Synopses & Reviews
In Wizards and Scientists
Stephan Palmié offers a corrective to the existing historiography on the Caribbean. Focusing on developments in Afro-Cuban religious culture, he demonstrates that traditional Caribbean cultural practices are part and parcel of the same history that produced modernity and that both represent complexly interrelated hybrid formations. Palmié argues that the standard narrative trajectory from tradition to modernity, and from passion to reason, is a violation of the synergistic processes through which historically specific, moral communities develop the cultural forms that integrate them.
Highlighting the ways that Afro-Cuban discourses serve as a means of moral analysis of social action, Palmié suggests that the supposedly irrational premises of Afro-Cuban religious traditions not only rival Western rationality in analytical acumen but are integrally linked to rationality itself. Afro-Cuban religion is as “modern” as nuclear thermodynamics, he claims, just as the Caribbean might be regarded as one of the world’s first truly “modern” locales: based on the appropriation and destruction of human bodies for profit, its plantation export economy anticipated the industrial revolution in the metropolis by more than a century. Working to prove that modernity is not just an aspect of the West, Palmié focuses on those whose physical abuse and intellectual denigration were the price paid for modernity’s achievement. All cultures influenced by the transcontinental Atlantic economy share a legacy of slave commerce. Nevertheless, local forms of moral imagination have developed distinctive yet interrelated responses to this violent past and the contradiction-ridden postcolonial present that can be analyzed as forms of historical and social analysis in their own right.
“Wizards and Scientists is a tour de force. Palmié’s material is extraordinarily interesting and original and his theoretical explorations are virtuosic. This work will become a new benchmark for scholarship on modernity and the Atlantic world.”—Rosalind Shaw, Tufts University
“Palmié unlocks and explores the fascinating world of oracle and historical divination in loving detail and with unrivaled narrative power. Wizards and Scientists is an extraordinary achievement.”—Robert A. Hill, University of California, Los Angeles
and#8220;Performing Afro-Cuba is remarkable achievement. To put Wirtzand#8217;s argument in a nutshell would be to do a gross injustice to her sophisticatedand#8212;and often quite elegantand#8212;exposition. She is simply the smartest and theoretically most sophisticated anthropologist doing research in Cuba these days. But aside from her contribution to the regionalist literature, the real value of her work is that it speaks to enduring anthropological questions, while raising a number of new ones that are relevant far beyond her specific field site. I enthusiastically recommend it.and#8221;
and#8220;Performing Afro-Cubaand#160;is a careful and precise anthropology of history making, a study of the effortful cultural work and highly structured theater of relations out of which the Cuban racial order was and is still, perhaps more forcefully than ever, being made and remade. Compact, well-argued, it is utterly engrossing. It attacks a familiar issue in an original way, and it does so with a strong theoretical frame rendered in an approachable writing style.and#8221; and#160; and#160;
and#8220;Performing Afro-Cuba is a masterful exploration of figurations of race and dialogues of racialization in Cuba. I learned a great deal from this challenging work, especially from Wirtzand#8217;s productive expansions of the notions of register and chronotope. The book is analytically powerful and richly engaged; Wirtzand#8217;s own voice is a sensitively reflexive part of the polyphonic dialogues she traces through Cuban history, social life, and cultural performance.and#8221; and#160;and#160;
“What does it mean to ‘study something’—like Afro-Cuban religion, for instance? In this wise, witty, and uncommonly erudite book, Stephan Palmié unseats key premises regarding the stability of social science knowledge. Afro-Cuban religion, he shows, is at best an ‘organic hybrid,’ a ‘multiuser domain,’ born of the chance meeting of scholars and practitioners, each in pursuit of their own, self-conscious mysteries. Yet his acute analysis shows us something more: not merely must we live with such uncertainty; we can make it the basis of compelling forms of insight.”
“The book is a chef d’ouevre. Stephan Palmié examines the recipes by which ethnographic animals like religions or history are ‘cooked’: hunted, sliced, prepared, and consumed. The dishes are heated on what Palmié names the ‘ethnographic interface,’ where anthropological recipes and the confections that anthropologists study boil together to constitute the regular fare of social life. It would be enough to have penned the first anthropological history of this interspace, exploring, as Palmié does, the lives and practices of those who regularly consume a menu of ‘Afro,’ ‘Cuban,’ and ‘religion.’ This book does much more, serving up a radical critique of anthropological knowing and its time-honored techniques of cookery and, dare we say it, crockery. Brilliantly iconoclastic, Palmié tosses even the unsavory ethnographer into the pot.”
“Stephan Palmié has brought forth once more a work of stunning originality that is certain to have a lasting impact on the study of Afro-Cuban religion and, more generally, the whole field of Afro-American cultural formation. Part auto-ethnography of self-making, part historical ethnography of Afro-Cuban worldmaking, and part homage to the progenitors and bearers of the tradition—with a pinch of chaos and fractal theory thrown in for good measure—The Cooking of History turns ‘cooking’ into a ‘turning,’ a turning upside down of the stale, conventional story based on the idea of cultural holism, and replaces the idea of cultural endowment and transmission with the idea of an analytic space or ‘ethnographic interface’ as the locus of the creation of the episteme called ‘Afro-Cuban religion.’ Palmié has thrown down a most formidable challenge. Now let the fireworks begin!”
“An excellent dissection and analysis of what the author calls ‘Afro-’ ‘Cuban’ ‘Religion.’ . . . Looking back to the earliest records of the groups that eventually developed the traditions known today as Santería, Lukumi, Orisha Religion, and Yoruba Tradition Religion, Palmié traces the ways scholars and their informants/conversation partners worked together to develop what has become a group of worldwide religious traditions.”
Questions the disciplinary assumptions of history and anthropology, and Western claims to “own” modernity, using Cuba and Afro-Cuban religion as a case study.
The present work articulates a very specific problematicandmdash;the ever-presence in Cuba of the figure of the authentic African, making appearances in restaurants, art galleries, folklore shows, everyday discourses, state propaganda, during Carnaval and, most interestingly, also in andldquo;actualandrdquo; spirit-possession performances. Wirtz argues that the figure of the traditional Afro-Cuban, typically characterized by a combination of rusticity, sincerity, and spirit-power, has a long pedigree, beginning in the time of Cervantes. She picks up the trope where it is launched in a particularly Spanish and then Cuban style, which emphasizes the force of the colonial process in the creation of even anti-colonial national narratives. After introducing key concepts of temporality, emplacement, memory, voicing, and imagery, Wirtz gives an account of the nature of race as a sign that is always in processandndash;a sign whose meaning shifts with context, even as racial categories are made to seem immutable. She then investigates how Blackness has become an essential marker of andldquo;folkandrdquo; performances in Cuba and how communities as well as the government mobilize folklore for local and national political purposes, paying careful attention to the tension between them. The result is something called andldquo;inclusionary exclusionandrdquo;andmdash;the strange situation of Cubaandrsquo;s national identity being tightly tethered to the very Africanness it tries so hard to distance itself from, as andldquo;the past.andrdquo; Wirtz also offers concluding thoughts on the future of Cuban racial politics as issues of racism finally seem to be receiving consideration in officially-sanctioned public discourse.and#160;
Visitors to Cuba will notice that Afro-Cuban figures and references are everywhere: in popular music and folklore shows, paintings and dolls of Santerand#237;a saints in airport shops, and even restaurants with plantation themes. In Performing Afro-Cuba
, Kristina Wirtz examines how the animation of Cubaand#8217;s colonial past and African heritage through such figures and performances not only reflects but also shapes the Cuban experience of Blackness. She also investigates how this process operates at different spatial and temporal scalesand#151;from the immediate present to the imagined past, from the barrio to the socialist state.
Wirtz analyzes a variety of performances and the ways they construct Cuban racial and historical imaginations. She offers a sophisticated view of performance as enacting diverse revolutionary ideals, religious notions, and racial identity politics, and she outlines how these concepts play out in the ongoing institutionalization of folklore as an official, even state-sponsored, category. Employing Bakhtinand#8217;s concept of and#147;chronotopesand#8221;and#151;the semiotic construction of space-timeand#151;she examines the roles of voice, temporality, embodiment, imagery, and memory in the racializing process. The result is a deftly balanced study that marries racial studies, performance studies, anthropology, and semiotics to explore the nature of race as a cultural sign, one that is always in process, always shifting. and#160;
Over a lifetime of studying Cuban Santería and other religions related to Orisha worship—a practice also found among the Yoruba in West Africa—Stephan Palmié has grown progressively uneasy with the assumptions inherent in the very term Afro-Cuban religion. In The Cooking of History he provides a comprehensive analysis of these assumptions, in the process offering an incisive critique both of the anthropology of religion and of scholarship on the cultural history of the Afro-Atlantic World. Understood largely through its rituals and ceremonies, Santería and related religions have been a challenge for anthropologists to link to a hypothetical African past. But, Palmié argues, precisely by relying on the notion of an aboriginal African past, and by claiming to authenticate these religions via their findings, anthropologists—some of whom have converted to these religions—have exerted considerable influence upon contemporary practices. Critiquing widespread and damaging simplifications that posit religious practices as stable and self-contained, Palmié calls for a drastic new approach that properly situates cultural origins within the complex social environments and scholarly fields in which they are investigated.
About the Author
Stephan Palmié is professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition.
Table of Contents
A Note on Spelling
Introduction. BL2532.S3 or, How Not to Study “Afro”-“Cuban” “Religion”
Chapter 1. On Yoruba Origins, for Example ...
Chapter 2. Fernando Ortiz and the Cooking of History
Chapter 3. Or “Syncretism,” for that Matter ...
Chapter 4. The Color of the Gods: Notes on a Question Better Left Unasked
Chapter 5. Afronauts of the Virtual Atlantic: The Giant African Snail Incident, the War of the Oriatés, and the Plague of Orichas
Coda. Ackee and Saltfish versus Amalá con Quimbombó, or More Foods for Thought