Possibilities — Part 2, Chapter 7 : Love Magic and Political Morality in Central Madagascar, 1875–1990

By David Graeber

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Untitled Anarchism Possibilities Part 2, Chapter 7

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(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)

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Part 2, Chapter 7

7 — Love Magic and Political Morality in Central Madagascar, 1875–1990

This essay sets out from a simple question. Why is it that at the end of the last century, people in Imerina in central Madagascar seem to have universally assumed that it was men who used ody fitia, or “love medicine”—while, when I was living there between 1989 and 1991, absolutely everyone I spoke to took it for granted that it was women who did so? This question is linked to another. In both periods, love medicine was clearly the stuff of scandal. But over the last hundred years, what is scandalous about it appears to have changed. Nineteenth-century texts invariably emphasized that what were called love medicines were really forms of violence: not only did they humiliate their victims, often in spectacular ways, they also could do very real physical harm. The people I knew were just as disapproving. But what they disapproved of in love medicine was something very different: the fact that people under its influence would do whatever their enchanter told them, that they were, in effect, enslaved.

The change is all the more dramatic because if one looks at most of what was written about medicine in the nineteenth century—what we would ordinarily call “magic”—it’s almost exactly the same as what people say about medicine in the present day. You see the same lists of charms and spells, the same sorts ceremonies and ingredients: bits of wood, metal ornaments, the same colors and varieties of magical beads. What people say about the sorts of medicine used in protecting crops or helping one in lawsuits or business deals has hardly changed at all. What people say about love medicine on the other hand seemed to have transformed completely. Why? What had happened in the meantime?[136]

The Argument

For an anthropologist, one of the more unusual things about Madagascar is that it seems to lack any sense of a bygone mythical age. Most societies have a fairly clear sense of a time of origins, a time when, say, the distinctions between animals and humans and gods were not yet established, when creatures far more powerful than exist nowadays were able to create rivers and mountains and institutions like marriage, or even life itself. Often this is followed by a heroic age, in which humans, while no longer capable of such cosmic acts of creativity, were still able to wield powers that no longer exist in these current, fallen, times. In Madagascar this sort of view of history was strikingly absent. Founding ancestors, for example, were almost never represented as being in any way superhuman: they were simply men and women who traveled, farmed, and raised families just as men and women do today.

This is not to say, however, that amazing powers were not available in the past. Folktales often feature mythic heroes who, by dint of their magic charms, or ody, are able to fly through the air, turn invisible, become impervious to their enemies, or even to blast them with lightning. The point is that none of these powers are seen as limited to mythic times. Any ody mentioned in stories are assumed to still exist and to be available to anyone sufficiently determined to obtain them. Some, perhaps, were more arcane, more difficult to come by. Love medicine, by contrast, was assumed to be readily available just about anywhere. Pretty much anyone could, if they had the money or connections, get hold of the knowledge and ingredients. Most were probably available at local markets. Insofar as mythic times existed, then, people were still potentially in them; and this made the social universe unusually dangerous. The danger that someone you knew might use ody fitia was something any reasonable person had to take account of. To talk of love medicine, then, is to talk about fears: about the dangerous powers people saw lurking in their social environment, and about how those fears found shape in startling images that, in the nineteenth century, centered on women driven mad by sorcery, ripping off their clothes to run through the streets, and, in the twentieth century, on men ridden like horses by naked witches in the night. This is my central thesis: that such fantasies are ultimately fantasies about power, and the only way to understand them is by casting them in a broader political context.

Between the end of the last century, when Imerina was the center of an independent kingdom, and the time when I lived there, lie sixty-five years of French colonial occupation. The experience of colonial rule had a profound impact on popular conceptions of power and authority—by which I mean, the ways in which it was considered possible, and legitimate, to influence others. Now, the authority of ancestors and elders in highland Madagascar had long been conceived in basically negative terms: authority was seen most of all as matter of forbidding, of binding, of restraining others from acting rather than causing others to act. True, it was not the only kind of authority people recognized; the power of kings, for instance, was conceived quite differently. One effect of colonial rule, though, was that this kind of authority—I will call it “negative authority”—came to be seen as the only traditional “Malagasy” one and, as such, explicitly counterposed to relations of command, which were identified with an alien, military, government. It was the only kind of authority that was considered entirely legitimate. Nor was this simply a matter of abstract ideology. This shift appears to have entailed a genuine change in attitudes, and especially, in the standards by which people judged each other’s actions. It was this new social world which created the fears that found shape in the new images of witchcraft and love medicine.

Such an argument is a little unconventional. Feminist scholarship has long contended that traditional distinctions between “public” and “private” domains are profoundly deceptive, and that the forms of power and authority assumed to be characteristic of each are entirely interdependent. Still, there is a tendency to assume that if, say, sexual politics, or the fears and fantasies surrounding imagined dangers in domestic life have any relation to national politics, it will be as a kind of infrastructure. It is easy to imagine how the appeal of a fascist regime or nationalist movement might ultimately be based in male anxieties about a threatened loss of power in the home; much more difficult to imagine how affairs of state might have an effect on people’s most intimate anxieties. But this is precisely what I am arguing here.

Of course, it is easier to see how things might work this way in Madagascar, under a colonial regime imposed by foreign conquest and maintained by force, which did not have to maintain even the fiction of the consent of the governed. But, as an approach to colonial history, this is a bit unusual as well. First of all, I am not primarily interested in colonial policy, with what the French regime in Madagascar thought it was doing. Nor am I dealing with questions of hegemony and resistance, with the degree to which colonial institutions like schools and churches could impose their definitions of reality on the colonized, or the degree to which the colonized were able to develop their own counterposed ideologies.[137] Or not exactly. Certainly I do recognize that this happened: that people in highland Madagascar came to redefine their entire sense of what it meant to be Malagasy in opposition to what they saw as the logic of the colonial regime. But I also want to emphasize that this did not occur in a vacuum. By focusing on the question of authority, I am starting from an existing moral order with its own characteristic tensions and dilemmas, its own ways of arguing about right and wrong. Doing so casts the problem not so much as how people dealt with their conquerors—most, in fact tried as far as possible to avoid having to deal with them at all—but on how, as a result, they ended up having to reconsider their relations with each other.

On the Ethics of Magical Practice

Malagasy fanafody, or “medicine” consists mainly of objects called ody, a word usually translated “charms.” Most ody consist of bits of rare wood, often along with other ingredients, preserved in an ox-horn, wooden box, or similar receptacle. Different ingredients can act on the world in different ways, but the power that lies behind them is not seen to come from any intrinsic property of the ingredients but from the conscious agency of an invisible spirit, which the user has to invoke with prayers each time the charm is used. In ordinary conversation, though (and this is as true then as now), people do not tend to speak of ody either as objects or as spirits. They speak of them as a form of knowledge. One never says, for instance, that one suspects some person “has an” ody fitia, one says that one suspects they “know how to use” ody fitia. In common conception, ody become a kind of knowledge that extends their owner’s powers to act on the world.[138] This latter is crucial. Charms are almost never said to act on the users, but always on someone, or something, else. Love medicine, for example, is never said to make its user more attractive or desirable but always to inspire desire directly in another. On the other hand, ody are more than mere extensions of their owners; ody, or at least the more important ones, have their own will and intelligence, and their owners have to appeal to them, sacrifice to them, and generally treat them as hierarchical superiors.

Just about everyone I talked to, and every source I consulted, agreed on one thing. Medicine is governed by one absolute moral principle: to use it to harm other people is always wrong. Such behavior can never be justified. It is witchcraft, and witches (mpamosavy) are the very definition of evil. If medicine has always had a somewhat morally dubious cast to it, then it is because it has such a tremendous potential to cause harm. Only fiarovana, or medicine used for protection from harm, is entirely above suspicion. As a result, people will always try to represent their medicine as a form of protection if it is at all possible to do so.

Early sources speak of ody that can protect their owners from hail, crocodiles, guns, thieves, witches, knives, locusts, fire, and an endless assortment of other dangers. I heard practically identical lists myself. But, then as now, the protection such charms afforded took a distinctly active form. Rather than fortifying the user or her possessions against harm, they were almost always said to intervene to prevent or disrupt the harmful actions of others, though never in such a way that they could be said to be actually attacking them. An ody that provided protection against bullets, for instance, did not make the bearers’ skin invulnerable: it made those shooting at them miss, or turned their bullets into water. Charms employed in lawsuits never made the bearer’s own words more persuasive, but always prevented his antagonist from arguing effectively, or at all.

There is a very famous book called Le Tsiny et le Tody dans la pensée Malgache [Blame and Retribution in Malagasy Thought], written in 1957 by Richard Andriamanjato, then a young Protestant pastor (he has since become a major figure in national politics). In it Andriamanjato argued that since traditional Malagasy thought assumes that anything one might do will inevitably bring at least indirect harm to someone else, all action is intrinsically problematic. One can easily imagine the ethics of protection as a kind of corollary: if acting is so problematic, then at least in areas in which one is wielding extraordinary powers—for instance, the invisible powers of medicine—actions could only be entirely above question if meant to prevent the even more harmful actions of someone else. The same logic applied to the more public powers involved in communal authority as well. In my experience, the role of elders was never represented as a matter of initiating or even coordinating communal projects, but of imposing prohibitions, and stepping in to prevent younger people from taking actions likely to shatter the solidarity of the community. Ancestors are seen as acting in much the same way, imposing taboos or rules of conduct that were always stated in the negative. This is a point which will become very important as the argument develops; for now, suffice it to say that this meant love medicine, which could hardly be represented as a form of protection, was seen as lying at least on the borders of morality.

On the Inducement of States of “Amorous Madness”

“The love charm,” one missionary wrote, “gives the wearer control over the affections of any person he desires, and is chiefly in requisition by unfortunate ill-looking youths in search of a wife, or by profligate characters seeking to seduce their prey” (Haile 1893: 12–13). The assumption here, as in all the nineteenth-century sources, is that it was typically men who made use of ody fitia, even if some added that women could do so on occasion.

The reigning assumption a hundred years later, when I was living in the town of Arivonimamo in western Imerina in 1990–91, was precisely the opposite. Several women, in fact, made a great point of this to me, suggesting it provided a profound insight into the difference between male and female psychology. If a girl, they said, is attracted to a boy but finds he has no interest in her, her instinct will be to try to make him change his mind; if she appeals to medicine, she’ll try to find something that will make him love her as much as he possibly can. If a boy is turned down by a girl, he’s much more likely to get angry and look for medicine that will enable him to take revenge, say, by blasting her with lightning or driving her insane. While everyone conceded that men had been known to use love medicine, this was considered an exception. On the other hand, ambalavelona, a form of sorcery which caused its victim to be possessed by an evil ghost and thus driven insane, was often said to be employed by men against women who had rejected their sexual advances.[139]

This is useful to bear in mind while considering nineteenth-century accounts, because the ody fitia described in them can be seen as a combination of the two: that is, they punished women by driving them insane at the same time they were said to evoke love and desire.

The greatest source on nineteenth-century Merina medicine is a book by a Norwegian Lutheran missionary named Lars Vig, who lived in the far south of Imerina between 1875 and 1902. It was common practice for new converts to turn in their ody to the local missionaries, but Vig seems to have become an enthusiastic collector, quizzing their former owners on their ingredients and manner of use, and later publishing his notes. Of the 130 charms or elements of charms Vig lists, twenty-four are described as love charms. Some of these were meant to strengthen, or disrupt, existing relationships; but the majority—and these were the archetypical ones—were meant to arouse passion in a woman[140] who had proved resistant to the user’s advances.

The implicit scenario seems to have been roughly similar to the one assumed by the people I talked to in Arivonimamo: a man makes advances, the woman is “proud” (in other words she is not interested), he resorts to medicine. The charm Imahaka, for example,

helped to overcome the resistance of a “proud” woman... [It] was supposed to have the power to render women mad, of provoking amorous madness. This is the prayer one makes to it: “Listen o Imahaka. There’s a woman who is proud towards me: render her mad, demented like a rabid dog... Make it so that her heart moves, bubbles, boils, so that she can no longer be kept back by her father, by her mother, by her kin” (Vig 1969: 30–31).[141]

The woman would thus be compelled to the caster’s bed. This sort of “amorous madness” was said to be a feature of almost all such charms, but the descriptions often suggest, not a person caught up by a frenzy of desire, but one simply torn away against her will. Often, it seems as if the enchanter is acting out of a vindictive desire to humble and humiliate the woman who had rejected him. Consider, for instance, the prayer to another charm:

“...even when the woman is before the eyes of her brother,[142] or in public, may you render her so mad as to throw off her clothing to run to me. Even if the rivers are deep and the current strong, even if the day is dark and the place she lives very distant, may she be obliged to come. Even if she is hidden away and a thousand men let forth a cry of war to retain her, make it so they can do nothing”

The poor enchanted woman would be like a rabid dog, like a mad thing; “the foam would keep coming from her mouth like a rabid dog, and like a rabid dog she would fling herself about, run and run without aim or reason, and all the while raving like a lunatic. This state would continue until she came to the man who had enchanted her using the charm” (1969: 87–88).

If held back or confined in her house, the woman would be overwhelmed by fits of trembling and breathlessness; she would weep uncontrollably; she would be ravaged by fevers of malarial intensity, unable to move from her bed but hearing her enchanter’s voice in every rooster’s crow outside; or else, she might suddenly become so overpoweringly strong that it was impossible to hold her back from running off to him (1969: 84–97).

Vig himself tended to downplay the punitive, sadistic overtones in these descriptions. Noting that for a woman to be too consistently “proud” was considered an affront to sociability, he suggests that those spurned could represent themselves as acting within their rights.[143] Perhaps so: but there is little reason to think that anyone else would have taken such claims seriously. Elsewhere, Vig himself admits that love medicine was always considered to be very close to simple vindictive witchcraft, and reports that Queen Ranavalona I (1828–1861) was said to have taken such umbrage against the idea that men were driving women mad with love medicine that she sent emissaries around the country to have every known practitioner rounded up and killed.

A Professional Perspective

The one Malagasy source we have from this period, an account of the diviner’s art preserved in a collection of documents called the Tantara ny Andriana, is quite different in its tone—far less sensationalistic—though this is hardly surprising, since it appears to have been written by a mpisikidy, a diviner and specialist in the arts of medicine. Actually, says the author, there are two very different sorts of ody fitia. One is indeed a form of sorcery. Inspired by the desire for revenge, it drives its victims insane and, unless treated by a skilled diviner, will ultimately kill them. But there is also a second kind that does not cause amorous madness but instead inspires enduring mutual love. This, the diviner himself can provide: as he might, for instance, when a boy wishes to marry a girl against the wishes of her parents (Callet 1908: 106–107).

This model would seem to leave little place for most of the ody Vig collected from his parishioners, all which were apparently thought to cause only temporary madness and were certainly never fatal. But as a diviner—and potential victim of one of Ranavalona’s purges—he would hardly have wanted to leave open the possibility that the sort of love medicine he himself could provide could possibly harm anyone. Thus his separation of love and vengeance, which he takes so far as to make it impossible to tell what his evil “love medicine” has to do with love at all. What Vig’s material suggests is that, for most people, things were not nearly so clear-cut; most believed that even medicine used to inspire desire in others could have violent, punitive effects to the precise measure that the user’s desires were mixed with wounded pride and desire for revenge.

The diviner’s text fleshes out certain other details left ambiguous in Vig: for example, concerning the psychic mechanisms that were seen as lying behind the ody’s power. In nineteenth-century Imerina each person was (at least according to professional curers) said to have an ambiroa or avelo—a “double” or “reflection”—a kind of active, detachable soul that wandered in dreams and at times could wander off entirely. Soul-loss led to dizziness, erratic, confused behavior and eventually to illness and death. One of the most common ways sorcerers had of killing their victims was to separate them from their ambiroa, and one of the most common tasks for curers of the time was to retrieve them. There were a wide variety of rituals used to accomplish this, but the most common ended with the patient contemplating his own reflection in a bowl of water—a bowl that was then suddenly slapped by the curer, causing the reflection to vanish and—ideally—the soul to leap back into the startled patient’s body (Vig 1969: 92–3).[144] According to the author of the passage in the Tantara (Callet 1908: 106; cf. Vig 1969: 84, 86, 89), the ritual a mpisikidy would perform to cure a woman smitten by love medicine worked by the exactly same principle. It was necessary to call the woman’s spirit back again from where it had been taken by her seducer, and it otherwise took exactly the same form. In other words, the symptoms of “amorous madness” Vig describes were actually provoked by drawing the victim’s soul to the man working the charm, thus causing the victim herself first of all to be in a state of soul-loss (hence dizziness and confusion), and as a result, to be seized by a frantic desire to unite with her enchanter—ultimately, as a way of restoring the disrupted unity of her own self.[145]

This same diviner provides closest one can find to a nineteenth-century reference to women using ody fitia in a rather unusual moral tirade about young men from the highlands who leave their wives and families to engage in petty commerce on the coast, take local mistresses to help them with their business, and then ultimately abandon them. Often, he says, these coastal women know how to place ody on their lovers which will only begin to work once the men have returned to their wives and children in the highlands. When they do, the effects are spectacular. The victim loses all sensation in the lower half of his body, he becomes incontinent, he is impotent, he soils the floor and the bed. Eventually, he dies.[146] While the author never actually refers to these charms as ody fitia, they are treated as part of the same broad category, and he represents the women as acting out of exactly the same motives of jealous spite and desire for retribution. In fact, the words he puts in their mouth, “if he won’t be mine, he won’t be anybody else’s” (tsy ho ahy, tsy ho an’olona), are the exact words he places in the mouths of users of vindictive ody fitia (Callet 1908: 106,108). And as in the case of ody fitia, retribution takes the most visceral, tangible, and humiliating form.

Varieties of Ody Fitia Today: or, The Borders of Morality Revisited

In the nineteenth century, then, love medicine lay on the borders of witchcraft for the simple reason that it was most often employed when sexual desire was mixed with desire for revenge. Even when the ostensible purpose was winning a woman’s affections, there was likely to be a very strong current of retributive violence in its effects. After all, there would be little reason to suspect anyone had actually used ody fitia in the first place unless someone—typically a young woman—began to suffer from suggestive symptoms; in which case, her family’s first reaction would presumably be to ask if there were any men whose advances she had recently turned down.

When I was living in Arivonimamo, on the other hand, if a woman developed similar symptoms, the assumption would have been that someone was trying to drive her insane by means of a malevolent ghost.[147] The term ody fitia was normally confined to charms meant to inspire love, either as a means of seduction or as a way to inspire selfless devotion in one’s current spouse or lover. In practice, it was undue devotion that people mainly tended to remark upon. If a man suddenly became infatuated, it might never occur to anyone to wonder if medicine was involved. But if he was seen to be slavishly indulgent of his wife or lover, and most of all, if she could be said to be enriching herself or otherwise exploiting him as a result, then rumors of ody fitia would inevitably begin to circulate. This was the reason people I talked to about the matter, men as well as women, would often point out that the motivations of women who used this kind of medicine often had less to do with love than with a desire for wealth and power.

In one village I knew well, there was a woman in her forties who had married into the community some eight or nine years before; both she and her husband had children from previous marriages. After several years, the man—who, had according to his neighbors, all this time grown increasingly moody and contentious—abruptly disinherited his own children by his former marriage and adopted hers. Whatever his wife tells him, they said, he does without question. This alone was evidence enough to compel several women to make me promise never, if I visited their home, to accept any food or drink she might offer me. After all, they pointed out, she still had several unmarried daughters, and she obviously knew how to use ody fitia.

An even more dramatic case had occurred a few years earlier. One of the wealthiest men in the village, a man of very modest origins who had raised himself to prominence by marrying a local heiress, had suddenly decided at the age of fifty to divorce his wife and marry a much younger woman he had met while off on business in the nearby town of Analavory. No sooner had the woman moved in with him than she began selling off his property—houses, fields, cattle, everything she could lay her hands on—as he dutifully signed the papers, refusing to discuss the matter with other members of his family. When after a few years there was nothing left to sell, she left him for an itinerant Tandroy cattle merchant, and eventually moved back to her old home in Analavory. At this point the man had nothing left to his name except for three cows. One by one, I was told, he sold them, each time using the money to fund a trip to Analavory to beg his wife to return to him. Each time she sent him away. The third time, he collapsed in exhaustion on the road back to Arivonimamo, had to be carried home to his village, and died there the next day. Almost everyone concluded she had not only used love medicine, but finally placed some kind of charm on him that would kill him as soon as he got home.

Other ody were referred to as “kinds of ody fitia”: the two most famous were fanainga lavitra (“fetching from afar”) and tsy mihoabonga (“does not pass beyond the mountain”). The first was used to summon a person to the caster; once they fall under its effects, I was told, wherever they were or whatever they might be doing, they would fall into a trance, drop everything, and immediately travel to the caster by the quickest possible means available, not regaining consciousness until they arrived. Tsimihoa-bonga on the other hand acts to confine its victim within a certain perimeter. If the victim tried to walk out of a village they were confined to, they would suddenly find themselves turning back again without being aware of doing so; if forcibly removed, they would grow seriously ill or even die. While the archetypical users of fanainga lavitra were woman trying to force lovers to return to them, and I heard several reports of rural women who were supposed to have used tsimihoa-bonga to keep government functionaries posted to their villages from returning to their wives, these forms of medicine were often used in contexts which had nothing to do with “love.”[148]

As these examples would suggest, love medicine was typically the stuff of scandal. Most considered fanainga lavitra to be witchcraft pure and simple, no matter what the pretext for its use.[149] But if the moral standing of ody fitia had not much changed since Vig’s time, the issues involved seem to be entirely different. No one even suggested that fanainga lavitra was wrong because of the harm it could bring to its victims; in fact, it often did no immediate harm to them at all. What they stressed was that such medicine causes its victims to lose their autonomy, to act like slaves, to be completely at the will and bidding of another. And this is precisely what they stressed about more conventional forms of ody fitia as well. “If a man always does whatever his wife tells him,” one woman told me, “especially if she has him constantly out working, looking for new ways to get her money—that’s how you can tell she probably knows how to use ody fitia.”

Bear in mind that most Malagasy medicine is not said to make its victims do anything. Legitimate medicine prevents others from acting; witchcraft attacks them. In fact, almost all forms of medicine which are said to have a direct effect their victims’ behavior are considered varieties of ody fitia. And the one or two exceptions that do exist are looked on with much the same attitude of suspicion. A good case in point are ody used to protect crops from theft. Now, this is a purpose which would seem on the face of it about as intrinsically legitimate as one could get. Almost all farmers in Imerina use some variety of medicine to protect their crops, and most fields are decorated with kiady, flags of brightly colored strips of cloth and plastic or poles topped with bundled straw. These usually contain medicine said to guard against birds or animals, and perhaps also to prevent thieves from entering the field or alert the owner if they do. Some downplayed the importance of the medicine in kiady altogether, saying they were mainly just marks of ownership. Almost everyone stressed that any medicine they did contain was likely to be very mild in its effects. The really potent medicine, called kalo, tended to be buried in the ground rather than placed around the field on poles. Some kalo made thieves sick: if anyone ate food taken from the field protected by such a kalo, I was told, their feet or stomach would swell up to twice their normal size. Often they would die as a result. Almost everyone I talked to considered this simple witchcraft, not a legitimate way to protect one’s crops. A more acceptable form of kalo trapped intruders: having entered the field, a would-be thief would find himself unable to leave it until the owner returned to release him. This most considered inoffensive; but it was only one step from here to the most notorious variety of all, called kalo mampiasa or “kalo which make one work.” A proprietor could leave a shovel or basket out on his property before heading home; if anyone entered the field intending to make off with them, or with the crops, he would find himself compelled to grab the tools and start working there, digging the owner’s ditches or carrying his fertilizer for as long as it took him to return. These were clearly witchcraft, almost as reprehensible as poisoning one’s victims outright, and most of the people I knew cast quite a jaundiced eye on anyone rumored to have anything to do with them.

Background: Royal Service and Slavery

I have suggested that these new concerns were the result of a general reevaluation of modes of power and authority which followed the French conquest of Madagascar. Perhaps the easiest way to understand what happened is to follow the changing meaning of the term fanompoana, usually translated “service,” which is used throughout Madagascar to describe the obligations of subjects to their rulers and, secondarily, slaves to their masters. In early Imerina, as in most Malagasy kingdoms, obligations to rulers centered on certain ceremonial tasks, particularly the building and rebuilding of royal houses and tombs. But, in principle, such obligations were unlimited; and under the Merina government that ruled most of Madagascar during the nineteenth century, fanompoana was used to justify any number of newly created obligations, including a program of forced labor applied on a massive scale both in the provinces and in Imerina. After the French conquest, colonial authorities continued the use of forced labor, which they too referred to as fanompoana.

In most of Madagascar, the French usage was not taken very seriously. Gillian Feeley-Harnik reports that the Sakalava people of western Madagascar never referred to colonial corvée labor as fanompoana, reserving the term instead for the ritual labor they continued to perform on royal tombs and dwellings. By continuing to carry out these rituals under French rule, she suggests, they were in effect making covert assertions about what they considered legitimate authority to be (Feeley-Harnik 1991: 349).[150] In Imerina, what happened was entirely different. There, the meaning of fanompoana had already been broadened before the French arrived to include most of the institutions—church, school, and government—that were soon to become the basis of colonial rule. Most Merina, therefore, seem to have accepted that what the French imposed on them was, indeed, a kind of fanompoana. Certainly, unlike Feeley-Harnik’s Sakalava, they still refer to it as such today. The result was that the concept of fanompoana itself was thoroughly discredited. It came to be thought of not as service but as servitude, as something tantamount to slavery.

This change of meanings had profound consequences, in part because fanompoana had provided perhaps the only context in which it was considered appropriate for adults to give direct orders to each other. Within local communities and among kin, authority had long been seen most of all as a matter of imposing taboos or otherwise preventing others from acting, rather than telling people what to do.[151] Before the nineteenth century, the distinction between the two ways of exercising authority might have been little noticed; but after the French conquest, once fanompoana had become inextricably caught up in notions of servitude and foreign domination, it began to take on a broader political meaning. Traditional, ancestral authority—what I have called negative authority—became the only kind which people accepted as fully legitimate. It has come to be seen as the “Malagasy” way of doing things, and explicitly opposed to relations of command, which are seen as typical of foreigners and the French.

In other words, where other Malagasy have used relations of domination and control (and to be possessed by a spirit is to be under the control of another in about as total a form as is imaginable) to define a sort of autonomous “Malagasy” sphere for themselves in opposition to the colonizer, “Malagasy” identity in Imerina has instead come to be based on the very rejection of such relations.

It is worth pointing out again that all this was not simply ideology, a utopian image of a Malagasy identity which could be counterposed to the French regime (or, later, to the national government that replaced it.) In fact, it was not really a self-consciously formulated ideology at all. It has always remained somewhat implicit, immanent in the moral standards by which people judge each other’s actions, the traits they single out for criticism in others. I never heard anyone say “we Malagasy do not give each other orders” (such a statement would have been obviously untrue); but the whole issue of giving orders had clearly become a tremendous problem, and this in turn has had all sorts of effects on domestic and political relations. These were the issues and anxieties that took shape in fears of ody fitia.

Forms of Labor

These issues and anxieties also had their roots in Imerina’s historical experience. King Andrianampoinimerina (1789–1810) had already invoked the principle of fanompoana to draft his subjects into vast irrigation projects around the capital; but the reign of his son Radama (1810–1828) marks the real break with past traditions. After the British governor of Mauritius agreed to provide him with military trainers, missionary teachers, and artisans, Radama used the principle of fanompoana as the basis for recruiting young men for a standing army, industrial projects, and mission schools. The army allowed Radama to expand Merina rule across most of Madagascar and, over the next several decades, to bring home a steady supply of captives to be sold as slaves. The influx of slaves, in turn, was to permanently transform the demography of Imerina. Property censuses carried out in the early 1840s indicate that slaves already made up about 40% of the Merina population, and ownership was remarkably widespread.[152] Greater access to slave labor allowed the state, in turn, to make ever-greater demands on the free population. From the time of Radama I, adult males not serving in the military were organized into brigades that were called up regularly for months of fanompoana. After Queen Ranavalona II converted to Protestant Christianity in 1869, the scope of fanompoana expanded even further to include compulsory education in mission schools, building of and attendance in local churches, and a host of new labor obligations. Most of these appear to have been widely resented, even while most Merina continued to accept the underlying principle of personal service to the Sovereign.

The immediate effect on daily life was undoubtedly a vast growth in the scope of relations characterized by the direct giving and taking of orders. It is important to remember that the nineteenth-century Merina government was essentially a military government. Almost all important officials, even in the civil administration, held military rank, and civilian fanompoana brigades were organized in exactly the same way as military units. Even the schools—primary education became compulsory by the late 1870s—acted mainly as recruiting centers for the military. From the beginning, there is evidence that these principles of organization and conduct were considered profoundly alien from those which applied in everyday affairs, where authority was still imagined to be mainly a matter of preventing harmful actions. The Malagasy language did not even have a word for “order” or “command,” and the term coined, baiko, had the additional meaning of “foreign speech.”

But, even within households, this was a time when more and more of the daily interaction was taking place between masters and slaves.

In the early years, the slave population was made up overwhelmingly of women and children, who were generally under the direct authority of their owners. But as the flow of slaves into Imerina tapered off in the 1850s and the proportion of slaves born to their condition increased, so too did the proportion of adult males. Apparently, owners found it extremely difficult to keep grown men under their systematic control. While the matter needs much further research, most male and a substantial proportion of female slaves appear to have won a large measure of autonomy, becoming a floating stratum of itinerant craftsmen, porters, laborers, and petty traders, only occasionally under the direction of their masters.[153] In addition, it appears that slaves were almost the only people willing to work as wage laborers. For instance, in the 1880s, when abolitionists in England were scandalized to discover that Protestant missionaries were regularly being carried around by slaves and employing slaves as domestic servants, the missionaries insisted that despite their best efforts they had found it impossible to find anyone else willing to work for wages.[154]

In 1895, a French expeditionary force seized the Merina capital, Antananarivo. Within a year, Madagascar’s new rulers had issued a series of edicts which abolished virtually all the institutions that had been the basis of the Merina state: the monarchy, aristocratic privileges, and finally and most dramatically, the institution of slavery itself. Fanompoana, in fact, was about the only major institution left in place. If anything, forced labor probably intensified in the first years of colonial rule, with the mass levying of men for such projects as the building of roads and bridges. Of course, under the colonial regime, labor obligations applied equally to every inhabitant of Imerina, regardless of their former status; for masters and slaves to have to work side by side under foreign oversight must have made an enormous impression as a tangible expression of their newfound equality in common subjugation to the French.[155] In theory, fanompoana was only maintained for a few years. In reality, forced labor continued in one form or another until the late 1940s, maintained by an ever-changing series of laws and legal subterfuges. And, since colonists found it extremely difficult to find anyone willing to sign labor contracts, additional laws were issued exempting those holding such contracts from corvée. This allowed employers to set pretty much whatever terms they cared to, and made wage-labor appear, from the Malagasy point of view, a mere extension of forced labor, which in effect it was (Fremigacci 1975, 1978; Raison 1984: 180–84).

During the first generation of colonial rule, the old rural elite largely abandoned the countryside, finding themselves places in the administration, commerce, or liberal professions and leaving their rice fields to be sharecropped by former slaves. Those who remained quickly fell into a fairly uniform poverty. Partible inheritance and constant migration to new lands may have prevented any extreme disparities of wealth from reemerging, but the steady increase of population also ensured that most families did not have access to enough land to support themselves. This process only intensified with independence, by which time almost everyone in Imerina was forced to combine farming with crafts, petty commerce, wage-labor, or some combination of the three.

Wage-labor is by far the least popular alternative. Most descendants of free people will only fall back on agricultural day-labor when there is absolutely no alternative, and even then, prefer to work for kin on a temporary basis. In the countryside and small towns where the vast majority of Merina live, long-term relations of wage-labor between adults basically do not exist. Even in the city they are rare, outside of the very limited formal sector, which consists mainly of the government itself, and other colonial institutions. The only stratum of the population who does not share this aversion to wage-labor is composed of the descendants of slaves; still a third of the population, and still considered a caste apart, who do not, generally speaking, intermarry with the descendants of former slave-owners. With little access to land or other resources, they follow much the same occupations they did at the end of the nineteenth century. They remain the only people who are normally willing to work for wages.

Fanompoana as Slavery

Two years after the emancipation of 1896, a colonial official wrote that:

Questioned on this occasion, a woman of the highest caste of nobility, rich, the owner of numerous slaves, responded with melancholy: “What does it matter if our slaves have been freed? Haven’t all Malagasy, beginning with the Queen, now become slaves of the French?” (Carol 1898: 38–39)

If this was a mere figure of speech, it has proved a remarkably enduring one. Even when talking with very well-educated people I would often hear comments like “the French you know treated their slaves much better than the British”—referring by this to policies of colonial rule. Discussions of chattel slavery would slip seamlessly into discussions of colonialism and back. In fact, almost all political relationships, including those identified with the Merina kingdom itself, appear to have been reevaluated and largely reshaped in the popular imagination through assimilation with slavery. In modern Malagasy, the meaning of the word fanompoana is closer to the English term “servitude” than it is to “service”; it implies work carried out under threat of coercion, and is most often used as a euphemism for slavery.[156] There were any number of such euphemisms. One of the more striking was “soldier.” It took me some time to figure out that when someone recounting oral traditions referred to a lord’s “soldiers,” they usually meant his slaves. In fact, the terms “soldier” and “slave” were often used interchangeably—a startling identification, since in the nineteenth century, slaves would have been the last people ever allowed to carry guns. The connection seemed to be simply that both were people who obey orders. In oral traditions, historical relations of command always tended to be treated as so many refractions of slavery, and therefore as essentially unjust.

If slavery had the importance it did in setting the measure of all other relations, this did not mean it was a subject anyone enjoyed discussing. It was more the sort of issue that no one wanted to talk about but everyone always seemed to end up talking about anyway, if only in hushed tones and euphemistic language, whenever they talked about the past. It was as if the continuing presence of a population of ex-slaves, living in close, if often uncomfortable, proximity with the descendants of their former masters, had made the whole issue so troubling that it had to be continually hidden, until, in the end, it began to be seen as the hidden reality behind everything.[157]

This attitude was almost certainly the legacy of the early years of colonial occupation. By the time the French appeared on the scene, the meaning of fanompoana had already been broadened to include obligations to pay taxes, perform military service, attend state schools and even churches—all the institutions that were soon to become the bulwarks of the colonial state. The organization of such institutions was already seen as essentially military, based on relations in which some were giving orders and others were expected to obey without question, and therefore, as standing at a certain remove from daily life. After the French conquest, this remove became a chasm. Colonial phrase books, for instance, leave one with the impression that French officials and colonists hardly spoke to their subjects in anything but the imperative voice. In literary Malagasy, French is still known as ny teny baiko: “the language of command.” One is also reminded of the proverb aza manao Vazaha fito antrano. A Malagasy version of “too many cooks spoil the broth,” it literally means “don’t act like seven French people all in the same house”—the idea being that, if this were to happen, everyone would just sit around giving everyone else orders and nothing would get done. At the same time, in the small towns and rural villages where most of the population lived, people appear to have become increasingly averse to using imperative forms at all. When Elinor Ochs carried out a sociolinguistic study in a Merina village in the late 1960s, her informants insisted that giving direct orders to another person was not a “Malagasy” way to behave, explicitly contrasting it with the manners of the city, and the French (Ochs 1974: 131–134; 1975).

I should point out here that, while I have been following conventional usage and calling these people Merina, I never heard anyone there spontaneously refer to themselves as such. They always spoke of themselves as “Malagasy”; just as they spoke of “Malagasy” customs, “Malagasy” beliefs, and “Malagasy” forms of knowledge, all of which they defined in contrast to those they considered foreign, European or French. After the French conquest, then, all these institutions (forced labor, wage-labor, military, schools) came to be seen as so many tokens of foreign domination, analogous with slavery, and people’s identity as Malagasy became in large part defined in opposition to them. One reason the constant reminders of slavery in daily life became so embarrassing, then, was that they made clear that Merina had once treated their fellow Malagasy in the same way that foreigners were now treating them. It had become an acute contradiction within their sense of national identity.

This political identity became embedded in daily life and standards of moral judgment. The reluctance to command others openly is part of a more general aversion to any relationship in which one party is seen as directing the actions of another. I think this aversion is the real explanation for the reluctance to engage in wage-labor. Most rural people nowadays will occasionally hire themselves out as day laborers; but, when they do, they work in teams that operate autonomously. Often I found myself watching workers hired to replant or harvest someone else’s rice fields animatedly discussing how best to proceed, while their employer watched silently from a few yards away, not presuming to tell them how to go about their task. Even fathers would avoid openly directing their adult children; in fact, of all the inhabitants of a rural community, the older men who were its primary figures of authority were also the least likely to be seen giving orders in public. Their quintessential role was seen to lie in preventing any action that might prove disruptive to solidarity: breaking up fights or “admonishing” the young when their individualistic projects seem likely to lead to conflict.

Perhaps if one had shown up in a Merina village two hundred years ago, things would have not looked very different. But once the principle of fanompoana began to be identified with foreign domination, this sort of negative authority became the only kind people took to be wholly legitimate. To be Malagasy came to mean rejecting entanglement in relations of command as far as it was practical to do so.

Madagascar, of course, is no longer a French colony, but these attitudes have by no means disappeared. The rural population (and for that matter the bulk of the urban poor) still tend to see the government and governing class as existing at a certain fundamental remove from “Malagasy” life. As one might expect, the educated, urban elite, who live their lives in a context of cash employment, have a much more accepting attitude towards relations of command.[158] Even in the country, though, relations of command have not been by any means eliminated. They continue to exist, if often in rather euphemistic forms, in any number of different aspects of daily life. Teachers and bureaucrats have affected a more consensual, “Malagasy” style since independence, but the schools and offices are basically the same. Malagasy do hire one another, if rarely for very long; elders do direct other people’s actions, if usually indirectly or under a consensual veneer. Like memories of slavery, relations of command in everyday life tend to be suppressed and hidden and, as such, they become social issues much more important than they would otherwise have been.

Witches Who Go Out at Night

From here, it’s easy to see how the pieces fall together. While something like an ethic of negative authority had long existed in Imerina, during the twentieth century it came to be explicitly framed as the true “Malagasy” ethic and opposed to relations of command, which were increasingly conceived as intrinsically foreign, military, oppressive, and unjust. However, such a position was full of obvious contradictions. First of all, everyone was perfectly well aware that Malagasy people did used to treat each other this way: there were once kings, and slaves, and both still had descendants whose typical occupations were not so very different from their ancestors’. More immediately: there is a reason why all languages have imperative forms. It is absurd to imagine a society in which no one ever told anyone else what to do.

Not only was the ideal of negative authority practically impossible; it also created a social world rife with hidden purposes, in which everyone—elders most of all, perhaps—were trying to influence others to do things without being able to fully acknowledge they were doing it. It was in this social environment that people in towns and villages across Imerina began to grow increasingly concerned with the prospect of women enslaving men by means of medicine; with images of people seized by fanainga lavitra, compelled to travel to their summoners; with thieves forced to spend the night carrying baskets of manure for their intended victims. Not all of these dangers were identified with women, but many were. Perhaps the most dramatic change, in fact, involved images of witches, which during the colonial period became increasingly interwoven with ideas about ody fitia.

I should explain here that the term mpamosavy, which I have rendered “witch” or “sorcerer,” has always had two somewhat different meanings. On the one hand, it can refer to anyone—archetypally, men—driven by envy, spite, and resentment to harm others by means of medicine. But there are also “witches who go out at night,” creatures of absolute depravity who prowled the surroundings of Merina villages after dusk. These were the ultimate image of moral evil. Even in the nineteenth century, they were also seen as predominantly women:

No village is free from supposed witches, who are said to take their walks abroad at midnight to visit the tombs, on top of which they dance and revile the dead. They are said to be mainly elderly females of sinister aspect, joined by young women of bad character, with occasional male associates... At the dead of night they knock at the doors of neighbors they wish to injure, and should there be anyone sick, they howl most dismally around the house (Haile 1893: 11).[159]

Witches were said to gather together to plan and carry out their more elaborate acts of sorcery, or terrorize those keeping vigil over the dead, accompanied by wild cats and owls. They went about naked, their clothing bundled on their heads and their fingers tipped with poisons. They had tremendous, uncanny strength, could span great distances almost instantly, dove into moats or out of windows and land unscathed.

As for how these women became witches, only one source—Vig again—suggests an explanation. “According to Malagasy ideas, whoever lends himself to the adoration of a charm is drawn irresistibly to do whatever that charm’s task may be.” The power of ody, the reader will recall, was seen as coming from an invisible spirit, which gave it a consciousness and agency of its own. Witches, then, were people taken over by their own evil medicine; people who were driven by spite and resentment to harm others until finally the power of their ody drove them to band together with others of the same kind and work evil for its own sake. Indeed, most nineteenth-century descriptions of witches focus on the elaborate ceremonies bands of witches would undertake at night, including elaborate mock funerals, to make new victims waste away and die.

Many of these details still appear in descriptions of modern-day Merina witches; witches still dance on tombs, for instance, and they still have the same extraordinary physical powers. But the emphasis on malicious sorcery, mock funerals, and the like has very much faded into the background. Instead, almost everyone insisted to me that, if women ended up prowling the outskirts of villages at night, it was not because of the abuse of malicious medicine but because of the abuse of ody fitia.

The way it was commonly expressed was this: if a woman uses too much love medicine or gets love medicine that’s “too powerful” she may in the end be overwhelmed by the power of her own medicine.[160] When night falls, the ody’s spirit will take possession of its owner in much the same way an evil ghost possesses a victim of ambalavelona, or the soul of an ancient king possesses a medium. Such witches are no longer in control of their own actions: by some accounts they are not even conscious of them. “Carried” by the power of their ody, they strip off their clothes and abandon their houses to find and meet with other witches and work evil.[161] Women would usually insist that the typical witch was an old women; but I suspect this mainly reflects the fact that older women, particularly those who head households or are otherwise independent, were the most likely to be suspected by their neighbors of “going out at night.” Just about everyone I talked to who claimed to have themselves had run-ins with witches were men, and they always seemed to have a more sexualized image of a younger woman in mind.

As for what happens to a man unfortunate enough to meet up with a witch at night: here, accounts were pretty much unanimous. If you see the witch before she sees you, then, generally speaking, you’ll be able to get away. But if she sees you first, she will immediately make use of her ody and you will suddenly find yourself unable to move, or even to cry out. Once captured, the helpless victim may be tormented by the witch—or more likely by a group of them—in various (usually vaguely specified) ways. But what witches are really famous for is riding men like horses. (This is always something women do to men—people would laugh when I so much as suggested other possibilities). They mount their victims’ backs and drive them along until dawn, they make them eat dirt or abase themselves in ways too horrible to even mention, and finally abandon them, filthy and exhausted, on their doorsteps before dawn. Often, the victim awakes with only distant memories of his ordeal; sometimes he is mute for days afterwards and cannot speak of it; in extreme cases, his strength never returns to him and he dies.

In the last century, witchcraft was a nightmare image of human malevolence carried to its ultimate extremes. In the twentieth century, it has become an extension of love medicine. And if stories about love medicine told nowadays can be said to reflect a deep-seated suspicion of any sort of any relationship in which one person gains complete control of the actions of another, the image of a woman “carried” by her medicine riding a man who is “carried by” her, of a man possessed by a woman who is herself possessed by a charm, is one of control stripped of any rationale or even of any agent. An ody, after all, has no identity apart from its purpose, so that a witch’s ody is really a pure abstraction, the sheer desire to dominate others and nothing else. Stories about women who try to win over men through medicine, but who end up riding men at night, are fantasies about the principle of control bursting all possible boundaries—stories which, however, through an elaborate series of reversals and displacements, end up in a rather similar place to those about nineteenth-century ody fitia: in a highly sexualized image of degradation and cruelty.

So: Why Women?

Why, finally, should it be women in particular who are seen as embodying the frightening power of command—a power which, after all, is otherwise located mainly in images of slave-owning lords and French colonial officials? This is a subtle question, and no doubt there are many reasons, but one is obvious: Merina women tend to use the imperative form much more than men.

Ochs makes a great point of this in her analysis of speech patterns. Avoiding giving others orders in public, she said, was part of a broader feeling that one should never place others in a situation which might prove publicly embarrassing. But it was men in particular, and most of all, older men in positions of authority, who were expected to behave this way. Men were assumed to be by nature more discrete, shy, and less competitive than women, whose behavior even in public was more assertive and direct. This was even more true within the household, where women are very much in charge. Older women especially spend much of their time issuing orders and coordinating tasks, casually dispatching siblings and children off on errands. Rarely if ever did I see a man giving a direct order to a woman; but I very often saw women using the imperative form when speaking with men. Having read Ochs’ work before I arrived in Madagascar, I was rather surprised to discover how often the imperative form actually was used in such contexts. When I asked women why men were so much more reserved in public and women so forthright, they would almost invariably reply that women were responsible for running households and had to be assertive in order to do so.

But as Maurice Bloch has pointed out, it is precisely through such mild postures that older men assert their authority: by acting this way, they are seen as embodying in their own comportment the solidarity and moral unity of the community as a whole.[162] In public fora, it is women’s very direct manners, their greater propensity, if not to issue commands, then at least to make direct demands on others, to propose schemes of action, which ensures they will not be seen as real figures of authority. There are few formal barriers to women becoming elders, but in fact they only rarely do. This is not only because of styles of action. It is also because it is precisely those women who are the most obvious candidates for an independent political role, especially, the venerable women heads of large families or other older, independent women, who are most likely to be accused of “knowing ody fitia” or even “going out at night,” sufficient tarnish on anyone’s character to ensure they can never be taken seriously as public figures. For most women the only safe way to achieve a position of public influence is indirect, as the wife, mother, or daughter of some significant man. The end result of course is that Merina women (like any group with little or no access to the formal mechanisms of power) tend to acquire a reputation as manipulators, which, in turn, ends up reinforcing the impression that they are more likely than men to have access to mysterious powers to influence others through invisible means.

We are left with an image of three social levels, each with its own archetypal figure of authority. On the level of the household, this was the woman giving orders, directly overseeing household tasks; on the communal level, most closely identified with “Malagasy” tradition, the mild and self-effacing male elder, ready to step in to break up disputes and impose restrictions but otherwise a passive embodiment of solidarity; on the level of the overarching state, a whole plethora of images—the colonial official barking orders; the military officer, or gendarme; or ancient king with his retinue of “soldiers”—in every case, of figures who operate within formal hierarchies of command. If nothing else, this makes it easier to understand the political color that talk of ody fitia always seemed to take. A woman who used love medicine in fact was often said to “rule” over her husband (the same word used for kings or governments) or even to “enthralled” him.[163] Even in its most fantastic forms, where it detached itself from any human purposes and became a sheer force of domination that turned its owners into night-riding witches, it was still basically a political image, of a certain type of power distilled to its purest form and, in so far as it was also an image of utter evil, perhaps the single most dramatic statement of the ethos of negative authority. It was as if the moment a woman was in a position to exert any real authority or even influence on the communal level, she was likely to be accused of secretly drawing on arcane powers to exert a shadowy version of the very kind of foreign authority against which the communal sphere defined itself.

All this, of course, is something of an abstraction; political reality is much more complicated. For one thing, it is overwhelmingly women who actually tell these stories. On the one hand, this seems to make the narrators prime agents in their own political suppression, but since women by such means control much of the moral discourse about public affairs, it is also one of the main ways in which women do exert political influence. While there is hardly room here to go into the subtleties of practice, it might help to end with an illustration. A friend of mine from Arivonimamo told me that, when she was eight or nine, her father, then a wealthy and respected teacher, became obsessed with another woman. Before long he had moved in with her, and began running through his savings to shower her with gifts, all the time sending his wife and numerous small children back empty-handed whenever they would come begging for support. What she particularly remembers about those trips, she said, was that at dinner, the woman would be openly scraping bits of wood into his food. The psychology was no doubt complex, but at the very least, by doing so she provided him with a ready-made alibi to excuse his behavior in the eyes of his family.

Not that it was completely successful. He came back to his family a year or two later, but his daughter has barely spoken to him since.


In the beginning of this essay, I suggested that the fantasies surrounding ody fitia have always been fantasies about power. Stories about medicine were perhaps the closest thing there was to an abstract idiom in which the nature of power itself could be defined. In both periods, images of power in the raw were almost always images of women: if that is how one can interpret the nineteenth-century image of the woman invested with sudden and overwhelming strength, tearing herself from the arms of her family (from their entirely vain effort, one might say, to exert negative authority), or of night witches, with their uncanny speed and physical strength. These stories were not just a medium through which people could think about the nature of power: even more, they were a medium through which they could argue about its rights and wrongs. It was through endless arguments about hidden powers and hidden motives—about envy, sexual desire, pride, greed, resentment—that people worked out their common understandings of how it was legitimate for human beings to influence each other. In this light, it is not surprising that the basic logic of what I have been calling negative authority was first made explicit in the ethic of protection, that is, in ways of talking about the morality of medicine, long before it emerged as a way of imagining a traditional Malagasy way of exercising power over others. This also makes it easier to understand how intimate anxieties and domestic politics could have been transformed as a result. After all, these might have been ways of imagining power and authority, but they were not abstractions: they were the kind of representations, one might say, that helped to bring into being the things they represented. Political reality—and here I am referring to every sort of politics, domestic or communal, national or sexual—can never, really, be distinguished from its representations, if only because politics itself is largely a matter of manipulating and arguing about representations, of circulating stories and trying to control how those stories are interpreted.

This was a game in which Merina women were certainly as much players as were men. Yet at the same time, they labored under a peculiar disadvantage. Often, in fact, women seemed to act as agents of their own ultimate repression: circulating stories that served as profound meditations on the nature of desire and human decency, but which, at the same time, had the ultimate effect of reflecting and reinforcing men’s fears of women, and radically circumscribing the ability of women—any women—to become respected figures of authority. It was almost as if they were, somehow, the victims of their own psychological insight. Certainly, just as most of the best story-tellers I knew in Arivonimamo were women, so were most of the most acute social psychologists and social theorists. To some degree, of course, their sensitivity to their surroundings was itself an effect of their relative lack of social power: a large part of privilege, anywhere, is the luxury of being able to remain oblivious to much of what goes on around one. The most troubling questions, it seems to me, are two-fold. The first is how that greater perceptiveness and sensitivity to one’s social environment itself seems to contribute to women’s ultimate subordination. The second is how this still seems to happen where women’s moral reflections are one of the principal media for social changes that in almost every other way dramatically anti-authoritarian. What has happened in rural Imerina over the last century could even, by certain definitions, be described as a revolution. The trauma of colonial rule sparked a profound reassessment of the very nature of power and authority. That reassessment was couched in the terms already familiar to rural people—such as the logic of protection—but as a result, rural people’s relations with one another genuinely changed. All this ensured that when the power of colonial (and colonial-inspired) regimes went into retreat, in part in the face of persistent passive resistance, political life itself had changed as well. It had become in most ways far more egalitarian than it appears to have been in, say, in the nineteenth century. Women played a crucial role in all of this; yet at the same time, they did so in ways that ended up guaranteeing that gender relations remain among the least affected by the change.


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From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org

(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)


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