Earlier today, I bought a cheap sweater. (I think Australians call this a “jumper.”) As any student of commodity chains knows, that sweater, sitting in a big-box store, embodied a range of economic and social processes. Follow the thing, and it leads you back to the factory where it was made, the field where the cotton was grown, etc. Follow the process, and the sweater leads you to mercantile trading floors, distant board rooms, blah blah blah. The great luxury offered by the big-box store, besides sweaters at uncomfortably low prices, is to conceal all that.
Doing ethnography, studying the workings of power—being anthropologists—brings us every day to a new awareness of uncomfortable truths. It also gives us an uncommon awareness of the literal and rhetorical devices by which we gain permission to live as if the truth were otherwise. I have led, by any definition, a privileged life, and those privileges are hard to cede, even in the face of uncomfortable truths. Awareness would seem to demand some kind of action. The only action I took was to buy the sweater. I had the option not to know, and I took it.
Permission Not to Know
Some years ago, when I lived in Bali, I worked with a man named Dewa (not his real name), who also had taken an option not to know. Dewa was born seeing spirits. In Bali, that isn’t altogether uncommon. Spirits in Bali are so numerous and demanding that Balinese women commonly spend as much as a third of their waking lives preparing, conducting, and cleaning up after the myriad offerings and ceremonies that engage with niskala, the invisible world. To most people, spirits are invisible, their presence indicated, at most, by a chill, a sudden emotional surge, or perhaps an illness or injury. Those who can see them, however, may find their presence overwhelming, even terrifying. I knew another man with this special gift, who refused to drive down certain roads or through particular valleys, for fear of the spirits that crowded there.
For a small child, the ability to see spirits can be too much to bear. Dewa was still a boy when his family reached a decision to “put away” his ability. They contacted a priest, who performed a ceremony. Just like that, the spirits were gone.
My point, in telling Dewa’s story, is not about Balinese culture or spirituality. He had a special ability to see, and it was taken away. Or, he was endowed with a new, different ability to block out elements of his perceptual environment, to safeguard his mental and emotional development. Faced with experiences so powerful that he might be damaged, even unhinged, by them, Dewa had recourse to socially sanctioned and ceremonially enforced ignorance. Impeding Dewa’s perception of the spirits around him did not dispel the spirits themselves. Seen or unseen, the spirits walked. But unburdened by awareness of them, Dewa was able to live like the rest of us. He knew disturbing truths. He had seen that the world around him teemed with wonders and terrors. But now he could pretend that it did not.
Coming Back to Vision
When I met Dewa, he was over forty, with a wife and children of his own. It would have been easy for Dewa to live the rest of his life without ever seeing such visions again. But his knowledge of the truth never left him. He had seen a part of our world that evaded most people’s sight, and even after decades of insulation, he could not unsee it. Instead, in his maturity, he decided to have this ability restored to him. A ceremony was performed, and the world was crowded with spirits yet again. This time, he had the mental strength to engage with them. In addition to his job as HR manager at an NGO, he began training for the priesthood.
I do not know what exactly triggered his decision. It may have been a purely personal choice, or one compelled by some religious or social convention, which limited his period of protection. But no protection lasts forever. When Dewa’s moment came, he acceded to the calling of his special gift. He accepted the burden of responsibility to his religion and his community. In the end, he took his blinders off. As a previous blog by Julia posits, taking your blinders off can be more powerful than leaving them on.
[Image by Ian Pollock]