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Automatic Religion: Nearhuman Agents of Brazil and France
by Paul Christopher Johnson
University of Chicago Press, 2020
eISBN: 978-0-226-74986-0 | Cloth: 978-0-226-74969-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-74972-3

What distinguishes humans from nonhumans? Two common answers— free will and religion—are in some ways fundamentally opposed. While free will enjoys a central place in our ideas of spontaneity, authorship, and the conscious weighing of alternatives, religion is less a quest for agency than a series of practices that relieve individuals of their will. What, then, is agency, and why has it occupied such a central place in theories of the human?

Automatic Religion explores an unlikely series of episodes from the end of the nineteenth century, when crucial ideas related to automatism and, in a different realm, religion as a topic of study were both being born. Paul Christopher Johnson draws on years of archival and ethnographic research in Brazil and France to explore the consequential lines that were being drawn between humans, “nearhumans,” and automata. As agency came to take on a more central place in the philosophical, moral, and legal traditions of the West, certain classes of people were being excluded as less-than-human. Tracking the circulation of ideas across the Atlantic, Johnson tests those boundaries, revealing how they were constructed on largely gendered and racial foundations. In the process, he reanimates one of the most mysterious and yet foundational questions in trans-Atlantic thought: what is agency?

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