notes & quotes on: ‘negotiating with demons: the uses of magical language.’

McCreery, John L. 1995. Negotiating With Demons: The Uses of Magical Language. American Ethnologist. Vol. 22, No. 1. 144-164.

first way of reading transcription of an incantation by a Taoist healer in Taipei is as text. However, “dislocated from this primary context, assertions about the significance of particular words or phrases are dubious at best.” (144).

as text, many questions are left unanswered. those interested on Chinese religion will not be able to get all their questions answered.

reading naively causes the anthropologist to see what they are looking for while missing many details that a scientist trained in phonology, syntax and/or prosody might capture. fundamental difference between the two disciplines: the texts/rituals/experiences that anthropologists deal with are inherently (primarily?) linguistic.

notes Bauman’s observation on performance, and points out that in addition to ritual, these are performances. without understanding the basic premises of performance, eg communicative excellence on the part of the performer, among others listed by Bauman, there is certain amount of data outright missing from an ethnographic study.

the anthropologist is successful in capturing many of the nonverbal aspects of the performance. “if anything, our danger is that of drowning in relevant facts; the issue is how to use them. How can we distinguish valid discovery from illusion produced by projecting concepts onto the text that have no solid base -within- the text?” (145).

attempts a middle ground between structuralist/semiotic approaches and process/performance orientation. sharp focus on aesthetic detail, “logic in tangible quantities” (Levi-Strauss 1969: 1). special attention paid to the sequences of rituals, along to type (syntagmatic/paradigmatic) as “properties of ritual language adds force to interpretation.” (145).

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