Meaning, Intention, and Responsibility in Rai Divinatory Discourse


In speech act theory, as developed in ordinary language philosophy, the intentions of a speaker are regarded as decisive for the communication of meaning. This view, however, has been criticized by linguistic anthropologists as being culture-bound: in other cultural contexts with other notions of personhood the situations may be quite different. One case in point is that of divination, or divinatory speech, when the speaker is only the vehicle of another, higher authority. This paper examins the crucial part of a shamanic session (cintā) among the Rai in eastern Nepal, when the shaman (jhā̃kri) performs a divination (bakhyāune), diagnosing the state of the client household in Nepali language. The shaman is possessed by several divinities (such as Aitabare, Molu Sikari), who answer questions posed by the household and lineage elders. This raises a number of analytic issues: Who is held responsible for the diagnosis? What kind of language and imagery are used? And how is the meaning of the diagnosis—often expressed in ambivalent terms—established? The interpretation of textual and performative characteristics shows a more elaborate model of speech act participants is required to understand the complex agency involved. The divinities do have intentions, though it remains a collaborative task to read them properly.

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