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  • Digesting Stephan Palmié’s Cooking of History
  • Michael Lambek

Stephan Palmié, Michael Lambek, The Cooking of Historyl Afro-Cuban religionl Africa, Cuba, Yoruba, Santéria

At one place in this complex but engaging and invigorating book Stephan Palmié remarks that until the publication of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985) the questions associated with scholarship on the Caribbean were seen to be on the periphery of anthropological theory. In Palmié’s hands, and very much in the spirit of Mintz, the Caribbean is again at the forefront of theory in another way, illustrating in a particularly sharp and challenging fashion the fact that all our subject matter, both of substance—like culture, Santéria, the Yoruba—and of places—Africa, Cuba, Yorubaland—and hence of entities like “Afro-Cuban religion”—are objectifications. They are all products of what Ian Hacking has called historical ontology; in other words, both the signifiers and their referents are historically constituted.

One question to ask about such objectifications concerns their relative solidity and stability. With respect to those under direct discussion within the book, Palmié describes continuous historical change. The fluidity is not merely temporal, but spatial, morphing along shifting boundaries of what is classified as one institution, tradition, or place, rather than another. One of the consequences of this argument is that any attempt at the history of subjects like “Afro-Cuban religion” will be trapped in anachronistic terms and concepts, including that of Afro-Cuban religion itself. How then to write history or circumscribe subjects of ethnographic inquiry?

It is one of the major pleasures of this book that Palmié does not merely assert all this or wring his hands over it. His subtitle to the contrary, Palmié shows us in fact how to study his subject, delineating historically the processes, networks, events, agents, and conflicts through which Afro-Cuban religion comes to be formulated as it is today and ethnographically how its contemporary manifestations are subject to struggle by various parties. He manages to integrate this serious, deeply scholarly, and wide-ranging historical anthropology seamlessly with an inquisitive, self-reflexive, edgy narrative that ranges [End Page 202] from bemusement through clever irony, sometimes almost to the brink of epistemological despair.

The irony concerns both the objects and the scholarship. Indeed, one of the central themes and striking expositions of the book is the way the historical ontology of “Afro-Cuban religion” has unfolded through the communication and citations between and among practitioners and scholars. Both scholars and practitioners have been mobile, traveling between West Africa, Cuba, and Brazil, and back again, and reading work written in and about each of those places. In particular, Palmié frequently turns to the eminent Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz, whose own position with respect to Afro-Cuban practices shifted radically over the course of his life and whose image or concept of the cooking of history has come to be one that Palmié embraces. But there are countless other figures, including Pierre Verger, adventurously and deliberately trading versions of religious practices back and forth across the Atlantic, and his intellectual opponent, Melville Herskovits, concerned that Verger was interfering in processes of cultural change best observed objectively. There is Walter Serge King, an African-American from Detroit who reinvents himself as Oba Ofuntola and builds a Yoruba religious community in South Carolina. There is also Palmié himself, a German-American ethnographer-historian of Afro-Cuban religion-tradition, moving between Cuba and Florida (everyone and everything in this book is hyphenated, hybrid, and mobile), conversing in the field and on the Internet, and who now wonders what he was studying and whether and how his own activities and conversations with the key players have contributed to the transformation of the object.

In later chapters there is very interesting discussion of the clash between the way the object—or is it a subject?—is constituted in Cuba and in Miami and elsewhere in the United States and the ways the different appropriations of the orichas draw from and reproduce particular conceptualizations of race and culture, and hence different valuations placed on hybridity and purity, as if either of those ideal types and political ideals were possible in practice...


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pp. 202-206
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