Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 833-836
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This is an important book about the historiography of Cuban religion as well as the Caribbean's contribution to the emergence of Atlantic modernity. Palmie's intent is to disrupt the categories of thought that have dominated approaches to Caribbean history and religion.
Palmié opens his book by introducing Tomás, a ghost of an elderly 19th century Cuban slave that a professional diviner and a regla ocha priest independently determined was the reason why Palmié was compelled to study Afro-Cuban religion. Palmie uses the semiotic presence of this specter to frame the book's critical examination of categories used to represent Caribbean history and religion. To carry the spectral metaphor further, Palmié seeks to exorcise such categories in order to explore the subjectivities of individuals such as Tomás.
Palmié argues that the documents from Cuba's past reflect the nineteenth century dialogue between science and the occult out of which the hegemony of scientific epistemologies emerged. This is a much more ambitious claim than the standard historiographic warning that we view the past through the present. Instead, the study of Cuban eligion and social science vis-à-vis civil and state societies becomes a means for exploring the emergence of modernity and its constitutive hybridities, including its epistemologies. [End Page 833]
Palmié's first historical case is that of Aponte, a free black carpenter/scultpor executed for insurgency. When Aponte was arrested, among his possessions was a book of images that included maps, pictures of battles between black and white armies, and prints that had been cut out of other books. The interrogation focused on this book, and "Aponte's reading of his own book, as it were, rendered increasingly opaque and incomprehensible what initially had appeared meaningful signs of subversion" (p. 82). While the book is lost, documents from the interrogation survive. These documents have been used to argue that Aponte was a creole revolutionary who sought not merely to rebel against slavery and oppression in Cuba, but to overthrow the system on which slavery was based.
Palmié's discussion of the interrogation highlights several elements of the case that occlude easy interpretations of Aponte as a revolutionary, and that emphasize the interpretive work of Aponte's accusers in defining him as a conspirator. First, the interrogation reveals Aponte as having acquired a wide range of images and ideas from many different sources, ranging from books that he had acquired to tales he had heard. Second, the interrogation's documents demonstrate that such "hybrid" ideas did not readily fit into the colonial administrator's binary categorization of people as either protagonistic or antagonistic toward the regime. Thus, the existing documentary evidence does not clearly indicate that Aponte was an active conspirator or that the book was an arcane revolutionary planning document. By not being clearly revolutionary, Aponte does not easily fit into any of the categories of subjectivity that have been constructed for Cuban history—as Palmié powerfully argues, it is not sound to conclude what the ideas and ideologies of people in 19th century Cuba might have been based on their "status positions, role sets, or places within the relations of production that they occupied" (p. 137). Using this material, Palmié warns that what is lacking in evidence is too easily filled in through theories that themselves emerged from how colonial practices shaped scholarly thinking, e.g., the temptation to treat Aponte's book like his interrogators and executioners did as evidence of revolutionary intent. Such thinking obscures past subjectivities.
Chapter 2 addresses the categorization of Afro-Cuban religion. Palmié argues against the commonly taken position of identifying the African traditions manifested in New World religions. By focusing on the Afro-Cuban religious practices known as regla ocha and the reglas de congo, Palmié shows how both are products of Cuban modernity, hybridity, and agency. Palmié argues that these Cuban religious practices contain elements that "resonate with allusions...