Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern

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Kalpana Ram
Date and Time: 
Monday, May 6, 2013 - 12:00pm

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


In this talk, based on her new book of the same title (University of Hawai'i Press), Kalpana Ram reflects on the way spirit possession unsettles some of the foundational assumptions of modernity. What is a human subject under the varied conditions commonly associated with possession? What kind of subjectivity must already be in place to allow such a transformation to occur? How does it alter our understanding of memory and emotion if these assail us in the form of ghosts rather than as attributes of subjective experience? What does it mean to worship deities who are afflictive and capricious, yet bear an intimate relationship to justice? What is a "human" body if it can be taken over by a whole array of entities? What is agency if people can be "claimed" in this manner? What is gender if, while possessed, a woman is a woman no longer? Drawing on spirit possession among women and the rich traditions of subaltern religion in Tamil Nadu, South India, Ram concludes that the basis for constructing an alternative understanding of human agency need not rest on the usual requirements of a fully present consciousness or on the exercise of choice and planning. Instead of relegating possession, ghosts, and demons to the domain of the exotic, Ram uses spirit possession to illuminate ordinary experiences and relationships. In doing so, she uncovers fundamental instabilities that continue to haunt modern formulations of gender, human agency, and political emancipation. The book is particularly concerned with assumptions that directly shape people’s lives in rural Tamil Nadu: projects of family planning, development, reform, and emancipation.


Bio: Assoc. Prof. Kalpana Ram lectures on power and performance in India, gender, social movements and embodiment at the Dept of Athropology, Macquarie University, where she is also the Director of the India Research Centre. She has published Mukkuvar Women: Gender, Hegemony and Capitalist Transformation (Allen and Unwin 1990, Kali for Women 1991), a study of a fishing community in Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, and has co-edited two influential collections: Maternities and Modernities. Colonial and Postcolonial Experiences in Asia and the Pacific. (Cambridge University Press,1998) and Borders of Being: Citizenship, Sexuality and Reproduction in Asia and the Pacific. (University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 2001). Her new book is Fertile Disorder: Spirit possession and its Provocation of the Modern (Uni. of Hawai’i, 2013). The book explores various modernisation projects in their interactions with rural women, and then takes the reader on a journey through the practices of spirit possession, to see what new light they shed on women’s lives as well as wider issues of social theory, politics and justice. Since the mid-1990s, Kalpana Ram has published papers on dance in its relation to migrancy and nationalism, in collections such as Dance Matters (2010) and journals such as Writings on Dance (1995), The Australian Journal of Anthropology (2000), Journal of Intercultural Studies (2005) and Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute (2011).

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