In his essay on the role of ‘authenticity’ in anthropological thought, writing and praxis, Charles Lindholm commented that whereas anthropologists have long been ‘scavenging for the vestiges of a vanishing authenticity’ they now generally take up the more lofty position of ‘floating above local claims for transcendence or truth’ and have made it their main business to ‘demonstrate again and again that these claims are political and ideological representations supplied by self-interested parties pursuing domination’ (2002:334).

I can only agree with Lindholm’s observation. Say that something is ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ and a multitude of anthropologists (in immediate, almost Pavlovian response) will set out to explain to you how you failed to recognize the constructedness of this ‘authentic something’ of yours. This response is of course not univocal: some (in a Derridean or Baudrillardean vein) will talk about the mere constructedness of life worlds. Others will stress that life worlds are perceived by people as being ‘not of their own making’ (in the Marxist sense), or as something in which they are ‘hineingestellt’ (in the Weberian sense). Yet as different as such positions may be, they have a similar effect in contemporary anthropological writing and thinking in that they question the ontology of other people’s realities. Whether it is Foucault’s notion of ‘discourse’, Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’, Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’, Hobsbawm’s ‘invented tradition’, MacCannel’s ‘staged authenticity’, Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ or Appadurai’s ‘disjuncted worldorder’, in all of their diversity, these terms help us to show how all that was presented to us as natural, God given, common sensical, and of-times-immemorial is in fact made-up. In a million different ways the anthropologist has been taught to say: they may think it is all very real what they are doing and saying, but this is what it really is: a construct!

To be fair, this is indeed what I tell my students when they write papers in which notions of gender, race, ethnicity or the nation are not sufficiently questioned, or traditions and rituals are accepted for what informants take them to be. What’s more, I think that showing the made-up in the taken-for-granted is -- and should remain -- one of the major tasks of anthropologists. As Richard Handler reminds us, ‘despite the recent persuasiveness of constructivism in social science, objectivist notions of authenticity remain hegemonic in many late-capitalist institutions, such as the art market, museums and courts of law’ (2001:964). Those with a more political inclination might add that there are simply too many fundamentalists around these days -- of all backgrounds and beliefs - to give up on infusing some doubts here and there. Or that, in a world where the demand for essentializing and totalizing discourses seems to be on the rise, it still makes sense to hold up a mirror that reveals how such narratives are stitched together.

Nonetheless, I’m increasingly unsatisfied with what I perceive as a constant incentive to argue the made-up-ness of life worlds, i.e. to focus on the make-believe rather than the act of believing itself. I readily admit that there are a number of idiosyncratic (and therefore probably less interesting) sentiments that go into this dissatisfaction -- a certain tediousness with making the same argumentative move over and over again; a growing curiosity why this taboo on arguing the possibility of something being genuinely or essentially or even simply ‘true’ is upheld with such fervor (and consequently, the wish to rebel against it); and a slight irritation over the ease with which anthropologists point out the made-up and make-believe in other people’s realities, while remaining silent when it concerns the made-up and make-believe in our own academic institutions or personal lives. Yet my dissatisfaction also stems from major theoretical problems with the current directive that wherever authenticity is mentioned it should be deconstructed as (merely) invented. I think these problems have not sufficiently been recognized or addressed.

In philosophical terms, Yannis Stavrakakis has rightly pointed out a blind spot in constructivist approaches to reality. On the one hand, constructivism reduces everything to the level of construction, whereas on the other hand, constructivism itself occupies a meta-linguistic or essentialist position outside construction (1999:66). In other words, while attacking all essentialisms, constructivism itself has taken-up an essentialist position, and fails to answer (or even address) the question how its own truths ought to be deconstructed. For what is beyond the constructedness of things? In Truth and Truthfulness. An Essay in Genealogy (2002), Bernard Williams makes a similar point. He discusses constructivist practices in history, and gives due credit to historians who have shown just how much power relations determine the way that histories are told and remembered. Nonetheless, he raises some difficult issues. ‘Those who say that all historical accounts are ideological constructs …rely on some story which must itself claim historical truth’ (2002:2), says Williams. But rarely -- if ever -- do we read what story that is. Indeed, ‘it is remarkable how complacent some ‘deconstructive’ historians are about the status of the history that they deploy themselves’ (2002:2).

Now, anthropologists may be less concerned with the question whether or not the constructivist paradigm is ultimately tenable. There are, however, urgent reasons why we ought to take notice of these critiques. While we have become very good at laying bare the man-made, historical and ultimately contingent character of the cultural orders and belief systems that people live by, we seldom ask how the people we study manage to transcend the constructedness of their life worlds. Earlier studies (on ritual, for example) did address issues of transcendence and belief -- especially when highlighting the experiential modes through which the Sacred manifested itself (one might think of Emile Durkheim’s discussion of effervescence, Victor Turner’s notion of communitas, or Roy Rappaport’s discussion of the numinous). One might also point out that Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of habitus is a clear attempt to look beyond the constructedness of things, and I’m pretty sure the growing interest of anthropologists in phenomenology, embodiment and psychoanalysis reveals an (at times but vaguely recognized) discontent with the constructivist project – a yearning for a rocky hardcore around which these constructions are built. Such trends notwithstanding, a concern with what welds a worldview together, rather than what breaks it up, seems to be somewhat out of tune with the dominant voices in anthropology today. The focus is on the stitches and the seams, on the warp and weft that becomes ever more visible as the social fabric is falling apart, on the widening holes and the fraying around the edges. Time and again we are told (or, one way or the other, reproduce the statement) that symbolic worlds are in disarray as migration involves ever more groups in ever-larger numbers and capitalism has advanced into the furthest outposts of the globe. Over and over we point out the pluralisation of life worlds and ‘the instantaneity and disposability of values, life-styles, stable relationships, and attachments to things, buildings, places, people, and received ways of doing and being’ (Harvey 1989).  Even if we don’t mean to say it, terms such as hybridity, creolisation, syncretism, or ‘glocalization’ strongly suggest the assembled character of people’s life worlds.

Portrayals of late modern subjectivities are congruous with the unglued universes that one encounters in contemporary anthropological writing. We read (and write) that people have lost faith in the ‘givenness’ of cultural categories and ‘given the growing multiplicity, contingency, and apparent fungibility of the identities available to persons in the contemporary world, there is a growing sense of radical social uncertainty about people, situations, events, norms, and even cosmologies’ as Arjun Appadurai puts it (1998). We read about the profound sense of alienation that haunts modern lives where ‘...identities can be adopted and discarded like a change of costume’ (Bauman 1998:88) and where there seems to be no other option than to assemble and re-assemble a more or less suitable -- but at all times provisional -- Self from whatever the consumer market and culture industry is offering through the media (Torgovnick 1990; Giddins 1991). Stavrakakis paints the ailments of this modern subject in particular gloomy hues:

Division and disharmony are constitutive of the human condition. The experience of modernity, the death of God, in other words the dislocation of external universal markers of certainty, brought to the fore a sense of history with no guaranteed eschatological or other meaning and made visible the contingency of existence in its naked horror. (Stavrakakis 1999:136)

The arguments are compelling, in the sense that one has no trouble to recognize these portrayals of the postmodern subject. The ethnographic examples that come to mind are convincing too. What else but alienated could the Chippewa Indians be who daily perform themselves to the tourists coming to Lac du Flambeau (Nesper 2003)? What else but fragmentation could characterize the subject that was raised in front of the TV with a remote control in the hand and socialized in the universe of the shopping mall?

And yet, the miracle -- one is tempted to say -- is that most people do not seem to experience their life worlds as fake. Nor do they perceive themselves as merely invented. They also do not seem to suffer greatly from the feeling that their life course is lacking necessity, or that their convictions are being adrift in a sea of opinion with nothing to hold on to. Such inklings may bother some, at particular moments of crisis, but against all the odds – or maybe one should say: against all philosophical considerations and anthropological findings-- people seem to be quite capable to convince themselves that they are in possession of authentic Selves and living authentic lives. As Lindholm puts it:

…the human desire for the experience of the divine spark does not vanish simply because that experience becomes difficult to achieve. Instead, it is more likely that the quest for a felt authentic grounding becomes increasingly pressing as certainty is eroded and the boundaries of the real lose their taken-for-granted validity (2002:336, italics mine)

It is here that a whole field of study and research opens up. What I would like to suggest is that our deconstructions should take the possibility of authenticity more serious, in the sense that at all times our analysis should include an account of the continuous human effort that goes into manufacturing and maintaining a sense of ‘authentic grounding’. What needs to be studied are processes of sacralization (and since anthropologists have a long tradition in doing so, this is basically a question of going back to abandoned research agendas). What needs to be described and analyzed are the techniques and the resources that people have at their disposal to believe, in the sense of taking things to be true.

Since I understand this project to be not an invitation for more philosophy, but as an invitation for more ethnography, I will continue this essay by pointing out what I have learned on these matters in the three different research sites where I have worked: Serbia during the wars of the 1990s, the Dutch criminal underworld, and the world of candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian spirit possession cult that, in a relatively brief period, saw itself coming in the grip of the forces of globalization, and is now subjected to all kinds of commodification. In each of these worlds – which, in the pages available to me, can only be sketched in a way that hardly deserves the label ‘ethnographic’ -- I had no trouble to indicate that the kind of ontological certainty to which the notion of authenticity refers was under siege. The quest for ‘a felt authentic grounding’ of which Lindholm speaks was almost palpable. What I hope to show by (re-)entering these worlds in crisis is that when we want to grasp the manufacturing and maintenance of ‘authenticity’, far greater attention is required to the various ‘registers’ through which this sense of authenticity comes about.

I take a ‘register’ to be a specific mode in which communication takes place -- a mode that brings certain experiential fields ‘into resonance’ (in analogy with the way that the sound of stringed instruments attains ‘depth’ because a string, when brought into vibration, brings other spaces and materials into resonance). In the cases that I will discuss, the experiential fields brought into play are (for reasons that will become clear further on) best qualified as ‘incontestable’ and I will argue that it is this quality of incontestability that helps to bring about a felt ground of authenticity. Obviously, introducing the notion of ‘registers’ to grapple how people produce a sense of authenticity is still part of a constructivist approach to the world. I do hope to show, however, that the notion of ‘registers’ helps to provide a better insight as to how people come to transcend the constructedness of things.


Serbia, in the early 1990s, was the place where I got introduced to issues of authenticity (cf. Van de Port 1998, 1999). ‘Initiated’ may be the better term here, for it was an introduction so forceful, painful and overwhelming that 15 years later I still find most of my research questions – whether on Portuguese fado (van de Port 1998), Dutch crime (Van de Port 2000) or Afro-Brazilian religion (2004, 2005 in press) -- ‘Serbianized’: wherever I go, the issues I ended up studying in Serbia have always wrestled their way back onto my research agenda.   

What I witnessed, before, during and after the war, was the collapse of the master-narratives that had helped the small town Serbs I was studying to (re-)build there lives on the ruins of earlier wars and massacres, and had guided their identifications towards ‘enlightened socialism’, ‘modernity’, ‘Europe’, ‘civilization’, ‘Kultura’. The bankruptcy of Titoist ideology, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent wars with all their atrocities and bloodshed, were taken as undeniable proof of the mendacity of such narratives. ‘We have been living a lie’, is what I was told over and over again by my informants. It all had seemed very real, but now there was but one lesson to learn: it had all been a fantasy.

This declaration of having been daydreaming for decades, and the disillusion that comes with the understanding of having lived a lie, simultaneously produced a notion of what was ‘real’ and ‘true’. What was real – undeniably so -- was the downfall of it all: the violence, the destruction, the butchered bodies on the evening news (who could no longer speak while both the Serbian and Croatian propaganda machineries claimed these mutilated corpses to be their victims). What was real was the trauma of having been chased out of one’s hopes and believes which were now revealed for what they were: hopes and believes. What was real was the ugliness of a world at war.

These newly found loci of authenticity linked up smoothly (unhappily so, one might add) with lingering internalized ‘orientalist’ notions which take the Serbs to be Europe’s eternal warriors, Balkan primitives, a people unfit for civilization, and for whom kultura would never be more than a thin layer of varnish. This is how the Serbs had been portrayed in the Habsburg empire (with early Serbian nationalists displaying the martial and ‘epic’ character of their tribe with great verve), this is how the Croats and Slovenes – with barefaced contempt -- continued to portray their southern compatriots ever since they were united under the label of the Yugoslavs, and this is how the Serbs had begun to understand themselves, being embarrassed about their wildness on the one hand, yet cherishing it on the other hand, in the characteristically ambivalent way of people who have wholeheartedly adopted the yardstick of civilization, yet find themselves positioned on the lower grades of its scale.

What was most unsettling to observe was that violence, destruction, and horror -- renamed as ‘authenticity’ -- could become a seductive identification point, a promise of the Umwertung aller Werte that people could identify with. This is of course not to say that Serbs massively took up the pose of the Balkan warrior, ready to destroy all that smelled of civilization to install a reign of Truth. Yet it is to suggest that this pose became understandable for some, defendable for others, and for yet again others identifiable and performable. The words of the Serbian film director Zivojin Pavlovic, in a column written during the war, couldn’t be more illustrative of the argument I’m making.  He argued that the countries with ‘a high level of culture’ where nothing less than ‘hysterical’ in the way they regarded the war in Yugoslavia.

High culture pays so much attention to prolonging human lives. People take pills and injections to keep death at a distance. But somewhere all those people know that here, in the Balkans, a dream of theirs is coming true: to step outside one’s cave, to step into the world of the wild animals, the world of unlimited risk, of absolute freedom (in Van de Port 1998).

What Pavlovic seems to be arguing – and I found many more arguments of this type -- is that ‘high culture’ is out of touch with real life, has drifted away from life-as-it-really-is. The ‘barbarian ethos’ that is invoked in Pavlovic’ words accepts life-as-it-really-is, with its wildness, its risks, and ultimately, death. Here then, is a good example of what I would like to call the production of authenticity through the register of incontestability. It was not in the register of a rational argument, of discursivity, or even of language, that the story of the Balkan primitive ‘struck a chord’ with my informants.  In fact, addressing the subject directly in a conversation (‘So you guys are Balkan primitives after all’) would certainly have caused the greatest embarrassment, if not outright anger. What made this story of Balkan-primitives-living-in-a-world-unfit-for-civilization compelling was that it referred to experiences that were incontestable: the experience of horror (as the impossible turned out to be quite possible, and the cannot-be turned out to be), the experience of fear (of violence, of homelessness, of not knowing whom to trust), the experience of loss (the death of beloved ones, the break up of families, the disintegration of communities), the experience of powerlessness in the face of the escalating war (the sensation of being robbed of one’s future). In other words, the discourse on the ‘barbarian ethos’ had successfully captured the irrevocability of loss and death, the unquestionability of maddening fear, and the utter factuality of history taking its unpredictable course, irrespective of people’s hopes, dreams and future plans. With these truths – truths of the Balkan, Serbs would say – there was no arguing. The truths of the civilization ideal, in contrast, were revealed (as people would tell me over and over again) as prazne price, which literally translates as ‘empty stories’.

So are we still talking about ‘the human desire for the experience of the divine spark’ which Lindholm urged anthropologists to study? I think we are. All that the case of Serbia reminds us of is that the Sacred may manifest itself in uglier modes as the colloquial Christian understanding of the term suggests. A brief discussion of the remarkable family-resemblance of war induced traumas and that what Roy Rappaport (in his great book Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 1999) has called the ‘Ultimate Sacred Postulates’ may help to clarify this point. In Rappaport’s understanding of how religions have sought to institutionalize the Sacred, these USP’s are crucial. They sanctify (which is to say, certify) the entire systems of understanding in accordance with which people conduct their lives. Without the Ultimate Sacred Postulates, says Rappaport,

…the axioms of cosmology would remain arbitrary, constituting nothing more than attempts at explanation. When a cosmology is sanctified it is no longer merely conceptual nor simply explanatory nor even speculative. It becomes something like an assertion, statement, description or report of the way the world in fact is (Rappaport 1999:265).

What makes these Ultimate Sacred Postulates effective is explained as follows

In USP’s, taken to be without alternative, and therefore certain, discursive meaning may be rarefied to a point close to discursive meaninglessness. USP’s stand at the limits of discursive meanings and rationality …. They are mysteries, and their paradoxical or otherwise irreducibly cryptic character declares that discursive reason cannot by itself comprehend them; that the only way to reach beyond them in anything like language is to lapse into song or nonsense syllables (Rappaport 1999:391)

This comes very close to how I would argue that the traumatic experiences of war are instances of the Sacred and as such a potent source for ontological certainty. As Pott (1996:53) and others have argued, traumatic experiences highlight the impotence of language and other forms of signification. Unspeakability is their very essence. Resisting symbolization, they remain a void in the recollection of the past (and it is thus that traumatic experiences correspond to Rappaport’s USP’s). But in situations where masterfictions no longer provide a convincing and trustworthy story-to-live-by, traumas may take on the ‘positive’ quality of being incontestably real exactly because they are positioned beyond the confines of the (corrupting) symbolic order. Kirby Farrell describes many instances where architects of a new ideological order have sought to capitalize on the qualification of trauma as the very opposite of make-belief and have send out taproots to exploit this source of horrific yet incontestable truth (Farrell 1999: 21-22). In a similar line of thought, Vamik Volkan speaks of the ‘chosen traumas’ of a group, which indeed ‘‘certify’ the entire systems of understandings in accordance with which people conduct their lives’. Clear examples can be found in the outright celebration of defeat in Serbian nationalist discourses (Van de Port 1999), the role of the Holocaust in legitimating the Jewish state (Segev 1993), the ‘Andalus syndrome’ of the Muslims in Indian Hyderabad (Kakar 1996:5), or the history of slavery as an authenticating device of the discourses of the Movimento Negro in Salvador (Van de Port, 2004).

What the Serbian example suggests, then, is that the registers of incontestability which make authenticity claims compelling – sacralize them, so to say -- are sought beyond discursive reason. Registers of incontestability bring into resonance experiences that are as undeniable as they are unspeakable. They are experiences with which there is no arguing. This, I will demonstrate, appears to be a recurrent theme in the production of authenticity.

The Netherlands

The setting of my next research project was the Dutch underworld (sadly, studying the Balkans gets you a certain profile on the job market for anthropologists). My assignment was to study fifty-five murder cases that might throw light on the dynamic of violence on the drugs market (cf. Van de Port 2000), and along the way I encountered a number of cases that were revealing as to how the search for ‘a felt authentic grounding’ drove people to an articulation of Self in what again might best be called a ‘register of incontestability’. For brevity’s sake, I will limit my exposition to one particular case: the murder of an Antillian youth in the city of Deventer.

In the police-bureau where I was to study the extended research files of the case, there was some doubt among the detectives as to whether the photos of the crime should be shown to me. The victim had been shot from close by, as the perpetrator had aimed at the victim’s eyes, and given the caliber of the shotgun this made for a gruesome image of a shattered human face, and blood and brains splattered on the sidewalk. It was decided I would be able to handle it.  

Let’s just say that the image had a crucial impact on my understanding of the case (and other cases as well). The sight of a young man being reduced to the sheer constituent elements of his body highlighted the physicality of murderous acts. I’ll never forget how in this image, the victim’s dread-locks had completely drifted out of meaning, simply refused to signify the identity they were supposed to bear, and were reduced to their sheer materiality, clutched hair in a bloody mass. I was left to ponder just how much violence and murder involve the body. This realization, in its turn, made clear just how much academic discussions on violence – in particular criminological accounts - ignore the bloody mess that violence, aimed at a human body, implies. It also made me realize that, in the studious discussions of violence and murder that I had read (particularly those of criminologists), I had encountered very little comment on the extremity of murderous acts, their theatrical brutality, the way they stage the Real of life and death. And thus, the case raised all kinds of questions whether we are not all too busy pre-empting possible allegations of sensationalism by cleaning up our accounts.

In Jack Katz’ Seductions of Crime. Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil (1988), and much later Mark Seltzer’s Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture (1998), and Arjun Appadurai’s Death Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization (1998), I found some voices to back up this insight. “The study of crime”, says Katz, “has been preoccupied with a search for background forces, usually defects in the offenders’ psychological backgrounds or social environments, to the neglect of the positive, often wonderful attractions within the lived experience of criminality” (1988:3). Katz pleaded for “[a] focus on the seductive qualities of crimes: those aspects in the foreground of criminality that make its various forms sensible, even sensually compelling, ways of being” (ibid.).

With these thoughts in mind, I took up a detailed study of this particular murder-case. The killer turned out to be an Antillian youth, who had hung out with the victim and his friends, be it in a marginal way. He turned himself in a day after the crime, and from the interrogations of both Franky (as I shall call him) and the people who knew him I could get some idea as to what his life was like. Franky was born and raised in a poor neighborhood of Willemstad, on the Caribbean island of Curação, and had been send to the Netherlands at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. He soon left the house of his aunt, and drifted from one place to another, doing odd jobs, and getting involved in petty crime. He always seemed to be looking for Antillians to hang out with, but he also never really seemed to become part of a group. People who knew him called him ‘a kind of  sociopath’. Franky himself felt being ridiculed by others at all times. He suspected his mates would spit in his drink before offering it to him. Once he had been offered a sandwich with pieces of broken glass in the tuna salad, and he was sure someone had put it there on purpose. They were always after him, is what he told the cops, and nobody ever showed him any respect.

A ‘lack of respect’ also seemed to be the major motive of the crime. Rasta, as I will call the victim, had been ‘interfering too much in his life’. He hated Rasta for wanting to order him around, for trying to fool him, for speaking behind his back, for giving him ‘funny looks’.  The police officers – echoing the standard sociological and anthropological account of Antillian youths and violence -- all explained to me that in Antillian culture, assaults to one’s respèt (honor) had to be reattributed with violence, even murder. I had difficulties with this assumption of a cultural determinant being at play here. While Franky certainly used a discourse of respect that is known, and might even be dominant, in Antillian circles, the thought of Franky being embedded in Antillian culture and obeying the rules of that culture simply did not make sense with the facts of his drifting life. If anything, Franky’s problem seemed to be that he wasn’t embedded in anything. In one of the interrogations, Franky explained why he had a spider tattooed on his neck. He could identify with spiders, he said. Spiders were scary insects, women were afraid of them, but for him, spiders represented wisdom. And what’s more, he added, he did not know any Antillian with a tattooed spider on his neck. Having read Franky’s life course and circumstances, this identification with a spider – the eternal inhabitant of the interstices and betwixt-and-between places, and as such, the trickster hero of many Antillian folk tales that Franky must have heard about, yet here presented as something Antillians do not have – could not have been more telling of the anomalous state of his being.

I think it was the uprootedness of  Franky’s existence, rather than his being an Antillian, that might explain his murderous act. Sure, killing Rasta was an attempt to live up to the cultural codes of Antillian young men. In front of a group of Antillian youngsters – and these bystanders seem to have been an essential element of the mise-en-scène – he killed the one who had violated his honor. But more important than paying attention to the script and mise-en-scène is to see that Franky entered a register of incontestability. His attempt to be Antillian was staged as an ultimate attempt. He chose the mode of the desperado: do what has to be done and then come what may be. Instead of saying ‘they shouldn’t try to fool around with me, but give me some respect’ -- like so many Antillians would say -- Franky sacrificed his future, his life’s destiny to this norm. And what he got out of it might again be called an Ultimate Sacred Postulate: as he pulled the trigger, Franky invented himself as an Antillian. For one single moment there was no discrepancy between being an Antillian and living a life that never signaled back a confirmation of that identity. For one dramatic moment he knew himself to be, truly and authentically, Antillian.

In my understanding of the case, the horror as well as the extremity of the act is part and parcel of its meaning. Franky made his desire to be Antillian-all-the-way an issue of life and death. He did not speak, he did not seek access to yet another discourse, but he wrote his credentials in an existentially unarguable way.

The other experiential field that is ‘brought into resonance’ by the peculiar register through which Franky declared himself Antillian is the body.  There is no denying that Franky brought the body into play. Maybe I should not try to make too much out of the fact that in one single act something utterly contestable as identity was conflated with something as incontestable and true as the material residue of the human being – blood, spattered brains, the sheer materiality of the human body. But then again, the anthropological literature is full of examples of rituals which seek to use the body – its sensorium, as well as its materiality -- to authenticate their messages, to make them undeniable and true. The Nuer initiation rites, where boys receive deep cuts over their foreheads, are a good example: if making men out of boys is the intended goal of the ritual, then the excruciating pain inflicted on these boys is a sure register to accomplish this. From now on, the initiates share a traumatic experience with other men that no woman or child will or can ever know. This experience – incommunicable to people who have not had it -- will forever set them apart. Again we see that it is the incontestable character of pain, the fact that with pain ‘there is no arguing’, that makes the rite effective. Arjun Appadurai’s discussion of what he calls ‘vivisectionist violence’ in contemporary ethnic conflicts, whereby the deceiving body of the Other is turned into an instrument to produce ‘death certainty’, Mark Seltzer’s discussion of contemporary America as a ‘wound culture’(1998), or Noël Carroll’s discussion of the popularity of butcher shop horror, splatter films, and similar productions where audiences are invited to revel in the destruction of human bodies (1990) are other examples of the role of the body in registers of incontestability. What these (and other) authors invite us to see is that it is the unquestionability of the body’s materiality, its sensual capacities and ultimately, its finality, that makes the body an increasingly valuable trope in a world where ‘certainty is eroded and the boundaries of the real lose their taken-for-granted validity’.


A brief discussion of some of my Bahian materials will show that the registers of incontestability that seem necessary to produce a ‘felt ground of authenticity’ need not necessarily come in such drastically disruptive forms as trauma or murder -- although disruption, as Katherine Pratt Ewing reminds us, is a necessary ingredient in every search for authenticity as ‘access to truth requires an irruption, a disruption of the imaginary, of the ideologies, including the ideology of the ‘self’ that place a screen or ‘veil’ between us and truth. Without such an irruption, we are caught in a historically contingent discursive formation (Ewing 1997: 259).

‘Puzzlement’ is the catchword with which to describe the register of incontestability that I found to be operative in the temples of candomblé. To explain this, a brief introduction to the cult is necessary. Candomblé is an umbrella term for the variety of beliefs and (mediumistic) practices that have evolved out of the African religions that came to Bahia under slavery. In view of its century old stigmatization, marginalization and persecution, the overall presence of candomblé in present day Salvador is remarkable. Over the last thirty years, candomblé has become a something of a “symbol bank”, from which different groups within Bahian society borrow (or “rob” as some would have it) notions, images, rituals and sounds to express widely divergent projects. The overwhelming interest in the cult has resulted in a proliferation of re-readings and novel interpretations of candomblé’s meaning. The fact that the cult has become a commodity on the booming tourist market adds to the circulation of candomblé through ever wider circuits of Bahia’s representational economy; its rhythms and aesthetics have been appropriated by the culture- and entertainment industry; and its gods, rituals and philosophies have become commodities on the tourist market (as well as on the more local religious market that Brazilians so aptly call o mercado dos bens de salvação, the market for ‘salvation products’). Ever more ‘charlatans’ – I was told over and over again -- now pose as authentic priests, staging false ceremonies for tourists to see, and making a profit out of the innocence of simple folk. (cf. Van de Port 2004)

These developments, obviously, have had a deep impact on the cult, all the more so because the over 2000 cult houses in Salvador are highly autonomous unities, and a religious umbrella organization such as the Federação Nacional dos Cultos Afro-Brasileiros is unable to impose its views or control the religious practices of the individual houses. Priests, especially those who look for a public recognition of candomblé as a full-fledged African religion, are in trouble to argue the ‘authenticity’ – or in this case ‘the necessity’ would be the better term -- of what is now a particular ‘priestly’ understanding of the cult amidst a great many other (artistic, activist, tourist, anthropological) visions. To do this, they play various registers: the ‘historicity’ of their particular house, the purity and ‘Africaness’ of their rites, the prestige of their clientele, their aesthetic skills, but also the prominent display of certificates and diplomas of the aforementioned Federação Nacional dos Cultos Afro-Brasileiros on the temple walls. Yet because all these registers are open for contestation, and are indeed constantly discussed and discredited, the priesthood has also sought recourse to the registers of incontestability that are available to them.     

Possession, I would say, is one of their main trump cards. As many anthropologists have noticed, the vast literature on the phenomenon of possession did not do away with the conclusion that, no matter how possession trance is tackled theoretically, its most immediate experience escapes our understanding. Janice Boddy (1994), Paul Stoller (1995) and Michael Taussig (1987), to name but a few, all have remarked that whereas the radical Otherness of the phenomenon (its uncanny inexplicability, its screaming incompatibility with Western notions of personhood, its seemingly disdain for self-control) demands explanation, this explanation highlights the inadequacy of our conceptual categories, rather than the phenomenon itself (Boddy 1994:407). In sum, possession is hors discours, its most immediate experiences refuse to be signified, in ways that are similar to the trauma and violence that I’ve discussed in the Serbian and Dutch cases.

Priests are adamant in stressing the unspeakability of the possession experience, indeed, there are strong taboos on speaking about the subject of possession, and the ‘official’ understanding of the phenomenon, repeated by each and every initiate that I’ve met, is that the medium has no recollections of the experience whatsoever. What we see, then, is that the ultimate moment of the cult -- the merging of the medium and his or her spirit -- is locked up in the here and now of the experiencing body, and no further reporting of this experience is allowed. This, as José Jorge de Carvalho has aptly commented, is in shrill contrast with other cults, where the possession experience owes its legitimacy to the subsequent reports (in poetry or tract) by the mystic to the community of believers. One is tempted to explain this contrast with the help of the concept that I’m exploring here: the register of incontestability. For is not the total ban on speaking about possession a way to immunize the essence of the cult against the unsettling proliferation of meanings and understandings of candomblé? Is this not a way to have at all times recourse to the statement that all such words may be interesting, or laughable, or simply erroneous, but in all cases beside the point? It is for fact that the priesthood, with ‘mantric’ intensity, repeats the view that initiation (that is, submitting oneself to the ritual cycles that will bring forth an embodied form of knowledge) is the one and only way to come to an understanding of the relations between people en spirits. Hard to miss is also that whereas reports on possession are forbidden, showing the phenomenon in public is not. As I have argued elsewhere, the great public celebrations of candomblé are staged productions of the ineffable (Van de Port 2005). Pushing the spectators beyond the limit of knowing and understanding, these spectacles seek to install a profound sense of puzzlement, make the spectator aware of the limits of his or her knowing. Creating this puzzlement, indeed, is entering a register of incontestability. Making us aware of the limits of our knowing is an attempt to ‘irrupt’, or disrupt the ideologies that place a screen or ‘veil’ between us and truth, as Pratt Ewing would have it. And as such, it is an attempt to authenticate particular views.

Concluding remarks

In Truth and Truthfulness. An Essay in Genealogy (2002), Bernard Williams notices two tendencies in the contemporary humanities. The first is a search for truthfulness – ‘an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lay behind them’ (2002:1). The second is a suspicion about truth itself; whether there is such a thing; and if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective or something of that kind; and altogether, whether we should bother about it (ibid.). Williams points out that these two tendencies should not be understood as paradoxical, but as connected. A search for truthfulness instigates critical research, which weakens the assurance that there is any secure or unqualifiedly stateable truth, and it is thus that a demand for truthfulness and the rejection of truth can go together (2002:2). Yet the problem is: if you reject the possibility of truth, what is the call for truthfulness a call for?

I feel both challenged and inspired by Williams questioning what our commitment to truth and truthfulness is, these days. In this essay, I have argued that an analysis that takes the insights of constructivist approaches seriously should not try to advertise its paradigmatic rigor by an immediate rejection of the possibility of authenticity. Instead, it should seek to keep the quest for ‘a felt authentic grounding’ – and indeed, the moments of its realization! -- center stage. My discussion has brought to the fore the importance of what might be called the ‘registers’ through which communication takes place: all the examples that I have discussed suggest that subjective experiences of ‘authenticity’ are not rooted in the what of communication but in the how of communication. I have further drawn attention to the fact that, in worlds were the taken-for-granted is contested, a particular kind of register is often sought, namely the register that has the capacity to bring ‘incontestables’ into resonance and thus add to the authenticity and truthfulness of a particular narrative.

In the cases that I have discussed, these ‘incontestables’ pertained to domains of experience that resist the power of discursive reason. In the Serbian case, the unspeakability of war induced trauma and the utter factuality of loss and death were successfully brought into resonance in the nationalist and anti-European rhetoric of the regime, and – not unlike the way that Ultimate Sacred Postulates certify a religious belief system -- thus authenticated the narrative. In the Dutch case, a youngster expressed his Antillian identity through the existentially unarguable materiality of the human body, and made sure that the rest of his life would be lived as a consequence of this choice to act ‘the Antillian way’. He too entered a register of incontestability, so as to authenticate his identifications. He too ‘sacralized’ his understanding of self. In the Bahian case, we saw how discursivity was rendered impotent by highlighting the ungraspable, non-sensical and mysterious aspects of possession trance. Here, priests sought to install in their audiences the incontestability of puzzlement, the unarguable truthfulness of the moment when one has to conclude ‘about this I do not know’ -- thus to authenticate their particular readings of candomblé. 

I’m sure there are many more registers of incontestability to be discovered – I’m thinking of the register of everyday routines (which have their own way of being incontestable), or the register of unconscious desire. Cataloguing these registers, however, is not what I’m after. What I would like to think is that including these registers of incontestability in our analyses might re-sacralize anthropological portrayals of contemporary life worlds. I would also like to think that an awareness of the possibility of authenticity directs us towards new ways of writing, an epistemology that, as Michael Taussig once suggested in his famous study Shaminism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, a Study in Terror and Healing, ‘calls neither for demystification nor remystification but for a quite different poetics of destruction and revelation’ (1987:9). This epistemology, Taussig argued – and his formulation is sharp and important – should aim ‘to penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality’ (1987:10). I am aware that the re-sacralization I am advocating here is still embedded in the constructivist paradigm, as it continues to do what anthropologists have been doing all along: studying how people make sense of their life worlds by constructing stories to live in. But I do expect that bringing a notion of the Sacred back in will strike a better balance between our deconstructed portrayals of contemporary life worlds and the authentic lives being lived in them.



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Registers of Incontestability.

The quest for authenticity in academia and beyond.