Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern
336pp. January 2013
Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and Its Provocation of the Modern
Author: Ram, Kalpana;
In her innovative new book, Kalpana Ram reflects on the way spirit possession unsettles some of the foundational assumptions of modernity. What is a human subject under the varied conditions commonly associated with possession? What kind of subjectivity must already be in place to allow such a transformation to occur? How does it alter our understanding of memory and emotion if these assail us in the form of ghosts rather than as attributes of subjective experience? What does it mean to worship deities who are afflictive and capricious, yet bear an intimate relationship to justice? What is a "human" body if it can be taken over by a whole array of entities? What is agency if people can be "claimed" in this manner? What is gender if, while possessed, a woman is a woman no longer?

Drawing on spirit possession among women and the rich traditions of subaltern religion in Tamil Nadu, South India, Ram concludes that the basis for constructing an alternative understanding of human agency need not rest on the usual requirements of a fully present consciousness or on the exercise of choice and planning. Instead of relegating possession, ghosts, and demons to the domain of the exotic, Ram uses spirit possession to illuminate ordinary experiences and relationships. In doing so, she uncovers fundamental instabilities that continue to haunt modern formulations of gender, human agency, and political emancipation. Fertile Disorder interrogates the modern assumptions about gender, agency, and subjectivity that underlie the social improvement projects circulating in Tamil Nadu, assumptions that directly shape people’s lives. The book pays particular attention to projects of family planning, development, reform, and emancipation.

Combining ethnography with philosophical argument, Ram fashions alternatives to standard post-modernist and post-structuralist formulations. Grounded in decades of fieldwork, ambitious and wide ranging, her work is conceived as a journey that makes incursions into the unfamiliar, then returns us to the familiar. She argues that magic is not a monopoly of any one culture, historical period, or social formation but inhabits modernity—not only in the places, such as cinema and sound recording, where it is commonly looked for, but in "habit" and in aspects of everyday life that have been largely overlooked and shunned.

Fertile Disorder will be of interest to a wide range of scholars in anthropology, religion, gender studies, subaltern studies, and post colonial theory.
“Ram’s extraordinary capacity to combine meticulous ethnography of spirit possession and other expressions of ‘female disorder’ in Tamil Nadu with deep and provocative reflections on the history of modernity in the subcontinent is what gives this book its freshness and originality. Scholars in diverse fields, from South Asian feminist and subaltern studies to those constituted by anthropological and postcolonial critiques of contemporary forms of modernization, should find this book to be of absorbing interest.” —Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

Fertile Disorder is a superb conjunction of engaged ethnography and phenomenological, feminist philosophy. It reveals how notions of ‘possession’ trouble foundational assumptions about subjectivity, agency, body and gender which pervade not just Western secular philosophies but the project of reason in India’s postcolonial modernity, promoted by state intellectuals, NGO workers, and middle-class professionals. Through empathetic analysis of the poignant laments articulated by poor, low-caste women in the fishing and agricultural communities of Tamil Nadu and those graphic moments when women yield to deities and spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, Kalpana Ram’s luminous narrative ultimately evokes not so much elegiac mourning as hope for a better future.” —Margaret Jolly, ARC Laureate Fellow, The Australian National University

“In this innovative and beautifully written book, Kalpana Ram argues for a more realistic, habituated, and embodied concept of human agency in contemporary social theory. Her ethnographic case studies of female possession in Tamil Nadu are vivid and detailed yet they always speak to broader problems in philosophical, social scientific, and feminist discourse. She demonstrates how possession trance, often viewed as a minor practice or an exotic cultural atavism, can help us identify the flawed assumptions of both mentalist theoretical subjectivity and emancipatory theoretical politics. The result is a landmark contribution to anthropology and South Asian studies.” —Dennis McGilvray, University of Colorado

“This captivating and timely work offers a provocative challenge to well-established anthropological explanations of both religiosity and spirit possession. Ram’s careful analysis of the everydayness of subordinated experiences of spirituality is also an analysis of Indian modernity and puts forward entirely fresh ways of thinking and writing about both possession and India's state-led family planning programs. Fertile Disorder offers both a deep exploration of religion/possession and a work of feminist postcolonial criticism of state power. This is a great book.” —Stacy Leigh Pigg, Simon Fraser University
Author: Ram, Kalpana;
Kalpana Ram is associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University, Sydney, where she lectures on anthropology, phenomenology, gender, and India. She is also director of the university’s India Research Centre.
Read the Introduction (PDF).
Note on Transliteration 


Part I: State Intellectuals and Minor Practices 
1. Visible and Invisible Bodies: Rural Women and State Intellectuals 
2. Minor Practices 

Part II: Gender, Agency, Justice 
3. Possession and the Bride: Emotions, the Elusive Phantom of Social Theory 
4. The Abject Body of Infertility 
5. Learning Possession, Becoming Healer 
6. Performativity in the Court of the Goddess 
7. The Nature of the Complaint 

Part III: Revisiting the Projects of Modernity 
8. Possession and Social Theory 
9. Possession and Emancipatory Politics