The Crisis of Possession


Willy Apollon

Gifric, Quebec

Translated by

Peter Canning and Tracy McNulty

Los Angeles, California and University of Southern California

Copyright © 1999 by Willy Apollon, Peter Canning, and Tracy McNulty, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S.Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. At first glance, the most spectacular aspect of Vodou is without doubt the phenomenon of the crisis of possession. It is the first thing that strikes the spectator, the foreigner or stranger to Haiti. For the Voudouist, and thus for the Haitian, the crisis is something so habitual that it risks going unanalyzed. Many studies have attempted to offer an explanation of the crisis. In other words, it is always approached within the field of writing, as something exterior to the norms that writing upholds. It is always analyzed in terms of deviancy, psychological weakness, or pathology. One might even be tempted to say that because it passes through writing, the analysis and/or description of the crisis of possession has always been an unavowed political reclaiming of this possession by the dominant ideology, which is upheld and reproduced by writing. At the same time, though, it is important to recognize that many authors have tried to avoid this impasse, often with a certain success. But these authors--among whom I include Milo Rigaud, Antonio Louis-Jean, Louis Mars, Alfred Métraux and Lorimer Denis--have tended to avoid this impasse by remaining within the game of interpretation. It is as though the passage through writing necessarily condemns us to interpretation.
  2. The difficulty here is a structural one. The desire to recapture the movement of possession is unable to get around language, and even more importantly this particular violence that writing enacts upon language in order to extinguish the voices: except perhaps through the game of orthography, which the dominant ideologies use to delimit meaning. Anything that doesn't pass through the commentary and the gloss that the ortho-graphic space overdetermines can no longer be spoken about. The surveillance of meaning counters the role of the senses. The body is evacuated by its unrestricted exigency of satisfaction. If language imposes the structure of the demand upon mortal men for the satisfaction of their needs, even to the point of easing the exigency of satisfaction, writing works to regulate the sign to such a degree as to substitute it for the voice. The voice is no longer a cry of the body, a vocal connotation of demands emanating from the drives. It fades away, and washes up dead on the shores of the sign's metonymic game.
  3. What we are able to see of the "voices" within the spectacle of possession runs the risk of being dissolved by the act of interpretation, in which writing reduces it to the sign. How can possession be made to pass through writing? What kind of disturbance could theory introduce into writing, in order to provoke the emergence of a style able to connote possession? At the point at which meaning, in its multiplicity, gives resonance to what orthography keeps within the field of the simplest kind of reading, one might suspect that the surveillance of the "voices" that inhabit language by writing could be subverted through the violence enacted upon writing.[1]
  4. This observation might allow us to better situate the point of departure from which we will enter into our consideration of the crisis of possession: a diverting of the investments of the drives that results from a certain socio-cultural organization. Indeed, the particular difficulty presented by the attempt to put Vodou in writing is an effect of this function of writing, which consists in stifling the multiplicity of the "voices" by imposing upon them a single meaning: that which is upheld by the dominant classes and social groups. In the same way, the difficulty proper to the drive to subvert history in the field of the Vodou society or brotherhood [confrérie][2] derives from the historic political domination of the peasant masses, which compels them to invest the imaginary with cultural figures who substitute themselves for the economic and social structures that serve to order the relationship between the powers that be and the class struggle that lies at the heart of social conflict. But the fact that these diversions still serve the drive should reconfirm our suspicion about what is inhabiting our own analysis, namely a certain position of desire that expects the drive to produce political subversions.
  5. Taken in their totality, we will see that the different stages of the initiation constitute a social surveillance or control of the individual's relation to the "voices." In fact, the question could be posed in terms that are completely opposed to the ones I have chosen here, and still point to the same thing: one might say, for example, that initiation is a technique that reconciles individuals to the universe of the drives.
  6. The phenomenon of the crisis of possession thus brings us face to face with a certain number of realities, which it serves to articulate. At the limit, the crisis seems to take the place of an impossible articulation of the multiplicity of the drives, which have to be accounted for somehow, [3] to the economic, social, and political structures particular to a historic social formation. This limit, though, is an organization, which issues from the Vodou societies [confrérie].
  7. Moreover, it is remarkable that the state of possession has been designated as a "crisis," with all of the psychopathological and psychiatric connotations the term brings with it. The explicators of Vodou identify possession as a crisis of the individual, without ever considering whether it might also designate a rent or tear in the social structure. But this site of rupture has to be indexed, because without it we cannot explain anything on the level of the social history of what takes place in the "crisis" of possession.
  8. In the social formation of Haiti, the peasant and working classes, whole segments of the middle classes, and numerous social groups, for whom Vodou represents a cultural mode of existence, find themselves in an objective situation in which the satisfaction of their most basic needs is uncertain, to say the least. This fact is hardly novel, inasmuch as the history of Haiti is really the history of the hegemonic domination of classes and social groups who have always defined and maintained to their sole advantage the rules of the social game. I have already emphasized elsewhere[4] how the structures of exchange in the social formation of the colony of Saint-Domingue offered the slave no opportunity to satisfy his needs. This satisfaction was strictly a function of the reproduction of the working force. For the slaves, the structure of exchange left no place for personal aspirations. Any social exigency that might attempt to inscribe itself in the game of these relations to the Other of the colonial structures would be doomed in advance to an unnamable frustration.
  9. Furthermore, where could such social requirements possibly inscribe themselves in a system that was ordered through and through and completely saturated by the imperative of overproduction, which was necessary for the French accumulation of capital? Against the unspeakable quality of this desperation, the practice of marronnage, the clandestine flight of runaway slaves from their masters, offered an existence of vagabond drives. This U-topia in the interstices of the space-time of slavery exploitation gave a face outside of meaning to the boundless frustration and deep-seated anguish of the slaves, which was produced by the impossibility of satisfying the most elementary social requirements. This unanchoring of the multiplicity of the drives--and their eventual return in the real, as signaled by the flight of the slaves--was connected to these very structures within slave-based social relations, which were unable to be invested by the storm of drives that they had given rise to. The organization of colonial society had foreseen the ways in which such investments would be excluded. For a whole segment of the slave-based society, marronnage--the flight from slavery--was thus the only libidinal investment possible, and the condition of possibility both of Vodou as a subversive imaginary for the history of the colony, and of the revolt of the slaves which would cause this imaginary to erupt in the real.
  10. The War of Independence, which represented the recuperation of this subversion by new dominant classes, wasn't able to offer the excluded an adequate place in the new relationship of powers and of exchange that was put in place after the victory. The peasant masses and the classes or social groups who had been oppressed by the system of slavery thus found themselves in much the same situation after Independence. Fundamentally, the new order had not been established with a view to the appropriate satisfaction of everyone's needs. But above all, the structures of social exchange and of the relationship between powers, through which the social requirements of the former slaves and subordinates had to pass, offered them no legal or political locus from which to pursue a responsible quest for legitimate social satisfactions. At the same time, the new regimes had to combat Vodou, the ally of yesterday, because to those who aspired to the respect and recognition of their new independence, it represented the face of "savagery" and the blockage of cultural advancement through superstition. Noblesse oblige! But precisely because the conditions of social exchange and the structure of the relationship between powers had not been altered fundamentally by the popular classes' access to independence, the conditions of possibility of Vodou remained as topical as ever. The cultural, political, religious, and police suppressions that have always accompanied such conditions throughout the history of Haiti, and that will no doubt continue to do so, only serve to consolidate them, thereby rendering Vodou unassailable. The very things that the masses had no hope of obtaining on the level of political, economic, or social structures were able to assume a tangible form and meaning within Vodou as a collective imaginary, which prevented the prescription of the most fundamental social requirements of the popular masses.
  11. One of the most subtle forms of social control of Haitian Vodou was to become its folklorification by the dominant cultures. Accompanied by all kinds of "defenses and illustrations" of the ancestral heritage by the writer, historian, or politician, this folklorification confined Vodou to a national territory. But this territory is merely the proscenium of a theater opened to spectators, who are always relegated to the status of tourists. This voyage into the interior is supposed to defuse the noxious quality that the drives assume within Vodouesque representations. It offers up the invasion of the audible at the distance proper to sight, thereby trans-muting it into the emotion of the spectacle. This calculated passage from the erotic to the aesthetic is consistent with the (repressive) game of the educational sublimation of the dominant cultures, which wrest from the exploited masses not only their pride in their different cultures, but also the hope of any redress within the social relation.
  12. The new social relations instituted by Independence were an order of things. They organized another kind of theatricality. Representation once again served to stitch up the social field, and any libidinal circulation of energies was controlled from the outset. With independence, the slave state acceeded to its own impossibility. If the slave revolution in 1791 witnessed the overflowing of negro drives, an invasion of hordes tearing through the fabric of the colonial organization at every one of its seams, the war of Independence and the new order it installed consecrated the representativeness of the new dominant classes on the historic stage of Haiti, rendering all libidinal tempests impossible for an indeterminate period of time.
  13. Vodou was effectively contained and sealed off, subject to a control that was maintained historically from that point forward. Situated within the national history as a primordial event, a primitive scene and a historical beginning, Vodou came to occupy a place and play a role within the national theater, appearing in the writings of historians or in political discourse. But it was completely emasculated. As an eruption of "voices" from nowhere, which took possession of slave bodies in the most unpredictable ways in order to free them from the chains of economic and cultural exchange in which the sign maintains every life for an already designated jouissance, the Vodou that called the slaves offered another libidinal trajectory for the traversal and tearing apart of the body, in groups that were already in the service of economic production. This was the Vodou that the new order controlled, rendering it null and void.
  14. But this control also served a counter role, since it both designated Vodou and marginalized it through theatricality. Vodou had already passed into another mode of existence. It was no longer the subversive rupture, the site of the revolution. It was relegated henceforth to haunting the theater, as a faceless cruelty. Vodou could be celebrated in the way that one celebrates a prestigious past, but the people were no longer possessed. The possession of individuals, and of groups or brotherhoods [confréries], was no longer historic, because it had become folkloric or superstitious, relegated to an impotent stardom. The libidinal economy of possession was no longer able to deliver any act that would upset the field of the sign, any subversion of the economic and political order, or any reorganization of the conditions of satisfaction. [5] Civilized and democratized negro drives had no other way to go on speaking the unheard-of than to become an object of general mirth (racism? what a comical term!) in the great international comedy: the crazies driven mad by capital! Henceforth the voices mount the bodies for a grandiose mystical spectacle.
  15. We have already noted this ambiguity in the discourse of the Voudouists themselves. They celebrate the relationship of Vodou to the War of Independence, or to any civil war in which some paranoiac leader accedes to the presidency in the way a houngan[6] accedes to the IFE to receive the asson.[7] But this chant of social history substitutes itself for the libidinal investment of the same history, in order to produce it. This celebration itself is what introduces Vodou into the specific theatricality in which the desiring position of the dominant classes is organized in the formation of Haitian society. As a ritual in which bodies are possessed by the voices, Vodou is politically controlled. There is no longer any "crisis of possession" among the working classes and popular groups that would simultaneously constitute a historic socio-political crisis, modifying the course of history and thereby radically transforming the rules and possibilities of libidinal circulation in the formation of Haitian society, provoking a reorganization of the conditions of exchange and the social relations that regulate satisfaction. The empire of the sign has everywhere limited the free circulation of negro drives that marronnage introduced into it as Vodou.
  16. The empire of the sign is the order of productivity and growth, the cultural order, the miming of whites and democracy: in short, everything that the dominant negro or mulatto classes who mime white culture and its writing impose upon the formations of the popular classes as a necessity of civilization. The great white theater of writing and rational discourse, with its order of capitalist (or communist or marxist, it really doesn't matter--in each case, the essential is that it's imported[8]) productivity and truth, this confrontation with the Other, the ob-scene figure of Judeo-Christian monotheism, has yet to be regarded with the appropriate shame. If Vodou now has to refuse theater, it is not because it isn't a libidinal organization of satisfaction, but rather because it subtly restrains the circulation of libidinal energies--even to the point of extinction--in favor of the ritual organization of the sign, representation, normativity, the order established for the benefit of a few social groups and classes, and truth--in a word, the Big Other. [9] In short, this socio-historical control of Vodouic possession, and its long-term goal of rendering Vodou extinct, are concerned strictly with the diversion of libidinal energies and their transformation into and investment in the power of work. Whether this work is exploited by certain of the dominant classes or expended by the political ideal of a society--be it socialist or something still to come--the infamy lies in its diversion, which is the exclusion of the libido itself as a free quest for satisfaction. This diversion or extinction is the most subtle form of exclusion, there where it advances under the mask of social control: politics.
  17. The direct and immediate result of the social control of the free circulation of libidinal energy is ritual control. But when I say it is the result, I do not mean to imply that there is a relation of cause and effect, distancing two phenomena from one another in some kind of chronological order. For what we have here is neither two temporal stages nor two events. Rather, the socio-political control of the free circulation of negro drives in the economic and cultural field and the ritual control of the apparently individual crisis of possession through initiation and the rhythm of the Vodou ceremony are really one and the same thing. They are different pieces of the same mechanism, which effects the exclusion of the drive through the sign and the extinction of the libidinal at the hands of the political, the economic and the cultural. In each instance, what is at stake is the theologico-metaphysic enterprise of substituting the big Other and the figure of the Father, even dead, for the nameless intrigue of the adventure of the drives. In short, the civilization of Vodou: a rehearsal of the Judeo-Christian theatricality that always is forever recommencing, and that substitutes for the here and now of the voyage of the drive, which has neither boundaries nor milestones, the representation of the truth of the Other, in an inaccessible outside.
  18. In effect, the "voices" are no longer simply the cries, the vocalized movements, of bodies that are inhabited and mutilated or carved up by the drives. The "voices" are caught up in the signs that refer to socio-economic and political situations, such as they have been carved out within the social formation by the conflict between social groups and by class struggle. Of course, this capture by signs might already be the site of a noxious or even devastating importation of the drives into the field of history. But the very mode in which this capture takes place tends to restrict the voices to the pure representativity of the exterior. The "voices" can only take place, and can only have a place, on the condition that the (crisis of) the bodies' possession by the gods is the very theater of diversion.
  19. The "regionalities" of the drives lose their tribality, and their incivility, in the figures that serve as models, counter-roles for the initiates and for the bossals alike. By way of example, I will consider here the kinds of limits around which the ritual of possession by Erzulie restricts the libidinal intensities to the spectacle's in-nocence and lack of utility. Erzulie Freda Dahomey is the reterritorialization of the libidinal tribalities that gave free rein to amorous passion, as the absolute risk that the libido takes whenever it wants some object, provided that it leads the libido to the end of its quest, there where libidinal satisfaction conjoins with the painful mutilation of narcissism and of all of the games of identification upheld by the sign. The "voice" is no longer the cry of the libidinal body, torn apart by the fires that traverse it and take possession of its vital space in order to exhaust it. Erzulie Freda, the loa,[10] spirit, or goddess of the amorous impulse toward anything that can lead to satisfaction, is no longer simply the name for this possession of bodies by the libidinal functions. Rather, she capitalizes on comportments that are culturally feminine. The hounsi, the initiate or follower who Erzulie Freda rides [monte],[11] takes on not only her voice--the voice of a woman who is seductive, perverse, and jealously in love--but all of the cultural traits of amorous femininity. But what is remarkable about this defused and ritualized possession, in my view, is that the cultural figures to which Erzulie's femininity is reduced tend to exaggerate the typical amorous comportment, as it is defined through cultural domination. What we see here is the overdetermination of the ritual by the political. The amorous woman who Erzulie Freda "represents" has all the characteristics that are imposed upon the feminine masquerade by the conditions of exploitation and domination proper to bourgeois subjectivity in the feminine socio-cultural position. But these characteristics are already in a sense worked out from within, by the libidinal tribalities that it is their function to control and stabilize in the sign by making them theatrical.
  20. In effect, Erzulie Freda's possession of the body of a man or woman tends to be no more than the theatrical staging of a ritual control. This theatricality is the space of signs that is offered up for libidinal investment. All of the conjunctions and linkages of mouths, breasts, lips, penis, vulva, stomach, vagina, anus, the valleys of the skin, the curves of the buttocks, and movements of the parts of the body in which the drives tribalize themselves, wherever and however they can, are short-circuited here by the petit-bourgeois ritual of love, which facilitates the sexual rapprochement of individualities that are culturally overdetermined. Erzulie Freda circulates among the congregation, making her "perverse" contributions: pinching one person's behind, stealing a kiss from another, demanding a caress somewhere else, grabbing a pair of inattentive and unexpecting breasts. She seems to get off on the complicitous laughter that always erupts in response to her erotic escapades, "swooning" over a remark, quavering in the vigorous arms of the men or clinging to the heaving bosoms of the women. But the theater is rigged. The sign barely contains the tensions that overflow it. The spectator is made queasy by the libidinal movement that traverses the gathering [confrérie]. If the overflow increases even slightly, the game will break free from its staging. But the initiates are watching. The houngan, the mambo, the hounguenican, la Place, confidence, and the hounsi canzo[12] are all there, attentive and in their element, always ready to intervene in time to make sure that the theater never attains the limits of the cruelty that fissures it.
  21. Erzulie Freda only exceeds the boundaries of what can be tolerated. The movements of her gowns, her thighs, and every other edge or border are framed by all the civility of the socio-cultural model of the woman in love, slightly perverse and very coy. She isn't asking for love, she is seeking pleasure in the manner of a gourmet: demanding the absolute and undivided attention that shows her to be matchless in the art of seduction. But the entirety of this game is fully regulated. And when the drives overflow the possibilities that the initiation has bestowed upon the initiate, the officers of the society [confrérie] intervene--generally either the houngan or the mambo. The excess is defused and drained off through foresight.
  22. Hence the ritual of possession stages an entire fantasmatic, already inhabited with determinant socio-cultural models that work to control the traversal of the bodies of the faithful by libidinal multiplicities. What seems to unfold as an overflowing of the drives, or the free expression of an orgiastic celebration, is in fact nothing more than the subtle game of the regulation of libidinal circulation. The groups of the possessed will not leave their hounfort[13] to go ransack the city right next to them, which has banished them from social, political, and economic satisfaction. Ogou-feray,[14] who gesticulates with a saber in his hand, hotheaded and full of rage, terrible and untamable, will not leave the confines of the hounfort to reenact some popular uprising. There will be no more ceremony of the Bois-Caïman, there will be no more night of August 22.
  23. In effect, whether it is a question of Erzulie Freda Dahomey, of Baron Samedi, [15] of Ogou-feray or of any other loa riding one of the faithful, possession remains within the framework of this political and ritual control of the libidinal economy. Besides, possession does not seem possible outside of such control. It is there that it emerges, and that is where it gets resolved. Certainly we know of many cases of possession outside of any ceremony, as well as outside of the framework of the Vodou societies [confréries]. But even these isolated cases are never disconnected from the heritage of Vodou. They always involve people who are more or less intimately--or remotely--concerned with the loas, and who are accountable to them. Even when the initiates or followers are no longer within the confines of the brotherhoods or secret societies [confréries], they are still inhabited by its structures, which control the libidinal outpouring within them. Thus it is easily understandable that in Paris, Montreal, New York or Mexico, Haitian groups organize "voodoo ceremonies" to help a comrade having "psychological difficulties" for which psychiatry has proved ineffective (to say the least). [16]
  24. Normally or habitually, possession takes place in the course of ceremonies. And there is a moment set aside for this purpose. After the greetings between the houngan, the mambo, and the hounsi, and the parade of flags, the chants and invocations are performed to attract the loas. These invocations must be pronounced in a secret language, which according to most observers is comprehensible only to initiates.[17] It would be surprising, however, that such a language could keep its secret so tightly guarded. It is really a matter, in the unfolding of the ritual, of invocations punctuating the drumming, dances, and chants, which make a ritualized rhythm for the moments when, in the course of the ceremony, the emergence of the drives becomes possible. After the libations and orientation rites, the drawing of the vèvè[18] is another time marked for possession. In fact the diagram of the vèvè is (as I have indicated elsewhere), in a certain manner, the opening of a space for the "voices," which makes possible the possession of the bodies of initiates by the loas, to the extent that the vèvè are diagrammed.
  25. The ceremony unfolds according to a rhythm articulated by particular rituals, chants, and dances, the movements of the chorus of hounsi. This entire ensemble theatricalizes the drive--multiplicities that tear through the group of celebrants [confrérie]. At precise moments here and there in the temple, a crisis occurs in response to a moment within the ritual organization: to the call or appeal of the chant or the invocation, to the drum, or to a particular rite. This tissue of signs controlling the libidinal economy also opens up, here and there, the borders and fissures for an outpouring.
  26. Control is supple but effective. Whether it is a question of political overdetermination of a cultural territory for Vodou by the new relation of forces established after independence, or of the universe of cultural models of behavior that upholds the multiplicity of the Vodou pantheon, or whether finally it is a question of the ritual articulation of the different parts of a Vodou ceremony, social control of possession theatricalizes all of the subversive possibilities of the tribalities of the drives. All that remains for the drives is the virulent clandestinity of a work of death.
  27. This subtle cultural closure of Vodou into the theatricality of the sign has not, however, been able to get the better of the nomadism of the drives. [19] There remains the large circulation of raras and zobops who are in some sense the negro maroons of the Haitian social structure. The Tonton-Macoutes of Duvalier have given them that political dimension which permits the horror to pass from clandestinity to open acknowledgement, from night to history, from phantom voyages in the land of the IFE to the international stage.
  28. We are dealing here--at two levels--with hordes of free drives that roam the cultural space without having their own place there. They are not respected but feared, and thus recognized within the very clandestinity of their structures of organization, exchange, and circulation. Against the zobops, the administrative, juridical, and police systems can do nothing, absolutely nothing. Besides, among the masses of people, "everyone knows" that the authorities owe them everything. Provincial officers questioned on this subject have always shown considerable "tact," which consists in thinking that each has his domain, and that respect for the rules of the game is essential for social equilibrium. It seems especially clear to most of them that no contact is possible or desirable between them and those hordes of wandering sorcerers known as zobops. As for the raras, the situation there is supposedly different. However, no one can help knowing that the raras cannot exist openly except thanks to the zobop hordes. The bands of raras are entirely under the control of the secret societies [sociétés secrètes]. It is even these societies that structure the organization of the bands. And the officers questioned acknowledge, when necessary, the possibility of having indirect contact with the secret societies by way of the leaders of the raras. But this kind of relationship can be established only at certain times during the year, in certain cases of criminality requiring the intervention of the police, and all under the invisible eye of the societies that are implicated.
  29. But to what extent were these army officers, who themselves seemed to be respected by the societies, making too much of the real, effective power of those societies, and consequently of their [own] influence and social prestige in the region? Wasn't their discourse reproducing an order of things, a hierarchy of places indicating the sharing and circulation of power (that is, the monopoly of violence) in the Haïtian countryside, from the secret societies to the houngans and mambos of the Vodou societies [confréries], to the army officers, to the military section chiefs and the parish priests? Naturally they were. And yet in this order it was less a matter of hierarchies than of referrals of authority, from one to another, according to the specific case. Each authority, as the army officers revealed, had its own status and role, and social function, as defined within a very complex global game in which it was unthinkable that one might substitute for another. This complex play of authorities was, however, not a rigid structure absolutely shutting out any other forms of power. It is precisely here that there appear those "national security volunteers" commonly called Tonton Macoutes. They did not come to suppress the game of referrals of authority. This was an open game able to promote an ever new circulation of libidinal forces while at the same time monitoring them.
  30. The appearance of the Macoutes gave precedence to one libidinal position, leading all the forces in play in these relays of authority back to one center. It modified the game. It installed a definitive hierarchy. The monopoly of violence gave indications of an apparently absolute control of the forces in play in the shaping of the peasantry. From a political point of view, that is, from the point of view of the enframing [encadrement] and recruitment of drive--multiplicities to bring them under the unitary empire of the party (whichever it might be), it was a success. All the great paranoiacs of history--the religious, military, and political chiefs and ideological leaders--have had these kinds of ingenious ideas out of which historical discourse up to our own time (or almost) has composed its tales. But wherever the organization of the VNS[20] did not intersect with the structure of the secret societies [sociétés secrètes], and thus did not confirm that structure's acceptance of the official political game, those societies became still more nocturnal and hermetic, while Vodou became more peripheral, more "folkloric," an object offered up to the cultural voyeurism of the Western world.
  31. It is here precisely that we must take into account the independence shown by certain houngans and mambos and members of secret societies in regard to this attempt at the closing off the space of the voices by politics. They recognize and approve a certain respect shown them by politicians, at the same time that they reaffirm the "separation of powers." But this attitude of apparent concession or conciliation does not take away any of their extraordinary self-assurance, which comes from having made made the voyage to IFE and confronting the limits of the possible. This self-assurance, which is connected with the feeling of power and enjoyment in the practice of power, is not contested by the politician. Nor does he confront it. On the contrary, it is widely claimed that whoever wants to achieve political power must be assured of the favor of the voices and of those who enjoy their power. What has appeared to be a political closure of the space of the voices could not have been effected without investing-diverting the drive multiplicities into the political game. More than ever, in the very region where the diversion of Vodou and of the nocturnal powers of sorcerer societies seems most obvious to analysis, a deadly libidinal clandestinity is at work, in the very structures of confinement where the political intends to contain the cultural and entrap history [piéger l'histoire].
  32. The space of the voices is no longer very clearly delimited, if it ever was. Everywhere control, repression, and confinement by the sign are occupied and secretly worked from within by libidinal duplicity. The sign no longer channels energy. It dissimulates it. It organizes its underground and clandestine operation. The societies of sorcerers are no longer marginalized in a place without place from which they could roam the fissures of socio-economic and cultural organizations unsuspected. They are everywhere and nowhere, packing and moving the interstices of the democratic space in order to insinuate themselves into all the articulations of the social system, participating in the very movement that is inclined to erase them from the field of history. Subtly, Vodou withdraws without moving, creating an unbreachable gulf out of the very proximity that it is organizing to mobilize both political repression and the watchful eye that is supported by repression.
  33. The folklorification of Vodou and its glamorization and stardom both feed into libidinal positions in which it makes itself into a shield and protection from the very thing it authorizes at its periphery. The spectacle offered up for voyeurism, together with the flank that is presented as a lure to attract cultural repression, ensure a permanent mobilization of the drives at the very point where Vodou eludes capture by the system. The very organization of control and repression, up to the point where they put on the airs of "civilization," the passage from the pulsional--the drive--to the cultural, becomes the accomplice of the outflow of tribal multiplicities. White writing is never through with analyzing, bemoaning, declaring itself impatient and renouncing all hope of Christianizing--that is, civilizing--the Vodou space. Indeed, no thinkable articulation appears there to justify or account for a transition from the drives to the signifier. For any such liquidation (or redemption) and defusing of the pulsional on the decks [sur les plages] of the signifier finds itself continually contradicted and thwarted by the dissimulation of the libidinal within the cultural, by the stow-away drives ballasting the signifier. The whole symbolic order is thus secretly undermined by desiring multiplicities which it is scarcely capable of reducing to the unity of a sociopolitical history or civilizing enterprise. The escape of the drives takes place in the very procedure of subjection, training, and correction by the sign.
  34. In this state of affairs we are forced to recognize that Vodou--during the phase of what one must call transformation (even if it is only apparent)--is at the hour of "wild" capitalism, which seems to be the most advanced stage of capitalism. Operating as an escape route for driving, nomadic, celibate, tribal multiplicities, Vodou finds there the conditions favorable for its reproduction. What I mean by wild or "savage" capitalism does not carry those Marxist-Leninist connotations through which the term can take on another meaning. At the same time, what I am getting at does not exclude that meaning. It is a question of something else, a different aim. What I am trying to survey and identify is on the order of an impossibility. Far from seeking to continue indefinitely the theological-metaphysical task of the total reduction of "life" to the sign, capitalism turns farther and farther away from this undertaking because it is in its interest to do so, or perhaps much more simply, because it is its distinctive history.
  35. The religious enterprise of leading everything back to meaning has reached its internal limit with the internationalization of capital: the Christian West remains Christian only by keeping to the limits of the chosen people. World hegemonic domination by the West makes any non-colonized exteriority unthinkable. Writing has penetrated everything and there is no longer anyplace that can maintain a civilization in which speech would be neither gloss nor commentary but a pure voice from beyond sense, an intensive sign, a "crisis of the drives" affecting the symbolic order. Vodou is one of those pregnant flash points at which, on the interior rim of capitalism, something unheard of and still unthought takes place, which is on the order neither of synthesis, nor of a contradiction overcome, nor of castration assumed, nor of sublimation, but rather of something like a new figure of the impossible articulation of the pulsional (the drive) with the historical. Far from having to destroy itself from within, capitalism proliferates, transmutes itself, merchandises its illnesses, its rot, its faults; it glamorizes revolution, transforming it into information, selling it, buying it back (redemption), and reselling it, then reinvests the profit it takes from resale and puts on a new face. In the same way it is no longer content to civilize the multiplicities of drives by pinning them to well-identified venal objects circulating according to cultural models shrewdly elaborated by advertising. It undoes traditional cultural unities in order to liberate the energies they channeled and to reunite them under other models and ideal entities. It multiplies its possibilities of splitting, undoing, reuniting and re-utilizing. The rhythm of dismantlings and transformations is commanded by the rules of capital's game.
  36. People speak of "future shock," the "decline of values," the "end of philosophy," and so on, but all that is glossing a text whose meaning eludes the official and officious commentators. That this text is escaping even while it sustains commentary signals a change in the modality and place of writing. Its function is probably no longer to lead every voice, every pulsional intensity, back to the unity of sense. It is now working over the signifier itself in order to free up the "voices" and bodily intensities, to provoke new unities devoted to all the dismantlings and destructions profitable to the survival and transformation of capitalism. The job of writing, henceforth recognizable in that of capitalism, is to turn the sign into a "place of transit" for the drives. There is no longer any barbarous exteriority for the Christian West to civilize, to bring back to the territorial unity of the supreme signifier: the Living God. Capitalism no longer has to conquer the Third World. The East and the West have to turn toward the enemy from within. Those civilized tribalities are going to experience new destinies: the White-Negroes will eat, but only by swallowing the rod of discipline [mangeront à la baguette]. Women will get liberated. Homosexuals will get married, priests divorced. The Americans will make love not war. The intellectuals will tear each other apart, subsidized by States to wage their strange combat. The patients will make love with their psychiatrists and children will go to "free school" and get a sexual" education." The great disorder [dérangement] will displace all the enclosures, and in the intermediary spaces the multiplicities, having returned for a while to their nomadism, will again give a face to the unheard-of.
  37. Nothing in all of this announces or promises a "technological" disappearance of Vodou. Certainly a religious gloss on Vodou is going to disappear. It formed part of a not-yet wild capitalism, not yet pivoting on the manipulation of nomadism and pulsional tribalities by working on the sign. But Vodou as a space for the "voices," a place of transit for libidinal marronnage, promises to have an afterlife under forms that even its adepts, not to mention its despisers on the right and the left, cannot foresee. From now on it is up to the history of capitalism. And yet a certain Vodou is disappearing: the one that is the starting point for the problematic of this text. Less and less will Vodou be able to be thought of as the libidinal erosion of the capitalist system in Haïti. Less and less will it be the vocal outside inhabiting and fissuring the Christian, Western cultural text, opening cracks from within. Everywhere else this text is haunted by that limit that runs throughout its space and whose bordering rims it can modify, but which it can longer have done with and be rid of. What is irreparable in the interior limit of writing thus renders the "voice" everywhere . . . imminent. And not only in Haitian Vodou. But there something is offered to analysis which cannot fail to exercise vigilance over what this limit may present as an intolerable and unthinkable articulation of the drive with history.
  38. One question might seem to remain in suspense here, one to which I have no intention of responding. Might we have understood from the preceding chapters that the crisis of possession, even as libidinal practice, is an individual matter? Well, here and now, one must reply: absolutely not. With this "no" we reject a question that forms part of a problematic that is not ours. Our negation does not reply to the question, it bears on the question itself with the religious and pseudo-psychoanalytic or psychiatric presuppositions it implies. What happens during the crisis happens in the individual and not for the individual. It is the social structure and function of the discourse of the brotherhood [confrérie] that will close up into the individual unit, as a problem of the individual, a transindividual impossibility of any regulated articulation between pulsional tribalities and the civilities of social history. Here a problematic of relations between individual and society, set up ideologically by writing, dominates all the human and social sciences, serves to define a place in which to shunt aside the relations between drives and history, and to give them the semblance of an articulation that can be checked and controlled.
  39. The question of knowing whether the crisis of possession is not in the first place an individual problem, an object identifiable in the field of psychiatric, psychological, or even psychoanalytic discourses--such a question has its relevance in the problematic of Freudo-Marxisms, ethno-psychiatries, and all so-called interdisciplinary efforts to consolidate the ideology of articulation between individual and society. This kind of question obliterates another, the relationship between the solitude of the individual in his function as a "place of transit" in relation to the multiple drives that become embodied through him, and the social history that expends his "life." And it is precisely in relation to this solitude that the initiation, and the relation on the one hand to the brotherhood [confrérie] and the houngan, and on the other to the voices, within the possession, can be a way in which the initiate, like the zobop, finds the companionship that makes more bearable this voyage that takes him nowhere.
  40. We cannot forget here that the individuality in question forms a part of social history. It is the unity under which that history "educates" the drives, "civilizes" them, and disciplines them, as Michel Foucault would say. And in Haïtian Vodou, as everywhere else where the domination of capital is an established fact, the individual is a territorialization controlled by the socio-economic system. It is the unit under which the energies being monitored are freed in order to be transformed into forces of labor. Nothing of what can be thought of as processes of identification, of self-consciousness or of consciousness plain and simple, or as effects of education, escapes this historical production that is individuality. The human sciences give an impression of scientific refinement in the "education" of the ego. The social sciences consolidate the problematics of the human sciences, giving them the political dimension that makes them indispensible. These sciences, or rather these discourses, are part of a social and historical activity of production and delimination of controllable territories in which partial drives must come to be extinguished or else transformed into useful energies, work forces. These discourses, by their appearance of scientificity, are the tools improved for such a work of diversion and transformation. Thus the analysis of possession in terms of individual psychological problems may simply be a way of introducing the closure of that historical writing into the surreptitious movement by which the voices open for themselves a space outside history.
  41. The libidinal escape route that gives itself body and madness in the crisis of possession is a traversal of the individual. It is the writing of Vodou and the discourse of the human sciences that confines this transience to the field of psychological or "personal" problems opened up by the ideology of relations between the individual and society. In fact individuality cannot be evacuated. Its organic basis resists all attempts to ignore its unitary exigencies. Its social reference, by way of the ego or the social image of the self, exposes it to all sorts of repressions that enframe any wish to escape cultural disciplining. The individuality is increasingly forced back into making of itself exactly what it is: a place of transit for a plural and celibate--that is, non-institutionalizable--nomadism of the drives. What the crisis of possession precisely demonstrates in Vodou is that this drifting of individuality at the mercy of the marronnage of the drives is the only destiny to which it can submit: with, moreover, the "knowledge" [savoir] imparted by initiation, that no map of the route or code can mark out this interminable voyage that postulates no elsewhere.


  1. See Jacques Lacan, "Une 'Corps est-ce pont danse' à ouvrir," p. 201ff. Back

  2. Confrérie, which translates literally as "brotherhood," is generally invoked by Apollon to refer to the different Vodou societies, fraternal organizations that are often secret and whose members gather to celebrate the loa, or gods, of the Vodou pantheon. However, the term "brotherhood" is somewhat misleading, since these societies include women as well as men. We have alternately translated the term as "Vodou societies," "brotherhoods," and"groups of celebrants," giving the French term in brackets to distinguish it from the more defined "secret societies" [sociétés secrètes] that Apollon evokes at the end of the essay. [Translators' note] Back

  3. But doesn't this demand for rationality belong to writing, and to the machinery of metaphysics? Why should we allow ourselves to become entangled in it? Back

  4. See Willy Apollon, Le Vaudou, Part I, chapter II. Back

  5. My primary aim here is to elucidate the "political intention" behind the control of vodou, and its [vow?] Further down we will identify the same movement on the level of ritual. But as we will see, the will behind this intention is not only ambiguous, but compromised from the very beginning. Back

  6. The houngan is a Vodou priest in a religious family network. [Translators' note] Back

  7. The ritual rattle used by the houngan in sacred rites. [Translators' note] Back

  8. The "outside" is this importation is always posited by the political discourse of the leftist-priest-righteous man-apostle as the exteriority of a truth that is inaccessible (except to the pure or to the initiated), and that serves to bar libidinal satisfaction: not only for its fanatics (unless they are leaders or chiefs, paranoiacs of the chapel-cell) but above all for the faithful. Back

  9. I am not saying simply that psychoanalysis maintains this Other in its place and reinforces its function. But one can't help but be struck by the historical and political blindness of psychoanalysis as regards this place and its function. Back

  10. Loa, (or lwa) is the name for the Vodou divinities, including gods and goddesses, place deities, and spirits. [Translators' note] Back

  11. Whenever any of the loa takes possession of an initiate or follower, it is said that the gods are "riding their horses" [montent à cheval]. [Translators' note] Back

  12. The mambo is the Vodou priestess in a religious family network, the female equivalent of the houngan; the hounguenican is the choir-master; the La Place is the master of ceremonies who leads processions and presents arms; the hounsi canzo is a female or male initiate who has passed through the ordeal by fire. [Translators' note] Back

  13. A ceremonial gathering place. [Translators' note] Back

  14. One of the loa, a warrior spirit with healing powers. [Translators' note] Back

  15. One of the loa, the leader of the ancestral dead. [Translators' note] Back

  16. I have never participated in person in one of these ceremonies, but have every reason to rely on the testimony of those who believe they have succeeded by this process in helping a comrade in trouble "to put his life back in order." I make no judgment as to the value or efficacy of this putting-back-in-order. Anyway, in the name of what does one judge? Back

  17. See Alfred Métraux, Le Vaudou haïtien. Back

  18. A ritual diagram or "cosmogram," evoking the loas, and drawn on the ground by a priest. [Translators' note] Back

  19. One could designate and define in this way the position of desire inhabiting any analysis of Vodou in religious categories. Back

  20. The Volunteers for National Security, commonly called the "Tonton Macoutes." Back

Works Cited

Apollon, Willy. Le Vaudou. Paris: Galilée, 1976.

Lacan, Jacques. "Une 'Corps est-ce pont danse' à ouvrir." In Scilicet no. 5. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Métraux, Alfred. Le Vaudou haïtien. Paris: Gallimard, 1958.

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