Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order

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Overview

Transparency has, in recent years, become a watchword for good governance. Policymakers and analysts alike evaluate political and economic institutions—courts, corporations, nation-states—according to the transparency of their operating procedures. With the dawn of the New World Order and the “mutual veil dropping” of the post–Cold War era, many have asserted that power in our contemporary world is more transparent than ever. Yet from the perspective of the relatively less privileged, the operation of power often appears opaque and unpredictable. Through vivid ethnographic analyses, Transparency and Conspiracy examines a vast range of expressions of the popular suspicion of power—including forms of shamanism, sorcery, conspiracy theory, and urban legends—illuminating them as ways of making sense of the world in the midst of tumultuous and uneven processes of modernization.

In this collection leading anthropologists reveal the variations and commonalities in conspiratorial thinking or occult cosmologies around the globe—in Korea, Tanzania, Mozambique, New York City, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nigeria, and Orange County, California. The contributors chronicle how people express profound suspicions of the United Nations, the state, political parties, police, courts, international financial institutions, banks, traders and shopkeepers, media, churches, intellectuals, and the wealthy. Rather than focusing on the veracity of these convictions, Transparency and Conspiracy investigates who believes what and why. It makes a compelling argument against the dismissal of conspiracy theories and occult cosmologies as antimodern, irrational oversimplifications, showing how these beliefs render the world more complex by calling attention to its contradictions and proposing alternative ways of understanding it.

Contributors.
Misty Bastian, Karen McCarthy Brown, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, Susan Harding, Daniel Hellinger, Caroline Humphrey, Laurel Kendall, Todd Sanders, Albert Schrauwers, Kathleen Stewart, Harry G. West

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There are few topics of more profound and immediate significance than transparency and conspiracy, the twin specters of contemporary globality. Harry G. West’s and Todd Sanders's collection displays the virtues of analyzing the particularities of experience in different places while, at the same time, treating this topic as one with general implications and transnational origins. This is what anthropology does best, and this group of essays does it very well indeed."—Rosalind C. Morris, Columbia University

Transparency and Conspiracy connects with a central question presently before the field of anthropology and globalization studies: how to interpret the varied cultural forms which alienation from modernity is taking today.”—Don Robotham, City University of New York Graduate Center

Publisher
Transparency has, in recent years, become a watchword for good governance. Policymakers and analysts alike evaluate political and economic institutions-courts, corporations, nation-states-according to the transparency of their operating procedures. With the dawn of the New World Order and the "mutual veil dropping" of the post-cold war era, many have asserted that power in our contemporary world is more transparent than ever. Yet from the perspective of the relatively less privileged, the operation of power often appears opaque and unpredictable. Through vivid ethnographic analyses, Transparency and Conspiracy examines the vast range of expressions of the popular suspicion of power-including forms of shamanism, sorcery, conspiracy theory, and urban legends-illuminating them as ways of making sense of the world in the midst of tumultuous and uneven processes of modernization.

In this collection leading anthropologists reveal the variations and commonalities in conspiritorial thinking, or occult cosmologies, around the globe-in Korea; Tanzania; Mozambique; New York City; Indonesia; Mongolia; Nigeria; and Orange County, California. The contributors chronicle how-whether through voudou, sorcerers, shamans, or meetings to decipher the battle of God's will and the forces of evil in contemporary political debates-people express profound suspicions of the United Nations, the state, political parties, police, courts, international financial institutions, banks, traders and shop keepers, media, churches, intellectuals, and the wealthy. Rather than focusing on the veracity of these convictions, Transparency and Conspiracy investigates who believes what and why. It makes a compelling argument against the dismissal of conspiracy theories and occult cosmologies as anti-modern, irrational oversimplifications, showing how these beliefs render the world more, not less, complex by calling attention to its contradictions and proposing alternative ways of understanding it.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822330240
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 316
  • Sales rank: 1,268,087
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Harry G. West is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the New School University. He is editor of Conflict and Its Resolution in Contemporary Africa.

Todd Sanders is University Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He is coeditor of Magical Interpretations, Material Reality: Modernity, Witchcraft, and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa and Those Who Play with Fire: Gender, Fertility, and Transformation in East and Southern Africa.

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Read an Excerpt

Transparency and conspiracy

Ethnographies of suspicion in the new world order
By Harry G. West

Duke University Press


ISBN: 0-8223-3024-5


Chapter One

Gods, Markets, and the IMF in the Korean Spirit World LAUREL KENDALL

The most comically outrageous gods in the Korean shamanic pantheon are the Officials and Spirit Warriors, the gods who bring the family good harvests or business success but who, when ignored or vexed, cause all manner of disasters, from a lack of customers to a theft or a loan default. Shamans manifest these spirits as greedy beings of formidable appetite who are initially contemptuous of the piles of meat, fruit, and rice cake that the clients have piled up as offerings. The encounter between god and client is predictable, a bargaining, bantering game. The spirits, through the person of the shaman, disdain the heaps of offering food that the clients have provided, demand music and dancing partners, and wipe their rumps with the ten-thousand-won notes that they are offered by way of appeasement. The god asks, "How can you expect me to help you if this is all that you can provide for me?" And from the client, "First make me rich; then next time I'll give you more. Next time I'll take you to a rib house." Gods demand, and clients hold out, often with theatrical reticence, then slowly, playfully relinquish more cash until, eventually, a compromise is reached. In the spring of 1998, after the collapse of the Korean market the previousfall, when the supernatural Official began to complain, I heard a shaman shout from the sidelines in her clients' defense, "It's all because of the IMF. We'll do better next time." The line was repeated throughout the afternoon. It had become her standard refrain.

Greedy gods and the IMF. One was an apt personification of the potent but volatile market, bestowing both largesse and ruin. The other, as it was invoked in that anxious spring of 1998, was not the international financial organization based in Washington, D.C., or even the list of stringent conditions that that body had imposed on Korea the previous December in exchange for financial aid to alleviate the collapsing market. IMF had become "a household word symbolizing economic difficulties and national disgrace" (Suh 1998: 34), a shorthand for a climate of despair, a climate in the sense of a force of nature, invisible in its onset but devastating in its consequences.

Shamanic rituals in Korea address ordinary crises, the day-to-day manifestations of modernity's malcontents (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993), what Todd Sanders and Harry West have described as the "fragmented, contradictory, and disquieting process that produces untenable situations and unfulfilled desires" (Sanders and West 1999). As instrumental acts, confrontations with gods and ancestors in playful and sometimes poignant rituals permit, if not a transparent aperture on the forces that drive Korean modernity, some critical lenses through which participants view the living out of modernity's consequences as they engage a capricious market. This essay is about the act of viewing the contemporary Korean moment through shamanic lenses. I shall also describe how, in the spring of 1998, the condition of "the IMF" was sometimes seen as beyond the reach of shamanic instrumentality. In a moment of touted "openness" and "accountability," the lens was opaque, and this, too, was a local vision of the contemporary moment.

Shamans and Their Clients within Korean Modernity

Fifty years ago, the Republic of Korea (hereafter "South Korea") was an impoverished agricultural country, liberated from the Japanese Empire in 1945 but simultaneously severed from its industrial north by Cold War fiat. Between 1950 and 1953, the entire peninsula would be ravaged by a fratricidal war, invaded, bombed, and occupied by foreign armies. From that vantage point, the present moment could not have been imagined. By the mid-1990s, the "miracle" of Korea's economic success was global knowledge. The Korean economy ranked eleventh in terms of size, with a GNP of $425 billion (current dollars, 1995). In 1995, more than three of four Koreans lived in cities with populations greater than fifty thousand, a far larger proportion than in the United States. Unrelieved rows of high-rise apartments sprang up, seemingly overnight, on a landscape that had once been rice fields and rural villages.

The story of Korean development has been told and its lessons debated in both scholarly and popular accounts. For now, a capsule summary will suffice. In the 1960s, following Park Chung-hee's coup d'etat, an interventionist state initiated a series of ambitious five-year plans for the development of an export-oriented economy, initially with light industry (textiles, wigs, plywood, clothing, footwear, and labor-intensive electronic assembly) and subsequently with high-tech, capital-intensive electronics and heavy industry (ships, cars, steel, and chemicals). Government policies favored large corporations with trademonopolies and easy access to credit and (for a time) effectively suppressed labor unrest among a first-generation workforce that was educated, disciplined, and motivated to work long days under harsh conditions (Amsden 1989; Eckert 1991; Haggard, Kim, and Moon 1991; Moskowitz 1982). But it is also a story of the intersection of interests between the government, the military, and monopoly capital, producing a powerful new elite (Cho 1987; Eckert 1993; Kim 1997), and a story of massive urban migration that left a radically depopulated countryside in its wake (Koo 1990). As told by nearly every Korean over the age of forty, it is a tale of a hard and threadbare life recollected from new circumstances replete with unimagined material comforts and expanded opportunities for one's children. And, because this story is told as a national triumph of the will, a victory over past humiliations, the necessity of capitulating to the demands imposed by a foreign body, the IMF, was particularly galling.

Shamans do not appear as characters in the story of Korean modernity as it is usually told. For nearly a century, the dreamers of a modern Korea regarded shamans as artifacts of rural backwardness, destined to vanish from an educated and enlightened populace. Ironically, contemporary nationalists celebrate shamans as living artifacts of deep cultural traditions. The romantics, no less than the detractors, consign shamans to a time other than this time, situate them in the rural hinterland of the modern imagination, in de Certeau's (1984) terms. But the story of Korean modernity is also a story about tremendous risk, potential ruin, ambition, envy, and disappointment. The emotional consequences of this story are set at play in contemporary Korean shamanic rituals where healing takes place through a language of casting off ominous forces and bringing auspicious potential into the home.

I want to distinguish my argument from another, one that is often articulated in intellectual circles within Korea and must be given its due. The Popular Culture Movement (Minjung munhwa undong), which peaked during the prodemocracy protests of the 1980s, looks at the modernity process, not through rose-colored lenses, but through a glass darkly. The movement celebrates shamanic rituals as the religious expression of the oppressed and sees shamans as ministering to the victims of colonial exploitation, military dictatorship, and native and multinational capitalism (CTC-CCA 1981; Wells 1995). In the late 1980s, protest dramas were choreographed in the form of shamanic rituals intended to sooth the aggrieved souls of martyrs to democracy and labor rights, sometimes with the aid of practicing shamans (Choi 1993, 1995; Kim 1994; Kim 1989a). The Popular Culture Movement's gloss is compelling because it places shamanic practices within contemporary socioeconomic processes, both local and global, and because it draws the Korean material toward an expanding and important literature that interprets witchcraft, spirit possession, devil pacts, and other popular religious forms as within the logic of a modern consciousness borne by those who have been most directly victimized by exploitative developmental processes or marginalized by their consequences.

Appropriate cases have been analyzed in Korea (Kim 1989a, 1989b, 1992), and some of my own published material (e.g., Kendall 1977) could well be interpreted as following in this vein, but Korea also begs a broadening of the scope of affliction induced by modernity processes and salved by popular religion. In Korea, shamans and their clients emerge from a relatively prosperous society, a developmental "success story." The majority of clients whom I have encountered over the last decade or more are arguably "middle class." Far from resisting the deployment of wealth and power, they are struggling to stay in the game. Business concerns are often what bring them to visit shamans.

A "Then" and a "Now"

A number of recent studies have situated shamans within shifting historical contingencies (e.g., Roseman, in press; Taussig 1987; Thomas and Humphrey 1994). Let me describe the particular contingencies that bracket my own understanding of Korean shamans and their work. At the end of 1976, I began fieldwork with a shaman, her colleagues, and their clients in a rural village not far from Seoul. Although, by 1975, the majority of the Korean population was newly urban, and although, on the basis of a previous Peace Corps residence in Seoul, I knew very well that Korean cities were filled with shamans, I followed the implicit assumption of my generation that the real anthropology of Korea was to be pursued through fieldwork in rural villages. That experience did not equip me with a baseline understanding of "traditional" Korean shamanic practices, for what I saw was very much in flux and had likely always been in motion. What I did gain was an appreciation of the world in which many of the clients whom I encountered in the 1980s and 1990s grew up, the world their parents knew. It was a short but useful historical horizon on a rapidly changing society.

In the 1970s, I found a system of popular religious practices centered on the household with the physical house as its central symbol. Gods inhabited the house structure and protected the house site from malevolent incursions, dropping their guard when vexed or offended by neglect or pollution, and allowing the restless dead or baleful forces to enter the house, bringing sickness or other misfortune. Large sums of cash, new furniture, or, in the 1970s, significant new consumer goods such as televisions or hi-fi equipment would cause the gods to "open wide their eyes." Like extortionate flesh-and-blood officials, the House Site Official (Toju taegam) would demand a cut from any windfall, and, in such cases, shamans would advise their clients to offer a cup of wine or make a minor offering (Kendall 1985).

It was a supernatural constellation appropriate to the worldview of small family farmers, households dependent on their own collective labor as family-centered enterprises, pooling common resources for children's education, for ceremonial expenses, for medical and other emergencies, and, increasingly, for the new consumer goods that were being produced for the domestic market. In the 1970s, rural development policies encouraged diversification, and several households had invested in vinyl greenhouses in which to grow marketable produce or were raising rabbits for pelts. With the village's close proximity to a growing town on the periphery of the capital city, fully half the village households were recorded in the census as no longer "agricultural." They retained a few dry fields for produce, and brought their seasonal surpluses to market, but derived their primary income from cottage industries, by driving taxicabs, or as hired labor in the nearby town (Kendall 1985: chap. 2). Many village children were, from their late teens, working in factories and sending money home, but only a few would return to rural life. This was no pristine preindustrial peasant society but rather the latest permutation of a plugged-in rural way of life that had included taxes, rents, investments, and market cognizance for a very long time.

Common concerns brought to shamans in those years were illnesses, particularly sudden and intractable illnesses, and issues of family disharmony: delinquent children, adulterous spouses, inharmonious relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. In Korean shamanic ritual, affliction is a family matter; individual illness is symptomatic of a fundamental misalignment in the family's relationship with its household gods and ancestors, a rupture that face-to-face encounters with these same spirits during a shaman's rituals are intended to heal. Then, as now, most shamans did not claim miraculous powers to heal biomedical illness per se so much as the ability to address an underlying crisis condition that not only threatened the family with persistent or serious ill health and medical bills but also indicated a generalized climate of misfortune, a misalignment between the family and its gods and ancestors. The decision to sponsor a kut-a major ritual intended to entertain the spirits-was then, as now, usually precipitated by more than one inauspicious condition affecting more than one family member.

When kut were performed in the rural farmhouses of the 1970s, the house became a significant backdrop to the process of healing, a material representation of the household as a social, economic, and ritual unit. Gods and ancestors were summoned outside the house gate and invited inside the walled courtyard. Although most of the kut was performed on the open veranda, with the arrival of the appropriate spirits the action shifted to the inner room, the storage platform, and the kitchen. The final segments marked a gradual progress away from the house, through the open courtyard, to a final expelling of malevolent and polluting forces beyond the house gate. House and household had been purified, secured, and reoriented toward a more auspicious future (Kendall 1985: chaps. 1, 5, 6).

But, even in this quasi-rural world of more than twenty years past, not all the shaman's clients were from farmers' households, and not all of them lived in rural villages. I attended kut in cramped rented rooms and in households along city lanes where issues of traffic flow and noise pollution made it impossible to perform critical segments outside the gate. Symbolically satisfactory spatial compromises were negotiated. Among the most ardent clients of the village shaman was a group of women engaged in small family businesses in the nearby town who were the children or the neighbors of children of village households. One woman, the robust proprietress of a rice shop, sponsored a kut in response to a combination of illness and theft and thereafter became an enthusiastic client, introducing her shopkeeping neighbors to this shaman, with the result that some of these women also sponsored rituals. Reviewing my notes from that earlier time, I find "bad business" listed as a common reason for such women to sponsor kut or smaller rituals. Taxi drivers' wives were also frequent clients, making offerings and purchasing talismans to avert the accident that could claim a husband's life or the family fortune that was riding on the wheels of his car. One woman, whose taxi-driving husband had been involved in a serious accident and had gone to prison on a manslaughter charge, became a client when her husband began a new career as a bus driver. She went back to her earlier practice of praying at Buddhist temples after the gas tank on his bus exploded. Households that had left the drudgery of rural life, enticed by the prospect of small but precarious financial endeavors, were seeking in popular religion a means of coming to terms with the "adventurous, aggressive, risk-taking, high-roller element" that Michael Taussig finds at the heart of cultural responses to capitalism (Taussig 1995: 394).

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Transparency and conspiracy by Harry G. West Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Power Revealed and Concealed in the New World Order 1
1 Gods, Markets, and the IMF in the Korean Spirit World 38
2 "Diabolic Realities": Narratives of Conspiracy, Transparency, and "Ritual Murder" in the Nigerian Popular Print and Electronic Media 65
3 "Who Rules Us Now?" Identity Tokens, Sorcery, and Other Metaphors in the 1994 Mozambican Elections 92
4 Through a Glass Darkly: Charity, Conspiracy, and Power in New Order Indonesia 125
5 Invisible Hands and Visible Goods: Revealed and Concealed Economies in Millenial Tanzania 148
6 Stalin and the Blue Elephant: Paranoia and Complicity in Post-Communist Metahistories 175
7 Paranoia, Conspiracy, and Hegemony in American Politics 204
8 Making Wanga: Reality Constructions and the Magical Manipulation of Power 233
9 Anxieties of Influence: Conspiracy Theory and Therapeutic Culture in Millennial America 258
Transparent Fictions; or, The Conspiracies of a Liberal Imagination: An Afterword 287
Contributors 301
Index 305
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