Obeah’s unproductive bodies: a response to “Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World”

Document Type

Response or Comment

Publication Date



Taylor & Francis


In her discussion of the 1827 novel Hamel, the Obeah Man in this special issue, Janelle Rodriques describes obeah as a “recognisable phenomenon” that “operated from unintelligible assumptions.” This description points toward the fascinating strangeness of obeah – the way in which outsiders could so easily become preoccupied by its incomprehensibility – while also suggesting the challenge of writing about it: we can see obeah but we can never quite be sure what it is we are looking at, and we are even less certain about how it works or what it means. The five essays that make up this forum not only grapple with this challenge on their own, but they also examine how that challenge played out within a rich range of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century texts through which Western writers and readers first described and encountered obeah. These early texts often exploit fascination with obeah’s unintelligibility while at the same time striving to eliminate the confusion it created. These early representations of obeah wrestle with and capture this “recognisable phenomenon” through a variety of scientific, cultural, and textual strategies that, in their efforts to turn incomprehension into certainty, end up revealing far more about their own assumptions than they do about those that govern obeah itself.

The articles gathered here recognize and investigate these early strategies of containing obeah, and in doing so they develop among themselves a practice that might be described as approaching obeah – almost as if through an iterative series of advances and retreats that do not pretend to arrive at the stillness of certainty but that nonetheless accumulate a kind of restless understanding. In the reflections that follow, I emphasize the multiplicities of genre and combinations of discipline that characterize these five essays and that help to sustain rather than curtail obeah’s characteristic evasiveness, its mobility. I end by asking what that restless evasion might have signified in the context of a plantation system which proved a training ground for a system of managing bodies that would soon characterize the factories and workplaces of industrial capitalism. What did obeah’s unproductive bodies signify at this moment of historical transformation?