Religious Matters: African (Vodoun) Materialities and the Western Concept of Religion Open Access

Jefferson-Tatum, Elana Patrice (2016)

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This dissertation examines the interrelationship between the Western concept of religion, Euro-Western materialist philosophies, and African religious and material metaphysics. This project specifically explores: 1) the history and ideology of Euro-Western materialist discourses (as articulated through such concepts as "fetish," "idol," "thing," "object," etc.), and 2) specific ideations of African religious materialities. Through an analysis of Vodoun religious-material cultures in the Porto-Novo region of the Republic of Benin, this dissertation proposes that African religious experiences, philosophies, and practices are deeply immanent and material and offers a materialist re-theorization of the Western concept of religion. Yet, deeply critical of attempts to conceptualize African religious cultures through the category of the fetish, or other Euro-Western ontological notions, this dissertation highlights the ideological history of the fetish concept and related terms as deeply entrenched within the imperialist and colonial agenda of the Euro-Western world. Historically, materiality has been a site of political and religious contention among Euro-Western intellectuals, missionaries, administrators, and travelers about the supposed right relationship between "objects," "persons," and "gods." Yet, this dissertation proposes that among indigenous Vodoun communities, matter has been the site of essentially immanent metaphysical experiences that question and blur these Western normative distinctions. This project thus specifically challenges materialist discourses regarding non-Western religions. Rather than reiterating the Western ontological typology of inanimate "objects," human "persons," and wholly other "gods," this dissertation reveals instead a Vodoun world organized around nature "beings," human and non-human "persons," and ontological "mothers." This work argues then that when scholars imagine religion as not the ephemeral spirit of a wholly other, but rather as the actual substance of "nature," "persons," and this-worldly "mother" deities and gods, then matter is the very quintessence of religion.

Table of Contents

1. INTRODUCTION: The Matter of Religion. 1

2. Critical Concepts in the Discursive Formation of Religion, Materiality, and African Religious Others. 28

3. Translating Vodoun: History, Scholarship, and the "Violence of Translation." 81

4. "The Leaves that the Ancestors Put Together Cannot be Undone": The Nature of Vodoun and a Re-Imagining of Natural Religion. 118

5. "Every Person has a ": Persons, Community, and the Consumption of Life. 151

6. "The 'House of Women' Is a Major Power in this World": Motherhood, Authority, and the Matter of Vodoun Social Hierarchy. 229

7. CONCLUSION: Towards a Generic African Religious Materialist Philosophy. 272


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