John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Tue, 25 Oct 1994 15:53:49 EDT

First of all, please disregard the last post; as I wrote it I realized that
I was putting forth too complex an example. Let's try again, shall we?

The best contrast in epistemology that I've encountered as a student (and a
fascinating example of the history of a cultural practice's study) is between
Bruce Kapferer and David Scott on the Sinhalese practice of *yaktovil*, an
all-night healing ritual designed to "exorcise" *yakku* demons from an
afflicted family member. Kapferer takes a phenomenological, existential
approach, using Susan Langer and George Herbert Meade as two of his guiding
lights as he discusses the transformation of self and person in the ritual.
His work is painstaking, extremely detailed, and very tightly focused. One
comes away with a feeling that a thorough dissection and discussion of the
practice and its effects have been made with a discerning eye and meticulous
concern for methodology.

So why does Kapferer piss me off?

Basically, its because he takes a phenomenological, existential approach,
using Susan Langer and George Herbert Meade as two of his guiding lights.
What emerges from his work (the primary text is *A Celebration of Demons*,
which was revised in 1991; other articles and miscellaneous references
is a Meadean self engendered through a Langerian aesthetic, which seems pretty
far from how the Sinhalese think of and enact their ritual. He has exquisitely
detailed information on the ritual, plus lots of visuals, schematics, and tons
of theory, and he can tell a story, but is it the Sinhala story? This is I
think an epistemological problem; whose story are we trying to tell when we do
our anthropology? Positioning is an important part of an anthropologist's
work, and I found that lacking in Kapferer's work. That combined with an
extremely cerebral romanticization of the Sinhalese and a textual arrogance
bordering on overbearing made what could have been a thorough and powerful
investigation of cultural practice into a theoretical trifle, very well-laid
out but with little relevance for talking social life.

David Scott's work centers on refuting Kapferer (and others) interpretations of
*yaktovil*. Scott is pomo and post-colonial, trying to carefully illustrate
for us what's going on with the Sinhalese while remaining conscious of who he
is and who we the readers are. His use of history is salient and he strives
to frame not only the practice but the study of the practice in his work. It
was a relief to read his work after struggling for sometime with Kapferer, who
creates a textual edifice with no avenues of escape. Of course, one could also
argue that Scott is ignoring some of the untangible issues that Kapferer is
trying to elucidate, but to me this is again a question of epistomology. What
do we want to see and how obvious and detailed should we make those assumptions?How much time should we spend on thinking about how we use theory? Further,
what is useful in the contemporary moment, personally, professionally, and
politically? Our "discourse is ever entangled in a whole Western archive"
(Scott 1992:331); how do work with that fact as we struggle to speak our
informants' language and sketch out the web of their cultural and social
lives? For Scott, framing *yaktovil* with such terms as "possession,"
"demonism" and "exorcism" has an effect on how we the anthropologist and
we the reader perceive the ritual and its repercussions. I felt that
Kapferer's work didn't give us the feel for Kapferer that we need to
realize his filtering. It comes back again to assumptions, which seem to me
an important part of epistemology.

What happens in process is equally important to what we make of our notes once
we're back in our offices. Kapferer used a ritual he saw in the early '70s
for a book he wrote nearly two decades later. How does that change things?
I'd be interested to hear how folks have reconciled field notes with post-
field conclusions; how do we make sense of our experiences and the experiences
of others? I realize that I have only sketched my example out very briefly,
but I'm curious if I'm asking the right questions.



John H. Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston