Reflections from our 2016 Boyer Award Winner: Aaron Denham
While most scholarly accounts of divination focus on its social functions, in A Psychodynamic Phenomenology of Nankani Interpretive Divination and the Formation of Meaning, I emphasize Nankani divination’s meaning-making features and explain how divination shapes people’s subjectivity and helps articulate uncertain or unformulated experiences. Nankani divination is interpretive, and involves engaging a range of symbolic objects and casting lots, to communicate with one’s ancestors, probe the inchoate, concealed, or mysterious, and make decisions. In this form of divination, it is the client, rather than the diviner, that provides the interpretation. The diviner is primarily a conduit to the ancestors.
Having maintained a long-term interest in psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories, I felt that studying divination was an ideal space to demonstrate what Kevin Groark referred to as the “bifocal vision” present in the concurrent use of these paradigms. In recent years, some anthropologists have explored the theoretical possibilities that cultural phenomenology and psychoanalysis can offer when used together (see Ethos 2012, 40(1)). I wanted to put these theories to work ethnographically.
The use of these perspectives provided insight into how Nankani divination mediates clients’ perceptions, internal objects, and relational dynamics through the engagement of divination’s symbolic and transitional objects. During sessions, clients bring uncertain and unformulated experiences into awareness by emplotting a narrative drawn from elements of their internal world and social concerns that percolate into consciousness, through engagement with evocative symbolic objects that represent ancestral pronouncements. The narratives from divination sessions can ultimately help organize and direct a person’s attention and enable him to act on newly acquired and formulated insights.
This paper demonstrates the usefulness of contemporary psychoanalytic frameworks and how they can, when used alongside other paradigms, facilitate the interpretation of ethnographic material with a greater sensitivity to individual processes and depth, and, importantly, offer more complex and integrative articulations of human experience.
Aaron Denham is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. His research examines the complexities of the human experience of illness, misfortune, and healing within their broader political-economic, biological, and historical contexts. His article is available through Ethos. Also available is Aaron Denham’s new ethnography, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana, available from University of Wisconsin Press.