the politics of context

Kirsch, Thomas G. 2013. Spirit Idioms and the Politics of Context. In Spirits in Politics. Uncertainties of Power and Healing in African Societies, edited by Meier, Barbara & Arne S. Steinforth. New York: Campus, 91-113.

"Four premises underlie my analysis in this chapter. First, the spirit idiom concerns the social ascription of agency, with the human vessel of a spirit being attributed either more or less potential for agency than would be ascribed to the person if he or she were not possessed. Secondly, it pertains to asymmetrical configurations of agency. On the one hand, the idea of an increased potential for agency on the part of the human vessel of a spirit (as in the case of ‘prophets’) frequently goes along with the assumption that certain others, who are endowed with proportionally less potential for agency, can benefit from it or be empowered through it. On the other hand, the idea of a decreased potential for agency on the part of the human vessel of a spirit (such as in the case of ‘patients’) is usually accompanied by an empowerment of certain others to act authoritatively on or in lieu of the possessed person. Thirdly, when it is put into social practice in the form of spirit possession, the spirit idiom is often used to delimit contexts of social actions and interactions. In other words, a political dimension of the spirit idiom consists in the fact that spirit possession gives rise to what I call ‘the politics of context’, that is, attempts by social actors to make sense of a given instance of spirit possession by contextualizing it in authoritative ways. Finally, and related to the above, it is important to distinguish analytically between the ‘locus’ and the ‘focus’ of spirit possessions. While the term ‘locus’ stands for the entity or realm(s) of sociality in which a spirit manifests itself (for example, a prophet, a patient, or a community of believers), the term ‘focus’ designates the entity or realm(s) of sociality for which this spiritual manifestation is said to be of relevance. In adopting these two terms, I suggest that spiritual politics and the politics of spirits involve, on the one hand, social negotiations about the contextual relationship of the locus and focus of spirit possessions, and on the other hand, attempts by social actors to redefine this relationship, in doing so making and remaking powerful differentiations within sociality."