- Cuban Counterpoints: The Legacy of Fernando Ortiz
By nature, academic anthologies are always polyphonic. Those that result from organized symposia are often unnecessarily cacophonic, written by specialists of a field whose approach best appeals to the already similarly initiated, rather than an uninformed audience who might encounter a subject for the first time. Despite several [End Page 654] insightful essays found in the middle of the book or near its end, Cuban Counterpoints: The Legacy of Fernando Ortiz seems initially remarkable for the brevity of its many celebratory, often unfinished treatments of a scholar whose work was and continues to be immensely influential.
The volume includes essays that do little more than place Fernando Ortiz's into a network of contemporary intellectuals, such as that by prominent Spanish scholars Consuelo Naranjo and Miguel Angel Puig-Samper, and works, like that of María del Rosario Díaz, which assert that "Ortiz strongly attacked the sinister origins of racism" (p. 58) without offering any textual quotes or evidence to support this claim. The volume also includes several pieces whose primary purpose is not to analyze Ortiz but to use him as a point of departure for the discussion of other topics. Thus, Marifeli Pérez-Stable offers an exciting interpretation of pivotal moments in the early Republic in which Ortiz stands on the sideline of a story that replaces traditional U.S. imperialist protagonists with local actors. Similarly, Jean Stubbs traces the recent revival of interest in Ortiz as part of a general revival of interest, both commercial and cultural, in Cuban tobacco. None of these essays digs very deeply into the complex scholarly world of Ortiz, although the volume offers a small number of excellent, insightful presentations by Carmen Almodóvar, Fernando Coronil, Alejandra Bronfman, Rafael Rojas and Roberto González Echevarrá that do.
A man whose life spanned two centuries and three revolutions in Cuba, including the 1895 War for Independence, the 1933 revolt that toppled the neocolonial regime of Gerardo Machado and the pivotal 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro, Fernando Ortiz was a lawyer, criminologist, statesman and self-taught anthropologist whose politics and intellectual gaze propelled twentieth-century intellectuals' progressive march away from positivist thinking toward relativist and increasingly egalitarian ideas about race and culture. As the volume's authors contend, Ortiz's most frequently cited intellectual legacy lay in the invention of a theoretical concept that broke forcefully with the social assumptions and political conventions of its day. Ortiz's concept of "transculturation" can be considered responsible for contributing to a number of different paradigm shifts in scholarly and popular approaches to race, nation and commodity exchange. By understanding commodities as cultural artifacts rather than simple objects, and national identities as constantly constructed myths rather than static realities, Ortiz explained sugar and tobacco as the metaphoric and structural roots of Cuban national history and identity in his 1940 book, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar. Representing "an epistemological bridge" to postmodern anthropology, as Rafael Rojas contends, transculturation rejected notions of synthesis "as a discursive fiction that turns national identity into a teleological narrative" (pp. 69-70).
On this point, all of the volume's authors undoubtedly agree. Where they differ lies in their willingness to explore the conflicting and winding road Ortiz traveled before getting to this stage, one that involved vocal championship of biological determinism and social Darwinism for the first thirty years of his scholarly life. [End Page 655] Indeed, the volume's most provocative intellectual starting point emerges almost three-fourths of the way through the book when first, Patricia Catoira and then, González Echevarría point out that originally Ortiz "perceived blacks as people with a primitive mentality and strong inclination to lust and violence. It was a race that had to be 'civilized' to ensure the country's progress and well being" (p. 210). The fact that Ortiz underwent a "conversion," as González Echevarría argues, in his...