The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power – Review
by BRUCE KAPFERER. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997, 333 pages + bibliography, glossary, and index, $65.00, $27.50 (pbk.).
Bruce Kapferer’s new book, The Feast of the sorcerer: Practices of consciousness and power, is both an engaging essay on the nature of sorcery as a human practice and a comprehensive ethnography of one Sri Lankan exorcism ritual, the Suniyama. Building upon field work dating back to the 1970s, Kapferer incorporates the concerns of his earlier monographs, A celebration of demons (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983) and Legends of people, myths of state (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), to examine the nature of sorcery both as an anthropological category and as a fundamental human practice.
While the presentation of the Suniyama is meant to raise concerns about the Western academic category of sorcery, Kapferer seems to be driven by two, not always tightly connected, desires: to present the Suniyama and to thoroughly problematize the notion of sorcery. Kapferer sees the Suniyama, an exorcism and healing ritual, as revealing one way in which humans construct reality and face the difficulty of existence. Long a critical ritual in Sri Lanka, the Suniyama has gained importance with the accelerating urbanization of the last decades. Kapferer indicates the Suniyama’s importance by noting that the Berava exorcists, who make up the bulk of his informants, view this ritual as the keystone to their own work. At its essence, the Suniyama heals by severing the tie that binds a victim to an act of sorcery. While this removes the affliction from the victim, it also restores his or her relationship to the community at large by diverting the violence of the sorcery without engaging in a cycle of retribution.
Kapferer’s presentation of the Suniyama is clear but not without several problems. He discusses the context of the ritual’s enactment and nicely ties issues of class, modernity, and the nation into his discussion. His exhaustive account of one enactment of the rite however, leads to some confusion as to the possibility of variation within the practices and what implication certain varieties may have. In addition, while Kapferer notes that the Suniyama is not the only important exorcism in Sri Lanka, he does not provide a clear indication of where the Suniyama fits into the complex of Sri Lankan sorcery practices. Finally, there is an odd discreteness to Kapferer’s discussion of the Suniyama; the discussion of the rite in Chapters 2-5 is surprisingly divorced from the discussion of sorcery in general found in the other chapters. This seems contradictory to his earlier statements about the need to discuss sorcery practices as embedded in particular social locations.
Nevertheless, it is in the chapters where Kapferer examines the category of sorcery as a human practice that The feast of the sorcerer has relevance for non-students of Sri Lankan ritual. Anthropological discussions of sorcery have largely been bogged down in the quagmire of whether or not “sorcery” is rational. Kapferer seeks to avoid this type of discussion by looking at sorcery as one of a number of practices through which humans construct, experience, and understand reality. In other words, sorcery is part and parcel of the “fundamental paradox” that “human beings must create the social and political realities on which their existence depends” (p. 60).
Kapferer argues that sorcery is “primarily about” the “crises that human beings must daily confront in personal, social, and political actualities” (p. 303). Thus, his discussion of sorcery takes two very different approaches: existential and social. In the first, Kapferer uses the language of phenomenology and existentialism to explain the logic and dynamics of sorcery practices for individuals. Sorcery, for example, is one fashion by which humans deal with existential terror. This discussion is largely about the role sorcery plays in an individual gaining consciousness of itself in the world. Much of what Kapferer has to say about these issues is worthwhile; his language, however, does not always serve him well. Statements about the “radical upsurge of the human being-in-the-world” (p. 258) have a nice ring to them but they are not particularly precise. More problematic is the fact that his use of existentialist language results in a universalizing of Sri Lankans’ sorcery experiences. These experiences certainly have relevance for other people and cultures, but the use of existentialist language separates “sorcery” from Sri Lanka to an extent that seems contradictory to Kapferer’s stated aims.
His analysis of sorcery is more fruitful, however, in the discussion of power. In particular, utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of “modalities of power,” Kapferer explores the relationship between sorcery, the nation and nationalism, the state, and ethnic conflict. The power of sorcery can be seen’ as the power of the “war machine,” i.e., it is transgressive and “flattening,” as opposed to the power of the state, which draws boundaries and creates hierarchies. Different from the discussion of consciousness, the discussion of power remains embedded in the Sri Lankan context, and is much stronger for it.
Ultimately, Kapferer’s second monograph on ritual in Sri Lanka helpfully takes sorcery away from moribund academic debates. While there are some other small concerns – such as a lack of nuance in describing the place of Buddhism in these sorcery practices – The feast of the sorcerer offers scholars interested in sorcery several new directions to explore.
Thomas Borchert University of Chicago
COPYRIGHT 1999 Association for the Sociology of Religion
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