Latah

Latah, from the Malay word for "ticklish," denotes a person who responds to being startled by temporarily entering an altered state in which she or he will obey commands, imitate movements or sounds repeatedly, utter rude or obscene language, and/or act in sexually inappropriate ways (Winzeler, 1995). Like amok, latah has been described in English language literature for some time, with earliest mentions dating from the 19th century. From the late 1960s to the present, anthropologists have debated the significance of latah. Starting with Hildred Geertz's discussion of the "latah paradox," which she described as the problem that while latah is culturally specific to Malaysia, similar forms of hyperstartling behavior have been observed in other cultures (Geertz, 1968), anthropologists have tried to account for both gen-eralizability and specificity in latah behavior (similar to problems with the definition of other culture-bound syndromes). Together with amok and koro, latah became a common literary topic that some have seen as part of the making of stereotypes of both exoticism and uncivilize-ability about Malays and similar peoples by Western colonialists (Winzeler, 1995).

Simons (1985) posits that although individuals in all cultures vary in how they respond to startling, and some individuals respond with brief periods of latah-like behavior, in Malaysia, popular amusement with hyperstartling has led to a cultural complex around this behavior, which establishes a social role for people who exhibit it, and encourages people to induce it by deliberately startling latahs repeatedly until they perform as expected. While English-language commentary tends to refer to latah as a problem, Malaysian villagers studied seem to regard it as an amusing personality quirk instead (Simons, 1985).

However, Kenny (1985) finds this explanation too limitingly biomedical in nature, preferring to see latah as only lightly related to cultural elaborations of hyperstar-tling. Instead, he posits that the behavior finds meaning within a complex of beliefs about marginality and distress, in the context of culturally specific notions of spirit possession and shamanism. The hilarity with which villagers address latahs and their clowning social role reflect their state of marginality, according to Kenny (1978, 1985).

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