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Catching Power: Race, Altered Solidarities, and Science in Trinidad

  • Author(s): Crosson, J. Brent
  • Advisor(s): Anderson, Mark D.
  • et al.
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In Trinidad, "catching power" indexes the embodiment of other-than-human force, a cultivated practice that anthropologists have typically referred to as "spirit possession." This dissertation examines how "catching power" recursively transforms social scientific theories of power, and how practices codified as illicit superstition, but called science by practitioners, alter the limits of the authoritative categories of modern rationalization. For more than two centuries, colonial and postcolonial laws have made the "assumption of supernatural power" a criminal offense in the anglophone Caribbean, defining these practices as "obeah." While labeled obeah practitioners by their neighbors, many of the healers I knew preferred to speak about their practices in terms of science or law. I argue that these uses of scientific and legal discourses were more than moves to cloak these practices in the authoritative clothing of Western rationality. Through the recursive transformations enacted by spiritual workers, science and law became what they always were: prescribed and prescriptive material practices that aim to investigate, re-present, and catch the power of hard-to-perceive forces, whether these forces were the powers of the state justice system or the spirits of the unjustly dead. This practice of catching power incorporates and transforms the terms of Western rationalization--law, race, and science--by working these categories' constitutive oppositions. The seminal binaries of religion and magic, science and tradition, or law and superstition become the very materials of invention and intervention in this approach to power. Through the ethnography of a protest movement against police brutality in Trinidad, I examine the ways that obeah inverts the evidence of the law's violence to turn this harm against the representatives of the law of the state. By detailing the response to a series of "mass demonic possessions" at my field site, I show how Caribbean science uses dichotomies between rationality and tradition to speak between the lines of modern categories of religion. Finally, through an examination of what I call "altered solidarities," relations of healing and harming between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians re-articulate the colonial inheritance of divisive racial categories as a basis for interracial solidarity.

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This item is under embargo until December 31, 2099.