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Incorporating Divine Presence, Orchestrating Medical Worlds: Cultivating Corporeal Capacities of Therapeutic Power and Transcendence in Ifa Everyday Practice

  • Author(s): Gardner, Amy Harriet
  • Advisor(s): Cohen, Lawrence
  • et al.

This dissertation focuses on the cultivation of specialized corporeal capacities of therapeutic power and transcendence among Ifá medical-ritual specialists in Yorùbá communities in contemporary Nigeria (and the resonance and implications of their practices within a global context). Rather than interrogate "medical (and/or religious) knowledge" as the object of inquiry, this project explores the power of the learning process -- as a practice of everyday living -- to cultivate, within student-apprentice and healer-sage alike, a distinctive (sonically and spiritually informed) somatic mode of being-in, perceiving, interpreting, and attending-to-the-world, and thus, to orchestrate Ifá's distinctive medical and religious life-world. In so doing, this dissertation seeks to redress the historical stigmatization of African and Diasporic religions, subjectivities, and knowledges within the scholarly and popular imaginations and to contribute to recent scholarship on sensuous and sacred ways of knowing.

An ethnography of embodiment, the senses, and practices of everyday living, this work is fundamentally informed, methodologically and theoretically, by a phenomenological approach and the author's embodied experiences (as a professionally trained dancer; as a physician; and -- in her extensive training and continuous, on-going learning process -- as an Ifá healer-specialist). Focusing on the embodied and the sensorial as formative principles in, respectively, the mundane and specialized medical-devotional (Ifá) life-worlds of the Yorùbá, this project explores the ways in which the sonically-informed sensorium of Yorùbá society -- as articulated through common and specialized practices of everyday living -- cultivates (and naturalizes) particular ways of being-in, attending-to, and making-sense-of intersubjective experience and the phenomenally given world for the populace at large and for Ifá specialists, in particular.

Specifically, this research claims that in the training and devotional development of Ifá apprentices and priests/esses, embodied techniques of everyday scholarly-devotional practice that cultivate a corporeal resonance with the earth are key. These distinctive embodied practices initially engender shifts and ruptures in the apprentice's mundane habitus, while simultaneously facilitating the gradual incorporation of the priestly habitus with its associated sensibilities of "coolness," permeability, and containment. These practices of everyday living also facilitate conscious, dispassionate communion with Divine Presence, and thus revelatory knowledge (the embodied certainty known as erí okòn). Gradually, with experience and practice, the healer-priest/ess is able to consciously direct aspects of Divine Presence-as-healing-force for the therapeutic benefit of others. Finally, after years of daily scholarly-devotional practice, these musical-embodied practices are refined and body forth a special -- sonic and incorporative -- somatic mode of being-in and attending-to-the-world particular to Ifá, known as "a stomach as deep as a calabash" (inú t'ó jìnlè bi igbá), in which Divine Presence is incorporated, as co-presence, within the corporeality and being-in-the-world of the healer-sage. And this particular sonically-informed mode of being-in-the-world is characterized by corporeal capacities of phenomenologically potent therapeutic power and transcendence. Thus, this research proposes that Ifá practice is a techne of musical corporeality, wherein the healer-sage consciously and dispassionately orchestrates aspects of Divine Presence for the therapeutic, aesthetic, existential/transcendent enhancement of the individual, the priesthood, and the community.

This dissertation also asserts the primacy of engagement in everyday scholarly-devotional practices, over time, in bodying forth wisdom, knowledge, and healing power among Ifá healers and sages; and therefore, claims that the historical privileging of "initiations" of "ritual" and/or ethnomedical specialists in anthropological and religious scholarship is both misplaced and misleading. In West Africa, Ifá specialists are trained for years before being recognized or accepted as qualified practitioners. And it is through the individual practitioner's engagement in the formative practices of the learning process -- much more than in an overly mystified "initiatory moment(s)" -- that Ifá's specialized life-world, orientations, and corporeal capacities of therapeutic power and transcendence are made real and palpable.

In Ifá practice, the sensuous and affective body is the pregnant nexus from which, and through which, innovative knowledge, healing (regenerative therapeutics) and subjectivity continually emerge. Thus, in contrast to Bourdieu's (1977) privileging of the conservative and congealing aspects of practice and habitus, Ifá practice highlights (and cultivates) the body's inherent plasticity and malleability, and its capacity to incorporate -- literally to embody -- innovation, as sonically-informed sensibilities. This embodied agency has the potential to transform inter-subjective relations in/and the phenomenally given world. In particular, the phenomenological and therapeutic power of Ifá's healing orchestrations dramatically highlight that, in addition to the technological instrumentality of biomedicine, there are other ways of constituting real and effective therapeutic power. And, given the shifts and flows of globalization as well as the emergence of complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine within biomedical institutions and practices, this has significant implications, theoretically and practically, for the challenges inherent in attending to the complexities of human suffering in the contemporary global moment.

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