Emily Ng’s A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao (University of California Press 2020) is like a fine wine—complex, compelling, and exquisitely crafted. While I can only savor a few of its offerings in this short review, I hope to entice a proper read. And following the provocation for this forum, I will try to re-read my own work (Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand, Cornell University Press 2019) through this review.
In particular, I want to touch on that which, how to say it, helps to densify my own thinking about care in Thai contexts—and across all the projects in this collection. Indeed, I think Ng’s book has ethical and practical implications for our shared interest in care and social change, as well as for anthropological analyses more generally.
A Time of Lost Gods takes us to Henan Province in central China (a so-called backward, externalized internal “other” in China’s national imaginary), with a founding observation that spirit mediums there understand Mao as divinely sent; and further, that his reign, unbeknownst to him, served to cast all the corrupt ghosts and deities out of China. As she explains, “the purportedly antireligious campaigns of the socialist state, for the mediums, constitute cryptic acts of divine intervention—acts inaugurated by otherworldly forces that allowed the earthly state to misrecognize itself as secular” (Ng 2020,13). Thus, for the mediums, “the end of Mao’s reign and the advent of market reforms did not mark a return of religion but a return of spirits—corrupt, duplicitous spirits by and large” (12).
Ng is here asking us to rethink Maoism (indeed, she asks us to rethink many things, including the ghost, the person, madness). She is showing secular and non-secular power coalescing, challenging dominant readings of the socialist state’s relationship to what might be called the supernatural and otherworldly, and inviting an appreciation of admired attributes of Mao’s reign in relation to what she calls spectral sovereignty. In a way, this is akin to Lisa Stevenson (2014) asking us to rethink suicide—there is a terror in the proposition, given, for example, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. And so in doing this she presents us with what I want to call something like a morality of indecipherability (forgive me, it’s a placeholder term) to which I will return below.
First, I want to highlight her concept of spectral or cosmic doubling.
The term is a kind of shorthand, helping to bring attention to the “potentiality for any seen and felt person, place, thing, or action to simultaneously host that which cannot be seen or felt” (6). Phenomena can have significance, as well as force, in at least two realms, simultaneously.
Ng is not making categorical claims with this term. She writes, as she says, “descriptively to convey rather than categorically to define” (6). And indeed, she never denies the material or various other lines of inquiry or truth claims. She never rejects standard dichotomies—such as the heavenly vs. the earthly, the secular vs. the religious, the real vs. the fake, and so forth. Rather, she sustains through the book a reorientation, an invitation to see other tensions, those more central to her interlocutors. What a feat to sustain this through an entire book, given our strong academic habits that bolster definitive divides! So what I want to underscore in turn is that the main logic Ng brings forth in A Time of Lost Gods is one of correspondences, a logic different from linear cause and effect: in Descola’s terms, a sensibility of analogism rather than naturalism or animism. And she manages to do so in content as well as form.
This spectral or cosmic doubling also conveys the possibility for “links across scales of time” (7), which brings me to Ng’s description of the person and of temporality.
Ng approaches the person—again, not definitely, never definitively—but she approaches the person “in part as a psychic-corporeal host of a meeting of temporalities” (10). While other books in this set discuss temporality, Ng is pointing toward non-human timescapes of spectral sovereignty. In haunting detail, she shows how “temporalities near and far bump and barrel into the present, across geographies cohabitated by the human and nonhuman” (34). Thus, the person is not to be understood only as an autonomous material being in a singular plane of existence. “Collisions,” run-ins with the unseen, create what she describes as “distant intimacy.” She thereby densifies temporalscapes with ghosts, for note: “their spectral presence brings multiple histories into a shared ‘now,’ making the past an effective force in the present” (97).
Mediums then are in a role to decipher some of this intermingling. As Ng describes, “To be a medium… is to be capable of perceiving and rendering perceptible the unspeakable thing spectrally driving a given situation” (96). This is a role generally met with reluctance on the part of the to-be medium, in part because it represents a loss of a sense of self-sovereignty for the mediums. And yet, Ng shows that the coerced can be dignified, for, again, rather than an autonomy-centered approach to the subject, what we have here is the “always-already nonsovereign status of the human and the state.” (Recall too, Mao as divinely driven.)
Ng provides a renewed rendering of the best of old school cultural understandings of the self with the “fundamental distribution of the person.” As she writes, “in spite of modern campaigns against classical conceptions of kinship and piety, the sense of personhood beyond the boundaries of the atomized individual remains central to many I met in Hexian, even if articulated differently across generations” (124). This is illustrated beautifully in, for instance, harrowing scenes in which Ng’s host mother, Cai Huiqing, kowtows on behalf of her husband and simultaneously on behalf of a spectral mother and that mother’s son, who were wrongly killed in another time and are now threatening their contemporary lives. Cai Huiqing here uses the Henanese pronoun for the combined “I/he/we” that marks their entangled fates. A distant intimacy indeed.
I cannot help but note that while anthropology has taken up the term “subjectivity” in response to what seemed the apolitical renderings of cultural notions of the self, Ng is here, firstly, refusing a ubiquity or constancy to these notions of the self (e.g., people don’t always use that I/he/we pronoun); but more, she’s showing that these ideas are deeply political—beyond the mere earthly political concerns that are generally rendered through social and historical analyses. She is drawing forth the timescapes of spectral sovereignty, which can render the earthly as pawn. So where in my own book I take up critical phenomenology—in terms of the social training of awareness and the lived experience that stems from such habituated attention to the world—Ng in parts upends it: for the social training of awareness is subject as Ng shows to cosmic collisions. And while I draw this out in part through notions of merit and karma, Ng’s insights push studies of subjectivity beyond both the material and any singular, linear temporality, the ramifications and manifestations of which deserve more attention. More on this below.
Launching into renderings of social history, Ng affirms that “something happened to narrativity during the Maoist era and during the Cultural Revolution in particular” (39). She proceeds with a genius unpacking of changes in the symbolic order, individual and collective—including extraordinary contributions on the peasant and on class. She thinks with Jacques Lacan “on the fundamentally collective and often unconscious dimensions of the symbolic out of and against which the subject emerges,” deftly allowing for individual experience and “even seemingly idiosyncratic manifestations of delusion [to] speak to a collective dimension, both in the repertoires they draw on and the histories they register—including histories of disruption or transformation of these very repertoires” (110).
And thus, it is through her working and reworking of the symbolic order through the 20th century that Ng comes to show certain impossibilities of care in the present.
For instance, in scenes set in a psychiatric hospital—located directly across from the square where mediums gather—Ng draws out how care registers and how it does not. There is resonance between the “distant intimacy” across spectral and earthly beings and the temporary, awkward, hospital intimacy of family members, who are usually separated across vast distances but are now drawn together at bedsides. Hospitalization itself is shown to be a form of healing that “brings family members together momentarily, a gesture of care through transient proximity” (105). And yet, readers are brought to feel through the book’s protagonists and their struggles that notions of reciprocation can be “discordant and at times illegible across generations” (123). Further, Ng’s historical tracings show us how “grammars of care lose their mutual legibility” (125).
This moving insight helps to bring out the power of care as a focus of ethnographic inquiry. In my work, I define “care” simply as “providing for others.” This relatively simple definition invites exploration of what counts, for whom, in particular contexts. By tracing what people pay attention to, and how social worlds train their attention and their responses in particular ways, I developed the argument that religious, social, and political structures are embodied, through habituated actions, in practices of providing for others. The startling detail Ng provides of how Chinese social worlds have come to train attention in different ways across different eras is what I would call a critical phenomenology of care. Included in her exploration are changes in the function of language—including literalization, somatization, and new genre proliferation—and dramatic shifts in the identity and role of the peasant in individual, rural, and national imaginaries. We are brought into the shifting ground of reference points and modes of expression, along with their political and personal stakes, and thereby get a felt sense of how one set of acts can count as care for some and distinctly not for others.
Further, as Ng writes, “madness spins out from the fissures of kinship and economy, from troubled forms of life and care, burdened by disappointments and debts toward pasts and futures—rifts that eject one from the sense of a livable present” (125). She renders traumatic ruptures, like that of outmigration, that usher in hollowed out places as well as new and haunted worlds. And she brings forth the melancholic dimensions of ghosts, where the loss they herald is beyond that which can be known or worked through in mourning. We are therefore heirs, and here she quotes Derrida: “We are heirs of Marxism, even before wanting or refusing to be, and, like all inheritors, we are in mourning” (see Ng, 76). There are losses, unknowns, unnamables, ghosts that roam and affect us, operating in (moral?) modes beyond the humanly knowable.
I would be remiss in ending this piece without going back to the situation in Henan as rendered by the mediums: namely, defined by the return of corrupted deities. Even old standards are untrustworthy!
This is not about whether deities or ghosts exist or not. Rather than a fake vs. real dichotomy, the emphasis or onus for the mediums is on distinguishing the fake from the upright (see 133-134). What’s more, in the logic of correspondences, damage is wrought by way of corruption itself. As Ng writes, “rather than a prime cause—this or otherworldly—the mediums describe a crossing of the human and nonhuman by the traveling attribute of corruption” (75). This is a logic of “mutual attraction and escalation.” Mirroring, then, is both the way of sagely goodness and contagion, something that deserves consideration in Thai contexts as well. Dare I venture one last long quote:
Cosmological alignment of the past and present requires the true sage to endure the seemingly amoral effects of heaven’s acts—the reign of wrongful rulers, the exceeding of normative dynastic cycles, the premature arrival of one’s own death—all the while carrying on in moral cultivation without resentment. (Ng 2020,72-3).
Hence the awkward notion of a morality of indecipherability offered above.
In Rituals of Care, I turn to Theravada lineages of thought regarding mind and morality that resonate through different terms. This includes a sense of care as moral practice that stems from embodied habituated action rather than from more commonly rendered sincerity-based commitments. Through descriptions of everyday routine—bathing, feeding, bending, twisting—I center my analysis on what is done, the very gestures of providing for others, day in and day out. These habits, I argue, can productively be understood as ritual: repetitive acts that achieve effects through their correct performance, rather than from any particular internal orientation to the tasks. This matter because it interrupts the common emphasis on authenticity and individual autonomy that dominates so much work on care, from the academic to the clinical. What in the book I refer to as an Abhidhammic theory of mind serves to decenter intention, which is otherwise often assumed to be at the core of ethical practice, and underscores instead the non-agentive or passive aspects of lived experience (what Ng might deem part of the nonsovereign status of the person).
Moral agency understood as a function of habits of perception, themselves conditioned by social practice, brings into focus a common ethical sensibility of following traditional dictates as key to living a moral life. And yet, the social “harmony” trained by attention to collectives and group cohesion in Thailand is not only traditionally promoted but politically engineered and ferociously policed. From draconian lèse majesté defamation laws to differential justice codes for rich and for poor: even the height of one’s hands in common greetings or the placement of one’s head in relation to others is contingent on relative social status. By linking rituals at the bedside to rituals in other contexts of providing for others, Rituals of Care shows embodied practices of care to be a vital vantage point for phenomenological, psychological, and political analyses alike. So when I pose questions of structural violence in relation to habituation and hierarchy in Thai contexts, it serves to bring out the complicity with repressive social forms that arises through paradoxes of care—in which care emerges in and sustains structures of oppression. Where are we to find solid ground?
The stark conclusion from this and all the books in this collection is that, even in the most robust moral terms of our earthly social worlds, forms of care are wrapped up in forms of violence and in disjunctures of time. What counts as providing well for others changes, and generations experience expulsion, loss, and suffering; what counts as providing for others brings with it harms and repressions, both dealt and at times felt as care; what counts as human care can be cosmically overturned; and what counts as care for the spectral realm can wreak havoc on human worlds.
There is no recourse to the good offered here. And perhaps we struggle against that. I think we inherit a desire to write from the vantage point of the good—and this itself is generally cast as an all or nothing proposition. But the scenes across these books and all around us are filled with impossibilities. And indeed, good one moment, from another vantage, not—or the script is flipped and blood flows.
As Ng’s medium diagnosed with the so-called “psychiatric disorder intimately related to culture” reports: “Who’s in command? No one’s in command!” (139).
What would it be like then to try to decipher “uprightness” as part of our anthropology? The stakes seem high—for our analyses are worldmaking really, and we are shown here how like colludes with like. How easily we could escalate corrupted tendencies through our work, ey? (I dare say the industry is fueled on this).
And yet again, in the words of the medium, “no one can say for certain when it comes to these matters”
Ng’s last line lingers: “It is not for us to know.”
Take that, anthropology.
Felicity Aulino is a Five-College Assistant Professor based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a medical anthropologist, among other things, with primary area specialization in Thailand and a research focus on care, moral practice, and social change. In her recent book, Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand (Cornell University Press, 2019), she explores habituated practices of providing for others, along with the transformative potential of such acts.
Aulino, Felicity. 2019. Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Girard, William M. 2019. “Spirit‐Filled Geopolitics: Pentecostal Ontologies and the Honduran Coup.” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 24: 162-180. https://doi.org/10.1111/jlca.12342
Ng, Emily. 2020. A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao. Oakland: University of California Press.
Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Oakland: University of California Press.
 The coalescing of the secular and the non-secular need not come as a surprise (see Ng page 72). A parallel in other places and traditions invites comparison. I am thinking here of Bill Girard’s (2019) work on evangelical Christians in Honduras and their ideas about the (demonic) effect of ancient Mayan practices on the contemporary landscape. As he argues, we cannot understand how evangelicalism is so powerful in, say, the United States, if we think in terms of politics in a narrow sense; rather, people inhabit incredibly dense worlds in which secular time does not exist (or does not exist above all else), and where humans are not the only political agents. Thus, there could be far reaching resonances of Ng’s nuanced work outside of China studies.
 See Ng page 7 on how these habits are infused by “Protestant and Protestant-inflected strands of thought.”
 I want to thank Lucila Carballo for drawing my attention to the upright here.