In this exchange, Mayanthi Fernando and Susan Harding reflect on the norms and taboos of the secular academy and on what scholars can and cannot do with uncanny experiences—their interlocutors’ and their own—that defy the epistemological and ontological limits of secular reason.
Mayanthi Fernando: Susan, you came to my undergraduate class a few years ago when we were discussing The Book of Jerry Falwell, but the story that has stayed with me is not about your fieldwork with American evangelicals. Rather, it’s a story you told about being visited at night by a dead woman who was dripping wet, having died a few days earlier by drowning herself. Class was ending and I never followed up until much later, when writing about my own experience with another unlikely visitation, this one by my recently deceased cat, who knocked over a water glass four days after she died. And even when I did ask, you simply pointed me to the place your story appears, in your first book, Remaking Ibieca: Rural Life in Aragon Under Franco. So I want to ask you about it now.
Fairly early on in the Introduction, you take up the matter of death, not as an ontological problem but as a social fact. You write about old women who sit on their door-stoops and talk about who has died and what has become of their relatives. One of these women, you tell us, named Julia, committed suicide in 1973, and then you go on to describe, in a kind of vignette mode (the font is italicized), how Julia first went missing, how neighbors began to look for her, how the police were called, how her body was finally found, how she was buried, and how villagers reacted to her death. It’s a five-page vignette, and though beautifully written, it’s standard ethnography. But, in the middle (literally) of the vignette, you write:
Forces we did not know within us, or knew and wished to keep at bay, were released by Julia’s suicide. I spent several sleepless nights lying in bed in a minor state of terror. Julia “visited” me on those nights, as she did many of the women and some of the men in the village. Each time I turned out the light, I saw her form a few yards from my bed, standing just off the ground, dark and dripping wet, motionless, expressionless. She left when I turned the light on.
I want to know what you were thinking when you decided to include that visitation in your telling of Julia’s story, of her life and her death (and her death-living-on, or whatever we want to call that). You don’t do anything analytically with the visitation. Like the dead woman herself, your mention of it lingers, without comment, and then disappears. In other words, you turn the light back on pretty quickly. I get it: you want to be taken seriously, especially in a first book, and declaring that you’ve been visited by a dead woman is not the way to do that. I struggle with this myself with regard to my own visitation story.
But you tell the story nonetheless (and so do I). Competing forces seem to be at work here, forces released by Julia’s suicide and forces that keep you from saying much more about it, from taking that visitation up as more than an interruption, a weird story that gets buried and then released in a class many decades later, just before the metaphorical bell rings. The Immanent Frame recently hosted a forum called Modernity’s resonances: New inquiries into the secular, on the “new turn in scholarly attention to the metaphysical, the psychic, the magic(al), the uncanny” (as Courtney Bender puts it in her introductory comments). But that turn largely takes other people’s experiences of the uncanny to rethink secular modernity. What do we do when the uncanny happens to us? Do we tell those stories? And if we do, can we only tell them as interruptions, or as something more?
Susan Harding: Mayanthi, it was decades ago that Julia visited me and others in Ibieca those nights after she died, but I can still see her and recall the terror I felt. The experience didn’t “fit into” anything I was able to think about; it exceeded my ability to comprehend reality. I knew I could dismiss it as a “hallucination,” a figment of my and others’ imagination as we dealt with the horror of Julia’s death. But I decided instead to leave it unanalyzed, to let it be unintelligible, by simply reporting it in my book.
It was a tear, a rip, in the world as I had been given to know it, and it may have helped put me on the path of working with supernaturalist Protestants in this country, and then to undergo their world, the world on their terms, as much as I could. As much as I could. God spoke to me, and I came to understand what it meant to have a soul, to be a sinner, to long for salvation, and to fear the coming tribulation. But I also held their spirits, trials, and longings at a distance, and this time in my writing I analyzed those experiences (as discursive effects), even as I tried to animate them.
So I wonder if there are different stakes and risks in these new studies of the uncanny, non-natural forces, and more-than-human beings. One of the field sites for my current project (The Book of Secular America) is the university, which I think of as the citadel of secular modernity. While all things more-than-natural are marginalized within its walls, there’s a spectrum or hierarchy of supernatural non-normativity. Animal spirits, human ghosts, witches, and psychic and machinic spirits at one, more plausible, end, pantheist gods and demons in the middle, and Allah, God, and Jesus at the other, more untouchable, end. Perhaps that’s a piece of why I could let Julia’s visitations simply be, but had to say more about the fundamentalist God speaking to me—I could not just let Him be.
I wonder, as you do, why is it “easier” to write the uncanny experiences of others, but also: why is it easier to write about one’s own encounter elsewhere with a dead woman, God, witches (Jeanne Favret-Saada), sorcery lions (Harry West), goddesses (Lucinda Ramberg), than with a dead cat at home in Oakland, as you describe? Why is the new animist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro somehow more credible when he tells us that an Amazonian shaman in some real sense becomes a jaguar, than when you tell us that your cat Hoppy knocked over a vase full of flowers in your bedroom several days after she died in your arms?
Philippe Descola, another of the new animists, reports that when he gave public talks in Europe, “nice little old ladies” in the audience were not the least bit surprised by the notion that animals have souls. They said, “What’s the big deal about animals having souls? My rose bush has a soul too.” Descola concluded that this was “a perfectly accepted notion in a way,” but it’s also blocked in the West. “It’s never taken to its utmost consequences here” as it is elsewhere in the world, where “the idea that there might be some sort of interiority or intentionality, let’s say, in the wider nonhuman realm” is commonly assumed.
Descola is making the general point that different ontologies admit and block different kinds of beings, and that even in the West, where the “prevailing ontology,” naturalism, limits souls/spirit/agency to humans, there are other ontologies in play that do admit “some sort of interiority or intentionality in the wider nonhuman realm.” As the women who know their rose bushes have souls testify. But note how, even as he acknowledges this other way of being in Europe, Descola dismisses it and polices the ontological hierarchy, at least for us, his academic audience, as he describes the women as “nice little old ladies” who interrupted him (who indeed were trying to upstage him) by saying “what’s the big deal about animals having souls?” He admits that it’s a perfectly accepted notion in the West . . . but that it’s blocked, never taken to its utmost consequences . . . as he continues to block and refuse its consequences. It’s harder for Descola to imagine that animals, and even rose bushes, have souls in Europe, versus in faraway places.
I’m wondering if you and Hoppy are in the same position as the “little old ladies” and their rose bushes in relation to academics—that is, too close to home.
These new studies of the uncanny put us, academics, in a contradictory position. We want to open up doors and go forth to explore the realms and beings that our academic/Western ontologies and epistemologies inhibit, and, at the same time, we are the keepers of, the principle agents responsible for, those ontologies and epistemologies.
So what are we saying when we say, “God spoke to me,” and, “my cat’s ghost knocked over my vase”? Are such claims always necessarily in quotes for us as academics? How far can we go? What are the taboos and norms we have to break in order to let non-natural forces and beings into our realities? Aside from our professional well-being, what’s at stake here?
MF: I think Julia definitely put you on the path to engaging the evangelicals as you did, even if you may not have realized it at the time. In fact, it was in rereading The Book of Jerry Falwell for my own book in progress on what I’m calling SuperNatureCulture that I found the language to articulate what you just called “a tear, a rip, in the world as I had been given to know it.” You actually use similar language in Jerry Falwell to describe what it means to be under conviction, which you distinguish from conversion. Conversion is a “process of acquiring a specific religious language or dialect,” you write, whereas coming under conviction is “get[ting] caught up in the stories, no matter what your conscious beliefs and disbeliefs are.”
Believers and disbelievers assert that there’s no middle ground. But coming under conviction entails going back and forth across what you call the “membrane” between belief and disbelief, a membrane that is much thinner than we secular moderns think. Coming under conviction means “standing in the gap between conscious belief and willed unbelief,” a gap that opens up “when the seams split and you encounter the unknown, the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the irrational, the uncanny, the miraculous” (my emphasis). Note your own language: gap, tear, rip, seams that split. I think that’s exactly right. We might say Julia pushed you into the gap, just as Hoppy pushed me. And I’ve been standing in the gap ever since, not just unwilling but, frankly, unable to climb out on one side or another. It sounds like you have too.
(This may be a moment to think further, and in ways less beholden to secular norms about who can act on whom, about the agency of more-than-humans. After all, if our companion species make us who we are in life, why would that mutually constitutive relationship end when they die? But I’ll bracket that for now.)
What are the seams, then? You call the university a citadel of secular modernity, and I think that’s right too. There are simply things one cannot say and be taken seriously. Anthropology occupies a curious role in this citadel, though, as both a guard and a jester. We hold open the possibility of worlds—over there, amongst those people—quite different from our reality, implicitly provincializing our own world, our (secular?) ontology. And, even more intriguingly, many of us have uncanny experiences in the field, implicitly challenging the separateness of multiple ontologies and holding open the possibility that one person can inhabit multiple worlds, even that our (secular?) bodies become more porous to extra-human agencies in these other spaces, that the carapaces we’ve built (or think we’ve built) begin to break apart—which of course suggests that the citadel itself is not so secure, that its walls have cracks.
In thinking about the possibility of an otherwise contained within, I’m struck by something Jacques Derrida once wrote, that “The principle of reason installs its empire only to the extent that the abyssal question of the being that is hiding within it remains hidden.” Anthropology seems to both bring this being hiding within into view (as jester), and then rationalize it away (as guard). E. E. Evans-Pritchard is perhaps the most famous example of this, telling us of having “seen witchcraft on its path” (in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande). But it’s just one mention, and just a few lines later he writes that he “never discovered [the] real origin” of the light he saw. Indeed, the whole book is an argument that witchcraft only exists as a social system, and that “Witches, as the Azande conceive them, clearly cannot exist.” So the Here/Elsewhere distinction foundational to anthropology is reproduced, and even anthropologists who have uncanny experiences—who fall or are pushed into gap—do so Over There. Of course, Evans-Pritchard climbs out of the gap and onto the bank of Catholicism. He converts.
I’m not interested (for now) in conversion. I want to stay under conviction for a bit, stumble around in the gap without knowing anything for sure. I wonder, too, if that’s one of the taboos or norms we have to break, the quest for certainty and explanation. Yet, not-knowing seems apt for some of these experiences (and that’s what Harry West and Jeanne Favret-Saada were getting at, I think). So I am not interested in determining with any certainty whether what knocked over my water glass of flowers was, in fact, the ghost of my cat. I find Derrida useful again in thinking about this, about how to write from the gap. I’m trying to orient myself narratively toward what he called “an irreducible modality of the perhaps.” He writes:
This experience of the ‘perhaps’ would be that of both the possible and the impossible, of the possible as impossible. If all that arises is what is already possible, and so capable of being anticipated and expected, that is not an event. The event is possible only coming from the impossible. It arises like the coming of the impossible, at the point where a perhaps deprives us of all certainty and leaves the future to the future. This perhaps is necessarily allied to a yes: yes, yes to whoever [sic] or whatever comes about. This yes is common to both the affirmation and the response; it would come even before any question. [. . .] [P]erhaps, displayed like the yes to the event, in other words to the experience of what happens and of who then arrives . . . far from breaking off the question, gives it room to breathe.
When you encounter Julia, when I encounter Hoppy—events that are impossible, and yet happened—we ask ourselves: what happened? I think for now (and maybe for always), Yes is the only answer I want to give. Perhaps. But that doesn’t answer the question, the citadel says. (Also: are you mad?) But to answer yes and perhaps gives the question—what happened?—room to breathe. It allows us to stand in the gap. For now. Maybe for always.
SH: Yes and perhaps. Yes, perhaps. I like your thinking with Derrida about how to respond to the gap that uncanny encounters open, and I see how it gives the question of “what happened?” room to breathe, but I have a couple of reservations. I notice that yes and perhaps and giving “what happened?” room to breathe makes me choosey. I’m willing to respond that way to a visitation by the dead, but not to the fundamentalist God speaking to me. Among the Falwellians, I stood in the gap between conscious unbelief and unconscious narrative belief, but I never thought it was actually their God who spoke to me. I stood in the gap, but closed the question of what happened in an important way.
I also wonder if leaving open that particular question, “what happened?” suggests, if only remotely, that the question might be answered. Wouldn’t that be at odds with your earlier formulation of staying in the gap “without knowing anything for sure,”of not knowing what happened, of deferring the quest for certainty and explanation? Now that I think of it, I wrote my way out of the gap in my book. Even as I tried to lure my readers into the gap, I argued that the world fundamentalists knew emerged from their finely honed and executed biblical interpretive and narrative practices. In that way, caught between my role as jester (trickster?) and guard, my secular guard duties won out, and I closed the question of “what happened?”
You raise and defer another question—do more-than-humans have agency? Maybe that’s the better question. It tempts me to go out on a limb in a way “what happened?” doesn’t. What if we said yes—without the perhaps—they have agency.Saying yes breaks another taboo that uncanny encounters put in the balance for those of us who are, wittingly or unwittingly, stewards of secularity. The taboo against ascribing agency to nonhuman—and especially “supernatural”—beings is foundational of modern disciplinary knowledges. As long as we obey it, our knowledge-making practices not only count as secular, they secularize history and naturalize reality by purging them of non-natural and divine agencies. History and the “real world” are the outcome of human agency, natural forces, and material conditions, and the only way more-than human beings intervene is via humans who believe, and are motivated by their beliefs, in them. In other words, only human beings have agency. What happens when we break these rules and say, yes, more-than-humans themselves, not just humans who believe in them, have agency? We’ve learned to think with Michel Callon and Donna Haraway about the agency of scallops and dogs. They have effects, therefore they are actors, agents. What’s holding us back (besides the secularizing taboo and our own skepticism) from saying the dead, jinn, goddesses, Jesus, and Allah have effects and, therefore, agency?
We might be accused of abandoning our guard posts and getting religion, but I wonder if there’s a way we could make this case—for the agency of more-than-humans—without threatening the secularity of our knowledge practices. Elsewhere, you cite Amitav Ghosh as urging us to consider “the urgent possibility of nonhuman presences,” and his work is suggestive of how we might go about relaxing our secularizing as well as naturalizing conventions and acknowledge the force, the efficacy, of all sorts of other-than-human beings. And, as you say, lots of academics are already unmaking the carapaces—in animal/human studies, the new animism, religious studies, and even anthropology. Maybe it’s time to write a book called We Have Never Been Buffered.
How would my book about American fundamentalists have been different if I had written about God and Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and demons as agents in that world? What about your book about the Muslim French and French secularism—can you imagine how it might have changed if you understood Allah and jinn as actors in that world? Why is it easier to imagine opening up to and writing about the dead, animals, and mountains as agents, as actors and active presences? The difference between Over There and Too Close to Home is part of it. But Hoppy was not only close to home, she was in your house. The difference between her ghost and, say, the Holy Ghost, is that she doesn’t have an apparatus around her that speaks and acts on her behalf, and the Holy Ghost does. For the time being, as long as secular norms hold within the university, they not only keep divine agents out of almost all academic texts and talks, they exclude theological concerns and terms from our knowledge practices. If we acknowledge the agency of more-than-humans, do we open the door to those concerns and terms and to the authority of the religious adepts who curate them? I don’t know if it necessarily does, but it’s probably another reason I can leave the question of “what happened?” open in response to ghosts visiting you or me, but not to the American fundamentalists’ God speaking to me. It’s not just that they are too close to home. It’s that they are an existential threat. They bring out my secular subjectivity. Still, I’d like to relax my wall of separation and see what happens if we allow monotheistic beings, as well as human ghosts and animal spirits, at least as much agency as scallops, dogs, and mountains have achieved in our academic imagination.
MF: You’re right that the question What happened? presumes that it might be answered. But I don’t think Yes, perhaps is an answer to that question. Or, if it is, it’s an answer that’s utterly nonsensical within the terms of the question. What? demands content; yes is simply an affirmation: something happened—well, perhaps something happened—but I don’t know what. What happened? is the question my secular subjectivity asks in its “quest for certainty and explanation,” as you put it. My point is that there are phenomena and experiences that defy the very terms of the question—defy that secular subjectivity—and Yes, perhaps is the name I give for feeling my way out of the question and its terms.
You wonder if there’s a way of making the case for the agency of more-than-humans without threatening the secularity of our knowledge practices. I think folks like Haraway have done exactly this, i.e., made a compelling case for extra-human agency without threatening certain aspects of the secular citadel. I’ve written about that elsewhere (and I think it has something to do with secularity’s attachments to the material as the site of the real). On the other hand, it’s not that long ago that the secular citadel insisted that only humans have agency, so I want to underline a really major shift in academic and public thought to bring nonhumans back into the picture. Indeed, I am inspired by the form of Haraway’s (and others’) re-suturing of nature and culture into natureculture and I think this re-suturing can (and should) be extended to the “supernatural,” so that we might think the more-than-natural alongside the more-than-human. In other words, I think the next logical step of the natureculture turn is to radically expand what counts as nature. So yes, humans, scallops, dogs, mountains, jinn, ghosts, spirits, and so on.
Can we do that without threatening the secularity of our knowledge practices? Not really. I think one of the reasons that so disturbs secular academics has to do with something you raise in your last paragraph, namely, the question of authority, and I think you mean political authority. To let our guard down might mean that Roy Moore ends up on the US Supreme Court. In other words, I’m less concerned about God speaking to me—though I do think there’s something about an agency greater than the human that upsets many secular sensibilities—than about American evangelicals taking away my right to bodily autonomy.
And yet, I trip over myself when I write that. Bodily autonomy. I agree that it may be time to write We Have Never Been Buffered, but how does that sit with deeply entrenched ideas about the body and its boundaries? The question of the secular body, or secular bodies, is complicated. Our bodies are much more porous than we imagine, and the boundary between self and not-self is coming apart as we discover (or rediscover) that “we” are constituted by all kinds of organisms, vulnerable to all kinds of extra-human agencies that are, in turn, vulnerable to and constituted by us. Yet, I think secularization has had a real effect on human bodies, closed us up to extra-human agencies. Many of us don’t live in the worlds we used to, don’t perceive the more-than-natural, or do so only on rare occasions. So it may be easier to relax our wall of separation on an ideological level than on an ontological one. Or maybe there’s a feedback loop between the two, whereby my sensory experience with a cat-ghost shifts my ideas, which opens me up ontologically, and so on. I am reminded of the thing that cats love to do, which is to push and push and push at something until it falls over and breaks.
SH: As I read over our exchange, I wonder how I might characterize your project. From your most recent remarks, I would say you are troubling the secular (both denaturalizing and destabilizing it) by deconstructing the natural/supernatural binary upon which, among other things, the secular depends. In the similar way that multispecies studies decentered humans by understanding them (humans) as constituted by all kinds of nonhuman natural agencies, you would decenter natural agents by understanding them as constituted by supranatural agencies. (I’m hearing another book title, The Companion Spirit Manifesto.) And you propose a variety of moves to enable this second shift: abandon the quest for certainty, stop erasing supernature, affirm that “something happened” in uncanny encounters, and question the principle of reason that hides the being that is hiding within it and give that being room to breathe. Let’s see what happens when your cat-ghost breaks the vase, what happens, that is, not to the vase, but to us, epistemologically and ontologically.
You summarize your orientation as perhaps, yes. As I review my responses, I hear myself wanting to agree with you but ending up closer to yes, but. If I had encountered only Julia, I might have been able simply to agree with perhaps, yes, but my encounter with the fundamental Baptist God and the question of politics and political authority holds me back. Saba Mahmood’s words come to mind: “To critique a particular normative [secular] regime is not to reject or condemn it; rather, by analyzing its regulatory and productive dimensions, one only deprives it of innocence and neutrality so as to craft, perhaps, a different future.” Derrida wants to leave “the future to the future, to whoever [sic] or whatever comes about.”I can’t go there. The question, the problem, of power and, let’s call it, religious/political authority, makes me want to think harder about the different future, the different normative secular regime, that is opened up by the project you are participating in.
So I’d like to end with yes, and. When a ghost breaks something, what happens to us, not only epistemologically and ontologically, but also politically and ethically? Obviously, we can’t know, and that’s one of your moves: abandon the quest for certainty. But let’s think about it.