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Reviewed by:
  • Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition
  • Alejandro de la Fuente
Stephan Palmié . Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 399 pp.

This erudite and daring book proposes to study Afro-Cuban cultural expressions from a novel and theoretically sophisticated point of view. Palmié seeks to destroy the divide that juxtaposes "Western modernity" and "Afro-Cuban tradition" as two typological opposites, claiming instead that they "represent mere facets or perspectival refractions of a single encompassing historical formation of transcontinental scope" (15). The author explains that both Western modernity and Afro-Cuban traditions arose and "became thinkable as such" in a "complex historical matrix" (17) he defines as "Atlantic modernity" (15). Thus Afro-Cuban traditions, including what we think of as Afro-Cuban religions, are as "modern" as Western modernity itself. They have to be, for it is only within the framework of modernity that they can be thought of and understood as "traditions." They are both part and parcel of the same process.

Wizards and Scientists thus attempts to "reintegrate a set of seemingly heterogeneous narratives about the making of our present world into their common historical context of origin" (17). Palmié proposes to do this through three case studies, not chronologically linked, that allow him to analyze in detail the historical circumstances under which what we now see as Afro-Cuban traditions were produced. The first case study (chapter 1) deals with the controversial and enigmatic figure of José Antonio Aponte, a free black man who lived in Havana in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and who is thought to have led an anticolonial and abolitionist conspiracy on the island. The second case study (chapter 2) looks historically at the relationships between two distinct African-based religions in the island: regla de ocha (or Santería) and palo monte. Regla de ocha is typically seen as a Yoruba-based religious form, whereas palo monte is identified with the Bantu-speaking slaves known as "Congo" in nineteenth-century Cuba. Chapter 3 also deals with Afro-Cuban religion, but in the context of self-conscious efforts by the Cuban state to build a modern and progressive nation in the early 1900s. Palmié argues that the construction of modernity and the suppression of Afro-Cuban traditions must be studied together. An introductory chapter theorizes about the need to rethink the process of modernization in the Caribbean—"a place squarely in the West, but not of it" (52). The author engages throughout the [End Page 139] book in an exhaustive dialogue with various bodies of scholarship, including a large number of cultural theorists.

Palmié's approach has important methodological implications and results in interesting, sometimes unpredictable, findings. As for methodology, he proposes that in order to recover the voices and experiences of individuals who "may once have been" and whose existence remains "beyond historiographic recovery" (8), it is necessary to make use of "forms of expression—dreams, rumors, and 'beliefs'—not generally considered admissible as evidence documenting historical reality" (20). For instance, Palmié takes issue with the depiction of Aponte by Cuba's nationalist historiography. This historiography has presented the Afro-Cuban artisan as a radical activist in whom an enlightened revolutionary thought combined with his African background to create a "counter hegemonic project" (91). Aponte's conversion into a martyr of colonialism and slavery, Palmié notes, elides "the question of subaltern consciousness" (85) and traps him in a discourse that obscures and "trivializes the complexities of [Aponte's] consciousness" (95). Palmié marvels that the most important documentary record about the possible conspiracy, a book of pictures created by Aponte and confiscated by authorities, has been neglected by historians studying this case. This remarkable book has not been located, but Aponte was extensively interrogated about the meaning of the pinturas in the book and thus we have his own interpretation about them. "Why then not talk about precisely that?" asks Palmié. "If uncovering the subaltern voice is the historian's business, why have Aponte's latter-day interrogators exhibited such reticence to face precisely that part of the record where we do, indeed, seem to hear his voice...