The Semantic Reduction of Spirits and Monsters
Keywords:Monsters, monster theory, semantic theory, Brazil, folklore, Umbanda
This article explores the semantics of spirits and monsters with reference to the Brazilian spirit-incorporation religion of Umbanda (and secondarily to the monster studies literature). Semantics is the study of meaning. The most common, and common-sense, view of meaning roots it in reference, in representation, in signification, in how words match up with things. This article argues that an alternative semantic theory – seeing meaning in interpretation rather than representation – has greater value for making sense of spirits, monsters and gods. The article first characterizes these competing theories of meaning, then discusses problems with the representational assumptions of monster studies, and finally proposes the concept of “semantic reduction” as a tool for interpreting Umbanda’s spirits (and by extension, monsters and gods). This concept notes how attempts to interpret spirits soon run into the expected, the constrained, the pre-established, the scripted. The speech and actions of spirits are semantically reduced because their meanings are constrained and delimited: the semantic networks that constitute these meanings are bound by the religion’s ritual, doctrinal, narrative, institutional and material frames. Making sense of spirits, monsters, and gods is no different than making sense of human beings in “normal” contexts, except for the additional methodological challenge of learning to take account of the former’s unusual contexts.