Experiments with Power
Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad
- ISBN: 9780226705484
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: July 2020
Experiments with Power: Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad is a detailed exploration of obeah as a justice-making practice. Drawing on eleven years of ethnographic research in the pseudonymous Rio Moro, Trinidad, J. Brent Crosson deftly balances detailed ethnographic narration with rigorous theoretical analysis that he then uses to interrogate concepts like “religion,” “morality,” and “science.” At the center of the text is the life and untimely death of one of his research participants, Arlena, at the hands of police. Through Arlena and the unfolding events after her death, he argues that obeah is a practice that straddles religious traditions, upends historical categorizations, and seeks justice in an unjust world. Crosson’s participants called upon obeah, as an experiment and science, to help rectify the tragedy of Arlena’s murder. By attending to this underexplored practice in an innovative way, the author intervenes in the already rich corpus of literature on Black Atlantic religions in a compelling and nuanced way.
Astutely, Crosson notes that obeah has either been underdeveloped in Black Atlantic studies or overdetermined in religious studies. Because obeah is often characterized as “evil,” it has often been theorized and studied as Frazerian “magic,” a lesser form of “religion” that relies on spurious logic. As a result of this classification, other scholars have sought to “redeem” obeah and recast it as a “religion.” Against such salvific enterprises, Crosson argues that obeah cannot be reduced to “religion” or “magic.” Taking his cues from his research participants, who call obeah an “experiment,” the author makes space for a new understanding of the practice beyond familiar categories. Thus, Experiments with Power is not so much a text about what obeah is or isn’t. Such a text would be false, Crosson argues. Instead, he is interested in how the practice can help readers understand the racialized histories of “religion” and how obeah develops other possible orientations to the world beyond these histories.
The text itself it structured around the three movements of Spiritual Baptist “mourning,” a practice of seclusion and fasting from food and drink to gain spiritual knowledge. Part 1, “The Depths,” takes readers through the process of negation via the death of 21-year-old Arlena. In Part 2, “The Nations,” covering the period when spiritual insight is received, the author explores the role of blood and identity vis-a-vis obeah. In the final part of the book, “The Heights,” wherein spiritual insight brings new life and possibility, the author connects obeah’s justice-making impulse to broader questions of experimentation and science.
In “The Depths,” Crosson examines how obeah has been studied previously and what is left undertheorized. Chapter 1 explores the ambivalent nature of obeah as a justice-making craft that both harms and heals. Obeah’s ambivalence raises questions about the relationship between affliction, morality, and religion. From here, chapter 2 more fully develops the titular concept of “experiments with power.” In tracing the negative historical categorization of obeah as antithetical to western European ideas of science, the author shows how contemporary practitioners use obeah to test limits and boundaries. These experiments, though, are a response to injustice and thus an attempt to produce justice in an unjust world. Obeah’s experimental boundary crossing makes it hard to classify in ways that readers might desire. Indeed, in the final chapter of part 1, chapter 3, the author considers how obeah as justice work exceeds the boundaries of “good” and “bad” by considering how obeah was used to antagonize police to turn themselves in to authorities, for example. This antagonism exceeds the moralistic definitions of “religion” insofar as it offers a view of justice that can be wrought through affliction.
The focus of part 2, “The Nations,” picks up where part 1 ends, examining what this spiritual insight, obeah’s ambivalence, might reveal. In chapter four, Crosson outlines how “blood” (a metonym for “sacrifice”) is conceptualized among two distinct ethno-religious groups: Africans and Indians. For both groups, blood was a way of distinguishing oneself from conceptions of the Other. The disavowal of sacrifice was a way of showing their complementarity with colonial British rule, for example. Continuing to think with obeah’s ambivalence, chapter 5 proposes the work of justice as a method of moving between practices. Whereas chapter 4 noted how lines were drawn between ethno-religious groups, chapter 5 posits that obeah’s ambivalence allows one to not only move between religious traditions, but allows obeah to remain non-institutionalized and, therefore, beyond the regulating powers of the state, which would attempt to codify obeah in ways that would ultimately bring it in line with “religion.”
The final and shortest part of the book, “The Heights,” returns to the language of “experiments” and examines obeah in light of scientific discourses. As noted in earlier chapters, participants avoided calling obeah a “religion” and opted for the language of science instead. In the single chapter that comprises part 3, the author explains that participants traditionally understood “science” (natural sciences, for example) as spiritual insofar as it deals with the latent and often unwieldy power inherent to nature. Connecting their glosses on science with developments in feminist science and technology studies, obeah is characterized as a “high science” that eschews the moralizing limits of “religion” and “secularity” and focuses instead on examining the subtle forces at work in the world. Thus, obeah allows one to not only enter into scientific discourses but is itself a postcolonial reframing of those discourses.
Experiments with Power is a timely text that weaves together anthropology, Caribbean studies, and religious studies to study one of the Black Atlantic’s most misunderstood practices. It is a richly interdisciplinary text that draws widely from several fields of study and brings them to bear on important ethical and social concerns. Further, through his use of science and technology studies, Crosson demonstrates how the “science” and “religion” as disciplines have much to gain from the other. Readers from a wide array of disciplines will find Crosson’s text to be a useful resource for examining colonial pasts and presents, and it will serve as an excellent guide for thinking beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Alejandro Escalante is a lecturer in social anthropology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London.Alejandro Stephano EscalanteDate Of Review:June 17, 2022