Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Focus on NIAS Press: Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters. By Chris Shepherd

The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), an integrated part of the University of Copenhagen, is an academically independent Nordic research and resource centre, focusing on modern Asia from a predominantly social sciences perspective.

NIAS Press is a globally focused publisher with the rigorous academic standards expected of a university press, but with the speed and decisiveness of a commercial publisher. Its lists cover all areas of Asian Studies, but it specialises in publishing innovative research on modern east and southeast Asian society.

This week, we're exploring NIAS Press in a series of three posts. In this second post one of the Press' authors, Chris Shepherd, talks about his new book, Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Animism and Ethnography in East Timor, 1860–1975.

Chris is a semi-independent researcher affiliated with the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He researches development, colonialism, indigenous politics and the history of science, with a special interest  in East Timor.

Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Animism and Ethnography in East Timor, 1860–1975, offers a history of Western ethnography of animism in East Timor during the Portuguese period.  It offers an original synthesis of the country’s history, culture and anthropology. The book consists of ten chapters, each one a narrative of the work and experience of a particular ethnographer. Covering a selection of seminal 19th- and 20th-century ethnographies, Chris explores the relationship between spiritual beliefs, colonial administration, ethnographic interests and fieldwork experience. Bringing colonial and professional ethnography into one frame of reference, he shows that ethnographers not only bore witness to processes of transformative animism, they also exemplified them.

So, over to Chris…

I am not an anthropologist but it so happens that I have written a book about anthropology. Let me explain. About ten years ago research funding came my way for a study of rural development in East Timor (Timor-Leste). The postdoctoral fellowship had me landing in an anthropology department at the Australian National University. There, I found a tribe far more exotic and savage than I had ever encountered anywhere else (even in the depths of the Amazon). I developed a formative interest in the tribe’s enigmatic rituals, chants and behaviours; with their constant head-shaking, directed towards me, it seemed as if they were trying to communicate a deep cultural secret.

With anthropologists up and down the length of the corridor, I could not help but be curious about the writings of this unusual ethnolinguistic group. In anticipation of my fieldwork, I began to peruse anthropological texts, particularly those that promised to shed light on East Timor’s culture. Surely, I would have to know something about Timorese animism––the predominant indigenous religion, often referred to as ancestor worship––if I wanted to understand the cultural hurdles that development would confront? Surely anthropology––the discipline regarding human cultures par excellence––was the best place to turn to?

Sadly, I found anthropology texts to be no more scrutible than anthropologists themselves. Congested theory, impenetrable jargon and abstruse argument left me shaking and trembling. When I set off for Timor, animist myths, totems, taboos, rituals, and kinship structures befuddled me more than they would have had I not tackled anthropology in the first place. It is no wonder that once in the field, I ignored this thing called animism. Little did I know I would end up writing a book about it.

I eventually returned from East Timor and slunk back into the same anthropology department. My two years in Timor, however, had awakened a curiousity about the country’s past. The Portuguese colonial history and ethnography, I discovered, opened an enthralling window into the animism that the insufferably dry anthropology texts had denied me. The colonial literature gracefully interwove history and ethnography; it was beautifully written, humorous and replete with intriguing personal anecdotes; it was not puffed up with theory, laced with argument, suffocated by politial correctness or retarded by holistic notions of culture that pretended that colonialism had never happened.

Over the course of a year, my love of this colonial literature drove me to draft six chapters based on the ethnography of prominent colonial figures from 1860 to 1945. Their ethnographies were so stamped by their vocations, aspirations and personalities that I assigned to them the following chapter titles:

Chapter One: The Governor (an ethnography for Empire)
Chapter Two: The Explorer (an ethnography of obstructions)
Chapter Three: The Magistrate (an ethnography of aesthetics)
Chapter Four: The Captain (an ethnography of change)
Chapter Five: The Administrator (an ethnography of purity)
Chapter Six: The Missionary (an ethnography of extremes)

All the while, I had been conducting an unofficial ethnographic study of the anthropologists in my midst. I knew that this practically uncontacted tribe had to be documented before it went extinct, which I secretly hoped would be sooner rather than later. My burgeoning interest in these primates led me to give their writings a second chance. I returned to the books and articles of American and European (non-Portuguese) anthropologists who had conducted fieldwork in East Timor from 1960 up until the Indonesian invasion of 1975. Digging deeper into texts and footnotes, I was surprised to turn up four field anthropologists who had personalised their research experiences such that I could assemble interesting meta-ethnographic stories about them. These were subsequently enriched by the personal feedback from my anthropologist-subjects on “their” chapters. Although they were pleased to see someone examining their works in such depth, discord between them and me broke out regarding “what really happened in the field”. It must have seemed arrogant to them that I, just by reading between the lines of their monographic exertions, claimed to know things about their fieldsites that they did not.

Be that as it may, their narrative and ethographic styles were sufficiently idiosyncratic to permit the following chapter titles:

Chapter Seven: The Sentimentalist (an ethnography in Paradise)
Chapter Eight: The Theologian (an ethnography of order)
Chapter Nine: The Apprentice (an ethnography of unintended consequences)
Chapter Ten: The Detective (an ethnography of intimacy)

Across the ten chapters, the book comes together as an exploration of interpersonal encounters between foreign ethnographers and Timorese animists. To bring the subject alive, I tell heartwarming, tragic, comic and politically non-conformist stories of how Westerners became caught up in the animism they sought to govern (in the course of colonial administration) or document (in the course of anthropological fieldwork): stories of crocodiles, geckos and vipers; of witches, ancestors and ghosts; of witchdoctors, collectors and crackpots; of coffee, rice and areca; of dense forests, misty mountains and spirit-infested caverns; of field sites, cameras and notebooks; of poverty, acculturation and development; of adventures, coincidences and mishaps; of confusions, confessions and betrayals; of cruelty, friendship and love; of girls jumping off boats, administrators with their pants off, and anthropologists in dire straits.

Argument, method and theory are what make anthropology quite unreadable, unless you have been subject to the particular rites of passage that anthropologists must undergo. But a book without analytical depth is unlikely to interest an academic publisher. At first, my enlightened all-story approach fell on deaf editorial ears. Subsequently, I struck upon an argument that seemed to spring naturally from the stories contained. I proposed that the presence of outsiders in Timor precipitated a new “transformative animism”. This came about because powerful outsiders posed threats to the Timorese just as the powerful ancestor spirits had long done. Consequently, the Timorese ritualised their dealings with outsiders following their established model for appealing to spirits: now, ritual offerings had to be made to spirits and foreigners. In retropect, I am happy to have chanced upon the most ruthless and stubborn editors and peer reviewers imaginable, not just regarding argument and theory but all manner of finer details.

Minimally weighted by theory and argument, nevertheless, the end result is a book of ten engaging chapter-narratives of ethnographers that treat supposedly dominating colonials and supposedly sympathetic social scientists in much the same way. The story-telling approach, too, opens up a more evocative and emotive way of telling East Timor’s final century of colonial history than classical historiography can do; more is said about people and their oft hidden motives and desires. I wrote Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters intending it to be enjoyable and accessible. It is the simple-language book that I wish I could have read as a non-anthropologist who haplessly found himself out of his depth, first in an anthropology department on the fourth floor of a concrete jungle, and then in the verdant forests of East Timor. Haunted Houses was written mainly for my pleasure, and I trust that it will be read for yours.

Details: Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Ethnography and Animism in East Timor, 1860–1975 by Christopher J. Shepherd is published in Europe in paperback by NIAS Press, priced in local currencies. It is available in Asia through NUS Press.