Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Review: Witchcraft and doubt

Published: Apr 13, 2020

Amrina Rosyada

How can people hold on to their belief in something they have never seen?

Nils Bubandt’s The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island is the result of fieldwork conducted in the early 1990s and 2012 in Buli, a predominantly Christian coastal village in the island of Halmahera. In Buli witchcraft manifests in the spectre of gua, believed to be a witch with the ability to shapeshift and assault people. It is this very gua that puts the people of Buli in a never-ending state of terror and restlessness despite their never having actually seen any guas. This seemingly paradoxical relationship between the immediacy and, at the same time, the unreachability of the gua is the central focus of this ethnographic book. As Bubandt argues, ‘the inaccessibility of witchcraft is thereby continuously belied by its viscerality, in the same way that its innate nature is belied by its unknowability’.

At a glance, witchcraft might seem to many readers to be a stale topic over-studied by anthropologists, from the time of E.E. Pritchard with his work among the Azande to that of John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff with their research in postcolonial Africa. But in this book, Bubandt offers a novel take on witchcraft: that is, through the perspective of doubt. In chapter one he argues that the concept of doubt does not necessarily negate belief; in fact, it is part and parcel of belief systems and therefore should not be sidelined in analysis of witchcraft. In incorporating the doubt inherent in Buli witchcraft, Bubandt employs Derrida’s notion of ‘aporia’ in his analysis, referred to as the ‘act of difficulty of passing, the problem of dealing with something difficult, or the impenetrability of an enigma’. Buli witchcraft is therefore aporetic in the way that it is intangible but present, it injures people but at the same time provides the only cure for their injury, and it is destructive but ontologically important in Buli creationism—all at the same time. Its aporetic nature also manifests in the way it is simultaneously avoidable and inescapable for the people of Buli.

Bubandt dedicates a fair portion of his book to discussing people’s hope of being saved from witchcraft—which, as aporetic as it is, will never happen. Here, Bubandt’s concerns are not only addressed to Buli witchcraft as a stand-alone, unchanged concept over the course of Buli history; he also aims to get a better understanding of people’s desperation to escape from witchcraft, examining it in relation to other societal changes in Buli. He presents vivid soundscapes from three key historical events in Buli as a gateway into perceiving how this relationship has shifted.

The first soundscape, described in Chapter four, occurred in 1933. Bubandt illustrates it with the sound of pounding drums. Angry people of Buli had learned that Christianity’s promise to save them from witchcraft was a deception. Introduced to Buli in the late nineteenth century, Christianity brought the idea of millenarianism which people of Buli translated as a promise to liberate them from the terror of witchcraft. Waves of people in Buli converted to Christianity for that very reason only to find that gua never went away and, even worse, manifested in the figure of the priests themselves. Christianity, in short, had not fulfilled its promise.

The next soundscape, from chapter six, is the sound of a frantic scream from a woman of Buli. Accusing a man of Buli of practicing witchcraft, Sami—the screaming woman—pleaded for an army officer to shoot the gua to death. It was 1993, the year when the authoritative regime of the New Order under Suharto was at its peak in Indonesian politics. The regime’s promise of development and ‘high modernism’ were laden with appeal for the people of Buli as it guaranteed them a world free from witchcraft. Nevertheless, this hope did not last long as the New Order government demonised all kinds of witchcraft practices in Buli, including those that people used to protect themselves from gua. The New Order, to people’s disappointment, became the agent that deferred Buli’s liberation from witchcraft. Sami’s scream for the army officer to do something about the gua symbolised the desperation about the state’s broken promise.

The noise of TV sets, radios, and motor vehicles constituted the Buli soundscape in the early 2000s. A mining company had arrived in Buli with the new promise to the villagers of modernity and a money economy. People of Buli were convinced that the prosperity—symbolised by bright lightbulbs and noisy electronic devices—would keep the gua at bay. Even so, these paraphernalia also failed to destroy the gua because the people of Buli believed that the gua simply shifted into a more refined form (‘it can sail a boat in the forest, it can enter a motorbike, it can enter all kinds of things’).

One of the most important contributions of this book, is Bubandt’s deconstructive positioning of witchcraft. Unlike previous works on witchcraft that look into the phenomenon as a response to coming societal changes such as globalisation or capitalism, Bubandt shies away from using such hackneyed approaches in dissecting Buli witchcraft. He does not question the truth of Buli witchcraft as a non-Western people’s way of thinking that needs rationalising. Doing a complete turnaround, he sees Buli witchcraft as the underlying condition preceding any social order in Buli, both chronologically and socially. It is not because of a loss of belief in witchcraft that the people of Buli become loyal to Christianity, modernity, or a money economy. It is their very belief in it—and hope to be delivered from it—that instigates their believing the promises of deliverance offered by various social systems. In Buli, it’s always witchcraft first, followed by Christianity, modernity and capitalism.

By situating doubt as the centrepiece of his analysis on witchcraft in Buli, Bubandt deconstructs the normative anthropological approach to this subject in novel and important ways. First, his call to study witchcraft ‘beyond belief’ challenges the common understanding that the only possible approach to analysing witchcraft is through the subthemes of religion and belief. Second, Bubandt conveys the idea that doubt, aporia and skepticism are not exclusively the product of the Enlightenment, stemming only from the Western societies. He makes a strong case that doubt as a form of reflexivity is shared by many societies, including Buli society. Finally, he successfully convinces readers that doubt is not necessarily detrimental to belief. Oftentimes, it is the very aporetic feeling that keeps a belief aflame.

Nils Bubandt, The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Amrina Rosyada (amrina@u.northwestern.edu) is a visiting Arryman Fellow at Northwestern University. This work was conducted under the auspices of the Arryman Scholars Initiative with funding from the Indonesian Scholarship and Research Support Foundation (ISRSF) and its generous donors.

Inside Indonesia 139: Jan-Mar 2020

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