Professor, History/Afroamerican and African Studies
I'm interested in hybrid forms of agency formed in the Americas, especially in Brazil and the Caribbean. My most recent work, Automatic Religion: Near Human Agents of Brazil and France (Chicago, 2021), explores the question of agency and humanness in relation to automatic action. To explore these two tropes—autonomy and the automatic--and their unstable relation vis-à vis “religion,” I recount the late-19th and early 20th century appearance of a series of figures in Brazil whose key attributed characteristic was the capacity to act consequentially, as agents, but only automatically, without will. Nearhuman figures—classed as such by virtue of their shared quality of lacking conscious volition—became objects of ritual attraction and sites of revelation through and in consequence of their imputed automatism. The figures include a monkey, a mechanical chess-player, a slave become saint, a photograph, a possession priest, a psychiatric patient, a child-spirit, and a corpse. Each is nearhuman in a distinct way, along a different vector of proximity: speech (sounds human), time (was once human), iconic likeness (looks human), indexicality (has part of a human), and quality (as an ill, captive, or diminished human). What is at stake is the particular quality of religious agency. I ask, in what sense is “religion”--a domain whose central feature entails being spoken-through, or acted-through by extrahuman powers and the subjection of individual will—a form of agency. The formulation seems perhaps too obvious, even clumsy; yet it has never been adequately addressed, much less solved. This book tackles the problem of religion and agency head on in two theoretical chapters—the Introduction on the automatic, and the Conclusion, on agency—and a series of five exemplary episodes comprising the middle.
I'm also interested in the uses of secrecy in religions, as well as in questions of law and the state. On secrecy, I have a new co-edited volume in press (with Hugh Urban) on religion and secrecy, Handbook on Religion and Secrecy (Routledge 2022); and some years ago wrote Secrets, Gossip and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé (Oxford 2002). On law and the state, I recently co-authored Ekklesia: Three Inquiries on Church and State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), together with Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Pamela E. Klassen, comparing Brazil, Canada, and the United States. I also wrote Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa (California 2007), a text the tries to rethink "diaspora" through the story of the Garifuna in their migrations from St. Vincent to Honduras to the Bronx. Some similar issues reappeared in another text, Spirited Things: The Work of "Spirit Possession" in Afro-Atlantic Religions (Chicago 2014).
Wearing an editorial hat, I am Editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Comparative Studies in Society and History (CSSH).
- 2008, Guggenheim Fellowship
- 2003, Best Book Award (analytic-descriptive), American Academy of Religion
- 2003-2004, NEH Fellowship Award