The Algebra of Souls

Ontological Multiplicity and the Transformation of Animism in Southwest China

in Social Analysis
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Abstract

In Nusu animism, the number and nature of a person’s ‘soul attributes’ change during his or her lifetime and after death. Drawing on Michael Scott’s study of Arosi poly-ontology, this article situates animistic personhood in a plural socio-cosmic order. Living and dead, human and non-human, Nusu and non-Nusu occupy separate, communicating domains. Meaningful exchanges across boundaries require the metamorphosis of persons and ideas. Nusu animism, continuously engaged in an ‘algebra of souls’, understands the self in terms of its multiplicity, its latent and emerging aspects. Through the ethnography of two death rituals—one ‘real’ and one staged for visiting researchers—this article shows that animism is being hyper-reflexively reinvented by Nusu animists themselves.

Contributor Notes

Mireille Mazard is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Ethnic and Religious Diversity. She received her doctorate in socio-cultural anthropology in 2011 from the University of Cambridge, where she explored ethno-politics and Nusu identity in Southwest China. She is currently writing a monograph about religious and political transformations among the Nusu, asking how their engagement with Christian and Communist ideologies creates new ontological frameworks for experiencing the world. These research interests extend into a new project on violence and ethics in humanist Buddhism. She is also working on the ethnography of social media, contributing to a University of Warwick project on microblogging.

Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

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