTI (research fellow, Centre d’Etudes Himalayennes-CNRS), Serena BINDI (lecturer, Paris-Descartes), Pustak GHIMIRE (postdoc, Centre d’Etudes Himalayennes), Grégoire SCHLEMMER (research fellow, Institut de Recherche et de Développement).



10 September 2015 : "L’interface homme-objet dans la présentification des puissances invisibles", 5e Congrés GIS-Asie

18-21 December 2018 : colloque final de l'ANR, "Encounters with the Invisible: Revisiting Possession in the Himalayas in its Material and Narrative Aspects"