Book review of K. Swancutt (2012) Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

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Book review of K. Swancutt (2012) Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
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  Book review of Katherine Swancutt (2012) Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination. Oxford: Berghahn Books. This book is centrally about how Buryat shamans use creative divination to resolve interpersonal conflicts in a small Mongolian village. Addressing the classic themes of magic and conflict, Swancutt offers a highly srcinal and captivatingly rich ethnographic analysis that takes us right into the homes of her afflicted hosts. Cursing wars, shaman rivalries and sagacious spirits pervade, bringing to life an intricate cosmology and the tense micropolitics of religious practices. Swancutt carried out 16 months of fieldwork mainly in the village of Bayandun in Eastern Mongolia  –  an area where she observed ‘chaotic disorder’ and ‘endemic crises’ ( p.7) to permeate daily life. In addition to high unemployment and extreme poverty, the villagers lived with an acute sense of social paranoia to the extent that “the only thing known for sure was that no one was to be trusted” (p.134, quoting Højer 2004:44). Without offering a detailed historical discussion, Swancutt claims that this paranoia was linked to Soviet and Mongolian surveillance during the socialist regime and “has remained the lynchpin of… Buryat sociality” (p.134). The longstanding ‘disorder’ also affected religious life, so that during her fieldwork many Buryat shamans and laypersons “felt that much of their religious practices were undertaken in ad hoc procedures ”  (p.6). Ideally ‘calm persons’, capable of controlling their religious implements and invoked spirits, the shamans in Bayandun constantly feared the interference of rival shamans. Divin ation cards were ‘hijacked’ (p. 82), curses were ‘trafficked’  (p.91) and souls were ‘ stolen ’  (p.122). Confronted with the dangerously unstable intersubjectivity in Mongolian divination, the village shamans lived temporally, spatially and cosmologically ‘uncomfortably close’ (p.204) to their rival specialists. Drawing on three instances of divinatory experimentation, Swancutt argues that innovative magical remedies afford ed the shamans “hyperorderly means of resolving problems” (p.5).  Rather than being disorderly and ‘arising out of nothing’ (p. 201), their innovations evolv ed from known recurrent patterns and were remarkably successful. Introducing ‘force fields’ (p.204) that lent complete protection from curses, the shamans could soon relax and eventually began renewing peaceful alliances with their former rivals. Indeed, “by ignoring the curses, they avoided unwittingly attracting hostile forces to their homes, which helped their fortunes continue to improve rapidly” (p.187). And eventually, one of the shamans proclaimed that “cursing was no longer a problem” (p.206). Although ignorance would appear the best form of curse prevention in Bayandun, Swancutt returns to an ever-more detailed and logical cosmology for her answers. It was thus the shamanic spirits that ordered people to carry out the innovations. But since the innovations had a fixed term potency of only 2-3 years, their shielding powers would dissipate just in time for new rivalries to emerge again. This beautifully written book depicts local cosmology with a degree of ethnographic detail that is extraordinary for the region. It offers fascinating and thought-provoking insights into the lives of spirits and their human associates. Yet Swancutt lends so much attention to spirit worlds that she overlooks some of the many other aspects that might make up the social lives of humans. The constant reference to “the Buryats”  produces an analytical generalization that not only is unwarranted but also renders human subjects homogenous and uninteresting. How can the contextualizing frame of unemployment and poverty ever become more than analytically marginal to the local conflicts? What is the role of human history and politics for the shamanic spirits of Bayandun? What does it take for a human life to be as interesting as the lives of spirits? Whilst  attention to spirit worlds is certainly ethnographically and theoretically important, this book could engage human-spirit relations in a more balanced and productive way. Drawing on chaos science and fractal patterning for the theoretical take on magical innovation and Mongolian notions of fortune, Swancutt proposes a refreshingly new and exciting approach to the subject matter. She compares the effects of the shamans’  innovations to the irreversible changes in a scientific experimental milieu (p.7), turning shamans and their volatile fortune into exemplary ‘strange attractors’  (p.8) that set in motion continuing processes of innovation. This cosmological framework, which highlights the recursive dynamics between convention and innovation, enables her to pursue an analysis that is both highly specific and abstract. Granted that a greater engagement with the relevant literature would have helped tease out the nuances and limitations of her comparison, Fortune and the Cursed offers readers an invitation into an inspiring and still-evolving universe of innovation-making.
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