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The Vietnamese Sons of Victor Hugo: The Colonial Cult of the Occult and the Struggle for National Liberation

Colloquium with Professor Janet Hoskins, Department of Anthropology, University of Southern California

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
243 Royce Hall
UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, CA 90095

The “colonization of consciousness” and its postcolonial legacy has been the focus of a number of debates about the appropriation of European figures by colonized subjects and their veneration or even deification (Sahlins, Obeyeskere, Todorov).  Victor Hugo, by far the most popular author in French Indochina, participated in spiritist séances that inspired a group of colonized intellectuals in Saigon who became the first disciples of Cao Dai, a new religious movement based on the fusion of the Jade Emperor and Jehovah. Several Caodaists identified as Hugo’s “spiritual sons and grandsons”.  Through them, Victor Hugo’s spirit played a role in the decolonization of Vietnam, as well as new transnational Vietnamese congregations. Controversies about Hugo’s legacy as a literary model and spiritual advisor (not actually “worshipped”) reveal an East Asian syncretism emerging from the colonial cult of the occult.

Janet Hoskins received her PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University in 1984, and came to USC in 1985. Her 1994 book The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives  on History, Calendars and Exchange (University of California Press) won the 1996 Benda Prize for the best book in Southeast Asian Studies, awarded by the Association of Asian Studies.  She is also the author of Biographical Objects: How Things Tells the Stories of People’s Lives (Routledge 1998) and the contributing editor of Headhunting and the Social Imagination in Southeast Asia (Stanford 1996), A Space Between Oneself and Oneself:  Anthropology as a Search for the Subject (Donizelli 1999) and Fragments from Forests and Libraries (Carolina Academic Press 2001).  In 2003 she became a UCLA undergraduate (more or less) and took two years of Vietnamese.  She has published ten articles dealing with indigenous religions in Vietnam and California, including “Can a Hierarchical Religion Survive Without Its Center? Caodaism, Colonialism and Exile” in Hierarchy: Persistence and Transformation of Social Formations (2009), and “Diaspora as Religious Doctrine: ‘An Apostle of Vietnamese Nationalism’ comes to California” in Journal of Vietnamese Studies  (2011), as well as the ethnographic documentary “The Left Eye of God” (distributed by Documentary Educational Resources).

Cost : Free and open to the public.


Sponsor(s): Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Asian Languages & Cultures, Center for the Study of Religion

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