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Strategic ignorance of witchcraft

Witchcraft as Zivilisationskritik

In June 2015, one of East Timor’s most admired politicians suddenly broke down during a visit to the town of Suai and died shortly thereafter; it was revealed that he’d had a stroke. Work had brought the much-loved former resistance leader to Suai, where the East Timorese government is currently implementing a large-scale, multi-million-dollar oil infrastructure development project. By the summer of 2015, preparation for the project’s implementation was in full swing: land for the project had been identified, landowners had received millions of dollars in financial compensation, and construction of an international airport had begun.

Many theories circulated about the leader’s sudden death. One recurrent suggestion was that he had become the victim of a witchcraft attack. Reasons for this were identified in his personal life, but were also associated with the location where he died. Suai is said to be a place where witchcraft is rife and witchcraft attacks are on the rise. There are also historical reports of killings of alleged witches taking place in Suai some years after the onslaught of the Indonesian occupation in 1975. Friends living in East Timor’s capital, Dili, warned me about the perils of witchcraft attacks when they found out I had been travelling to Suai. When I nevertheless returned to Suai, one of my research assistants, who was from Dili, would only leave the house with a special mouth cover.

In Suai, there is a striking concurrence between the increase in witchcraft and the start of the oil development project. This has brought a great influx of compensation money, some foreign workers, rising inequality, social tension, ongoing transformation and radical revamping of the local landscape, and drastic changes in the means of subsistence. Anthropological interpretations that see witchcraft as a critical commentary on the dark sides of modernity immediately come to mind – oil development offering itself as a case par excellence of the exploitative dimensions of global capitalism.

Nils Bubandt’s meticulous and provocative study of witchcraft in eastern Indonesia encourages us to rethink such interpretations. Whilst acknowledging the importance of arguments about the ‘modernity of witchcraft’ (p. 239), and their role in de-exoticising witchcraft, Bubandt’s innovative book The Empty Seashell makes a powerful case against seeing witchcraft as ‘vernacular Zivilisationskritik’ (p. 13). ‘The rise of witchcraft and other “occult economies”’, he argues, is ‘“overdetermined” by the contemporary condition of global capitalism and its impact on local relations’ (p. 13).

In Buli, on the island of Halmahera (Maluku, eastern Indonesia), witchcraft is not a critique of the ‘“hidden mechanics” of global modernity’ (p. 13), Bubandt argues. Instead, Buli looks to modernity in order to search for solutions to the problem of witchcraft. Historical shifts and influences – including Christianity, New Order authoritarianism, mining, and the advances of technology – all embodied the promise of putting an end to witchcraft. Buli’s ‘nostalgia for the future’ (p. 179) is driven by the hope to find an answer to the aporia of witchcraft one day.

Witchcraft as aporia 

The philosophical concept of aporia – ‘a puzzle’ (p. 34) – is at the heart of Bubandt’s work. Seen by Aristotle as the ‘productive essence of existential philosophy’ (p. 35), aporia in Derrida’s thinking came to stand for ‘the inherent instability of all systems of meaning’ (p. 36). Witchcraft, in Buli, is ambivalent, indeterminable, and puzzling – an object of constant expressions of uncertainty and doubt – and, importantly, it is fundamentally unknowable. Like aporias that (according to Derrida) haunt the Western philosophical tradition, witchcraft takes on the role of destabilising, and estranging us from, meaning (pp. 36–37).

One of the most harrowing aspects of witchcraft in Buli is that it is possible to be a witch (gua) without knowing it. This is because gua-spirits use humans as their hosts in order to carry out their attacks. When a person finds a living seashell, it is a sign that they are a gua. Hence, an empty seashell, while a momentary relief to its finder, is also a constant reminder of the hidden reality of witchcraft. Bubandt explains, ‘In Buli, these empty shells are like traces of a crime, indices of a dreaded possibility’ (p. 1); the gua is reality ‘under erasure’, since its meaning is ‘both confirmed and undermined by its own reality’ (p. 1).

The aporetic nature of witchcraft is skilfully unravelled chapter by chapter in The Empty Seashell. As a constituent of the origin of life and the composition of the environment, this aporia is fundamental to the very existence of humanity. Bubandt examines the mythological ‘grounding’ (p. 63) of witchcraft in three origin narratives that posit contrasting understandings of its nature and genesis (Chapter 2). The question of whether witchcraft is something that is inherent (and perhaps even inherited) in certain humans or the result of a person’s particular emotional inclinations (p. 72) is never resolved and emerges as aporia in daily interactions.

The terror of witchcraft comes not just from its frequency – Bubandt recorded 120 cases of witchcraft illness in Buli between 1991 and 2012 (p. 25) – but also from the visceral and vicious nature of witchcraft attacks (Chapter 5). Witches beat, torture, and sexually molest their victims, eating their livers (considered to be the seat of one’s life force and emotions in much of Southeast Asia). Gua turn human hosts into ‘intestine boats’ (p. 141), attacking their victims through bodily orifices and bringing about the total destruction of the victim’s body from the inside. Witchcraft is described as ‘eating and being eaten’ (p. 119). One of the puzzles of witchcraft is that only the witch truly has the knowledge to cure someone suffering from witchcraft illness; yet even if a witch agrees to administer such a cure, there is always a risk that poison might be administered instead.

Another excruciating feature of Buli witchcraft is that witches take away the victim’s memory of the attack, closing the wounds left behind with their long tongues so that the victim sees no external scars. Hence, when a person falls ill, it is not always immediately clear whether it is the result of a witchcraft attack, producing a range of theories and suspicions. Sometimes the victim comes to remember the attack (the witch gives the memory back), but this usually only occurs when death is already certain. Hence, not knowing about an attack might be preferable in some cases, since knowledge can be a sign that the attack will be fatal.

Through minute descriptions of how ‘event histories’ are constructed around individual cases of witchcraft illness, Bubandt gives us a vivid picture of how the aporetic nature of witchcraft never ceases to menace social relationships in Buli. This is because witchcraft is distinctly local (p. 4) and witches are most likely to be friends, relatives, or neighbours. Bubandt extends his insights back in time for a historical reconstruction of how witchcraft has shaped the ways in which Buli have approached the transformative historical forces they have encountered.

Bubandt connects the sudden mass conversion of Buli to Christianity in 1901 (Chapter 3) to the expectation that the enthusiastic embrace of Christianity would lead to the end of witchcraft. However, Buli dropped Christianity like a hot potato when the missionaries’ promises were exposed as lies, and by 1933, Christianity had come to be identified with deception: the dead did not come back to life, and witchcraft was not eradicated (Chapter 4). Suspicions grew towards those villagers who clung to Christianity – witchcraft ‘stole itself into Christianity’ (p. 106). It is precisely because of the unknowability of witchcraft that it is able to re-emerge again and again in new disguises.

In the end, however, Christianity won out: today most Buli are Christian, ascribing earlier scepticism towards Christianity to the ‘backwardness’ or ‘stupidity’ of their ancestors (Chapter 5). Conversion is now understood as a conversion from the ‘ignorance of tradition’ to the ‘knowledge of modernity’ (p. 109). Yet witchcraft always seems to smuggle itself back in. Bubandt chases the aporetic nature of witchcraft further throughout history, connecting it both with the initial acceptance of the authoritarian New Order regime of the Indonesian state (Chapter 6) and with the contemporary embrace of modern technologies (Chapter 7). Whilst the ‘high modernism’ of the New Order state had a unique appeal due to its promise to end witchcraft, the refusal of government officials to take action against persons identified as witches made the state complicit. Similarly, the anticipated capacity of technology to drive out witchcraft has been undermined by a gua’s ‘auto-immunity’ (p. 223), namely its distinct interest in technology and ability to co-opt a human or non-human vessel for its evil deeds.

Witchcraft as the unknown

Bubandt describes Buli history as a quest to eradicate and come to terms with the ‘interminable experience’ of witchcraft, which seems to become stronger the more people try to eradicate it (p. xii). Underlying the tenacity of witchcraft are its invisibility and, as explained above, its fundamental unknowability. It is for this reason that people mine modernity for an answer to the problem of witchcraft, and not the inverse. There is a primordial dimension to witchcraft in Buli (p. 5), yet people are never 100 per cent sure whether a particular illness was really a result of witchcraft. Bubandt’s meticulous dissection of witchcraft allegations and illness shows how the uncertainty surrounding witchcraft intensifies both its virulence and its menace. People move back and forth in their positions as they try to understand why people they care about are struck by illness or death.

It is this instability that allows Bubandt to make the argument that witchcraft ‘is a condition of doubt’ (p. 6) that is never at rest. Rather than a clearly delineated object that has a social function, witchcraft as aporia entails a critique of the very concept of ‘belief’ (p. 7 and Conclusion): ‘A form of indeterminacy that has no clear meaning and comes with no evident social power, witchcraft in Buli is always in doubt’ (p. 5). Bubandt’s goal is to critically engage with the notion of ‘witchcraft beliefs’; by illustrating how witchcraft cannot be domesticated into a system of meaning, he wants to move us beyond the very concept of belief (Conclusion, p. 236 onwards).

Bubandt criticises the tendency to ascribe a ‘tool-like’ function to witchcraft – not just in more classic studies, such as Evans-Pritchard’s identification of witchcraft as the basis for a moral system (p. 53), but also in more recent studies that have emphasised the ambiguity of witchcraft, then ‘re-domesticated’ this ambiguity by ‘making sense’ of it in terms of the ‘outside condition’ of modernity. Doubt is re-domesticated into meaning (p. 11). In his critique of the ‘tool-like’ qualities ascribed to witchcraft, Bubandt aligns himself with Morten Pedersen’s critique of ‘symbolic functionalism’, namely the tendency to imbue the spirit world with ‘a certain kind of hermeneutic power’ (p. 11). Bubandt’s solution is not to focus on ‘radical alterity’, but to concentrate analytically on doubt and ambivalence in order to unsettle these meaning-making accounts.

When reading The Empty Seashell, one cannot help but wonder to what extent Bubandt’s critique of ‘witchcraft beliefs’ should be applied to other anthropological certainties. Christina Toren (2007: 308) once criticised the idea that ‘we characterise as belief what our informants know’; a similar sentiment is echoed in Bubandt’s frustration that we ascribe ‘beliefs’ to non-Western others and ‘knowledge’ to Western selves (p. 12; cf. Sanders 2016: 494–95). However, as Keane has already pointed out, Bubandt’s critique of the anthropological concept of ‘belief’ only works if we define belief as rigid, ‘fully coherent, wholly and unquestioningly adhered to’ (Keane 2016: 507).

Given these problems surrounding the concept of belief, it might be more useful to highlight a different aspect of Bubandt’s analysis, namely the identification of witchcraft not with something other than belief, but instead with something other than knowledge. Whilst doubt or uncertainty might characterise our relationship with a whole range of visible or invisible phenomena, one of the most interesting features of Bubandt’s analysis is his observation that knowledge about witchcraft is incriminating. There is a fundamental contradiction about Buli witchcraft which cannot be so easily applied to other aspects of Buli life, namely the fact that only a witch knows about witchcraft; knowing about witchcraft thus makes you guilty, just as finding a live nautilus does (p. 8). So while Toren encourages us to think about ideas that we used to label ‘belief’ as ‘knowledge’ instead, Bubandt’s argument could be interpreted to mean that what we once called ‘witchcraft beliefs’ is a form of non-knowledge, or perhaps even anti-knowledge. There is a need for strategic ignorance about witchcraft, since not knowing is a way of demonstrating one’s own innocence.

This emphasis on the fact that witchcraft is fundamentally unknowable is, in my view, what makes Bubandt’s analysis so productive. Buli witchcraft is unknowable precisely because knowledge about it is dangerous. By refusing to have the unknown domesticated into a meaning-making explanation, he is putting forward a radically different analytical approach that posits the unknown as the starting point for – and foundation of – analysis, echoing David Graeber’s (2015: 22–24) recent argument in favour of a ‘critical realist’ approach that posits reality as that which can never be known completely. Whilst Sanders (2016: 496) draws attention to the problems of ‘denying explanation of any kind’, Bubandt shows how socially productive the unknown can be. Domesticating it back into meaning, he argues, does not do justice to the intense fear and terror that witchcraft produces in Buli.

Witchcraft beyond explanation?

Given how much Bubandt emphasises the uncertainty and inaccessibility of Buli witchcraft, it is striking how much he has managed to find out about it. The Empty Seashell is not just filled with fine-grained descriptions of numerous cases of witchcraft suspicions and illness, but also contains drawings, diagrams, and detailed accounts of attacks, bodily particularities, and witchcraft technologies.

This, in my view, attests to Bubandt’s immense skill as a fieldworker, the length of his research (35 months over 21 years), and the extraordinary quality and intimacy of the relations he managed to establish in Buli. Even after many years of fieldwork in East Timor, I would have been hesitant to allow myself to be seen as having such a distinct interest in such a potentially self-incriminating topic. Yet, given Bubandt’s detailed ethnographic descriptions, it is fair to say that witchcraft is not entirely unknowable, despite the uncertainty and doubt that surrounds it. There is, one might say, a need for partial ignorance of witchcraft: one needs to know little about it in order to avoid being suspected oneself, yet just enough to take appropriate precautions against it.

It is because of the immense space that doubt, ignorance, and uncertainty take up in the book as a whole that Chapter 7 – which deals with subjectivity, exchange, and opacity – is so revealing. Here we learn about the forms of sociality that negate witchcraft – that stand in contrast to its relentless and destructive force, its menacing absence. Witchcraft-negating conduct includes ‘a constant vigilance against speech and behavior motivated by stinginess, greed, arrogance, and disrespect’ (p. 193); it involves reciprocal forms of relating to affines, the importance of humility and respect, of ‘making oneself small’ (p. 200) and not being ‘angry about one’s share’; and it also incorporates the art of ritual speech, where humility can be skilfully turned into an assertion of authority.

Everyone reads books through the lens of their own experience. Perhaps Chapter 7 speaks to me so strongly because I recognise so much of East Timor in it. Similar to Buli gua, who use humans as their hosts when they appear to be arrogant or greedy, the Timorese buang usually attack out of envy or greed and target those who are stingy. In East Timor, being shy, timid, and humble (moe) are ways of avoiding offence and hence attracting unwanted attention. Witches attack those who refuse to share, those who make themselves ‘big’, or those whom they envy. This is why in East Timor, like in Buli, interactions with friends, kin, affines, and neighbours involve a ‘delicate balancing act between neither being completely taken in by all demands of reciprocity, nor entirely extracting oneself from them’ (p. 206). The recent boom in witchcraft attacks in Suai that I discussed at the beginning was revealing in this regard, because what else does oil development produce but an unequal distribution of material advantages?

Themes that re-emerge with an obtrusive persistence in Bubandt’s experiences of witchcraft, as well as my own, include stinginess, envy, greed, and arrogance. Avoiding such conduct is one way of avoiding witchcraft attacks, even if one is never really safe. One wonders whether Bubandt perhaps dismissed Evans-Pritchard’s emphasis on the ethical dimension of witchcraft accusations a bit too quickly, since, as Keane (2015: 507) has also pointed out, Buli witchcraft violates ‘the core ethical norms of social existence’. Whilst acknowledging the ‘ethics of caution’ the threat of witchcraft puts into place, according to Bubandt witchcraft has ‘no social function, makes no sense and explains nothing’ (p. 14). Does Bubandt’s rejection of explanations lead him to to withdraw analytically from the ethical dimension of strategic witchcraft ignorance and avoidance that comes across so strongly in his empirical descriptions? Does he strategically ignore the connection between envy and witchcraft that runs throughout his book in order to be able to make an argument that goes beyond belief (as narrowly defined) and that defies the fangs of functionalism?

It seems to me that it might be possible after all to acknowledge the socially and politically productive dimensions of witchcraft without taming it as a sense- or meaning-making concept. And taking witchcraft, doubt, and the unknown as an analytical starting point does not preclude the possibility of exploring the relationship between the effects of global capitalism and witchcraft. In East Timor, there is a clear affinity between the proliferation of witchcraft and the inequalities of global capitalism. If social inequalities are increased through capitalist oil development, and witches attack those whom they envy or those who refuse to share, it follows that witchcraft proliferates alongside growing inequality. However, that does not mean witchcraft is a function of capitalism or explained by it.

We can accept Bubandt’s convincing argument about the unknowability of witchcraft and its aporetic nature – its philosophical dimension, according to Sanders (2016: 497) – without giving up on identifying (and theorising) affinities with certain socio-political or historical trends (its sociological dimension, according to Sanders 2016: 493). After all, in the conclusion of The Empty Seashell, Bubandt does allow himself to ask, ‘What kind of history is enabled, and what kind of sociality is disabled, by the impossible reality of witchcraft?’ (p. 236). We are perhaps not so far removed from the search for an explanation, even if that which we seek to explain can never be fully known. Maybe it is in recognising our own desire for meaning that we come closest to appreciating Buli’s pressing desire to find an answer to the aporia of witchcraft.


Graeber, D., 2015. Radical alterity is just another way of saying ‘reality’: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5(2), pp. 1–41.

Keane, W., 2016. If people don’t know themselves, can they inhabit an ontology? HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6(1), pp. 505–09.

Sanders, T., 2016. The pendulum swings. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6(1), pp. 493–98.

Toren, C., 2007. How Do We Know What Is True? In Questions of Anthropology, Rita Astuti, Jonathan Parry, and Charles Stafford (eds.), pp. 307-226. Oxford and New York: Berg.

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