In a recent journal issue, Jordan Alexander Stein and Justine Murison observe that work on non-Protestant religions has the potential to upend conventional accounts of religion’s place in British America. Taking up that challenge, Jaudon’s essay discusses Revolutionary-era literary representations of obeah, a creole religion practiced by enslaved persons in the British Caribbean, arguing that such narratives use religious experience to craft an alternative transnationalism. Works such as William Earle’s 1800 novel Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack and similar chapbooks, penny-dreadfuls, and pantomimes share a common fascination with the occult forms of sensation obeah enabled, explaining away these experiences as misrecognitions of a stable material reality. Jaudon draws together recent reassessments of the history of the senses by anthropologists and challenges to secularism by political theorists to unsettle these texts’ easy dismissal of the strange sense perceptions and bodily capacities that obeah cultivated among enslaved persons. In their anxious attempts to debunk obeah, these narratives record what Jacques Rancière calls a “dissensus”: a clash between competing models of sensory perception. Such moments of sensory disjuncture posed a significant threat to a colonial order that claimed universality for its sense perceptions. Obeah narratives indicate that embodied religious experience constitutes a sensual alternative to what Elizabeth Maddock Dillon terms the “Westphalian imaginary” of a world mapped into nation-states. By recharacterizing religion as an alternative to the nation instead of something that circulates across its boundaries, Jaudon suggests new maps for transnational inquiry—ones that focus on the sensual relations religions forge or forbid between their adherents’ bodies and the nation-state’s world.
Toni Wall Jaudon; Obeah’s Sensations: Rethinking Religion at the Transnational Turn. American Literature 1 December 2012; 84 (4): 715–741. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1901418
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