Book Review: Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion

Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion. Rebecca Seligman, New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014, 209 pp.

This is an unconventional book based on Seligman’s innovative doctoral study of the psychophysiology of trance mediumship in Candomblé, an ecstatic Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. Though it is ethnographically based, it is not quite an ethnography, per se. The author is almost singularly focused on accounting for and explaining the phenomenon of what many refer to as spirit possession—in which select ritual votaries embody divinity through trance performance and engage in mythic enactments within the here-and-now of ceremonial life—in largely psychobiological terms. Seligman refers to her endeavor as an “adventure” in the bio-psycho-cultural ethnography of embodiment. Anyone interested in macrocultural and historical questions in the growing field of Candomblé studies may therefore be disappointed. Indeed, Seligman’s audience seems to be mainly psychological and medical anthropology.

She adopts Ian Hacking’s concept of “biolooping” to gloss the complexly recursive processes through which mind and body interact in human experience and sociocultural relations. Seligman’s analysis turns on a combination of 41 interviews, along with materials from a Brazilian psychiatric interviewing instrument with 71 persons both inside and outside the tradition in addition to impedance cardiographic data—using a noninvasive technology measuring electrical conductivity in relation to various cardiodynamic parameters with implications for autonomic nervous system functioning— from 20 Candomblistas. These materials lead Seligman to conclude that becoming a spirit medium may prove both psychologically transformative and biologically beneficial for certain persons in profoundly intimate and interconnected ways. She sets the stage for this study in a lengthy introductory chapter surveying literatures on self and embodiment and situating Candomblé as a sort of proletarian deprivation cult at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale in Brazilian society that provides subaltern oppositional psychocultural space especially for women and gay men.

Chapter Two offers an extended discussion of the pros and cons of Seligman’s mixed methods approach in new intellectual territory. She sees herself as pursuing biology as an independent variable and mediumship as the dependent one, although she acknowledges that causality is ultimately impossible to disentangle within the embodied tapestry of Candomblé religiosity. Seligman attended ceremonies and became acquainted with people in two terreiros (cult houses), through which she recruited subjects for further interviewing, questionnaires, and psychophysiological investigation.

To pursue the latter—and since it is impossible to carry and use cardiographic equipment in the favelas (slums) where most of her informants live and worship—Seligman created what she refers to as a kind of laboratory under the more controlled conditions of her apartment in a more affluent area of Salvador da Bahia. This came with tradeoffs, of course, such as increased difficulty recruiting participants for data collection. The lab itself also proved challenging. For example, Seligman didn’t anticipate the difficulty sweat in a tropical environment presented when attempting to attach cardiographic monitors to people’s bodies. She also interviewed and questioned people while their cardiography was being run to match stimuli with psychophysiological data, but confesses to having failed in preventing people from moving or gesticulating during their interviews, which introduced interference into the data stream.

Whether this scenario was “ecologically valid,” as Seligman claims (p. 55), is debatable. But she is admirably honest about these challenges and drawbacks, emphasizing the many tensions between her roles as scientist and ethnographer. She also acknowledges the smallness of her sample, hence limited statistical significance of her results from a quantitative perspective. In the face of these limitations and challenges, Seligman’s discovery of connections between psychophysiological data and ethnographic realities represents a unique accomplishment. Chapters Three, Four, and Five—the substantive chapters of this five-chapter book— explore and explicate this mixed method inquiry.

Chapter Three emphasizes the significance of illness and suffering as thresholds for recruitment to the mediumship role, since practice of this form of pragmatic popular mysticism offers the opportunity for healing and transformation. Seligman describes processes of change and reorientation within the matrix of Candomblé ethnopsychology and the lively pantheon of divinity at work within the tradition. The realities of suffering, as well as the possibilities of its transcendence, pervade Candomblé imagery and praxis. Indeed, the majority of Seligman’s informants experienced profound socioeconomic, interpersonal, or psychiatric suffering prior to initiation and then found solace and self-transformation through the process of becoming not simply religious devotees, but trance mediums in particular. On p. 90, we finally meet the first of three persons whose life histories Seligman examines, each of whom demonstrate the power of Candomblé’s complex “supercharged socialization” process for rescripting personal experience and scaffolding self-transformation, anchoring mediumship’s experiential power in its potential for psychotherapeutic efficacy.

These points are well taken. Yet not all forms or traditions of “possession” are centered on healing activity—indeed, many traditional sub- Saharan African traditions of trance mediumship are decidedly untherapeutic and some of us have developed the argument that Afro-Atlantic religions have, in fact, become progressively more therapeutic in orientation as a result of colonialism and the experience of slavery in the Americas. Thus, Seligman’s findings regarding the restorative psychobiology of trance mediumship in Candomblé should not be extrapolated to possession religion in general. Moreover, Seligman may disparage overly medicalizing analyses of trance and possession, but her own perspective is essentially medical in the sense that she accounts for recruitment to and experience of mediumship principally in terms of healing, self-transformation, and the quest for well-being.

Chapter Four “looks inside” the psychobiology of mediumship by examining the results of cardiac autonomic regulation (CAR) and electrocardiogram data, which together offer a window onto patterns of autonomic nervous system functioning with vital implications for health outcomes. Seligman collected these data from 20 Candomblistas, 10 of whom were mediums and 10 of whom were not, finding that the baseline CAR scores of mediums were significantly higher than those of the non-mediums. Though causality is impossible to unravel in these materials, Seligman helpfully discusses the ways all possible scenarios are meaningful. Her findings accord with psychophysiological work on spirituality suggesting that religious experts may exhibit enhanced autonomic cardiac regulation, though she does not specifically address what might be unique about possession-mediumship as opposed to other forms of religiosity in this regard.

Chapter Five returns to developmental trajectories of mediumship to refocus attention on incremental processes of healing and self- transformation potentiated by religious praxis with the psychophysiological perspective in mind. The key concept here is embodiment as a dynamic and recursive locus of experience and change. Seligman offers a bit more life history material from two key mediums to flesh out her discussion.

Seligman’s overall intellectual enterprise is distinctive. Moreover, her approach is characterized entirely by methodological individualism, with its usual benefits and limitations. Her perspective is also functionalist in that she is mainly interested in the health benefits of trance mediumship in relation to autonomic nervous system activity. She is neither concerned with the trajectories of any unsuccessful Candomblé mediums nor with the experiences of non-mediums in much detail.

In other words, Seligman’s focus is primarily on the positive therapeutic experiences of successful Afro-Brazilian trance mediums from a psychobiological point of view. In this regard, the study would have benefited from attention to the early history of research on Candomblé, some of which happens to have been animated by psychobiomedical concerns and inaugurated the very line of inquiry in which she is engaged here. Yet Seligman does not traffic in any Lusophone Brazilianist materials. This book will therefore speak primarily to those with interests in the psychological and medical anthropology of religion as well as the
biocultural study of embodiment and experience.

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