This article is an exploration into how a distinct fascination with the study of religion traverses the biographies of researchers who, through fieldwork, episodically enter into the life-worlds of the peoples they study. In it, I offer up ethnographic and autoethnographic reflections on the experiential crossroads and personal biographies that are perhaps as constitutive of religion as they are of the persons who study it. Through a discussion of interconnected events that arose during and outside of my anthropological fieldwork among the Nuosu, a Tibeto-Burman group of Southwest China, I highlight how Nuosu claims to authoring my biography have brought their animistic religion and culture, as well as its international import, further into focus for myself, local scholars, and rural Nuosu persons. My argument pivots around the idea that fieldwork-based researchers and their interlocutors often appropriate each other’s biographies in rather cosmic ways, thus revealing the historically, socially, and personally contingent qualities that are involved in studies of religion.
Fieldwork, Biography, and Authorship in Southwest China and Beyond
Anthropological Knowledge Making, the Reflexive Feedback Loop, and Conceptualizations of the Soul
Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard
In this introduction, we propose a new approach to anthropological knowledge making that would observe the ‘hyper-reflexive’ quality of ethnographic exchanges. We show that anthropological ideas infiltrate themselves into the discourse of native thinkers, even as native ideas regenerate anthropological theory. Our starting point is ‘animism’, a key concept of anthropological theory. We suggest that anthropologists and their interlocutors jointly reinvent animistic ideas through a process we describe as the ‘reflexive feedback loop’, in which abstract ideas about practice and belief are appropriated and recirculated by research participants. By way of conclusion, we reflect on how anthropologists and their collaborators ‘animate’ soul concepts through diverse forms of agency such as metamorphosis, doubling, autobiographical narrative, hidden jokes, and even technological animism.
Ontological Multiplicity and the Transformation of Animism in Southwest China
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.
Hidden Jokes and the Reinvention of Animistic Ontologies in Southwest China
Anthropology has, among its many accomplishments, become a ‘hyper-reflexive’ discipline that is mastered by anthropologists and their fieldwork friends. Today’s China offers an especially revealing lens onto anthropological reflexivity as it reintroduces animism among ethnic minorities and mobilizes a cosmological-cum-ecological ethos, replete with soul-searching and planet-saving behaviors. This article presents ethnography on the Nuosu of Southwest China, who use the ‘art of capture’ to reinvent local animistic ideas and the Chinese ‘ideology of animism’. In dialogue with a Nuosu ethnologist, rural Nuosu villagers, and a Nuosu anthropologist, I propose that ‘hidden’ knowledge and jokes underpin the expositions of native scholars, who interlace their academic work with local rituals. In this way, Nuosu academics, foreign anthropologists, and villagers all partake in the reinvention of Nuosu animism.