Ethnographies of the Numinous: Exploring the Social Life of Phi in Thailand and Beyond


Double Panel

Part 1

Session 6
Thu 14:00-15:30 Room 3.10

Part 2

Session 7
Thu 16:00-17:30 Room 3.10



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Part 1

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‘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?