lunes, enero 26, 2009

Low (1987) The medicalization of healing cults in Latin America.

Setha Low (1987). The medicalization of healing cults in Latin America.
Low’s article “The medicaliation of healing cults” should have added a subtitle: “and the sacralization of biomedical doctors” “in Latin America” (and the medicalization of healing and demedicalization of medicine). This is precisely the dialectic and complex relation Low is trying to get at when considering the history/stories of two very influential doctors, Dr. Moreno Cañas in Costa Rica and Dr. Hernandez in Venezuela. On the one hand these two Doctors have things in common: upper class origin, went to Europe to study, return to work in the country, and help the poor giving health care for free. They engaged in social reforms, were seen as doctors-heroes due to their medical accomplishments, and after death allegedly returned in spiritual form to keep healing the one in need and so became the center of veneration and devotion as saints. Low says, “As the technological ‘magic’ of medical practice challenges religious healing’s claim to miraculous power, the number of lay, quasi-religious healing cults increases, sacralizing medical symbols by placing them within religious contexts” (137). Each of these doctors have a tragic death, Moreno Cañas was assassinated by a former patient and Dr Hernandez was hit by a car when was going to look for medicines for one of his patients. In both cases shortly after their death espiritismo cult began to spread (with spiritual mediums contacting the spirits of these doctors) and more people made promises to these doctors and ask for healing while their images were spread with the use of all sorts of representations. For Low three types of meaning were attached to these two doctors: 1) meanings derived from the folk Catholic form and the symbolism of the cult, 2) meanings derived from the specific symbolism of the doctors’ medical career (medical technology and symbols of modernity), and 3) meanings derived from the cultural medicalization in which professional doctors replaced folk healers, orthodox Catholic saints and virgins as the focus of cult veneration. Low concludes that the secularization of traditional symbols of religious healing is what is at stake when considering these two doctors and the ways they have influenced social changes and popular forms of healing. But I have to say that these doctors could also be seen as a subaltern appropriation of their powerful status as professional healers and members of the elites.

Afterthoughts: I think in this text and in the next one (Finkler 1994) a discussion on what is modernity is missing. And I think one should discuss this question because it underlines authors' ideas of "science" and "religion" and what is to be (or not to be) modern. The reader could find useful my post on Chakravarty's Habitations of Modernity.

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