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Engaging the spirit world

Reviewed item: 

Endres, K.W. & A. Lauser (eds.) 2011. Engaging the Spirit World; Popular Beliefs and Practices in Modern Southeast Asia, New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, ISBN 9780857453587 (hb)


This review was also published in The Newsletter #68

As the contributions to this collection rekindled my early experiences 'in the field', reading through the ten chapters of Engaging the Spirit World was great fun. As the greenhorn I was, I laughed at my initial encounter with 'spirits' (phii) in Thailand, which so upset my girlfriend that she slapped me in the face. It spelled the end to my fun. I not only learned to take beliefs seriously – whether western, eastern, religious, or political –  but also to realise that for the believers concerned these represented their living experience. In that sense, beliefs are as tangible as a bowl of rice and have to be explored concretely before we, 'servants of science', put any 'theoretical' à priori on top of them.

In several early chapters of the collection, researchers apparently struggled with the above caveat. Rather belatedly, they discovered that 'modernisation theory' about disenchantment, rationalisation, and its supposed correspondence with capitalism consisted of heaps of untenable hypotheses. This I experienced on Java while doing research among sophisticated members of the urban upper and middle classes in the late 1960s. To them, the practice of mysticism or the development of the secretive 'inner man' (kebatinan) was at least as real as their Dutch-taught 'rationality'. It spelled my escape from the intellectual straight-jacket of high-flown ivory tower assumptions.

I realised that the world is an enchanted place, with or without religion. Imagine the desert that life would be without fantasy and art, without dreaming and making love. We simply need these to sustain ourselves. Besides, don't most people in this world take the existence of an esoteric double – ‘their soul’– for granted?

The intention of Engaging is to illuminate the wider context of the contemporary dynamics of religion in Southeast Asia. The flourishing of religion, urban medium-ship, the worship of ancestors, heroes and deities, and the need to appease hosts of unfulfilled lives/souls evoked by unrestrained American barbarism in Vietnam – with which the editors are most familiar – led to inviting the contributors to the collection to relate and reflect on their research in Laos, on the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Java, in Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, Burma, Southern Thailand, and on Thai ghost films-cum-horror movies.

In the process of examining contemporary engagements with the world of spirits, ghosts and ancestors, most contributors bend over backwards to offer insights and fresh interpretations that seek to contribute to the theoretical discussion of the relationship between religion and modernity. To their credit, all of them take the phenomena they encounter 'in the field' seriously and engage with these as the point of departure for building 'grounded theory'.

Writing the last sentence made me conscious of the datedness of my vocabulary, as the ideas of phenomenology and grounded theory simply do not occur in the collection. The various researchers make an 'ontological approach' to their subject matter – which is fine by me – while proposing that modernity does not equate with the western ideal type of it. As a result, authors recommend 'alternative modernities' that assume their own characteristics depending on the (cultural) milieu in which they originate. Next to this, they recognise that the idea of the autonomous individual is an inapplicable construct to elucidate Southeast Asian personality. Life and self-definition thereabouts are strongly relational[1] and may make us aware that modern westerners are not such lonely monads, either.

A delightful observation proffered is the idea that spirits and all the beliefs that surround them are pleasantly flexible; whereas they do not escape from the wide realm of religion, they are impervious to dogma and doctrine. As a result, they can accommodate to any circumstance and practice of modern life. So, as we study them, we should be aware that they are in step with contemporary existence, which seems to me a rather basic field-anthropological assumption.

The book is composed with the expectation to contribute to the re-enchantment debate. In order to do so, the authors assume that local traditions of engaging supernatural entities are important arenas in which the dynamics of political, economic and social change are confronted and negotiated. Accordingly, market relations, economic opportunity, social change, power struggles, etc., are brought into relation with the reconfiguration of local spirit worlds. In doing so, it bared the necessity of reshaping discourses on cultural identity, morality, power relations, and interpretative control, while challenging the concept of modernity itself. Altogether, these ambitions resulted in a loose plethora of stimulating ideas that make the collection well-worth reading.




During a possession session on Java, I did an interview with the Nyai Loro Kidul, the mystical queen of the southern ocean; in Thailand, my broad smile excited the tenth century Marshal of the Queen of Dvaravati so much that he threatened me with an accident on my way home – and I must avow that I drove more precautionary than usual; in the Philippines, reputed medium Mang Tinoy urged me to team up when he hopped around his audience as the playful Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus). After many such experiences 'in the field', I was well-prepared to take my anaesthetist brother seriously when he volunteered that he regularly conferred with my Dutch-Reformed minister-grandfather who died when he (my brother) was three years old. Wherever we are, we live with fairies – and we need them dearly.


Niels Mulder retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he concluded his swan song, Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia; Reflections and observations, Saarbruecken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing, 2012 (print-to-order ed., ISBN 978-3-659-13083-0) (



Mulder, N. 2011. ‘The Crux is the Skin: Reflections on Southeast Asian Personhood’, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 1/2011: 95-116.


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