“Living Ghosts” and how to “Cook” Them: Homo Sacer as a “Sociodicy of (Im)purity” among the Miao of Guizhou, China

Yan Liu & Chris K. K. Tan (2020)

Asian Studies Review 44(3), pp. 459-473

Abstract. Agamben (1998) famously resurrected the homo sacer figure from obscurity in ancient Roman law. Originally conceived as a heuristic device, this “sacred man” concept has been applied largely in studies of refugees and prisoners. This article makes use of the concept in the more traditionally anthropological arenas of kinship and marriage. Some Miao in China’s Guizhou province have been branded as “living ghosts”, because their ancestors allegedly betrayed their village to pillaging rebels. We argue that this branding might have reflected not so much the betrayal, but rather longstanding socioeconomic and political tensions between the Miao and neighbouring ethnic groups. As such, we regard the living ghosts’ origin story more as a social justification of ontological (un)cleanliness that we call “sociodicy of (im)purity”. Lastly, the ghosts’ collective wealth and political influence prevent their complete descent into Agambenian bare life, so this article enriches our understanding of how the homo sacer concept operates empirically.

Extract. “In using the term sociodicy, we do not seek to establish a coherent conception of order that presupposes a relatively stable system of meaning. Rather, we look at how Blue Lily villagers morally account for the impure personhood they imposed on living ghosts in the past, and the taboo they establish against “clean” people socialising with these ghosts in the present. To achieve this goal, we partly follow Boltanski’s sociology of critique (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006), which differs from Bourdieusian critical sociology in that it considers social actors as fully capable of both recognising the interests at stake behind an argument, and tracing underlying causal mechanisms for social behaviour. The ways in which justifications are proposed form a central focus in this sociology of critique. Before justifications can become relevant, there must first be both disputes (i.e. disagreements over the definition of the situation), and equivalence (i.e. comparisons and measurements of things and people on the basis of some criterion). This latter notion of “test” (épreuve) rests at the heart of Boltanski’s theory. It “concerns the selection process governing the differential distribution of persons between positions of unequal value, and the more or less just character of this distribution” (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005, p. 32).” (p. 462)

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