Thinking with Ghosts: Bhut laagyo, Hysteria, and the Politics of Conceptualization
An ethnographic exploration of “mass hysteria” in Nepal troubles existing anthropological treatments of this form of affliction as gendered resistance. In Nepal, affected communities and girls dispute psychosocial counselors and anthropologists on conceptual grounds. These conflicts revolve around two distinct understandings of the subject of affliction. The subject of “mass hysteria” takes a liberal form in which symptoms reveal resistance to power and the repression of unconscious desire, while for the subject afflicted by ghosts and spirits, bhut-pret laagne, symptoms reveal the intertwined relationality between bodies and the world. I argue that “mass hysteria” can be productively re-conceptualized through a Nepali bhasa analytic of haunting, which better accounts for its communal form. By placing Nepali bhasa and Euro-American conceptualizations in dialogue in a critical hermeneutic mode, haunting is approached not as idiom or metaphor but as an analytic with which to construct new conceptual frameworks.