Divination's Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said

Divination's Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said

by Richard Werbner


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Richard Werbner takes readers on a journey though contemporary charismatic wisdom divination in southern Africa. Beginning with the silent language of the divinatory lots, Werbner deciphers the everyday, metaphorical, and poetic language that is used to reveal their meaning. Through Werbner's skillful interpretations of the language of divination, a picture of Tswapong moral imagination is revealed. Concerns about dignity and personal illumination, witchcraft, pollution, the anger of dead ancestors, as well as the nature of life, truth, cosmic harmony, being, and becoming emerge in this charged African setting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253018892
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/11/2016
Pages: 356
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Richard Werbner is Professor Emeritus in African Anthropology at the University of Manchester. He is author of Reasonable Radicals and Citizenship in Botswana (IUP).

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Divination's Grasp

African Encounters with the Almost Said

By Richard Werbner

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Richard Werbner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01895-3


Deep Dialogue with Evans-Pritchard

This chapter reconsiders Edward Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) as an open work with a remarkably controversial reception, still problematic, still richly illuminating. In it, Evans-Pritchard deliberately gave no academic citations to display theoretical sources and intellectual origins; he added no footnotes to tell who matters for the arguments. Hence a final interpretation must escape us. Instead, the present analysis, which discloses a deep dialogue, primarily with Malinowski and Lévy-Bruhl, rescues Evans-Pritchard's textual method, and not merely his praise for observation.

Even further, this account recovers Evans-Pritchard's regard for ethics and personhood, for alterity or otherness in the anthropological imagination. We return to his insights into a subjectivity that is at once vulnerable, intimately uncertain, and given to self-doubt, yet hooded by sanza, the irony so loved by courtly Azande. Revealed in this way are the different directions in debate by the masterpiece's early and very recent interpreters. Given the fact that Azande are not poets or keepers of an archive of poetry and imagery for their séances, whereas Tswapong significantly are, my own approach has to go beyond Evans-Pritchard's in certain respects. The main challenge that I take up later in this book, for Tswapong divination, is to connect the rhetoric in popular argumentation to the poetics of interpretation.

There is another related challenge. Although some Azande are almost peerless in the art of persuasive speech before an oracle, all Azande lack expertise of the textual and archival kind that sets apart diviner and client among Tswapong. Indeed, Azande have no diviners at all, merely "witchdoctors," or witchfinders, whose investigations are largely nonverbal. Oracular séances proceed with more or less skilled questioners and more or less reliable witnesses, but without specially trained experts as diviners. What pushes my account even further beyond Evans-Pritchard's is the importance among Tswapong, by contrast to Azande, not only of expert knowledge but also of mastery in the interpretation for clients of the archaic, the arcane, and the occult. This is a challenge in the study of experts and laymen that calls for analysis of differences in coherency — they vary in their command of divinatory webs of significance. For example, unlike experts, some laymen hardly know that the praise poetry is simply cataloged and indexed, a whole body of wisdom. The challenge is one that will be examined later in the book.

Witchcraft: Rereading the Little-Read Masterpiece

In a brief but boldly imaginative summary of Evans-Pritchard's greatest ethnography, Mary Douglas remarked, "though the Azande are as much quoted as the Bororo one suspects that Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande [1937] is not frequently read" (1980, 59). Douglas's suspicion, though well founded, is startling: Evans-Pritchard's masterpiece is hugely cited but rarely read in any depth. Largely unrecognized is the importance that oral literature — not merely observation among the Azande — has in Evans-Pritchard's long-term approach. To underestimate the narrative, both personal and communal, and the transcript of texts as, for example, Douglas herself did (1980, 39–48) in her view of his fieldwork methods is a serious mistake about which I say more later.

Perhaps more than any other classic ethnography, Witchcraft has invited arguments beyond anthropology. I am happy to share the opinion of Evans-Pritchard's student, T. O. Beidelman (1974, 163): "The Azande book is unquestionably the greatest single monograph ever written on an African people and one of the truly great books in anthropology."

It is also true that the abridged version (Evans-Pritchard 1976), with a fresh appendix of reflections, has become the staple for introductory courses. Regrettably, it is now an accepted source for reference in theses, published monographs, and citation even in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. When it comes to the heights of reanalysis and reinterpretation by anthropologists, then the source, if Evans-Pritchard, is not on Azande, but on Nuer, as described in his 1940 book The Nuer and its sequels.

The irony would not have been lost on Evans-Pritchard himself — the less the ethnographic data, the more brilliant the speculation and the greater the theoretical interest in comparative argument. After publication, Evans-Pritchard famously tore up his scraps of Nuer field notes. They had "served their purpose," he told his witnesses, Meyer Fortes and Max Gluckman; he also burnt many of his personal documents shortly before his death (Burton 1992, 14). Evans-Pritchard recognized that posterity made other claims for the Azande archive. These are the claims this book on divination discusses.

Hence follows my initial aim here: to re-create some of the controversial ferment around Evans-Pritchard's masterpiece and, above all, to make plain how much inspiration we may continue to take from it, just as I did from my first captivated reading of it early in the first year of my postgraduate training at Manchester under the supervision of Max Gluckman.

Deep Dialogue and Dogma: Evans-Pritchard, Lévy-Bruhl, and Malinowski

First, I want to reopen more of the deep dialogue in Witchcraft. It is important to recognize here a distinction between deep and shallow dialogue, because it is a distinction that informs much of my discussion. By deep dialogue I mean the dialogue that is supported by rich ethnographic evidence about fundamental issues and sustained between the ethnographer and major interlocutors, especially across disciplines. Deep dialogue runs unmistakably through Evans-Pritchard's masterpiece. By contrast, shallow dialogue skates over facts and runs in "logical overdrive" and spins out the arguments, until they take on a life of their own, not the life of the ethnography.

My immediate point is that for Azande, who let their intellectual culture and social history be well known and textually recorded by the ethnographer (whereas Nuer did not), Evans-Pritchard founded his accounts not simply in "I-witnessing." He collected an entire corpus inscriptionem, to use Malinowski's phrase, from trusted and trusting informants, though not from "mission boys."

For the sake of clarifying the value Evans-Pritchard put on his textual method, I want to quote his advice fully:

There are texts to be taken down which can only be done in seclusion. It is necessary therefore to have confidential informants who are prepared to attend regular sessions maybe daily; and it is evident that they must be men of integrity, truthful, intelligent, knowledgeable and genuinely interested in your endeavours to understand the way of life of their people. They will become your friends. Among the Azande, I relied mostly on my two personal servants and on two paid informants, but as usual in Africa, there were always people connected with them coming in and out of my home. The one young man whom I came across who was capable of writing Azande was for a time my clerk. (1976, 246)

In qualifying observation, Evans-Pritchard deployed the textual method, derived from Slavonic folklore and philology, that his early mentor Malinowski passionately advocated yet he himself failed to deliver. Evans-Pritchard's textual method set the example, rarely respected in divination research, which I follow in my own use of texts and transcriptions given at length in this book, along with my account of in-depth and extensive observation.

Of course, Evans-Pritchard took pains to drive home the dogmatic error of putting words with ideas into others' mouths "constructing a dogma which we would formulate were we to act as Azande do" (1937, 82). Famously, he also went on to argue that Azande "actualize their beliefs rather than intellectualize them and their tenets are expressed in socially controlled behaviour rather than in doctrines. Hence the difficulty of discussing the subject of witchcraft with Azande for their ideas are imprisoned in action and cannot be cited to explain and justify action" (1937, 82–84). It is all the more ironic, therefore, that a torrent of Azande ideas in their own words imprisoned Evans-Pritchard, so much so that he was troubled and struggled heroically to be free of them. An oral literature in print in the vernacular, "if my dreams come true," was his wish (1964, 2). "One is burdened for the rest of one's life with what one has recorded, imprisoned in the prison one has built for oneself, but one owes a debt to posterity" (1976, 254). Even at the end of his life, he remained overburdened by his acknowledged obligation to complete publication of volume after volume of his Azande texts; some were privately printed (Evans-Pritchard 1962b). More than twenty articles and several books appeared, yet it is said that he had not exhausted his archive.

But what about Evans-Pritchard himself? Or since we are not about to divine his inner being or even enter into the privacy of his consciousness, what about the ways he publicly knew and made known his own history of ideas or his contributions to a process of knowing? For our main interest, what can we say briefly about the consequence of the knowledge and knowing for reception in divination studies?

Late in his life, Evans-Pritchard wrote a famous and characteristically pithy letter to the journal Man. He began with a modest nod (as it were in Zande fashion, blowing on the fowl's wing) acknowledging having been accused of following in the footsteps of the eminent philosopher Bergson, perhaps unintentionally. True, he admitted about their thought on primitive causality that his point and that of the eminent philosopher Bergson in his The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (first edition in French, 1932) were the same. "However, the dialogue was with Lévy-Bruhl and not with Bergson for what I said in my book I had more or less said in a lengthy article in 1929 [Evans-Pritchard 1929c]" (1970, italics mine). In other words, Evans-Pritchard asserted originality — he was the one who made the causality point first. What is even more important for our interest is that Evans-Pritchard insisted that his argument was more or less made in the context of a dialogue with another philosopher, Lévy-Bruhl. Possibly, Evans-Pritchard went to the field already "very much involved with Lévy-Bruhl's work on primitive mentality." At first implicit, this dialogue engaging philosophy and ethnography was explicitly spelled out in part in Evans-Pritchard's lecture course "Magic Religion and Science" at the Egyptian University in 1932–33. But Evans-Pritchard's fuzzy reference saying more or less in his assertion of originality points to something in the making: the maturation of his understanding in stages through dialogue over more than a decade.

Drawing on that Cairo lecture's defense as well as criticism of Lévy-Bruhl gave Mary Douglas apparently sound grounds for the following claim about Evans-Pritchard's stance: "At this stage, he admits himself a disciple of Lévy-Bruhl (1970, xv.)." The truth in this appearance is partial. The reason is that what is also plain and, indeed, appears in Douglas's immediate citation is Evans-Pritchard's nice taste for the paradox of Lévy-Bruhl's importance: recognizably all the greater, the more devastating the attacks on his ideas. "The criticisms of Lévy-Bruhl's theories are so obvious and so forcible that only books of exceptional brilliance and originality could have survived them."

The basic point comes from Evans-Pritchard's advocacy of deep dialogue as an engagement that starts before fieldwork and continues long after it. The trained social anthropologist is one who learns to learn from specialists in other disciplines; Evans-Pritchard preached and practiced this approach. In the words of the philosopher-anthropologist Ernest Gellner, he "is engaged in a living debate" (1981, xiii). "It is useless going into the field blind" wrote Evans-Pritchard. "For instance, I am sure that I could not have written my book on Zande witchcraft in the way I did or even made the observations on which it is based had I not read the books written by that noble man Lévy-Bruhl" (1965, 241).

In the face of that, I am not about to argue that actually Evans-Pritchard was writing and speaking as someone else's disciple or true believer. After all, Malinowski would then head the list of mentors — admittedly, not without good reason: "Evans-Pritchard later recalled that he had learned more from Malinowski than from anyone" (Burton 1992, 12). There is, moreover, a great wealth of published evidence showing Malinowski's influence in Evans-Pritchard's work of the 1930s.

One can even find Evans-Pritchard identifying functions after Malinowski that included Malinowski's dogma about the anxious resort to magic. Evans-Pritchard's first Azande witchcraft article says that a "function of belief in mangu" (witchcraft) is "giving confidence, courage and emotional outlet through activity in moments of crisis" (1929c, 225).

I will return to this early witchcraft article when I consider Evans-Pritchard's practice of empathy along with "rational criticism," from his own perspective as a European stranger. Here my immediate interest is in a significant change in the transparency of his presentation of arguments. His early articles had an open debate with the Malinowskian tradition and, somewhat respectfully, with Malinowski himself. However, all that gave way in Evans-Pritchard's great monograph to no more than his bare acknowledgment of his debt to Malinowski "for the stimulus of his teaching" (1937, vii). By then Malinowski had turned against his brilliant pupil, perhaps a potential rival; he barred him from any post at the London School of Economics (LSE). Their hostilities were public knowledge for at least a decade. After Malinowski's death, rumor has it "Evans-Pritchard confessed himself to be heartbroken and observed that to be deprived of the object of so passionate a hatred was to face an empty life" (Gellner 1981, xxvi).

From the very start of the debate, however, the nub of the matter was the creative tension with Malinowski's Crime and Custom in Savage Society (1926 and also 1925 [1948]), which caricatures Lévy-Bruhl's views. Evans-Pritchard's sharpest criticism of that was published posthumously, after the early decade of hostilities with Malinowski: "This book [Malinowski 1926] is aimed at Lévy-Bruhl's mystical savage. ... Malinowski has no difficulty in showing that all that is nonsense and we owe him a great debt for acting as a critical dissolvent of accepted theory ... but he was unscrupulous in his use of theoretical writers as straw men and quite unconstructive theoretically" (1981, 199).

Caricature was not Evans-Pritchard's own course. Indeed, Evans-Pritchard's Cairo lectures of the early 1930s speak for themselves. He took great care, yet from a distinctly sociological perspective, to think with and against accepted theory. But how did he carry on the deep dialogue there and move it forward into his great ethnography?

The importance of Evans-Pritchard's Cairo lectures is well-recognized. Famously, it drives home his forceful appraisal of the work on "savage thought" by many of his predecessors. But Malinowski gets short shrift when it comes to scholarly recognition of the dialogue that continues into the Azande book. Not being mentioned in the lectures, the resonance of Malinowski's voice in the Azande book is rather little heard.

I want to argue that failure to appreciate Evans-Pritchard's dialogic strategy has meant that his ethnography has had to suffer the fate of a stereophonic recording heard only in mono. It is all the more problematic, because despite our ongoing anthropological moment of "many voices," the received understanding of Evans-Pritchard's work mutes its polyphony by making the author univocal.

To overcome that muted reception, my answer relies on straddling of an acrobatic kind. Rather than being a disciple of either Lévy-Bruhl, the logical philosopher of collective representations embedded in social systems, or Malinowski, the individualist ethnographer of self-seeking in situations, Evans-Pritchard, himself a man of many parts, was an acrobat, even "a chameleon" or "a trickster," some might say. Or, in Gellner's words "an intellectually restless ever-questing sceptical Hamlet" (1981, xv). With each of his core interlocutors in mind, he straddled both the philosopher and the ethnographer, and he did so in deep dialogue by a strategy of double-voicing, of speaking, as it were, with and against each in a no-longer noisome voice of the other. In other words, he pitched the neo-Malinowskian against the neo-Lévy-Bruhlian, and he did so in the exposition of a theoretical discourse advanced through elegant ethnography. Evans-Pritchard let us hear both the spokesman for mystical thought and his adversary on "common-sense thought," after announcing to the reader: "The relations of mystical to common-sense thought are very complicated and raise problems that confront us on every page of this book" (1937, 65).


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Table of Contents

Part I. Socio-linguistics and poetics
1. Deep Dialogue with Evans-Pritchard
2. In Praise of the Moral Imagination
3. Acrobatic Stylistics, Agonistic Vision
Part II. From Tablet Archive to Wisdom Séances
4. Poetics and Archives
5. Family Séances: Rhetoric, Deliberations and Decisions
6. Cosmic and Personal Understandings: Diviners, Headmen, Strangers
Part III. From Hooved Archive to Charismatic Séances
7. A Charismatic Diviner’s Archive: Hooved Divination
8. The Cross-Over: Originality, Hybridity and Metamorphosis
9. The Charismatic Séance: Arguments, Intimacy and Intimations
Conclusion: In Comparison

What People are Saying About This

author of Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World - Paul Stoller

Richard Werbner has produced a work of rare depth and profound insight that is destined to become a classic in African Studies and the anthropology of religion. In Divinations’ Grasp, we come to know Werbner’s divinatory mentors, men of profound intelligence who are masters of the poetically contoured 'almost said.' Readers will feel the comfort and inspiration that comes from an encounter with mastery, deep dialogue, and longstanding witness of Tswapong divining séances.

University of Toronto Scarborough - Michael Lambek

Richard Werbner's superb account of moral imagination and the poetics of divination grasps the density of its subject, matching the insights of the diviner with those of the ethnographer. The book takes its place among the very best works of Africanist anthropology as a new classic in the tradition of ethnographic divination and a necessary reminder of live and deep traditions of African wisdom.

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