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Demonic Ocean: Parareligion in the African Diaspora

Justine’s first book project, Demonic Ocean: Parareligion in the African Diaspora, will be a revised version of her dissertation (defended April 2020). Straddling religious studies, black studies and the blue humanities, Demonic Ocean looks at contemporary Afrodiasporic intellectual, cultural, and religious works that wrestle with the oceanic environment of the Middle Passage. It includes studies of the work of María Magdalena Campus-Pons, Fred D’Aguiar, Drexciya, Ellen Gallagher, Fred Moten, M. NourbeSe Philip, Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, and Kara Walker. Engaging these thinkers, the project argues that the ocean—unfixed, fluid, mobile, more-than-human—is a particularly fruitful locale to stage interventions into thinking about “religion” and “the human.” 

More specifically, building upon Sylvia Wynter’s vast oeuvre and in conversation with critical theories of religion, it coins and develops the concept and theory of parareligion. The prefix para- signals that the oceanic stories that are the subject of the project distort and exceed "religion" by troubling “religion’s” persistent desire to create absolute and hierarchical distinctions—such as that between god and world, or human and nonhuman animal. Demonic Ocean looks at stories that inhabit the liminal positions that the necessarily futile desire for such distinctions opens up, thereby troubling and challenging their existence. Gallagher’s Watery Ecstatic series (ongoing since 2001), for instance, presents figures simultaneously aquatic and human, while D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts (1997) imagines the ocean as agential force, thereby destabilizing dominant efforts to ascribe agency solely to human beings. 

The title Demonic Ocean places the book in immediate, explicit conversation with that of Wynter and her most prolific reader, Katherine McKittrick, whose book Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (2012) inspired the title. Wynter borrowed the phrase “demonic” from physics, where it denotes a system that cannot have a knowable outcome, is non-deterministic, hinges on uncertainty. The demonic conceptualizes, for Wynter, a vantage point outside predetermined and knowable world of “Man,” a world built on the desire for pure, hierarchical distinctions. Building on the important work of Wynter and McKittrick, Demonic Oceans extends the spatial, material frame of the “demonic” towards the ocean.