Dr. Paul Sorrentino had successfully defended his thesis “Áp vong: appliquer l’âme. Rituels non-médiumniques de possession par les morts dans le nord du Vietnam” [translated as “Áp vong: To affix the soul. Non-mediumnic rituals of possession by the dead in the north of Vietnam” by the author himself] at the Sorbonne in Paris, last Friday, November 29th.
Although the thesis has a rather “French” length (496 pp.) I found it a great pleasure to read as it contains wonderful ethnographic descriptions of unusually high quality. For instance, I was blown away by the 60-page ethnographic narrative in the Prélude about a search through possession for the grave of a person called Ông Trượng. The reporting is detailed, lively, precise, and the researcher appears very perceptive of what was said or unsaid, which lexicological register was used; what was done or not done; who looked where or did not look. It was only the first example of compelling ethnography in the thesis that I found highly emotive, having some experience with the importance that many Vietnamese people attach to honoring their dead ancestors or relatives – including those who died in the wars and whose graves are unknown. Sorrentino also dissects and interprets the various meanings of specific words from different registers (everyday Vietnamese, sino-Vietnamese, political vocabulary, Buddhist terms, etc.) in an expert manner.
Áp vong appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, which might be somewhat comparable to lên đồng [spirit possession linked up with Mother Goddess worship] or gọi hồn [soul calling]. In those two forms of spirit possession, ritual specialists are possessed by deities (lên đồng) or souls of dead people (gọi hồn). There is an abundant literature in various languages (Vietnamese, English, French) about lên đồng, and an emerging literature about gọi hồn (e.g. Heonik Kwon, Mai Lan Gustafsson, Kirsten Endres, Phan Đăng Nhật and myself), but áp vong – a neologism in Vietnamese – has to my knowledge not yet been the object of systematic study. The main difference with the other forms of possession is that with áp vong, the persons to be possessed are not ritual experts themselves (although experts do play a role in guiding the ritual) but relatives or descendants of the dead persons – hence lay people themselves.
The author devotes a chapter to the question how it is possible that this practice emerged and spread so quickly – mostly after 2000 – and offers a detailed picture of the various persons and institutions involved in that process. The possession rituals tend to be only minimally ritualized, and the practice is now being promoted and practiced in “scientific” institutions that claim expertise in extra-sensorial [ngoại cảm] forms of knowing and sensing, and that uses a mix of scientistic and Buddhist discourses. Interestingly, instead of being dismissed as superstition [mê tín dị đoan] some of the institutions enjoy support from the highest echelons of the Party.
Sorrentino uses a constructivist theoretical framework that offers a vocabulary to interpret how the various protagonists (relatives, ritual experts) arrive at a common interpretation of the possession event in situations of utter uncertainty and oftentimes confusion. That (theoretical) framework might evolve further in the future as the practice itself evolves and – perhaps – routinizes and ritualizes. However, the great merit of this thesis is that it offers amazingly insightful – sometimes very intimate – ethnographies of the practice at a stage of formation, and as such it will be of great use to other scholars who may wish to study this phenomenon in the future. The thesis received the highest distinction from the examiners.
I can only hope that Sorrentino’s work will soon become publicly available – not only in French, but also in Vietnamese and English.
Oscar Salemink, Professor in the Anthropology of Asia, 02/12/2013.