Friday, 4 March 2016 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

J. Brent Crosson, UT

“Sounding the Depths: The Evidence of Science, Obeah, and Oil in Trinidad”

Just a few miles from the coast of Venezuela, southern Trinidad arguably possesses the world’s oldest oil industry. Trinidad’s economy remains heavily dependent on the extraction of these subterranean hydrocarbons, but with less than two decades of reserves remaining, economic futures depend on the seismic exploration and development of hard-to-perceive reservoirs of energy beneath the earth’s crust. These surveys use buried dynamite and underwater cannons to generate shockwaves powerful enough to penetrate the earth and echo back to geologists and geophysicists. Like the earth scientists involved in seismic surveys, the African diasporic spiritual healers I have worked with in southern Trinidad for the past nine years also use the medium of sound to seek knowledge about what lies below the earth. Despite their very different positioning in terms of class and educational hierarchies, spiritual workers and petroleum geologists both refer to their sensing of subterranean realms as science. Unlike the practices of geologists, however, the work of Afro-Caribbean healers became merely a superstition in the eyes of European colonialists. Their healing practices were referred to as “Obeah” and became illegal under colonial laws that began in the eighteenth century in the Anglophone Caribbean. Despite the heavy stigma of superstition that hangs over contemporary spiritual workers, they continue to refer to their work as science, and have done so since the late nineteenth century. Earlier anthropologists interpreted this talk of science as mere masking, a legitimating (if superficial) European front for African traditions. I found something different during fieldwork in southern Trinidad. Science was not simply a legitimating mask, and the ideas and theories of experimental practice that spiritual workers offered transformed my own often unexamined preconceptions about what science was. This talk compares geologists’ and healers’ practices of subterranean sensing to reflect on the conceptual and political limits of the word “science.”


J. Brent Crosson is an assistant professor of Religious Studies and Anthropology at UT, and an associate of UT’s Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies. He received his PhD in Anthropology from UC-Santa Cruz in 2014 and held a postdoc at NYU before coming to UT in 2015. He is the author of “What Obeah Does Do: Healing, Harming, and the Boundaries of Religion,” Journal of Africana Religions (2015), and “Own People: Race, Altered Solidarities, and the Limits of Culture in Trinidad,” Small Axe (2014).