Ethnographies of the Numinous: Exploring the Social Life of Phi in Thailand and Beyond
Part 1Session 6
Thu 14:00-15:30 Room 3.10
Part 2Session 7
Thu 16:00-17:30 Room 3.10
Save This EventAdd to Calendar
Amphibious spirits and Aquatic-Terrestrial Development: The Uncanny at the Hinge of Hope
Visisya Pinthongvijayakul Chandrakasem Rajabhat University/Heidelberg University
In this paper, I tell the story of my encounter with the spirits of nagas at water and land development sites in Northeast Thailand (Isan). One is the protector of a ruined temple that emerged from the reservoir during summer droughts in recent years. The other is a naga prince who was not native to the locality but migrated from the Mekong. Inspired by ontological inquiry, I ask who are they and what are their relations to humanity and places? Drawing from ethnographic data and the oral history of the people in water development project-adjacent communities, I demonstrate the way in which the uncanny can be seen as a product of the contentious infrastructural development loomed over land rights. The perpetual interval of developmental promise, one that has been made by the State since the era of the Cold War to entertain local people with the hope of a better life but which is tantalizingly deferred, engenders the uncanny in Isan. I suggest that numinous amphibious beings such as theses nagas cast doubt on state modernizing schemes and encourage human’s hope. Moreover, we should consider the more-than-human happening as a local version of eco-political activism.
Nu’s Possession and the Discontinuation of Lineage Mediumship in Buriram Province
Benjamin Baumann Universität Heidelberg
In this paper I look at the first possession episode of Nu, a 16-year-old village girl from Buriram Province. Nu became possessed by a phi for the first time during her first year as a college student at Buriram’s Technical College. The paper portrays central elements of Nu’s possession, discusses how she experienced the nonhuman’s presence within herself and how her possession episode was interpreted and rationalized by her immediate social environment. The paper seeks to answer why everyone involved was so certain that the nonhuman being belonged to a particular class of phi associated with bad deaths.
Phi and Their Agencies in Northern Thailand
Kazuo Fukuura Toin University of Yokohama
This paper focuses on how Phi manifest in everyday life of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. It considers how the physicality and orality of Phi work in trance séance rituals and collective rituals of Phi, which are two major activities of Phi in their social lives. Corporealities of Phi’s mediums contribute to produce their ritual agencies by the fact that they are recognised as markers of how Phi show up in this world on the one hand, and as paradoxical evidence of their impossible existence on the other. Orality is also the key to social life of Phi, as oral transmission of information is made from spirits to their devotees in specific manner. Finally, this paper refers to the dividuality of Phi that enables to adapt to, negotiate with, and influence the contemporary social environment.
“Who is that Naga you made me sense by the river the other day?” Ambiguous selves in Naga medium circles of Thailand
Stephane François Rennesson Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Through one or two ethnographic narratives in Udon Thani, Thailand, I shall underline a few modes of presence of Nagas, mythical serpents worshipped for being the masters of the water cycle, being intertwined with the growth of Buddhist faith and supplying prosperity. Nagas are seen, felt, heard, asked everywhere in Northeastern Thailand, especially in Udon Thani. Some people even claim a kinship with them, having be one of them. Why and How do Nagas make their way in the human world through mediums? How do they intercede between realms, their kingdoms beneath the surface of earth, the devas in the upper sky and the worldly land we human live in? How firm, durable and exclusive are the links built by mediums with their guardian angel when it happens to be a Naga? How does it spill over ritual time per se?
Ontologies of possibility: Indeterminacy in Southeast Asian animism
Guido Sprenger University of Heidelberg
Southeast Asian animism develops from an ontology of possibility, in which certain types of beings may or may not exist and may take various appearances and agencies. The animist practices of the Rmeet in northern Laos and the Jru‘ in southern Laos serve as examples for this argument. On the one hand, the presence of spirits (phi) pervades everyday and ritual practices and discourse. On the other hand, statements of disbelief and practices of evasion are recurrent. This also corresponds with a certain fuzziness of the category as such. Sometimes, certain beings are called phi which are otherwise called by different names – such a proong, villagers who turn into monstruous blood-suckers at night. Skepticism may seem to express a desire for modernity from people who have been denigrated as backward and superstitious by their more powerful neighbors. However, I argue that such conspicuous shows of modernity emerge from animism as an ontology of practices that are both affirmative and avoiding. Scepticism is thus an integral part of relationships with spirits, just as affirmations of the likelihood of their presence.
Phi in Thai Classical Dance Drama: Text and Performance Narrative of Wanthong
Chawarote Valyamedhi National Chengchi University
Wanthong is considered one of the most famous characters from Thai folktales and literature of Khun Chang-Khun Phaen. Apart from being beloved wife and mother, Wanthong assums a role of Phii when she returns to see her only son. This paper aims at investigating narrative of Wanthong in the text and on stage of dance-drama. It is found that Wanthong as a phii is narrated as prèet according to Buddhist narrative from Buddhist literature from period to period. Appearing of Wanthong to see her son also allows staging at it best where special repertoire was composed by dance master. In facilitating Wanthong’s visit to the human world, props like prèet costume and helmet mask of Wanthong were also made, these objects are believed to have protective power and respected by Thai performing artists.
- The Island of Many Gods: Transformations with elemental power Courtney Work National Chengchi University
‘Phi’ are nonhuman beings that are known not only in all Tai languages, but also by speakers of other regional languages that have interacted with Tai-speakers over prolonged periods of time. Scholarly texts written in English tend to translate the word phi as ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’. This panel invites contributions that showcase the multiple ways in which phi manifest in everyday life. Our goal is to challenge the commonly encountered translations that associate phi first and foremost with unwanted presences of the ontologically other, whereby their ostensible invisibility functions as a marker of their ontological otherness. Inspired by the premises of ‘new animism’ and ‘the ontological turn’, we seek to question the associated tendency to rationalize phi by treating them as symbols or symptoms that stand for something else. In order to decolonize Southeast Asian studies, we argue that we need to deconstruct the myth that scholars are able to elucidate this something by relying on their objective scientific gaze.
We encourage papers that treat phi nonrepresentationally as social beings, explore their social lifes, their agency and how they affectively engage with humans and nonhumans as members of social collectives. Papers may address one or more of the following questions: Are ethnographies of phi possible? If yes, how would they look like? What are the epistemological and methodological challenges of approaching phi ethnographically? How can we translate the word phi, without being epistemologically violent? What are the limitations of ‘new animism’ and ‘the ontological turn’ when we study phi? Is it possible to utilize the premises of the ‘spectral turn’, if we truly seek to decolonize area studies?