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  • Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History by Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken
  • Kyrah Malika Daniels
Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History. By Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken. Lanham, Boulder, New York City, London: Lexington Books, 2015. 419 pp. $110 hardcover.

Rooted in the field of literary studies and comparative literature, Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken’s Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History investigates numerous iterations and notions of possession in literature and history. Through an examination of “possession”—dispossession, spirit possession, re-possession, and self-possession—she examines the experience as represented in twentieth-century ethnographic accounts of Western anthropologists and literary texts written by Haitian novelists. Moving beyond the parameters of spirit possession, she considers possession “as related to political, social, and aesthetic contexts” to contextualize how Haitian Vodou captures the Western imagination (19). Benedicty-Kokken further emphasizes the ways in which Haiti as “idea” has long existed in cultural and philosophical Atlantic thought, and how the nation continues to occupy the role of exotic, embattled yet resilient “other” despite its deep integration within Atlantic histories.

As a noted parallel to Benedicty-Kokken’s book, Mary Keller’s work The Hammer and The Flute: Women, Power, and Spirit Possession (2002) comes to mind, as do the words of Wendy K. Martin, who recounts how “Mary Keller joins the chorus of voices calling for a rethinking of scholarly interpretations of religion in light of post-colonial, feminist, and globalization theory.”1 Both Keller and Benedicty-Kokken use ethnographic case studies and, subsequently, examine artistic genres (literary and/or theatrical) to illustrate the religious varieties of possession. In many ways providing a big-picture analysis of her detail-oriented work to come, Benedicty-Kokken’s introduction explains that her work addresses three challenges of Haitian studies and postcolonial studies. First, it continues efforts to [End Page 208] destigmatize and even humanize Vodou, thereby countering its demonized representations; second, it identifies sites of agency in Haiti and in Haitian culture. Third, it calls the academy (French and Francophone branches in particular) to task for disregarding the contributions of postcolonial theory, and urges readers to consider the postcolonial approach as a productive framework to explore the dynamics between France and former colonized regions and communities (1).

The book is divided into four parts. In the first section, Benedicty-Kokken draws upon the work of Giorgio Agamben, Colin (formerly Joan) Dayan, Achille Mbembe, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot to offer a robust theoretical framework that chronicles enslaved Africans’ and soon-to-be Haitians’ historical dispossession of land and rights. By including the work of Dayan, Trouillot, and Mbembe, she introduces theorists who effectively address the gaps in Agamben’s European-oriented writings. Dayan’s work, in particular, offers insight into notions of “noncitizenship” and political dispossession, revealing “how persons are made and unmade by the law” (71–72). This section clearly serves as an expansion and deepening of Benedicty-Kokken’s stellar article “The Questions We Are Asking: Hegel, Agamben, Trouillot, Mbembe, and Haitian Studies” (Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2013).

Benedicty-Kokken further considers the myths surrounding notions of “poverty,” “happiness,” and “utopia,” explaining these concepts as modernist projects of the West. Importantly, she draws attention to the West’s twentieth- and twenty-first-century fixation on “alleviating poverty” in Haiti, which assumes that poverty is directly correlated with a population’s abject misery and hopelessness (read: helplessness). This trope of the West’s “concern” over Haiti’s “poverty” is expertly addressed in the chapter about Mbembe and Trouillot, as she incorporates Bruckner’s explanation that “happiness is very much a product of Euro and American projects of modernity” (110). In this first section the author also notes that “possession” presents a primarily Francophone orientation, as the term was introduced by either French anthropologists or US American anthropologists who were influenced by the work of French scholars such as Michael Leiris and Alfred Métraux (2). In this way, Benedicty-Kokken identifies her project as one “to trace and interlace intellectual histories usually studied independently of each other” (16).

The book’s second section focuses on European and North American scholars’ theories, ethnographies...