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Presented By: Department of Anthropology

SocioCultural Anthropology Colloquium: "Bodies, Knowledge, and Sovereignty"

Deborah A. Thomas, R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

"What does the body know? What can bodies tell us about ontologies that cannot be recuperated or resolved into Western ways of knowing? What can they tell us about the forms of collective world-building that exist outside of but in relation to the juridical structures of sovereignty that govern modern Western political and social life? And further, what might sovereignty look like, and feel like, if we approached it not primarily in terms of its foundational violences (conquest, imperialism, settler colonialism, capitalist extraction, and so on) but in relation to the forms of self-determination and autonomy people have attempted to create in the realm of everyday life? This paper will explore these questions in order to in order to claim that we are heir not only to colonial logics, but also to the means to refuse or retool them, and that both of these inheritances are inscribed in and on the body. Thinking through and with the space of Kumina in Jamaica, and particularly through a kumina festival I have co-organized for the past five years, I reflect on the ways community-based spaces of care, creativity, and spirituality can open portals to thinking beyond linearity, creating channels for accountability, and investigating contemporary mobilizations of personhood and political life on post-but-still-colonial terrain. I argue that being attuned to the body’s inheritances can provide inroads into genealogies of sovereignty alternative to those that are tethered to the foundational frames of property, accumulation, and dispossession."

Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and the Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. Her recent book, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair, was awarded the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Book Award from the Caribbean Studies Association in 2021, the Senior Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society in 2020, and was also the runner-up for the Gregory Bateson Prize in the same year. She is also the author of Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (2011), and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and The Politics of Culture in Jamaica (2004). She is co-editor of the volumes Sovereignty Unhinged: An Illustrated Primer for the Study of Present Intensities, Disavowals, and Temporal Derangements (2023), Citizenship on the Edge: Sex, Gender, Race (2022); Changing Continuities and the Scholar-Activist Anthropology of Constance R. Sutton (2022); and Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (2006). Thomas co-directed and co-produced the documentary films Bad Friday, and Four Days in May, and she is the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston, which was on view at the Penn Museum from November 2017 to October 2020. From 2016-2020, Thomas was the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), and she is currently the co-chair of the AAA Commission on the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains. Prior to Thomas’s life as an academic, she was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Women.

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