Last year I met an Indian filmmaker, a leftist documentarian whose work I admire. I told him about my recent book. An ethnography of popular religion in Mumbai, it focuses on “illegal religious structures,” which are typically shrines to Hindu deities or Muslim saints that local people build in places whose legal title belongs to someone else, often some arm of government. “That is a land grab, actually,” he replied.

This is what he meant: The phenomenon (which is ubiquitous in Mumbai) is not about God, it is about space—in the sense of real estate. The religious devotions the shrines invite are a mere façade, a shield for the less seemly enterprises of urban hustlers—small businesses or rental properties. For this rationalist critic, it is simply incorrect to speak (as many Hindus and Muslims do) of gods and other spiritual presences as territorial sovereigns. Whatever is “actually” going on needs to be made sense of in legal discourse. The correct, legitimate sovereign is the agent whose force is mediated by the law—the state.

What lesson does this pose for religious studies?

If I can use this online forum to mount a (tardy) response, I would like to stand up for the marginalized subjects of my fieldwork. To push back at the dismissal of their motives as transparent, and at the reduction of their efforts to shape the affective landscape to small-time real estate development. And, looking to the work of other ethnographers, I’ll follow up with some steps toward a minor intervention in the way we theorize sacred space. I am going to try to synthesize insights taken from a number of books that are piled on my desk. These fall into two reading lists: ethnographies of subaltern religion in South Asia, and recent studies of Mumbai that do not emphasize religion. The first list has been prompting me to rethink the “sacred,” and the second has been helping me with “space.” I am in search of a sort of hazy area where these two lists intersect. My destination is not sacred space, exactly, but a less stable ground, a spot that by its nature is hard to pinpoint.

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In my own book, a major concern was to understand the logic of presence that shrine-builders cite when asked why they’ve chosen a particular space. Or, rather (as they will be quick to restate), why the space should have chosen them. The basic principle is that an immanent presence makes itself felt to the subject. Submitting to this masterful call, one undertakes the work of sacralization, investing resources in order to station the invisible spirit, externalizing—that is, making evident to others—the recognition that had been experienced internally. The claim of the master overrides that of a merely temporal authority like the state: this is a premise self-appointed sacralizers—that is, apparently self-appointed—expect most other people to concede.

Thus Shiva appeared in a dream to one of my Mumbai contacts, directing him to consecrate the foyer of an apartment building: “In days gone by, My temple stood at this very spot; build Me a home here again.” For the Kerala peasant who worked with Manuel Moreno, as for the person who figures in my own book as “Vikas,” the problem of how to make evident the perception of the spirit active at a specific location (a coconut grove for Moreno’s friend, a Bollywood studio for mine) was negotiated somatically and performatively through possession. And indeed, these scenarios of possession themselves make evident what is implicit in other examples: one thing at work in the sacralization of space is a complication of integrated personhood, a dis-integration or distribution of personhood among discrete features of the landscape. In two recent (and otherwise dissimilar) ethnographies—William S. Sax’s work on lower-caste spirit mediums in the Himalayas and Piers Vitebsky’s study of the Sora tribal community of eastern central India—the analysis coheres around this problematic: the enunciative role of possession in mediating the relation between religiously and socially configured selves, on the one hand, and the spaces they inhabit, on the other.

In productive dialogue with this work on religion is a body of Mumbai ethnography advancing the affective turn in urban anthropology. For me, the signal inducement to rethink space in combination with subjectivity is Maura Finkelstein’s concept of “lively ruination.” Her book tracks the lives of Central Mumbai factory workers who have been abjected by the ideological norms that govern the city. Twenty-first century Mumbai has been branded a “world-class” center of global capital, its central rust-belt area recast as a postindustrial magnet for investment. Neither the city’s administration nor its very infrastructure—in its planning, construction, and maintenance—retain a place for an industrial workforce. Finkelstein theorizes this as a condition of “unvisibility,” but closer to my purpose here would be a term from social media, ghosting. Denied recognition within the neoliberal landscape, the workers continue to “haunt” it. In my own research, I find it is precisely such denizens of the urban fringe for whom the presence of other, similarly hard-to-detect agents—gods and spirits—opens the possibility of an alternative recognition, one instantiated performatively through ritual interaction: If you look to me, I look to you.

Again, in cases like these, omission from the official transcript—maps, laws, deeds, surveys—is not a mere matter of a hole in the record. As part of an ideological apparatus, the record itself has performative effects. The point is reiterated in other studies of the lively spaces occulted by the city’s legal and public archives. Svati P. Shah’s monograph concerns the nakas, or informal street markets, at which exchanges of cash for labor—including sex work—are transacted. For an outsider, there will perhaps be nothing to mark the space beyond a certain affective intensity. And along with centering performativity in the context of urban administration, Lisa Björkman’s ethnography of Mumbai’s water department makes a statement that is startling in its implications: no coherent legal distinction actually exists between so-called slum colonies—the shantytowns that house over half the population—and the upscale residences built in violation of municipal codes, and often property rights to the plot underneath. (Now that, I’d like to say, is a land grab, actually.)

Modes of life and of personhood consigned to the shadows cast by the shining city: all these books owe a debt to a remarkable article published two decades ago. Around the turn of this century, across many fields, ghostly notions seemed much in the air. Theorists prophesied a “spectral turn,” but the conversation never quite materialized across the disciplines and remained, perhaps appropriately, inchoate. In the anthropology of South Asia, however, the apparition took shape in Arjun Appadurai’s “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai.” A tone of disquiet pervades the entire essay:

To speak of spectrality in Bombay’s housing scene moves us beyond the empirics of inequality into the experience of shortage, speculation, crowding, and public improvisation. It marks the space of . . . empty scenes of dissolved industry, fantasies of urban planning . . . consumption patterns that violate their spatial preconditions, and bodies that are their own housing.

During the main period of my research, Appadurai’s framing had a funny way of resurfacing at my field sites. Indeed, it even followed me home, back to my illegal sublet in the old downtown building I shared with a number of other not-strictly-authorized occupants.

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Let me take my cue here—however long overdue—and propose an old-new formulation, a site of intervention where my two reading lists meet. (And in passing, let me note some indications that others, too, are being visited by the shades of arguments past: there have been recent sightings in the field of psychological anthropology, and even at The Immanent Frame.)

Here is my makeshift term: spectral space. It hosts vitality where citizens of modernity have been conditioned not to encounter it. From the state’s blind spot, it throws a side-eye at projects of rationalization and capitalization. In religious contexts, it is the shadowy antecedent to sacred space, a space of inchoate potential. It is where the surplus of subjectivity lingers, and possibly settles.

Spectral space: there’s something there, I feel.