Explaining trance and music?

Tony Perman has written an excellent and timely(-ish) review of two important contemporary ethnomusicological/anthropological viewpoints on trance and spirit possession in this summer’s Ethnomusicology 57(2). His 2008 dissertation on Ndau spirit possession and aesthetics in Zimbabwe is well worth reading, even though I strongly disagree with many of his analytical points. I’ll talk about those in a later post.

I’m attempting here to offer a take on Perman’s article by closely analyzing his claims about one of the reviewed texts. I hope to utilize critique here not as a sledgehammer but as a kind of diagnostic – that is, not in a destructive capacity but in a strengthening capacity. The first mode of critique is so common that it seems to sate only the bloodlust of graduate students (and was a favorite mode of mine), so moving in a new direction seems not only necessary but fundamentally more productive.

If you read Perman’s piece, then you might be thinking that I’m mistaken about there being two views, because in fact there were three views on trance outlined in the article: one in Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners (2003), one in Steven Friedson’s Remains of Ritual (2009), and one in Richard Jankowsky’s Stambeli (2010). But there are only two. Because Jankowsky’s “perspective” on trance is not really a perspective in its current iteration.


Now, I’ve spent a good part of this past summer with Jankowsky’s book, and I have a great deal of respect for 95% of it, but I think his account of trance in general is unsatisfying when compared to Friedson or Becker’s position.

Basically, the two current positions on trance seem to simplify downwards into 1) a position that recognizes trance as a universal human cultural-biological phenomenon that is fundamentally learned (Becker) and 2) a position that regards trance as an ineffable, unique ‘kind’ of ideational and bodily experience, which precludes translation (Friedson). Jankowsky argues that neither position is wholly adequate, and thus claims a “militant middle ground” that I think leads to some rather avoidable problems.

A charitable reading of this middle ground is that what we have here in these two positions is a continuum of explicability in studies of trance: from largely explicable in Becker to largely inexplicable in Friedson. A ideal conception of the middle ground would be that it makes room for some explanations of the process of trance, while noting that some aspects are best construed as so tied to individual experience that it is only amenable to analogy. Indeed, the best case for the middle ground is claiming that the middle ground privileges participants’ own understandings, mediating between ideas about the healing potential of trance and the very subjective nature of some aspects of possession. Indeed, this is what Jankowsky hopes for. Unfortunately, I was not convinced that he achieved it.

There are several real problems with this middle ground as currently conceived.

The first is that it avoids discussion of a fruitful question about humans and trance states not by providing a novel solution or restatement of the question, but rather by ignoring it. We could imagine a restatement of the issue (the “explicability of trance”) that refocuses scholarly attention not on explaining trance but on how trance is achieved, what role it plays in the construction of subjectivities, etc. Jankowsky even claims that trance is not a problem that needs to be explained, but he crucially does not follow this statement far enough.

The second problem stems from his recognition of the first issue. In claiming 1) that there is a middle ground of explicability that is exemplified by participants’ understandings, and 2) that trance is not a problem that needs to be explained, Jankowsky has set up a real pickle that he does not resolve.

The third problem is a direct result of his articulation of the middle ground as an account of participants’ explanations of trance and its value. First, much of his ethnography deals with male musicians who appear to deal with trance quite differently than female practitioners. While female practitioners seek healing and advice, male musicians and ritual experts regularly deride people’s ideas about what trance can achieve. But rather than fleshing out a picture of what trance and the spirits might be capable of, Jankowsky simply doesn’t seem interested in those aspects. Likely, this is partially due to access to female interlocutors, a focus on music rather than medicine, etc. But to claim that your analysis is predicated on eliciting understandings of trance that are based on practitioners’ understandings and then spending much of the book putting together a totally synthetic account of “alterity” is counterproductive to that point.

The fourth issue with this explanation of trance is that it purports to seek explanations of trance and trance-related activity from what Ernest Gellner called ‘its world’ – which Gellner claimed (rightly, I think) is not only impossible but fundamentally not useful. An account of a particular practice in terms of its practitioners would not explain key terms, highlight structural aspects, note contacts between different social groups, etc. since these would be tacitly understood. Further, the capacity for ethnomusicological understanding is predicated on modes of thought and reasoning utilized in ethnomusicology.

Jankowsky’s account of trance simply smuggles in assumptions about explicability in terms of ‘our world’, while claiming that he is offering a participant-centric view that is basically impossible in the ethnographic idiom. This issue is particularly obvious with his focus on musical processes that are simply manifest in musical practice, apparent disinterest in the healing capacities of trance, and theoretically rich explications of the notion of ‘alterity’ that don’t appear endemic.

The final serious problem I have with Jankowsky’s work is the following statement, offered as a kind of rebuke to Becker’s position: “even if we found a groundbreaking synapse firing or intensification of hypothalamic activity in trance-state brain-mapping, this would probably be of little interest to participants, for whom the framework of spirit possession is crucial to finding meaning and situating experience socially” (24). Reading between the lines, it appears that Jankowsky is claiming that this kind of data – on quantifiable ways that brains, bodies, and individuals actually process and experience trance-states – is not important to participants, even though they take quite seriously the healing potential of trance, which must at some level be somatic. Secondly, does this imply that anything not of interest to participants is not of interest to researchers? If Jankowsky had discovered this synapse, would he not have recorded it? Could he not have? This seems quite backward and clearly not the way he approached most of his research – I’m sure, like all of us, he asked reams of questions that simply annoyed his teacher, Bābā Majīd, with their seeming triviality. Are those questions not worth asking or answering?

I think all of these potential problems can be addressed by Jankowsky, and some shown to be my own misunderstandings, more likely than not. In very real ways, I think a medial position on trance study is really a way forward as Perman articulated it in the review – allowing for both the difficulties of relating personal experience and accounting for the unambiguously universal aspects of trance while resisting unitary answers and concomitant speculation.

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About Bradford Garvey

Ph.D student in Ethnomusicology, CUNY GC. Adjunct Lecturer in Music, CUNY Hunter.
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