Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Paul Christopher Johnson's "Automatic Religion"

Paul Christopher Johnson is Professor in the Department of History and Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and in the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Automatic Religion: Nearhuman Agents of Brazil and France, and reported the following:
Page 99 zeroes in on the role of a particular photograph that was confiscated by the police in Rio de Janeiro, in 1871. It was collected during the investigation of an Afro-Brazilian possession priest named Juca Rosa, accused not only of practicing dangerous religion—fetishism (feitiçaria) was the word applied—but also of seducing white women among his devotees. The trial was the celebrity scandal of the decade. Page 99 points out how the photograph acted as a key shifter from an older mode of law based on the colonial Portuguese code, in which terms like “fetishism” still held standing, to the new, national legal code. The defense lawyers pointed out that “fetishism” did not any longer exist. According to the new legal code, Juca Rosa could not be convicted of fetishism; rather, he would have to be accused of fraud (estelionato), pretending to have special spirit powers in order to exert sexual and monetary control over his congregants. Though fraud is what he was ultimately convicted of, the photograph allowed the prosecution to smuggle in the outdated legal terms related to fetishism and dangerous religion. It depicted him barefoot in African-looking garb, with a follower kneeling before him. Using the photograph as visual evidence, the prosecution preyed on fears of dangerous African fetishism’s power to potentially take over the nation—just as Juca Rosa was occupied by his spirits, and women were possessed by him. Though the photograph indexed a shift from one legal code to another, then, it also allowed for spectral presences from the past to still act in the present on questions of race and the national body.

Reading page 99 reveals an intriguing microcosm of Automatic Religion as a whole. Juca Rosa found a way to transform his very marginal status into fame and fortune, as a priest receiving potent African spirits in his body. He applied this power to the lives of his mostly black, poverty-stricken female followers, not only through his actual presence during rituals, but also in the form of his photograph, which all of his followers owned. He became an object of exotic and erotic fascination to some among Rio’s upper class. The photograph acted as a proxy, a nearhuman Juca Rosa that pushed his presence into new spaces and audiences—including, unfortunately, the police and of the court.

Other chapters add further cases of nearhuman agents making lives of their own. One is the itinerary of an automaton named Ajeeb who gained fame in Brazil from 1896-97 as a chess-whiz “Turk,” but who also mystified and motivated his audience in nearly devotional ways. Another describes the career of a Brazilian monkey named Rosalie, who became the best friend and companion of the famed French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot. Even as the nearhuman Monkey Rosalie traveled to France, Charcot’s category of hysteria traveled to Brazil. While France “hysteria” was mostly applied to the confinement and classification of women, in Brazil it was mostly applied to Afro-Brazilians reporting visions of spirits. Still another chapter details how a drawing of a slave by a French traveler in Brazil came to life in the 1971 and became an immensely popular living saint, “Slave Anastácia.” All of these figures—the monkey, the patient, the automaton, the drawing of a slave, the photograph—were described as lacking the human qualities of will, freedom, and agency. Yet though they were all described as able to act only automatically, they attracted fascination and even, sometimes, fervor and piety. The new nearhumans set new religious ideas and practices into motion, even as they made it clear that humans were only precariously unique.

In the broadest sense, the central thesis is that the trans-Atlantic circulation of ideas, animals, persons and things generated new versions of the great anthropological division of humans and non-humans. In the industrial age, the new vision of the division pitted those seen to lack will and mobility against those named as genuine individuals, possessors of the free capacity to act on and in the world, wherever they might choose. In short: automatons versus agents. By understanding how that divide was made in the great anthropological machine, we can also learn to unmake it.
Learn more about Automatic Religion at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue