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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.3 (2003) 586-588

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Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. By STEPHAN PALMIÉ. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xi, 399 pp. Cloth, $64.95. Paper, $21.95.

In this provocative, challenging book, all that is solid indeed melts into air. Through intense scrutiny and erudite analysis, Palmié proposes to unravel the dichotomies and concepts upon which much Caribbean historiography rests. Binaries such as superstition vs. rationality or primitive rebel vs. organic intellectual (both of which fall under the broader opposition of Afro-Cuban tradition vs. Western modernity), he argues, obfuscate more than they reveal. Rather than conceiving these as poles on teleological continua, his formulation places modernity and tradition alongside one another as "mere facets or perspectival refractions of a single encompassing historical formation of transcontinental scope" (p. 15). In his radically de-essentializing view, Afro-Cuban religions should be seen not as vestigial traces of transported premodern culture but rather as construed and elaborated entirely in the context of new forms of production and accumulation driven by the "rationally calculated nature of the appropriation of commoditized human bodies and their destruction" (p. 41), which Palmié believes to be at the heart of modernity. The book demands close attention: his dense prose engages historical, literary, anthropological, and philosophical debates and covers nearly two hundred years of Cuban history. But it proves compelling because of Palmié's intensely thoughtful voice, which refuses to create order out of phenomena, texts, and [End Page 586] methodologies (including his own) he considers profoundly messy, problematic, and elusive.

Following a wide-ranging introduction of impressive depth and stamina, the book offers readings of three different moments in Cuban history. Beginning with the 1812 encounter between José Aponte and his interrogators, it moves to the late-nineteenth-century emergence of regla ocha and palo monte as distinctions within Afro-Cuban religion and ends with the early republican scientific discourses that aimed to capture and control those religious practices. His intention is to chip away at historical narratives that have understood Aponte as an antislavery rebel or a "creole revolutionary," Afro-Cuban religions as more or less direct transplants of African religions, and the persecution of brujería as wholly animated by socioeconomic concerns. But rather than replace those narratives with new ones that perpetuate the same basic categories of analysis, he instead produces close readings that demonstrate the specious nature of those categories.

His methodology can be deceptively simple. In the case of Aponte, he merely reads the black carpenter-artist's own descriptions of his paintings against entrenched historiographic certainties. Yet the reading gives rise to a dazzling series of observations on Aponte's selective immersion within diverse "streams of tradition" circulating in Atlantic modernity—including Christianity, European and African notions of divinity and kingship, narratives of military conquest, and family genealogy. He demonstrates that placing Aponte in a predetermined typology misses the incredibly profuse richness of the artist's intelligence and imagination. Similarly, he argues that distinctions between regla ocha and palo monte can be understood as emanating from a context dictated by the moral economy of Caribbean slavery rather than from "timeless" African traditions. His discussion of early republican repression brilliantly shows the extent to which science produced the very "brujería" it claimed to repress. While he eschews simplistic notions of "giving voice" to subaltern subjects, he nonetheless roots much of his analysis in what he calls "Afro-Cuban forms of knowledge" that are constitutive of the modernity at issue. Walking the fine line between epistemological indeterminacy and empirical precision, Palmié's nuanced ruminations dismantle a dichotomy that would require choosing one or another.

In attempting to render the multiple layers of this "Atlantic modernity," Palmié occasionally treats his sources unevenly. While some undergo thorough, critical exploration, others remain relatively unexamined. He might have inquired more deeply, for instance, into the provenance and intended audience of the texts, such as Fernando Ortiz's Negroscurros, used to evoke Aponte's urban context. A mélange drawn...