7. The Experience of Seeing: Spirit Possession as Performance
Bettina E. Schmidt [+]
University of Wales Trinity St David
Everyone who has ever attended a possession ritual in Brazil will agree that it is a breath-taking performance with colourful costumes, ecstatic dance movements and music that entices one to join. These rituals are, of course, more than highly aesthetic performances. They are efficacious: for the community, the medium and the possessing agent. For the observing researcher the aesthetic side, however, is easier to engage with as it allows the academic outsider to express admiration for a spectacle without being part of it. People experiencing spirit possession often have problems explaining to an outside researcher the internal processes. The study of spirit possession has therefore often focused on a functionalist explanation of the experience with little engagement with the perspective of people living it. A performative approach that highlights what we can see as well as hear, smell, taste and touch, is seen by many as a way to avoid the reductionist view as it allows for the inclusion of the researcher’s emotion. There is, however, also the danger that it can lead to a nostalgic projection, even an Orientalist attitude. This chapter is based on research about spirit possession and trance carried out in Afro-Brazilian religious communities in São Paulo. It focuses on the body of the mediums, the twisting, itching, erratic movements but also on the researcher’s perception of how the body of the mediums seem to change during the rituals. The sensory experience of the researcher, who attended these ceremonies, is therefore at the centre. After presenting first-hand impressions of various rituals, the chapter discusses how the sight of an outsider can be used as a methodological bridge to overcome the boundary between scholars explaining experiences and people living them.