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Experiments with Power

Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad

In 2011, Trinidad declared a state of emergency. This massive state intervention lasted for 108 days and led to the rounding up of over 7,000 people in areas the state deemed “crime hot spots.” The government justified this action and subsequent police violence on the grounds that these measures were restoring “the rule of law.” In this milieu of expanded policing powers, protests occasioned by police violence against lower-class black people have often garnered little sympathy. But in an improbable turn of events, six officers involved in the shooting of three young people were charged with murder at the height of the state of emergency. To explain this, the host of Crime Watch, the nation’s most popular television show, alleged that there must be a special power at work: obeah.

From eighteenth-century slave rebellions to contemporary responses to police brutality, Caribbean methods of problem-solving “spiritual work” have been criminalized under the label of “obeah.” Connected to a justice-making force, obeah remains a crime in many parts of the anglophone Caribbean. In Experiments with Power, J. Brent Crosson addresses the complex question of what obeah is. Redescribing obeah as “science” and “experiments,” Caribbean spiritual workers unsettle the moral and racial foundations of Western categories of religion. Based on more than a decade of conversations with spiritual workers during and after the state of emergency, this book shows how the reframing of religious practice as an experiment with power transforms conceptions of religion and law in modern nation-states.

328 pages | 27 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Class 200: New Studies in Religion

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Religion: Religion and Society


"Experiments with Power is an ethnographically and theoretically rich monograph contributing thoughtful
provocations to religious studies. The book is effective in drawing attention to the shortcomings of religious theories when put in conversation with Black Atlantic religious experience. Crosson thoughtfully presents his interlocutors as forceful agents experimenting with power beyond the rule of law. This book should be read by all those interested in postcolonial ethnographies of religion, race, and politics."

Sociology of Religion

"Covering a woefully under-studied set of traditions and making important and timely interventions in Religious Studies, Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, and African Diaspora Studies, this is a must-read for scholars across these fields and beyond."

Nova Religio

"In Experiments with Power, Crosson has tackled an oft-misunderstood subject and engaged with it in an innovative way. By muddling Western definitions of science and religion, Crosson reveals similarities in their practice and experimentation. . . . This is a book that cultural anthropologists, historians, and scholars of religion alike will find both thought-provoking and exciting."


"Experiments with Power is a remarkable ethnography, offering an intimate engagement with spiritual work. With it we step, alongside Crosson’s interlocutors, into the science of crafting postcolonial justice. This important study is a must read that will make lasting contributions to debates on modernity’s key terms, including the nature of religion, sovereign power, and the violence of liberal governance."

N. Fadeke Castor, author of Spiritual Citizenship: Transnational Pathways from Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad

"In this excellent ethnography, Crosson shows how productive the question of defining obeah is, reframing the very logics used in trying to contain the word. The book models the importance of listening to the expertise of one’s interlocutors and pushes against the limits of modernity’s ‘purifying’ projects. With its pointed political message about justice, the book is a timely contribution."

Kristina Wirtz, author of Performing Afro-Cuba: Image, Voice, Spectacle in the Making of Race and History

"Crosson makes a dramatic contribution to the study of religion, showing how confounding the very term is in the mouths of spiritual workers, who instead use words like ‘science,’ ‘work,’ and ‘experiment.’ The gambit works wonderfully—like magic. Often beautiful and chilling at once, this is creative work and makes for a gripping read."

Paul Cristopher Johnson, coauthor of Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State

"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 '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."

Reading Religion

Table of Contents



Part One. The Depths

Interlude 1. Number Twenty-One Junction
Chapter 1. What Obeah Does Do: Religion, Violence, and Law

Interlude 2. In the Valley of Dry Bones
Chapter 2. Experiments with Justice: On Turning in the Grave

Interlude 3. To Balance the Load
Chapter 3. Electrical Ethics: On Turning the Other Cheek

Part Two. The Nations

Interlude 4. Where the Ganges Meets the Nile, I
Chapter 4. Blood Lines: Race, Sacrifice, and the Making of Religion

Interlude 5. Where the Ganges Meets the Nile, II
Chapter 5. A Tongue between Nations: Spiritual Work, Secularism, and the Art of Crossover

Part Three. The Heights

Interlude 6. Arlena’s Haunting
Chapter 6. High Science

Epilogue. The Ends of Tolerance



Journal of Africana Religions: Albert J. Raboteau Prize

Society for the Anthropology of Religion: Clifford Geertz Prize

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