Mediating Cultural Communities

In 1967, just after the de-colonization of Algeria, Franz Fanon wrote “being colonized by a language has large implications for one’s consciousness. To speak… is to exist absolutely for the other…it means, above all, to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.1

Fanon’s thoughts are particularly relevant today, wherein past presents haunt the Ethernets, and people continue to don “white masks” so as to consider themselves universal subjects, equally participating in societies that advocate equality, abstracted from appearance. The real/virtual interface of global cultural relations places a heavy emphasis on the intercultural accountings of identity, memory and consciousness.

These transmissions affect what Jackson  refers to as “the many refractions of the core experience that we are at one and the same time part of a singular, particular, and finite world and caught up in a wider world whose horizons are effectively infinite.” 2While critiques of racism have brought attention to identity and equality, to the kinds of mutual recognitions and attunements that are necessary for co-existence, the relationship and balance of the particular and the universal, as it works its way through Ethernet or film, is often experienced with great ambivalence (Appadurai 19963, 20014; Bhabha 19945, 19966; Casey 19977, Jackson 19988.

A.Yusuf, Possessed Woman. 1995

To probe this ambivalence and its meaning for real/virtual relations, I would like to focus on examples from my work with Muslim Hausa youths of northern Nigeria. By doing this, I hope to suggest some of the real/virtual remappings of self/other relations, and newly forming intersubjective assemblages of self-reference that alter identities, memories and consciousness. More broadly, I would like to consider experiences of media in relation to the nexus of colonization, witchcraft and spirit possession, lightly framing these felt qualities of experience with a plethora of related concepts: Fanon’s “epidermalization” as an affective disjuncture between colonized self and body9; Stoller’s “embodied memories” of colonization, spirit possession and its sensorial reverberations through communities10; Damasio’s (2000) “composite memories”, those that hold a link between categories of fact and categories of internal states11; and finally, Edelman’s “qualia” or the subjective experiences of feeling and sensation12. I suggest that ambivalent experiences of media are best understood in relation to historical ruptures to the nexus of identity, memory, and consciousness, processes that become sediment within personal and collective bodies. For most of the world’s people, these ruptures include colonization, the hybridization of cultural identities, memories and consciousness, and in many cases, the explicit eradication of them. In northern Nigeria, felt experiences of violence, whether through colonization, a colonization of consciousness via the media, witchcraft, or spirit possession, map onto existing forms, and merge together to form associative sensorial references. Ambivalent experiences of the media emerge alongside newly emerging and reforming Webs of associative, sensorial reference so that depending upon their contexts, such experiences may be clarifying or obfuscating, binding or expanding, comforting or anxiety producing.

Crises Unfold

In December of 1995, five secondary school girls in the city of Kano, the commercial and religious center of northern Nigeria, held a late night party with loud music and dancing. They described seeing a haggardly old woman with disheveled red hair who complained about their noise, asking them to end their party. The girls ignored her and called her cus, a disrespectful name. In response, the woman pointed at them, angrily telling them they would dance until the end of their lives for Sumbuka, before she disappeared.

The next day these five girls began “foaming at the mouth and holding their arms like Inna,” a spirit who causes paralysis. Within several weeks, over six hundred girls at two secondary schools, one in Kano and one two hours away in Jigawa State, began complaining of similar symptoms: paralysis, crying, shouting and most remarkable, spontaneous dancing “like they do in Indian masala film”. Only ethnic Hausa girls, and girls whose families originated in Kano were affected, even though the population of one school, a government college in Jigawa State, was mixed by ethnicity, religion and home residence.

Spontaneous dancing resembling that performed in Indian masala film is a new “symptom” never before witnessed among Muslim Hausa. Moreover, the involuntary, contagious quality of the girls’ symptoms emerged alongside a meningitis epidemic that swept through northern Nigeria from November of 1995 to May of 1996. More than 75,000 cases and 8,440 deaths were recorded during this period (WHO, Veeken, Ritmeijer and Hausman )13. Though the girls’ symptoms were variably described as the result of communal stress, witchcraft and spirit possession, many Muslim Hausa spoke of spirit possession or witchcraft as sources for both the girls’ symptoms and the meningitis epidemic. Qur’anic scholar-healers, Islamist and Sufi, and sarakuna bori (spiritual leaders of an animist-Islamic religion), considered spirits from distant lands, like India, or new configurations of known spirits and witches as likely causes of these devastating crises.

Such a linking of foreign culture, spirits and biological pathogens has not emerged so powerfully since the early colonial period, when convergences of so-called “mass hysterias” and epidemics were common. So, why is this happening now? Why, after so many years, has this linking returned, and in such dramatic form? And, why only among Muslim Hausa secondary school girls?

Postcolonial Inter-subjectivities in Hausaland

In Anthropology, studies of witchcraft and spirit possession have become increasingly secularized, focusing upon the moral, political economy, gender differences and colonization as motivators for afflictions and possessions (Apter 199314; Austen 199315; Bastian 199316; Boddy 198917; Masquelier 199318; Schmoll 199319; Stoller 199520). These studies help us to link embodied expressions to historical, social traumas and hegemonies, but they neglect subjective experiences of union, enchantment or assistance which may also come through spiritual contact (Corin 199821; Lambeck 199822, Stoller 200023). In the case of the secondary school girls, “dancing like they do in Indian film” evokes romantic images of couples in love, fantasies for many young Muslim Hausa women who will likely experience arranged marriages, and in today’s economy, delayed marriages. But, rather than a fulfillment of such fantasies, the Muslim Hausa women I interviewed described feeling anxious and unhappy about their possessions. They experienced their states of possession as being “tied” or “bound”, expressing a feeling of temporary freedom after the spirits were exorcised

Through several years of research, I have found that religious leaders, schoolmasters, doctors and nurses blame youths who watch foreign films for increasing criminality, sexuality and drug and alcohol abuse. Young Muslim Hausa told me they experience extreme self-consciousness and self-censorship in response to ambivalence about their Islamic identities, about their places in modern urban Kano. Youths spoke of confusion about foreign media as sources of knowledge and degradation, as ways to connect with the global world, and as paths to hell.

Many youths reported dissociative experiences, spirit possessions and witchcraft afflictions in response to extreme self-contradictions and doubt. These liminal states are what Napier describes as “a locus for what we are, and as a stage for identifying all the strangers that we insist we are not–to show how our sense of our selves (psychologically, physically, socially) is the primary means by which we recognize culture”.24
Among Sudanese adepts of a possession cult called zar, cultural identifications are worked through the body by women who, according to Boddy, undergo possession rituals as “elaborate dramatizations of foreignness that catalyze group understandings” and “domesticate” what is foreign25. Stoller describes possession rituals among Sonhay adepts of hauka as ways to think through and to remember sociocultural and political processes, particularly colonialism, allowing them to reverberate through personal and collective bodies26. While, Masquelier (1993) describes possession among Muslim Hausa adepts of bori as the process of negotiating a moral economy between followers of bori and those of Islam27. These perspectives offer rich examples of what Marcus and Myers refer to as “intercultural accountings”, or discourses that emerge within “contact zones” or “borderlands” to elaborate upon and to share foreign cultural sensibilities28.

However, Boddy, Stoller, and Masquelier are writing about adepts of possession cults whose communities elaborate upon their dissociations and possessions by negotiating with spirits, and by paying homage to spirits and spirit families. Adepts develop ongoing relationships with spirits and spirit-human communities through which they may domesticate, rethink, remember or negotiate contested “otherness”. Alternatively, Muslim Hausa youths may undergo disparate spirit exorcisms by Qur’anic scholar-healers, Sufi and Islamist, whose “intercultural accountings” of “dancing like they do in Indian masala film” emerge out of competing modes of sensing and perceiving reality and of acquiring knowledge.

A. Yusuf, Witchcraft. 1996

In Kano, like in the Sudan and Niger, cross-roads, busy marketplaces and certain trees, are all sites of potential spirit intrusion, night is a time of vulnerability, and contradiction and doubt may be considered liminal psychic states which, through a lack of commitment, invite danger. Real/virtual interfaces map onto these pre-existing dimensions of vulnerability, so that the liminal psychic states that are worked through by zar or bori adepts, or remembered in the mimicry of hauka, may address different kinds of disjuncture between persons, their communities and foreigners. In Kano, liminality may mark a remapping of what Guattari refers to as “subjective assemblages of self-reference”, or sediments, personal and collective, not only of oppressions by colonialists, capitalists, the mass media, nor of eclectic foreign or material cultures, but of self-conscious fears and desires–the very acts of engaging newly available, expanding subjectivities29. Among Muslim Hausa youths, such acts refract contradictory, synergetic and incommensurable senses of self, immunity, bodily boundaries and social, spiritual relations that are not readily channeled, incorporated nor worked through. While most of the initial onsets of possession by the secondary school girls occurred during the period December 1995 through June of 1996, local doctors and healers reported many new and recurring states during the year that followed, some of which have never been resolved.

Contexts and Crises

In the winter of 1995, as an increasing number of secondary school girls became afflicted with what many of them considered to be witchcraft or spirit possession, thousands of people were dying from meningitis and a campaign to inoculate the approximately six million inhabitants of Kano metropolis was underway. Talk of an elderly woman, Sumbuka, who wandered through Islamic neighborhoods of the old gated city asking for water, drinking part of it, but leaving part with instructions for families to use it to wash their dead, created panic throughout the city. This woman was variably described as a spirit or witch who was responsible for both the afflictions of the secondary school girls and the deaths of thousands of Kano residents. When I arrived in June of 1996, I observed ashes on the doorsteps of several homes within the old gated city that were meant to keep the elderly woman at bay.

At the same time, stories about people entering local taxis and buses which took them to strange, faraway places became widely popular. People reported hearing Moscow, Lisbon, New Delhi and Cairo called as destination points before they disembarked in Jerusalem and telephoned relatives in Kano. Others related dreams of Zionists “taking over the world” or reported being chased and stomped into the ground by the sacred red cow. Talk about unknown spirits from faraway lands and being transported without one’s consciousness to distant places entered local discussions about contemporary possessions and afflictions. These phenomenological or felt properties of experience came to be narrated through day-to-day talk as memories of colonization and occupation.

The concurrency of these crises, and the sensations and feelings evoked by them, prompted a reevaluation among Qur’anic scholar-healers of the spiritual/communal security of local Muslims in an era of globalization. The crises increased the numbers of people receiving spirit exorcisms, and prompted new forms of exorcisms based upon the 14th century scholarship of Ibn Taymiyyah, a controversial figure who, while Sufi, cautioned against relations with the spirits. The emergence of the symptom, dancing like they do in Indian masala film, drew attention to the impact of non-Muslim cultural forms, fueling debates about youthful participations in all non-Muslim popular culture. Questions about the girls’ agencies in their spirit contacts led to discourses about their vulnerabilities and blame, and a redrawing of the boundaries between humans and spirits.
Malams Amar and Aminu (pseudonyms) exorcised many of the secondary school girls, but said they were but a small proportion of the people who were affected by changing spirit-human relations:
During the time of the Prophet, there was no computer and nowadays everything is changing. People are going away from the way of life of the Prophet. So that is why we are getting problems…we cheat ourselves. We interact with many problems that don’t concern us. That is why we are destroying the demarcation Allah built between the spirits and us. We disobeyed Allah so much that he took away all the demarcation between the jinn and us.

Malams Amar and Aminu consider participating in non-Muslim cultures via the media to be threats to personal and communal boundary, and thus, to security. Deleuzian media time-images30 that have nothing to do with succession or morality, instead offer new, potentially harmful, forms of coexistence, ordering and transformation. Dancing sequences in Indian masala film depict lovers, whose families oppose their relationships, but through erotically charged music, dance themselves into waterfalls or lush, green pastures, places far away from familial or religious controls.

Increasingly, it is necessary for Malams Amar and Aminu to telecommunicate with Muslim spirits from other parts of the globe who may have more intimate knowledge of a possessing spirit and his/her cultural community:
When the jinn came, he said he came from Lebanon. The person is a Hausa, but his tone changes. He speaks Hausa with the tone of the Lebanese. There is a spirit in Lebanon we knew and we made contact with him through that particular jinn…The person who was doing the Rukkiyya kept quiet and listened to the conversation of the two spirits in Arabic. Then later the elder spirit told us that this spirit will go out by the grace of God …whenever we come across a black spirit who is not a Muslim, we advise him to embrace Islam and direct him to one scholar among the spirits so that he will learn Islamic teachings.
By converting spirits to Islam, Malams Amar and Aminu intend to create an umma (community) of Muslim spirits who will respect the boundaries between humans and spirits.

Malams Amar and Aminu advise young people to do the same by reading the Qur’an, and by avoiding music or sound that may be “unauthorized”– difficult to comprehend and therefore, dangerous:
They listened to music and some sounds and we heard that the source of their illness, Sumbuka, was that the girls were celebrating their success on their qualifying exams so they stayed late in the night beating drums and dancing. These are all what attracts the attention of the spirits, so they came and joined the girls.

‘Yan bori play specific songs for each family of spirits, drawing them into their own cultural communities, while Sufi adepts take songs from popular Indian films, like Mother India, changing the words to praise the Prophet Mohammad 31. Such incorporations of foreign cultural forms into social-spiritual relations have been common among ‘yan bori whose pantheon of spirits reflects a veritable history of cultural contacts, but they have recently been under fire by Islamists and some Sufis concerned not only with the content of language, but with its potentially negative spiritual force.

A.Yusuf, Evil Eye. 1995

The experiential realms of colonization, spirit possession and witchcraft—to, in Fanon’s words, “exist absolutely for the other” 32and for the other’s consumptive pleasure—disrupts the communicative aspects of language. Rather, through the language of colonization, spirit possession and witchcraft, previously neutral cognitive, perceptive and affective dimensions of language become forcefully marked, affectively restructuring one’s experiences of self, identity, memory and consciousness. In these experiential realms, language is not used analytically, but persuasively to erode, to capture and to consume the other.

Self-censorship and the Media

Because the girls were unconscious during their states of possession, I would like to introduce a young Muslim Hausa by the pseudonym of Musa to contrast the girls’ unconscious states of possession, with Musa’s self-conscious dissociative experience with his attempts to mediate cultural communities. Musa gave me a copy of his personal diary as a way to help me sort through the ambivalent identifications of today’s youths. Musa struggles with his imaginings, ideas and behaviors, all of which make it difficult for him to remain religiously “pure”. He writes a section in his diary called “last chance”:
I have the Devil’s alter-nature in front of me now…I don’t think one can reach spiritual alrightness in this world of today… I am going to listen to the music I like, hoping that it will not be a source of my ruin. It seems to be a paradox, but for the meantime, it seems, I can’t help it. Yes, I stopped watching TV, reading some novels. But some of these things give one more experience in life. There is no point in stopping these when the inner self yearns for them. Yes, I will watch the TV to a reasonable extent. Because of zuhudu gudun duniya (running from unnecessary materialism) by the false self, I became apparently disconnected from my surroundings–externally. I did not realize what was happening around me. I don’t care what is happening in the country–who is who, or where is where.

Musa relates his gaps in awareness and perception to his own self-censorship and fear of revealing his origin, language and commitment to Islam. Levy’s concepts of “hypocognition”, and “hypercognition”33 are useful here as guideposts to related work about the personal shaping of cultural experience (see Hollan 199834; Obeyesekere 199035). But while Levy (1984: 228) stresses the amplifying affects of hypocognition and intrapsychic repression in the formation of dissociative states, Musa describes a synergy between hypercognition and conscious censorship that lead to his own dissociations. Much of his self-monitoring is related to the kinds of ethnic, religious and intra-religious exclusions Muslim Hausa experience from cognitively embracing or embodying foreign cultures. Self-monitoring is also endemic to what Guattari terms “zones of historical fracture”36, a scanning Sass links to the processes of modernity, itself37.

Phenomenological and cultural experiences of new media and digital networks are never unmediated, nor separate, but part of living in multiple cultural “realities”. Mediating cultural communities may be similar and synergistic with regard to sensation, perception and cognition, blurring personal and cultural boundaries, or they may offer competing, even incommensurable forms. Newly mediating cultural communities map into our existing networks–human, spirit and machine—which themselves have their own histories, memories, and evidences of “truth”. Within the contact zones or borderlands of new mediascapes, intercultural accountings allow us to navigate, to share and to elaborate upon foreign cultural sensibilities. We may undergo elaborate dramatizations of foreignness that catalyze group understandings, and domesticate what is foreign. New mediascapes provide us with venues through which to think, to remember and to anticipate sociocultural and political processes, reforming our histories, memories and communities. However, phenomenological and cultural experiences of mediating cultural communities may also produce alienation, conflict and disjuncture, marked by cultural restrictions, censorship, even violence.

For many, the worlds of spirits and witches are changing as rapidly as the world of humans through telecommunications, travel and the media, creating spiritual topographies of fear at a world level which sometimes have greater proximity to humans than do religious, political struggles. The varying emphases Muslim Hausa place upon embodied or cognitive knowledge, and whether these forms of knowledge are considered “binding” or “expanding”, “threatening” or “protective”, “comforting” or “anxiety producing” are at the heart of youthful ambivalences, themselves embedded in visual and aural signifiers of shirk (associating partners, like jinn, with Allah) and of bida (innovation). Among Muslim Hausa, the quest for healing and social justice, for dangerous desires or protections, emerge in the mixing of what are expanding possibilities for experiencing “otherness” alongside increasingly tightly bounded, exclusionary social, religious practices. In societies, like those of northern Nigeria, where the concept of the other who possesses or harms people, like that of the ‘witch’ or ‘colonizer’, is well embedded, and, where media expands the knowledge of potential others in terms of geography, communication, and cultural influence might not the concept of protecting oneself against pervasive, negative spiritual impact have special resonance and force?


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