On Semiotization of Spirit Medium's Interface with Non-human Agencies in Vietnamese Language

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The article presents an attempt of deconstructing a Vietnamese spirit medium as a function of the Mother Religion in order to analyze it as a discursive subject, informed into varies ritual practices that involve non-human agency. The research is based on a discourse-analytical model by Potter and Wetherell, developed for studying socio-psychological functions of the discourse and the ways people perform discursive acts to construct their own identities and to use them for achieving their speech tasks. The analysis of in-depth interviews with a practicing medium reveals a number of interpretative repertoires that are built around key lexicalizations, explaining different aspects of medium’s experience and allowing to find out which social functions are related to the application of chosen discursive resources.

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Research problem Vietnamese practice of spirit possession has been traditionally put by the academics in the perspective of religious studies where medium itself is just a function of the Mother Religion Thờ Mẫu. Researchers have studied all aspects of the cult, including ritual and music [Norton 2009; Sharipov 2001], pantheon and mythology [Durand 1959; Tran Van Toan 1966; Vũ Ngọc Khánh 2009], medical practices [Nguyen Thi Hien 2008], mediumship in emigration [Fjelstad 2006; Dorais 1990], etc., while social identity of mediums have been reduced to the context of this religious institution. The article by Kirsten Enders [Enders 2003] is an exception as it focuses on the socio-psychological portrait of a Vietnamese medium, though the author still does it in the framework of the Mother Religion, where mediums execute certain functions. Two remarks must be made in this respect. Firstly, although during the fieldwork in Vietnam in 2010-2019 the author started studying mediums in the same framework of lên đồng rituals of the Mother Religion, he soon found that it wasn’t the only context in Vietnamese culture where non-human agency incarnates in humans. Firstly, spirit possession is the main technique of getting revelations for caodaist holy scriptures [Jammes 2016], in Taoist ceremonies [Sharipov 2020], in private communication with the spirits of the dead nhập đồng, and in a spontaneous possession of one of the family members by the ancestral spirits during the áp vong ceremonies or simply at home during the rituals for the 1st and 15th days of lunar calendar. Secondly, despite of existing classification of Vietnamese ritual specialists as psychics, fortune tellers, spirit mediums, sorcerers, and witch-doctors, in real life a spirit medium is capable of performing several or all of those roles since all of them involve a contact with non-human agencies. This research aims for shifting the perspective from religious studies where mediums are considered a functional part of the Mother Religion, to the mediums themselves as discursive subjects having a particular socio-economic identity. Medium in Vietnam is a specific kind of professional, working with such important semiotic categories as fate, future and spirits (non-human agencies). It’s a rather secular approach. Placing medium’s expertise in the field of social production of knowledge, the author will question social authorization of beliefs, which, as acknowledged by Talal Asad, seems to be more productive for understanding spiritual practices [Asad 1983]. Vietnamese language is a tool for constructing medium’s subjectivity and social identity. It’s not an instrument for expressing inner states of a person, but a kind of discursive Lego-constructor, offering a speaker an endless variety of elements to choose from in the process of creating a medium’s subjecthood. This approach differs from the agenda of positivist sociology and cognitive studies that consider human subject in essentialist perspective, as something solid and consistent. Social constructivists believe that cognitive scientists underestimate social nature of psychological states since they derive their explanatory models from the idea of universal processes. Such viewpoint has been criticized (See, for example, [Billig 1982]) as it ignores cross-cultural studies, which show that our ways of categorizing and understanding the world aren’t universal, but historically and socially relative. Discourses create the world that appears to speakers as real or truthful. We signify our experience using available vocabulary, and it’s important to note that meanings produce our experience in no lesser extent than they describe it [Jorgensen, Phillips 2002: 167, 175]. There have been numerous studies since the linguistic turn in anthropology and social sciences that show that in the correlation between language and identity the latter is not expressed through language and doesn’t exist prior to it but is constructed by discourses [Antaki and Widdicombe 1998; Edley and Wetherell 1997; Nikander 2002; Woofitt 2006]. Mediums comunicate with supernatural, with clients, with each other, or describe their experience to people outside their professional group, and in all those cases they use language to produce their identity. Therefore my research question goes: what discursive strategies do Vietnamese mediums apply in biographical narratives to signify the way they contact with non-human agencies, and to produce their identity? Research methodology Theoretical framework of this study is based on discourse-analytical approach [Wetherell, Potter 1988]. Unlike critical discourse analysis by Fairclough [Fairclough 1997] or Van Dijk [Van Dijk 1997], which is perfectly suitable for studying mass media and public messages, Potter and Wetherell’s methodology focuses on revealing socio-psychological functions of discourse and actions that people perform with it, producing their identities and using them as resources for various speech tasks, even though “in most cases people don’t plan or consciously adapt their discourse in Machiavellian manner, but simply do what feels natural and say what fits in every particular situation” [Wetherell, Potter 1988: 171]. Discourses that people use as resources for their versions of reality are called interpretative repertoires - groups of terms, descriptions and figures of speech, often concentrated around a metaphor or a concept” [Potter, Wetherell 1992: 90]. The purpose of the analysis is not to figure out whether interpretative repertoires represent reality truthfully or falsely, but to analyze practices through which those repertoires are produced as truthful or false. The discourses chosen by someone in their speech has an effect of promoting interests of a specific social group where that persons belongs, while establishing descriptions of their experience, personality and events as stable, real and truthful. The primary method of collecting data for the project was half-structured in-depth interview designed to reveal informant’s experience of initiation and studying communication with non-human agencies. The interview was guided so as to stimulate a beginner medium to verbalize their relevant experience and to reveal discursive strategies used for signifying such experience. This kind of interview is different from classic sociological method that aims for measuring consistency in respondents’ answers, which would mean consistency of reality represented by them. In discourse analysis the variation in answers is much more valuable than consistency as a researcher pays more attention to the inner construction of informants’ speech and to actions that it performs [Potter 1987: 164]. The main informant was Ngoc Anh, a thirty year old women-medium from Haiphong. In the first phase of coding the transcript the author marked a few interpretative repertoires. The author will present a few examples and then proceed with an analysis of repertoires’ functions. Discursive production of a medium The emergence and progress of future medium’s qualities start with appearance of certain abilities that a person has never had before. In Ngoc Anh’s case those were abilities of seeing ghosts, reading other peoples’ characters, spontaneous spirit possession, and involuntary body swaying. The author call it a repertoire of extrasensory initiation. Seeing ghosts (nhìn thấy ma). Describing her experience Ngoc Anh uses the word “ghost”, but hesitates in regard of what verb to pick: she begins with a lexicalization “seeing ghosts”, yet clarifies that she rather senses them than perceives visually. She explains this ability through the concept of “cao số”, high fate - a marker of something that’s given to a person against their will. (1) Since last year I started seeing … like, I walk somewhere and see ghosts (nhìn thấy ma). I wouldn’t say I really see that there is a person of a ghost standing in front of me. It’s more like a feeling (cảm giác), but it’s very distinct. I feel - oh, there is someone here. I often see them passing right through (sược qua mình) me. They sort of stand in a corner, or… they appear in different ways, it’s not that they follow me, not at all. I just feel so. But I feel it clearly. Though you can never see ghosts’ faces. I see something like a shadow (hình bóng). It’s like… I have an ability to see it, we have a saying in Vietnam - I have higher fate (cao số hơn) than others, so I can see. High fate is quite hard for a Vietnamese, for example when it comes to having a family, I… well… In fact higher fate doesn’t mean I’m higher than other people, it’s more about my psychics (tâm linh), it’s stronger than others’. Spontaneous spirit possession (được ai nhập). In this example Ngoc Anh describes the incarnation of her father’s spirit in her body during lên đồng ceremony where medium would normally get possessed only by the spirits of Mother Religion. The presence of father’s spirit in her body is signified by such symptoms as heaviness, sobbing, and dyspnea. Noc Anh’s uncle, an experienced medium, quickly figured what was going on and asked her father to leave that immediately changed her bodily sensations. (2) Last year I was serving spirits (hầu đồng) and at some point felt that my father was nearby (quay quanh em). When I was finishing the ceremony, my dad incarnated me (nhập vô). My body got really heavy (rất nặng chịu xuống), I was pressed down to the ground. After that I started feeling dyspnea just like my dad, he had problems with lungs. It was hard to breathe, and I had a feeling of heaviness in my whole body (người mình) as if someone entered it (được ai nhập), although I could still hear people talking around me, but couldn’t control (kiểm xoát) my body (cơ thể). Once he entered he started crying (khóc quá trời luôn), and I cried too, but I realized those weren’t my tears, it’s someone else sobbing inside me. My uncle said: don’t enter now, don’t take off the scarf , and when my father heard those words he stopped crying and left my body(người em có cảm giác quảy lại bình thường). My uncle said: One should not enter now (không có được vào), one should not take off the scarf … And then … my father heard these words and stopped crying, and my body returned to its usual state (người em có cảm giác quảy lại bình thường). Swaying body (cơ thể quay). It’s another way to signify the presence of a non-human agency, but to understand it correctly one needs to be consulted by an expert. For Ngoc Anh her uncle became such a consultant. (3) Last year I saw so many ghosts that I started thinking I wasn’t well (không có khoẻ). Also it often happened that I would just sit somewhere and my body starts swaying in circles (cái người em bắt đầu quay), and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I do realize my body is swaying, but have no power to calm it down (không thể cỡ lại được việc đó). I often sway like this, and that’s exhausting. A: When does it usually happen? NA: Sometimes during the day. Like when I stay somewhere or pass by a place where people do rituals to spirits (thờ thánh) or something like this, or where they worship the sea or in some disordered area (không có trật tự). Reading other peoples’ characters (đọc cái tính cách). Ngoc Anh describes her newly acquired ability to read characters as a result of Moon lake Princess supervision. (4) When last year… it happened several times… I was looking at other person’s face… well, normally I just look at others and see nothing special except I know who this person is, and all of a sudden I look at their facial features (nhìn vào cái mắt mũi mồm miệng) and start reading their character (em bắt đầu đọc cái tính cách của họ), I know what this person is like. Some have good characters, some are bad… in overall I spontaneously read a person (tự nhiên em đọc con ngừoi), it reveals in my thoughts (khẩu ra trong đầu của em). Such capacity comes from another interpretative repertoire, which the author calls the repertoire of non-human agency. It’s used for personalizing the spirits of ancestors, who had great merits for the country while they were alive and after passing on they became capable of helping people. This repertoire is also used by the informant to explain how non-human agencies teach mediums and show up in their bodies during rituals. Spirits teach mediums (các thánh dạy). Spiritual education requires specific conditions for the disciple and non-human agencies, as well as having a master who guides a person in their practice as an assistant or consultant. Sometimes learning happens during the spirit possession ceremonies. (5) I’m under supervision of the Princess of Moon Lake (Bà Chúa Bói, Bà Chúa Nguyệt hồ); she can predict future for people (xem bói cho người ta). I have to serve her (phục sự), and need to learn a lot of stuff for that. Some people can see the future naturally, but they also have to learn. In our trade learning doesn’t mean there is a teacher who teaches you (học ở đây không có nghĩa là có thầy dạy mình). You just come to some place, and stay there and study yourself, but this self-education actually means that spirits teach you (tự học là do người ta nói là do các thánh dạy mình), while your master simply shows you the way (thầy chỉ đưa đường dẫn lối), but the teaching is done by the spirits (các thánh sẽ là ngừoi dạy mình). Before taking off the scarf (tự mở khăn) for the first time I asked my mother: “I’m going to take off that scarf and what’s next? I saw how it’s done many times but I have no idea what to do”. My mother answered: “When the scarf is off spirits will teach you” (con có lên khăn ấy thì các thánh dạy). I was surprised, however everything happened exactly as mom said - when I took off the scarf everything went smoothly as if I had known it before (giống như là mình biết nó trước). Spirits of mighty ancestors help people. Non-human agencies are usually personalized in characters of ancient royal court and army generals of the past. (6) A: Who is “them” (Họ là ai)? NA: They are spirits (các thánh). For example Vietnamese emperors, princes and princesses, royal entourage (những cái người mà họ hậu hạ cho vua chúa) of the past, like generals and courtiers. A: So they are distinguished people of the past, not from our times? NA: Yes, those are the Vietnamese who once had special merits for their country (có công với đất nước). Those who helped Vietnam to defeat its enemies, to fight the Chinese… Socio-practical repertoire is used by Ngoc Anh to describe medium’s skills applied in real life. For that she combines two previous repertoires, focusing on the way non-human agencies act through a medium and also on some technical details and practices such as serving the spirits and regularizing a territory . Non-human agencies act in human body. The success of medium’s actions is related to the concept of ăn lộc, which means receiving a blessing. Efficiency of the contact with spirits relies entirely on the will of the latter. The next example shows how it happens in teaching and in rituals. (7) It’s not a type of education, it’s what people call receiving a blessing (mình được ăn lộc). It means that when spirits let me speak (các thánh cho mình được nói) then I can speak, but it’s all arranged as if spirits were sitting by one’s side and putting words in his mouth (nói vào tay mình). Then one can talk. That demonstrates that one receives a blessing from the spirits (được ăn lộc của họ). Some receive a blessing for years, some just for a short time, it can be three years or thirty years - all depends on how one serves them (cách mình phục sự họ như thế nào) and whether they agree with such way of serving, whether it’s a right way to serve, then they bless a person to make him or her speak. For example five years ago someone saw future correctly (ngừoi ta xem bói rất đúng) and now makes false predictions - it’s because this person lost a blessing. Some people say what sounds right, but turns out wrong. It’s all about receiving a blessing. Serving the spirits (lên đồng, hầu bóng). This ritual of spirit possession in Mother Religion has been thoroughly described by many scholars, so the author will only provide a few relevant examples from his informant’s narrative. (8) Every time when I’m covered by the scarf (phủ khăn lên) and someone enters me, my body starts swaying in circles, it gets pressed down by some force and sways (có một cái lực gì đấy nó giám xuống ngừoi mình và người mình quay)… and in all that time I keep hearing the sounds of music, I realize (biết) that I’m swaying, but when it sways me up to the point when it becomes unbearable it means that the spirit wants to perform, then I have to take off the scarf (mở khăn ra) to let him step forward and start serving (ngừoi ta đi ra, người ta hầu). It feels like in that moment my body knows what I am doing, I hear and understand everything that people around me do, and sometimes I can get a grasp of myself (đang tự làm chủ mình), but they can enter any time (ngừoi ta có thể óp vào) and some enter so powerfully that I can hardly stand it, it’s called to “incarnate” or to “possess” (ngừoi ta gọi là óp, ngừoi ta gọi là nhập vào), sometimes even the audience can feel that power inside me. So I don’t really lose control over my body, I know who the people are around me, but I consider them as my subordinates (thần dân của mình). I kind of spread the blessing among them (ban phước cho họ), throw them money, share food with them and help them as much as I can. Regularizing a territory (chấn điểm) is a form of removing of a non-human agency from a place where it gets in the way of people. Ngoc Anh shared a case of such practice performed by her uncle. (9) My uncle once helped a school. There were rumors that the location chosen for building a school is full of dead bodies remained from the war without proper burying (rất nhiều xác chết, rất nhiều mộ). It was one of those spots where bloody battles took place, and later families couldn’t find the bodies of their killed relatives, so their bones are still underground. When they started building a school at that place they couldn’t finish construction. As soon as it would rise above the second floor, the whole building would collapse (đến lầu ba thì nó sập… sẽ sập xuống). A few years people couldn’t find the cause of such misfortune. Then someone had an idea to invite my uncle and he performed what we call regulating the territory (chấn điểm) to make the dead calm down (họ đi điểm lại) and stop disturbing (không có phát nữa) people. My uncle did all the necessary rituals, and after that they quickly finished construction. It’s been a few years now that kids go to that school, and everything is fine. Conclusion Summing up the abovementioned examples the author concludes that his informant’s interpretative repertoires are built on three lexicalizations, which define various aspects of medium’s experience. The extrasensory initiation repertoire is related to “high fate” cao số, that allows one to start serving the spirits and is represented as an ability to see ghosts, read peoples’ characters, get possesses by non-human agencies and learn from them. It’s important to notice that in the article by Kirsten Enders the same term is translated as “tough fate” and is represented by a terminal illness, bad luck in business and private life and some metaphysical experience (Enders 2003: 1). From the author’s observations this concept is rather ambivalent and can refer to both “lucky” (as in bad accident survivor) or “unlucky” (as a woman who has hard time getting married). For the states of mind that would be considered in Western cultures as deviant and requiring medical assistance, this repertoire works in Vietnamese language as a sign of exclusivity and special talents for professionalization in the area of non-human agency. Quite in contrast with negative coding of this concept by informants of Kirsten Enders, who considered it to be obliging a person to serve spirits or to be tortured by tough fate (Enders 2003), the author’s respondent coded it positively or neutrally. Potter and Wetherell believe that such variations are most valuable for discovering functions of interpretative repertoires. The repertoire of non-human agency is related to the word “spirits” thần thánh, which signifies different types of supernatural creatures in Vietnamese mythology, primarily - in our case - the spirits of honored persons of royal court that help their living compatriots with mundane business, give them access to sacred knowledge and cure illnesses. Although no special focus has been made in the interview above on this repertoire it obviously has a function of trust in state power as a force that translates ancestors’ good deeds for the country into ability to fulfill peoples’ demand for seeing future, heal, chase away evil spirits and neutralize social and personal entropy. And finally, the efficiency of socio-practical repertoire depends on “receiving a blessing” ăn lộc, which is a crucial condition for fortunetelling, and is given as a reward for a right service. Evidence from my fieldwork show that receiving a blessing is a key condition for any successful interaction with non-human agencies in Vietnamese mediums’ book. It is a form of symbolic exchange “service for support” that has a function of defense from criticism and protecting medium’s authority. No one dares disparage messages from mighty ancestors. One can doubt whether or not a medium receives a blessing but the source of medium’s actions and words are represented by non-human agencies and therefore is beyond criticism. By using these three repertoires the informant produces herself as a blessed and transformed subject that has access to super-empirical knowledge and support from non-human agency under supervision of her master. In the same time those repertoires provide a resource for “legitimating of a certain group’s power in the society” [Wetherell, Potter 1988: 169], specifically, the society of mediums who have always had elite status in Vietnam. And yet Ngoc Anh doesn’t use a repertoire of vicinity and psychosis that is typical for informants of Kirsten Enders who describe the beginning of their service as a forced way to get rid of illnesses and bad luck. This sort of entering the business is well-known in many traditions as a shamanic illness, and the fact that it’s missing in my informant’s narrative may either signify a special case or changes in the structure of some practices in modern Vietnam. The results of analysis presented in this paper are to be considered as a starting point in studying discursive subjecthood of Vietnamese mediums. It should be followed up by a wider sampling of respondents and interviewers in order to achieve required variability of data for deeper understanding of the functions of interpretative repertoires used in the community of mediums to construct their identities and achieve professional goals.

About the authors

A. Sh Sharipov

Institute for Linguistic Research RAS

Email: aligrapher@gmail.com
PhD (Philosophy), Researcher, Laboratory of Anthropological Linguistics


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