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Supernatural Powers and a “Discourse of Decline”

This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between D. S. Farrer and J. David Neidel. Farrer is the special issue editor for Social Analysis Volume 58, Issue 1, and Neidel is the author of the article “Discourse of Decline: Local Perspectives on Magic in Highland Jambi, Indonesia” appearing in that issue. Below, Neidel answers a series of questions related to her article in Social Analysis.

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with contributors to this volume. Find the previous contributions on our blog.



What drew you to the study of War Magic & Warrior Religion?

I conducted research for my Ph.D. dissertation in the highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia. My research project focused on a national park- community conflict, so I was not intending to study war magic. Supernatural powers, spirit possession, and other related phenomena, however, played such a large role in the local culture (as seen in legends, oral histories, village ceremonies, and actual practice) that I started collecting data on the subject as a side project.


Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

As I was writing up my dissertation, I started to read some of the anthropological literature related to the subject, which allowed me to place my own data and experiences within a broader theoretical discussion on the subject.



What aspect of researching and writing the chapter did you find most challenging?  Most rewarding?

I tried to learn some of the supernatural powers when I was in Sumatra. This type of participant observation was extremely interesting, but I ultimately proved unsuccessful in gaining any of the powers. After memorizing mantras, ritual bathing on auspicious nights, etc., I just didn’t have enough certainty in the efficacy of the supernatural powers to let anybody get near me with a sharp machete, while other powers proved untestable due to practical and/or moral considerations. Nevertheless, the process provided interesting insights into that aspect of the culture. As for writing the chapter, the biggest challenges came from the fact that, as an environmental anthropologist, I was essentially working in a different sub-field of anthropology, so I had to efficiently navigate what is ultimately a vast body of scholarship on the subject.



To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

In my chapter, I introduce the concept of a “discourse of decline,” looking at the ways people in the region, despite largely retaining a belief in the efficacy of magic, nevertheless explain a perceived decline in supernatural powers largely as a result of various changing political, economic and cultural factors particular to their own society. This general “discourse of decline” concept could be applied to explore changes in a whole series of cultural beliefs and practices that simultaneously adapt and yet decline in the face of modernity.



Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

Speaking once again of my own chapter, yes, I think it will generate some controversy. My goal was to directly challenge some of long-standing anthropological perspectives on the efficacy of magic and the inevitability of its decline by engaging with local commentaries on these very topics. By situating the particulars of Sumatra within the context of over 50 years of intense scholarship on the subject, the argument is bound to incite some strong reactions.


Figure 1_Neidel


If you weren’t an anthropologist what would you have done instead?

Since 2008,I have been working as the Asia Coordinator for the Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative, a capacity-building and training program of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies that is focused on forest restoration and degraded land rehabilitation in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. So, in other words, I have essentially taken the (no longer hypothetical) alternative path. A more relevant question—for which I don’t have a particularly good answer—is what would I have done if I had remained a full-time academic researcher.



What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?

About three years ago, I started studying Krav Maga, a rather brutal form of self-defense that originated in Israel. No ritual or magic…just blood (a little of it), sweat (gallons of it), and (almost) tears.



What inspired your love of the subject of War Magic? When?

I am intellectually curious about practically everything, so when the supernatural powers, spirit possession, and other rather inexplicable aspects of the local culture came onto my radar in Sumatra, I naturally wanted to know more. My fascination with the subject, however, really shot to the fore when a visiting American friend proved highly susceptible to spirit possession, at which point I felt myself starting to descend down the proverbial rabbit hole…



What inspired you to research and write?

Intellectual curiosity remains a strong driving force in my life, but for the time being formal research and writing has taken a back seat to my more applied concerns surrounding biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration in Southeast Asia.



What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?

Most interesting to me right now would be stepping back from my current work to more closely examine the interface between applied work and academic research. I highly value academic knowledge, but as a practitioner I sometimes get frustrated by the institutional constraints that keep scholars from creating “useful” information, that keeps academic knowledge inaccessible and largely incomprehensible to those who need it the most, and that feed into our inability to effectively address complex social and environmental problems.






J. David Neidel received his PhD in Forestry and Environmental Studies and Anthropology from Yale University in 2006. Based at the National University of Singapore, he is the Asia Program Coordinator for the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative, a capacity-building and training program of the  Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. His current work focuses on facilitating forest restoration and degraded land rehabilitation in Indonesia and the Philippines. He also continues to pursue his research interests in the historical and political ecology of biodiversity conservation and development.