Contingency on the Island of Ghosts

Stephen Muecke

Mission sat at the wooden table beside his phantom, his Ghost, contemplating the mystery of the stone structure. Who could have built it?

He poses the question in hieroglyphs ? a feather ? He chooses a quill pen. Water ? the clear water under the pier. A book ? an old illustrated book with gilt edges. The Ghost Lemurs of Madagascar. Feather ? a gull diving for garbage ? the wakes of many ships in many places. (Burroughs, 1995:12)

This vignette is part of a larger study of how the radically contingent is the precondition for developing a newer vocabulary in our academic writing to do with creating knowledge in our encounters with other places and other peoples.

"she danced away on the other side"

When William Ellis, missionary and photographer, was sent to Madagascar in the mid 19th century by the London Missionary Society, he was serving both God and Science. In these early days of photography, the technology was spreading rapidly throughout the European empires, and images such as Ellis?s, along with all the cargo of scientific artifacts and writings, had the spectacular effect, in Europe, of reporting back on other peoples encountered.

But Ellis?s greatest challenges were in the field, where his adventitious work was assailed by political contingency. The protestant LMS was in competition with the French Jesuits for access to Madagascan souls. Earlier, in 1835, Queen Ranavalona I had been executing Christians en masse, and had closed down access to foreigners, but by 1852 news came through that the country was opening up again under her son, the successor to the throne, Prince Rakotondradama. The race was on to influence the Prince, and the strategies were to be overtly technological but, for safety?s sake, only covertly Christian: "The more recent and spectacular inventions of Western technology were regarded as particularly useful means of gaining access by baffling and impressing" (Peers, 1997:25).

Ellis had prepared himself by learning photography but had to wait for three years at Mauritius for his chance to reach the centre of power in Madagascar. Meanwhile his Jesuit rival Père Marc Finaz had gained access to the Madagascan capital under a false identity, and set about preempting, with his own machines, what he knew would be Ellis?s technological assault; he "adopted the role of concert pianist and experimented with hot air balloons" (ibid.). Knowing that Ellis had a camera, he sent for a daguerreotype himself and as soon as it arrived he worked day and night "to gratify those people who will be useful to me" (Quoted in Peers, 1997:25). But he didn?t know that Ellis had already been sending albumenised salt prints from Mauritius to the Madagascan capital, and these certainly facilitated Ellis?s eventual access. The camera was indeed, as he said, "the apparatus necessary for working miracles according to the improvements of modern science" (ibid.).

But this western magic encountered a Madagascan counter-magic. When the weak young prince began to lose power the tide turned once again against foreigners, their religions and their other trappings. There was a strange manifestation of choreomania, dancing of the possessed, or "ghost dancing", which the foreigners struggled to understand. But Ellis knew, at any rate, that it interfered with his photography:

On two occasions I was somewhat troubled with them [dancers], first when I was taking a photograph of the site of the martyr’s death at Ambohipotsy. I had fixed my camera and was engaged in the tent, when my servant who I had left to watch called out that a sick dancer was coming. She was a decently dressed young woman…I stood by my tent and told my servant to hold the camera stand. She danced once or twice around the camera, coming nearer each time and she put out her hand as if to take hold of it, I hastened towards it when she danced away on the other side and went dancing down the hill. (Quoted in Peers, 1997:28)

This story illustrates for me what it is about the concept of contingency that suggests new ethnographic practice. If earlier ethnographers were equipped with God and Science?pillars of the "modernist settlement" of European rationality (Latour in Stengers, 1997:xi-xii)?it allowed them to circumscribe and exclude. This will be my field, my community, or my tribe. I draw a line around it. These other questions will not be relevant. Systematic purification of the field of data will decide what is my necessity (taking a photograph, doing a study of kinship), and exclude the contingent (that scary dancing woman).

By contrast, treating the world as a complex open system means one is alert to the feeling that there might be something there, among the contingent effects, that could transform the research agenda. Contingency, in its Latin root, is about touching, bordering on, reaching, befalling. It is not therefore about maintaining critical distance, but about tipping over into new paradigms where encounters (with Others for instance) can teach us, not necessarily by direct instruction, but by putting our preconceived ideas in jeopardy. It is about not eliminating the risky or the accidental. It is about "a quarrel between poetry and philosophy, the tension between an effort to achieve self-creation by the recognition of contingency and an effort to achieve universality by the transcendence of contingency" (Rorty, 1989:25). This transcendental philosophical effort "to see life steadily and to see it whole" (Peers, 1997:26) is an immense fiction, a striving for unity. Similarly, when it applies in ethnographic practice to ritual it is about the elimination of all contingencies so that the ritual can focus on its necessary outcome.

Put another way, in everyday life someone may wander into the kitchen thinking she has the intention to get a glass of beer, but she ends up choosing a coffee. Everyday life is thus full of contingencies that don?t seem to matter. But in a ritual or ceremony, like a wedding, it is crucial for the participants that all contingencies be removed, or planned for, so that the desired outcome (what is necessary for the event) be achieved. But I find, for a new ethnography, that I am prioritising the contingencies which link things unexpectedly together.

This approach does not continue the positivism of an anthropological practice which constructs another society as unified, "over there" objective, and characterised by "certain distinctive beliefs". The new ethnographic method will work by way of connection and articulation. There will, in this method, be no way in which "they" remain superstitious, about, say, ancestor worship, while "I" am necessarily beyond that historical stage. That would be to go along with another colonialist story of historical seriality where civilisations are lined up on a scale of technological progress.

Exodus from Lemuria

My story begins, by chance, in Australia, where I have recently read a statement from an Indigenous Australian talking about the origins of his people. David Unaipon was writing in the 1920s:

Nearly all the tribes scattered about Australia have traditions of their flight from a land in the Nor-West, beyond the sea, in Australia. That land may probably be the ancient continent of Lemuria. The traditions also relate that the aboriginals were driven into Australia by a plague of fierce ants, or by a prehistoric race as fierce and as innumerable as ants. Like the Israelites aboriginals seem to have had a Moses, a law-giver, a leader, who guided them in their Exodus from Lemuria. His name is Narroondarie. (Unaipon, 2001:4)

This Lemuria is a mystical land, also known as Mu, well-loved by the New Age industry, but it is also the name shared by Madagascar and its proto-primates, which we call Lemurs. Where did they get this name?1 Was it because their weird cries struck European explorers as the cries of the dead, and that they were recalling the ancient Roman rites as described by Ovid (1967:291-292) in his Fasti?

When from that day the Evening Star shall thrice have shown his beauteous face, and thrice the vanquished stars shall have retreated before Phoebus, there will be celebrated an olden rite, the nocturnal Lemuria: it will bring offerings to the silent ghosts.

Ovid speculates that the name has its origins in the foundation of Rome, the city which took its name from the man who murdered his brother, Remus. In order to propitiate the spirit of Remus, Romulus agreed to give

… the name of Remuria to the day on which due worship is paid to buried ancestors. In course of ages the rough letter, which stood at the beginning of the name, was changed into the smooth; and soon the souls of the silent multitude were also called Lemures: that is the meaning of the word, that is the force of the expression. (ibid.:295-297)

The more I want to relate to you a simple story about Madagascar, the more complex it becomes. I can?t disentangle the country from the signs which surround it, these spurious contingent meanings which connect it to Ancient Rome, and even to the mystical land of Lemuria. Madagascar begins to disappear over the horizon of orthodox reason, to reappear as paradox. In the Western onto-theological tradition, paradox, like contradiction, occupies the place where reason cannot go. It seems even the name ?Madagascar? was a malostension made by another Italian, Marco Polo, as he voyaged around the Indian Ocean, without even reaching the big island.2

Thus chance has determined the fate of every Malagasy whose name emerges out of the contingency of European exploration. But also their own, for the present inhabitants of Madagascar are the descendants of Indonesians who arrived on the island some 1500 years ago. The language is still a cousin to Indonesian, the people look Indonesian, and their funeral ceremonies link back to possible early Indonesian ancestor-worship.

Turning the Bones

You can dismiss the beliefs of other peoples if you like, and this can be refreshing, as when William Burroughs (1995:32) says about Madagascar there are "worthless zebus, a small hump-backed breed of ox venerated by the natives and tied into some idiotic funeral practices". Making fun of natives is sport for the philosopher-pirates, but what we are dealing with here is the Madagascan famadihana, the exhumation and turning of the bones of the ancestors, a veritable destiny for the life of every important Madagascan whose ambition is to die well, and to die in the right place. To be venerated, to be buried, and to hope to be exhumed in the tomb of the village of one?s fathers where the best and most important buildings, typically again, are the tombs. Here after seven years you hope you will be important enough for a famadihana, that there will be a contest between the quick and the dead, as the living pay a lot of homage to the ancestors, going to them in a procession full of fear and getting reckless with the rum, to a music which intensifies and eventually eroticises the relationship. The skeletons are rewrapped, placed in the laps of women whose fertility is then assured; they will dance with these cadavers, they will get careless as even more rum is consumed. The wrapped packages will fall, the bones will be crushed under dancing feet and the whole thing will culminate in a scramble for the mats on which the dead reposed; women treasure these sleeping mats for their fertile properties.

So Westerners must believe in something after all, because we find we too can?t be "absolutely modern", and just dispose of the dead and forget about them. Funeral procedures are what archaeologists reckon distinguish mankind from the animals from the very beginning. They locate the most primitive human societies by finding ancient bones which show signs of cremation or sacrifice. So what then is the "status" of the dead, generally or theoretically? We cannot do without them completely, otherwise we would "revert" to the status of animals (who just interact without producing that magical surplus to their activities known as culture), nor can we imagine them being with us all the time (?Where?s your Mum today? ? Oh, she?ll be back soon). If we do, we are mad, or possessed, like the Vezo people, with a tromba [ghost].

Dismissing the beliefs and practices of others as "idiotic" is almost exactly the same as saying that they are "interesting", which is the usual job of liberal-minded social scientists, treasuring a little bit of difference as it is labelled and exhibited in the Museum of Lost Beliefs (as Burroughs might put it) in a great city of the global north. I would claim that the radical contingency I am advocating will only allow you to talk with the "natives" in such a way that their agenda touches yours and vice-versa.

"an indescribable abstracted expression"

The Madagascans, obsessed as they are with death and their ancestors, become possessed?some of them?by spirits of the dead. They may come to them in dreams, or they may permanently occupy individuals. In the northern parts of the island, the possessed are most often older single women, and they are possessed by spirits who are called tromba, who are actually royal ancestors. The possessed might dress up in the style and period of the person inside them. James Sibree writing in the later nineteenth century talks of a different kind of possession, one that returns us to the story about the photographer at the beginning, and expands that clash of technological magic and corporeal magic into an issue to do more with an "ecology of practices" as Isabelle Stengers calls it, or "how different forms of knowledge and cultural practices work" (Stengers, 2002:262):

In the month of February 1863, the Europeans resident at Antananarivo (Tananarive), the capital of Madagascar, began to hear rumours of a new disease, which it was said had appeared in the west or south-west…. After a time, however, it reached the capital, and in the month of March began to be common. At first, parties of two or three were to be seen, accompanied by musicians and other attendants, dancing in the public places; and in a few weeks these had increased to hundreds, so that one could not go out-of-doors without meeting bands of these dances. It spread rapidly, as by a sort of infection, even to the most remote villages in the central province of Imerina….

The public mind was in a state of excitement at that time, on account of the remarkable political and social changes introduced by the late king, Radama II. A pretty strong anti-Christian, anti-European party had arisen, who were opposed to progress and change. This strange epidemic got into sympathy, especially in the capital, with this party, and the native Christians had no difficulty in recognising it as a demoniacal possession (…)

The patients usually complained of a weight or pain in the praecordia, and great uneasiness, sometimes a stiffness, about the nape of the neck. Others, in addition, had pains in the back and the limbs, and in most cases there seems to have been an excited state of the circulation, and occasionally even mild febrile symptoms (…) they became restless and nervous, and if excited in any way, more especially if they happened to hear the sound of music or singing, they got perfectly uncontrollable, and, bursting away from all restraint, escaped from their pursuers and joined the music, when they danced, sometimes for hours together, with amazing rapidity (…)

The eyes were wild, and the whole countenance assumed an indescribable abstracted expression, as if their attention was completely taken off what was going on around them. The dancing was regulated very much by the music, which was always the quickest possible—it never seemed to be quick enough. It often became more of a leaping than a dancing. Thus they danced to the astonishment of all, as if possessed by some evil spirit, and with almost superhuman endurance—exhausting the patience of the musicians, who often relieved each other by turns—then fell down suddenly, as if dead; or, as often happened, if the music was interrupted, they would suddenly rush off as if seized by some new impulse, and continue running, until they fell down, almost or entirely insensible. After being completely exhausted in this way, the patients were taken home, the morbid impulse apparently, in many cases, destroyed (…) Many of them professed to have intercourse with the departed, and more particularly with the late queen. (Bloch, 1971:21-24)

James Sibree, again with the London Missionary Society, had just arrived in the capital, so was an eye-witness. He writes well about this phenomenon, but has he been talking to doctors? No doubt, since the dancers are already referred to as "patients", and there are technical terms like "praecordia". The other discourses intersecting here concern religion and politics, revealing perhaps even more about the phenomenon than the medical discourses, but more importantly, these (somewhat incompatible) causes are multiplied, and the syntax betrays a desire to entertain the collective singular: "the public mind was in a state of excitement?", he says.

Bloch, the anthropologist who cited Sibree a hundred years later, has things to add from his discipline, weaving yet more threads into the multiple causality: "What Sibree fails to make clear is that the dancers apparently believed that they were preparing for the return of the recently dead traditionalist queen, Ranavalona" (ibid.:24). As noted above, Madagascan cultures are strongly centred around cults of the dead, and the major ceremony (famadihana) involves ritual reburial where the power of the ancestor is made manifest. In the case of spirit possession by royalty, this dancing mania may well be thought of as a kind of collective re-embodiment. And Bloch notes that (in addition to the crucial element of music which makes the events social and planned rather than accidental), the movements are meaningful:

… The dancers believed they were carrying [the Queen’s] baggage from the coast to the capital and they mimed carrying heavy loads which they passed one to the other in relay … it recalls the famous cargo cults and other millenarian cults which it has often been convincingly argued are closely linked to violent foreign contact. In this case, however, the somewhat surprising element is the absence of any clear leaders of any kind, and perhaps the closest parallel is therefore with the ghost dancers of North America … The significant aspect of the movement is the combination of the frenzied situation, reaffirmation of the past, the focus on tombs and the dead and the total rejection of western influences. (ibid.:25)

The rejection of things western was manifested in the dancers, or perhaps we could now call them, anachronistically, demonstrators, knocking off peoples? hats and killing pigs, both western imports. The dancers were not therefore self-contained, they were interacting strongly with bystanders, forcing them to greet them, smashing contents of houses, and encouraging them to join the movement, which even a parade of soldiers did, going into a frenzy and attacking their officers (Andrianjafy, 1902:60). The anthropological comparison with the ghost dances of North America encourages us to think of this as an anti-colonial protest, but that particular global political framing was certainly not available to the locals.

The local newspaper, the Moniteur universel, reported on 7 juillet 1863 that the dancers:

said that Ranavalo et Radama 1 st emerged from their tomb to declare their son unworthy of the crown. It was said he had sold his country to the whites. His mother and father were groaning under the weight of this monumental crime. Their spirits were weeping and beseeching all their old subjects to seek the help of sikidys (diviners) so as to deflect the curses cast by on their unfortunate successor. (Quoted in Andrianjafy, 1902:61)

The expatriate doctor Andrianjafy wrote a thesis about this phenomenon in Montpellier in 1902 remembering what he had observed as a boy, and gave it a medical explanation: an origin in malarial infection. But at the same time he saw that it was literally orchestrated; musicians had to be there playing fast music for the dancers to "cure" them. His prescription was not only treatment for malaria, but also as a second step, modernisation of the whole society, including an "uncompromising rout of witches, diviners and others exploiting the credulity of the people. Ancestral prejudices, superstition and ignorance, which are jealously maintained by these people, must be eliminated by progress, civilisation and science" (Andrianjafy, 1902:62). Then towards his conclusion his rhetoric becomes more strident: "This is a battle for moral hygiene on three fronts: political, religious and social" (ibid.:63).

Ian Hacking, in his book Mad Travelers (1998), looks at "transient mental illness ", in particular the fugue syndrome appearing in France about the time of the invention of the bicycle. The bicycle, an ideal mode for individual escape, is to the fugue as music is to choreomania: an exciting technical prosthesis. All factors must be looked at for an understanding of these phenomena, such that Hacking?s evocation of the "ecological niche" is useful in that it invites the kind of complex analysis proper to ecological studies. But he also finds major cultural tensions in operation, saying that one of the vectors within which mental illnesses find themselves is "cultural polarity: the illness should be situated between two elements of contemporary culture, one romantic and virtuous, and the other vicious and tending to crime" (Hacking, 1998:2). For the middle ages, such a cultural and social polarity finds its sanctioned reversal in Rabelaisian "carnival", for which other dancing manias like this one?St Vitus Dance, the Tarantella?may well have been dangerous precursors (Muecke, forthcoming). In the case of Madagascar the cultural polarity is the one set up by colonialism and the late Queen?s rejection of it. The cult wants to bring her back from the dead to fight the battle again, and reject the foreigners. But it is too late, Madagascar from this moment on will enter the colonial world, like that British sun that never sets.

On "being with gods and spirits"

For Richard Rorty the process of enlightenment secularity should continue so that the world would be "de-divinized" (1989:45), so that we would be cured of any deep metaphysical needs and "recognise the contingency of the vocabulary in which [we] state our highest hopes" (ibid.:46). The final result would be that we would "no longer be able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings". Rorty?s world is too congenial, everyone in it must be North American College-educated. The real people of the world are full of superstitions and religious beliefs. Gods still perhaps inhabit our cathedrals, and spirits are down the bottom of the garden. In Australia, a man of the cloth was the last Governor-General.

Writing in his new book Provincializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty tells us "why he is not a secularist", to borrow the title of William Connolly?s latest book: Dipesh says that there is an

Assumption running through modern European political thought and the social sciences … that the human is ontologically singular, that gods and spirits are in the end “social facts,” that the social somehow existed prior to them. I try, on the other hand, to think without the assumption of even a logical priority of the social. One empirically knows of no society in which humans have existed without gods and spirits accompanying them. Although the god of monotheism may have taken a few knocks—if not actually “died”—in the nineteenth-century European story of the “disenchantment of the world,” the gods and other agents inhabiting practices of so-called “superstition” have never died anywhere. I take gods and spirits to be existentially coeval with the human, and think from the assumption that the question of being human involves the question of being with gods and spirits. (Chakrabarty: 2000:16)

This is not asking for a return to the metaphysical, or towards anything New Age, it is rather asking us to accept that many people are motivated by whole bundles of contingent forces which are not seen as limited to the purified rational realm of the secular, mortal and finite.

What if our starting point is not community, defined by its borders and its inward self-defining gaze, but the approach of the stranger, and the connectedness he or she brings from the outside? Was it not always so for the anthropologist or writer to be able to report on the other society, that they came in on a line: an airline, a railway line, and they would never be cut off completely and thus lose their identity, there was always some line back, like a phone line. And they reported on sameness and difference. This is what makes Merina culture in the Madagascan high plateaux unique, but there are similarities with us, (whoever we are), and in this play of sameness and difference a tale will be told with the inevitable conclusion justifying the imperialism of a way of knowing about others: there is something the same deep down, our very humanity perhaps, and that the Western scholar has the right to pronounce on it.

That banal conclusion is nevertheless the foundation of a way of knowing which the anthropologists would be quick to deny and banish: rather the importance will be in the descriptive details. True, and the details are important, but when do they cease being contingent? Only when the subject is in the overarching position of making cultural comparisons, and equipped with some system for building up the details into a picture of a self-contained community. Rather, I want to work the connections, nothing but the lines. The international flights, the lines of communication (phone, radio, TV, internet, etc, print publications), shipping and trade, the movement of people; all this both inside and outside of the borders of a given community or nation. This is an approach which is more in tune with globalisation and its resistances. It takes the relationship as primary and the entity as secondary. We can examine these relationships at their points of intersection, which are what I will call points of contingency.

But let me summarise so far. Madagascar was part of an ancient continent that some came to call Lemuria. Its unique primates are called lemurs, or in French, lemuriens. Both relate to ghosts and the dead, the Lemurs were named after Lemuria which is a Roman ritual for propitiating the spirits of dead relatives. The Lemurs were so named because their strange cries heard at night were thought to sound ghostly. Did those in Lemuria who named the Lemurs do so in ignorance of the Malagasy custom of reburial to honour and propitiate the spirits of the ancestors? I doubt it. You can buy a CD by the famous Malagasy musician Rossy called Island of Ghosts. And there is a documentary film of the same name. Now, these are convergences, perhaps, rather than divergent contingencies. But they nonetheless already break out of the modes of classification which our sciences will normally permit. You can?t talk about Roman rituals, primates and contemporary World Music in the same paragraph.

Contingency, Nicholas Smith of Macquarie University tells us, is a form of "strong hermeneutics" (Smith, 1997). Now what this might mean is that the interpretative process is a creative one, that one allows oneself to "make connections" in the processes of perception, observation, thought and writing. Interpretation through contingency re-sorts sets of data which have been sorted out into separate categories by scientific method. It goes backwards through history to rediscover the kinds of connections made by people in their everyday life, such life which is full of inexplicable contingencies. It can of course make quite false connections; these will have no historical resonance and probably disappear. But isn?t it the case that most "breakthroughs" in even the hardest sciences, are made through creative experimentation, as opposed to the repetitive "non-experimentation" which expects things to respond to our questions as reliable witnesses, and our machines to have exorcised their ghosts so that they simplify and purify data, eliminating the unreliable and the contingent. It is the unreliability of the machine which can be productive of the ghostly presences, and so too can its cultural excesses: William Ellis?s photography in Madagascar, far from being a reliable witness, was a miracle-machine in a political contest for another intangible, Christian faith.


Andrianjafy (1902) Le Ramanenjana à Madagascar, Choréomanie d?Origine Palustre, Editions du Nouveau Montpellier Médicale: Montpellier

Bloch, M. (1971) Placing the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral Villages and Kinship O rganization in Madagascar, Seminar Press: New York

Burroughs, W.S. (1995) Ghost of Chance, Serpent?s Tail: London

Chakrabarty, D. (2000) Provincializing Europe, Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J.

Hacking, I. (1998) Mad Travellers; Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness, University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville

Hacking, I. (2002) Historical Ontology, Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Hall, R. (1998) Empires of the Monsoon: A H istory of the Indian Ocean and its I nvaders, HarperCollins: London

Latour, B. (1997) ?Stenger?s Shibboleth?, foreword to Isabelle Stengers, Power and Invention, Situating Science, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis

Muecke, S. (forthcoming) ?Choreomanias: Movements Through our Body?, Performance Research

Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge UP: New York

Ovid (1967) Fasti, trans. James Frazer, Heinemann: London

Peers, S. (1997) ?William Ellis: Photography in Madagascar, 1853-65,? History of Photography, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, pp. 23-31

Smith, N.H. (1997) Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity, Routledge: London

Stengers, I. (2002) ?A "Cosmo-Politics"?Risk, Hope, Change? in Zournazi, M. ed. Hope: New philosophies for Change, Pluto Press: Sydney

Unaipon, D. (2001) Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, eds. Muecke, S. and A. Shoemaker, Melbourne University Press: Melbourne


1 See Ian Hacking?s interesting discussion about malostentions?radical mistranslations which become conventions?arising in cross-cultural contact, and specifically about the name of the Lemurian indri, in ?Was there ever a Radical Mistranslation?? in Historical Ontology, pp. 152-159.

2 "One of Marco?s worst errors was to mix up Madagascar and Mogadishu in the Horn of Africa: ?The meat eaten here is only camel flesh. The number of camels slaughtered every day is so great that no one who has not seen it for himself could credit the report of it.? This is exactly true of Mogadishu, but certainly not of the great island 2,000 miles to the south. (It is testimony to the influence of Marco Polo that the name Madagascar, taken directly from his writings, has survived despite being based on a total confusion.)" Richard Hall, Empires of the Monsoon: A H istory of the Indian Ocean and its I nvaders, p. 52.