Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 290–314 | Cite as

Refracting Affects: Affect, Psychotherapy, and Spirit Dis-Possession

  • Samuele ColluEmail author
Original Paper


The notion of affect has generated much confusion in anthropology given its focus on that which seems to escape our language. The evanescent features of affects have irritated many anthropologists who consider affect theory as an empirically weak or esoteric hermeneutics. In this article, I respond to these critiques by developing an anthropology of therapy that foregrounds the role of affects. My intent is to explore the possible contribution of affect theory to medical and psychological anthropology. I draw from my ethnography on couple’s therapy in Argentina to suggest that we cannot understand therapeutic efficacy if we focus only on language and discourse. I ask what it means to regard affects as late modern spirits and take psychotherapy as a modern ritual of “affect dispossession.” I propose to ask how affects, like spirits, can haunt our present rendering our lives barely livable. Focusing on a session of therapy in Buenos Aires, I describe how a therapist channels the spirit of impasse that colonizes the lives of her patients. Developing an enchanted hermeneutics, I engage with Eve Sedgwick’s call for an other-than-paranoid social theory by engaging the imagination as an important organ of perception in the medical anthropology of affects.


Psychotherapy Affects Enchantment Spirit possession Ethnography 



I am thankful to the therapists and patients who generously allowed me to participate in their professional and personal lives. Micol has been an amazing source of affective inspiration together with the therapists I call here Almibar, Wanda, and Clara. Thank you. The conceptual gifts of Lawrence Cohen, Ian Whitmarsh, Stefania Pandolfo, and Yanina Gori are always already present in this article. Bruno Reinhardt, Dylan Fagan, Cheryl Smith, Mila Djordjevic, Gabriel Coren, Jarret Zigon, Silvia Tidney, Jason Throop, Cristiana Giordano, Vanessa McCuaig, Cristina Yepez, Amélie Ward, Emad Mortazavi, Vincent Laliberté, and Robert Desjarlais, provided important comments to different versions of this manuscript. Emily Ng has been fundamental. Haley Baird reframed my imagination about the work of therapy, love, and spirits.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author has received the International Fieldwork Grant from the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, to undertake the fieldwork research this article is based on (2013). The author states that there is no conflict of interest influencing the article’s content.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The research was approved by the UC Berkeley Human Research protection Program.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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