How do we think about ‘Absorption’ and ‘Dissociation’ Across Culture?: Considering Taxonomies of Trance in Sufi Music (Tamara Turner, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin)

Abstract: My talk explores the Sufi ritual, dīwān, in Algeria where ritual music cultivates a wide spectrum of trance processes so that pain and suffering can be physically and emotionally expressed through trance-dancing. In Arabic, there is no single term for what we call "trance" and, in dīwān, there are dozens of words that describe a range of trance experience, parsed out by the various ways trance can feel. In other words, trance is not conceived of as occuring in the "mind" or "brain" but, instead, it is an affective process.

While there are varieties of "emotional trance"—trance brought on by an overflow of intense emotion—and inhabitation trance, all of these varieties contain with them gradations of loss of control and conscious awareness. What is perhaps most interesting for this workshop is that many of these trance varieties include phemomena analogous to what we call "absorption" and "dissociation" but, in dīwān, a trancer can fluctuate between and sometimes experience both of these phenomena, even in a single trance episode. Just as absorption and dissociation vary culturally, so do notions of the "self" and what it means to lose control in alternate states of consciousness.

First, my talk will delve into the various trance terms, including videos from my extended fieldwork in Algeria, followed by a close-up look at what is involved in trance-dancing, particularly the negotiation of volitional and non-volitional action. Finally, because the purpose of cultivating trance in dīwān is a therpeutic one, I illustrate local ideas of "wellbeing" and approaches to suffering that speak to the anthropological literature (notably Asad), and resonant Sufi epistemologies.


Bio: Tamara Turner is a music anthropologist specializing in North African popular Islam, trance rituals, and affect studies with supporting areas in philosophy of consciousness and the Medical Humanities. Her doctoral thesis was the first research to thoroughly document the musical repertoire, practice, and history of Algerian diwan, a nocturnal trance ritual of the Bilaliyya Sufi Order that emerged out of the trans-Saharan slave trade. As a musician as well as a scholar, she studied with ritual musicians and experts, attending and documenting diwan rituals across Algeria from the Mediterranean coast to the Sahara Desert. Analytically, Tamara’s work investigates the critical role of emotions and affects in ritual in general, particularly as they pertain to varieties of altered states of “consciousness,” social and trans-personal pain and suffering, and memory. She is now in the process of publishing her work the Max Planck Institute, Center for the History of Emotions. Her research in Algeria and Morocco has previously been funded by various grants from King’s College London, the British Forum for Ethnomusicology, the Centre d’Etudes Maghrebines en Algerie, and the West African Research Association.

Published Oct. 10, 2019 11:13 AM - Last modified Oct. 14, 2019 11:28 AM