Book Review

Spirited Things: The Work of ‘‘Possession’’ in Afro-Atlantic Religions, edited by Paul Christopher Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Khytie Brown

Within the history of the anthropological study of religion, anthropologists have paid keen attention to the seemingly fantastic workings of noncorporeal entities in the lives and bodies of those they designate as religious and, by virtue of this particular expression of religiosity, as possessed. In particular, the familiar anthropological trope, bearing striking resemblance to nineteenth-century travelogue writings and which makes recurring appearances in the scripted fictions and fantasies of the horror film genre, is that of the orgiastic scene of dark-skinned natives ecstatic, writhing, contorted, moaning, and foaming in cultic ecstasy as body and consciousness are elided to make room for deities to speak and act. European encounters with the native Other, geographically situated in the Americas and Africa and woven through missionary reports, travelogues, and ethnographies, have indelibly helped to craft the contemporary category of spirit possession, at once strange and exotic and uncomfortably familiar. While anthropologists have previously explored the meanings of spirit possession, Paul Christopher Johnson’s edited volume Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions revisits the familiar trope with a new lens, interrogating the “material dimensions and mediations of spirit possession” as a “defining and even constitutive feature of Afro-Atlantic religions” that is inextricably linked to the history of trans-Atlantic slavery and its thingification of persons into beings which were possessable.1 The volume, instead of taking a phenomenological approach to the study of spirit possession, examines the theoretical relationship between material possessions and spirit possession within the history of the Afro-Atlantic. More critically, the collection of chapters emphatically turns away from spirit possession as “exotica” but instead attends to “the means of,conditions of, and mediations of spirits’ presence.”2Spirited Things takes the old anthropological fascination with spirit possession and places it in conversation with what Johnson argues is the most prominent category guiding contemporary anthropology of Afro-Atlantic religions: materiality. The chapters challenge the prevailing dichotomy between spirit and materiality and foreground the reality that spirits can only be made manifest through materials. In doing this, the volume raises questions about the relationship between persons and the body, sensory epistemologies, space and place, agency, temporality, the global circulation of commodities, imaginings of modernity, mimesis and fakery, spiritual technologies, and theoretical genealogies as they are deployed and worked within the interpretive realm of Afro-Atlantic religions as well as within scholarly interpretations of Afro-Atlantic religions. Of central importance is the orientation that European colonial exploitation and domination were key in the conceptualization and imagining of spirit possession and thus the volume largely presents possession as a product of the European gaze.

The volume is deeply engaging, theoretically rich, and topically diverse, as it surveys “Afro-Atlantic ritual complexes” in their specificities from Afro-American Pentecostal spirit possession in Brazil and Haiti, critiques of spirit possession as a category in Vodou, the dialectics of “ensoniment” among the Ejamba of North Fairmont, Philadelphia, spiritual agency in Cuba, and minstrelsy and séances in the United States. Weaving together these diverse African diasporic locales and situated practices is the overarching concern with, what Johnson terms, the “the ritual production of spirits from a regime of things,” wherein the term possession holds double meaning.3 That is, spirit possession is the “ownership or occupation of the body by unseen agents” that are limited by history and materiality as well as the analogical relationship between ownership of material possession and tropes of the body as property.4 The opening chapter of the volume, “Toward an Atlantic Genealogy of ‘Spirit Possession,’ ” penned by Johnson, functions as an appropriate initiation into the semiotic work of possession.

Chapter One primes the reader to think through the implicit question of how possession is working in this particular Afro-Atlantic milieu. The chapter maps the multiple, but tightly related, discourses and legal actions which Johnson contends both named and constrained “spirit possession” over a period of four centuries. “Spirit possession” is worked, as the title of the volume emphasizes, through and against emerging ideas about the modern state, the rational individual agent, and the properly comported civil subject. Johnson argues that the free individual, who is necessarily the propertied individual, was constructed against anxieties and threats of the automaton or zombie (a mechanical machine-body without will) on one hand and the primitive animal ruled by passions on the other. Johnson makes an important intervention here by locating spirit possession within other popular colonial mythologies of zombies, cannibals, and unrestrained chimeras of man and beast (like, for example, racialized horror movie figures such as King Kong). Spirit possession can then be read as one among a category of European colonial concerns about dangerous specters located in other lands and seated in Other bodies that have the potential to disrupt, if not completely destroy, civil governance. Johnson goes further, in keeping with the book’s central thesis—that there is a semiotic and theoretical link between spirit possession and historically constituted notions of property and servitude—and makes the claim that based on the roots of the Latin origins of the term possession (which means “to be able to sit”), notions of property preceded notions of spirit’s being able to occupy flesh. Johnson furnishes a genealogy that maps how terms of property were transferred to ideas about the human body, ownership, and will and centralizes “Religion” as a fundamental player in this project. He presents a convincing case for how “Religion” as a generic class of human thought was made, and subsequently purified of spirits, to become a universal feature of a universal man who was self-possessed and thus could choose of his free will to believe in a Christian, monotheistic God. Johnson cites the evolutionary bend to this project, wherein an “anthropology of the savage” was constructed. The savage was represented by his propensity for magic, superstition, fetishism, and idolatry, among other abominable practices, from which religion had evolved and elevated itself. More importantly, the savage was geographically located in Africa and the Americas.5 Johnson makes the bold argument that Europeans’ fear of unrestrained religious frenzy, in which bodies became machines and slaves to spirits, and which African religions served as metonym, was used as justification for the possession of Africans in chattel slavery. Essentially, Johnson’s argument is that “spirit possession was predicated on the idea of persons as a kind of property; the person who is or can be possessed by others (spirits or slaveholders) is contrasted to the autonomous property-owning individual, the modern citizen and liberal subject.”6

Anthropologist Michael Lambek, who closes the volume with a brilliant afterword, poses several thoughtful and poignant critiques and questions to the arguments presented in the volume. Lambek states in his essay that he is going against the spirit of the volume and wants to assert that perhaps too much should not be read into the term possession. He challenges Johnson’s aforementioned argument that spirit possession is predicated on the idea of persons as kinds of property. Lambek argues that for Johnson spirit possession is conceived of as always hybrid and produced in the encounter with Europe. This is true of a certain type of spirit possession, which many of the contributors to the volume discuss in their ethnographies; however, Lambek notes that spirit possession is multiple and must have existed in various forms before the arrival of Europeans to West Africa and even in Europe before the proliferation of Christianity. His primary critique warns of the dangers in the problem of misrecognition of “spirit possession.” He poses crucial questions to scholars: “What was the actual nature of the phenomenon, and in what respects or to what degree has that original nature escaped or been irreversibly transformed by the act of misrecognition?” “What means or avenues of escape do the misrecognized hold?” “How do we ensure that we do not continue to misrecognize practices of spirit possession (by whatever name), once again in light of ‘our’ (Euro-American) concerns with our own self-conceptions, self-conceptions now inevitably historically and genealogically formed?”7 These questions are invaluable and arguably every scholar studying practices of “spirit possession” should invest in these questions as they construct theories about the practices they witness in the field.

Lambek’s afterword aims to complicate Johnson’s analyses, and is successful in doing so, as he pulls together the contributions of the authors of the other chapters under the themes of mimesis and metaphor to highlight the complex tapestry that is “spirit possession.” Returning briefly to the problem of misrecognition which Lambek raises, he argues that spirit possession can be a live metaphor within anthropology because it holds double ambiguity in terms of spirits who possess a host as well as the host’s possession of a spirit(s) whom he or she can summon to serve them, their family, or even clients. Lambek uses his own ethnographic experience among the Malagasy of Mozambique and the Mayotte to pose questions about metaphor and translation as necessary parts of ethnographic work and, taking the notion of double ambiguity further, he argues that in his own work spirits do not possess their host in the sense of legal ownership (whether by purchase or contract). Possess in the West African context of his work does not mean to own but rather, to have. He argues that in these worlds commodity fetishism and slavery may not be present or dominant and thus he does not “buy” Johnson’s argument that “notions of property preceded and guided notions of spirits’ capacity to “sit” in flesh.”8 Lambek asserts that this is a story Westerners now want to tell themselves and, while it may speak to Afro-American experiences of enslavement, it leaves Africans silent. While Lambek’s critique is sound and not without merit, it seems to reflect the age-old tension within studies of the Afro-Atlantic, hailing from the great Herskovits-Frazier debate, about the source of Afro-American culture.

On one side there is the argument that the trauma of slavery erased all African cultural inheritances and thus Afro-Atlantic cultures are strictly a product of life in the Americas and are wholly a result of creolization. On the other side is the hypothesis that African cultural inheritances were not completely erased but are still a present influence in Afro-Atlantic cultures; one can in fact locate and trace contemporary “African retentions” right back to the continent. Lambek’s critique seems to hinge on the unarticulated, but nevertheless present, question about the place of Africa as an originary space of not only enslaved peoples, but of Afro-Atlantic cultures. To use Johnson’s arguments about possessions, materiality and commodity fetishism in persons, one could quite crassly view West Africa in particular as the source of an “original product” and the Americas as importers of possessable persons and salable cultural productions. One of the provocative and necessary aspects of Spirited Things is its focus on the Afro-Atlantic world as a geographical and conceptual region that was uniquely created under the forces of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Johnson’s introduction to the volume sufficiently answers Lambek’s critique as he sketches the parameters of possession not as generic and universal (he later provides the genealogical roots of the current generic use), but as the amalgamation of spirits and things in the making of the Afro-Atlantic. Therefore, while Johnson’s analyses, as well as the analyses of the contributing authors, are applicable to more general theoretical questions about possession, bodies, commodities, agency, and modernity, it must be foregrounded that the work of possession in the volume is primarily as it is concretized and given flesh within the particularities of Afro-Atlantic histories, geographies, spaces, and places and—undeniably—within notions of ownership and control over bodies and lands as evidenced in colonialism and chattel slavery. Johnson further supports this by pointing to historical sources stating that spirit possession in fact gained a force and frequency in the Afro-Atlantic world “under and after the regimes of slavery” in a manner that was different from African forms, so much so that African-born slaves in Brazil, for example, were surprised at how prominently and frequently possession featured in creole practices.9

Spirited Things does not set the reader up to believe that she will find comprehensive and universalized definitions of possession. Lambek’s challenge about misrecognition poses questions of how we know we are misrecognizing if we can never locate an original, if we have to translate, and if, according to Johnson, there is an inseparable, dialectic relationship between European images of possession and how possession itself is shaped by uses in Western philosophy. Johnson’s genealogical mapping of the term in the first chapter is again strategically placed to respond to some of these questions. Therefore, while the reader may run into definitional problems, uncertainties about misrecognition, and questions about the appropriateness of terms (Lambek, for example, offers trance and dissociation as other terms to characterize “spirit possession”), Johnson provides theoretical tools for grappling with the ethnographic materials presented in the other chapters through a framework for thinking about the very ways in which these vast and varied practices are not ahistorical, but emerge out of a particular genealogy that then gives way to different workings of the term possession, as well as the lived practice.

The chapters in the volume can be arranged under several kinds of themes, which Johnson and Lambek delineate differently. Johnson groups Palmié and Polk’s chapters, “The Ejamba of North Fairmount Avenue, the Wizard of Menlo Park, and the Dialectics of Ensoniment: An Episode in the History of an Acoustic Mask” and “‘Who’s Dat Knocking at the Door?’ A Tragicomic Ethiopian Spirit Delineation in Three Parts,” as historical chapters focused on the material regimes that constitute possessions and spirits. Wirtz and Brazeal’s chapters “Spiritual Agency, Materiality, and Knowledge in Cuba” and “The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves” are coupled by Johnson to focus on semiotic processes out of which spirits appear, whereas Lambek couples these chapters as primarily addressing notions of mimesis and truth. Selka and McAlister’s chapters “Demons and Money: Possessions in Brazilian Pentecostalism” and “Possessing the Land for Jesus” focus on the interface between Afro-Creole spirit possession and Pentecostalism as it relates to laws, land, and money. Richman and Romberg’s chapters “Possession and Attachment: Notes on Moral Ritual Communication among Haitian Descent Groups” and “Mimetic Corporeality, Discourse, and Indeterminacy in Spirit Possession” also focus on genealogies and mimesis: the former maps how possession has been deployed in Vodou and the latter examines the “creative powers of mimetic corporeality” in the folklorization of spirit possession.10

Each chapter intricately responds to the question of how spirit possession is being worked in this ethnographic milieu. All the chapters contribute inventive access points to engage the question of the relationship between spirit possession and material things in the Afro-Atlantic, with close attention to issues of race, identity, law, theology, semiotics, and a myriad other thematic foci. Yet one of the most alluring threads between the chapters is the attention to the somatic and the sensual as integral to material practice. This is not a case of fascinating cannibalism—a term that Fatimah Tobing Rony coined to describe the voracious consumption of the racialized Other by Westerners, in a frenzy of horror and fascination, which is occasioned by “the ethnographic.” Instead of orgiastic scenes depicting an uncontrollable and perverse sensuality, attention to the sensual and the somatic in this volume begins with the body that is rendered ownable. The ownable body, capable of being bought and sold, as well as possessed by noncorporeal entities, then opens itself for questions about spirit and materiality and how the immaterial (spirit) is made discernible in materials (bodies and objects). The analytic of “transduction” is then mobilized to describe “how spirits are rendered sensible through processes of materialization and dematerialization and the power derived from shifts in semiotic modality.”11 Spirits have to be “registered in the form of sensible experiences.” Kristina Wirtz poses a question that several of the other authors respond to: “In what representational economy do spirit materializations in bodies come to make objective sense?”12 Activating spirits, as Johnson states, takes work—mechanical, aesthetic, memory and material work. The chapters in this volume excavate multiple forms of the working of possession, but all utilize the senses, notions of sensibility, and bodily technologies. Thus, contrary to typical renderings and theorization of spirit possession, which Johnson states are often read as simply coded sites of “expressive culture,” Spirited Things parses out the necessary relationship between the ephemeral universe of spirit and materiality. The book then reinvigorates the often-problematic discussion of spirit possession in anthropology by locating it within a Western intellectual genealogy, within a specific Afro-Atlantic geography, within particular Afro-Atlantic ritual complexes, and within material exchanges and relationships of bodies and commodities. This careful treatment of spirit possession in the book renders it, as Johnson argues, not merely atavistic, but modern and even “hypermodern,” and thus critical to contemporary discussions about the human, the multiplicity of modernities, pluralism, postcolonialism, transnationalism, and postracialism, to highlight but a few debates in various academic fields. 


1. Paul Christopher Johnson, “Introduction: Spirits and Things in the Making of the Afro-Atlantic World,” in Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions, ed. Paul Christopher Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 2, 4.

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 18.

4. Paul Christopher Johnson, “Toward an Atlantic Genealogy of ‘Spirit Possession,’” in Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession in Afro-Atlantic Religions, ed. Paul Christopher Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 35.

5. Ibid., 24.

6. Michael Lambek, “Afterword: Recognizing and Misrecognizing Spirit Possession,” in Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions, ed. Paul Christopher Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 259.

7. Ibid., 259.

8. Johnson, “Toward an Atlantic Genealogy,” 23.

9. Ibid., 27.

10. Raquel Romberg, “Mimetic Corporeality, Discourse, and Indeterminacy in Spirit Possession,” in Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions, ed. Paul Christopher Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 228.

11. Johnson, “Introduction,” 8.

12. Kristina Wirtz, “Spiritual Agency, Materiality, and Knowledge in Cuba,” in Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions, ed. Paul Christopher Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 99.

Khytie Brown
is a third-year doctoral student in the department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University with a primary field in religion. Her research emphasis is on religious expression and cultural production in the Caribbean and Afro-Antillean Panama, with particular attention to disruptions of the sacred/profane binary, mediation, sensory epistemologies, and the interplay between private religious discourses and public space. Khytie received her Bachelor of Arts in sociology and religion from Emory University in 2010 and her Master of Theological Studies in religion and the social sciences from Harvard Divinity School in 2013.